Published: Maximillian Travel Guide Magazine, December 2012
For me, Balikpapan is not mere a name of the city in the province of East Borneo, Indonesia. It is my hometown saving millions of my childhood memories. Known as the city of oil for ages, Balikpapan is always interesting spot to see and explore through its history, the beauty of the city itself, and the uniqueness inside the life of the people.
When I returned back to that city, I saw not only the city view through the window of the plane but also pieces of my childhood memories that I had left for over 26 years.
Oil, as the major economy supporter indeed cannot be separated with Balikpapan. The role of Dutch people in enhancing the city of coastal area of East Borneo was also very significant. During Pacific War, when Japan occupied Balikpapan, the allies had devastated the oil refinery there. After Japan left in January 24, 1942, Dutch began to take over again the operation of oil refinery through the company Royal Shell. It was then taken over by Pertamina in 1965.
In the midst of frenetic modernization transformation that I had left for 26 years, there is something which does not change at all. It is the fire tower of oil effluent in the refinery of Pertamina (Indonesia’s Oil Company) standing astonishingly in the in the largest oil processing area in Indonesia. Tankers and Pontoon passing by in that area reminded me to my childhood memories in that black gold land.
Samarinda is the capital city of the East Borneo province, but don’t be surprised when you see Balikpapan which is located 3 hours from Samarinda also has facilities just like a big city. Balikpapan has much more complete facilities than in East Borneo’s capital city. Balikpapan surpasses Samarinda as well in obtaining achievements by winning Adipura (The award given by central government to the cleanest cities in Indonesia) for consecutive times.
Referring to the guide of Lonely Planet, I went to Murni Hotel which is categorized as budget hotel. Located in Nusantara area, Murni Hotel is not like the other typical hotels. Seen from outside, that non-star hotel is like the building of the shop with the crowd of sellers surrounding. It was like a relief for me because I could get so easy to find some snacks or to shop some foods to bring home.
The hotel is organized by a family, so don’t expect too much that the hotel has a receptionist desk with beautiful officer smiling flirtatiously to welcome you. A veiled lady welcomed me warmly in lobby. She stood in the back of the desk which was full with several kinds of candies and cakes. That’s a budget hotel; Murni Hotel looks so modest. However, the hotel could give me the opportunity to get closer with the life of local family.
“You can take coffee and tea by yourself, free and available for 24 hours”, said the lady while showing me an electric dispenser and small table with plastic glasses, spoons, and jars of sugar, tea, and coffees on it.
From several information that I received, the name of Balikpapan has various versions of the backgrounds. Even Wikipedia site also covers it through various versions. One version tells that there was a king drowning his daughter by binding her on the plank (papan in Indonesian) to avoid to be found by his enemies. One day, a fisherman found that plank and the princess had turned upside down (balik in Indonesian). From that time on, the area where the princess was found is called Balikpapan.
Another version tells about the King of Kutai who asked a thousand of wooden planks as support to build his palace. From one thousand planks sent through the water flow, ten of them returned back (balik in Indonesian) to the city where the planks were sent from. Thus, Banjar tribe called the place as Balikpapan Tu having the meaning as the returned planks.
Historically, Dutch people found the oil in that area for the first time in 1897 and they did the first oil drilling by their company, Mathilda. From that moment, Balikpapan has become bigger city with the source of oil pouring from its ground.
I had planned to visit the area of Gunung Dubbs (Dubbs Mountain) known as elite spot in Balikpapan. Though, I was born in that area, I had not got much information about Gunung Dubbs. Reputedly, since the Dutch era when they first time did oil drilling in Balikpapan, Gunung Dubbs has become housing area for kumpeni (epithet for Dutch people in Indonesia). From that era to the time when I was born, grown and leave that area until I went back after 26 years leaving it, that area never changes.
The remnants of the Dutch people’s glory in the past are still strongly attached here. All houses in the Pertamina area are painted by the same color. Those houses also have the similar shape. They have windows that are typical style of Dutch era and decorated by squared white trellis. When I stayed in one of that houses in 1980s, I could feel how spacious the building which was made by Dutch people.
Seen from outside, Gunung Dubbs housing area is just like Beverly Hills. Houses without fence (almost all houses there do not have fence), spacious green yard, hilly zone, non crowded street, clean neat area, and the enormous view of the beach are all things lies around in Gunung Dubbs.
It is not accessible to use public transportation to see around Gunung Dubbs area. In 1990s, Pertamina closed that area from public transportation traffic. I could see the checkpoint completed by crossbar to block the road. Because of that, I preferred to see around by walking. Not only I could be more relaxed but also I could retrace my childhood memories.
The area of Gunung Dubbs is actually not the true mountain. The name of mountain which is commonly used to mention area in Balikpapan comes because the area is hilly. As housing area, Gunung Dubbs can be considered very neat and comfortable. There are not many transportation devices passing by. Never expect to see traffic jam here; even the transportation devices are rare to pass there. Several names there use the names of International Oil Company. I could see the name of street, Schlumberger, an oil company from France.
After being satisfied of passing through the hilly housing area, I continued to Folker area which is located on the foothills of Gunung Dubbs. After walking for 20 minutes, I had been able to reach Folker with its typical view of oil refinery. Then I used public transportation to go to the port.
It was different to the view of 26 years ago. The port area which now has the name of Semayang Port looks more crowded and dense. A ship of PELNI (Indonesia’s Sailing Company) appeared from a distance. It waited the turn to moor.
To fill my appetite, in the afternoon I went to Barunawati stall which is famous with its goat satay and curry. Not too much different to the past time, Barunawati now still looks modest with the strong goat satay aroma since walking to enter that stall. A portion of satay and a glass of young coconut water were enough for me to recharge energy before continuing my journey.
Approaching the time of sunset, I took a rest in the area which is called as Melawai. It is not the same with Lintas Mentawai in Jakarta which was so famous in 80′s. Melawai here is the area in the edge of the beach having various snacks to welcome the visitors. The beach here is actually not as beautiful as the beach in Bali, but the relaxed ambiance here is often used by the people to spend the time in the weekend.
According to the history, Melawai area had ever been used as slaughtering arena toward Dutch troops when Japan occupied Balikpapan.
The day changed and I continued my journey to have flashback of memories in that oil city. When I asked to local people where I could take the pictures of oil refinery from the top, they all had the same answer that the lighthouse location was the precise place to see the oil refinery from the top.
The lighthouse city is located in Pelayaran area near Gunung Dubbs. I could only use local transportation until the area of Gunung Dubbs because there is no public transportation to reach Pelayaran area. By walking, I went through the inclining routes in Pelayaran.
“Just follow the paved road, it will incline”, said the lady giving me instruction.
Pelayaran area is the housing hill where most of the houses face directly to sea in eastern and western side. In one side, I could see Balikpapan with the view of oil refinery dock. In other side, I could see coastal area which is bordered by the crowd of the city and high seas.
The most interesting spot to see Balikpapan from the top is indeed from lighthouse area in Pelayaran. To go there, I had to walk by passing through a settlement with inclining and complicated routes. Most of the routes are still just like jungles. So I suggest for not passing those routes at night.
It seemed that I was bit unlucky that day because the gate of lighthouse was not opened for public. The expectation to take picture of the oil refinery just disappeared and I had to get down eradicating my feeling of hunger.
Before eating, I dropped in Australia Monument to take pictures in Klandasan area. That monument was built to commemorate Australian troops who passed away when they fought against Japan in Balikpapan. According to the news that I heard, Australian Government still holds the ceremony to commemorate that moment annually until now.
One more place to relax and to take pictures is Bakapai Park which is located across Klandasan Market. That big park is famous with its mascot in the form of stainless steel statue representing the gusher. That park is also known as PLNPark because it located right in front PLN building (Indonesia’s Electricity Company).
Not only famous with its oil, Balikpapan is also popular with its gastronomy especially for sea food dish. One thing that I never miss is to taste sauced crab in Kenari Restaurant in Gunung Bakaran area. The strategic location (near to airport) makes the customers have to order it several days before then it is packed and carried on the plane as the food gift.
The famous crab menus are not only from Kenari Restaurant. Torani and Dandito Restaurant which are located far away from Kenari Restaurant also become favorite place for tourists visiting Balikpapan. Even, according to information from a friend, Dandito Restaurant has many pilots from various airlines in Balikpapan as customers. To order crab menus, customers who are already in airport boarding room can contact that restaurant. The food will be delivered directly to seat of the customers on the plane. It is advanced, isn’t it! At least for my friend who stays in Balikpapan.