How to explore Kalimantan on the cheap.
If you are looking for the road less travelled, you’ll find it Indonesian Kalimantan: the bigger, wilder and much less travelled chunk of Borneo.
What you can do here on a budget (with a bit of grit and determination) is outstanding and worth every hour in a madly swerving taxi, overstuffed bus or spine-compressing speedboat ferry.
Want to trek in search of truly wild orangutans?….done! Want to swim in an inland lake swarming with stingless jellyfish?…..done! Want to drift with green sea turtles, dive with manta rays, or pin dive into the slender chasm of a rugged limestone sea cave?….done!
Want to do it on a budget and without rubbing elbows with hundreds of other travellers?….read on because we just did. In three weeks of travel in Kalimantan we caught sight of less than 10 non-Indonesian tourists, and we had the most fun in Eastern Kalimantan, spotting orangutans in Kutai National Park and spending time under the sea off Maratua Atoll.
We flew into Balikpapan from Denpasar, Bali. Balikpapan is Kalimantan’s most central arrival destination and one of two fly-in entry points offering visas on arrival. There are direct flights to Balikpapan from Singapore (Silk Air), Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia with Garuda and it’s budget carrier Citilink, Sriwijaya, and Lion Air and its budget option Wings Air.
Distances between towns in Kalimantan can be pretty lengthy – 10 hours on a bus is not uncommon due to poor road conditions – but on the whole, bus travel is easy and cheap (eg. 55,000Rp/AUD$5.50 for a 4 hour ride from Samarinda to Sangatta).
The exception is in far eastern Kalimantan on the rugged mountain route from Sangatta to Berau where a taxi cartel rules the roads and charges on average, around 350,00Rp per person (AUD$35) in a share taxi ride that took us eight terrifying hours. The only bus company we tracked down (www.bosbis.com) is cheaper, charging 199,900Rp (AUD$20), but the trip takes 18, probably less terrifying hours. Fast and furious or slow and painful…..tough choice!
Grab car is cheap and convenient for quick trips between airports, hotels and bus stations (we paid 40,000Rp – 50,000Rp on average per ride), and a big plus is that the easy phone app alleviates the need for drivers to speak English.
Internal flights in Kalimantan are very cheap. We flew direct from Berau to Balikpapan after our island trip for around AUD$42pp (overlanding by bus and car between the cities cost us AUD$60pp the week before).
Kalimantan National Park stays:
We spent time in Kutai National Park, so this is our example, but all national parks in Kalimantan have similar fee structures. Don’t think that you have to book an expensive guided tour in advance – you don’t! We were approached by a very nice, Lonely Planet-recommended guide on the street in Samarinda and quoted 8,000,000Rp (about AUD$800) for a trip to Kutai. Doing it ourselves (2 adults, 1 child, 2 nights in the ranger hut, 2 guided hikes) cost us less than AUD$250, including food and transport. This is what you can expect to pay:
- National Park entry: 150,000Rp per person, per day (kids are free)
- Guided hikes: 200,000Rp per group (ours lasted between 2 and 4.5 hours)
- Hut accommodation: 200,000Rp per room (we were free to cook our own food).
Hotels & guesthouses:
We booked most of our hotels online, used the occasional guidebook recommendation and paid between 120,000 and 250,000Rp (AUD$12-25) for double rooms, air con, most with attached bathroom and breakfast included. Solo travellers and those content with fans will find even cheaper deals.
The most we paid for a room was on remote Maratua Island, where we opted for a breezy beachfront bungalow with views at Nouri Cottages (400,000Rp, breakfast and morning pastries included, free water, tea and coffee), but we could have stayed in a village penginapan for 250,000Rp per room. Using Agoda and Booking.com saved us quite a bit.
One example….when searching for a stay in Pontianak I was quoted 350,000 over the phone for a double room (Lonely Planet had it at 477,600Rp, which put me off a bit), but when I booked it online, I ended up paying just 250,000Rp – ensuite, air-con, Discovery Channel and a huge buffet breakfast included!!
Eating & drinking:
The cheapest part about travelling in Kalimantan is that you won’t waste a whole lot of money on beer. In budget circles is doesn’t really exist, although in our hotel in Pontianak we did celebrate with a big Bintang for the extravagant price of just AUD$5.50 a bottle. Food is very, very cheap.
Rich, thick hot and iced coffees and chilled lemon tea set us back about 50 cents a glass
We mostly ate in small warung – streetside cafes – and paid 10,000 – 20,000Rp (AUD$1-2) for noodles, fried rice or nasi campur (a selection of vegetable, chicken and egg dishes scooped on top of rice, charged per scoop). Rich, thick hot and iced coffees and chilled lemon tea set us back about 5000Rp a glass. Water was usually provided for free in our guesthouses and hotels so we simply refilled our own bottles, but when we had to buy it, the price was 3,000-5,000 for 1.5 litres.
Guidebooks make a big deal about needing Bahasa Indonesia to negotiate your way around Kalimantan. It’s true that far, far less English is spoken in remote areas of Kalimantan than say, Kuching and Koto Kinabalu across the Borean border. Sometimes, getting where you want to go takes patience and the help of Google Translate, but we always got where we wanted to go, eventually!
We found locals to be enormously patient and good natured when we tried out our strangled Bahasa to order vegetarian food; laughter and saying ‘terima kasi’ (thank you) a lot, helps! Learn your numbers and how to say “how much is it?….Berapa harganya?” and you are halfway there.
One tip on getting to Maratua Island: from Berau we tried unsuccessfully to book on the local ferry because the ferry driver I spoke to on the phone didn’t speak English. Instead, we ended up paying 300,000Rp for a taxi to the port at Tanjung Batu (2 hours) and 1,000,000Rp for a speedboat charter to Maratua (1.75 hours).
On the return trip I asked the local ferry captain (in Bahasa) the price direct to Berau and ended up paying just 200,000 per person for the three hour-long ride (my child travelled for free) – a huge saving of AUD$90, proving that a little Bahasa will save you big bucks!
If you are plotting your adventure right now, feel free to ask your questions, or add comments below.