Travel Features > Budget Travel

South of the Border

Mike Reed Takes A Trip to Kalimantan

One of the little known facts about East Malaysia is that it is one of only two places - the other being Papua New Guinea - that has a land border with Indonesia. This accounts for the large number of Indonesian-registered cars you can see every weekend in Kuching, taking up the parking spaces at the popular shopping centres. Of course some traffic heads the other way as well, to shop at the busy market at the Tebedu border post, or drive down to Pontianak, the bustling capital of West Kalimantan. Very few people ever bother to explore the area just over the border though. A pity, because this is real Dayak country and a great place to just hang out and make friends.

There are two ways to get from Kuching to Tebedu. You can either drive yourself or take the bus. Either way, you will see some great scenery along the way, particularly the limestone cliffs along the Serian-Tebedu road. If you have time, you can stop for lunch at the border post. The last food stall before the border serves excellent sup ekor, Malay-style oxtail soup.

After completing the Malaysian exit formalities, you walk across a no-man's-land crowded with Indonesians selling all kinds of goods, from cheap groceries to building supplies, and Malaysians eagerly buying them. You will also be accosted by a never-ending stream of freelance money changers. They all seem to charge the same, so you might as well take pot luck with the exchange rate.

Once you've got your passport stamped, you're in Indonesia and business is booming. A thriving market has sprung up at the border over the last year or so, and whilst the rest of Indonesia languishes under an economic crisis, the border zone has never had it so good. Farmers don't send their wares and produce to market in Pontianak any more. The weak Rupiah means that they can get much better prices from Malaysian day-trippers.

The border market is not the reason for coming here, though. A 25-minute ride in a local mini-van, known as a colt, brings you to the small town of Balai Karangan. At first glance, Balai Karangan is not a particularly attractive place; it seems to comprise a few rows of concrete shophouses and not much else. However, it's the only town for miles around and so it's the place where it all happens in northern West Kalimantan.

There are three very basic hotels here, all of which cater mainly to the local flesh trade. The best of the bunch is the Balai Indah, on the main street near the Pontianak road. Once you've checked in, coaxed the air-con into life and dropped off your bags, it's time to go and hit the town.

If this all sounds a little grim so far, remember that Balai is not an idyllic Lonely Planet destination full of backpackers and banana pancakes. It's an Indonesian border town full of normal people and few tourists. They don't see many Malaysians here, and people from any other part of the world are quite an event. No, the charm of Balai is that it's scruffy, down-to-earth, extremely friendly, and oozes the cowboy-town feel of a place that lives off the irregularities and loopholes of cross-border commerce.

First stop on any agenda has to be a spot of shopping. Local mats and baskets, shirts, T-shirts, batik garments and shoes are all much cheaper than in Malaysia, and a lot of the stuff is pretty good quality. There's no central shopping district or up-market stores, so you just have to wander along the streets checking in every shop. Just because a place advertises car parts or plumbing supplies doesn't mean there aren't some great rattan baskets or bamboo mats hanging round the back. Don't be shy ­ just have a good nose around.

After working up an appetite shopping, the next item in the agenda is dinner. There are some great little family-run restaurants serving Minangkabau food, a spicy style of cooking originating from Sumatra. Your best bet is just to peer in the window of a few places and see what takes your fancy. Don't leave it too late though, as they tend to sell out by sundown.

After dinner a brief snooze in your hotel room is in order, particularly if you're a light sleeper, as the sound of creaking mattresses and banging doors can keep you awake all night. My solution is to use one pillow to rest my head, and the other as sound insulation, and of course to have a few drinks to put me in a sleepy frame of mind.

Now this is where Balai gets to be fun. There's not exactly much in the way of nightlife, so the little coffee shop next to the Balai Indah hotel is where everybody hangs out. If you don't speak any Indonesian, don't worry, as somebody is sure to offer their services as interpreter. The family that run the coffee shop are an absolute delight, and if they see foreigners approaching they will quickly put a few bottles of beer in the fridge, instead of serving it with ice in the usual Indonesian way.

Once you've ordered your beer and the locals have figured out you're not a missionary come to lecture them on the evils of enjoying yourself, you can start making a few new friends. You'll hear tall tales about smuggling, stories from the old headhunting days, and anecdotes from all over Indonesia. At some point, one of the young blades is sure to invite you to the local karaoke lounge. As its main business is the selling of flesh rather than beverages, a polite refusal is perfectly acceptable.

If you're in luck, the boss will offer you some cap langkau, a fiery colourless drink distilled from rice wine. This stuff is wonderful in small doses, but extremely unhealthy in large quantities, so treat it very carefully. After a few langkaus, most people find they can communicate fluently, not only in Indonesian, but in every language under the sun.

As the evening draws to a close you receive your bill. The pleasant surprise is that everything is about half the price you would pay in Malaysia. The less pleasant surprise ­ if you've been hitting the langkau too hard - is that you've probably ordered a few rounds for everybody in the place, but at these prices, who cares?

After a good, bad or indifferent night's sleep, you awake to the sound of a bustling main street, and wander outside in search of some panadols. After a few cups of steaming local coffee and a bowl of excellent noodles you should feel fully restored, and ready to face another day in a sleepy border town. You can head back to Kuching, move on to Pontianak, or stay as long as you like. If you do decide to stick around, each day will be much like the previous one. But that's the charm of the place.

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