Samarinda, the Exotic Gateway to East Kalimantan

Samarinda’s city centre is certainly not be one of the Republic of Indonesia’s most distinguished, or visually arresting – and the city’s small handful of decent hotels and malls are offset by thousands of dilapidated, tin-roof shanties that sprawl haphazardly over the surrounding hills. However, there’s a good choice of eating options, souvenir shops and points of interest to keep you occupied for a couple of days before the call of the Mahakam River proves irresistible – and you head upstream into Borneo’s glorious rainforests.

Samarinda is well-stocked with accommodation to cover all budgets – from the swish Swiss-Belhotel Borneo and the Bumi Senyiur Hotel (with its tastefully elegant hardwood rooms) down to numerous budget options like the Gelora and Gading Kencana. Most of the city’s hotels can also be found clustered around the city centre and the area next to the river.

Samarinda is the capital of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.

The History and Geography of Samarinda

Samarinda began life as a small Bugis settlement. Ethnic Bugis settlers crossed over to Borneo from Indonesia’s neighbouring island of Sulawesi in the late 17th century. The city was officially founded on January 21, 1668 – a date now celebrated annually by the city’s nearly 800,000 residents.

Located some 50 kms upstream from the mouth of the vast Mahakam River, Samarinda has been a vibrant trading hub for almost three centuries.

The city is surrounded by rivers, and in addition to the capacious flow of the Mahakam itself, the Karang Mumus can be found to the east of town – while the waters of the Karangasem lie to the west. Both waterways empty into Mahakam’s sizable estuary downstream of the city. Noisy motorised canoes ply the rivers alongside the city’s 200,000-hectare forests, giving Samarinda a totally unique vibe.

Ever wondered what’s in a name? Samarenda means ‘equal in height’ in the local Bugis language, and describes the traditional river-houses that were built on rafts. As all were generally the same height, this was an important, visual social symbol to remind its residents that no-one is born higher – or lower – than his neighbour.

Exploring the City and Shopping

But before you put on your safari suit and leap into the great unknown of Borneo’s rainforests, take a day or two to explore the city and see what it has to offer. First up is the Cita Niaga market boasting a wealth of souvenir and food vendors. This large, commercial area is chilled out and clean – and some thought has clearly gone into its eye-catching design.

There are also regular shows and exhibitions to enjoy at the weekend. Meanwhile, mall-lovers will be kept happy with the Mesra Indah Mall and the Ramayana Mall.

An aerial view of Samarinda.

A boat trip on the Mahakam River near Samarinda.

Attractions Outside the City

If you’re after some authentic textiles, head for Samarinda Seberang on the south bank of the river and check out the sarongs and local songket there. A little further afield, Pampang Cultural Park lies some 25km west of town and is famous for its Dayak kenyah ceremonies, performances and rituals.

There are plenty of photo-opportunities, and visitors can enjoy dance performances in a traditional Kalimantan long-house. Also worth a look is Tanah Merah Indah Lempake, a popular recreational park that lies 16 kms from the centre of town. The park features a waterfall and playgrounds – as well as camping facilities, swimming and fishing.

Beyond Samarinda

But Samarinda is only a beginning, of course – with the ultimate goal being to set sail up the magnificent Mahakam River on a rainforest tour to remember. If you’re already on the ground, your hotel should be able to help arrange a guide. Three-day tours usually follow an established route through the historic town of Tenggarong, as well as the Dayak settlements at Tanjung Issuy and Mancong. If you have a week-to-10 days free, you can head further upstream into the heart of jungle darkness and follow the Mahakam to Long Iram and Long Bangun – and eventually to some traditional Dayak longhouses.

Tours don’t come cheap – but most offer an intoxicating blend of boating, trekking, wildlife-spotting and local culture. If you’re lucky, you might even join some Dayaks on a hunting trip. Just make sure that you’re well prepared for this amazing experience – with plenty of money, clothes, wet-weather gear, strong footwear and first-aid supplies (including anti-malarial tablets). Along the way, see if you can spot any of the exotic flora and fauna unique to the area – from black orchids to freshwater dolphins, orangutans and a myriad of bird species.

Samarinda in Photographs

Samarinda street scene
Street-scene in downtown Samarinda.

 

Mesjid Raya Darussalam
Mesjid Raya Darussalam mosque on the riverside.

 

Backwaters of Samarinda
The quiet backwaters of the city.

 

Riverside market
Riverside market on the Mahakam River.

 

Segiri market
Fruit and snack sellers line the street in Segiri market.

 

Samarinda market scene
Busy Samarinda market scene.

 

Fisherman, Samarinda market
A fisherman rests at a riverside market.

 

Segiri market
A bird’s-eye view of busy Segiri market.

 

Sate seller
A sate seller whips up some tasty street-food in Segiri market.

 

DVD shop, Samarinda
DVD shop stocked with pirate music and films.

 

Dayak souvenir stall
Dayak souvenirs for sale in Citra Niaga market.