Samarinda, The Exotic Gateway To East Kalimantan

The city of Samarinda sits upon Kalimantan’s majestic Mahakam River, being an excellent jumping-off point for a cruise up into Borneo’s primal heart. Learn about intriguing story behind the name of the city, and check the best side trips ideas.

25 June 2022
David Smith

The city of Samarinda sits upon Borneo’s majestic Mahakam River, and is the provincial capital of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan. It is home to half a million people, and an excellent jumping-off point for a cruise up the mighty Mahakam River into Borneo’s primal heart.

Welcome to Samarinda

Samarinda’s city centre is certainly not be one of the Republic of Indonesia’s most distinguished, or visually arresting – and the city’s small handful of decent hotels and malls are offset by thousands of dilapidated, tin-roof shanties that sprawl haphazardly over the surrounding hills. However, there’s a good choice of eating options, souvenir shops and points of interest to keep you occupied for a couple of days before the call of the Mahakam River proves irresistible – and you head upstream into Borneo’s glorious rainforests.

Samarinda is well-stocked with accommodation to cover all budgets – from the swish Swiss-Belhotel Borneo and the Bumi Senyiur Hotel (with its tastefully elegant hardwood rooms) down to numerous budget options like the Gelora and Gading Kencana. Most of the city’s hotels can also be found clustered around the city centre and the area next to the river.

samarinda map of kalimantan
street scene samarinda

The History and Geography of Samarinda

Samarinda began life as a small Bugis settlement. Ethnic Bugis settlers crossed over to Borneo from Indonesia’s neighbouring island of Sulawesi in the late 17th century. The city was officially founded on January 21, 1668 – a date now celebrated annually by the city’s nearly 800,000 residents.

Located some 50 kms upstream from the mouth of the vast Mahakam River, Samarinda has been a vibrant trading hub for almost three centuries.

The city is surrounded by rivers, and in addition to the capacious flow of the Mahakam itself, the Karang Mumus can be found to the east of town – while the waters of the Karangasem lie to the west. Both waterways empty into Mahakam’s sizable estuary downstream of the city. Noisy motorised canoes ply the rivers alongside the city’s 200,000-hectare forests, giving Samarinda a totally unique vibe.

What's in a name?

Samarenda means ‘equal in height’ in the Bugis language, and describes the traditional river-houses that were built on rafts. As all were generally the same height, this was a visual social symbol that no-one is born higher or lower than his neighbour.

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Cheap Flights to Samarinda

When flying to Samarinda look for it’s airport – Aji Pangeran Tumenggung Pranoto International Airport (SRI) located in the Siring River area. The recommended airlines that provide flight tickets to Samarinda are Garuda Indonesia, Citilink dan Batik Air. There are also less know airlines connecting smaller Indonesian airports with: Susi Air, Wings Air, dan Xpress Air. Flights from Jakarta to Samarinda start at around $100.

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Exploring the City and Shopping

But before you put on your safari suit and leap into the great unknown of Borneo’s rainforests, take a day or two to explore the city and see what it has to offer. First up is the Cita Niaga market boasting a wealth of souvenir and food vendors. This large, commercial area is chilled out and clean – and some thought has clearly gone into its eye-catching design.

There are also regular shows and exhibitions to enjoy at the weekend. Meanwhile, mall-lovers will be kept happy with the Mesra Indah Mall and the Ramayana Mall.

Tours don’t come cheap – but most offer an intoxicating blend of boating, trekking, wildlife-spotting and local culture. If you’re lucky, you might even join some Dayaks on a hunting trip.

Mesjid Raya Darussalam

On a more religious note, the Mesjid Raya Darussalam mosque boasts some startling missile-like minarets, while the city’s Islamic Centre was opened in 2008. The Mesjid Raya Darussalam is reputed to be the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, and the second largest in the southern hemisphere. The tower here boasts the highest point in the city, and offers superb views over the Mahakam. Hop on the elevator and head for the heavens.

Attractions Outside the City

If you’re after some authentic textiles, head for Samarinda Seberang on the south bank of the river and check out the sarongs and local songket there. A little further afield, Pampang Cultural Park lies some 25km west of town and is famous for its Dayak kenyah ceremonies, performances and rituals.

There are plenty of photo-opportunities, and visitors can enjoy dance performances in a traditional Kalimantan long-house. Also worth a look is Tanah Merah Indah Lempake, a popular recreational park that lies 16 kms from the centre of town. The park features a waterfall and playgrounds – as well as camping facilities, swimming and fishing.

Beyond Samarinda

But Samarinda is only a beginning, of course – with the ultimate goal being to set sail up the magnificent Mahakam River on a rainforest tour to remember. If you’re already on the ground, your hotel should be able to help arrange a guide. Three-day tours usually follow an established route through the historic town of Tenggarong, as well as the Dayak settlements at Tanjung Issuy and Mancong. If you have a week-to-10 days free, you can head further upstream into the heart of jungle darkness and follow the Mahakam to Long Iram and Long Bangun – and eventually to some traditional Dayak longhouses.

Tours don’t come cheap – but most offer an intoxicating blend of boating, trekking, wildlife-spotting and local culture. If you’re lucky, you might even join some Dayaks on a hunting trip. Just make sure that you’re well prepared for this amazing experience – with plenty of money, clothes, wet-weather gear, strong footwear and first-aid supplies (including anti-malarial tablets). Along the way, see if you can spot any of the exotic flora and fauna unique to the area – from black orchids to freshwater dolphins, orangutans and a myriad of bird species.

For the East Kalimantan exploration you would find useful these three main bus terminals in Samarinda:

  • Sungai Kunjang bus terminal (green angkot A). Serves destinations along Mahakam river (as far as Melak) and Balikpapan.
  • Lempake bus terminal (red angkot B). Serves destinations north of Samarinda, including  Berau.
  • Terminal Seberang – serves Banjarmasin.

The Kutai National Park

A three-hour bus ride from Samarinda, this park is orangutan central – and covers a huge 200,000-hectare area that encompasses everything from mangrove swamps to highland forests. As well as orangutans – sadly now endangered by illegal logging and mining – you’ll also come across lorises, proboscis monkeys, leaf monkeys, dear, sun bears and sea eagles. Wildlife spotters can trek or traverse the park via its many waterways. Transport and guides are available, but book ahead if you can. Many of Samarinda’s tour companies offer Kutai packages.

Samarinda in Photographs

David S, contributor

David Smith

David is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist based in Bali. He takes readers with him on his travels in Indonesia and beyond. He works closely with Indoneo, a tour travel company from Yogyakarta.