For those interested in nature and wildlife, the island of Borneo is regarded as one of the world’s most alluring and exotic destinations. Covering a land area substantially larger than Germany and the United Kingdom combined, it’s the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. Straddling the equator and sheltered from the ravages of storms that frequent areas just north of the island, Borneo also lacks volcanos that have periodically wreaked destructive havoc on islands south of it. Consequently, the rainforests of Borneo are considered to be some of the oldest, most pristine and biologically diverse in the world. The rainforest have existed in, more or less, the same state they are today for more than 140 million years. So deep and vast are the expanses of its wilderness that much of it, as of yet, remains uninhabited and undiscovered.
The landmass of Borneo is split between three countries. The eastern side of the island is divided between two Malaysian sides, Sabah and Sarawak, and a small city-state, Brunei. The other side, about 73% of it, belongs to Indonesia and is known as Kalimantan. For adventurers, nature enthusiasts, and travellers looking to discover a place that is truly off-the-beaten path, Kalimantan represents one of Asia’s finest opportunities. While it isn’t as easy or as cheap to travel in as other areas in the region, Kalimantan offers travellers a window into life that has long since vanished elsewhere in the region.
By far, the biggest draw to Kalimantan are its vast reserves of untouched nature. It’s one of the few remaining places in the world where visitors stand a reasonably high chance of spotting truly wild orangutans. The forests are teeming with iconic animals such as gibbons, dwarf elephants and hornbills.
One of the most popular places to go for both pristine rainforest habitat and unrivalled opportunities to get up-close and personal with a critically endangered Bornean Orangutan is at Tanjung Puting National Park. Set aside as a wildlife refuge by the Dutch in 1939, the park gained international notoriety for its unusually large population of orangutans, and has been a pilgrimage site for nature-lovers ever since. It’s one of the few places in Indonesia, let alone the world, where you’re almost guaranteed to at least catch a glimpse of one of these jovial creatures.
Just a few hours from the eastern capital of Samarinda, orangutans can also be found at Kutai National Park. Along the coastal areas of the park you can find other unusual primate species, such as the slow loris, proboscis and leaf monkeys. Keep your eyes peeled for the sunbears and rare flat-headed cats that also call the area home.
Near the border with Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, Betung Kerihun National Park is most easily accessed from the provincial capital, Pontianak. Locals from Nang Potan, a small town near the forest only accessible by boat, operate adventurous treks into the park. More than just a wildlife-spotting experience, a journey along the bending paths of the rivers here will take you deep into the heart of Bornean wilderness.
Although Kalimantan is most well-known for its abundant nature, it’s also a hive of cultural intrigue. In addition to curious and friendly locals throughout the region, Kalimantan is also home to a sizable population of the Dayak People. The term “Dayak” is used loosely to describe some 200 ethnic subgroups that inhabit Borneo’s densely forested interior. Once feared for their well-known practice of “head-hunting,” (a tradition they no longer keep) the Dayak people are now more well-regarded for their incredible connection with nature.
While many Dayak people now inhabit more developed areas of Kalimantan, there are still areas where they live mostly as they have for millennia. With a journey down the Mahakam River to Kutai National Park you can encounter a string of riverside Dayak villages such as Mancong and the famous Longhouses they call home.
Kalimantan is not without its fair share of beach paradises, either. The most famous of these is the Derawan Archipelago in East Kalimantan. The remote, silvery beaches here offer visitors a pristine strip of paradise that few other travellers experience. The crystal-clear waters around Derawan Island is home to one of Indonesia’s largest populations of manta-rays, and is also a great place to see wild sea-turtles. The Derawan Islands also feature unique lakes that have remained isolated for so long that they now boast populations of stingless jellyfish that make for unique snorkelling experiences.
How to get there:
By Plane: The primary airport in Kalimantan Sepinggan International Airport near Balikpapan. Most international arrivals come from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
By Bus/Boat: There are also a number of boat and bus combination packages allowing travellers from Sabah and Sarawak to enter Kalimantan.