First impressions of Banjarmasin are mixed. From the air, it looks watery but not so unlike many other SE Asian cities. The faded Dutch colonial era buildings in the downtown area…interesting. The pumping central market and swarming becaks…curiosity rising. The ‘wow’ moment comes when you take to the water.
The capital of South Kalimantan (Indonesia Borneo), this so-called “City of a Thousand Rivers” or “Venice of the East” is located on a delta island near the junction of the Barito and Martapura rivers, both mighty rivers. It’s laced with an extensive network of flood-prone natural and man-made waterways. The daily lives of the Banjarese are intrinsically linked to the waterways on which they live, work and play. Thousands of homes, businesses and warehouses are built on stilts over the water or traditional floating homes called lanting, and vessels of all shapes and sizes ply the waterways.
A former maritime empire with a long and exotic history, Banjarmasin was officially founded in 1526 but the area was occupied at least a thousand years before then, originally by the indigenous Maayan Dayaks, and later by migrants from old Malay and Java. Traders from as far away as China and Bay of Bengal nations including India and the Arabian Peninsula were known to use the port, and in the 1600’s the Dutch arrived looking for spices, eventually establishing a Dutch protectorate over the region which lasted until Japanese occupation during WWII.
These days, Banjarmasin is still an important trade centre, with the nearby deepwater port servicing Barito basin exports of rubber, pepper, timber, petroleum, coal, gold and gemstones, including diamonds and rubies.
It’s a fascinating, colourful place with heaps to see and do, and as the RoamIndonesia team discovered, the Banjarese are among the friendliest people you’ll ever encounter. What surprises us is how the city has remained so far off the mainstream tourist radar, but we’re about to let you in on the secret.
Take a canal tour
It goes without saying that the best way to explore Banjarmasin is to charter a small longboat and spend a few fascinating hours touring the waterways, starting with the canals. The ramshackle, rather dilapidated iron-clad suburbs are jaw dropping but it’s the smiling, waving residents, surely the friendliest people ever that make this trip unforgettable. For this reason, its best to start your canal tour late in the afternoon when folks are home from work and the kids are out to play.
Lok Baintan Floating Market
An absolute ‘must see’ when in Banjarmasin is the Lok Baintan floating market on the Martapura River. Held daily for over 500 years, this vibrant, colourful market is widely regarded as the most authentic of its kind in SE Asia and few who have seen it would argue.
At sunrise all year round, the mostly female traders gather in their canoes (junking) to barter and trade an astonishing variety of home grown produce such as bananas, guavas, oranges, rambutan, water spinach and other vegetables. There’s fish, coconuts, palm leaves, baskets and woven mats; an almost endless list that changes with the season.
Before the morning heat sweeps across the river, the traders begin to drift away, either returning home or heading into the labyrinth of waterways hawking their goods from door to door, so by 9am it’s over for another day. For tourists, there’s still the 45min journey back down the river to enjoy, and if you’ve already done a canal tour, this is great opportunity to see another side of Banjarmasin river life. Click here for more information.
Muara Kuin Floating Market
The Muara Kuin floating market takes place between 5-9am every morning on a wide part of the Barito River by the Kuin Estuary, just a short boat ride from downtown Banjarmasin.
Unlike its counterpart Lok Baintan, which is an informal gathering of villagers trading and bartering their own products to the Banjar community, the Muara Kuin market is commercially focused. The boats are bigger, the volumes are bigger and the pace faster. At one time, it was the biggest floating market in Indonesia but unfortunately in recent years the market has declined as many merchants have moved across to the adjacent land based market. Despite this, the Muara Kuin floating markets is still well worth a look. Click here for more information.
Monkey Islands (Pulau Kembang & Pulau Kaget)
Rather than heading straight back to town after your floating market experience, consider venturing a little further downstream to Pulau Kembang (Monkey Island) and Pulau Kaget (Shock Island), located in the middle of the Barito River.
Pulau Kembang actually translates as “Flower Island” but over the years it has become more commonly known as “Monkey Island” due to its large population of long-tailed macaques who live among the trees and an abandoned Chinese temple.
A little further downstream, Pulau Kegat is home to a population of proboscis monkeys. The monkeys are most active around the shoreline during the early morning, then head deeper into the island to rest until the late afternoon. Unlike their cousins over on Monkey Island, these guys are genuinely wild so there’s no guarantee of actually seeing one, but you can improve the odds by planning your visit carefully. Click here for more information.
Housed in a traditional Banjarese “Bubungan Tinggi” style house, the Wasaka Museum has a collection of artifacts from the Banjar Kingdom and the Dutch VOC period. Items on display in traditional costumes, plates, jars, swords and pistols, and other antiques. An easy and interesting way to spend a few hours learning more about the Banjarese struggle for independence and the colonial Dutch.
The museum is located just north of downtown Banjarmasin and can be reached by car or boat along the Martapura River.
Sabilal Muhtadin Grand Mosque
Reputedly the second largest mosque in Indonesia, the Sabilal Muhtadin Grand Mosque is the pride of Banjarmasin. Located along the Martapura riverfront in central Banjarmasin, the ultramodern complex consists of a huge dome clad main plaza and several towers, one soaring forty-five metres into the air. The entire massive structure is clad in marble, the interior finished with tiles and intricate reliefs.
Well worth a look, visitors are welcome to look around outside the main prayer times. Remember to dress conservatively (for women that means knees, midriff and arms covered) and remove you shoes before entering.
Old Riverside Quarter
From the grand mosque, head south along the riverbank into the old riverside quarter, an almost claustrophobic labyrinth of boardwalk timber and rusty iron clad homes, markets, warungs and tea houses. Here you’ll find a dizzying collection of merchandise; everything from food, clothing, porcelain and even gemstones.
Local specialties include Ketupat Kandangan, grilled snakehead fish (locally known as ikan haruan or gabus) in spiced coconut milk, and Soto Banjar, a traditional dish made with meat or fish, noodles, potato, spices and lime, cooked in coconut milk and flavoured to taste with sambal chilli sauce. You’ll find both these meals readily available at food stalls throughout the city.
One thing you’ll quickly realise about the Banjarese, is their incredible appetite for anything sweet. Pisang goreng (deep fried battered banana) and donuts are hawked from carts and canoes everywhere. But Banjarmasin is also famous for its delicious cakes, known as kueh or wadai, made from bananas, coconuts, condensed milk, sugar, rice and even chilli. Keep an eye out for the caramel coloured, thinly layered Lam cake and Bingka Barandam, a kind of cupcake soaked in sweet syrup.