Up the Sungai without a penny...


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September 24th 2009
Published: October 23rd 2009
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After a reasonably nice trip on the Penli ship, with the only drama being Sophie getting locked below deck for a few hours while tickets were checked and being subjected to a million questions by the locals who surrounded her while she waited, we docked in Balikpapan, Borneo at 3am keen to discover this island that seems so undiscovered from back home in the UK. We were still with Tamil & Marusha thinking that staying in a group would lead to a better deal than just the 2 of us (something we would come to regret) and were all agreed that we'd hot tail it out of Balikpapan up to Samirinda as soon as we could because this was the first day of the Muslim Idul Fitri holiday and things were going to start closing for the 3 day holiday and we'd be left stranded.

We managed to get a bemo then bus up to Samirinda and over some breakfast in the bus station decided that it would be best to go out to the Sungai Mahakam river area straight away rather than risk leaving it until the next day then being stuck. Tamil bagged us another minibus to get us to Kota Bagun which was only a 3 hour ride away... 3 hours of being squashed on bench seats going over the most terrible roads in a bus with no suspension in 100 degree heat that was.. fun it was not! When we arrived we needed to get a little further to Muara Muntai so Sophie negotiated a good deal for a ces (pronounced chess) longtail boat that would take the 4 of us 2 hours up river where we'd spend the night. This journey was really nice as we didn't go too fast and our boat driver stopped to see all the animals we spotted along the way.. we managed to see a huge kingfisher, loads of naughty macaque monkeys and our first proboscis monkey as he hopped away though the trees. Seeing all these in our first few hours gave us high hopes of what we might see further upstream but it wasn't to be...

We found Muara Muntai to be quite an interesting town (village!), mainly because the whole place is raised up on stilts to avoid the flooding river in the rainy season. That in itself isn't so interesting but we found the boardwalk
Long Bagun high streetLong Bagun high streetLong Bagun high street

life in the middle of Borneo
streets quite funny as it reminded us of being in a wild west town come pier fun fair as the bikes went up and down making funny noises on the boards as they went.

Our reason for wanting to travel up into this area was to try and see some of the longhouses and the Dayak tribes people. The Dayaks tribe are famous for their long stretched earlobes, tribal tattoos and also for being savage head hunters in the past. Obviously the head hunting has long since finished, with the exception of a small revival a few years ago when violence flared up with other immigrants and around 1,000 were killed, but apparently if you are really lucky you can still see some evidence of it if you look hard enough! None of us really had a plan of where we wanted to go which looking back was probably a bad idea from the start as it was like the blind leading the blind and we just drifted along wherever we could get to.

There really isn't anything to do in Muara Muntai, and with it being Idul Fitri there wasn't even anywhere to eat that was open so we had to make do with Pop Mie (Cup Noodles), crisps and biscuits for lunch, dinner & breakfast while we made a plan on where to go next. Thankfully we met a couple of really helpful men who spoke good English and they informed us of the various options on ferries, boats and what there was to see and do further upstream. Had we realised it at this point what lay ahead we'd have all jumped at the chance to visit the touristy but informative Tanjung Isuy village, which has good examples of the Longhouses and traditional dance shows by the Dayak people but we thought we knew better and wanted to experience the 'real' villages so shunned this tour in favour of doing it on our own.

Come the next morning we were still undecided on what to do but eventually agreed to catch the 4.00pm public ferry up to Long Iram where they have a traditional tribal village and from here we'd see how we felt on going further or coming back. We spent the day hanging around the losmen (guesthouse), they had a tv so we watched a few movies over our Pot Mie's and
Man with broken legMan with broken legMan with broken leg

who was in our boat on the way back again
wandered round the town to say hi to the locals who were a bit subdued but friendly enough. Come 4.00pm we were all still hanging around the losmen for some reason when we saw a ferry sail past in the distance, for a moment we all panicked, the girls raised their eyebrows at the boys organisation skills (or lack of it!) and we rushed to the ferry port to see if we'd missed our one boat out of there. After being told by some people there was no ferry in the first place and being told by others there wouldn't be one for days,we found out that we hadn't missed it and it would be there at 5pm so we waited and at around 5.15pm boarded the boat. The ferry was an old wooden boat but comfortable enough with carpets on the floor so we could sleep and keep reasonably clean. It was night ride taking around 12 hours so we settled down to get some shut eye only waking up at daybreak when we realised we were stuck in the mud because the water level was too low to go any further and from this point on we'd need to go by speedboat.

Tamil took over the job of getting us a ride and for some reason unbeknown to us now we left him to it and didn't get involved with the discussions. He told us that he'd got us a speedboat taxi ride all the way up to Long Bagun, pretty much in the centre of Borneo 5 hours ride away from where we were for 350,000R ($US35) for 4 of us which seemed like a fantastic deal so we took it! Quite why we decided to do this rather than stick with our original choice of going to Long Iram we aren't sure but can only put it down to our early morning sleep haze and the excitement of getting to go to nearly the middle of Boreno.... never a good combination. We did check with him a few times in the boat that the price was definitely for 4 of us and even questioned other passengers on how much they were paying but he confirmed the price and they all said 350,000R too so we carried on.

The ride up there wasn't a particularly nice one. It was on a noisy speedboat which was very small so we didn't spot any wildlife and were quite cramped for the 5 hours but it was cheap and we were going to the middle of Borneo so we put up with it. We picked up and dropped off various people but towards the end of the ride we started to notice people handing over large sums of money for their ride and again commented to Tamil that 350,000R for 4 of us seemed like we were getting an amazing deal compared to the locals. It was at this point that he said "oh yes that would be be an amazing deal".. errrr "would be" we said... "oh yes" he said "its 350,000 EACH"

WHAT?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

EACH?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Please bear in mind that 350,000R is $US35 which is a s**tload of money. Not only is it a lot of money while you are travelling but it would be a lot of money to spend on a boat ride back in the UK so needless to say we were gobsmaked and felt sick at the thought of having to pay this. Looking back we are not sure if he did this on purpose so we would get in the boat and go upstream where he really wanted to go or he made a genuine mistake, only realising part way though the trip and didn't dare say anything. We hope it was the latter but we aren't sure.

Not wanting to make a huge fuss in front of the boat man who was just doing his job we paid up nearly crying that we were handing over more money that we paid for any of our flights let alone a uncomfortable boat ride! We found a losmen by the river and tried to make the best of the day which was hard to say the least. Understandably things were a little strained with our travel partners after that and we left them to it while we had a walk around the village just praying that there was something amazing to see to make this all worthwhile.

There wasn't! Well thats not strictly true, there was an old Longhouse but it wasn't the best example of one and was firmly bolted up only to be used for ceremonies of which there were none that afternoon.

We were both quite upset about this whole turn of events, things could hardly have been worse as we didn't have much cash on us in the first place and were now left with enough money to pay for our room and to get back again.. no money for food or drink. We were in a village in the middle of Borneo with no money and nothing to do so we went to meet the locals who were really nice and put the smiles back on our faces a little. With little else to do we went to bed and set our alarm for early the next day so we could get the first boat out of there and try to get back to Samirinda on the same money the boat ride had cost us.. we do like a challenge!

The next morning we didn't bother to hang around for the other 2, it sounds awful but we were just so mad with him for having made such a mistake we wouldn't have been able to be civil to him so thought it best to just go. Dale worked his charm on the boat men and managed to get us a ride to Melak, the biggest town on the river about
Sophie watching tv in the losmenSophie watching tv in the losmenSophie watching tv in the losmen

there was nothing else to do
4 hours away, for 200,000R each meaning we'd have 150,000R each to get a bus back to Samirinda where ATMs and food awaited! Huge credit must go to Dale for getting us the ride at this price because he had a really hard time when the boat man from the previous day pulled up telling everyone we'd paid 350,000R the day before so would probably be happy to pay it again.

We endured the horrible ride back again with a poor man who'd broken his leg an was being transported to a hospital, and then fell into the hands of the rip off taxi drivers to get a ride to the bus stop just outside Melak for an extortinate 150,000R for what they told us would be a 1 hour journey (they refused to budge on the price and there was only one bus a day so we had little choice). Dale very nearly knocked out the taxi driver when we got there 20 minutes later and we told him we'd only be paying 100,000R which was still far too much. We were both a bit nervous at being dropped off in the middle of nowhere next to a dusty road to catch a bus, we only had enough money for the bus so if it didn't turn up we would be totally stuck and at that point tried to think if we'd done anything to deserve any bad karma... Seemingly we'd been good people as the bus pulled up at 1pm on the dot and we got on thanking our lucky stars we were on our way.. starving hungry and thirsty yes but food was only 9 hours away!

The bus journey was predictably horrible, bumpy, smokey and uncomfortable. Dale managed to attract a nice lady friend who came to sit with him for the whole journey which was nice but she (he!) made us both feel quite uncomfortable as our Indonesian wasn't good enough to have a full conversation with her (him) so we all sat in silence smiling at each other occasionally. We nearly kissed the ground when we got back to Samirinda we were so happy that we'd made it and promptly got a bemo to take us to an ATM so we could get some much needed refreshments and find a bed for the night. Typically after such a crappy day it took
Logging along the riverLogging along the riverLogging along the river

the extent of this is horrific.
us ages to find a hotel we could afford but after trailing the streets for a few hours we got one and went to KFC to fill our tummies!

Now we've learnt a valuable lesson the very hard way from this experience. That lesson is to always look out for No1 and never, ever let anyone do the bargaining for you. Either do it yourself or do it together. We really should have known after they told us about what they'd paid for things prior to meeting us but we didn't want to take over making out we knew better all the time (because we really don't) and if someone wants to exercise their bargaining skills then we enjoy the break from it but we won't be doing it again. If we'd made the mistake ourselves then it would have been bad but at least it would have been our fault, for someone else to do it for us and cost us so much money for pretty much nothing was terrible, yes we can say we went to (nearly) the middle of Borneo but that's nothing when you have no fond memories to remember it by.

This was
Muara Muntai high streetMuara Muntai high streetMuara Muntai high street

with the boardwalk!
without a doubt the worst couple of days we've had since we started travelling but we told ourselves that there was very little we could do to rectify it so had to put it behind us and get on with things. Our next stop would be one to put the smiles permanently back on our faces as we were going further North to Kutai National Park where you can go to see wild Orangutans in their natural environment so the following day we left Samirinda bound for Bontang, the town where you have to register with the park authorities in order to enter the park.


Additional photos below
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Pier in Muara MuntaiPier in Muara Muntai
Pier in Muara Muntai

it was really hard to get across to the water over the planks with our bags!


18th January 2013
Muara Muntai local

Thanks Sentences
Thanks before , everyone that uplouded this foto. it is me. I come from muara muntai. I happy know you. I hopelly, we can meet again. :)
24th January 2013
Muara Muntai local

Brilliant!
That is so awesome you recognised yourself! If we come by your way again we'll be sure to say hi!
27th January 2013
Muara Muntai local

I laughed myself to see my photos. : D. if one day I come in your place, I really hope they can do an intimate conversation as friends. I have a dream to be able to study abroad. although my poor background. hoping to find a scholarship at your place.

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