The mighty Mahakam river and great mosque, viewed from the Aston Hotel
I was last in Samarinda five years ago, when there was talk of the imminent completion of their new airport. Sadly it has yet to eventuate, but the nearest town, Balikpapan, has a fabulous new airport with great cafes and gift shops selling quality beaded wares and local textiles (for which the indigenous Dayak people are famous).
The road from Balikpapan to Samarinda is in good condition — a comfortable three hour drive through pleasant countryside, if you include a stop half-way at the heavenly RM Tahu Sumedang, a local institution.
A new toll road will be completed “next year”, this will cut the trip in half.
I was in Samarinda to check on the Boncafe restaurant my office designed five years ago.
I was pleased to find that the Boncafe, and Samarinda, for that matter, had changed little.
The entrance to Boncafe, Samarinda
Boncafe Samarinda Waitresses working with florist Rachmad Panggabean
The charm of Samarinda is its position on the mighty Mahakam River, one of Borneo’s biggest and most important waterways. A few miles up the river is the old Majapahit-era town of Tenggarong and the ancient trading town Kutai.
Bugis pirates once patrolled the mouth of the Mahakam.
Only last month, a Samarinda-owned tug-boat hauling barges of coal to the Southern Philippines was captured by Abu Sayyaf pirates and the crew held for ransom!
View of the forest between Samarinda and Balikpapan
In Samarinda I stayed at the charmingly Indonesian Aston hotel: Indonesian in the sense that the Indonesian food is good and the staff are mostly from West Java.
There are counters of greasy cream cakes at every turn and flat screen televisions in the public areas streaming hot dangdut music videos.
From the hotel there is a route through the roof top carpark to the XXI Cinema in the neighbouring SCP mall.
There is not a lot of to do in Samarinda. In a past diary I described the old 17th century Islam-Majapahit timber mosque in the Kampung Lama across the Mahakam and the picturesque Selili fish market and fishermen village near Aston.
If you fossick around, however, there are some treats: such as the Thien Le Kong chinese temple and the two exquisitely cute 1930s Dutch colonial bungalows, still in mint condition and, by night, Lampion Park, a riverside amusement park decorated with rather splendid pop-art lantern statues. The park is also home to some excellent food stalls.
Pop-art lampion riverside at Lampion Park, Samarinda
The Thien le Kong temple (klenteng) is near the old port just before Selili fishing village. Built in 1905 by the clan-chief (orang besar) of Samarinda, it is a magnificent example of traditional Hokkien style timber pavilion temple architecture with superb decorations and magical-mystical atmosphere.
Thieu Ie Kong Klenteng temple
Next door, in the same riverside strip, are two Dutch colonial bungalows — as pretty as the best ones one can find in East Java.
Very devout Catholic-Chinese families built these bungalows originally I was told, and their descendant still maintain the bungalows, lovingly. I poked my nose into the family living room of one of the bungalows: it was like an interior’s time warp with papal accessories.
The wharf nearby is still lined with phinisi — the traditional Bugus trading vessels which have plied the Makassar - Mahakam River route for at least 1000 years.
Cute Dutch-Colonial bungalow front porch near the Chinese temple, Samarinda
We had lunch in the garden at the gorgeous Boncafe, eating old Surabaya colonial favourites — jagung mentega, lumpia basah, spicy lamb fried rice — for which the Boncafe chain is famous.
In the afternoon we visited the Kampong Mesjid across the river, famous for its black and red hand-loom sarongs, still favoured by the Royal House of Pemecutan in Bali.
Bugis phinisi trading vessels dockside at Samarinda harbor
Indonesia is full of such ancient textile connections: Yemenis still wear Javanese sarong; Muslim fishermen in India still wear North Coast Java and Madura-patterned sarongs. The ikats of Sawu, Timor and Flores are still popular as cummerbunds amongst the noblemen in the Pemecutan district of Central Denpasar. Javanese Rembang silk selendang are still worn by Balinese High priestesses.
I left Samarinda very early in the morning to make the first flight to Jakarta. Half way along the excellent Korea-built road we stopped at the R.M. Tahu Sumedang for their tasty, freshly-fried tofu nuggets in signature sauce. Two days before I had enjoyed an excellent Sop Buntut here too.
Tahu friers at the RM Tahu Sumedang, halfway between Balikpapan and Samarinda
The new Balikpapan airport is a mixed bag — the arrivals experience is quite confusing (appaling signage) — but the departure lounges are great, with well designed seating areas and lots of natural light. The Garuda lounge is quiet and comfortable — easily the best in Indonesia.
Garuda and Lion fly nonstop Jakarta – Balikpapan a few times a day.