Having read about the beauty of the jungles in Kalimantan on Borneo, the world third-largest island, we decided we had to go there and see for ouselves. A trek in Borneo seemed a bit too challenging for us, so we decided to go by water instead. Our 3-day Mahakam river tour started in Samarinda, where our guide picked us up by car and took us past lush rainforest and huge palm oil plantations to Kuyung terminal, three and a half hours from town. There we embarked on board a “ces”, a colorful Indonesian motor-canoe.

Guide Mahakam River tour

Ces Mahakam river tour 3

For a while we drove along the Mahakam river, the second largest river in Indonesia, before we entered the Jempang lake. The water shone reddish-brown in the afternoon light and we enjoyed the drive with the ces in the mystical surroundings. In the early evening, we arrived in Tanjung Isuy, home to the Dayak tribes at a so-called longhouse, a horizontal wooden house in which traditionally entire villages used to live together to be safer as a group, in times where headhunting among tribes was the custom. The longhouse had pretty wood carvings and figures cut all around the entrance. We moved into our room and sat out on the back porch, enjoying the breeze. Later on our guide found out that a religious healing ritual in the nearby village of Mancong was going to take place and we decided to visit.

Boat on Jempang lake

Jempang lake

Tanjung Isuy

Longhouse Tanjung Isuy

Longhouse Tanjung Isuy

Enjoying the Borneo trip

First night village Borneo 3

We drove the half hour on the back of an open pick-up truck, the wind blowing in our faces while we were watching the stars in the night sky above us. Mancong is a small village with houses built on stilts, connected by a long, wooden footbridge. As it was dark, we couldn’t see much of the village but were told we would be back the next day anyway. So, we walked along the wooden planks straight to where the ceremony was taking place.

The moment we arrived at the private house in which the ritual was happening, I felt as though I entered a different world. Everything seemed unreal, like from a story book. The first things we noticed were many packages set up behind each other on the ground and lots of cocks standing around in the lit room. When one of the packages moved, we realized those were pigs in front of us, bound like parcels, fastened to the floor in a row and the cocks were actually standing on the swine and between them. 😯 Around the strange spectacle all kinds of people were sitting, watching as three shamans were chanting, smoking and dancing around in circles. The room was adorned with ornaments of plant leaves and bright strips of fabric. The walls were decorated with buffalo skulls and different colored cloths were hanging from the ceiling.

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

Our guide explained that we were witnessing the rare healing of a large group of people at the same time. It seems 13 villagers were ill in one way or the other and each one gave a pig for the ritual to be held. The cocks in special colors were bound by their feet to the pigs. The shamans worked in sync with the rythm of the music made by drums and a kind of pot gong. What I found astonishing was that the Dayak people of Mancong are primarily Christian and nevertheless maintain their traditional folk religion called Kaharingan.


At some point a man over 100 years of age was carried into the house on a thin matress and put on the floor to lie and watch the ceremony. He was one of the sick 13 and was to partake in the healing. After a long time of “general” rites, it was time for each of the ill villagers to perform some sort of ritual. One after the other took a cock under the arm, placed one foot on their respective pig and climbed through a loop bound from cloth a few times. During the whole ceremony drums were beating, pigs were squealing and cocks were flapping around, making cackling sounds. At midnight the pigs were to be slaughtered. Based on what can be read from their organs the sick people would then be treated. The pork would be distributed among the villagers afterwards. We decided to pass on the butchering and get back to our longhouse instead.

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan Pot Gong

Dayak ritual Mancong Kalimantan

After waking our guide who had over slept the next morning, we took the ces along the narrow Ohong river, passing small Muslim villages built on stilts with pretty mosques and floating houses along the river bank. We were greeted from every boat and wonderfully painted house by waves and smiling calls of “Hello mister!” (Don’t ask me why!?) In every other boat we would see people wearing colorful rice hats decorated with cute ornaments. Every now and there would be a huge concrete building with tiny windows and swallows flying in and out. We learned that the valuable swallow nests were kept here, to be sold to restaurants and exported to China: porridge with birds nest, a delicacy…(At least that is what we were told.)

Ces Mahakam river tour

Village on stilts Kalimantan

Village Kalimantan Borneo

People Village Kalimantan Borneo

Rice hats Kalimantan

Bird nests Kalimantan

At other parts of the river we would witness unattractive Marabus, a bird of the stork family, protect fish held in wooden boxes, floating beneath them. It seems here Muslims in general don’t keep dogs, so instead they have “Watch-Marabus”, that get very loud when someone tries to steal the fish. We saw (and used) the small shared toilets without roofs that can be found in a row in front of all the floating houses, connected to them by wooden walkways.

Marabu Kalimantan Borneo

Marabu Kalimantan Borneo

Toilets at river Mahakam tour

Toilets on the river Kalimantan Borneo

At some point the Ohong got smaller and smaller, winding along dense, green jungle, in which we saw beautiful blue kingfishers, shy macaques, huge lizards, different snakes and big-nosed proboscis monkeys and above us the odd eagle would circle. It was amazing to be right in the middle of all this wildlife. We arrived in Mancong in the early afternoon and had a look around at the ornate longhouse with its impressive wooden sculptures at the pier of the village.

Ohong river jungle Kalimantan

Kingfisher Kalimantan Borneo

Monkey Borneo

Snake Kalimantan Borneo

Proboscis Monkey Kalimantan Borneo

Proboscis Monkey Kalimantan Borneo

Boat trip on river Borneo

Longhouse Dayak people kalimantan Borneo

The next day, after waking our guide once again, we moved from Tanjung Isuy to Muara Muntai by traversing the calm lake and enjoying our surroundings. Muslim Muara Muntai is another village built on stilts. There is a huge wooden boardwalk with a lovely mosque, many shops, and people strolling on it. The footbridge is used as the main street and even has a division in the middle, so that the scooters could stay on their side of the road. The village community is so religious, that the ways are almost completely empty when the mosque calls out for prayer. We walked up and down the one street and were greeted by many happy, curious faces, waves and calls of hello. People would ask us to take pictures of them or explaine their doings to us. We were overwhelmed by the warm reception in this small village.

Muara Muntai Kalimantan Borneo

Footbridge Kalimantan village

Mosque Muara Muntai Kalimantan Borneo

Muara Muntai village people


Muara Muntai Bridge Kalimantan Borneo

Muara Muntai footbridge

Muara Muntai

Muara Muntai

Muara Muntai village people

Muara Muntai village people

Muara Muntai village people

In the afternoon we took a tour on the Mahakam looking for the rare pink dolphins, that usually can be found close to certain fishing villages, as they tend to steal the fish from the nets. We were almost going to give up our search, when two small dolphins showed up. Freshwater dolphins in contrast to their cousins from the sea are not very playful and only come up above the water to catch some air…picture taking therefore became a real challenge.

We spent the night at a very basic guesthouse run by a family in Muara Muntai and just when we had finished our dinner our guide was informed by one of the villagers that our host’s grandmother had died half an hour before. Suddenly the whole village came to life. The shop on the ground floor of the guesthouse was emptied and all furniture carried out onto the street. Chairs were set up in cinema-style facing the house and grievers from near and far came to pay their respects. Women mingled in the now empty store, sitting on the floor, while the men occupied the chairs in front of the house, talking, praying and smoking.

Srimuntai Gueshouse

Musalla Srimuntai Guesthouse

Muara Muntai

The day after it was time for us to say goodbye to the wonderful jungle of Kalimantan and to head back to Samarinda.




  1. Avatar
    21/04/2014  14:57 by Lea Reply

    Sehr schöne Fotos und interessante Berichte! Ich plane gerade meine Reise durch Indonesien und bin dabei auf euren Blog gestossen. Mit welcher Organisation wart ihr auf dem Mahakam River unterwegs? Und habt ihr die Tour im Voraus oder erst vor Ort gebucht? Ich tendiere momentan zum Tour Operator Adventure Indonesia.
    Viel Spass noch beim Reisen :)
    Beste Grüsse aus der Schweiz

    • S
      23/04/2014  11:01 by S Reply

      Hallo Lea,
      schön, dass dir unser Blog gefällt.
      Wir haben in Indonesien etwa eine Woche vor Tourstart einen Guide telefonisch kontaktiert. Den haben wir im Lonely Planet gefunden. So richtig zufrieden waren wir mit Abdullah aber nicht. Die Tour hat uns trotzdem sehr gefallen. Sie ist schon wegen der Menschen und der tollen Natur der Hammer! Adventure Indonesia kenne ich nicht. Wir hatten uns bei De Gigant Tours informiert, die auch im LP stehen. Die waren uns dann aber zu teuer. Eine weitere Alternative ist es nur einen Bootsmann anzuheuern. Der kann dann zwar kein Englisch, gibt dir aber alle wichtigen Infos zu Unterkünften etc. Unser Guide hatte den Ces Fahrer Udin gewählt, der zufälligerweise auch im LP hochgelobt wird. Ihn fanden wir auch super freundlich und aufmerksam.
      Hoffe ich konnte dir ein bisschen helfen. Wenn du noch Fragen hast, gib einfach Bescheid.
      Viel Spaß auf deiner Reise! Indonesien ist wirklich toll!
      Liebe Grüße aus Flores,

  2. Avatar
    24/04/2014  17:09 by Lea Reply

    Super, danke!
    Ich freu mich schon auf den Beitrag aus Flores ;)

  3. Avatar
    19/05/2015  10:46 by Alessandro Reply

    Hello, i'm reading you blog and its awesome.
    I'm going to kalimantan next summer and i'd like to do a mahakam river tour, so i was wondering if you have any contact for a guide in samarinda to share.

    • S
      21/06/2015  12:53 by S Reply

      Dear Alessandro,

      Sorry for the delayed reply...but life catches up with you when you return to reality. ;)

      Thanks for reading our blog and it's great, that you enjoyed it!

      About a week before the start of our tour we called up a guide that we had found through Lonely Planet. But honestly said, we weren't THAT happy with Abdullah. The tour was still fantastic though. Just the people and nature are awesome. Alternatively you can hire just a boat man. They usually don't speak any English, but can give you all important info on accomodation etc. Our guide had hired the ces driver Udin, who is also spoken highly of in LP. We thought he was really friendly and thoughtful.

      Hope we were able to help a little. If you need further info, just get in touch. You will love Indonesia. Its's awesome!

      Best regards,


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