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An Adventure In Borneo By River To Meet Tribes

Meandering slowly up a river in Borneo on a local wooden boat with the jungle passing you by is supremely relaxing. Cruising along watching everything go by is what you need to get away from it all.


In the supposedly exotic city of Samarinda (it’s not) downstream from the second largest river in Borneo on the Indonesian side, myself and two friends searched for a boat to take us upriver.

Passenger boat on river in Borneo
The boat

The passenger boats make the trip upriver everyday transporting people and goods over the course of 40 odd hours to small villages on the river. Many of the people in these villages are from the Dayak tribe..

Embarking onto the wooden passenger boat we set off at a slow pace. The first few hours were made up of mostly modernity on the banks of the river, but as we headed further upriver it became more and more quiet.


Enjoying the absolute thrill of having to make almost no decisions, you laze up front watching life go by.


We checked out the other boats coming downstream to see if there were any  foreigners coming back, so you can ask what the hell is up there, as information was limited.  No-one really speaks english, so it’s almost impossible to get any idea when to get off the boat to stay at a village.

The sun sets with the sound of a mosque from a nearby village, and a great display of lightning ahead from a thunderstorm, a thunderstorm you are rather inconveniently moving straight towards.

Sleeping is cool, depending on your perspective. Cuddled up on a rather unwashed matt, with the sound of the river, the thunderstorm. and the engine, it was easy to drift into a sleep full of dreams of cute puppies. Ok, maybe you dream of terror at Cape Fear instead, but whatever.

sleeping on boat in borneo
The deluxe sleeping arrangements.

The next day we did nothing again, until at the end of the day cruising peacefully along after 35 hours on the river, we could continue no more on the boat due to low water levels.  A decision was made to sleep on the boat for the night, while raiding the bulk buy chocolate resupply ship nearby for food.

Thinking of renaming the expedition to’ The Beng Beng Kings’ due to the indulgence of said Beng Beng chocolate bars, we figured that it was time to start going back down river and actually get of the boat and see a village en-route.

Hailing down a passing speedboat it was a fun ride for 30 minutes down river to a Dayak village to explore and stay for the night.

The people in the villages are extremely friendly as is the case in most out of the way places, especially the local children who are always curious about you.

The Dayak people are a traditional tribe in Borneo, and you can see traces of their past in various sculptures and longhouses. Although these days the village is mostly modernised.


Staying the night in a homestay which basically involves crashing in someones house, we awoke the next day to figure out how to get back to Samarinda and off the river. Making the way to where the boats normally stop it was a long wait until a passenger boat came by.


If you missed the boat you would have to wait until the next day to leave, which is not a bad thing really considering how friendly the place is.


On board the new boat which was basically the same as the first, you pretty much do what you did on the way up – nothing. Doing nothing can be bliss sometimes especially after some hard travelling. You have to escape and find a bit of peace now and then and the trip up the river in Borneo was the perfect way to do that.

With one more thunderstorm looming ahead, we spent one last night sleeping on the ‘lazy boat’, before reaching the city of Samarinda. It’s always strange coming back to the modern world after being somewhere very remote and almost untouched.

I kind of wanted to go back up-river. Someday.

I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.


1 thought on “An Adventure In Borneo By River To Meet Tribes”

  1. Pingback: Backpacking In Borneo Guide (Things To Do In Sarawak & Sabah)

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