Words and photography by Suwandi Chandra (郑渊元)
Banjarmasin is the capital city of South Kalimantan. Unique architectural heritage, natural splendor and colourful floating markets have made Banjarmasin a charming riverfront getaway
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 predawn 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 was fortunate enough visit Sasirangan Village and to meet with Hasbullah, who produces sasirangan in his home. He invited 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 the traditional Banjar way of life will continue to thrive, but I can’t wait to come back to be sure.
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 that bear a similarity to those found in New Zealand. Have your camera handy: this is a selfie paradise for nature lovers.
If you’re hungry for traditional eats, Banjarmasin never disappoints. Lontong Orari and Waroeng Pondok Bahari both serve authentic Banjarese food and are open 24 hours. My favourites include lontong Banjar, and ketupat kandangan. They may not look like the prettiest plates, but give them a taste before you make up your mind – they have a lovely sweet and spicy flavour combo.
Rent a kelotok and head to the nearest river island Kembang Island. The name Kembang comes from the meaning ‘flower’, since many locals come to the small temple here to pray by offering flowers. Don’t be startled if you hear loud chattering, whooping or screeching, as there’s a large resident monkey population. Hire a guide if you want to explore the island’s mangrove forest. You can also head to Bakut Island located under the bright yellow suspension bridge, Barito Bridge, where you can hear the sounds of proboscis monkeys in the wild. Make sure to keep your voice down – the monkeys are very shy – and consider yourself lucky if you can spot them. There are also many wild, endemic birds that add to the harmony of this natural soundscape.
For Full Magazines, please visit this link: Colours Magazines February 2016
FYI, all photos are available for purchase as a print or license. And, if you are interested in collaboration or freelance services, please don’t hesitate to contact me through the link here.