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Published: April 23rd 2014
It was a spur of the moment kind of trip. I had my ticket to Chongqing and China visa ready the day before departure, but the Yangtze River Cruise schedule didn't fit with my flight itinerary. I had to postpone my Yangtze River cruise trip to some other time as I didn't want to take annual leave more than I needed. The next thing I did was to go to Singapore Airlines website and went thru alphabetically all the flights that didn't require Visa (Indonesian needs visa to travel to many places in this world unfortunately). Then, I remembered my wish list of a Mahakam River Cruise, and the flight to Balikpapan from Singapore was also available. Once flight was booked, I was frantically looking for a tour agent that could arrange a cruise in such a short time. Unfortunately, unlike its neighbouring country of Malaysia Sabah and Sarawak, the tourism industry has not flourished well in the Eastern Part of Kalimantan despite the recent boom in the coal and palm oil sector.
The first tour agent didn't even picked up the phone; it was Borneo Discovery Tour (www.borneo-discoverytours.com) which responded to my inquiry promptly. Upon receipt my flight itinerary,
they emailed a few options for both river cruise and inland tour. I decided to go for the cruise despite the repetitive reminders that not many locals went for the 2 nights 3 days Mahakam River Cruise; the boat was traditional and wooden, and going alone on a cruise could be costly. For me, being on the river for two nights was a better option than spending my long Easter weekend in Singapore. A short panic attack started to cross my mind as I realised I'd be traveling alone to the jungle of Kalimantan, but my curiosity of exploring the place overcame the fear, and off I went.
Once arrived at the newly-built Sepinggan airport, I was greeted by my guide, Kiswono, and was driven to Tenggarong, a small town near Balikpapan. The late afternoon arrival had to be compensated with a shorter boat ride from Tenggarong. As soon as we reached the pier at Tenggarong, I was greeted by the boat crew: the Captain and his younger brother (the back up each other) and the cook and her daughter (phew, I was not the only lady on the boat). The boat started moving while dinner was being served.
It was perfect: full moon, breeze and peaceful journey, and it was not a pitched dark ride that I had expected. I could see lights from coal barges and villages along the riverbank.
I was relieved to see the boat which was clean and well maintained. My room at the upper deck of the boat, enough to accommodate 6 people. To my surprise, the mattress, pillow and bed sheet were clean that I didn't even have to use my sleeping bag. The dining room, kitchen and toilets were at the lower deck (yes, it's a traditional boat so it has a traditional toilet that flushed to the river, and the tab water was from the river mixed with Chlorine!). The cruise towards the upstream of 980km Mahakam river took about 10 hours, and we reached our destination, Muara Muncai, the next day at around 8 am.
After breakfast the next day, Kiswono took me on a smaller wooden boat to visit Muara Muntai. What's interesting about this place was that the entire village had a wooden pathway made of Ulin Wood, and the language spoken was Banjar. This is a common base used by backpackers as there was
a homestay , and smaller boats can be rented to go further into the jungle of East Kalimantan. As the houses were made of wood, they were prone to fire (back in March, there was a fire that destroyed 20 houses). Just like any other village nearby, many people earn their living from fishery, fresh water fishing - with its famous produce of smoked Baong fish (to be cooked with curry like coconut sauce). From here, we took a smaller wooden boat to Jantur, a nearby colorful stilts village. The entire village was built along the river bank and kept expanding along the river. It was like a land of water as wherever I see was all water. During rainy seasons, the water level would raise and may go above the houses. All I could think was how did they get the clean water?
From Jantur, we crossed15 ha Jempang Lake and reached Muara Ohong, where floating houses were less colourful and more traditional compared to the earlier village. Majority of the people earned their living from the fresh water fishery, of which river unfortunately started to get polluted from the pesticides and fertiliser from nearby palm oil plantations.
From this village, we went further through a smaller river and along the way, we could see Proboscis monkeys jumping from trees to trees along the river banks as well as colourful kingfisher trying to catch the fish from the river. Thankfully, crocodile was not a threat in this area but there had been two attacks in nearby villages in the past two years.
The last village we passed by was Perigi, dayak village which consisted of several stilts wooden houses. In hindsight, I should have insisted going to a waterfall nearby - which later on I learned located near this village.
We finally reached our final destination, Mancong Village, where Benuaq dayak tribes live. As we entered the village, it's interesting to notice that there were mainly children, women and old people as many younger Benuaq men went to work for either palm oil plantations or coal mines nearby. Unlike the typical nomad lifestyle of dayak tribes, Benuaq dayak didn't move around much. The old lady that I visited in Benuaq had been living there for many years and made a living from weaving traditional clothes for decoration from grass and natural dye. During good health,
she would finish one piece in four days, but as her health started to deteriorate, it took her longer to finish one piece now. Unfortunately, her traditional weaving skill had not been passed on to the next generation as her daughter moved out and lived in the nearby villages. She acknowledged the changes of her tribes lifestyle and shared how her late husband used to get honey and climbed the trees using rattan. The younger Benuaq men didn't even know how to climb a tree, she said. Thankfully, she received clean water from the Corporate Social Responsibility Programs from the nearby palm oil and coal mining companies.
After the visit, i realised my wish to see a traditional dayak tribe with traditional clothing and tattoo tarnished. Even the restored long house that I visited at Mancong (original one was built in 1930) was no longer in use by the villager who preferred to build their own houses for privacy reasons. The exquisite long house was being used for ceremonial purposes only such as wedding, funeral or other events. This was the end of the program for the day, and we rode back to Muara Muntai, of which journey took
about 3 hours boat ride.
As soon as we reached Muara Muntai, we moved to the big boat and started cruising back to Tenggarong. The journey back to Tenggarong was faster as we didn't go against the current. I was asleep by the time the Captain made a stop, allowing the crew to rest before continuing the journey in the morning. We reached Tenggarong at around 10 am where the car had been waiting to take us to Sepinggan airport. Along the way, we made a stop at a famous Soto Banjar restaurant, which was delicious. It was then Kiswono recommended a 2 nights and 3 days cruise to Tanjung Puting to see the Orang Utan as my next destination (his website was www.borneotourguide.com).
Well, I will think about it but don't see another river cruise so soon!
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