Balikpapan is the sprawling capital city of East Kalimantan, a district in Indonesian Borneo. It lies on the east coast of Borneo and is Kalimantan’s only cosmopolitan city. Balikpapan has a population of around 600,000.
International tourists don’t exactly flock to Balikpapan as the city is an 18-hour commute from Sydney Australia. And most foreigners are generally those working in mining or oil companies.
It has a long history of being an industrial city, priding itself on a growing economy of coal mining, oil and palm oil plantations.
A few visitors come to participate in orangutan volunteering programmes run by conservancies helping preserve the endangered Bornean orangutans and sun bears, such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and The Great Projects (UK).
- Balikpapan Guide
- Where to stay in Balikpapan
- Balikpapan City
- What to eat in Balikpapan
- Balikpapan Bay
- Balikpapan economy
- Balikpapan Airport
- Things to do in Balikpapan
Where to stay in Balikpapan
We were in Balikpapan for a few nights, while on our way to do volunteer work at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuary.
We stayed at the Hotel Novotel in downtown Balikpapan.
The hotel is near Plaza Balikpapan and next to the huge development, Borneo Bay City.
There are quite a few high-end hotels in this area. Some are known for very cheap cocktails at sunset on rooftop bars.
A$35 per night bought us a king-sized room overlooking the outdoor pools and spa.
Our room had air-conditioning you could die for (we affectionately named it the ice cube).
The A$10 smorgasbord breakfast was great value as it included western and traditional Indonesian fare.
The city is clean, although some pavements had massive potholes, crooked paving and open drains.
Being a tourist in Balikpapan is like being a lone wolf. Caucasians or ‘bulai’ are a rare commodity and a fascination to the locals.
We towered above the average population. At 165cm (5’5”) I felt like a giant.
Visitors are treated like movie stars.
It was quite endearing to be regularly but politely asked to pose for photos with local families and children.
The locals are extremely friendly and helpful, although spoken English is uncommon.
Balikpapan is a city of contradictions.
On one hand, there is a growing economy with huge new commercial buildings that house banks, police stations, local TV stations and modern large western-style malls.
On the other, and often right next door to the modern buildings, are shanty houses, small roadside businesses and derelict seashore buildings.
Most roadside shops appear to be focused on automotive services or small garages selling tyres or petrol in litre bottles.
A few shops sold clothes, shoes and children toys.
The occasional roadside fruit and vegetable market were a contrast to the tidy supermarket shelves in air-conditioned malls.
The former had no pavements, and cars or scooters just pulled over and stopped on the roadside to buy fresh and very neatly arranged goods.
What to eat in Balikpapan
Night food market stalls were in abundance on the streets. One was right next to the Novotel surrounding a neatly landscaped park.
The freshly cooked aroma of food was so enticing and unbelievable value for money.
A$1-2 bought a main meal of rice with a mixture of vegetables or soup.
Freshly made fruit or vegetable juices were very popular, especially a dieter’s delight of chocolate and avocado made with sugar syrup and condensed milk – only about 5000 calories a glass!
The nearby beach of Balikpapan Bay was a little confronting.
Amongst derelict buildings were semi-derelict cafes, restaurants and local hotels.
The shoreline was full of debris, especially plastic, but this didn’t deter children from happily playing along a wooden seawall or kicking a football near the water’s edge.
We saw a few old jet skis and seemingly abandoned small boats on trailers.
Many container ships hovered offshore, with oil fields along the horizon, a testament to the growing economy.
The water was a varying mix of blue and brown hues, with visible floating trash.
Swimming was not for the faint-hearted. And surfing?
Well, that made us wonder why there were surf shops selling Billabong clothing in the mall.
The local economy has certainly been booming due to palm oil sales and the mining sector.
Borneo Bay City is currently being constructed. It is a huge complex on the seafront being added on to the existing Plaza Mall.
When it’s finished, it will house high-end residences, retail and amusement areas.
The recently expanded and modernised Balikpapan International Airport is also a testament to the growth in the area.
It can stand up against any of our Australian counterparts, for sure.
Things to do in Balikpapan
There is surprisingly a lot to do in or within an hour’s drive of the city. There are other tourist sites to visit, perhaps the local lighthouse or crocodile farm.
1- See the Orangutans at Sungai Wain
A main attraction is its proximity to Sungai Wain, which is the last surviving primary forest in East Kalimantan where a few wild sun bears and orangutans still reside.
A stay at Samboja Lestari EcoLodge is a great way to get close to orangutans and sun bears in a forested sanctuary setting.
See them now before they disappear.
Animal lovers can happily spend a day at the Sungai Wain and the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre.
It also has a Cat Adoption Agency on site.
The inhabitants are cute, adorable and overfriendly to all visitors – I wonder why?
2- Go on a Black River cruise
The Black River cruise is magical and offers opportunities to see the proboscis monkeys.
Samboja is a small township in East Kalimantan and the gateway to our Borneo adventure.
It is an hour’s drive from the capital, Balikpapan, on the east coast of Indonesian Borneo.
Samboja’s economy is largely based on open-cut coal mines, oil and palm oil plantations. Look out to sea and you’ll see oil rigs on the horizon.
However, some Indonesian Borneans still make a living from the sea and rivers leading out to sea.
One such river is Sungai (translated means river) Hitam, about an hour’s drive from the Samboja Lestari Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuary.
The river is 35km from Balikpapan.
As part of our two-week Orangutan volunteer program, we were able to enjoy a late afternoon river cruise.
Sungai Hitam is in a lowland and mangrove forest.
As we left the small jetty, we passed through palm strewn and mangrove banks.
We cruised along to come to a local fishing village seemingly built on dodgy sticks, stuck in the high muddy river bank.
Colourful wooden boats were parked along the river’s edge, sometimes two or three deep, covered by drying nets.
Shanty dwellings were thrown together, but with an odd one having a large satellite dish out the front!
Children gleefully played along the banks with a few kites left over from the Ramadan Kite Festival a few weeks earlier.
They waved at us enthusiastically as Caucasians are a rarity here (perhaps even less common than the dwindling orangutan population) and are quite a spectacle for the locals.
We travelled the whole length of the river and turned around at its mouth in Balikpapan Bay.
Here were the big boys, numerous large commercial fishing boats, bestrewn with impressive rows of strong lights and fancy rigging.
The sun was setting, giving a great photographic opportunity. Rays of light shone through rigging lines and bounced off the hulls of these colourful boats.
It was quite magical to re-enter the much quieter waters of the mangroves and leave the bustle of the fishing village behind.
The setting sun illuminated bright green palm foliage in a spectacular fashion.
Hundreds of swallows began to fill the sky above us.
Our guides managed to spot a rough-necked tree monitor lizard, stretched along a branch high up in a mangrove tree.
Whilst they generally eat ants, termites, cockroaches and other small insects, they have been known to eat small monkeys.
As if on cue, we passed a cluster of mangrove trees housing a family of Proboscis monkeys up in its top branches.
Our arrival sent them scurrying.
Most decided to end their late afternoon snack and descended rather rapidly.
They jumped into the lower canopy palm trees to disappear off into the distance.
Only one big-nosed male hung around creating a challenging photo opportunity on a gently rocking boat for those with a long telephoto lens and a steady hand!
The sunset as we motored back to the small wooden jetty from whence we started our journey.
It had been a great experience, one that many of us won’t forget.
If you love the water, read this to find out what it’s like to go river rafting on the Ayung River in Bali.
3- Climb the Canopy Bridge at Bukit Bankirai Hill
Another place to put on your list is Bukit Bankirai Hill to climb the 40m high Canopy Bridge.
One hour from the Samboja Lestari Ecolodge, or 90 minutes north west of Balikpapan, is a primary rainforest, Bukit Bangkirai or Bangkirai Hill.
The 15km road to the entrance is not sealed and can be rough. You need your own mode of transportation as there is no public transport to access it.
There is a small entrance fee so have some loose cash with you. Note also that the only toilets in the area are at the entrance.
There are many treks through the rainforest for visitors but a short walk from the entrance is the Canopy Bridge high up in the forest canopy.
It is a system of linked rope bridges at a height of 35 to 40 metres.
Interspersed impressive solid platforms give a great vantage point to see local wildlife.
If you are lucky you may spot hornbills, gibbons, leaf monkeys, macaques and maroon langur monkeys.
Binoculars are a definite asset and don’t forget to insect repellent as the mosquitoes are fierce.
The bridge was built in 1998 from imported materials from the USA.
The only local material used was the timber.
The sign at the entrance describing the construction was written in funny Indonesian English.
The early morning started out with bright sunshine that changed to a tropical downpour as we approached the Canopy Bridge entrance.
Although we persisted with the walk, the rain sent all the wildlife scurrying for cover so our visit was fairly wildlife free.
It was still worthwhile as the thrill of negotiating the swinging canopy walk in the rain and wind was a challenge, especially when trying to take photos.
The forest impacts on the local climate by increasing rainfall and reducing the ambient temperature by several degrees.
From the canopy we could see huge clouds rising from the forest prior to it coming back at us as rain.
A few macaques and hornbills were running for cover, as well as two beautiful peacocks.
The sounds in the canopy were also very different from those on the rain forest floor.
The walk is easy, if you are not afraid of heights, but the steps could be challenging to some.
If you are in the vicinity of Balikpapan, you should not miss an opportunity to visit this rainforest.
The best times to visit would be the early morning or late afternoon when the forest comes alive.
Do not try it in the rainy season.
If the weather is too treacherous the bridge is likely to be closed, so it is always best to check beforehand.
Remember this is a rainforest.
Weather patterns can change rather quickly and a poncho or rain jacket, lots of water to drink and some very good insect repellent are a must.
4- Go on a hike through the rainforest
Close to the renowned Canopy Bridge Walk was the start of many forest treks.
We paid our entrance fee and took a local guide to accompany our group of 12 volunteers.
Off we set.
Light rain rapidly turned into a heavy tropical and steamy downpour, typical of a Borneo rainforest.
Thank God for the $3 poncho I had stuffed into my non-waterproof daypack. It turned out to be a lifesaver.
Our Borneo rainforest walk wasn’t so much of a walk but a jungle scramble, up and over large wide fallen tree trunks.
We constantly fell over trip hazard vines that grabbed your shoe or ankles.
Wait-a-while tendrils held onto our soaked clothing, many times ripping my protective poncho armour.
Fear of leeches
Once the rain stopped everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but the humidity heightened.
I have a morbid fear of leeches. I refuse to have anything share my blood. No one hops on me for a free ride, if I can help it.
Our guide simply could not understand why I refused to take my poncho off after the rain.
The fear of something grabbing or attaching itself to me in the dense undulating thicket was enough to make me sweat litres under that poncho. And I wasn’t about to take it off for anyone!
I knew about opportunistic acrobatic leeches leaping off leaves onto unsuspecting trampers. I wasn’t about to become a victim.
Lost in the forest
The forest at times was so dense that twelve of us walking through the understory of this stunning primary forest regularly lost sight of each other.
If someone stopped to look at an insect or take a photo, by the time you looked up the group had disappeared with no evidence.
There was no visible track, and signs were virtually non-existent.
I have no idea how the guide knew where he was going. Everywhere we looked, the Borneo rainforest seemed the same.
After nearly two hours of scrambling, I was convinced we had been going in circles.
My Fitbit Charge HR had only registered 3500 steps, but my heart rate on this gentle walk had been a steady fat-burning 130 to 140 a min in the heat and humidity.
Impressive forest canopy
Fear and sweat aside, a primary forest is daunting by the sheer size and height of the many different tree species forming the canopy.
The diversity of plant life and understory plants that would be prized pot plants in any hothouse was quite an experience.
Thorns of every shape and size seemed to be a theme. Palms and vines were particularly well armoured.
Some thorns were short and stout, others over 30cm long, running in random directions.
One that caught our attention even looked like a Kiwi carving of a fishhook.
An interesting find was a waxy elliptical hive of native stingless bees at the bottom of a broad tree trunk.
There was also evidence of the forearm strength of wild sun bears as they made light work of hollow trees to get access to their favourite honey snacks by boring large holes into the trunk.
Giant ants made the Australian inch ant look skinny, small and plain. A highlighted ‘onion tree’ smelled distinctly of garlic.
Given that plants use many strategies nature provides to survive, it does make us wonder how on earth a baby orangutan can learn what is good to eat and what can kill them.
As it is, they are the only animal in these forests that can eat the unripe fruit of a mature fig tree giving them a huge advantage for survival in none-mast years.
The end of our Borneo rainforest walk led us back to the car park and a small shop where we stopped to recover. We shared our well-earned lunch with a family of cloned tailless red cats.
Despite DETE-covered socks, shoes and trousers, the leeches had attacked our troops with vengeance.
They feasted on our blood.
Screams of horror interrupted our lunch as those who had thought they had survived the trek leech-free had blood-soaked socks and trousers.
I managed to escape the attack, thanks to my sweat-ridden, floor-length poncho.
Yeh, it was the best $3 I have ever spent!
So even though Balikpapan isn’t exactly a well-known tourist destination, it’s worth the adventure to explore the area and be a tourist for a day.