At the center of Southeast Asia’s vast Malaya archipelago is a large steamy jungle island called Borneo. Divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, Borneo is home to the largest virgin rainforest in Asia, hundreds of indigenous tribes, and iconic megafauna, such as orangutans, crocodiles, elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, leopards, and bears,
From Indiana Jones to Animal Planet and Survivor, Borneo’s expansive wilderness and the sense of adventure and mystery it has inspired have appeared countless times in both international pop culture and local legend.
My journey to Borneo began with an invitation to a friend’s nephew’s wedding in Pontianak, the largest city in western Borneo. Pontianak’s population is split evenly between Chinese, Malay, and indigenous Dayak ethnic groups.
My host in Pontianak was Ed, a 19-year-old student living with his large Parakan family in a scenic suburb full of rice paddies and canals. With a Chinese mom and Malay dad, Ed’s home expemplifies Borneo’s pervasive cultural fusion. The entire family was very enthusiastic about meeting a foreigner, and each of his parents and siblings wanted a photo with me. With daily tutoring, Ed helped me improve my Indonesian
Ed and I hired a fisherman to take us down the Kapuas River, which is so wide you often can’t see the other side.
He took us to a confucian temple built upon stilts at the center of the river, which serves as an important pilgrimage site for the local Chinese community
In the 1780s, Chinese settler communities in Borneo established sovereign republics spanning the Western half of the island to protect themselves from the encroachment of Dutch imperialists. By 1884, the last of these kongsi republics was conquered by the Dutch, but evidence of Chinese influence in Borneo abounds to this day.
I was on the look out for the massive Indo-Pacific saltwater crocodile indigenous to the area, the largest of all reptiles, but the fisherman informed me they are mostly active at dawn and dusk.
I asked the fisherman if we could visit his village, so he veered onto a smaller tributary where there were wooden houseboats docked along the river.
Finally we arrived d at his village about two hours upstream. The river is the villagers’ only point of access to the outside world. There are no road connections nor telecommunication services there.
The first things I noticed about his village is that there were coconuts EVERYWHERE.
And when coconuts are more abundant than asphalt… you build coconut roads.
The fisherman climbed up a tree and hacked off some coconuts for us to enjoy.
Then he brought us into his cozy home to meet his wife and kids. His wife prepared coconut milk and snake fruit for us.
The outer shell of snake fruit is tough and scaly like reptile skin while the inside is soft and sweet like lychee.
When I got back to Pontianak, I happened upon a market selling handwoven bags for much cheaper than what they would sell for in Bali. Sensing a business opportunity, I asked the shopkeeper where I could source the product. He referred me to a village in Central Borneo called Putissibau .
Located 400 kilometers upstream from Pontianak, Putissibau serves as a market town for Borneo’s sparsely populated interior. Local shopkeepers in Putissibau suggested I may find the product I was looking for in the traditional Iban longhouse communities of the surrounding jungles.
Until recently, the wooden longhouses served as collectivist communes sheltering entire tribes under one roof, including hundreds of Iban men, women, and children. Nowadays they are only partially occupied as emigration to coastal urban areas continues to hollow out Borneo’s underdeveloped interior.
The artisans in the longhouses showed us many handmade craft creations, but none were what I was looking for, so we took a ferry across the river to scout out the villages on the other side.
This was Christmas morning I should mention. As recent converts to Christianity, the Dayaks take Christmas very seriously. We were invited into many a home to join in on Christmas festivities.
I spotted this owl perched on a post outside a home. As I approached to get a closer look, a dog started barking and alerted the family inside of my approach.
As per local custom, the family met us with warm greetings and invited us in. They explained that they found the owl on a tree outside. It had an injured wing that prevented it from flying, so they captured it with a net and kept it as a pet. Keeping a wild owl on a leash isn’t quite what I would consider ethical, but, god, he was freaking cute.
Another family we visited had a dead pangolin in their home. Pangolins are a critically endangered species, but what can I do? It’s their forest.
Almost all homes in rural Borneo are built on stilts in anticipation of the monsoon floods.
I had a burning desire to venture off-road into the rainforests. Ed adamantly resisted fearing head hunters, black magic, and the unknown, so I went without him. I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just plants and insects.
Across the Border
I left Indonesian Borneo empty-handed because I had a wedding to attend in Sulawesi and then New Years plans in Kuala Lumpur. I returned to Borneo a few weeks later to resume my quest, but this time on the Malaysian side of the border. Malaysian Borneo is divided into two states, Sarawak and Sabah. I visited the capital of Sarawak state, Kuching. This quirky city was my favorite in Malaysia.
Kuching is a creation of British colonialism and retains a pervasive Chinese-Malay-Dayak cultural fusion. Its historic downtown is one of Malaysia’s renowned food meccas.
The Sarawak Legislative Assembly Building was designed to resemble a traditional hat worn by the area’s native Iban tribe. The state-of-the-art green building is surrounded by river and connected to downtown Kuching on either side by twisting metallic bridges.
I had two hosts in Kuching. Just by coincidence, they happened to be cousins. Tammathy, a Chinese-Malaysian who has spent most of his life in Australia, picked me up from the airport and took me to grab beers with his beds. The next day he dropped me off at Pin’s house. Whereas Tammathy only speak English, Pin almost exclusively communicates in Chinese. The two are cousins and neighbors, yet their households were part of two very different cultural spheres.
Malaysian Borneo is home to several orangutan conservation centers where visitors can come face-to-face with these solitary red apes. Orangutans are critically endangered and are only found in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
The proboscis monkeys is a large primate species found throughout Borneo. Locals refer to the species as orang belanda (literally “Dutchman”) because its long nose and big belly are features that were once associated with the former Dutch colonial masters.
Other Critically Endangered Species of Borneo
My adventures spanned only a tiny slice of the giant landmass that is Borneo. Sadly, many of the things that make Borneo unique are under threat as its rainforests are cleared for timber and palm oil plantations and its indigenous peoples are encouraged to assimilate.
Both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo are becoming more integrated with their national heartlands, which may bring higher levels of prosperity for the locals along with reduced levels of cultural and ecological diversity. If you wish to experience for yourself the untamed mystique of Borneo, there is no time like the present.