Tom's Travel Blog

Independent travel around Eastern Europe, East Asia and beoyond

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).

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