Tarakan, The Marshy Island in The Celebes Sea

The area of North Kalimantan that borders directly onto the neighboring country of Malaysia was once part of the East Kalimantan Province until it was officially established as a separate province on 25th October 2012. While the young province that has Tanjung Selor as capital city may not be as familiar to most ears as Indonesia’s other provinces, it holds some of the most fascinating wonders, away from popular spotlights. If one were to explore this young province, there is no better place to start than from the city / the island of Tarakan.

Situated just across the border from Sabah, Malaysia, the town and island of Tarakan was once major oil producing region during the Dutch colonial period. The city had great strategic importance during the Pacific War and was among the first Japanese targets early in the war. The city of Tarakan is situated on an island bearing the same name and covers a total area of 657.33 square kilometers comprising a land area of 250.80 square kilometers and surrounding waters of 406.53 square kilometers. This triangle shaped island is located about 4 km off the coast of Kalimantan.

The Tarakan city, North Kalimantan
The Tarakan city, North Kalimantan (Source : prokal.co)

The name Tarakan itself is believed to have originated from the language of the Tidung, a sub ethnic group of Borneo’s Dayaks, the indigenous people of this huge island. Tarakan is believed to be derived from the word Tarak meaning “meeting place” and Ngakan meaning “to eat”, thus Tarakan was originally a meeting place for sailors and traders in the area to eat, rest and trade their catch.

According to legend, the native Tidung established their kingdom in Tarakan around 1076. After moving their capital for several times during the centuries, in 1571 they settled their kingdom on the eastern coast of Tarakan . Dutch colonial interests first explored the island in 1863 when oil seepages were discovered. In 1905, and an oil concession was granted to the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Petroleum Maatschappij, a predecessor to the Royal Dutch Shell. Production continued to increase and in the 1920’s, Tarakan yielded over 5 million barrels a year, a third of the total oil production in the whole Dutch East Indies.

Although Tarakan was only a small marshy island, it played a significant part in the Second World War in the Pacific. Tarakan was an obvious target for the Japanese for two reasons: the presence of a rich oil field, and to use this as a strategic air base from which further attacks could be launched. In the first battle of Tarakan on January 11–12, 1942, the Japanese invasion fleet defeated the Dutch and took control of Tarakan. The Allies finally captured Tarakan following the second battle of Tarakan from May 1 – June 21, 1945. The Allied forces responsible for capturing Tarakan was tasked to the veteran Australian 26th Brigade Group.

The city of Tarakan
The city of Tarakan (Source : belajaridup.blogspot.co.id)

Remnants of the clashes and great battles between the two forces can still be found throughout the city. Among these remnants are the Peningki Lama Site at East Tarakan where one can still see 12 cannons and 10 bunkers; the Museum Roemah Boendar (Roundhouse Museum) which was built by the Australian forces after defeating the Japanese in the second battle of Tarakan; Pillbox / Stelling Post, a place to take cover and scout for enemies, which is located at the end of the runway of  the Juwata International Airport; The Australian Monument at the Kodim (Military Command Center) on Pulau Kalimantan Street, which was built in honor of Australian forces who lost their lives during the battle; The Japanese Ash Monument which is dedicated to the Japanese who lost their lives on the island; and more.


Tarakan is famous for its fresh sea food, especially its crabs. There are a number of dishes made from the this sea floor crawlers. One of the most unique and special treats of Tarakan is Kepiting Soka or Soka Crabs which is a type of crab with tender shell, allowing us to eat every part of its body.

The other distinct treat of Tarakan is Kapah which is a type of clams found abundantly along the coastline of this island city. Kapah is usualy served by boiling it in hot water. At Amal Beach, almost all restaurants and food vendors serve this tasty dish.

Here are some restaurants in Tarakan:

  • Restaurant Kepiting Saos Kenari, Jl. Mulawarman, Tarakan
  • Rumah Makan Nelayan, Jl. Markoni, Tarakan
  • Bilkas Restaurant, Jl. Gajah Mada Komp. Gusher Blok A No.22-23 Tarakan

There are some hotels and accommodation options available in Tarakan.

Aside from the various World War II remnants and monuments, the city of Tarakan also holds other fascinating places worth visiting, among them are:

The Tarakan Orchid Garden

The Tarakan Orchid Garden is a center of breeding and cultivation of orchids in the city. There are more than 12,000 species of orchids grown in the park, 15 species among which are original plants while more than 30 species are hybrid. Most of the flowers are exported to Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei.

Amal Beach                                     

Amal Beach is a secluded beach which offers spectacular scenery and serene ambience. The beach is decorated with rows of sheltering coconut trees and crystal clear blue water which make it a perfect place to lay back and relax.  History also records that the beach was the site of a battle between the Japanese and the Allied troops in the Pacific War.

The Mangrove and Proboscis Monkeys Conservation Area

The Mangrove and Bekantan Conservation Area is believed to be the only mangrove forest located in a city center in Indonesia, if not the world. It is situated on Gajah Mada Road, adjacent to downtown Gusher Plaza.

It is home to the rare proboscis monkeys (locally known as Bekantan), 11 species of mangrove, hundreds of black and grey monkeys, otters, rare Bondol eagles and a vast range of other flora and fauna. Its location in the heart of the city expedites the learning and research process. Entrance fee to the park is only IDR 5,000 for adults and IDR 3,000 for children. Earnings from ticket sales are set aside for environmental improvements.

The Juwata Crocodile Breeding Center

Covering a total area of approximately 5 hectares, the Juwata Crocodile Breeding Center is home to a large number of crocodiles and is located in West Tarakan. Open since 1991, there are three species of crocodiles here namely saltwater crocodiles (crocodylus porosus), Malayan gharial (tamistoma scheillius), and fresh water crocodiles (crocodylus siamlisus).


The Juwata International Airport serves both domestic and international flights. There are direct flight between Tarakan and BalikpapanSurabayaTanjung Selor, Nunukan, and Berau. Domestic airlines that serve flights to and from Tarakan include Lion Air, Sriwijaya Air, Garuda indonesia, Kalstar, and Susi Air. Tarakan’s Airport also serves an international route to Tawau in Malaysia by MASWings Airlines of Malaysia.

For sea transportation, the city has 4 main sea ports which are Tengkayu I Port, Tengkayu II Port, Malundung Port, and Juwata Laut Port. Through the sea routes, the city is connected with Tawau, in Sabah, Malaysia, the island of Java, and Sulawesi.


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