As Melanie and I often did, we travelled out of Singapore over Chinese New Year. Most of my vacation time was saved to visit family in the US so we always took advantage of the Chinese New Year Holidays to travel around the region. We were never alone in this though; almost every expat or permanent resident family did the same. Many Indian and Malay citizens also escaped from the closed stores, restaurants and crazy driving during the holiday too. This year, we managed to find cheap tickets to Balkpapan, Indonesia. We had never been to East Kalimantan so it sounded good to us.
We did some quick research and decided to head straight to the city of Samarinda at the head of the delta of the Mahakam River. If we could find a way, we planned to find a boat heading up-river and just go as far as possible, allowing time to get back for our return flight. We wanted to search for two things: head-hunters and adventure. If we found the first, I figured we would automatically find the second. The adventure part was more important though.
Our early morning flight from Singapore was uneventful but the time zone difference between modern Singapore and oil-industry old-west outpost of Balikpapan was about 200 years. Talk about jet-lag! Thanks to Melanie’s fluency in the Bahasa Indonesian language, we were able to quickly find a bus that was headed to Samarinda. The two-hour, 100km trip cost the princely sum of Rp19,500 (about US$1.50 each). After arriving in Samarinda, we headed to the closest hotel to the bus depot. Imagine a 3rd world, 1 star hotel and you might see our accommodation for the night.
Melanie asked the manager at the front desk if he knew anyone that could guide us up the river. “Sure” he replied, “how about this guy” who he was chatting to at the time. It was that easy to meet our guide. He was very nice and spoke decent English. We negotiated a price for an itinerary that he suggested and he promised to pick us up the first thing in the morning. Because of our limited timing, he recommended that we bus up-river, then work our way back to Samarinda through a couple of towns by a variety of transportation. US$300 got us a very knowledgeable guide, all transportation, accommodations and food for three days. He also convinced us that while we would meet head-hunters, they would all be retired.
Early the next morning, the guide met us and we all headed to the bus station again. We had a five hour ride through the steamy heat of an emerald-hued jungle to the small town of Tenjung Isuy. We visited several families there and in small villages further west. Around the villages, we walked from home to home, seeing how the different ethnic groups lived. To get from one town to the next, we waved down motorbikes or cars and let the guide negotiate a fare.
We spent the first night on tour in a traditional Dayak longhouse. Longhouses were obviously very long buildings, built on stilts, with one common room that served as the living room, dining room, kitchen, conference room and children’s play area. In front of it, there was a long porch. Behind the main hall was about a dozen doors which opened to small bedrooms. Each family, no matter how large, got one room for their family. Fortunately, Melanie and I had our own. When I say that it was a traditional house, I don’t mean that it was from some by-gone era. Our housemates for the night were six or seven Dayak families who owned their shares of the house. Also, when I say that Melanie and I were lucky to have our own rooms was because Dayaks were real live, walking talking head-hunters! Retired or not, I barricaded our bedroom door even though they were so nice to us at dinner. A few of their “trophies” were decorating the walls in the dark hall.
We spent most of the next day on the water in a motorized canoe. We went through canals, lakes and rivers to look for three things: 1) many tropical jungle animals like Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, other monkeys, hornbill birds, eagles, etc; 2) tribes of people who live much like they have for many years; and 3) beautiful scenery that is peaceful, unspoiled and silent except for the sounds of nature. What did we find? First, we did see some of the very shy Proboscis Monkeys but they ran as soon as we came into view. We also saw many beautiful birds and other moneys but not the rare orangutan. Second, we met many people who were fascinating but they all had satellite televisions! Finally, the scenery was absolutely beautiful but the canoe motor was so loud! Fortunately, we turned it off for a long period and rowed. Well, I didn’t row but the guides did.
In a small village of Mancong, we met the village headman who was preparing for a healing ceremony. We also met the old man who was sick. He was Christian and had been to the hospital but when he didn’t feel better, he decided to cover all his bases and come home for the traditional healing ceremony that has been unchanged for more than a thousand years. While he was waiting for the ceremony to begin, we spoke to him for an hour as he smoked at least a dozen un-filtered cigarettes. I think I could have told him what was wrong with him!
We also stopped at a small fishing village along a canal near Lake Melintang. All the houses in this village were built on stilts because the lake floods every year. One of the cool things here is that many of the houses had “companion houses” tethered to them and floating on the canal. When the flooding starts, the families just move everything to the floating house so there is no water damage. There are no roads in the town because people travel by boat or walking. The sidewalks are boardwalks. As we walked down these boardwalks, all the children of the village came out to follow us. They loved to pose for pictures and practice the few words of English they knew.
Later we watched the sunset on Lake Semayang and sailed to the town of Kota Bangun where we spent the night at a loseman. This is an inexpensive family hotel with five rooms in the back of the house for rent. At $3 per night, including breakfast the following morning, we figured it was a good deal. Soon after waking, we were heading back by inter-city bus and taxis to the Balikpapan airport and on to Singapore by plane.
Our Borneo adventure was over far too quickly. The thing I remember most about the journey was that we met so many wonderful people who were happy to sit with strangers and chat for the longest time. No one was ever in a hurry and everyone looked happy all the time.