Imagine yourself sitting on the open air deck of a boat with the engine puttering as the boat drifts down a river with the rainforest jungle on both sides. Bright lush greenery as far as the eye can see with palm trees growing straight out of the water. There’s no phone service so no technology or social media to distract you from the beautiful nature scenery around you. You can truly disconnect and listen to the cacophony of noises happening all around you from cicadas to birds to monkeys and the occasional tree branch breaking and falling into the water. It’s so calm and peaceful that you feel yourself becoming one with Mother Nature.
Well this can be a reality and not just in your imagination! I know because I experienced it firsthand. A river house boat tour is the best way to visit Borneo in Indonesia. Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third largest island in the world. The island is divided between 3 countries with Malaysia and Brunei in the north and Indonesia in the south. Kota Kinabalu on the Malaysian side tends to gets more tourists since it is more well known. But the Indonesian side has the Kapuas River, the longest river in Borneo. The Borneo rainforest, one of the oldest rainforests in the world, is home to a multitude of plants and animals especially the orangutan. To see them, a rainforest jungle river cruise is the best way to experience Borneo in Indonesia, go bird-watching, and see wild orangutans!
Riding the Klotok
To do this river cruise, you will take a klotok, a traditional Indonesian river house boat. These wooden boats generally have an upper deck for tourists as the boat moves from point to point. It’s open air but with a roof, which is much needed when it rains.
The klotok is the main form of transportation for tourists to visit the Tanjung Puting National Park, which is in the Central Kalimantan province in Indonesia on Borneo Island. Tanjung Puting National Park is famous for the orangutans and the proboscis (or long-nosed) monkeys that live there. I was lucky to see both of these primates as well as other wildlife including macaque monkeys, wild pigs, and quite a few different kinds of birds.
Riding the klotok was an assault on the senses from the smell of the fresh clean air to a distinct aroma in the jungle that I still don’t know how to describe. Tasty delicious Indonesian food was served on board for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I loved sitting in the front of the boat feeling the sun shining down. I thoroughly enjoyed the view especially the colorful sunrises and sunsets while keeping an eye and ear out for wildlife. The soft “tok tok tok” of the boat’s motor (which is how the boat became known as a klotok) served as the perfect background noise.
At one point in the river system, the water appeared dark and black. Black river water actually means the water is clean and healthy. The black color is due to the sap from the roots of the plants in the water. Water turns muddy brown due to palm oil production runoff. Seeing when and how the water changed from black to muddy brown signaled what an effect the palm oil plantations were having on the environment. I’ve only seen black water like this in Tasmania, Australia, which was also due to the plants in the water.
At night, we also slept on the upper deck of the boat. My bed was literally a mattress on the deck with mosquito netting around it. But the nights I spent on the boat were actually some of the most restful nights I’ve ever had. I slept like a rock! As other boats passed by, small waves rippled out and gently rocked the boat. The creatures in the jungle provided white ambient background noise to lull you asleep. One night, we moored up next to palm trees with tons of fireflies lighting up all around, making the palm trees look like Christmas trees. It was quite a sight to see!
I visited Borneo in early September, which is supposed to be high peak season (June to Sep) because it is less likely to rain during that time. However, it didn’t feel touristy at all. Yes, we saw a few tourists at the feeding stations. But once the boats dispersed from the stops, you didn’t see too many other boats as you glided down the river. It definitely still felt quite a bit off the beaten path since most people outside Indonesia haven’t heard of Borneo or only know about the Malaysian side of it.
Save the Orangutans!
Orangutans are unique since they are the only great apes that come from Asia. The other three kinds (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos) all come from Africa. Furthermore within Asia, orangutans currently only live in the Borneo and Sumatra rainforests. Consequently, Tanjung Puting National Park is one of the few places in the world where you can have the opportunity to see these gentle reddish brown apes in the wild.
Orangutans are listed as a critically endangered species according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It is estimated that there are only 120,000 orangutans left in the entire world! Their rainforest habitat has greatly decreased in size due to heavy logging, forest fires, and palm oil plantations. Because of this, it is difficult for them to find food in the wild. So the National Park sets up these feeding stations where bananas and milk are set out for the wild orangutans to come and feed. Due to the scarcity of food, orangutans are semi-solitary compared to the other apes.
Many organizations like the Orangutan Foundation International work hard on conservation, rehabilitation, research, and education for the orangutans. Please consider supporting their efforts! Camp Leakey is one of their active research facilities. It was also one of the stops that we made on our house boat tour.
We also stopped at Pondok Tanguy, a rehabilitation center for orangutans. At each of the stops in the park, our guide would take us on a short trek through the jungle to the feeding stations, where we could observe the orangutans. We maintained a safe distance away and were restricted to a certain area to view any orangutans that came to feed. If none came, it was a good sign that they were finding enough food in the jungle on their own. So it’s not guranteed that you’ll see orangutans since they are wild animals! When we stopped at Camp Leakey, we had 3 hours to spend at the viewing area. But the orangutans didn’t show up until last hour we were there.
I was lucky to see one adult male orangutan lumber across one of the feeding stations we visited. The adult males are easy to distinguish due to their distinctive large cheek pads and sheer size since they can weigh up to 200lbs.
We saw lots of females with their babies. Babies stay with the mothers until they are at least 5 years old. They were constantly holding onto their mother’s fur and arms. The mother and baby have a very strong bond due to the long time spent together. During this time, the baby is learning how to survive from the mother. Since the mothers nurse and rear the child for so long, females only have a baby once every 8 years.
We watched the orangutans for hours as they came and went. It was so interesting to see how they interacted with one another. It was also very entertaining to see them stuff their faces with bananas. You couldn’t help but chuckle when you see them grab fistfuls of bananas and then somehow still manage to climb up trees. They were surprisingly quite agile as they used or created momentum to gracefully swing from tree to tree and branch to branch.
It was a little strange to see how human-like they were. One could definitely see how humans evolved from apes, which is no surprise considering we share 97% of the same DNA. The orangutans are incredibly intelligent. I still have mixed feelings about observing them at the feeding stations since it created an almost zoo-like spectator atmosphere. Often, you could see and feel like they knew we were there watching them. Sometimes they would sit there and stare back at you. Others would go back to feeding while the tourists happily clicked away on their cameras. I’m glad that I had the chance to see these beautiful creatures in the wild though and hope that we can save their homes!
How to Visit Indonesian Borneo
Fly into Pangkalan Bun (PKN) Iskandar Airport on one of the local airlines – Nam Air, Sriwijaya Air, Lion Air, Wings Air, or Trigana Air. If you are flying from Bali (DPS) or Jakarta (CGK), you will most likely need to have a layover in Surabaya (SUB) or Semarang (SRG). Return trips cost between $100-$170 USD depending on the airline, timing, and route.
Depending on the boat tour operator you’ve booked with, most will pick you up from the airport to transport you to Kumai, which is a port town on the Kumai River, where you will board your klotok river house boat.
Booking your klotok house boat tour
I found my klotok house boat tour through Lonely Planet. Most of the tours I researched operate private tours only. It was a little hard to find a tour that accepted solo travelers without paying full price for a private tour, so that’s something to keep in mind. I booked mine with Orangutan House Boat Tours since they were the only ones that provided a group tour and actually replied back to my email asking about availability. Fardi, the owner, is very knowledgeable and passionate about the orangutans, and runs a solid business. I also wanted to make sure my money would be going to the right people. My entire tour ended up costing about $285 USD total for 3 days and 2 nights.
The klotok house boat is very basic so don’t expect anything luxurious. For example, there’s only one bathroom on the boat for everyone (including the staff), and there’s only cold water for showers. My boat tour included an English speaking guide, boat captain and his assistant, and a cook for all of the meals. The staff was quite hospitable. They’ll set up the beds each night for you and serve your meals. The guide is required in order to take you inside the National Park to the feeding stations and the viewing areas. The staff work hard to make sure you’re comfortable and enjoying yourself.
How many days to spend?
I chose to do a 3 day/2 night tour which is the minimum amount of time needed in my opinion. I could have spent one more additional day. There are options for longer tours, which go further down the river with more stops for more chances to see orangutans and other wildlife. The first and last days are spent getting into and out of the park. Therefore, with a day tour or 2 day/1 night tour, you won’t be able to venture deep into the river system, would explore less of the National Park, and have fewer opportunities to see the orangutans.
What to bring?
It is a tropical climate in the rainforest jungle so it was very hot and humid with lots of mosquitoes. There is a very low risk of malaria in Borneo. Malaria does exist but it is usually limited to isolated deep jungle areas. However if you are prone to mosquito bites like I am, you may want to consider asking your doctor for advice on whether you need anti-malaria medicine as a precaution.
Definitely be prepared for rain and it can get a bit cool at night. So don’t forget sunscreen, mosquito repellent, rain jacket/poncho, layers, sneakers for the rainforest jungle trekking, and last but not least, a camera for photos of the orangutans!