Pretty courtesy hostess in the Executive Lounge of the Swiss-Belhotel, Samarinda.
The island of Borneo has long held a fascination for me: the stories of intricately carved longhouses; of wild men in bark lap-laps; and of ancient Hindu kingdoms.
What were those South Indian pilgrim priests doing up the Mahakam River in the 5th century I want to know?
Is it still all jungle and orang utan or am I 30 years too late?
I decide to make a one hour side trip from Surabaya and find some answers.
20th February 2010: Cold Turkey into Kalimantan
The Dayak day-wear on Lion Air to Balikpapan is scary. Am I flying into a cast re-union for the Rocky Horror Show? (The current pan-Indonesian, Islam-friendly fashion for black leggings and bondage boots must surely soon pass).
Balikpapan from the air looks like modern Malaysia: the airport is, however, an instant reminder that one is still in the land of ethnic excess and bizarre space planning.
I am met by a driver from Satria Tours of Samarinda who whisks me off to the ‘R.M. Melati’ café on the ring-road. Here I have the best grilled fish (patin, a local river fish) and sambal terasi on the equator. The next two hours drive includes views of sublime jungle scenery and my spirits are soaring by the time I reach Samarinda, where I see the famous harbour for the first time. On the harbour’s edge a Saudi-sponsored Islamic Centre looms large like Hagia Sophia over the Bosporus.
I note that the Balinese trend for closing off all views to lakes, coastlines and mountains has been most successfully implemented — with hideous attempts at modern landscaped park designs, kitsch fountains and statuary, and giant posters of sitting parliamentarians.
We wind through urban sprawl and up a steep ramp into the Swiss Bell-hotel where, in the Executive Lounge, a very cute miss from the upper Ulu is waiting to read me the rules book (the service in the smarter hotels of Indonesia’s ‘tiger cub’ cities is often Soviet Era and straight out of the training manual).
I learn that Pampang — the much touted Dayak Village Theme Park — is too far away for my one day programme: I start to get intrigued by the idea of a Samarinda city tour; from my harbourside eyrie I can see a quant mosque in the middle of a harbourside kampung.
Left: Picturesque stairscape in Kampung Selili Village, Samarinda.
Right: The oldest mosque in Samarinda, in Kampung Mesjid.
21st February 2010: Heaven is a damp Kampung Apung
It’s a grey morning, so I decide to walk the length of lovely Kampung Selili — the kampung with the picturesque mosque. It is my first time in a ‘floating village’ and I am amazed by how civilized it is: there are warnet ‘cyber-centres’ brimming with 6 year olds, and gorgeous gardens galore on the narrow verges. Steep stairways framed by well-tended, grassy terrace lead to upper level cottages.
Everything is on stilts and built of wood and painted gaily. The locals are incredibly hospitable — blessed with the glowing golden skin of fish-eaters who make out often.
From Samarinda we speed to Tenggarong hoping to find a sleepy town straight out of a Conrad novel, with an old Majapahit palace — weeping amidst ancient Banyan trees — but instead find more beautification project parks and grotesque Dayak-style government offices replete with Malaysian-Modern gates and landscape lighting ……oh the horror, the horror.
The palace, once found, is a charming old tropical Art Deco treat, with attendant municipal monuments — it is now the Museum Mulawarman — named after the first Maharaja of the region. Inside is a collection of Javanese palace paraphernalia — the present sunan now lives next door in a bungalow of unspeakable modernity — the highlight of which being a black velvet cape with white Ermine trim on a dummy in a glass box....sort of Sonja Henie meets Raden Ayu Kartini.
The back rooms of the old palace feature replicas of the famed stella on which Pallava Era South Indian Hindu priests had inscribed praise to the sitting chieftain of the Mahakam River basin — obviously a thriving trade entrepot since the beginning of the first millennium (pepper? rare spices? Hornbill bird beaks?? Dayak slaves?) — and some well executed diorama showing key moments in the regions history. By far the most interesting is the one depicting the arrival of the god Bhatara Aji (a Sivaïte deity popular in Bugis mythology), descending from the heavens by wire, in a crib, and wrapped in golden cloth. A nearby exhibition of the local textile — a black and red Bugis-style sarong — enforce the impression that the court culture came from Java via Makassar or thereabouts. The only thing Dayak in the museum are groups of dark rugged muscle men in tight jeans necking petite pearly-white girlfriends in the darker recesses of the diorama section.
Adjacent to the old palace is a large timber pavilion which houses the graves and royal tombs — with their splendid carved ironwood markers — and a small cupboard for the ashtrays that are a ‘staple’ of Javanese Muslim ziarah (tomb pilgrimage) sites. One group of pilgrims have come from Central Sulawesi, which is a two-day sail across the Sea of Borneo: the tomb attendant tells me that people from all over Indonesia come to meditate at the tombs.
Picking through the garden behind the pavilion I hear the melody of local Kutai guitar music and I follow it to the souvenir mini-market bridge where a blind man is playing under a tree. The vendors are all very friendly and I buy a beaded Dayak mini-skirt with ‘Bir Bintang’ motif for a coming dance performance at ‘Little Perth’ in South Kuta, Bali.
Next we drive through the old suburbs — on the way we discover many interesting royal graveyard gardens and an ancient wooden mosque — to the nearby Rumah Kayu museum of longhouses slowly being consumed by the jungle. Inside is an interesting collection of timber souvenir kitsch and arboreal information. The vast park in which the museum sits boasts a man-made lake upon which Dayaks peddle in fibreglass swan boats.
Left: A tomb-marker fashioned from iron-wood in a royal cemetery near Museum Mulawarman, Tenggarong.
Right: The royal tombs and graves in a pavilion in the palace (kraton) gardens in Tenggarong, East Kalimantan.
The front garden and façade of the Museum Mulawarman.
Left: A museum visitor from the upper Ulu fondles a cannon barrel on the front porch of the museum.
Right: Historically-referenced pond ornament in the museum grounds (pond drained for health reasons).
Sidakarya, Bali, 28th February 2010: Borneo seems a world away
Back in busy-body, business-oriented New Bali I feel shields building up, against crass commercialism and western intervention; shields that had been stripped away over a weekend in Borneo, the land of the orang utan. The traffic jams are near unbearable (there’s talk of elevated highways by 2012); the expat community are up in arms about a high-rise cliffside development on the peninsula; and something called Leonardi Portatraiture has given me 6 hours notice to be photographed for a book on Tokoh2 Bali at the Tanjung Sari down the road, or else.
My head is spinning and my teeth are clenched.
But….tonight in Sidakarya village…, after a game of Scrabble…., walking through the compound of my Balinese friend’s traditional house and out onto the street I have a cathartic moment — the village youth group are putting the finishing touches to a giant demon effigy (to be paraded in the village the night before Nyepi) with the verve and precision of a battalion of bespoke tailors. I feel so proud of the Balinese, who keep up with their exquisite traditions despite the swirl of commercial tackiness around them.