The Other Side of Borneo: 5 Tips for a Holiday in Kalimantan

Borneo is the third-largest island on the planet, divided politically among the countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The Indonesian portion of the island is called Kalimantan and covers approximately 73% of its area. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit Kalamanthana, meaning “burning weather island” in reference to its hot and humid tropical climate.

Kalimantan is a popular nature backpacker’s destination, attracting adventurous tourists with its virtually untouched forests and far more traditional way of life. Choosing to spend your holiday here can be challenging: the area is decidedly not tourist-friendly, places outside the major cities are underdeveloped or not developed at all, and some knowledge of the local language, Bahasa Indonesia, would be recommended, as most people do not speak English. However, if you are willing to overcome these issues, a vacation in Kalimantan might just be what the doctor ordered.

Read on for our tips on how to have the best experience:

  1. Visit the government tourist offices

There is a government tourist office in all of the provincial capitals in Kalimantan. It’s always a good idea to pay them a visit and gain some insight on the attractions that can be found in the area. They’ll also be able to offer you suggestions that are not listed on any guidebooks or travel websites. In many cases, the staff there can help you find knowledgeable tour guides. For assistance at national parks, visit their respective offices. There are 8 in Kalimantan: Betung Kerihun, Bukit Baka Bukit Raya, Danau Sentarum, Gunung Palung, Kayan Mentarang, Kutai, Sabangau, and Tanjung Puting.

  1. Try to stick to one region

Borneo is huge. Seasoned backpackers spend months exploring the place and don’t even get to see all of Kalimantan. If this is your first time and you’d like to be eased gently into the experience, visit Balikpapan, which is slightly more developed than other parts of the island. Built around a petroleum complex, this is Kalimantan’s wealthiest city, and you won’t have trouble finding hotels, restaurants, and shops here. For reasonable accommodations, check out Grand Tiga Mustika Hotel or stay at the Gran Senyiur for something more upscale. For pristine waters and excellent dive sites, head to Derawan Island, a UNESCO world heritage site where the waters are clear and teeming with life.

  1. Create an itinerary and stick to it

What is it that you’d like to do in Kalimantan? Go camping and trek through the forests? Go scuba diving? See the orangutans in the wild? Learn more about the indigenous culture? If you narrow your focus, it should be easy to pick and choose which areas to visit, instead of meandering from place to place without seeing or experiencing anything meaningful.

As above, it’s best to stay within one region, as the road system is not yet fully developed and some areas are harder to get to than others. Where possible, choose areas where you can diversify your experience. If you love nature and would like to see the orangutans in their natural habitat, for instance, going to Tanjung Puting National Park is your best bet. Once there, you can also go camping and hiking, and spot other animals such as gibbons, macaques, clouded leopards, sun bears, and more.

  1. Respect the locals

Be courteous. Obtain consent before you photograph someone; you are taking a photo of a person, not an object. Avoid buying popularity with the local children with candy or small items such as pens or toys. This practice has encouraged begging, and kids may begin to feel that foreigners are easy marks for a quick treat. If you would like to show your appreciation, ask an adult in the area to distribute your gifts instead.

  1. Learn some basic Bahasa phrases

Backpacking in Kalimantan requires a baseline knowledge of the local language, and you won’t get far without it. Staying close to the cities isn’t any fun. A comfortable middle ground is to learn how to say a few basic phrases, ask for directions, or express that you don’t understand. With that much, you should be able to explore some of the lesser-known places with ease. Ya means yes and tidak means no; permisi means “excuse me”, which can help when you need to call someone’s attention or get past a crowded area. Terima kasih means “thank you”, and saya tidak mengerti means “I don’t understand” – and they may well be the phrases you end up using the most. Travel blogs and online guides often have lists of essential Bahasa phrases, and it could be a good idea to print them out for something to occasionally review, especially in places where internet access is limited.

Kalimantan isn’t for typical leisure travellers, but it may be the ideal destination for those who want to take the road less travelled. If you’re rearing to go, just take note of the tips mentioned above when preparing yourself for this brand new adventure.