Practical Guide to Pontianak, West Borneo: Indonesia’s Equator City
After spending time in Vietnam we set our sites on Pontianak, West Borneo, Indonesia. We were hoping to see the areas around Lombok, Bali, and the Gili Islands but a volcano eruption had thrown a wrench into that plan.
We decided that after landing in Jakarta on the western end of Java and a quick visit a few hours south east to the city of Bandung, we would venture well off the beaten path to a place called Pontianak on the island of Borneo.
We’ll give you all the low-down about this place and tell you what we did and what we thought of it here.
Also any prices noted will be in the local currency of Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) for convenience for all who are reading this so have a converter like this one open in another page if you are interested in what these prices would mean to you.
So where is Pontianak, West Borneo?
Pontianak is located on the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan on the western end of the island of Borneo. If you’ve never heard of this place, there’s a good reason. It is not on the map as far as tourism is concerned and seeing other westerners there is a rarity. It has stiff competition with Bali amongst other places in the country to compete with so it’s at a disadvantage already.
It does however have a few notable features though besides some of the friendliest people going. The biggest, being that it is the only city on earth that lies smack dab on the equator. And man does it feel that way. It’s also located on the longest island borne river in the world due to Borneo being the third largest island we’ve got on the planet.
As mentioned we came from West Java so we flew in to the airport from there. Not everything we read about transportation checked out as you’ll hear about below.
Our arrival in the equator city
The flight duration was to be 1 hour and 45 minutes. Bad weather had a say and we ended up circling Pontianak Supadio International Airport with some other flights for an extra half hour. That all worked out but getting from the airport to town was the next hurdle.
What we read about transportation from the airport to the city center was all incorrect. When we asked about the bus to town at the information desk we were told there was no such service from the airport. So much for us catching one that was to leave every hour (or two depending on what you we read in several locations on line).
We then asked about Uber or Grab but were told that they were not allowed on the property. This is not uncommon at some airports. We then asked about an angkot (like a minibus, kind of) knowing full well it would be the same answer. Sure enough, it was. We then asked if it was possible to walk to the road that runs adjacent to the airport and catch a bus, cab, or angkot off of the property. The answer was, you guessed it. No. We began to think the person working the desk was in with the cab cartel. So we ask around. This went on for a bit as english was very sparse. The answer was the same. It was the cab or nothing.
We relented and decided we would have to take the cab. It was a lot more than the other options but at IDR 70,000 (about $7 Canadian) it wasn’t going to break the bank. When we asked about a cab though, we found out that it was actually IDR 120,000! (about $12 Canadian). Almost double what it was from the previous year or so we had read anyway. Now that’s not much in other countries but for Indonesia, it was clear it was the “airport gouge”
With no other option and still feeling sceptical, we bought the voucher and headed for the door. We rarely take cabs as in some countries it’s a good way of getting scammed. Especially with the ones that look official, but aren’t. With that in mind we decided to chalk up the inflated price to something akin to an insurance or “assurance” policy. We’ll pay more and be assured that everything is cool. Right? Wrong again!
When we got outside we waited for a few minutes only to be told to follow a driver back to his car. His car was just that. His car. Not a taxi but this man’s private ride that looked to be limping on one wheel and favoring the other three. That’s when we had had enough and decided to get our money back and walk off of the property.
So we hit the road and walked for a bit but there were no buses or angkots to be had. No problem though. Now that we were out of the airport we could call a Grab or have someone do it for us.
The first place we came to was a homestay. Now English is not spoken much in this part of Borneo but we got our point across and had asked the owner if he could possibly call us a cab. The fun part was instead of doing so he opted to give us a ride to town instead. We said “great”. We offered him the money that we were going to give the Grab guy or cabbie. He asked a young man staying with his family to come along for the ride and try to act as a translator and off we went.
The young mans english was a bit better than the owner but still fairly limited. Enough to explain to us that we were the first westerners he’s ever seen in Pontianak. What? This was something we would hear a few times during our stay there.
We also got some info on where the mega mall was, some cheap grocery stores to check out and, some good restaurants to try that had great budget-friendly food.
After dropping us off right at the hotel we didn’t have reservations for (see our post entitled “Booking rooms online vs winging it: which is better?”), we said our goodbyes and headed for the lobby of the place we would stay at for the next four days. After checking in, we went out for a quick bite to eat, got back to the room and started planning the next day and what to check out around town.
Things to see and do in Pontianak, West Borneo
There’s not a lot to do here as mentioned. Also, we found transportation to locations out of town to be a little more on the arduous side than we first thought. The heat wasn’t helping our motivation either. So what is there to see and do?
1) The equatorial monument
The main reason we decided to check out Pontianak was because of its unique location. As mentioned, it is the only city that is located in both the northern and southern hemisphere.
We prefer to take public transportation so we can travel like the locals but that can be difficult here. There are no city buses. The most common form of getting around other than having one’s own wheels it seems is by Grab. So that’s what we did.
We used the Grab app to order a pick up which told us the eta, the price (IDR 18,000) for the trip, and all of the drivers credentials. Very slick! In under 5 minutes we were picked up and on our way.
So after a comfortable 15 minute tour through town and over the Kapuas River we jumped out into the stifling heat and headed for the monument. The admission was as cheap as we were told it would be. Free! Chalk one up for the good guys! Again, just like had happened on multiple occasions back on West Java, young ladies approached Naomi and asked if they could have their picture taken with her. Once one group has done so, it usually spurs on more people to gather up the gumption to ask. Families as well.
With all that out of the way we made it to the monument demarcating earth’s waistline. Pretty cool. I mean it is located in a small building with air conditioning. But no, still pretty cool in the other sense.
So we horsed around like the immature, childless dinks that we are by hopping back and forth from one hemisphere to the other taking pics and vids.
After hitting the concession stand, we headed for the road to see about some transportation back to the city center. We wanted to take a ferry back to the hotel side of the Kapuas River to mix it up but couldn’t get our map app to play nice.
Without knowing exactly how far the ferry terminal was, we started to walk towards it anyway. We asked some store owners and while they did try to help, the language barrier was just too much. We just kept walking resolving to flag an angkot down which we managed to do about 5 minutes later. Again, meeting some giggling young ladies amazed by seeing westerners sitting right beside them.
We paid the IDR 5,000 each for the ride and got dropped off at the ferry just in time to pay our IDR 5,000 fare for the both of us and not figuratively, but literally jumping on it as it pulled away. Naomi was anxious enough to accidentally blurt out some expletives in front of a pile of people. I’m sure they couldn’t understand, right? Ok, maybe some words are universal.
Arriving at the other side we stopped for lunch. This is where we had that type of experience we live for when traveling. Interacting with people. It’s something given our level of Spanish we have on a more regular basis in Latin America. With zero Bahasa Indonesia save the odd pleasantry (hello, thank you, etc.), we were lucky to have someone who spoke great English ask if we needed help ordering. His name was Justin. He and his brother in law Seng and his nephew Kenny were having lunch so we sat with them. They wanted to know why we were there and we picked their brains about the area. Then to our surprise, we found that they had paid for our lunch while we weren’t looking. Such nice people. They said that they were just happy to see us visiting their city. They offered to rent a car and have us tag along to a coastal town a few hours away. We were not able to unfortunately, but such a nice gesture. Top notch guys. Just another example of how friendly people were to us while there.
After that we walked back to the hotel for a much needed afternoon nap out if the heat.
A day trip to Singkawang is a big draw for people visiting Pontianak, West Borneo. As we write this we have yet to go to there and it’s also possible we may not make it there at all. It depends on a few things. For now we will touch on what we’ve been told and read about this place and will update the info if and when we do.
About 4 hours away, this is the one place in West Kalimantan where you can find a beach without ripping into a day long bus ride or longer. Be aware though that this is not the Bali type beach everyone looks for when they think Indonesia. Having said that, it is a beach nonetheless and is highly rated by locals as a place to visit on the weekends.
The town has accommodations, restaurants, and a family friendly theme park as well as a zoo (something that doesn’t float our boat) at the beach itself. We’re told and have read one must pay admission to enter. One estimate was IDR 35,000 per day. Not bad.
There are buses that go but it seems renting a car is popular. We were told by a few people that it’s not uncommon to take a taxi of all things. We can’t imagine how much that would cost if a fare from the airport to Pontianak city center rings in at IDR 120,000 for a 15 minute ride. Maybe networking with others interested in heading there is the way to go so as to share the cost.
If you are thinking about checking this place out, we did stumble onto a blog post called “15 heavenly things to do in Singkawang” that may help you learn more.
3) everything else
Ok, we did say earlier that there is not much here for the western tourist. We feel bad for saying that but it’s a fact. We heard it from Indonesians as well and is one of the reasons we were asked (in a good way btw) “Why are you here?”so often.
It does have a pretty park by the river that families hang around in during the day and evening. Also lots of great places to eat. There’s the Pontianak museum (it was closed when we went to see it, bad planning on our part), a river tour, and a huge mall with a huge movie theater.
Don’t let these limitations deter you from giving this place a chance though. There is something authentic and refreshing about being a foreigner in a place that’s not ravaged by tourism. We had people smiling at us all the time and we probably heard “hello Mr. and hello Mrs.” 20-30 times a day!
Sometimes as a traveler one feels like a walking dollar sign. Not here! When someone who knows some English starts a conversation, there is rarely an ulterior motive. Also if someone is asking if you want to buy something and you say “no thanks”, that’s all there is to it. They will most likely smile and say “, Ok. How refreshing is that not to get harangued or get the hairy eyeball.
We felt it was fairly inexpensive to be here but that can be subjective. Having arrived from Vietnam there was still a bit of sticker shock with things like hotel rooms but it wasn’t that bad.
We’ll tell you right off the bat that we are budget-conscious. Take that into consideration when seeing the prices we paid for things listed below.
We just want good tasting budget-friendly food and that is no problem to find. The food is known to be good here but to tell you the truth we never studied up on the names of the dishes of Pontianak. We were too busy eating whatever looked good to us. On average, we pro’lly spent between IDR 30,000 to 60,000. The former being street food and eateries frequented by locals. The latter being the cheaper set-meal options at western chains like KFC, or Pizza Hut. Straying from the meal-deals could easily double the price.
A litre of bottled water ranged from IDR 6,000 to 12,000 on average. It was nice when we found hotels supplying free filtered water in the room or from a machine. This was convenient but more importantly it meant we could add less plastic garbage to this already overwhelmed world. We are killing this planet with bags and bottles so please try to curb the use whenever possible.
Other beverages like fruit juice and pop were double that of water in most cases.
If you are coffee worshipers like us, you could find both hot and cold coffee for about IDR 10,000 to 20,000 in countless coffee shops all over the place.
The biggest sticker shock we got was from hotel prices. They were almost double the price as Vietnam. It’s hard to compare apples to apples with rooms. They are always different. Vietnam usually had a mini fridge which is so handy in the heat. With rooms in Indonesia it was hit and miss. Same with getting a room with a window! It’s not a given that a room comes with one here just so you know. In our price range anyway. We paid IDR 335,000 on average for one night during our stay.
We covered it earlier but just to recap, we paid IDR 5,000 each for angkot trips that were around 10 minutes in duration or roughly 2 km’s. Sorry, there is no hard and fast rule. A grab car for say a 15 minute ride or roughly 10 km’s would average about IDR 18,000. We never took cabs so we can’t touch on that.
If you decide to go overland by bus to Kuching, Malaysia, as we did, it will take you roughly 7.5 hours including the 1 hour stop for lunch and the time at the border getting stamped out of Indonesian Borneo and our 90 day stamp into Malaysian Borneo. This crossing was easier than we were led to believe. No fingerprinting, picture taking or questions that we were told to expect. It was all of 10 minutes and we were back on the bus. We used the Damri Bus as it was the most popular. We paid IDR 230,000 for the comfortable one-way trip and found the roads to be fine despite being told otherwise.
The whole trip was very easy. Maybe we’ve been on too many 12-14 hour chicken bus rides to know the difference. By the way, we were given travel durations ranging from 4 to 10 hours depending on who you asked including bus company employees. Just know that going in.
If you are heading overland out of Pontianak you will need to take either a taxi or a Grab to the Ambawang Bus Terminal east of town. Just like the airport, the taxi cartel has apparently claimed dibs on it. We took a Grab without knowing this however and had no problems when we got dropped off for our bus to Kuching.
So what did we think of Pontianak?
You won’t find beaches here like in Bali, but there is more to traveling than laying around getting brown-chicky-brown-brown. We are so glad we checked it out mainly for the reasons mentioned above. The people! It was the highlight and will be the first thing to come to mind when we remember Pontianak. The interactions we had were priceless!
The second will most likely be it’s unique location on the equator. That was a big draw for us to see. This leads us to the third thing that will come to mind. The heat! Did we mention that it is hot? Who knew right?
We would recommend to anyone thinking of visiting Kuching or other parts of West Borneo to consider coming here if only for a few days.
Speaking of which, Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is our next stop here on the island. We’ll be covering similar topics and more in an upcoming post. There are quite a few things to see and do in this vibrant city like the Orangutan Rehab Center, the Cat Museum, and the Fairy Caves to name a few. All easily accessible by cheap, comfortable public transportation. Make sure you check it out.
Until then, as always, feel free to ask questions or make comments below. We encourage you to share our posts on social media so others can learn about the topics we cover. It also helps us to see interest so that we can keep motivated in sharing our insights and experiences with those who are in to that. Thanks again for tuning in. Ciao for now!