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
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.