The end of the crossing, and back to the border

Where: I bask in the sun of Malinau; my fashion taste is conquered by the colourful Indonesian shirts; I reach Tarakan; I realise that the way back from there will not be straightforward either, and also that a smile can stand in for a valid visa sometimes.

[February 2016]

Malinau reminded me of a mixture of villages that I saw in Madagascar (its dusty roads), Ecuador (its street life), and the Malaysian side of Borneo (its people), all flavoured with a purely literary taste of Indochina. The roads were dusty and scorched by the sun. Rare ferries sailed the river, while the iron bridge above it was busy with motorbikes and cars. As the sun prepared to set, the traffic slowed down and everything, the town, the river, the hills around became soaked in a golden light. From the bridge I could see kids swimming and playing by the river bank in the evening calm.


The orange light became darker and a light fog appeared, mixed with the smoke of the house fires and of the burning heaps of trash. Imams from at least three different mosques were singing and praying at the same time, and their overlapping voices created a gripping cacophony. Then the prayer was over, and it was silence. The night came in from the dark hills around the village, suddenly as it always happens in the tropics.

That night, in Malinau, I felt at peace. I spent one more day and a night in Malinau to soak in its beautiful vibe and to take pictures – the day and the night before I was enjoying myself too much to risk of breaking the flow by taking pictures. I was lucky enough to be rewarded with beautiful smiles and another beautiful sunset.
The day after, I took the “speedboat” to Tarakan, a city on an island with the same name sitting between the estuary of the Sesayap river and the Sea of Celebes. I decided to sit on the roof of the ferry again, to enjoy the view and the breeze. The downside was that I ended up drenched by a rainstorm. The upside was a great view of the mangrove forest on the river banks, and being the first to have a whiff of sea air. The Sesayap estuary was vast and its brackish waters harboured many low islands. On one of them was the hectic, noisy city of Tarakan. Its tall ugly buildings looked as if they were slowly rotting on their foundation of mud. That was the end of my Borneo crossing.

Everybody looked at me and yelled greetings, even if they were only riding part on one of the many motorbikes, without a chance for me to answer back. “Hellomister!” they would scream, vrooming away. Some would expand: “Hellomister whatsyourname whereyoufrom!” without punctuation, or slowing down, or the expectation of an answer.

I remained stranded in that rotting city for three days until I found a sit on an airplane that would take me out of there. At first I considered continuing my explorations on the island of Celebes, but I did not feel like trying my luck by taking too many flights, even if domestic, without a valid visa. Moreover, I felt like I was done adventuring for a while. I eventually found a sit on a small one-engine Cessna with 14 seats (including the pilots’) headed for Long Bawan, just by the Malaysian border. Nobody noticed the absence of an entry visa to Indonesia on my passport.

The river delta as ween when I flew away from Tarakan.

After landing in Long Bawan I simply headed westwards, towards the border with Malaysia just a few kilometres away. This time I was on a dirtroad and the border was actually guarded by three officers in a shack. Although they were wearing uniforms and shoes, instead of shorts and flip-flops, their control of my passport was as relaxed as on my way into Indonesia. They jotted my name and passport number on a notebook, they did not notice the absence of a visa, and after a couple of minutes of banter they let me go. The next steps were easy: I waited for a couple of days in the village of Ba’Kelalan, until I could find a seat on another small, overloaded airplane – at that time of the year, the bags of freshly harvested rice had the priority on the boarding. After a quick stop-over in Bario to deliver rice we took off to land in Miri, were my crossing had started seven weeks prior.

The border.


2 thoughts on “The end of the crossing, and back to the border

  1. Sebastian

    Thank you for sharing your story! I enjoyed reading each part and having been to Bario myself I could imagine all the places.

    It is sad to hear about David. I met him in 2016 and he was very friendly and helpful in arranging my trek to Gunung Murud. Although I hiked up alone from Pa Lungan, he offered to take me for a daily rate of 150 rm, which I found was a fair enough price and way below what a guide would charge in peninsular Malaysia to lead a 1 man tour. He even drew me a map and gave me very detailed description of the trail to the summit. That map is one of my dearest travel souvenirs and without his input I would have never made it to the summit (or back to Pa Lungan).

    I was planning to visit the Indonesia side, but hearing your account of human encroachment into the forest it is putting me off. The area is after all meant to be the last wilderness of Borneo, or at least that is what people call the Kayan Mentarang National Park. Any more input on this?


    1. Hello, thank you for your message. In fairness it’s possible that I was misunderstanding my guide’s attitude as dodgy and micro-managing while he was just trying to be helpful. I don’t think so, but he’s not here to tell his side of the story. I should change his name in the blog post too. It takes two to tango, and maybe he would say that I was the one being a grumpy dick… Anyways, I have only seen a tiny bit of the Indonesian side of Borneo but I think it is THE palce to be if you’re interested in nature and conservation in the island. That’s where the next big match for nature protection is being played. I am hoping to go back one day and document the situation in the rest of Kalimantan, particularly the central and southern areas. If I were you I’d look into crossing the border at coordinates 0°57’57.5″N 110°20’40.9″E (I don’t think it’s allowed though) or, even easier, flying to Kalimantan and explore the regions of Western Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. If they suck you can always fly/board a ferry to Java or Sulawesi from there. The Lonely Planet guide said something about organised tours in the interion of North Kalimantan from one of the cities on the coast (perhaps Tarakan, or Samarinda, or Balikpapan). I don’t have the guide at hand but you might want to look into that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s