Wednesday, March 4, 2009

February 26 - March 4: Kalimantan, Borneo

From the early planning days of this trip, we've been really excited to venture into mysterious Borneo and see orangutans in their only natural habitat.  Straddling the equator, Borneo is the world's third largest island, and is shared by three countries, Indonesia (the Kalimantan region), Malaysia, and the sultanate of Brunei.
Before heading into the jungle, we flew to the largest city in Kalimantan, Banjarmasin.  Kalimantan is 90% muslim, a big change from Hindu Bali, and we felt the difference immediately, from the more conservative dress, to the lack of any alcohol, to the sometimes beautiful, sometimes annoying (at 5 AM), call to prayer. Banjarmasin is one of the more bizarre places I've ever been.  Teenagers sell turtle oil on the side of the road, next to plastic bottles of gasoline.  We heard some thumping music coming from a building and popped our heads in to see a room full of sweaty women doing aerobics, in full proper muslim garb, headscarf and all.  We visited a mosque that looks like a spaceship, a seemingly out of place Taoist temple, and ate bountiful amounts of curious seafood.

The real weirdness begins though when you get off land and hop into a motorized canoe.  Half of Kalimantan's million inhabitants live on the water in small canals in ramshackle one room wooden homes, either floating on bamboo, or balanced precariously on rickety stilts, with the water reaching about an inch below their floorboards.  Within 5 minutes of checking into our hotel, the only guy who speaks any English in town (and not that well) found us and offered his services as a guide.  While we generally like to go off on our own, we're finding in these remote parts where no one speaks English, a local guide is essential.  So we spent the majority of the day with Tailah in his boat exploring the canals.  Every house has an outhouse in front, where everything just ends up in the canals.  Despite this we were surprised by the fastidious cleanliness, bordering on obsession, exhibited by everyone we saw.  In the morning and late afternoon, everyone emerges from their homes and is at the water, bathing, washing dishes, the younger kids doing backflips off the bridges, girls splashing each other in the water, boys flying homemade kites.  Every five buildings you find a tiny mosque made out of cardboard and sheet metal. It is a beautiful, cacophonous jumble of humanity.  We also saw a massive Storm's Stork sitting on someone's deck, which only later did we discover is incredibly endangered with only 500 or so left in the world.


Tailah woke us at 5 AM to take us upriver to see the daily floating market that has been in continuous operation for 350 years.  Farmers ride their boats up to 10 hours downriver to get to the outskirts of Banjarmasin to sell their goods to the cityfolk. Just about any food item is available from the stinky, spiky durian to fresh fish. Sellers who don't do well sleep in their boats and try again the next morning.  At around 6:30 AM the breakfast boats shows up, where you grab a stick with a nail at the end and impale your selections.

We didn't see one other non-Indonesian in all of Banjarmasin. And everyone we meet that learns we're from America has the same reaction, "Obama!" with a big thumbs up.

From there we began our long journey to Tanjung Puting National Park to try and see the orangutans.  A quick tangent on getting around in Indonesia.  Indonesia has dozens of domestic discount airlines.  They are for the most part mom and pop operations, often having a vat fleet of two planes and one route.  Even the travel agents (when you can find them) don't know how to get to certain places.  The one thing each of these airlines has in common is an invocation card in your seat pocket with muslim, catholic, protestant, hindu and buddhist prayers for a safe landing (in that order).

We had heard that the best way to experience the park is by staying on the Kalimantan version of a houseboat, called a klotok.  In Pangkalan Bun we hired a guide (again the english speaking guy in town found us) along with a klotok driver and crew (cook and mysterious third guy, we were never really sure what he did)  to take us slowly upriver.  Four flights from Bali, on three airlines, various taxi rides and two days in a boat and we finally arrived at Camp Leaky, where Dr. Galdikas, a disciple of Louis Leaky, has been studying and living with the orangutans since 1971, the longest continuous study of one animal group anywhere.  Her primary role is to rehabilitate orangutans that have been dislocated either through illegals captivity or more often loss of habitat, but her broader responsibility is educating and putting pressure on the world.  The massive-scale illegal logging of the nineties has thankfully subsided through intense government intervention, but has been replaced by the tearing down of rain forest to build palm oil plantations.  We spoke to her for a while and she is an interesting woman.  The orangutan only gives birth to one child every eight years, the longest birth interval of any animal, and thus is especially prone to extinction.  A child orangutan does not leave its mother's side for the first 6-7 years of its life. This is the most intense mother-child relationship in nature.  Largely pessimistic about the future of orangutans in Borneo, Dr. Galdikas thinks that only the minority that live in the park have a chance at survival.  6,000 of the estimated 30,000 orangutans left in the world (mostly in Borneo, some in Sumatra) are in the park.  You can find out more about her organization and work here:

All of our expectations were blown out of the water and they were high to begin with.  Some of the rehabilitated orangutans have a hard time giving up the free food from the park administrators so every day there is a feeding at designated stations in the park.  This gave us a chance to see these magnificent creatures up close.  We saw some orangutans from the boat, wild in the jungle, but nothing compares to seeing them up close.  Looking into their eyes you feel an immediate connection.  There is clearly so much thought going on.  It is a little spine-tingling at first to have one stare at you, scoping you out, you doing the same to him or her. The juveniles and females swinging through the trees, bending small trees as they nimbly swing from branch to branch or scale vines is like the flying scene from Crouching Tiger.  Watching a dominant male, at 250 lbs, doing the same, you feel like you are watching King Kong, huge trees bending, smaller ones snapping as he gracefully, yet forcefully moves anywhere he pleases.  It is no accident that the best analogies I can find come from art, as it is really unlike anything I have experienced in life, and is one of the most awe-inspiring things I've even seen.

We spent three days on the klotok, and even withouth the orangutans, that would have been an amazing experience.  Waking to the haunting arpeggio of gibbon calls at dawn, the rivers teaming with life, long-tail macaques and the Pinochio-like probuscis monkeys flying above you, kingfishers and hornbills darting across the water, giant butterflies all around, crocs patrolling the waters, and fireflies filling the night.

We got a little physically beat up our second day on the water when Allison got a nasty bee sting that made her right hand swell up like a balloon, and I found leeches on my stomach and calf, but the crew took good care of us, with great meals and a great mosquito netted mattress on the top deck for the nights.

All part of the great adventure.


  1. Dear Allison and Nader,

    I would like to thank you for hiring Tailah as your guide in Banjarmasin. We have known him since 1995, the year in which we did a fantastic jungle trekking with him in the Loksado area. In the last twenty years we have been travelling all over the world but have never met any other guide who matched the honesty and friendliness of Tailah in Banjarmasin. Some tourists might think he is weird and crazy, -and he sure is sometimes- but I assure you: he is just unique! Although we have never met again, we have been writing letters ever since. I now even manage to write them in Bahasa Indoneasia! My husband and I even called our second child after Tailah. Unfortunately after the political crisis in Indonesia and the terrorist attacks in Bali almost no tourists have been visiting Kalimantan. So Tailah has no real income anymore. Maybe you were his first customers in months... In his letters he always tries to reassure us that he is fine, but I have my doubts. I am especially worried about his health. So I would appreciate it if you could send me some further details about how he really was when you met him in Banjarmasin? In case you are still in Banjarmasin when you read this message, please give him a big hug from Sabine and Wim from Belgium. Tell him that "Tailah Belgium" (as he calls our son in his letters) is his biggest fan!

    Good luck for the rest of your adventure tour around the world!

  2. Hi,

    we have been to Benjarmasin and loksado 2months ago. Tailah was a great guide and it was a pleasure to discover the dschungel and the dajaks with him. Finally tailah has an email adress

    We miss Borneo a lot!!

    Sabine and Daniel from Berlin