Tom's Travel Blog

Independent travel around Eastern Europe, East Asia and beoyond

Indonesia Part 2 – A Togean task

by tom on 04/05/2020

This is the third of 3 posts. See the Indonesia Part 2 – Introduction section for more information.


When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I decided that I was going to go to Samarinda, as from what the guide book was saying, transport beyond Long Bagun got expensive, and I’d already spent quite a lot of time and money getting to Long Bagun, and was eager to start the next stage of my trip, possibly to West Papua and Ambon. I was also feeling drained from the epic 2-3 day journey it had taken to get there, and decided that it was time to head back.

I got to the ferry terminal at 7am and asked the people there for the boat to the kapal, in the direction of Samarinda. One speedboat driver agreed to take me, but we had to wait for the boat to fill up, which involved hanging around with the speedboat drivers and other passengers, until there were enough people to go. The speedboat driver took me as far as the nearest kapal, which was docked on the side of the river, and didn’t look like it was going anywhere, so I decided to continue to Tering. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in a floating cafe, which was in the middle of nowhere and bustling with people. It was clean and the food looked good, but I only got cake and waited for the other passengers to finish their lunch. One of the other passengers, a middle-aged Indonesian man, bought me a mangosteen and gave me the whole thing to eat, shouting “Mr. Tom!” as he gave it to me, with a huge smile on his face.

When I got to Tering (the last stop for the speedboat) it became apparent that the kapal wasn’t going to get there for a while, so I went to go and get something to eat from a restaurant around the dock. I hung around in a cafe by the restaurant, and spoke to a taxi driver who had moved to Kalimantan to work in the oil and gas industry, but quit after 4 years as he wasn’t enjoying it, but had good English. Around the time the kapal was meant to arrive, I went back to the dock and hung around there, talking to another taxi driver. At 5pm, after being delayed for 1 or 2 hours already, the taxi driver found out that the boat wasn’t leaving from Tering, but from Melak instead, so I got a lift with him to the ferry terminal in Melak. I found the kapal and got it back to Samarinda.


When I got off the kapal in Samarinda, it was at a ferry terminal outside of the city, so I had to get a mikrolet back to the centre. The ferry terminal had some taxi drivers waiting around it, and one of them was going to rent he the whole taxi for 100,000 IDR, but on the advice of another kapal passenger, I walked further down the road and got it for 5,000 IDR.

Once back in Samarinda, I went back to the same hotel as before and booked flights for the next stage of my journey. It took a while to decide where I was going to go, and once I’d made the reservations, I decided to check how much money I had available, and realised that I wasn’t going to be able to go ahead with original plan. My friend who was working in the hotel was offering to take me to the nearest convenience store to pay for the tickets, which was nowhere near convenient, as there seemed to be 5 in Samarinda, and none of them were near the hotel. After we found a cash machine that worked and found a convenience store to pay for the flight tickets in, we went to get something to eat. I decided, so as not to waste her time, that I would go ahead with the first leg of the journey to Manado, and not the second leg to Sorong for the Raja Ampat islands. As we were eating, my friend realised that I needed some way to get to the airport (a fair point), so we went to go and get a seat in a private bus for the airport in Balikpapan.


On Friday I got up early enough to eat some of the leftovers from the night before and get a lift with my friend in the hotel to the airport bus. Whilst I was on the bus, I still couldn’t decide if I was making the right decision, and talked to another passenger about possibly cancelling my flights and re-booking to another destination. I decided to ask in the airport, and if it wasn’t possible to cancel, continue to Manado.

Once in the airport in Balikpapan, I found out that I would lose a large amount of the ticket cost by re-booking, so decided to continue to Manado, for the Togeans. In the few minutes I had before the plane departed, I got an expensive meal in the departure lounge and got on the flight as they were making the last call.

In Manado, I got the same taxi as before, but couldn’t remember the name of the hotel that I’d stayed in, so wasted a lot of time driving around, trying to communicate with the driver that I wanted the centre. Eventually we found ‘centre point’, so I got out here and decided to walk, as I knew where I was at this point.

After checking in to the hotel, I went in search of the excellent Minahasan restaurant I went to before, and in search of beers. After eating and asking the restaurant owner where the best place to get a beer was, I walked back to the hotel, as the only place selling beers was the Jumbo shopping centre, who didn’t have any refrigerated ones. As I was not able to find one en route to the hotel, I decided to ask in a cafe if they knew somewhere to get one. After talking about it for a long time, one of the customers suggested taking me on his motorbike to his friend’s bar, and I could pay him if I wanted to. I agreed, and a few minutes later I think I was at what is probably the only bar in Manado. I paid him the price of a mikrolet to get there, and got several beers, talking to various taxi drivers, their friends, and the beer girl, who was trying to sell the expensive beer. After an hour or so in the bar, I bought the beer girl some cigarettes (which were much cheaper than the beer) and walked back to the hotel, as it was very close.


I decided to have at least a day in Manado, as the past few days had been so hectic that I hadn’t had a chance to relax. I got up, had the hotel breakfast, and planned my route to the Togeans, which I had attempted to do last time. I decided to go through Luwuk, a small town on the east coast, closer to Ampana (for the boat to the Togeans), that I should be able to get a bus from to Ampana. Instead of making the reservation online and paying in a convenience store, I decided I would get the multiple mikrolets to the airport, and potentially get there and back for 20,000 IDR, instead of the 120,000 IDR+ fee for the taxi.

In the mikrolet I met a Malaysian man who had come to Sulawesi 30+ years ago to work in the oil and gas industry, and was now retired, but learnt all his English from working with the British and Western companies who had been in Indonesia at the beginning of his career, setting up their mining operations. Even though there was a ticket to Luwuk when I checked it online earlier, when I got to the airport to buy the ticket, the plane for the next day had already sold out! This was the first time this had happened, and I went back to Manado, got several coffees at one of the local coffee shops, and booked another ticket for the day after.

I spent the rest of the day catching up on emails, organising myself, and generally catching up on things I hadn’t had the chance to do over the last week or so. In the evening, I ate in a restaurant that I’d eaten in before, where the woman running the restaurant spoke almost no English, but wanted to chat and take a lot of photos.


On Saturday lunchtime, I ate in a restaurant where they’d almost run out of everything, and I managed to communicate that I would have liked some rice, but they didn’t have any. Instead of not getting any, the restaurant owner returned several minutes later with some rice she’d got as a takeaway from somewhere else, and gave it to me to eat. Later that night, when I was trying to sleep, I had stomach cramps that made me feel like I was going to be sick, but it never happened. As a result, I got almost no sleep on Saturday night, and was still awake for the call to prayer at 4.30am.

As I wasn’t expecting to have Sunday free, I continued with my organisational tasks from the day before, changed money at the money changer, and ate and drank coffee at a cafe I later found out was owned by the same owner as the hotel I was staying in (with the same name). In the evening I drank some beers I’d bought from Jumbo the day before and put in the hotel fridge, and prepared for the flight the next day.


The plan on Monday was to get the early morning flight from Manado to Luwuk, for the bus to Ampana. As I hadn’t slept well the day before, I over-slept by 15-20 minutes on an already tight schedule, but communicated to the guy on reception that I needed a taxi, and one turned up to take me to the airport. Instead of arguing with the taxi driver about whether I should pay the 6,000 IDR for parking (I’m pretty sure they charge customers twice for this), I got my stuff and went to check in. With 20 minutes before the flight departed, the check-in woman ran off with my passport to check whether I had booked extra baggage. Eventually she returned, and the flight departed behind schedule.

We got to Luwuk, and as it was not clear how I got to the bus station, I got an airport taxi. As they had pre-printed cards with each zone and the price for each zone, I thought the system was legitimate and got in. I told the driver where I was going, and after a slight detour we arrived, and he asked for the 100,000 IDR on the pre-printed ticket. The cost for a mikrolet for the same journey would have been 5,000 IDR, so after some heated discussion, I agreed to part with 60,000 IDR, but he wasn’t happy with this. He had taken me to one of the bus stations, which seemed to be run by a private company that also did package logistics, so before agreeing to go with them, I went to go and look at another bus station. This was a lot more like what I expected, but the wait for that one was much longer, so I got the ‘executive’ class to Ampana with the original company.

After waiting 2+ hours for the bus to arrive, I found out that executive class was a 6-seater car, excluding the driver, with every seat taken. I got in, and after driving around Luwuk for another 20-30 minutes looking for passengers, we finally set off, and arrived in Ampana 7-8 hours later, with several breaks for the toilet, eating and praying. When we arrived in Ampana, as the other passengers had spoken some English, we decided to go to a resort first to decide if it was somewhere that I wanted to stay. I didn’t have a reservation, so I decided to stay there, and leave early the next day for the boat to the Togean islands. There I met Eddy, who was able to explain the vast array of travel options for getting to the Togeans, and he turned the complicated task of planning travel in a place where travel is not convenient, into something quite simple.

I only had a few hours in Ampana to organise everything I needed for the next 5 days, as the Togean islands didn’t have any Internet. This included booking a flight from Gorontalo (on the mainland) to Jakarta, several days later. Previously in Indonesia, I had paid for internal flights at a convenience store, but I quickly found out that Ampana didn’t have any, so I was going to need to find another way to pay. I asked reception where the nearest ATM was, and he said that it was not close, but he offered to take me on his scooter, at 1.30am. We went, I took out cash, but I didn’t take out enough to pay for the flights, as some of the ATMs worked and others didn’t, and I felt like I was beginning to push my luck with the driver. I went to bed, thinking that I needed to get up early and go to the airport in Ampana and pay for the tickets, before getting the ferry to the Togean islands.


I got up early on Tuesday, and asked on of the tuk-tuk drivers to take me to the airport, so that I could pay for the plane tickets back to Jakarta. When I got there, they hadn’t opened yet and there were no ATMs, so I got the driver to take me back to the resort where I paid for the flights online using one of my Taiwanese cards, an option I was trying to avoid. As time was running out, Eddy helped me get a motorbike taxi from the street to the harbour, where I got asked if I was going to the Togean islands, and then taken to a room where I needed to pay an entrance fee. They could sense my uneasiness, but insisted it was genuine, and gave me a ticket and a keyring fob in return for my compliance. After reading one of the newer guidebooks, it turns out it was legitimate, but it didn’t mention this in the guidebook I had. Eventually I got on the boat to Malenge, and the boat departed.

The boat consisted of 2 areas; a lower seating area and the upper deck, also with an indoor seating area. As I was so exhausted from the trip to the harbour, I dumped my stuff in the lower deck and spent most of the time looking out the window or going up on deck to get some fresh air. The boat made several stops, until there were only a few foreigners left, and most of us got in a ces that one of the resort owners had brought to pick up potential customers. He tried to sell us on going, and it worked, as we all ended up staying in his resort. Here I met Albert and Eva, a Spanish couple from Barcelona, who had just quit their jobs to go on an epic round-the-world trip. We were all interested in travelling, so spent most evenings talking about various places we’ve been or wanted to go, and as there were only 3 people staying in the resort, we had the whole place to ourselves.

I spent the last few hours of Tuesday, floating in the sea, watching the sun going down.


On Wednesday, as Albert, Eva and I had gone directly to the resort we were staying in, we asked the resort manager to take us by boat to some of the other resorts on the island. They wanted to check out the other resorts, and I wanted to look at the diving options. There were only 2 other resorts within sailing distance, and they were both expensive, but one of them had the most amazing snorkelling beach, with deep, bathwater-warm water and large pelagic sea life that would come and visit (baby sharks, rays etc.). There was only one dive resort, as the other one didn’t have any petrol, so I went with that, agreeing to do 2 dives the next day. Albert and Eva decided not to move resort, so the afternoon was spent snorkelling on the house reef, which actually had a large amount of sea life not far from the beach, and watching the sunset, again.


I got up early on Thursday morning to go for the first dive. The dive instructor had lost his diving certification, but insisted that it was because he hadn’t paid his renewal fee, so we went on the dive with this already having been established. The dive was amazing, but communication problems meant that I had to go back to the resort for lunch and wait for them to come back, as they thought I only wanted 1 dive.

My instructor and his assistant turned up several hours later and we went for the 2nd dive, which was also great, but the dive guide’s adherence to common safety practises was lax, so after the second dive, I was happy not to be in the water with him. In the evening, Albert, Eva and I organised the boat for the next day for the fast boat back to Wakai, and watched the sun go down (again).


On Friday Albert, Eva and I got the ces back to the harbour in Malenge, where we waited for the fast boat back to Wakai. The plan was for Albert and Eva to get off in Katupat (for the Fadhila Cottages), and I was going to decide en route what I was doing, as my funds were running low. As there are no ATMs in the Togean Islands, and you have to bring all your cash with you, I decided to stay on the boat and continue to Kadidiri, via Wakai.

When I got to Wakai, I did the usual thing of hanging around on the pier and waiting for someone to ask you if you needed anywhere to stay. One guy eventually approached me, and gave me his phone to call a resort on Kadidiri, which to my surprise, was run by a British guy. Having not spoken to any native English speakers for some time, and definitely not a British guy, I decided to stay there, just because of the guy running it. I followed the guy who had lent me his phone, and sat in his boat whilst he went to go and get supplies for the resort.

When we eventually got to the island, I had a chat with the British guy, who was from the north of England, and who had married the daughter of the owner, and was now living there over the summer. As we were in the low season, the place was empty, and I was the only one staying there, until a Frenchman turned up later that day.

In the afternoon, after exploring the resorts on the beach, I decided to go for a snorkel off the pier, as the resort owner had said there was some good coral there. After swimming out along the pier, the sea bed began to drop off, and there was a very nice coral garden with a lot of life. I decided not to go out any further than the length of the pier, as I was on my own, and when I turned to swim back to the beach, I noticed a not particularly small shark between me and the beach. Without panicking, I decided to swim back the way I had come, and do two sides of a square to get back to the beach. I decided to get out at that point, as I’d had enough snorkelling for one day!

Later on I went back to one of the nice looking bars to get a beer, but all of the resorts were shut and even if they had people working there, they weren’t selling beer.


On Saturday, as the generator was only on in the evening and I’d forgotten to charge my phone, I went to the only place on the island with phone signal (a beach behind the resort) to get some signal before my phone died. The night before I had arranged to get the boat back to Wakai the following day, so I got the same boat back to Wakai, which was incredibly slow. About 45 minutes later, I got to Wakai, and then got a motorbike to the harbour, without knowing how far it was. It turns out that Wakai is tiny, and a few minutes later I was at the harbour. Here I found some other passengers, some who had been waiting since 10am (the boat was scheduled to leave at 7pm), and I hung around in the waiting area, waiting for the boat to turn up.

The harbour building is just a building in an empty field, with some small vendors close to the street, and that’s it. There were loads of kids there, running about and jumping into the water, so as the boat wasn’t going to turn up for a while, I left my stuff and went for a walk around Wakai. I found a convenience store, had a coffee and charged my phone.

Once I was back at the harbour, and with the sun going down, I went to one of the vendors to get something to eat. Here I found Roman, a French guy working as a diving instructor at one of the resorts on Kadidiri. He was sitting with the locals, speaking Bahasa Indonesia, and asked if I’d been around Wakai yet. I had, and we had a short chat before I went back to the waiting area. Later he came over, brought the key for the toilet (which was locked) and brought some water for people to wash their hands. Eventually the boat arrived at 8pm, and we went to go and buy tickets.

They seemed to have a strange system where you paid for the ticket before they told you if any seats were available, so we paid and waited for the one of the officers to come on shore and tell us if we had a seat or not. We did, and I went and snagged myself a bed in business class, as the boat was practically empty.


The boat on Sunday arrived around 6 hours behind schedule, so it was good that I didn’t have any connections planned in Gorontalo. I got a tuk-tuk to a hotel in the city that the tuk-tuk driver recommended, but didn’t check in as it was a bit expensive. I left my stuff there to have a look around, and after finding a restaurant that looked like a hotel, asked a French girl if she knew any places to stay. She recommended the place that she’d stayed in, a homestay, and called them to see if they had any spaces available for the same night. They did, so I went to go and have a look.

The room seemed fine, and I would be staying in the same room as the French girl, who was checking out later the same day. I made the reservation and went to go and get my stuff. After resting and washing in the homestay, I went to go and find the mall the British guy in Kadidiri had been talking about, and get some cash out. As my funds were so low, I struggled to find an ATM that would work, as I had to guess how much was on there to be able to get any out (including the service fee). I eventually found one, after trying almost all the ATMs in that part of Gorontalo, and went to get something to eat.

After eating, as I didn’t want to leave Indonesia without having another coffee, I went to go and find a coffee shop, before going back to the homestay.


They day before, as I got the number from the tuk-tuk driver of another driver who could take me to the airport, I had arranged for someone to come and pick me up at about 4.15am. Apparently Mama, who was the grandma in the homestay, was up at this time anyway, and had no problems making breakfast for me before I went. I got the flight back to Jakarta, stopping in Ujung Pandang (Makassar) to pick up extra passengers. After arriving in the airport, I made a much more leisurely return to the international terminal, but this time stopped to eat in one of the restaurants. As we were not inside the airport, I thought it would be cheap, but they tried to over-charge me and I told them about this, so they gave me my money back.

Once in the departure lounge for the flight back to Taipei, I saw one of my ex-colleagues who was also in Indonesia, but on a golfing trip. His flight was about 1 gate up from mine, leaving 5 minutes before mine, and going to exactly the same place, but with a different airline. Once in Taipei, I got the MRT back home, and marvelled at my sit-down toilet, hot water and shower, all in the same place. Travel in Indonesia hadn’t been easy, but it was worth it!

Indonesia Part 2 – Up the Makahan without a tour guide

by tom on 04/05/2020

This is the second of 3 posts. See the Indonesia Part 2 – Introduction section for more information.


On Saturday I got up with the goal of getting to Kota Bangun on the Makahan river in Kalimantan. As soon as I checked-out of the hotel, there was an emergency situation with the laundry, with the hotel staff having called the laundrette, but with no idea of where the laundry was, with the time available to receive it slowly running out. Luckily it turned up in time to get a Grab motorbike taxi to the bus station, but the bus for Kota Bangun didn’t leave for another hour and a half after that.

Once I got to Kota Bangun, I was instantly struck by how exposed I was. I didn’t speak any Bahasa Indonesia, and I’m pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much English. As I’d been on the bus for several hours, I chose the first restaurant that looked good, and sat down there. Whilst I was eating, some Indonesian tourists from Samarinda asked where I was from, and managed to answer some basic questions about boats to Muara Pahu. One of the ces (motorised longboat) drivers was asking if I wanted a trip the next day at this point, but his English wasn’t great and it was a bit difficult communicating. I took his phone number and tried to get the best price for the trip.

After eating, I went to find a losmen (guest house), and after much walking around, finally found one. I checked-in and pretty much accepted the first price they gave me, as I was just grateful to find something. After walking around Kota Bangun and watching the sun go down, I ate some tempeh (fried, processed soybeans) the other guests had prepared and went to go and find some nasi goreng. On the way back from dinner, I walked past the mosque, which was the focal point for the village at this time. I must have been quite conspicuous, because just me being there attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of people invited me into the mosque during the service. I politely declined, but decided to go back to the losmen to get my camera and record a video.

The amount of attention I got on the second visit was even more than the first. I think I entered on the side with all the kids in it, because when I put my camera down to record the video, as soon as I turned round, there was a wall of kids where there previously wasn’t one. As I was recording the video, more and more kids turned up, to the point that they were almost overflowing into the mosque, and had to get ushered away. People inside the mosque were noticing that there was a foreigner there, and I felt like I was beginning to disrupt the service. Someone else brought a sarong for me to wear so that I could enter, but because of the amount of attention I was already receiving, I politely declined, and chose to leave the mosque and allow them to continue their service uninterrupted.


Almost as soon as I got up on Sunday morning, the ces driver and his friend were in the losmen, asking if I still wanted to go on the trip. As the driver’s English was so bad, I think he had brought his friend to help translate, but also my negotiating tactics of getting his phone number to call him later hadn’t worked, as he probably thought that I would need that to contact him, as I was definitely going with him.

As there didn’t seem to be any other options, and everyone was charging the same price, I went with the first ces driver that had approached me, and we got in the ces and head off for Muara Pahu. On the way there were a few different landscapes; river plateau, river channel and wider, open river, and we saw several animals, including monitor lizards (some 2 m+ long), Irawaddy dolphins, birds (various) and macaques. The guy was pretty good at pointing some of these out, so partially made up for his high price by being good at spotting wildlife. We got to Muara Pahu faster than I was expecting, and we completed the business element of the trip, and head in separate directions.

Muara Pahu has 2 losmen, one which was better than the other, but both not great. I checked in to one of them and then went for a walk around the village. The village is effectively one long wooden walkway, which runs for 2/3 km, and almost everyone I saw was happy to see me and said hello. When I got back to the losmen, I texted my friend who was from Muara Pahu village, to check that I had understood the times of the kapal (houseboat) correctly, but instead of being 9am the next day, it was actually 9pm the same day! After chatting with a soldier for over an hour, I got my stuff, checked out of the losmen, and took all my stuff to the boat dock. I waited for several hours, and then the kapal turned up, and I continued on to Long Bagun.


Monday morning I woke up on the kapal, and waited for it to make progress up the Makahan river towards Long Bagun. After several large stops, the rate of progress of the kapal dropped significantly, and the driver said (as far as I could tell) that they would be spending another 8 hours stopping at various stops and unloading their cargo. As I was 1 of only 2 passengers at this point, I asked them to help me flag down a speedboat at the next opportunity.

Eventually a speed boat turned up going in the direction of Long Bagun. This was pretty late, as the sun was beginning to set, and I transferred to the speedboat mid-river, and asked what price it was to Long Bagun before we set off. The speedboat drove at speed, through the Kalimantan jungle, as the sun was going down, avoiding the currents in the river as much as possible and sweeping around the corners in the river. It seems however that the boat didn’t have any lights, as once the sun was down, it was completely dark, and someone had to use a head torch from further back in the boat to guide the driver.

Once we arrived in Long Bagun, I grabbed my stuff and went to find a losmen. After more than 20 hours on the kapal, a 4-5 hour ces journey the day before, and a 1-2 hour speedboat journey in the dark, I was now exhausted, and took the first place I could find.


The priority on Tuesday was to find cash, and figure out what I was doing the next day. I asked the owner of the losmen where and nearest cash machine was, and he said that I should go to Ujoh Bilang village, which required a ces to get to and back. I went to the river, found a boat, and it took me to Ujoh Bilang to use one of their several cash machines. This solved a serious problem for me, as up until this point had no cash, so couldn’t plan what I was doing next easily.

When I was back at the losmen, I asked about the times to Tiong O’hang, but it seems that the boats only leave at 7am in the morning, and I had missed them. I spent the rest of the day deliberating over whether I should go to Tiong O’hang or go back to Samarinda, for the next leg of my journey. In that time, I walked around the village, also with everyone saying “hello mister!”, talked to more soldiers in the losmen, and watched a football match and a volleyball tournament between local villages.

Before I went to bed, I continued to read the guide book, trying to decide whether to continue to Tiong O’hang, or go back to Samarinda. I went to bed not knowing what direction I was going to go in, but that I needed to get up with enough time to get the boat at 7am.

Indonesia Part 2 – Just a quick Samboja

by tom on 04/05/2020

This is the first of 3 posts. See the Indonesia Part 2 – Introduction section for more information.


The first day of the trip started by getting the plane from Taipei (where I live) to Jakarta. This all went smoothly, apart from the flight itself, which was actually very turbulent. The seatbelt sign was on for most of the trip, and I was quite impressed by how much of the service the flight attendants were still up and serving passengers. After arriving in Jakarta, the real fun started.

I knew when I was booking the flights that I wasn’t going to have much time to change flights in Jakarta, but I completely underestimated how much time was required. My flight landed at 1.20pm, and the next flight left at 2.45pm, leaving 1 hour and 15 minutes to change flights. This might have been acceptable if the airport was Hong Kong (for example), but this was Jakarta, and my two flights were with different airlines.

Whilst on the flight, as I was sitting in the last row on the plane, I asked the flight attendant if I could move forward to the front of the plane, to get off quicker when we landed. She found me a seat, and I moved there before landing, potentially saving 10-15 minutes disembarking from the back of the plane. Feeling like things were going pretty well so far, I went to immigration, where I saw the foreigner’s queue, and realised I was going to have to find some way around it. I asked a security guard if he could think of any solutions, and he spent 10-15 minutes asking me questions about my itinerary and my return flight, which I didn’t have the ticket for. After a while, he showed me to the immigration office, stamped my passport, and told me to get into the diplomat queue, which only had 1 person in it.

After getting through immigration, the previous straight run of time-saving successes began to falter. Someone’s bag jammed the baggage carousel, so that we had to wait 5-10 minutes for someone to come and clear it. Once I had my bag, I went outside and realised that the flight I needed to change to was in a different terminal, which I needed to get the sky train to. I missed one train by about 20 seconds (if the guy had left on time I would have got it), and had to wait 10-15 minutes for the next one. As I was on the train, I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to make it, and when I got to the correct terminal, I found that not only did it have a strange numbering system for the different entrances (1A, 1B, 1C etc.), but airlines only left from certain parts of the terminal and you needed your ticket confirmation printing before entering the airport. After figuring out that Lion Air was the last entrance in the terminal furthest from the one I landed in, I got the confirmation printed, went to check in, and after conferring between themselves, was told by the check-in staff that I had missed the flight. This was reasonable, as it was only a few minutes before the flight left, but it was still disappointing to know all the effort had been wasted. I went to the customer services counter and booked a new flight for later in the day.

Once in Balikpapan, on Kalimantan, I got a taxi to the centre and walked around looking for a hotel. As they didn’t seem to have any guest houses, only hotels, I chose one I thought I could put up with for 1 night and checked in there. The hotel was out-dated and the room was dirty, but I decided to stay for one night and change the next day, as it was already late.


On Tuesday, the main plan of action was to change hotels, walk around Balikpapan, and get used to being in Indonesia. As soon as I had the complimentary breakfast, I checked-out, and went to go and find something better. After looking at a few hotels, with varying degrees of English, I chose the one that it looked like had a good standard and the English ability of the people working there was good. After checking in and moving my stuff, I went to walk around Balikpapan.

The centre of Balikpapan is marked by 2 main roads intersecting, so I decided to continue down the road I walked down the day before, looking for hotels. After a while I got to the mosque, and pretty much as soon as I decided I was going to go in, prayers ended, and most people started slowly leaving. I took my shoes off and had a quick look around, and one guy, who had the best English in Balikpapan so far, started talking to me, and we ended up talking about religion and Islam for almost an hour.

After that, I went to a small, local market and took a lot for people’s photos. As soon as I got there, people were lining up their friends to have their photo taken, which is usually a good sign that your visit is going to be fun. This continued for the whole trip, and I ended up eating at a seaside restaurant behind the market before heading back.

In the evening I went to a seaside bar and restaurant area, where they had live music, and I think I had fried chicken, but it was so dark it was difficult to tell.


The plan of action on Wednesday was to hire a motorbike and try and get to the KWPLH Sun Bear Centre. After a bit of investigation and asking the guy at reception, it seems that it’s not possible to hire a motorbike in Balikpapan, only rent an ojek. As there weren’t really any other options for getting to the sun bear centre, I agreed on a price for the ojek and someone took me on the back of their motorbike. It wasn’t the cheapest way to get there, but it got me there in time for feeding time.

Feeding time was at 3pm, so me and the ojek rider had about 30 minutes to go and find something to eat. When I got back, instead of being the only person there, there were now 2-3 buses-full of people waiting for the tour to start. They showed us a video, and then took us to see the sun bears. Unfortunately, even though there are 6 sun bears in total, there was only 1 at feeding time, so it was a bit less than I was expecting. After the sun bear had finished, I posed for several photos with the other visitors and then got on the ojek back to Balikpapan.

Once back in Balikpapan, I went for a well-earned beer at one of the beach-side cafes I went to the night before.


As I hadn’t seen many sun bears on Wednesday, I thought I’d have a second attempt on Thursday. I met with the same ojek rider from the day before, and we rode the 1.5 hour route to Samboja Lodge. This was pretty tough on the way there, but was going to get much more tiring on the way back!

When I arrived, after taking the ojek rider’s scooter over some pretty tough terrain, pretty much everyone who worked in Samboja Lodge was outside playing party games for Indonesia’s independence day, several days earlier. I managed to grab someone who looked like they knew what they were doing, and asked if it was possible to get the afternoon tour. She said probably not, as everyone was celebrating independence day, but she would ask someone else.

When her colleague came over, he said that everyone was busy, so that I should come back tomorrow. After the time and expense involved in getting there, we agreed I could go and wait in the lodge until the games had finished and maybe there would be someone available to take me. I waited in the lodge, and after a while the same guy came back, and said it should be fine. I got a tour of the sun bears and orangutans in the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation’s rehabilitation centre. Most of the orangutans had been kept as pets and had been rescued by the centre, and they were on course to breaking their own record by having 4 releases of orangutans back into the wild this year.

After I had agreed to go on the tour, my ojek rider, because of the poor road conditions, was demanding an extra 10% of the fee for the 2 days as compensation. As we only shared a small amount of English, and the guy who had helped organise the tour spoke Bahasa Indonesia and English, he helped translate between the two. After what seemed like an hour, we finally agreed that there was an upper limit to what I was going to pay for the 2 days and that wasn’t going to be exceeded. We agreed to leave 1 hour earlier than originally intended and he waited whilst I went on the tour.

When I got back to Balikpapan, I went in search of something to eat. Without walking very far, I came across a restaurant that I had seen the day before and was curious about trying. They had 3 crabs for 50,000 IDR, which after some negotiation we agreed I would have with fried rice (nasi goreng). The crabs turned up, and I realised I was going to be there for a long time. In 1 hour I ate a single crab, so I asked to get it takeaway and gave it to the staff in the hotel, as it was far too much and they were almost certainly better at eating them than I was.


The task for Friday was just to get to Samarinda, for the Makahan river, and prepare for the next day. I changed money, topped-up my SIM card and bought a shirt, and got a mikrolet (small bus) to where the big bus was leaving from. I got to Samarinda, got another mikrolet, and walked around trying to find a hotel. I eventually found one, checked in, and spent the evening planning the trip up the Makahan.

As I was planning the trip, I was trying to decide if I should get a guide or not. The guide book I had said that these should be pretty cheap, but after getting a call from a local guide who went through all the prices, I quickly realised that this was out of my budget. I was going to have to do it myself.


In the Lonely Planet guide for Indonesia 10th edition, it refers to Samboja Lodge as the name of the research project, Samboja Lestari. This is confusing, as the only place you can visit is Samboja Lodge, and the phone number is also incorrect. The centre also recommend you call and make a reservation before leaving Balikpapan the day before, even though it doesn’t mention this on their website. If you’re planning on going, call the number on the Samboja Lodge website (not BOS, which is located in Java).

Indonesia Part 2 – Introduction

by tom on 15/08/2019

Do you like:

  • travel taking ages, and being very time consuming and complicated?
  • getting woken up by the call to prayer at 4.30am every morning?
  • having very little to no English, wherever you go?

Then Indonesia may be for you!

This time I was in Indonesia for 3 weeks, as I had been for 2 weeks last time, and it hadn’t been enough.

This post consists of 3 sections:

Photos and videos coming soon!