Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. Three countries share boundaries on this large island, including Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia.
Borneo is home to the world’s most dense and remote rainforests, as well as about 12 million people, 75 percent of whom live in Indonesia’s Kalimantan region. Given the harsh nature of Kalimantan’s interior and lowlands, most settlements are along the rivers and coasts.
Indonesia governs the southern two-thirds of Borneo, while Malaysia and Brunei control smaller northern and western sections. Indonesia calls its region Kalimantan, which is divided into four provinces:
- Central Kalimantan, with the capital of Palangkaraya;
- East Kalimantan, with the capital of Samarinda;
- South Kalimantan, with the capital of Banjarmasin; and
- West Kalimantan, with the capital of Pontianak.
Kalimantan is Indonesia’s second-largest province. It generates a substantial amount of wealth for the country because of its vast natural resources, including timber and gold. Its extensive oil reserves are now a key part of Indonesia’s economy, and diamonds, rare woods, rattan, and resin also are harvested from the island’s interior.
Kalimantan’s Geography and Geology
Borneo is dominated by a tall mountain range in the center of the island. Borneo’s highest point is Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, which reaches a stunning elevation of 13,300 feet above sea level.
The drainage of rainfall from these highlands flows and collects in areas below that are continuously drenched from rainfall. The result is a harsh island that is difficult to navigate by land. Riverboats, airplanes, and helicopters are required to navigate the island. The largest rivers are the Barito, Kahayan, Kapuas, and Mahakam.
The island historically had extensive rainforest cover, including rare peat-swamp forests and heath forests—a type of tropical forest found primarily on the island of Borneo. Locals call the heath forests Kerangas, which means “land which cannot grow rice.” Heath forests occur on acidic sandy soils that are the result of the area’s silica rock. Unfortunately, the jungles of Borneo are shrinking rapidly due to heavy logging. One half of all tropical timber used in the entire world now comes from this island. Plus, palm plantations are rapidly encroaching on the last remnants of primary rainforest.
The rainforest also has been greatly damaged due to recent droughts and forest fires. The remaining Borneo rainforest is the only natural habitat for the endangered Borneo orangutan. It also is an important refuge for many forest species, such as the Asian elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and the clouded leopard.
Parts of Kalimantan remain unexplored. Eighty percent of Central Kalimantan is thick jungle that clings to treacherous mountain slopes, hiding valleys that are inaccessible. Only the most hardcore and experienced travelers should consider adventures to these regions, but Kalimantan has plenty of more inviting forests that are accessible to most visitors.
History of Borneo
It appears that Borneo was an important part of the Sriwijaya Kingdom’s trading network during the 5th Century. As a result of trade throughout Asia, Chinese settlements were established long before Europeans arrived. Kutai and Banjarmasin became major trading hubs during this era.
The Brunei Empire controlled Borneo from the 15th to the 17th centuries. The Dutch and British then established a foothold. The Dutch signed treaties with local states and sultans. The treaties were essentially meaningless, as the British returned a few years later and began competing with the Dutch for exploitation of the region. By the end of the 19th century, oil, rubber, coffee, pepper, and tin fueled local industries.
Kalimantan is home to one of Indonesia’s most interesting indigenous cultures—collectively referred to as the Dayak people. The Dayak people, however, distinguish among themselves as the Iban, Kenyah, Kayan, and Punan people. There also are significant Malay and Chinese populations in Kalimantan.
Although they don’t practice headhunting any longer, the indigenous people of Borneo continue to live much as they have for the last millennium. They occupy enormous communal longhouses, which serve as the residence for large family groups.
In order to combat overpopulation on Java, the Indonesian government started a massive migration program for farmers from other islands. They were relocated with their families to Borneo to farm the logged areas. The migrants have had numerous conflicts with the indigenous people on the island, who have been fighting for decades to preserve their environment against loggers and settlers. There was a war in the past in the region between the indigenous Dayaks and Madurese immigrants.
Religion On Borneo
Chinese traders brought Hinduism here around 400 A.D. As Islam spread east during the 15th century, some of the port populations converted. The Dayak people continue to follow Kaharingan Hinduism.
Transportation Across Kalimantan
Riverboat is an ideal way to tour Kalimantan. In many cases, it’s the only way to access the interior of the island. However, bus routes are becoming better and are now an advisable way to get from town to town. Several airlines serve the larger cities and towns across Kalimantan.
Kalimantan’s Cities, Towns and Villages
Balikpapan (BAH-leek-PAHP-ahn): This is one of the largest cities in Kalimantan, with more than 450,000 people. It is more of an oil town than a tourist destination. It is well developed, full of expatriates, and modern. It also is relatively expensive.
The Wanariset Oranugutan Reintroduction Center is a few kilometers from the city. The Balikpapan community helped support the establishment of this conservation center more than a decade ago through the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation. It helps confiscate, rehabilitate, and reintroduce orangutans that are swept into the illegal pet trade.
Banjarmasin (BAHN-jahr-MAHS-een): With more than 800,000 people, this is one of the largest cities in Kalimantan. Most of the city’s commerce is centered in an area called Pasar Baru. Thousands of people live and work on floating structures throughout the harbor. This is the dominant port of entry for South Kalimantan. The highlands near Loksado and other villages are about 90–100 kilometers away.
Kumai (KOO-mye): This port town is used by travelers en route to Camp Leakey and river villages in Central Kalimantan. There aren’t many highlights to report, but comfortable and affordable rooms are available. You can base your visits to Tanjung Puting National Park from here, or you can head up river and find a room.
Loksado (LOHK-sah-DOH): This small mountain community is a good place to base while you hike around to more than 20 neighboring communities. There are several waterfalls in the area. You can get a ride in from Banjarmasin and you can float part of the way back on the river. Gunung Besar (Big Mountain) stands in the background.
Palangkaraya (PAHL-ahng-KAHR-rye-AH): Although this is a large city, it’s more of a transition point for travelers who are going in and out of the inner jungles of Kalimantan. The Museum Blanga is a worthy stop to see samples of local arts, crafts, and culture. The Kalaweit Care Centre also is a place to observe and support wildlife conservation. The center helps rehabilitate ex-captive gibbons and reintroduces them into the wild.
Pangkalanbun (PAHNG-kahl-AHN-boon): Visitors destined for Tanjung Puting National Park must stop here to register with the police before proceeding. Some tour guides will take care of this for you. The city has about 90,000 people, but few attractions other than a grocery store for stocking up before a trip up the river.
Pontianak (POHN-tee-AHN-ahk): This city straddles the equator with more than 430,000 people. It sits in a bay at the delta of the Landak and Kapuas rivers, making it ideal for boat tours. It’s a university town and boasts an indoor sports arena.
Samarinda (SAH-mahr-REEN-dah): This is the timber capital of Kalimantan. With more than 600,000 people, it’s also one of the largest cities in Kalimantan. This is the best city to coordinate transportation up the Mahakam River. It’s also a good place to coordinate trips into Kutai National Park. There are not many attractions in town other than just observing local community life.
Kalimantan’s Major Attractions
Bentuang Karimun National Park (BEHN-too-AHNG KAHR-ree-MOON): This area contains rich biodiversity and three major rivers—the Kapuas, Lupar, and Rejang. It shares its northern border with Malaysian Sarawak. It is near the town of Putussibao.
Bukit Baka-Bukit Raya National Park: This area is home to twin mountains Bukit Raya and Bukit Baka. Bukit Raya reaches 7,400 feet high. The park straddles West and Central Kalimantan and is reknowned for birdwatching. Located north of Kasongan and east of Nanga Pinoh.
Camp Leakey and Tanjung Puting National Park (TAHN-joong POO-teeng): The park has millions of acres for orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, hornbills, flycatchers, kingfishers, drongos, mynas, bee-eaters, broadbills, herons, falconets, eagles, bulbuls, cormorants, agile gibbons, snakes, and crocodiles.
Ex-captive orangutans can be viewed at Camp Leakey and the Tanjung Harapan Rehabilitation Station. Dr. Birute Galdikas, a leading orangutan expert and award-winning conservationist, established Camp Leakey in 1971 as a study and rehabilitation center. It is currently supported by the Orangutan Foundation International. In the early 1980s, orangutan rehabilitation was moved to Tanjung Harapan to prevent overpopulation at Camp Leakey. Indonesian rangers work with scientists to rehabilitate ex-captive orangutans before releasing them into the forest within the park.
The orangutan (in Indonesian it means man of the forest) is only found on two islands in the world—Borneo and Sumatra. There just a few thousand left in the wild.
The park is approximately 30 kilometers from Pangkalanbun, which can be reached by air from several cities, including Semarang, Pontianak, Palangkaraya, and Banjarmasin. From Pangakalanbun, travelers can reach Kumai by car or motorcycle. From Kumai, the Park is reachable by speedboat or a slow riverboat, called a kelotok, along the Kumai and Sekonyer rivers. Park permits must be obtained from the PHPA Office in Kumai. Hotel accommodations are available in Pangkalanbun or Kumai. Up the river, you can stay at the Sekonyer Eco Lodge or the Rimba Lodge, near the park. Campers can use the Tanjung Harapan area within the park.
Gunung Palung National Park (GOON-oong PAH-loong): This area stretches from the beach to the mountains. Gunung Palung is just east of the beach area and reaches a height of nearly 3,500 feet. Located about 200 kilometers south of Pontianak.
Kayan Mentarang National Park (KYE-ahn MEHN-tahr-RAHNG): This park features some of the most virgin tropical mountain ecosystems in the world. It’s also one of the largest tracts of rainforest in all of Borneo. The clouded leopard and sun bear are among the diverse wildlife inhabitting this remote region. Several Dayak tribes also call the area home. Located in north central Kalimantan, just south of the village of Long Bawun.
Kutai National Park (KOO-tye): This national park covers a sizable area that includes both highlands and coastline in southeast Kalimantan. It is home to orangutans and other rare and endangered species. The park is about 60 miles north of Samarinda. The village of Bontang is in the park and sits on the equator.
Mahakam River (MAH-hah-KAHM): The Mahakam River is like a freeway to the interior of this rugged and remote island. It’s the busiest river in Borneo. Boats of all sizes can be hired in Samarinda to travel up the river and its many tributaries. It takes about three days (18 hours of boat time) to reach the village of Long Bagun. The return trip only takes about six or seven hours. If your boat isn’t big enough to sleep on, budget hotels and homestay opportunities are available along the river.
If you go far enough up the river, you may see freshwater dolphins, crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, and giant monitor lizards. Sun bears, orangutans, and clouded leopards also inhabit the region and you can see most wildlife from the boat. Mornings provide the best viewing opportunities, before the rising temperatures send the animals for cover.
Further up the river, you’ll encounter people from the Dayak tribes. This culture moved inland to avoid the Islamic influences that arrived hundreds of years ago. This culture values the looks of tattoos and stretched ear lobes.
The best way to get to the Mahakam River is from the town of Samarinda. You can fly into Balikpapan and then catch a connecting flight to Samarinda. Or you can hire a driver in Balikpapan. Stock up on food before going up the river.
Sebuku Sembakung National Park (SEH-boo-KOO SEHM-bah-KOONG): The lowland forests provide a home to Kalimantan’s only wild elephants. This relatively new national park is located at the extreme northern tip of Kalimantan, bordering the Malaysian region of Sabah. The area is accessed through Nunukan.