Frontier-atmosphere town at the mouth of the Mahakam River
Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, is different. Here no rice paddies, no neatly kept gardens, no densely populated countryside. Instead, there is this frontier atmosphere. Roads are rough and unfinished, tracks disappear into the jungle, to mines, and even the main Balikpapan to Samarinda highway is no more than a two-lane affair. Houses seem to have been constructed in a hurry; many are still being constructed. The rubbish is back, along the road, and in the kampungs and the villages.
Samarinda fits the picture. Apart from a few fancy hotels and the inevitable malls, the town is mostly two-story buildings, run-down. Not much has changed over the years: Carl Bock, who traveled in Kalimantan in 1879, said of Samarinda “this is the most miserable place I have ever seen, the natives and their buildings correspond in squalor”. The town will have grown since Bock’s time, but the main activities still happen in a small center, next to the river. This is where the Pasar Pagi, the morning market that lasts the whole day, is, and where the main shops are, as well as the banks, the hotels and the few restaurants.
The only reason to come to Samarinda is to commence a trip up the Sungai Mahakam, the Mahakam River, an over 900 km stretch of water into the Bornean interior. Which is exactly what we came to do.