A Travellerspoint blog

Kalimantan to Sarawak


The 9pm departure time though convenient enough was baffling in that to eke out the route for the Malaysian border, pit stops and progress were intentionally convoluted. Why not just leave later? With the darkness still revealing unexpectedly dramatic topography and tropical vegetation, I quietly dismayed at not having realised this particular leg of my trip during daylight, it was a road trip which I had anticipated for years. There was something perverse about crossing an international frontier on the island of Borneo which surely in a sane world should have been one homogenous mass. It was also my first real appreciation of Borneo's character and doomed to be my only impression of its West. To match the Malaysian bus I promptly put my clock forward an hour in anticipation of another time zone change now 8 hours ahead of GMT again, and though we still arrived early for the border opening the Indonesians had at least found the resolve to co-operate with an early kick off at 5am to match the Malaysians standard 6. Entikong proved to be another remarkably civilised crossing even if the queues were long, and soon I was being whittled past more palm trees into an immediately perceptibly more affluent environ of wider delineated roads, pristine signage and manicured roundabouts. Though I had entertained prolonged enquiries from the border official I perceived it to be more out of idle curiosity at a crossing singularly devoid of other foreigners, it was almost an indulgence to have this mini adventure all to myself as it were. Another unexpected variation once in Malaysia was the materialisation of Karst scenery akin to the peninsular mainland, until sleep finally robbed me of any further initial impressions of what was now the state of Sarawak before reaching Kuching's bus terminal. A lone tout was too polite and respectably dressed to be intimidating after the typical balshiness of Indonesia and the general vibe emanating from sweetly pastel painted buildings, shiny modern cars and a perceptible prevalance of order perhaps surprised me in the realisation that be it Borneo or not, I had still advanced the 30 years or so which Malaysia held over her neighbour. After walking past the taxi rank incredibly uncontested, a palpable absence of surprised expressions and "Hello misters" affirmed that I had just arrived in a different land indeed. With the locals symptomatically opting for costlier taxis, it was another disorientating search for the elusive city bus, but my compass and guesswork got me into central Kuching easily enough, immediately marvelling at its prettified orderliness. I had long understood Kuching (meaning "City of Cats") to be considered one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities in all of South East Asia, and though perhaps not what I had expected it to be so it proved nonetheless. My search for a bed took me directly through the main shopping heart which proved to be a full on Chinatown of undeniable character, and the 2 story merchant houses, garish temples and clan houses immediately reminded me of Georgetown on Penang. I turned up at Kuching's sole backpacker orientated hostelry to promptly resist the renewed convention of a dormitory in favour of more space and privacy, and though it was still comparable to what I had paid on average in Indonesia, long forgotten indulgences such as a flushing sit down toilet and gushing conventional shower qualified it immediately.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)



Having slept half the previous day my exhaustion still claimed the night for good measure, only interrupted by an enforced midnight laundry chore complicated by the lack of a bucket. I managed the early rise though for the nauseating spicy fried rice brekkie, before hitting the considerable trail out to priority number 1, the Museum of West Kalimantan. At first reassured to find it open, as was by far from always the case despite what might otherwise be promised, it was a blow to discover then that in the baffling absence of electricity the collection was entirely unviewable. Determined I hadnt come all this way to be short changed, I resolved to stumble about in the darkness with the aid of my home grown "Almond" LED torch, but it was still impossible to glean any meaningful input beyond the usual predictable fare, annotated only in Bahasa. In fact it was a spooky prospect as I encountered initially a paltry fauna section of a large lizard, a cobra and a turtle, and then scarily carved wooden totems. Even an assortment of back slings used for carrying children, variously carved or woven, were decorated with skeletons and demonic figures. And Pontianak itself, well it means vampire! Just exactly what kind of land had I arrived in!?

The exterior exhibits were again paltry and unredeeming, though a couple of cannon were at least still inscribed with the VOC logo, dated 1704. There were also intricately carved totems portraying men and big willied monkies, and various uninspiring examples of indiginous looking house styles. The return trek back to the centre was little redeemed by a reproduction longhouse which looked way too arty and conventional to be authentic, then the State Mosque proved to be dilapidated affair even if the crowning dome was an unusual pointed cup cake design. From there it was then a pressing priority to secure a ticket for the night bus to Kuching before checking out of the hotel, refreshingly easy and convenient even if a mature woman in a spanky new car did stop me en route and promptly threaten to accompany me, and the supposed "rear entrance" to the hotel proved to be a knocking shop. From there my map proved less than adequate but a scummy photogenic boat jetty by the riverside provided justification of my sweat. I resisted the persistent attempts to accost me aboard one in deference to searching out further goals instead. The guidebook's subsequent promise of notable buildings proved optimistic, but it brought me in any case to the large Push Me Pull You car ferry which afforded a more sedate passage across the river. Resisting the likely hassles of arranging an onward connection at the grungy market opposite, I went hardcore again in a mile long trek past stink infested industry, random shacks and cheery locals out to my next priority, the Monumen Khatulistiwa. It eventually materialised as promised and proved to be a suitably large concrete obelisk atop a whitewashed dome, and I realised a vague bonus in discovering an unexpected visitors centre of sorts beneath the pinnacle denoting the Equator. Though money had clearly been lavished on its tiled interior and storyboards and maps, it struck me that they had failed in the one obvious indulgence of clearly demarcating the line. I had held previous images in my mind of a white stripe painted across the adjacent road to delineate its passage, but reversion to my faithfull pocket compass perversely deemed it to lie somewhere close to the roads centreline along which I had just walked, it was a non-starter.

From here it might be said that I rather ran out of steam. Though a Bemo got me back to the ferry efficiently the subsequent futher cross river foray to an appealing wooden mosque and Sultanate palace just discernible proved too much of a diversion at this late hour, and so I allayed myself of guilt in another default Padang cuisine indulgence and a superbly convenient net cafe. I later hooked up with the nearby bus for 9, and deliciously realising it to be a Malaysian vehicle where economy class still proved more than acceptable, I left Pontianak in further expectation of elevated standards and doubtless prices.

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Semarang to Pontianak


That morning I was reminded why I usually resisted taxis like the plague when the seemingly amiable old boy tried to convince me that the 16,000 fare plus rip off 5,000 gate toll fee equated to 23, I was releaved just to be there though and indulged him the extra 10p. A small but very modern terminal, Semarang airport boasted such wonders as a practically unknown no smoking zone, a good English language book and map shop and delicious sludgy coffee, even if it was predictably price-hiked up to the rafters. After also succumbing to an unexpected and begrudged airport tax payment the check in was late in opening, perhaps explained by the now sods law realisation that mine was the only flight delayed.

Soon enough though I was safely sat aboard my Batavia Air 737 bound for Pontianak in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, plumped pride of place with row 1 to myself. As we taxied out a military Bell 412 helicopter or similar throbbed right over us disrespectfully low, and I also spied a lone DHC-5 Caribou. Take off was disconcertingly bumpy, but we unstuck eventually to immediately reveal a heavily flooded coastal plain beyond, Java was soon behind me and the Java Sea below. Some unexpected islands dotted around had the allure of green, turquoise and golden atolls, until the haze sadly intensified into a smothering blanket of moisture laden air. It was only close to final approach then that I gleaned my first peek at Borneo, forewarned of 2 things which both served to detract from it. In the stereotypical epitome of the tropics, I peered out into the mirk in search of rainforest, only to see an intensely green patchwork of concerted cultivation. Yup, there was rain, but nope, no forest. My long lugged rain jacket now prove its worth, and though the small airport terminal was a dump, the Scottish weather at least made it unexpectedly fresh and bearable. I had hitherto tired of constantly enduring rivers of sweat running down the creases of my palms, and other nooks and crannies such as inner elbows were unmitigated harbourers of sticky grime. No great hassles here, I just sidestepped the taxi sharks to hoof it out to the main road in the rain, and though a little disorientated I was finally very fortunate in finding helpful locals who understood every word of my Bahasa, an unexpected small Bemo terminal got me into town for all of 10p.

First impressions of Pontianak, capital of West Kalimantan province was that it was a shithole, and though it was perhaps little redeemed by the rain and gloom, the pavements seemed to be that little bit more haphazard, that little bit dirtier, and certainly the stench of open cesspools didnt do the place any favours. There was the habitual incessant traffic, with the motorbikes resorting to the pavement as often as not, only prevented by cars and foodstalls inconsiderately blocking passage. The Khatulistiwa Hotel was a winner though, central and available, and unsurprisingly so since it was perhaps the largest hotel I've ever stayed at in my life, encircling a whole street as it does. The rooms were similarly humungous, and it earned extra brownie points in the modern fan, inclusive brekkie and great blessing, a clothes horse. Try living without one when you do laundry every other day. It was also a quirky bonus to stay here since its name meant "Equator" in Arabic and that was a local attraction, the world's longest line passes just outside of town. Not for the first time, it was as quick as I could get to the Mandi and then plonk myself down in front of the fan, subsequently rejoicing in an unexpectedly fresh evening mustering few bugs. Finding beer at a makeshift shack proffering pavement tables, I was star of the show as ever, and the attentions revealed an interesting first lesson into the discernibly varied ethnic mix here. There was a sizeable Chinese community here, and indeed though that proved obvious in spying people using chopsticks and the odd temple and clan house dotted around, there was still a dearth of Chinese characters since the language had been heavily suppressed under the Suharto dictatorship. What surprised me more though was that other people I took to be ethnic Chinese were actually indiginous Dayaks, not how I expected these people to look at all. A trio of bashfull young honeys set the mix, with one being of Dayak origin, one ethnic Melayu (Malay) and another Javanese. That reminded me in turn of Indonesia's sometimes troublesome policy of "Transmigrasi", whereby people were given incentive to relocate from overpopulated Java and settle elsewhere. It was a question of interpretation as to whether that could be deemed a beneficial policy of homogenous nation building, or whether it was an ill-conceived affirmation of overweighted Javanese influence liable to lead to confrontation. In spite of aspirations of ticking off at least some of Pontianak's highlights that day, sleep was too difficult to resist after my recent privations, and even 2 restaurants indicated in the guidebook proved absent from where they should have been.

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Yogyakarta to Semarang


Though my original plan had been to rise habitually early in prospect of enforced departure today, the beer compromised me until 12 noon checkout time that day, unfortunately an indulgence I would later regret in Semarang. Semarang was a northern coastal city which though Central Java's provincial capital would not normally feature on most itineraries. My propensity for thoroughness though was further qualified in learning that my required flight to Borneo was significantly cheaper from there than Yogya, in the inexplicable absence of any air connection from Indonesia's nearby second city Surabaya. Suffice to say that the supposedly easy 3 hour bus hop north proved uncomfortable and convoluted, and in the darkness I even became convinced at one point that Semarang had somehow managed to slip by me, I thought I was headed on an Indonesian first a motorway for Surabaya after all. It was another complication to get into town from the unusually deserted and remote terminal, and though a Bemo finally did me a big favour in accosting me in lieu of more elusive city buses, I had found a despairing inability to understand a single word uttered by the locals. Doubtless some spoke still mysterious Javanese to me, but my Bahasa enquiries also singularly struggled to cut the mix. For the sake of facility I requested the main post office knowing it to be central, and immediately regretted not having afforded this city a day upon arrival, encountering colonial vestiges even surpassing those of Jakarta. A pristine whitewashed church was superb in its contrasting large dome and square towers, and other architectural relics dotted around a monoblock and canal lined locale redeemed my difficult arrival with unprecedented character. It was no good in the dark though, bag laden and supremely sweaty and smelly as I was, and it was another timely refuge in finding a small Padang restaurant showing the Asia Cup. Tonight was the final, a long awaited appointment which I managed to catch on the worlds dodgiest portable TV, imparting at least the correct result. In a temperamental match of unexpected marvels Iraq verses the seasoned Saudis, the fairytale was excellently realised in Iraq playing the pants off their neighbours to lift the cup courtesy of a late free header.

By the time I retraced a hitherto open net cafe the supposed 24 hour joint was closed, and so more pointless sweaty weighed down wanderings found no better alternative than writing over a few very hard to come by beers. One problem which I at least had managed to forego was the late hunt for a hotel. With my flight the next day departing uncomfortably early, there was one easy solution in making sure I didnt miss it (again), I simply wouldnt sleep. Hardcore. Though certainly tourists were a relative unknown here, I now found myself grumpy nonetheless at the persistent annoying culture of being pestered by bands of guitar wielding buskers in their constant assault of buses and restaurants, and the local transport officionados also thought they knew money when they saw it.

In traipsing around town that night in a fruitless search for anything resembling a bar or coffee shop, a valuable insight was gleaned into the lives of these pavement peddlers, as I witnessed the Becak boys slumbering in their chariots just as they typically did in daytime. Apparently without homes or even beds to go to, it brought a new sense of realisation that in this fast developing country many still lived very humble lives earning a pittance. Out of the many rudimentary foodstalls I encountered, the only one offering beer was the only one to endure the night, and I witnessed more unlikely insights into how every night these stalls had to be dismantled and carted away, a lot of work for doubtless a paltry gain. A stroke of luck blessed me in later finding the aforementioned brace of Padang restaurants still open, and so curry rice at 4am was deemed acceptable for the want of better alternatives. I sat it out until 5am and then loaded up once more in search of a taxi, a rare indulgence justified by its assured efficiency in getting me to the airport unhindered.

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After comatosing myself in desperation, I woke to find my head still thumping but could at least discern this time that it was down to the effects of one Bintang too many the night before. My protracted new default brekkie of choice in veggie omelette, fruit salad and excellent slimy Javanese coffee allowed me contemplation that I was surely finally on the mend, even if my pill popping and newly sprouted tongue ulcers revealed that my gut flora and immune system had been taking a hammering of late. Visa pressure ensured that today was to be my last day in Yogya whether I liked it or not, and happily I found renewed energy to finally redeem my protracted sojourn with a crowning glory. I found a local bus out to the terminal, then sidestepped the touts in finding the sole bus filling up for a day trip out. With a local having previously advised a price of 6,000 and the guidebook suggesting 10, I prudently enquired to a fellow attendee to be told 7. Thats what I proferred to the crew boy then, not in the slightest bit surprised when 10 was demanded. I feigned incredulity, and careful of divulging the still limited scope of my Bahasa, managed to jiggle a few scant words together into the delightfully succinct rebuke "Tidak dari saya, teman" (Not fae me pal). I daringly underlined the old hand illusion with a desultory "Setiap hari" (Every day......). My ruse seemed to convince, since the guy next to me subsequently asked if I spoke Javanese and not Bahasa, "Belum" (Not yet) was the dignified response.

The 2 hour trip through mainly conurbated central Java soon presented a proud impressive stupa by the roadside, and I knew it to be only a few Ks from here to my destination. I was aiming for the top tourist attraction in all Indonesia, and so it was predictable in its perpetration of all manner of touts who converged on the bus before it had even halted. Blanking mode got me as far as a habitual restaurant shirk off, from whence in turn I resisted the unsavoury offerings to break free. Becak and Anjong (horse drawn carriage) drivers gave token chase, but curt minimalised Bahasa nipped them in the bud too. Besides the odd "Hello mister" I was then left remarkably unmolested to hoof the 5 minutes to the telltale cavalcade of of eateries and souvenir stalls, where the presence of tourist menus and all manner of tack on a massive scale was at least redeemed by competition keeping the prices sensible. Fuelled up and freshly hydrated, it was a mixture of emotions to be directed from the ticket booths to a dedicated foreigners air-con reception suite where I was the sole partaker, and forewarned by the book it was no surprise to be slapped for a 1000% mark up over the locals. Still only a fiver though, and I was well accustomed of late to the blue 50,000 Rupiah notes depleting as quickly as the local street rats could scurry off. Borobudur would doubtless be a finer investment than Bintang anyway. Surprised at my civilised reception, with only a single respectable professional guide to resist, the lead up to the temple proved to be a commensurately relaxing botanical parkland, and first sight of the thrusting main stupa atop a tall staircase in black stone was only complicated by a handful of souvenir peddlers still discernibly regulated.

It's always difficult to express suitable justice to the realisation of long held dreams, one approaches with an air of expectancy and yet a certain reserve in fear that you might retrieve an overall impression of disappointment. Though the Taj Mahal is superb for example, it had not completely blown me away as hoped, it is the drawback of having seen so much, of being spoiled I guess, that one inevitably enters a downward spiral of ever increasing expectation doomed to dissatisfaction. I was not immediately floored by Borobudur, but its realisation left me with a quiet contentment provoked by its beautiful setting and undeniable majesty in equal measure. Though apparently the only considerant, I resolved to circuit it clockwise in the prescribed Buddhist manner, resisting the initial temptation of diving in amongst its wonders to make a circle around its base instead. Its tremendous symmetry was a redemption in still affording the opportunity of suitably golden illuminated photography despite the suns less than ideal position, and I systematically proceeded with a progressive tour of mounting to a higher tier only when all four sides of the perfect square had been witnessed. The temple was essentialy split into 2 distinct persuasions, with the first few levels being an unmitigated procession of tremendously painstaking individualised relief carvings, depicting variously court scenes of bejewelled maidens, bearded dignitaries, battle scenes and regal indulgences. There were sailing ships and prominent elephant, indeed all manner of beasts such as monkies, deer, horses and squirrels. Above all though the primary consideration of course had been one of devotion. Some depictions were more difficult to interpret and many were sadly chipped or eroded, yet images of all that had been considered important to people who had lived here 1200 years ago were still beautifully presented, and as much as my supremely exercised neck would allow I can honestly say that I paid suitable homage to each and every one of the 1400 or so scenes to either side.

Dragons, Chinese lions and ogre faced adornments again lined the chunky alluring staircases until a threshhold was reached where the square plan assumed a circle, and a very contrasting tour of lotus immitating stupas periodically pierced the sky. These were hollow, a fact only now appreciable despite my previous pictorial encounters and only now did I also realise that they were of 2 different styles, whereby one series of stupas was mottled with a chessboard of square eyelets, the others peppered with losenges. Perhaps the singlemost revelation of the whole experience though was that in spite of thinking I knew more or less what to expect, these all bore a typically squat Buddha statue caged lotus style inside. Regretably most of them were minus their head and I could only surmise that this had been rendered deliberately, systematically, by later occupants but I found a complete one in the end. In further compensation there was even one where the stupa had been reduced to its foundation so that the nigh on pristine Buddha could be appreciated as a work of art still untainted by the propensity of them. The lower echelons of the temple had been crowned by periodic arched recesses sheltering similarly captivating creations.

It was also a snobbery to wish to have the experience uncompromised by other laudible pundits, and yet though photographic hotspots were frustratingly encroached upon, I found the resolve to appreciate that the spectacle had surprised me at times, and that went for the crowds too. Though I might have imagined Borobudur to have been mightier than it 118 metres square, I was also pleasantly surprised in that my enforced patronage on a school holiday weekend still only rendered an acceptably sparse occupation which at no times could be considered the anticipated throng. My "mad dogs and Scotsmen" midday frequention dictated by my enduring fragility had still been acceptable as a means of avoiding the purported dawn and dusk cherrypickers, and yet as my interest lingered into the sunset no busloads of spoilers materialised, I felt priviliged.

It was only upon departure in fear of the transport drying up that I realised a bitter contemplation. I had been so wrapped up in the site itself that I had completely forgotten to make contingency for the adjacent archaeological museum. I forgave myself in the knowledge that it would surely only boast a doubtless excellent collection of statuary I had hitherto discovered ad nauseum in my many previous museum forays, and having spied a much smaller but still notable temple mount upon arrival, that momentary peek would have to suffice. Sure enough the bus terminal was dead upon retracing it, but I was directed to a malingering local happywagon on the street and was soon off. It was only going as far as Mundilan, a forgettable staging post, and ignorant as to where that lay I was inadvertantly set up for another predictable rip off. Though the full gamut of tyre slashing and ball booting fantasies passed my mind, the cheekily ostensibly friendly crew guy spared me a jail sentence by pointing out the less than obvious connection, I let him off out of misplaced manners. The ensuing bus proved cheaper than expected though, and I allayed my frustration with the knowledge that in both directions I had still forked out less than the guidebooks's prophecy. That gleaned the insight that the book had only been written by another similarly vulnerable itinerant, symptomatic of the fact that in the daily fight for economic justice, some you would win and some you would lose.

Tired now in the darkness, the final hurdle proved unexpectedly the greatest frustration as time inexorably passed by without the materialisation of the supposedly more dependable city buses. Stubborn payback mode deemed the interminable Becak, Ojek and taxi chancers a non-starter, so hardcore routine was re-adopted in the 4K trek back home. I was lucky in that my chance retention of a city map made the passage obvious, but another hitherto unencountered obstacle impeded the way. A grisly faced admirer who I had reassuringly assumed to be waiting for the same bus was now revealed as a warped hopeful determined to follow me for unspecified reasons. Sex was improbable since I could scarcely bear to look at her, but Psycho Sue stuck to me like a sweaty T-shirt in the Javanese heat. Failing with a liberally applied Scots rebuff and then finely honed blanking, postman mode proved a more uncompromising tactic in hoofing it until incredibly she passed me ceremoniously aboard an Anjong horse buggy in order to position herself for another limpet like attempt. Rising to the challenge in perverse humour, I surprised myself in how fast I could still sprint, and her flip flops sealed the rest. Bizarre.

It was as quick as I could Mandi myself before grabbing a chicken dinner and Bintang at my favoured haunt the Cafeteria (unimaginative name), an unusual restaurant cum internet cafe combination succeeding where most would fail. The urgency had been provoked by the timely realisation that the third place playoff match in the Asia Cup was looming, a not inconsequential game since the winners would gain automatic entry to the tournament next time around, and I thankfully was rewarded with a good game of 10 man South Korea finally overcoming more accomplished Japan 6-5 on penalties. Inexplicably I then promptly drank myself silly until the Losmen reopened at 6.30am, spurred on by a young local guy spouting revelations into Indonesia's new found post-Suharto optimism and historical quirks I would never have guessed, also an American guy too cool to be American and a young French female arms dealer. Well what the hell do you expect?!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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