Advantages Exotic, mysterious and a true adventure
Disadvantages Few obvious destinations, travel can be expensive
It may be my imagination but I'm pretty sure this category didn't exist last week, and I know because I wanted to write something about Kalimantan and couldn't, and then decided I was feeling too lazy to create a new category. So, I don't know who realised that the Kalimantan session was missing from Indonesia but their decision to put it in was timely, because I got back from there about a week ago.And what is there to say? Well, first a quick geography lesson: Kalimantan is the Indonesian chunk of the massive island of Borneo, the rest of which belongs to Malaysia and a tiny bit to Brunei. For those of you who may have been reading about all the horrible things that have been going on there (of which more later), this has the advantage that large chunks of the island can be perfectly safe. In fact, I was in Pontianak (West Kalimantan or KalBar as the locals call it - why indonesians have to shorten everything is beyond me) while most of the atrocities in Sampit and Palankaraya (Central Kalimantan) were taking place, and although there was a faint air of unease it was largely generated by people worrying that the trouble might spread rather than that horrible tense air you get before trouble.
So, what's to say about Pontianak itself? Well, not a lot really. It's another dirty, busy Asian town, with not much to see except a reputedly excellent museum (I didn't get around to going) and more than its fair share of expats, due to the large logging and plantation companies coming here. Like most Kalimantan towns, it's divided by two huge rivers, one of them the biggest in indonesia - cities here tend to be based by water as it's the only pratical way to get around. My one cast iron tip is that if you find yourself here, on no account stay at the Hotel Garuda, despite it's enticing central location - unless you want to wake up at 6am to find a strange guy standing at the end of your bed and reaching for your handbag, that is. Not a nice experience even at the time, and even worse in retrospect as I realised I was actually quite lucky he was just a thief...And yet, and yet, I would still reccomend coming here. Not because of the town,but because of Borneo itself. Even the name has an exotic lure, resonating with half-heard stories of huge muddy rivers disappearing into silent green jungle, of monkeys and tigers and headhunters and boy's own tales of adventure. How could any traveller worth the name resist a chance to visit this half-mythical place? well, I certainly couldn't, and when I found out a local plane company was offering half price tickets it seemed God was on my side for once.
Flying into Borneo was all I could have asked for and more. Arriving late in the afternoon, the plan swung through the clouds and over a vast, dark green flood plain, through which wound a mighty chocolate covered river. The dying sun cast long orange rays across this massive landscape, turning the plumes of smoke from fires in the valley into pillars of orange and gold. The overwhelming imact was of something of unbelievable size, indimidating and dangerous - the scene looked like something out of Dante, I kid you not. On the ground, as I have already described, it was pretty unimpressive but that first image seen from the air will stay with me a very long time.As a result, I suggest you do what I did not, and head straight out of Pontianak to the interior (isn't that a great word?) The only reason I didn't was that I was staying with a friend, and now I wish I had. She's been working for a forestry NGO for several months there, and has some amazing stories of the astonishing national parks. If you are a forestry fan, this is undoubtedly the place to be: the vast majority of Borneo is still rainforest, although the logging companies are doing their best to change that unhindered by the Indonesian government (and in many places actively helped by local officials). In fact, if you want to see rainforest stretch to the horizon in all directions, untouched for thousands of years, you'd better head here now because there won't be much left soon.
It's relatively easy to get into the interior, you can just get boats up the river. And if you're prepared to be chatty and speak a bit of Bahasa, you'll almost certainly wind up with an invitation to visit one of Borneo's most spectacular sites: the Dayak longhouse. The indiginous people - the dayaks - are famous for two things, their living arrangements whereby an entire village will live in a single giant house, and their prediliction for headhunting. Unlike most places in the world, this is not yet a matter for historians alone: as recent events demonstrated only too graphically, the practice for Dayak warriors to detach and keep the heads of their victims is still very much alive. But there's no real need to worry unless you really piss them off: their enemies these days are groups from elsewhere in Indonesia and they have no quarrel with foreigners. At least, that's what they told me...Of life in a long house I can only speak vicariously - it's the main reason I want to go back to Kaliamtan and one day, I will. But all who have done it say these are incredible societies and to be part of them, just for a few days, is a massive privilege. Like the rainforest though, this is a way of life that is fast disappearing: the government has introduced programmes to force Dayaks to live a more 'civilised' (ie javanese) life involving conventional houses, schools and strictly no headhunting. I even heard tales of the burning of traditional houses on government orders, incredible as that may seem.
So, the message is head there fast - it's a rapidly changing place. But from my short visit, I have at least come away with the feeling that it's an island that will go down fighting.There is an air of power and invincibility about Kalimantan that I have never felt anywhere else: long may it endure
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