Pontianak, West Kalimantan: The Capital of Indonesian Borneo

Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Located in West Kalimantan as the Capital of Indonesian Borneo, Pontianak grew its reputation as a major port trading in rubber production, ship-building, palm oil, tobacco, pepper, sugar and rice.

The location is thriving with markets on its south side, which is the optimum position for the transaction of goods via the constantly moving boats along the Kapuas River Delta.

Pontianak as a city is fast-paced and resembles any other developed city in Asia. However, venture to the backstreets of the city, and you may find yourself reliving a sense of nostalgia. This is where the local tinkerers, mechanics, electricians and craftsmen dwell and have done for hundreds of years – in stark contrast to the modern, technological city that’s emerging.

Life down the back streets of Pontianak.
Life down the back streets of Pontianak.

Pontianak’s main population are the Indonesian Malays, Chinese and indigenous people of Dayak. The city is rich with a diverse and multicultural community and very often they celebrate their respective events with cultural parades. For the backpacker, the city is definitely one of the cheapest places to go for a bit of an adventure in West Kalimantan!

Where to Stay in Pontianak

There are many hostels or guesthouses to choose from. However, it’s best to do a proper assessment online beforehand as many of the owners of the guesthouses in Pontianak do not speak English.

One of the most popular and highly rated hostels in Pontianak is the Canopy Centre Hostel – priced as low as 64,133IDR or USD$4 for a standard average room. Note that the hostel is often fully booked, so an advance reservation would be highly recommended.

See Here For More Places to Stay in Pontianak.

Things To Do in Pontianak

Learn Some of the Local Language!

Way off the beaten track and with few English speakers, Pontianak is a great place to learn a little of the local language. The Indonesian Language is fairly similar to Bahasa Melayu but with different dialects. You may want to brush up on your Bahasa Indonesia while you’re in Pontianak. Trust me, it will be advantageous to be able to get along with the locals there. Here are some basic words to start you off with:

  • Cerowok = Man
  • Cerewek = Lady
  • Waysay (phonetically pronounced Weh-Seh) = Toilet
  • Kamar = Room
  • Moto = Motorcycle
  • Mobil = Car
  • Enak = Delicious
  • Pulsa = Recharge (mobile phones top up)
  • Kalian = You guys
  • Marga = Surname

Visit Tugu Khatulistiwa: The Equator Monument

The equator monument can be found on the North side of the River Kapuas. It consists of two pillars holding up a spherical orb, one foot of the pillar is planted in the Northern hemisphere while the other in the Southern hemisphere.

The original monument stood prominently atop a building – this one is only a duplicate, which is 5 times the original’s size. The original monument can be found inside the said building. Taking a step inside the building, you can see framed pictures of the Tugu Khatulistiwa’s construction over the years. I won’t go into details about its rich history but it’s certainly one that is worth to look into!  

The Equator Monument.
The Equator Monument.

The monument was first erected on 31st March 1928 by a Dutch expedition team when they determined the position of the equator. Its position was originally decided using milestones and arrows which were then refined over the course of a decade.   In 1990, a protective dome was constructed over the Tugu Khatulistiwa, while the larger duplicate of it was inaugurated on 21st September 1991. Other than minor fixes and maintenance work, the monument remained true to the original until this day.

Floating Stilt Village

On the river’s northern side, there is also a lovely ‘kampung’ (village) on wooden stilts resting above the water – quite reminiscent of Kampong Ayer in Brunei. The kampung is surrounded by canals, the primary source of water for the locals to bathe in, wash clothes and get around via small boats. Our trip through the channels was an enjoyable experience especially when we were accompanied by the locals, in exchange for a small fare of course.

Pontianak Kraton Kadriyah

Not far from the stilts village, there is the Pontianak Kraton Kadriyah (also spelt Keraton), which is the former royal residence turned museum for tourists. The building is around 200 years old and built mainly out of hardwood, now painted yellow. Despite its age, its condition remains pristine.

The Betang Radakng – the Dayak Longhouse

Betang Radakng is a replica of the traditional longhouses of the Dayaks constructed by the city government in Jalan Sultan Syahrir, Kota Baru. The length of this house reaches up to 138 meters with a width of 5 meters by 7 meters in height, giving it the record holder for longest in Indonesian traditional house. An interesting fact I found about the Dayak is that they all live as a community, choosing to live with ALL the families under the same roof!

Dayak Longhouse, Pontianak.
Dayak Longhouse, Pontianak.

The Betang house consists of three parts, namely the patio or Pante, the lobby area for family gatherings, and the sleeping space reserved for each head of the family. The government-made Betang Radakng is made out of ironwood, decorated with the carvings and murals of the Dayak. At certain points in time, the house was also used as a dance training area and for other art performances as well.

It was unfortunate that we couldn’t enter the Longhouse, but we managed to catch a glimpse of the indigenous instrument the Sapé being performed amongst the rows of indigenous musical instruments. The music resonating with a modern contemporary mood combined with the sunset view was a perfect way to end our last day in Pontianak!

What to Eat & Drink in Pontianak

The city is also famous for its culinary attractions, where you will find a mix of Indonesian, and Chinese cuisine – It’s a culinary paradise! Note, Indonesians are very well known for their high tolerance for spicy dishes! Be advised to ask the waiter to tone down their average spice – I learned this the hard way after gulping down more than a litre of water after trying out one of the most common curry dishes – The Fish Curry!

Fish curry, Pontianak.
Fish curry, Pontianak.

Bakmie Special

One of the most famous dishes is the Bakmie, a wheat-based noodle (originating in China, brought by Chinese Hokkien immigrants). The Bakmie special (beef, chicken and bakso – beef balls) we had was just under USD$1.

Bakmie Special, Pontianak.
Bakmie Special.

Warong Kopi Asiang – The Best Coffee in Town

Take my advice; leave out Starbucks or the Coffee Bean for a while. If you are a true coffee lover, the coffee at Warong Kopi Asiang is a must try whenever you find yourself travelling in Pontianak.

Asiang – The shirtless owner.

I’m not much of a coffee drinker, given that my last cup was a Starbucks’ Venti Caramel Macchiato in 2010, but our guide implored us to take a sip. With encouragement from my fellow backpackers, I decided to break my seven-year-long coffee abstinence for the sake of experience. A cup of black coffee, costing about 6,000IDR or USD0.40, went beyond my expectations – it’s definitely the best coffee I’ve ever had!

The coffee haven is noisy, crowded and atmospheric. ‘Asiang’ is the shirtless coffee connoisseur of his Warong. He has served coffee since 1958 from the early mornings of 3 am until 6 pm. The busiest time is the 6 am to 11 am slot and we were lucky enough to get some seats upstairs when we arrived at 9 am! Though the crowd might deter some people, seeing Asiang at his passion of making of his coffee is definitely a sight to behold. I can definitely see why this unique coffee shop is worthy of praise!

Getting to Pontianak:

There are a variety of ways a backpacker can get to Pontianak. For your convenience, here are some of our suggestions to ponder over:

  1. Direct flights from Kuching in Sarawak costs around 600,000IDR or USD$44 for Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other domestic flights from Indonesia.
  2. Pelni Ferries take around 24hrs crossing Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya in Java. The ferries also go to Banjarmasin, Samarinda and on to Sulawesi.
  3. Coaches travel frequently from Pontianak to Kuching, costing as little as 240,000IDR or  USD17. The trip takes between 9-12hrs and the night coach is only available at 6 am opening time arriving at Entikong (Indo/Malay border).

About the writer: This destination guide was written by Brunei-born Nadzira Malek Webb She has been writing since she was 10 years old and, after starting out with fiction and fantasies, has now started to pen about her adventures. She speaks English and Malay, but her mother tongue is Tutong (a dialect of one of the tribes in Brunei). Follow her Instagram here – @nadmalekwebb.

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