Saturday, November 14, 2009


1. Port Semayang was just 15 mins away from our hotel, Novotel Hotel. We were advised to arrive at 4 pm, for ship departure at 9 pm. We got there before 4 pm. After paying for car parking fee (why?) at the port gate, it was a short drive to the wharf. After checking our tickets at the ramp, we were waved in. We drove the Pajero up the ramp of KM Kirana and was directed to park the car in the 3rd level of the 3 decks for vehicles. The vehicle decks were in the lower section of the ship.

2. After picking up our bags, we made our way through the passenger sections of the ship. From the 3rd level car deck, we stepped into a big open space filled with double-decker beds stacked side by side to each other. We climbed the staircase along the wall to reach the next level. It was another big open space stacked with double-decker bunks. They were still mostly empty. Up the spiral staircase to the next level we entered a performance hall. The hall had rows of seats that looked like airline seats (but they really need some thorough cleaning) facing a small stage. Out of the hall, we scaled a steep flight of steps to the next level and found one of the uniformed staff who could help us with our room.

3. We were allocated a room between VIP 07 and VIP 09, presumably it was VIP 08. The number plate on the door had disappeared. In the room was a double-decker bed and enough space at the side to seat two of us on the floor. Cantilevered from the wall was an old TV set that could only be switched off by pulling the plug. As I was lighter, I volunteered for the upper bunk, to keep the CG low.

4. There was a canteen at the stern of the ship. It could seat a couple of hundreds of people. As it had a TV playing all the time, there were always people in the canteen. It filled up during meal times. Here we had these 4 canteen staffs who were very keen to pose for our pictures.

5. KM Kirana set sail at about 7 pm, 2 hrs ahead of departure time. With the prospects of having to spend more than 40 hrs on board the ship, we started to think of ways to make ourselves more comfortable. We went to the car to pick up Yeow Pheng's director chairs. Soon, we were comfortably seated in our cubicle, reading our books, with an improvised table in the middle. We lamented that we should have brought a couple of bottles of wine along.

6. Before we went to bed, we took a stroll around the ship. The ship was fairly full. They were nearly all local Indonesians. Many slept in their double-decker bunks; males and females not separated. Quite a number slept along the corridors on mattresses which we suspected must have been rented from the ship. There were always people outside the cabins and in the canteens puffing their cigarettes. We observed that practically all male Indonesians smoke; but few females. Without exception, we did not see anyone smoking inside the cabins. Still, the canteen and the space outside the cabins were always full of smokers. We avoided these areas.

7. I slept well the first night on board the ship, only to be woken up by the rolls of the ship. I guessed it must be approaching Batu Lichin, where KM Kirana was to make a 3 hrs transit stop. It was about 7.30 am. More people came on board but few disembarked. By now, the ship was really quite full. There were also more families, more children, who came on board from Batu Lichin. We guessed they could well be about 1000 passengers on board, now all heading for Surabaya.

8. We spent most part of the day reading: Yeow Pheng reading his Bible while I tried to finish Naipaul's Among the Believers. Our favorite spots were the sun-deck, the highest point of the ship for passengers and our room. Here, we could avoid the smokers and the cigarette smog. On the sun-deck, it was easy to fall asleep with the cool wind blowing.

9. Two female singers sang for the passengers, in the afternoon and at night, in the performance hall. Music was loud and we could hear it clearly in our room. Still, there were passengers lying down and sleeping on the floor of the hall while singers sang, completely oblivious to what was going on.

10. Life on the board KM Kirana was very basic, especially for the Indonesians. Except for a handful in the VIP rooms (like ours), they all slept in bunk beds side by side each other, male and female regardless. Many slept along corridors, or any open space; some with mattresses, some not. They queued up for the meals and they were given food in styrofoam boxes (we too), which was always rice, few pieces of vegetables and either a piece of chicken or fish. When awake, they spent most of their time chit-chatting with their friends or their family members.

11. Must admit that I felt somewhat uneasy on the board the ships. We were stared at wherever we went, as we were the only 2 foreigners and we must be like men from outer space to some, wondering where we came from. They were friendly and they returned a smile when I smiled at them or a greeting when I said hello.

12. Sunset was beautiful on board the ship. I woke up the next morning at 5 am to specially see sunrise. I was not disappointed. It was a very colourful sky, but the sun hid behind the clouds.

13. At about 11 am, we started to see more ships passing us. We reckoned we must be nearing Surabaya. At about 12 pm, we passed many ships in the anchorage and approached the assigned berth for the ship. It was a conventional cargo berth. In the distance was a statue at the waterfront. We could not figure what it was from where we were but it looked like a soldier. On the right was the port of Surabaya and the left the island of Madura and a long bridge linked Madura to the mainland of Java.

14. By 12.30 passengers gathered to get out of the ship via the vehicle ramp. We waited for the passengers to clear before driving our car out. It was straightforward - down the ramp onto the wharf, through the port area and in minutes we were out on public roads.

16. We had lunch at Carrefour and then stopped by Sheraton. At 1.7 m Rps, Sheraton was beyond our budget. We decided to try Mercure. It was a very presentable hotel and at 800 000 Rps we could afford it. After checking in, Yeow Pheng and I had a dip in the hotel pool and a massage before dinner.

17. We met Yeow Peng's friends, husband Moesa and wife Bing Bing, for dinner at Bon Ami. Located in what looked like a colonial building, it had excellent ambience and served wonderful Indonesian food. The place was packed.

18. After dinner, Moesa, Yeow Pheng and I adjourned to the coffee house of Mercure to discuss our next day's trip to Mt Bromo. Seated in front of me, one table away, were 3 Indonesians with a lady in discussion. One of them, with the rear facing me, looked familiar when I had a chance to see his profile. I walked casually passed the table and had a closer look at him. He had aged a little but still easily recognisable. I went forward to say hello to him and he confirmed he was indeed Pak Bimo, brigade commander of the Kostrad Brigade that I had a joint exercise with under Ex Safkar Indopura, when I was commanding the 3rd Singapore Infantry Brigade, back in 1989. It was 20 years ago. We exchanged greetings and I left him my contact details. What a coincidence!

19. It was also a strange coincidence that Moesa and Bing Bing stayed next door to Mercure. We didn't know that when we booked the room.

20. With additional information provided by Moesa and Bing Bing, we are off to stay the night at Mt Bromo and see sunrise the next morning, and thereafter off to Bali.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


1. Today, Nov 12, Day 29, is our last day in Kalimantan. This evening, we will board KM Kirana. It will be 44 hrs of cruising, from Balikpapan to Surabaya. We have booked ourselves a twin-sharing room. It should be comfortable enough and we can catch up with our reading.

2. A little regret was our decision to drop Sulawesi from our itinerary. Based on the information we gathered from the 3 shipping companies, there are no routes that will take us to Makassar/Pare Pare and then to Nusa Tenggara islands. We could have continued to check, or to take the risk and go ahead and travel to Makassar. But, given our time line, that we want to be back by Christmas and that we had already taken a few more days than planned for Borneo, we felt that it was the best course of action to take given the circumstances.

3. All in all, we traveled more than 6000 km in Borneo. We had nearly circumnavigated Borneo, about 3/4 of the way. From the map, the road North of Samarinda is still not through to SE Sabah where we got to Semporna. Who knows, maybe there are already tracks that link the 2 areas. One day, conceivably, a round Borneo car rally could be organised. It may not be long before this happens. It could be fun and put Borneo in greater focus.

4. Overall, the roads we traveled, from Sabah to Brunei and Sarawak, crossing over at Entikong, and then to Pontianak, Sumpit, Banjarmasin, Balikapapan and Samarinda, were generally quite trafficable for normal cars, less the 200 km from Tayan to Simpang Runtu which was really WIP (work in progress) with the many bridges and culverts still under construction, and the occasional potholes and rough patches along the way.

5. By 2010, we were told the trans-Kalimantan road will be ready, coast to coast, from Pontianak to Balikpapan. We could see the commitment and the urgency with which the provincial governments were undertaking this task. This road, when completed, will open up many areas for development and this could be done sensitively without further damaging its environment. It could open up a new era for Kalimantan and for all Borneo cooperation.

6. Of the cities we visited, Balikpapan and Samarinda appeared to be the most advanced and prosperous, possibly because of the income the province receives from oil and coal exported. On the whole, Kalimantan is really virgin land. Tremendous opportunities lie ahead if the area is well led and organised. Close cooperation between the provinces would also be crucial. There could also be closer cooperation with the Northern neighbors.

7. It will be nice to come back here in 5-10 years to see an energised Borneo.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


1. Morning of 9 Nov, Day 26, was spent visiting Prima Vista, Pelni, and KM Dharma Ferry's, to establish shipping schedules between Balikpapan and Makassar, and Makassar to the islands in the South. Prima Vista and KM Dharma have ships plying between Balikpapan and Makassar/Pare Pare with roll on-roll off facilities. Pelni said their ships only carry people. They all said that, from Makassar, they have ships to Surabaya but transit at Balikpapan; but not to the Nusa Tenggara islands in the South directly.

2. After assessing the options and our time line, Yeow Pheng and I decided to skip Sulawesi and sail from Balikpapan to Surabaya instead, and proceed to visit Bali, Lombok etc from there. Weighing between Prima Vista and KM Dharma, we decided to book ourselves with KM Dharma to Surabaya at a total cost of 3 mil Rps (S$430) for car and a twin-sharing room. Prima Vista only has one class of passenger travel.

3. Departure: Balikpapan, 12 Nov, 9.00 pm; Arrival: Surabaya, 14 Nov, 5 pm.

4. We decided to check out of Sigata Hotel, travel North to spend the next 1-2 days to visit Samarinda, before returning to Balikpapan to catch the ship. It was an easy 2.5 hours drive North to Samarinda. With Rizal's recommendation, we checked into Mesra Business and Resorts Hotel for 500 000 Rps (about S$70). Its a sprawling complex, with chalets and couple of hotel blocks, meeting and function rooms, 2 swimming pools, and 3 restaurants. Sitting on a little hill at a junction in the town, it has a good view of the city.

5. Samarinda is the capital of East Kalimantan. Its population stood at 560 000 (2000) and was reported as the largest city in East Kalimantan. It straddles the banks of Mahakam river, the major transportation lifeline to the inner areas. Tenggarong, the ancient capital of the Kutai Sultanate is half an hour away, up Mahakam river. The riverine city looked magnificent as we descent the hill from the South towards Mahakam river, with the giant mosque in the distance on the right.

6. In the evening, before dinner, we took a stroll in the town near the river. At the river bank were many loading/unloading points. Adjoining areas were used for storage and garbage in what appeared to be rather uncontrolled. Drains carried still water and garbage. A "keep the city clean" campaign will do the city a great deal of good. Before we picked up our car, we browsed the shops in a shopping mall, Mesra Mall. This showcase was beautifully done up.

7. We returned to the hotel for dinner. Two restaurants were serving buffet; one was too crowded with a group function, the other had the food containers empty. We ended up in the third restaurant, ordering mee goreng, nasi goreng and a vegetable dish. We were taken aback by the bill. Didn't expect it would cost us 300 000 Rps (about S$40) for these dishes.

8. Next morning, we decided to visit the visitor centre, before dropping by the big mosque, Gedung Islamic Centre Samarinda. After circling around a couple of times, we found the visitor centre not far from the river. Erny at the visitor centre spoke good English and pointed us to Tenggarong, to visit the Museum and the Kutai Sultanate Palace.

9. The Gedung Islamic Centre Samarinda is huge, with a beautiful dome. It was opened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in June 2008. We had not seen anything like it during our trip. We reckoned it could possibly be the biggest in Indonesia. With its size, it could potentially take a big percentage of the Muslim population in Samarinda. In its "lobby" is this model of the complex and a big drum.

10. After the short visit, we left Samarinda for Tenggarong, to see the Museum and the palace of the Kutai Sultanate. At about 20 km away, it took us about 30 mins to get there. The road to Tenggarong was surprisingly good, 2 lanes either way, concrete. Paid 2000 Rps toll; first time we paid toll in Indonesia so far. We had lunch at Tenggarong before visiting the Museum and the Palace.

11. Like what Lonely Planet indicated, Erny of the visitor centre told us that the museum, the Mulawarman Museum, is only open on Sunday. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was opened when we got there. There was a group of students in uniform which had just finished their visit to the Museum. I would not be surprised the Museum was opened for them. At any rate, we paid for the ticket and went in for a visit.

12. The palace was rebuilt by the Dutch after the original was destroyed by fire. It was the seat of 19 sultans who reigned from here. After the last sultan stepped down in 1960, the palace was handed over to the state for use as a museum. In there were artifacts belonging to the sultans - throne, jewelry, head gears, musical instruments, weapons, and etc. There was section on traditional cloth weaving by the Kutai people, key industries (gold and coal mining and timber), photographs of the sultans, and porcelains from Ming and Qing Dynasty. It had explanatory notes in English. Unfortunately, it was very thin on the history of the Kutai Sultanate.

13. Behind the museum is the new unoccupied Sultan Palace (Kedaton Kertanegara), and a charming mosque next to it. However, the palace was under renovation and I did not try to get in.

14. On the way out, we circled the new palace and the neighbouring area to have a second look but was stopped by the Police; seeing us circling the area might have created some suspicion (or curiosity). After taking my driving licence (I was driving then) we were asked to follow the Police car to nearby Police post where their bosses were. Soon, we were surrounded by some 7-8 Police officers. I was asked to produce car documents and visa. They looked through the documents, discussed among themselves, asked a few more questions; while Yeow Pheng (with their permission) was clicking away taking pictures of this event. They were satisfied with the documents I produced and we were let off after about 30 mins. This was the second time we were stopped by the Police; first time was in Sarawak.

15. Soon, we were on the way back to Balikpapan. We would have 2 days before boarding the ship to Surabaya. We wanted to leave ourselves enough time to catch up with our blogs, do our laundry and take care of whatever loose ends. We decided to check into Novotel at close to 1 mil Rps a night, to ensure that we have good internet services before the 2 days black out on board the ship.

Monday, November 9, 2009


1. 7 Nov, Day 24, we departed Banjarmasin for Balikpapan, some 500 km to the NE, taking the coastal route along the SE coast of Kalimantan and making a night stop at Batu Lichin. At Batu Lichin, Ah Meng had arranged his friend, Mr Huang, to meet up with us, as Mr Huang might be able to tell us more about how we can ship our car from Balikpapan and Makassar.

2. After checking out of Rattan Inn Hotel at about 9 am, we stopped at PT Trijaya Perkasa Abadi to have the tyres briefly checked, stopped to take a picture of Mesjid Raya Sabilal Muhtadin and walked the streets and alleys of Pasar Baru.

3. Located next to the river, Pasir Baru comprises streets of small shops and a maze of narrow parallel alleys stretching from the wooden boardwalk along the river to the main road. Along the river-line boardwalk, we passed a group of senior citizens playing chess. A bustling area, rather chaotic, but clearly serving its purpose of serving the community, especially the lower income group. Shops/stores sell practically everything - clothes, CDs, bags, food and food stuff, etc. It was enlightening to know that worldly fashion still counted among the Muslims here, judging by the range of fashionable tudongs and Haji caps in the stores.

4. On the landing of a staircase to indoor shops, a group of 8 was playing a game that looked like Dominoes. They were using cloth pegs to keep track of their winnings.

5. Along the roads were seas of motorcycles. Entrepreneurial young men earned their pocket money by providing card boards to cover the seats of motorcycles from the hot sun for 1000 Rps.

6. There were many mosques along the way to Batu Lichin and to Balikpapan; mostly small mosques serving the local community. A key feature was the decorative colours of the domes above the mosques. Here is one example, and there were many other colourful domes. People in this part of Kalimantan are mostly Muslims. One may find a temple or two in the town, like in Banjarmasin. Churches could be found in towns or in the hills, as Dayaks are mostly Christians.

7. We made a stop for durians on the way to Batu Lichin. Here you see Yeow Pheng showing the locals how to cut a mango. The bare-chested man considered himself a local even though his origin was Chinese.

8. Coal mining is big business in this part of Kalimantan. We followed a sign board to see a coal stockpile. We could see the coal still smoldering.

9. As we approached Batu Lichin, houses on both sides of the road became more dense. They were beautiful wooden houses, some brightly coloured; charming in their own way.

10. Before the town of Batu Lichin, we found a very presentable hotel, Ebony Hotel, to stay for the night, checking in a 6 pm; a good 6 hours of driving from Banjarmasin. At 7 pm, Mr Huang (Ah Meng's friend) met us at the hotel with her daughter, Eka, to bring us for dinner. As we drove into Batu Lichin town, Mr Huang pointed to us many buildings that he developed and sold. He has homes in Batu Lichin, Banjarmasin and Sumpit, with members of his family staying there. As a business strategy, he would target emerging new towns for property development, as competition is less keen there. He would sell the properties with payment periods of between 2-3 years. He seemed to know what he was doing and appeared successful. Unfortunately, he could not tell us much about shipping of our car from Balikpapan to Makassar.

11. After breakfast at Ebony, we left early at 7 pm to continue our journey to Balikpapan. We were expecting a good 10-11 hours of driving.

12. We took a short break to look at this buzzy colourful morning market next to the road. Not unexpectedly, we drew quite a great deal of attention.

13. Further North, we passed through a hilly region, before Tanah Grogot, where hills looked like those in Quilin in China. At a glance, they looked pretty, but on closer look, they looked to me hills that had been cut. Not just one or two, but many. My guess is that the area must be a huge mine many years ago. Over time, vegetation covers the hills but the scars are still obvious. The area reminded me of the Malaysian town of Ipoh, which was renowned for its tin mines years ago.

14. At Penajam, we had to take a ferry to cross over to Balikpapan, 4.3 km away, about an hour ride. It was rather straightforward. Yeow Pheng bought the ticket for 170 000 Rps and we just managed to catch the ferry as it loaded in the last vehicles. We left the vehicle in the lower deck. At the upper deck, we had a bowl of noodle soup, watched a couple of salesmen trying to market their wares, and enjoyed the scenery. From far, the houses on the hill slopes of Balikpapan looked charming. It could well have been Bergen of Norway in years to come.

15. Balikpapan is a seaport located on Eastern coast of Kalimantan, an area rich in oil, coal and timber. It has a population of 760 000 (2007). It is part of East Kalimantan province which has its capital in Samarinda. We were told Samarinda has a bigger population than Balikpapan, but we have not figured out its population. Oil companies, such as Pertamina, Total, Chevron, Halliburton, have their HQs located here in Balikpapan. Because of this, it has a sizable expatriate community and a more vibrant F&B scene.

16. With the help of Rizal, a working colleague of Yeow Pheng's nephew, we booked into Comfort Sigata Hotel, at about 400 000 Rps a night. Its a tastefully designed hotel and has a modern look and feel. I particularly liked the atrium.

17. That night, Rizal brought us to Oceans for seafood dinner. Oceans is located in riverfront development, with alfresco dining right to the edge of the water. We decided to try the coconut crab, the largest land-living arthropod in the world; but once is enough. It was huge, at 2.7 kg. We gave instruction to cook in 2 styles, but it came in 2 plates cooked the same way (chili), giving some excuses that it could not be done. Took a while to figure out how to "attack" it. Its meat was tough, as compared to the Sri Lanka crabs that we mostly eat in Singapore.

18. We decided to spend the next morning checking out the shipping arrangements for the car and before deciding our next steps.