Banjarmasin is the capital and the pulsating heart of the province of South Kalimantan. The largest and most beguiling city of Kalimantan – the Indonesian territory on Borneo – it rests gingerly over a labyrinth of canals thus giving it its illustrious nickname as the city of a thousand rivers. Like any other major city in the country, Banjarmasin is a buzz with business and traffic. However the city has its own distinct charm that makes it the best place to absorb Kalimantan’s urban culture, both on land as on the waters.
Located on a delta near the junction of the Barito and Martapura rivers, Banjarmasin, together with its neighboring city, Banjar Baru, form the center of the ninth largest metropolitan city in Indonesia, named Banjar Bakula, which together comprise the area covering the Banjar Regency, the Barito Kuala Regency, and Tanah Laut Regency. From ancient times and up to this day, Banjarmasin has remained an important harbor town on Kalimantan.
Banjarmasin has an abundance of wide and mighty rivers, which have always played a significant role in the Banjarese’ (the indigenous ethnic group of Banjarmasin) way of life. To this very day, every morning there are floating markets where farmers and merchants ply their goods on boats to trade. This has always been a farmers market and it’s interesting to see the genuine river-based way of life. The rivers are also used as main venues for boat races and other festivities. The town’s main attractions are the suburbs that are traversed by canals, where much of the city’s commerce takes place on the water.
The most notable of these river markets is the Muara Kuin Floating Market located on the Barito River, on the estuary of the Kuin River. Starting as early as 04.00 am, the floating market is the place to see the traffic of all kinds of boats laden with bananas, shrimps, fish, yams, spinach, coconut, incandescent spices and chilies, buckets of fuzzy rambutans, and whatever other fruit are in season. Maneuvering their boats with dexterity and precision, since the boats are constantly wobbled by the river’s waves, traders exchange goods and money. This unique frenzy is usually over by 09.00 am.
The Banjarese have a unique way of building their houses and other structures to be in harmony with nature. There are at least 12 types of traditional Banjarese houses, with some still standing handsomely today. In Kampung Kraton are still remnants of the old Banjarmasin Palace which was destroyed by the Dutch colonial government. There is also the Sultan Suriansyah Mosque which is known as the first mosque built in South Kalimantan where the royal tombs are laid. Another fascinating structure is the Museum Waja Sampai Ka Puting which houses some of the historical collections in the struggle of the people against Dutch colonialism. The building of the Museum itself is an old and genuine Banjarese traditional house in the “Bubungan Tinggi” style (one of the 12 styles and the most representative).
To most Indonesians, Banjarmasin is synonymous with diamonds and precious stones from Martapura. If you are interested in precious stones then Banjarmasin is the city to head to. They also have the cheaper agates that are made into brooches, necklaces, bracelets and other accessories.
Banjarese love their food, and even though they may be excited about other kinds of foods, they still adore their own local specialties more. The ones in restaurants, malls, or food courts are fine for beginners, but to find the real taste of Banjarese food, you have to go to hidden places along the side streets because there you will find the ones that are famous with the locals. Foods that are available throughout the year and most popular are:
Soto Banjar – “Soto” is a type of Indonesian soup. Soto Banjar is a uniquely Banjarese variant of Soto, popular in other places throughout Indonesia. Don’t miss the chance to try the real and genuine taste in its place of origin! When you order Soto in Banjarmasin, this means that the broth will be served with lontong, – rice wrapped and cooked in leaves – while when you ask for Soup, this will be served with steamed rice, for the same dish.
Apam – Although not specifically Banjarese, the Apam – a crepe – has its own twist here. Enjoy it sweet and warm, accompanied with hot tea.
Bingka – Another specialty of Banjar desert, it comes in many flavors. The pride of the Banjarese, it is very sweet and creamy.
Ketupat Kandangan – This is actually a specialty of Kandangan, but you can also find it in Banjarmasin. This is another way of cooking tasty spiced rice wrapped in coconut leaves. It is known as a festive food, especially favored during Eid al Fitr.
Klepon Buntut– This is a snack that is similar to Klepon, a palm-sugar filled snack coated with grated coconut that is found across Java. However this one has smoother texture and the filling is more liquid.
Banjarmasin has long been renowned as a center for gems and precious stones, particularly for rare diamonds and rubies. An informal network with international connections exists, which also supports the large domestic Indonesian trade in rare diamonds. Banjar’s diamonds are especially known for their exquisite brilliance. In recent times, however, many of Indonesia’s large diamond stones have been traded out of the country.
One of the most popular places to get the Banjarmasin’s gems is at Pondok Oleh Oleh Bang Fajeri on Jalan S Parman No. 48.
Here they also sell Kalimantan Souvenirs and Traditional snacks such as Lampit Rattan Mats, traditional clothes like Sasirangan, Amplang (Kalimantan traditional crackers) Lempok Durian, Dodol Kandangan, Mandau (Traditional Sword of the Dayak indigenous groups), Saluang Goreng (small fried river fish), Borneo Honey, and many more to take home as souvenir or give to friends.
There is a wide range of selection in accommodations available in Banjarmasin, from budget inns to starred hotels.
There are daily flights from many Indonesian cities including from Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, Balikpapan, Sampit and Pangkalan Bun to Banjarmasin’s airport of Syamsuddin Noor (BDJ). The airport is 26 km from Banjarmasin, or about half an hours drive from the city. To go to the city, you can take a taxi (with fixed rate) or better yet, tell your hotel to pick you up.
Another alternative to get to Banjarmasin is by ship from various places in Indonesia to Banjarmasin’s main harbor, named Trisakti. The sea trip will take approximately 2 days and 2 nights from Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok Harbor’s Passenger Terminal. Plus, there are ferries from Semarang and Surabaya, both on Java. There’s a ferry every 2 days between Surabaya and Banjarmasin.
The ferry between Surabaya and Banjarmasin takes 21 hours. If you have a problem with cigarette smoke, this is not a good method to travel since smoking is permitted in the sleeping area. There are no cabins. Females travelling solo should be aware that they will receive a considerable amount of male attention, most of it unwanted. The food is also not good.
There are public buses from Balikpapan to Banjarmasin, which will take a little over 14 hours and cost about IDR 200,000 including one meal.
Alternatively, if you are coming from the neighbouring provinces of East Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, there is plenty of boat transportation on the rivers of Kalimantan. This could be an adventurous or boring ride depending on your taste. A range of boats are available, from slow moving traditional boats to speedboats. It’s a great choice if you are extremely adaptable to the locals’ way of life.