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. The city is an 18-hour commute from Sydney Australia. The only Caucasians 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 visit or work with conservancies helping preserve the endangered Bornean orangutans and sun bears, such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and The Great Projects (UK).
In transit at 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 roof top 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.
Food and drink 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 a 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, 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
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.
There are other tourist sites to visit, perhaps the local lighthouse or crocodile farm.
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.
The Black River cruise is magical and offers opportunities to see the proboscis monkeys.
Another place to put on your list is Bukit Bankirai Hill to climb the 40m high Canopy Bridge.
Animal lovers can happily spend a day at the Sungai Wain & 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?
There is surprisingly a lot to do in or within an hour’s drive of the city. 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.
Irene Isaacson travelled at her own expense.
Irene Isaacson travelled at her own expense.