Kalimantan: Finding Durian in Borneo's Wild Wild West

Very few people visit Kalimantan, the forgotten Indonesian side of Borneo which actually comprises nearly two-thirds of the island. Huge and sparsely populated, with the largest tracks of virgin rainforest left on the island, Kalimantan is still relatively unexplored, which means there's very little information about where to go and what to see (the best reference is Lazlo's Kalimantan Guide). For those of us trying to figure out where to go for durian, it's a blank map. We spent hours and hours on the internet plugging in every search term we could think of and coming up empty.

Fortunately, eleven months down the durian trail we've had the time to do our homework and make some contacts. With so much territory to cover via Indonesian transportation (read: really slow and smoky), we’ve decided to focus our time and energy in one smallish area, the province of West Kalimantan on the border of Malaysia.So we've launched ourselves into inland Borneo, taking a plane from Kuching to Pontianak, and then an 18 hour bus ride up to Putussibau, a frontier town on the upper Kapuas River where orangutans still roam the forest, the native people retain their traditional way of life, and there is only one internet cafĂ© with a dodgy connection (from which I am writing this post).

Pontianak city street
Originally I didn’t even want to spend the night in Pontianak, not only because I’d heard the city had little to offer besides the usual Indonesian chaos, but because of it’s connection with one of the truly scariest of mythological creatures. In Malaysian folklore, a Pontianak is a cross between a female vampire and the vengeful ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. Marked by her wickedly long nails, a Pontianak eats babies and kills pregnant women by sucking their blood. I’m not that superstitious, but Rob and I agreed that the danger of infanticidic ghosts was only one more reason not to stay even one night.

But as usual, we don't seem to be in charge of our own plans. Luckily for us, our attempts at securing a flight directly to Balikpapan from Pontianak via Lion Air failed, and we arrived in Pontianak with no ongoing tickets and a phone number for a durian expert in the area. From the airport I called Hendro, who immediately agreed to meet with us that morning. Hendro owns a fruit tree nursery outside of Pontianak and had aided in the durian adventures of the famed durian explorer Mr. Pak Karim. Although his knowledge of other provinces was sketchy, he gave me the phone number of another durian freak in Balikpapan, who was able to tell me that it wouldn't be durian season there until February. So we happily crossed Central Kalimantan off our itinerary and focused on exploring West Kalimantan.

Hendro and Iqbal were eager to aid us in going upriver to find durians, but with a price tag so steep we had to decline. Unlike Mr. Pak Karim, we are not oil palm tycoons! Even after we declined their offer, they gave us loads of durian information and kindly dropped us off at the Central Hotel, a nice hotel with wi-fi right next to where the durian vendors gather in the evenings on Jalan Teuko Umar and across the street from the bustling morning market called Pasar Mawar.

We spent the next day exploring the maze-like market and buying durian from the rows of motorcycle vendors who show up around 5 P.M., just as it's getting dark. Then to top off our Pontianak experience, in the morning we ran into a large parade of children, marching bands, paper mache-ed bicycles and truckloads of people dressed in their Muslim finest to celebrate the Islamic New Year. I couldn't help but feeling like we'd been transported to Saudi Arabia, but every one was really friendly and excited to see us. We took pictures with teenagers dressed in long hooded robes, kids in turbans, and young girls dressed in pink and purple scarves looking for all the world like proper Scheherazades.

So Pontianak was less nightmare-ish then we imagined, but we were still eager to get on the road to Putissibau, our chosen destination. Ringed by the Betung Kerihun National Park and Danau Sentarum National Park, Putussibau is one of the last havens for those looking for the real, wild, primal, and undiscovered Borneo that exists in all of our fantasies.  To add to the mystique, there's very little information about Putussibau on the internet and almost no one speaks English once you actually get here, making planning anything a real chore. It's truly for the adventurous and really flexible, which I guess is us.

In the old days, Putussibau was only accessible by a hazardous river journey that could take from four days to a month. Since the road was built in the 1990's, tourists have their choice of flying via Kalstar (about $100) or taking the heinous 18 hour journey on the bus. Rob pushed for saving some money and taking the bus, and the next day he purchased us two Eksekutiv seats for 200,000 IDR each, figuring we might as well ride in style. And it was quite a style, although not the one we had figured on. We showed up at the bus station in the middle of a downpour to see this as our accommodations for the night:
The large, Malaysian style buses we had seen traversing the Pontianak streets can't handle the potholed and often flooded road to Putussibau. It was reminiscent of our journey to Dak Mil, Vietnam, as the bus rocked and rolled through the darkness, plunging into potholes and occasionally launching us toward the ceiling. To be honest, I thought it was pretty fun. I slept most of the night folded up on Rob's lap (not sure how well Rob slept) next to a box full of durian, which wafted around the bus and pervaded my dreams. Best yet, we had no problem with the bus stopping to let us go to the toilet, my main complaint from our travels in Java where I was forced to hold it for 7 hours. Apparently in Kalimantan they drink water.

Large portions of Putussibau were flooded from the previous day's deluge when we arrived around 6:30 in the morning. No one seemed particularly concerned; flooding is merely an aspect of life in a place that can receive as much as 9 inches of rain in a single day. We were given a free tour of the city as the bus delivered each individual to their house. Finally, we turned down a street completely loaded with durian for 100 meters on each side, the most durian filled durian street of this entire trip! Maybe because we got so excited and said the word "durian" so many times, the bus dropped us off right there. We stood bewildered in the road for a moment before someone pointed us across the way to an old longhouse converted to a hotel.

Hotel Aman Sentosa has the premier durian location on durian street (actually Diponegoro Street). From our hotel room, I can look out on two durian stands and keep tabs on the supplies. After one agonizingly sweaty afternoon in the economy room (80,000 IDR), which does NOT come with a fan, we forked out for the AC Family room across the courtyard (160,000 IDR) and are much happier. We spent our first day in Putussibau sleeping off the night's journey and eating durian, which is the cheapest durian we have come across in all our travels. The quality is hit or miss, but at 5,000 for a durian ($0.52 US) who cares!

There's durian truly every where in this town. You can't walk five feet in any direction without seeing, smelling or eating some durian. It's all backyard durian, carted in from neighboring villages on motorcycles, and you can depend on it's being organic as no one bothers with spraying.

So we've hit the durian jackpot in Putussibau. But we've got plans - we've seen enough durian kampung to last a lifetime and are dreaming of other durians, in particular of durian kura kura (d. testudinarum), a type of durian that grows on the base of the trunk instead of the branches. If all goes well and my sources are right, we'll have ourselves a turtle durian in a few days. Wish us luck (and a better internet connection)!

Photo from http://iwandahnial.wordpress.com