Arriving In Borneo, No Hotel, No Plan

My trip in Borneo began with a domestic flight from Denpasar (Bali) to Balikpapan (East Kalimantan, Borneo). When deciding where to see orangutans you’ll have to choose between the Sumatran species or the Bornean species. Unless you have the time and funds to see both, in which case I highly recommend doing so! Numbers wise, there are more wild orangutans in Borneo, so I long ago settled on this location. Hearing about the less stable political conditions in some parts of Malaysian Borneo, I opted to remain within Indonesia. Beyond that reason, I also avoided the costs of purchasing a second visa as I flew in from Bali (Indonesia). It might be free for US citizens to visit Malaysia… I’m honestly not sure as I didn’t check, but it’s good to research that kind of thing prior as these things can add up. As it didn’t concern the trip I was making I didn’t bother to look it up. If you’ve flown around the region on budget airlines like Garuda, AirAsia, Tiger, Batik, Wings etc. you’ll probably be used to the fact that there aren’t many other tourists at the domestic terminal heading to Balikpapan. I was fatefully seated next to a nice European guy named Daniel. We ended up having an enjoyable conversation about his current journey from London to Hong Kong. Somewhere amidst his travels there he decided on seeing more of Asia. Yet, he mistakenly booked a trip to Balikpapan, thinking it was the island Bali. After four or maybe it was five flights he arrived at his destination and spend time enjoying the northern areas. Flying time is somewhere around 3 hours in total. Having slept very little the night before I passed out for the majority of it. It was a true blessing as I was battling an awful stomach issue the entire night prior. I kept wondering if it was the street food, or possible minor dehydration after spending all day out in the sun at the beach. With these things they are often inevitable and during my time in Indonesia I only had 48 hours of true discomfort and issues with stomach bugs. So, skimping on heavy foods for a mere day that was filled with travel anyway didn’t bother me. I’m used to enduring temporary discomfort to experience truly blissful moments. I just chalked the stomach ache up to Bali Belly, or cramps and continued on my way as contentedly as possible…

I awoke from the plane fairly close to our descent if not amidst it. I wandered to find the luggage carousels and waited patiently for my little red backpack. After exiting baggage claim I had hoped to speak with someone at the information services desk. My plan was to inquire regarding the bus that takes you from Balikpapan to Kutai National Park. Unfortunately, there was not a single person present. So, instead of waiting, I made my way out the doors of the airport and towards the curb. There I was alone in Borneo, without booking a hotel in advance, no driver waiting for me, just a girl with a dream to see the orangutans and a vague inkling of the direction she needed to go: North. Sound like a good plan to you?

To be fair, I’m an adventurous and spontaneous traveler. Yet, I have always been a procrastinator and probably always will be. I often go places without booking anything in advance. It’s not always the “best” idea, but it certainly allows me the freedom I crave. I prefer to extend experiences that I enjoy and in the case any are particularly unpleasant, I have the option to cut them short. The latter occurs rarely, but it’s nice knowing I have the ability to leave as I’m not “locked in” to an extended booking that I’ve forked over heaps of money for. The only time this backfires on me is when a desirable location, tour or flight fills up. I should note that it’s only truly happened once… though even in that case I was able to resolve the issue. During my solo trip to Australia, I tried to extend a stay at one of my favorite backpackers, Travellers Oasis in Cairns. I was given a room at their sister hostel, which they offer a free shuttle to. But, in the nick of time (a few hours later) a room opened just as I was leaving for a stay in the Daintree Rainforest. So, they were able to change the booking back to Travellers Oasis (instead of the Sister Hostel) free of charge. Anyway, back to the details about traveling throughout Borneo solo!

Upon exiting the airport I saw a Roti’O in the distance and a number of occupied seats adjacent to the nearest wall. I scanned the rest of my surroundings for somewhere to sit down while I booked a neighboring hotel via the complimentary wifi, or my TMobile cellular data (which was free at 2GB speeds in Indonesia). Unfortunately I guess my arrival time was one of the busier times of day, but in a way this saved me. I happened to then glance upon a shuttle bus with a direct transfer from Balikpapan to the capital of Indonesian Borneo, Samarinda. I then purchased a ticket for a shared minibus ride from Balikpapan to Samarinda (135 IDR, about $12). The minibus came with somewhere between 6-8 passengers, complimentary bottled water, air conditioner and an in car flatscreen (which played movies in English w/ Bhasa subtitles). I still didn’t have a booking confirmed for a trek at this point. But, I already knew the given the trip to Kutai National Park was 7-8 hours from Balikpapan and only 4-5 from Samarinda, I thought I’d divide and conquer the car travel time. This way I could enter the park the following day, and hopefully spend some extra time with the orangutans. The trip was bumpy and riddled with potholes. However, I arrived exhausted, famished (I hadn’t eaten all day except for delicious french toast before departing Sanur and a light snack on the plane).

When I see primates I see so much humanity in their facial expressions, hand movements and the way they touch one another. Sure, there is plenty of malice that can also come along with the animal kingdom. But… for the most part the little ones are so pure. Like blank slates still taking in the world around them. It’s a magical thing to watch a small life-form learning.



The red hair on orangutans is so gorgeous. I was particularly in awe when Langit’s belly caught a little sunlight through a part in the canopy of trees. What’s happening to the land, the people and the animals here is tragic… And if you think about it for a minute humans are actually animals too. So, there’s not much need for distinction with regard to the negative impacts of palm oil on Bornean beings. Palm oil and illegal logging are destroying the homes of these smart and sweet creatures. It’s at a rate so fast that orangutans may become the first of the great apes to become extinct. Check your peanut butter and popcorn labels in particular because this is where I see palm oil most commonly added to food. If the demand isn’t there then the supply may stop. Eventually there could be a move away from mass scale palm oil plantations that threaten the wildlife, damage the environment, exploit the local people and devastate their economy.

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