Banjarmasin is the capital city of South Kalimantan. Unique architectural heritage, natural splendour and colourful floating markets have made Banjarmasin a charming riverfront getaway.
Words and photography by Suwandi Chandra
Officially established in 1526 as Banjarmasin, the city had actually been settled centuries earlier, with a legendary history spanning the ancient South Kalimantan kingdoms of Nan Srunai, Negara Dipa and Negara Daha. Its key location near the junction of the Martapura and Barito rivers made Banjarmasin a strategic trading port throughout the colonial era and earned the city its nickname of ‘The River City’.
Even as the city pushes forward into the 21st century, sprawling in all directions with new mixed-use development projects, the traditional way of life in Banjarmasin still relies on its waterways and riverfront lifestyle.
Exploring this city through its river life is a great introduction to its dynamic culture. After an early night, I start my journey at 4am, just before the dawn. My local guide Andy drives me to the nearest jetty just below a bridge.
“We will wait here for our boat to go to Lok Baintan and visit the famous Pasar Terapung, a traditional ﬂoating market. The market springs to life at around 5.30am and only opens for about three to four hours, so we have to get there before everyone arrives,” explains Andy. Five minutes later, I can hear the sound of a single-motor boat approaching us. It’s a traditional wooden boat that has been upgraded with a modern motor.
“We call this a kelotok. They used them for transportation, connecting people or goods between villages and towns before any roads and bridges were built. Now they are mainly used as tour boats,” says Andy.
We navigate along the Martapura River, passing by many Rumah Lanting – the traditional, local ﬂood-proof houses built on stilts that hover above the riverbank – while local ﬁshermen join us in the pre- dawn on the water.
The boat slows to a stop in front of the Lok Baintan jetty. We’re early. But soon enough sellers arrive from the surrounding villages using their small colourful wooden boats loaded to the brim with equally colourful farm-fresh produce. Boats slowly approach from all directions; it is quite a sight to see so many vessels creating a harmonious slow dance.
“This ﬂoating market has been here for generations. In fact, some of the sellers still use the old-school barter system: no money required,” says Herman, our boat captain.
By now there are 50 or more boats surrounding the jetty, forming one of the most vibrant ﬂoating markets I’ve ever seen.
“Hot tea or coﬀee?” asks Nur, one of the sellers, as she pulls up next to our kelotok. I purchase a steaming hot cup of tea, perfect for a chilly market morning like this. In addition to this ﬂoating café, some of the other boats are selling full-on breakfasts. If you’re keen on local handicrafts, there are boats selling traditional handwoven hats and baskets made of bamboo. It really is a one-stop-river-shop.
If you are so inclined, you can even experience what it’s like to be one of the sellers. You’ll just need to be a little outgoing, befriend one of the boat sellers and ask for permission to come aboard.
As they pass the ﬂoating market surrounding the jetty, sellers paddle their boats along the river and oﬀer their goods to the stilted houses along the way – bringing a whole new meaning to ‘door-to-door’ sales. When the river takes them too far downstream, they will paddle back upstream again and repeat this many times throughout the day.
Watching such beautiful local produce trade hands all morning has worked up my appetite, and I’m ready for a proper Banjarmasin breakfast. Andy takes me to try Soto Bang Amat, famous among locals for its soto Banjar, a lovely coconut-milk-based broth dish with hearty rice cakes, shredded chicken, carrot, duck egg and vermicelli. The broth is thin, yet has a rich curry-like ﬂavour to it. They’re closed every Friday, but a good alternative to check out is Soto Bawah Jembatan. I order a portion of chicken satay to go with my soto, and I’m set. The restaurant perched on the Martapura riverbank and the panoramic river views are a great accompaniment to ﬂavourful Banjar dishes.
With our appetites satiated, we continue our journey to explore the river further. I see a green building standing out from the other houses. According to Andy, it is the famous Sultan Suriansyah Mosque, the oldest mosque in South Kalimantan. It was built over 300 years ago when Sultan Suriansyah ruled the area. He was also the ﬁrst Banjarese king converted to Islam from the previously Hindu kingdoms.
The mosque is located at the palace complex (Kampung Kraton) in the village of Northern Kuin. It has a unique architectural design with a layered roof showing the pre-Islamic Banjarese design called bubungan tinggi.
“This mosque is one of the few buildings that still preserve this traditional architectural style,” says Andy.
In addition to the bubungan tinggi, there is also the lesser-known sasirangan, a traditional Banjarese fabric. The fabric is sewn in a unique way before going through the dyeing process. After that, parts of the sewn fabric are cut open to reveal a beautiful white motif called sasirangan. They use the fabric to make dresses, sarongs, scarfs and many other traditional articles of clothing and souvenirs.
I am fortunate enough to visit Sasirangan Village and to meet with Hasbullah, who produces sasirangan in his home. He invites me to see his workshop and the process of making sasirangan. “Every step of the process is manually done by hand. It takes about 15 days from drawing the motif, sewing the sasirangan, dyeing and then drying to complete a single piece,” explains Hasbullah. Even though it is possible to use machines to print the motifs, there remains a high demand for handmade sasirangan among locals. The result is quite unique from other fabrics, capturing a Banjar’s ethnic sense of art on carefully woven threads of fabric.
From Sasirangan Village, we head back to the city centre to visit Soetji Nurani Temple, an old Chinese temple in the Pecinan area. Built in 1898, it is the oldest Chinese Temple in Banjarmasin. Painted bright red, it is hard to miss when passing through this area. “Although this is a Chinese temple, anyone from any religious or ethnic background is welcome to pray,” says Andy.
Opposite the temple is a plethora of construction sites. “This area is a new development focus of the government, called Siring Park. It will be a leisure park that also serves as an eﬀort by the local government to prevent abrasion along the Martapura River,” says Andy.
One of the main elements of the park is the famous landmark Bekantan Statue, which depicts an icon of Kalimantan, the proboscis monkey. When ﬁnished, there will also be basketball courts, a BMX and skateboard park, and many places to sit, relax and picnic by the river. Already there are many food stalls to savour along the boardwalk. When the full plans are complete, this area will draw even greater crowds of people, especially to the Siring Floating Market, which will be bigger and longer than the existing one and able to accommodate sellers from as far away as Lok Baintan.
I sit on the grass and order a grilled corn-on-the-cob while enjoying the river and city views. As the sun begins to set, I think about what this place will be like once the developments are ﬁnished. I’m optimistic that the traditional Banjar way of life will continue to thrive, but I can’t wait to come back to be sure.
Jakarta to Banjarmasin
Flight Time 5 hour 15 minutes
Frequency 3 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Sight
Make your way to Pelaihari in southeast Banjarmasin to take in the full natural splendour of the area from Wisata Kayangan viewpoint, where you can see Mt Meratus and the vast, lush landscapes. Further south, a visit to the beautiful Rimpi Hills has recently become popular among locals for its hilly grasslands, which bear a similarity to those found in New Zealand. Have your camera handy: this is a selfie paradise for nature lovers.