Ketapang: The Way West

Ketapang, a regency in the lesser-known tourist destination of West Kalimantan, now boasts a collection of beautiful, quiet beaches and well-maintained urban forests.

Words by Fatrif MF, photography by Muhammad Fadli


From the aeroplane window, I could see a flat green forest that had partially turned yellow. Brown rivers, rich with silt, wound between the greens and yellows, reflecting the sunlight. These broad, giant snakes came together into the open sea. Soon, the plane carrying me would land in Ketapang, a regency in the province of West Kalimantan.

The morning had peaked, and the heat began to sting. Hamidi, a well-built, fair-skinned young Ketapang man, awaited me. He was my guide for a tour of the city in his car, and we were set to explore the west coast of Kalimantan, an island once feared by explorers. Kalimantan occupies part of Borneo, the world’s third largest island, and is covered with densely forested topography. Ketapang, the coastal city referred to as ‘Tanjungpura’ according to Prapanca in Nagarakertagama, is mostly inhabited by the Malay, followed then by the Javanese, Chinese and Dayak.


Our car glided past the monuments and various junctions, houses and brightly  coloured shops. “Development is growing rapidly,” Hamidi explained, as he introduced me to his home town. “My city earns its livelihood from mining, wood and palm.” Hamidi kept on talking about life here and the beaches we were about to visit. The car continued over bridges, passing a river next to concrete, multistorey houses, whilst what seemed like a million swiftlets darted through the air and tended their nests on the sides of the buildings. Their nests are providing an emerging business opportunity in Ketapang for bird’s nest soup, which can cost US$100 in Hong Kong.

I was exploring the Ketapang Regency at the Pawan River delta, which seems to be set  back from the tourist track, even though it boasts various destinations worth visiting.


We arrived at the deserted Tanjung Belandang beach where the water was enticingly calm, without a wave in sight. I sat in a hut directly overlooking the sea, with my back to the fishermen’s houses – wooden shacks with woven sago-leaf roofs. Before me were men and women looking for ale-ale, a type of shell mostly found at the beach during low tide. The wind was blowing softly; the waves lightly brushed the sand; little girls were running around, chasing each other. The sun began to emit a hint of orange in the far west as a woman served me a young coconut to drink. “Are you alone?” she asked, trying to make small talk when she saw me contemplating on my own. The people here speak with a soft Malay dialect, and I felt like I was in a coastal kampong in Upin & Ipin – a popular Malaysian cartoon show aired on Disney Channel Asia. Across the sea, Mount Palung stood tall, as if it had just risen from the depths to breathe in the clean air.

In the sweltering afternoon, I visited Gusti Muhammad Saunan Palace Museum, which houses an array of objects from the past: ceramic pieces from various nations, century-old weavings and even weapons. These relics tell the story of how the sultanate here has been in contact with the outside world for a long time. Uti Musri, a museum guide who is a descendant of the royal family, shared the stories of the relics, including the sacred cannons of the colonisers.


I headed back to the coast, this time to Pulo Datok beach, which sits approximately two hours from Ketapang, in a new regency named Sukadana. As my visit coincided with a long holiday and the New Year, there were families on vacation in the bay, which is tucked between Sempadi Isle and Datok Island. Yet even in high season, the beach remained quiet. Young men were canoeing and chuckling, whilst young women were chugging coconut water and sharing stories. Dusk began to disappear behind the far horizon, and I returned to Ketapang filled with a sense of calm.

Well rested, the next morning I was back on the road. A few minutes away from the city centre, the car couldn’t continue as the roads were ploughed. Before us, the urban forest stretched out, with the gates standing as its keeper. I got out of the car, rolled up my trousers and crossed the calf-high water, passing through the gates. Birds’ chirps and monkeys’ cries punctuated the engulfing silence. A winding wooden track stretched for two kilometres, providing an easy walk, surrounded by rich vegetation and dangling leaves.


A region and city that draws its livelihood from plantations and mining turned out to boast urban forests and beaches that amaze all the senses. In the midst of deforestation, when the world is fighting against global warming, when people start doubting whether there will be enough oxygen on Earth, Ketapang boasts rich forests in its city centre.

“This forest is not too vast, yet you’ll find everything in there as you go around,” said Raden Sebaan, an elderly man who claimed to have worked in the forest for over a decade, as he welcomed me in. This is Ketapang Urban Forest. “Proboscis monkeys, lampiyau (black monkeys), sun bears, endemic butterflies, deer, orangutans – you can see it all! They are not as tame as the ones in Tanjung Puting, but they do not attack people either. Over there in the corner, you’ll find many monkeys bathing, but they don’t use soap!” joked Raden.

I strolled along the wooden boardwalk that winds through the forest. The noise of the city felt so far away. There was only silence, interspersed with animal cries and the sound of water ripples. I was reunited with Raden Sebaan as he welcomed me back with now familiar laughter. He told me stories about the forest and its inhabitants, and as the afternoon faded away with his tales, we shook hands. “I do not want my offspring to know about the forest only from books,” he explained. “While many real forests no longer exist, taking care of a small piece of land in the vast Kalimantan is not an easy task,” Raden Sebaan said softly, like a whisper of a goodbye.


Night fell once again in Ketapang. The blinking city lights and the sound of the Pawan River streaming through the city were louder at night. I sat in a café on the banks of the river, contemplating the needs of the inhabitants of both the city and the forest.

The next day, my flight took me away from Ketapang, across the equator. I looked down to see Pontianak City, the capital of West Kalimantan. This is perhaps the only city in the entire world to be named after a ghost: pontianak or kuntilanak is the Indo-Malay version of the white lady ponti-anak. From the plane’s window, I could see the now-familiar broad, long brown rivers, the city packed with houses, and the flat plain decorated with the squares of vast plantations. I imagined the urban forests filled with birdsong and the splashes of bathing animals. I imagined that under a dense tree, Raden Sebaan sat waiting for me with a smile.

Pontianak to Ketapang

Flight Time 35 minutes

Frequency 15 flights per week

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From Colours March 2017


5 Senses – Touch

Get in touch with the history of the Matan kingdom at Gusti Muhammad Saunan Palace Museum, located in Benua Kayong district. It’s a time capsule that takes you back to the distant past with objects from the old world, including ceramics originating from different nations, woven fabrics that are more than a hundred years old, and some traditional weapons.