Tom's Travel Blog

Independent travel around Eastern Europe, East Asia and beoyond

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.

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