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Banjarmasin: Life on the River in Borneo

It came without warning. Barely a minute earlier, Bama and I had been puttering down a narrow waterway lined with ramshackle wooden houses, softly lit by the full moon as it peeked through a wispy layer of cloud. But here was a vast expanse of water that seemingly merged into the darkness of the pre-dawn sky. At once I felt infinitesimally small; the absence of lights on the opposite bank exaggerated its distance, and our boat was now dwarfed by an oil tanker and hulking flat-bottomed barges laden with heaps of coal. I knew then that we’d arrived on the mighty Barito River.

Much has been written about the Thames, the Seine, and the Tiber as they wend their way through some of Europe’s oldest and most celebrated capitals, but all three pale in comparison to the Barito. The third-longest river in Borneo is undammed and untamed; from its source in the Müller Mountains it carves a natural highway through the island’s otherwise impenetrable jungle. Not far from the sea, the Barito swells to a width of 1.2 kilometers (or 4,000 feet) as it reaches Banjarmasin, the largest city and capital of Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province.

Bama had floated the idea of a long weekend in Borneo, an island I’d never visited before, to show me the city he was named after (“Bama” is a contraction of the word Banjarmasin). He’d spent one and a half years living here as a toddler, and another year and a half elsewhere in South Kalimantan. Understandably, he was excited to see just how much it had changed in the three decades since his family upped sticks and moved back to Java.

The 40-minute drive from the airport to our downtown hotel took us past banana trees and fallow fields, utilitarian shophouses, convenience stores, and the occasional brightly painted school or mosque. The outskirts of Banjarmasin looked like those of any other medium-sized Indonesian city, but with one major difference. At almost the same level as the roadway, there were small channels and pools filled with liquid as dark as night. “Do you see that black water?” Bama gestured out the window. “That’s because of the peat swamps.”

The Sultan Suriansyah Mosque, Banjarmasin’s oldest building

At the mosque’s main entrance; a breezy veranda outside the prayer hall

Inside, original 16th-century features include the mimbar (pulpit) and four central columns

One last look at the vividly painted interior

The Martapura River as it flows through downtown Banjarmasin

Banjarmasin’s giant proboscis monkey statue holds a sprig of langsat fruit in one hand

Itik panggang, or roast duck, with a delicious sweet-savory sauce

Dinnertime at Warung Pondok Bahari, where patrons sit on woven rattan mats

Ketupat kandangan haruan, my favorite Banjar dish

A corridor at Warung Pondok Bahari; pre-dawn darkness on the River Kuin

Not for nothing is Banjarmasin nicknamed the “City of a Thousand Rivers”. Bounded to the west by a great sweep of the Barito, the low-lying settlement of more than 700,000 inhabitants is laced with a labyrinthine network of waterways centered on the Martapura River. It’s common to see local women in longboats selling fresh produce harvested from nearby farms, and if they must paddle in the blaze of the equatorial sun, a large bowl-shaped rattan basket doubles as a wide-brimmed hat.

Even in the heart of the city, daily life revolves around these rivers. Our hotel looks directly onto the muddy Martapura, and lies just across the bridge from Pasar Sudimampir – the traditional market where Bama’s mother once bought her everyday groceries. A little upriver, schoolgirls shoot hoops on a basketball court beside a colorful, 6.5-meter-high (or 21-foot) proboscis monkey statue that’s meant to spew water from its mouth, just like the Merlion in Singapore.

The afternoon sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon as our driver Iwan navigated the roads along the muddy Kuin, one of the smaller waterways running between the Martapura and the Barito, to the Sultan Suriansyah Mosque – the oldest building in town. First built in the 16th century under the auspices of Banjarmasin’s first Muslim ruler, it has been renovated and expanded multiple times. But the newer sections have always maintained a traditional appearance. The structure is a lovely combination of wooden walls, arched portals, and breezy verandas, crowned with tiered pyramidal roofs whose ornate pinnacles and gable ends sport motifs from the Dayak tribes living further inland.

As at the Great Mosque of Medan, a friendly caretaker welcomed us inside. “Anyone can enter the mosque,” he said with a gentle smile. We left our shoes at the entrance and shuffled into the soaring prayer hall, where the caretaker pointed out a few original parts, including the wooden mimbar, or pulpit, and the four central pillars.

Bama and I returned to Sultan Suriansyah Mosque early the next morning, before dawn, in the hopes of chartering a boat from the riverside quay to reach the floating market at Lok Baintan – a small village an hour’s drive from downtown Banjarmasin. Iwan recruited a passing boatman who took us onto the Barito to stock up on jerry cans of fuel at a floating house that doubled as a general store.

Chugging up a placid channel en route to the Martapura River, we heard the call to prayer ringing out from mosques along the riverbank as the city began to stir. Overhead, the skies transitioned from pitch-black to midnight blue to a dull grey, its mood mirroring the disappointment we felt, for Bama and I both knew the journey was turning out to be much longer than anticipated. Our boat’s painfully slow progress meant that we were going to miss peak trading time at 6 am. In fact, we never did make it to Lok Baintan proper: some three hours after setting out, our skipper cut the engine on a stretch of the river where enterprising vendors paddled downstream to meet the tourist boats coming up from Banjarmasin.

But it was still an eye-opening experience nonetheless. Most longboats came piled with small heaps of fresh fruit and vegetables, while others offered hot meals wrapped in food grade paper or banana leaf, plus an assortment of sweet and savory, deep-fried snacks. There was even a vendor who grilled sate (satay) as she plied the river. In between taking pictures, I picked up a couple of homemade sugar-dusted donuts while Bama procured some unfamiliar fruits. We saw local women hawking limes the size of a softball with rough, pitted peels, bunches of pale yellow langsat (lanzones), and buah mentega – “butter fruit” resembling a large persimmon but with velvety skin covered in tiny hairs. Native to the Philippines, its Indonesian name perfectly describes the subtle taste and soft, custard-like flesh.

A moment of solitude

The floating market downstream of Lok Baintan

River traffic

“What’s for breakfast?”

Selling a cornucopia of tropical fruit with a smile

Fellow tourists taking in the spectacle

Getting down to business

This visitor opted to help a vendor with her sales in exchange for a ride

Market vendors bartering and selling goods between themselves

Gas canisters and bananas – both a lovely green hue

As an inveterate foodie, I couldn’t spend a long weekend in Banjarmasin without seeking out the local fare. My first brush with Banjar cuisine happened three years ago when Bama’s mother, Auntie Dhani, cooked us soto Banjar at her home in Semarang. The South Kalimantan variant of a popular pan-Indonesian soup, soto Banjar is what people in colder climes might call a “summer dish”: it comprises shredded chicken, fried potato patties, boiled egg, and cellophane noodles (soun) in a light but flavorful broth spiced with clove and nutmeg.

Auntie Dhani had given Bama the names of several specialties ahead of our trip, but it was the locally-based blogger Sherly who steered us toward the right places to try them. On our first evening, she recommended a street-side eatery called Depot Madezo for itik panggang, or roasted duck, chopped up into bite-size pieces for dipping in a sweet-savory chili sambal, and eaten with long-grain rice alongside a small bowl of clear broth with rice noodles.

Round two of dinner saw us heading to Warung Pondok Bahari, an informal 24-hour restaurant with a no-shoes policy, where we sat on the woven rattan lampit mats – a feature Bama still remembers from his early childhood in South Kalimantan. We had come to taste ketupat kandangan haruan: rice steamed in a packet of woven palm leaf, served with fried snakehead murrel (a native fish) in a lip-smacking sauce using coconut milk and turmeric balanced with a medley of other spices. I couldn’t understand how Banjar food had remained virtually unknown beyond the provincial boundaries of South Kalimantan – it was quickly becoming one of my favorite Indonesian regional cuisines.

On our return from the floating market, Iwan drove us to a no-frills eatery known for its hearty breakfasts. The South Kalimantan take on turmeric rice (nasi kuning) differs from the kind we are more accustomed to eating at Jakarta’s canteens and restaurants. People in this part of Borneo have a penchant for drier long-grain rice, as opposed to the fluffy, short-grain varieties preferred in Java (“We like ours pulen – which means soft and moist,” Bama explained). The dish included a chicken drumstick smothered in masak habang, a mild, sweet-savory sauce combining dried red chilies, palm sugar, cinnamon and other ingredients. Served with deep-fried strands of shredded coconut, our breakfast came wrapped in a hefty parcel of banana leaf.

A rickety steel-and-wood suspension bridge over the Martapura

The approach to downtown Banjarmasin

Sailing into the River Kuin means ducking beneath a relatively low bridge

Schoolkids outside Sultan Suriansyah Mosque

South Kalimantan-style turmeric rice, with roasted coconut and chicken in masak habang sauce

A perfectly grilled slab of ikan patin (silver catfish) at Depot Sari Patin

Lunch with Sherly meant a spread of river fish, vegetable soup, white rice, and mango sambal

We had met Sherly once before in Jakarta – she is a fellow history buff and longtime reader of Bama’s blog – and this time she’d arranged for a lunchtime catch-up at restaurant Depot Sari Patin. There’s no question that Borneo is a beautiful and incredibly resource-rich island, but human greed is taking its toll. Coal mining, rampant deforestation for the logging and palm oil industries, plus the extraction of diamonds, rubies, and other rare gems have caused significant erosion and turned the Martapura and Barito a dusty-brown hue. “My mother recalls that the rivers here used to be green,” Sherly explained at the table. Spread before us was a feast of fried glass catfish, plated up whole; a sweet, coconut milk-based vegetable soup with pumpkin; a large basket of white rice; and fermented chili-and-mango sambal. But the star of the meal was the ikan patin or silver catfish, which had been basted in a delicious sweet sauce before being grilled over charcoal. The result was a melt-in-the-mouth delight, fatty, juicy, and wonderfully charred on the top. Bama pronounced it the best grilled fish he’d ever had.

The final morning of our trip began with a visit to Sabilal Muhtadin Mosque, the sole place in Banjarmasin that Bama recalls from his time as a toddler in the city. Built in 1981 on the site of a Dutch fort that once guarded the Martapura River, the concrete structure is thankfully clad in polished stone, sporting a beguiling mix of space-age saucer domes and exuberant Dayak motifs shaped in metal. Bama’s parents had taken a portrait of him in front of the mosque three decades before, and he naturally asked me to do just that on the very same spot.

Just before heading to the airport for our flight back to Jakarta, we couldn’t help getting an early lunch at Soto Banjar Bang Amat, an obligatory stop for most visitors returning from the floating market. A live band decked out in costumes dyed a rich purple and blue performed folk songs as we dined inside a stilted wooden dining room perched above the Martapura River. Slurping up a delicately spiced soto Banjar that wasn’t dissimilar from Auntie Dhani’s version – and sinking my teeth into a side of chicken sate (satay) covered in sweet, luscious masak habang – I could see myself coming back to Banjarmasin not just for the chance to see the real floating market at Lok Baintan, but also to get my fill of its unsung cuisine. 

Sabilal Muhtadin Mosque, the largest one in town and a well-designed landmark

Framed views of the foliage at the prayer hall’s wide veranda

Intricate Dayak motifs on the doors and minarets

Bama asked for a photo of him standing in front of this fountain

Banjar-style roof carvings on the Museum Wasaka

The museum occupies one of the few remaining traditional Banjar houses in town

Grilling sate (satay) on the Martapura River at Soto Banjar Bang Amat

Soto Banjar, the local riff on a chicken soup beloved all across Indonesia

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Congrats for your trip to Banjarmasin (and Borneo), James! The only city I’ve visited in Kalimantan is Pontianak. Just like Banjarmasin, Pontianak has a great river named Kapuas River. But there’s no floating market there, though I managed to take boat rides exploring the river life. Banjarmasin is still in my bucket list.

    “The rivers used to be green?” Wow, that would be awesome if the color remains for now. But it’s okay, at least rivers there are much better than what we have here in Java. Hope they keep their rivers safe from the oil and mining.

    September 23, 2018
    • Makasih Nugie! Funny how it took me this long to finally make it to Kalimantan… especially after going all the way to Maluku, Sulawesi, and Aceh back in 2015. Banjarmasin would likely never have happened if it weren’t for Bama’s personal connection with the place. 🙂

      September 24, 2018
  2. I wish that plate of duck could jump out of the photo on to my table! The restaurant with the mats where you sit and eat looks so wonderful too. The atmosphere of the town that you have captured looks so wonderfully laid back and inviting. The old mosque looks nice and peaceful too.

    September 23, 2018
    • The food in Banjarmasin is fabulous – that duck was a real treat, but the tastiest dishes were the ones with grilled and fried fish. Banjarmasin isn’t the prettiest city in Indonesia, but it does have a lot of charm both on and off the waterways.

      September 24, 2018
  3. Thanks for sharing the stunning photos of Banjarmasin’s oldest mosque. Nothing, in my view, compares with its beautiful style. Unfortunately, human greed is a factor all over the world. While I haven’t visited the Indonesian side of the island, I was in Kuching. It was depressing to see the Sarawak River, brown with floating branches passing by from the forest being chopped down further up stream.

    September 23, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Mallee. There’s something wonderful about those tiered roofs – they speak of an architectural tradition that has been around in this part of the world for centuries. It would be nice to see more mosques being built in that style instead of defaulting to the usual Middle Eastern-inspired domes and minarets. It seems that deforestation is an equally pervasive problem in Malaysian Borneo… I think I read somewhere that Sarawak has lost a third of its forest cover in the past three decades alone.

      September 24, 2018
  4. Wonderful post James. I would love to go to this place – for the floating market, for the people, for the food. Beautiful photos that really gave me a feel for the place. And the Sultan Suriansyah Mosque is gorgeous. All I ever knew about Borneo was that my dad was stationed there in the war (WWII). I’m not sure it was even part of Indonesia then. Or if Indonesia was even Indonesia then. I think it was Dutch East Indies or something like that. Anyway I’m very happy to know a whole lot more about Borneo.

    September 24, 2018
    • Thank you so much, Alison. You’ll be glad to know the food was not spicy, which is rare for Indonesia! Almost 3/4 of Borneo was part of the Dutch East Indies until Indonesia’s war of independence between 1945 and 1949 (the rest came under British rule). That is indeed a fascinating personal connection… did you father mention the name of the town or place he was stationed in during the war?

      September 24, 2018
      • My dad never mentioned Borneo at all. I just knew by family osmosis that that was where he was stationed. Now that I’m a little older and wiser, and now that my parents are both gone, I have a million questions for them 😦

        September 24, 2018
  5. The only dish from South Kalimantan that I still occasionally eat is soto Banjar, which is in fact my favorite of all soto. However, I wasn’t expecting Banjar cuisine to be that good — the grilled ikan patin was definitely the winner. Sherly was so helpful and thanks to her we could try the most delicious local delicacies in Banjarmasin at restaurants that serve them the best. I have to say I was quite moved by this trip to the city I was named after. And strangely I can still remember a few random things from three decades ago, including lampit — we used to have them at home and I remember touching its edges and being fascinated by how intricate it was.

    September 24, 2018
    • Absolutely, Bama – having a local insider like Sherly there made our trip even more fulfilling. Had she not helped out, we wouldn’t have had any clue about where to try all that delicious Banjar food. I’m impressed you still remember all these details from those 1.5 years you spent living there as a toddler. My memory is nowhere near as good as yours!

      September 24, 2018
  6. Such a “delicious” post!

    September 25, 2018
    • Thank you for reading!

      September 25, 2018
  7. Amazing post, James! Whenevr I decide on visiting Banjarmasin, I know where and what exactly to look out for…your post :).. Lovely pictures too… Thank you 🙂

    September 25, 2018
    • Thank you, Natasha! I think you would love the food there as much as I did… hope you get to Banjarmasin in the not-too-distant future. 🙂

      September 30, 2018
      • Hope so too 🙂 … Looking forward to see more such wonderful places though your posts…

        October 5, 2018
  8. P.S.: It’s a pleasure to know where “Bama” came from… Have a wonderful day!

    September 25, 2018
  9. Okay, I really want to go to Borneo now. That floating market looks so cool – all of them near Bangkok are now touristy and have lost their charm. I also need to try that catfish.

    Is there any hope that the govt and people will take protection of the environment seriously in Indonesia?

    September 26, 2018
    • Sad to hear about the state of the floating markets near Bangkok – I was meaning to go to at least one of them the next time I went.

      There is hope, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Part of it is the lack of awareness on the part of most Indonesians. It doesn’t help that the education system here not in good shape; so many people learn the bad behavior from their elders, there’s a general lack of enforcement, and corruption is also a major problem. However there are some good signs: the president has just imposed a three-year moratorium on new licenses for palm oil plantations, and tribal communities are standing up for their rights in places like Papua and Borneo.

      September 30, 2018
  10. I’m with Jeff on wanting to go to Borneo. Dave and I are sitting open mouthed at your photos of the floating markets. Earlier this year any stops to floating markets in SE Asia were quite touristy where as yours look like this truly is the locals market.

    September 29, 2018
    • We were so lucky that Banjarmasin lies somewhat off the tourist trail – there wasn’t any need to haggle with the vendors to buy the local fruits and snacks. By the sounds of it (and from Jeff’s comment as well) I’m not sure I’d still want to visit the floating markets in Thailand.

      September 30, 2018
  11. This looks like quite the trip to Banjarmasin, riding down the mighty river Barito River. It does sound like quite a scenic river, just like the other notable rivers in the world like you mentioned. That proboscis monkey statue is quite the statue, and it looks like it has a perpetual look of surprise about it 🙂 Bit unfortunate that you missed peak hour trading and didn’t get to see Lok Baintan proper – but it sounds like your trip wasn’t rushed and you got to see what you could see in close-up with attention. Very nice of Shirley to take you around to try some local cuisine. The itik sounded perfect for a hearty meal, and you know you’ll always get rice or noodles eating in Asia. When I visited Jakarta and Borobudur, I had roast itik in both places – and the itik always came with crispy skin. Interesting to read in your comment to Alison that the food wasn’t spicy! Ace photos as usual 🙂

    September 29, 2018
    • Thanks so much, Mabel. 🙂 I’ll just have to go back to Lok Baintan, and hopefully on a sunny day for even better photos! I don’t have itik very often here in Jakarta so that was quite a treat, though it couldn’t beat the fried haruan fish in coconut milk with turmeric.

      September 30, 2018
  12. Very nice photos! You successfully captured the happy moments of people at the floating market 🙂 I am also impressed by the architecture of the Sultan Suriansyah Mosque. It looks much different than those in the Arabian World. I think it is more subtle but no less sophisticated. And it looks very new to me, although it’s more than 400 years old.

    September 29, 2018
    • Thank you, Len! I’ve always wanted to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market in the Mekong Delta; you’re so lucky to be based in Vietnam. I guess the new-looking appearance of the mosque is a result of good maintenance… and the fact that it probably gets a fresh coat of paint every now and again. 🙂

      September 30, 2018
  13. I love how Bama and you bring a place alive through it’s food. Benjarmasin food seems familiar somehow, like more flavourful versions of native Mangalore/Kerala cuisine. It’s lunchtime here and I’m craving some of that turmeric rice and silver catfish 🙂

    October 2, 2018
    • That’s a really interesting observation, Madhu. When we were in Kerala, Bama remarked that the local cuisine was astonishingly similar to the food he grew up eating in Java. I wonder what other similarities you will spot here when you eventually come to Indonesia with R. 🙂

      October 3, 2018

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