Tag Archives: Kalimantan Selatan


Banjarmasin is the capital of South Kalimantan (Kalimantan Selatan, usually just referred to as ‘KalSel’).

It likes to promote itself as “The Venice of the East”. The Lonely Planet reckons this is “a jaw-dropping exaggeration”, saying that the city “sprawls in all directions but offers little”.

Well, sorry Lonely Planet, but we beg to differ. We’ve now been there on five occasions, either visiting or passing through, and have found that it’s got its own distinctive character and appeal, and doesn’t need a pointless comparison with Venice!

Banjarmasin map
Banjarmasin sits at the confluence of the Barito and Martapura rivers. It’s around six hours’ drive by car from our home, which is north of Palangkaraya in the neighbouring province of Central Kalimantan.

‘Banjar’ is a port city, and it’s the centre of commerce and industry for the province – which is actually one of the wealthiest (at least in terms of exports) in Indonesia. It was the capital of the Dutch colonial administration in Borneo, and after Independence it was the capital of our own region, until Central Kalimantan split off to form its own province in 1957.

Officially the population is a little over 600,000, but when you combine the cities of Banjarmasin, Martapura and Banjarbaru which are run into each other, there’s a total population of well over a million.

The best way to see Banjarmasin, and to experience its friendliness, is to leave the roads behind, get into a small boat and get out onto the complex maze of rivers and canals, massive, mid-sized and minuscule, that criss-cross the city.


A large proportion of houses back (or front) onto a waterway, and riverside is probably the more important side. It’s where you bathe, clean your teeth, wash and dry clothes. It’s where your children play, you catch fish for dinner, grow a few potted plants, relax and socialise.



The waterways are also a place of commerce, and the early morning fruit and vegetable markets are still going strong in places like Lok Baintan. The Pasar Terapung is held every morning, with sellers (and most buyers) doing business from on board their little canoes.

The range and quality of produce was good, and the prices seemed alright too. They were selling local seasonal fruit – mangoes, bananas, guavas, wild mangosteen, kasturi (Kalimantan mango), and some green vegetables. The fruit was carefully and nicely presented, in woven baskets or colourful plastic containers.

Before I make it sound idyllic, I should mention that the waterways can also be… filthy. As well being the used for transportation, catching fish, bathing and washing clothes, they are also used for disposal of household garbage and human waste (with only 4% of households connected to the new sewerage system). Everyone just relies on the tides and the flow of the rivers to flush everything away downstream to the ocean and out of sight.

Such a system might once have worked satisfactorily, when the population was a tiny fraction of what it currently is (it’s grown by 1000% in the past century), and when most of the garbage was organic and biodegradable. But now there’s a huge volume of inorganic waste (especially plastic and foam packaging), and the environmental impact is all too obvious.

The Barito River provides a deepwater port, and the main point for entry of manufactured goods and imported foodstuffs to South and Central Kalimantan.

It’s also a point for transfer of goods between the the river traffic from up-river and the inter-island and international vessels. There are two main kinds of outward-bound bulk freight: coal and timber.

Huge amounts of coal are mined in the northern and eastern parts of South Kalimantan. The industry has expanded greatly in recent years, and the province now produces around one-third of Indonesia’s coal (with most of the rest coming from adjacent East Kalimantan). Incidentally, Indonesia has advanced to now be the world’s 5th largest producer of coal (Australia is No 4).

Legal coal concessions in South Kalimantan now cover around 1 million hectares (over 25% of the total area, including 14% of the forests). The environmental impact of the coal industry is felt not only in the areas of the open-cut mines themselves, but in pollution of the downstream river systems – and eventually of course in the increased CO2 emissions from burning all that coal. (Greenpeace have recently published a detailed report on the coal mining industry of South Kalimantan).

Most of the coal gets trucked from the mines to the river, and then loaded onto flat-bottomed coal barges which are then towed down-river to Banjarmasin. The barges are massive things, black floating mountains.

Timber production in South Kalimantan has reportedly declined since its peak in 1998, due mostly to the depletion of forests and the failure to establish large-scale productive plantations. (Logging continues largely unabated in the other provinces of Kalimantan.)

But based on what we saw, there’s still an awful lot of big-tree timber being floated down the Barito to Banjarmasin for processing and/or export. We were told that much of it comes from ‘our’ province of Central Kalimantan.

There’s a stretch of several kilometres along the river that is entirely given over to sorting, storing, loading and processing of logs from upstream. In places, the waste timber and bark forms expanses of reclaimed land sticking well out into the river.

It’s a strange landscape. It’s all timber but it’s treeless, with clouds of smoke and people working ant-like amongst the logs, cut timber and the ‘waste’ wood and bark.

Along another stretch of the east bank of the river is a neighbourhood of Alalak, where the boat-makers have their businesses. The large boat on the right of the photo above was virtually finished, and the builder (the man sitting in the middle) said that he expected to sell it for around Rp17 million (around AU$1700).

The population of the city is 96% Muslim, and there are over 1000 mosques. By far the largest is the ‘Grand Mosque’ of Banjarmasin – the Masjid Raya Sabilal Muhtadin – which is one of the largest in Indonesia. At Friday prayers there is room for 5000 (men) inside. Construction was completed in 1981. We were told that the site, on a prime location in the middle of town, had previously been earmarked by the Dutch for construction of a cathedral, but they never got beyond putting down the foundations.

Nearby Martapura is considered to be even more devout, with so many Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) that it is known as kota santri (the city of students), or even as ‘the verandah of Mecca’!

The Masjid Sultan Suriansyah is much smaller, but is revered as the oldest mosque in South Kalimantan, 300+ years old.

The soils around Banjarmasin are quite fertile (especially when compared with the barren sand and peat soils of Central Kalimantan), and they produce good quantities of rice there. It’s wet-rice cultivation, unlike the less productive, slash-and-burn, dry rice ladang cultivation of the Dayaks in our area.

There is a diamond mine at Cempaka, about 10 km from Martapura. They’ve been finding diamonds, and processing all sorts of precious and semi-precious stones in this area for hundreds of years. Cempaka diamonds are quite famous, but the mining processes are still very rustic, even basic, and entail men spending a lot of time standing waist-deep in mud and muddy water, pumping sludge up through pipes to be sifted for diamonds. It’s a process much like that used to dredge for gold in the rivers of Central Kalimantan.

We were told that the men refer to the diamonds as ‘galah’ (meaning ‘princess’ in bahasa Banjar) and avoid using coarse language while they work, in the belief that the ‘princesses’ will hide from them if they do.

And, speaking of princesses…

There’s a lot more that could be said about Banjarmasin. Architecture, for instance – or history, as Banjarmasin has been at or near the centre of Borneo affairs since well before the arrival of Dutch spice traders and colonialists.

Or food. A whole book could be (and probably has been) written about Banjar food – especially my favourite, the delicious lime-and cinnamon tinged soup called soto banjar. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of fish, prawns, squid and other seafood and river fish on the menus. The best places to eat are local restaurants like the Bang Amat (for soto banjar) or Cendrawasih (for barbecued seafood).

Perhaps I’ll write at another time about food specialities of Kalimantan.

Till then, Happy New Year to all! We’re heading off north in early January to visit some villages in Gunung Mas and Murung Raya regencies. We plan to see some ‘classic’ longhouses, learn a little more about Dayak culture, and (hopefully) encounter some primary forest in ‘the Heart of Borneo’. Whatever happens, it’s bound to be full of interesting surprises…

Nagara buffalo, lush light

Some kinds of light are just made for photography. The time before and just after sunset often gets called ‘the magic hour’ because of the lovely warm angled light and rich colours that you often get when the sun is low. Or the dramatic, clear and intense colours created by the light as a big storm approaches and hits, with big black storm clouds and the air almost visibly crackling with electricity. Then there is the light reflected off water, illuminating some already attractive landscape, making every detail almost too crisp to believe it’s real.


And if you’re very lucky indeed, you might get it all at once. When we drove over to South Kalimantan at New Year, we went by boat late one afternoon through the village of Nagara, west of Kandangan and about three hours north of the provincial capital of Banjarmasin. Our goal was to see the swimming buffalo, but to get there we had to travel through Nagara and Pihanin Raya villages, and the flooded plains to the west.


They don’t often get visitors, and as we travelled up the river there was a near-continuous rush of children (and some adults) to the riverside, wanting to check us out, and greet us with waves, big smiles and shouts of “Hello Mister” and “Selamat sore!” (Good afternoon!)






The storm looked to be passing us by, to both the north and south sides of our river. But once we got past the last village, and out into the huge area flooded with the wet season rains, it became pretty obvious that the storm would soon hit us too. Boat after boat raced past us, speeding in the opposite direction to get back to their villages.


By now the storm clouds were ominous and the rain was imminent. We transferred from our boat which had a roof of sorts, to a little klotok (motorised canoe) which had none, because the area where the buffalo go is too shallow for the bigger vessel. Just enough room for four people, two cameras and two umbrellas!


After a short journey we met up with a herd of 30-40 buffalo, just as the rain started to let down. It was a challenge to hunch down under the brolly and try to take photos at the same time! We got soaked, but somehow managed to keep cameras mostly dry.


The buffalo spend the wet season housed on little wooden platforms in the river. They have a ramp to get them in and out of the river, and every day they are herded out across the water to areas where they can feed on the luxuriant water plants. They walk and/or swim across the water, apparently quite happy with their aquatic lifestyle.


We got back to our ‘covered’ boat, which was sort-of protected from the worst of the rain, and made our way back to Nagara village and our waiting, cozy dry car. It was a very different looking landscape (with no other boats, no waving children) on the return journey.




Meratus Mountain trekking


Over the New Year holidays we went to the neighbouring province of South Kalimantan (Kalimantan Selatan, or ‘KalSel’) to do some walking in the Meratus Mountains near the town of Loksado. It’s about nine hours drive from here, but we stopped over in Banjarmasin (the bustling capital of KalSel) for a couple of days en route.


After four months on the peat swamps and sandy plains of Central Kalimantan, it was nice to get up into some hilly country, still mostly forested.  This being the middle of the wet season, we could hear the sound of fast running rivers almost all the time. The rivers flow too quickly to be used much for transportation, though they still make bamboo rafts for travel downstream (mostly to entertain and excite visitors). These rustic vessels consist of around 16 ten-metre lengths of thick bamboo lashed together with rattan, and a guy with a bamboo pole to steer you through the rapids (there’s a raft in the photo above). We did a two hour journey on one, and it was definitely entertaining, alternating between tranquillity and terror, and passing the remains of some wrecked rafts along the way. It was a camera-free experience.


There are a number of small villages scattered around the region, populated by Dayak families, and accessible (only just, in some cases) by motorbike. These are Meratus Dayak, different to the Ngaju Dayak who live here in Central Kalimantan – different language, culture and religious beliefs.


The villages, especially the more remote ones, are poor, and quite dependent on the forest for their livelihoods. They practice the traditional Dayak ladang shifting cultivation as we had previously seen in the village of Tewang Rangkang. During the dry season, an area of forest is roughly cleared and burnt, and then planted with rice, often interspersed with corn. There’s no irrigation, fertiliser or pesticides used. After a couple of years, the location is abandoned (at least for a few years of ‘fallow’), and a new plot is cleared somewhere else. It sounds pretty basic, but apparently they can grow all the rice that they consume – and they eat a lot of rice…


For cash, they collect a range of different produce from the forest. Most important are karet (rubber), kemiri (candlenut, above left) and kayu manis (cinnamon, above right), but they also collect a range of medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as leaf and root vegetables. These get sold in the local market at Loksado.


The rubber is only tapped during the dry season, so now it’s peak time for the cinnamon. To collect it from the forest, all you need is a good pair of thongs, a basket of rattan (or plastic) carried like a backpack, and the universal mandau, the machete-like knife worn by just about everyone, sheathed on the hip for quick access. The mandau gets used for everything from chopping trees to opening a durian to cleaning fingernails. For the cinnamon, the whole tree is chopped down when it’s 10 – 20 years old, and the bark is carefully peeled off and chopped into lengths to be later dried and sold.


Although to us it looks like a jungle wilderness, the cinnamon trees in the forest are a managed resource. (Apparently there’s no Indonesian direct translation for ‘wilderness’ – it’s all regarded as productive land to them.) As well as bringing cinnamon bark back from the forest, seedlings are also collected. These are sorted and cultivated for a time in the village, and then replanted back in suitable locations in the forest. And then … wait another 10 – 20 years. In the picture above, that’s cinnamon bark in the foreground, and seedlings being sorted behind. And the white bags are all filled with candlenuts.


We stayed overnight at homes in two small villages (Haruyan Dayak, and Manakili), each with fewer than 50 inhabitants. Very friendly, very picturesque, and very basic. The villages are beside the river, at a suitable spot to cross over to access forest on the other side. The river is also the very public place where you go to bathe, to wash clothes, and empty your bowels (squatting in the shallows, looking warily upstream for flash floods!)


The first night was New Year’s Eve, we had a room to ourselves (in the house above) and a thin mattress, so we went off to bed at the same time as the rest of the family – around 8:30. We had paid for two litres of petrol to fire up the village generator, so that we could re-charge camera, phone and GPS batteries. Unfortunately, that meant that there was also power for the village TV set in the house next door, which allowed them to watch an appalling dangdut/Bollywood/disco/rock New Years Eve spectacular live from Jakarta. The volume was impressive, and we didn’t hear the river that night. (BTW, the very friendly old fellow in the photo above claimed to be 100 years old – though someone else insisted he was 150!)


The next night we stayed with a lovely family in this room. No mattress, just a rattan mat. (At this point we started to wonder at the moderately high price of our ’tour’). The family has lots of cats, kittens, and small dogs, which were periodically rounded up and thrown out the door, through the window, and dropped through a hole in the floor. They’d look briefly offended, and then immediately return inside.


There was some spectacularly heavy rain at times, and also some wind, so it was no surprise when we heard the sound of a large tree crashing onto the house next door. It was about 5pm, just when everyone is gathered to get the evening meal together, and the tree fell right onto the kitchen. By very good fortune, it was the only unoccupied house in the village, the owners having moved a couple of months earlier.


We met these girls when we walked through Malaris village, almost back to the ‘metropolis’ of Loksado (well, it has a road that cars can use). The girl on the front of the bike is wearing a rice paste mixture all over her face, used to try to stop the skin darkening (it looks awful). She is 10 years old, and her passengers are four and eight, all totally comfortable. Kids here are born on the back of motorbikes…