Down the River

Published: Garuda Inflight Magazine, March 2010

Banjarmasin has two floating markets: the one at Lok Baintan and another at Muara Kuin. The market at Lok Baintan is still authentic whereas the one at Muara Kuin was built by the government specifically for the tourist trade.

Pak Johan, an amicable man in his forties who is always happy to shoot the breeze, was telling me all about the floating market – pasar apung – on the Barito River in the city of Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan.

He is the owner of Borneo Homestay, my accommodation during the time I was visiting Banjarmasin. A row of flags from around the world and the slogan “home for backpackers” out front reminds everyone that this simple hostel is a favourite haunt of budget travellers, many of whom are foreigners.

“My name is in the Lonely Planet travel guide, as is my homestay,” explained Pak Johan.

Several tour packages include accommodation at his homestay and Pak Johan as the guide. One of them is a trip to Lok Baintan Floating Market by klotok (which means motorboat in the local language).

In fact there are two floating markets in Banjarmasin: the one at Lok Baintan and another at Muara Kuin. The market at Lok Baintan is still authentic whereas the one at Muara Kuin was built by the government specifically for the tourist trade.

The city’s increasing infrastructure means that the floating market is under threat from the ordinary markets, especially with all the bridges that are being built.

“The city with a thousand rivers is turning into the city with a thousand bridges,” grumbed Pak Johan.

Pak Johan and I crossed the Martapura River on our way to Lok Baintan where we planned to take a closer look at the everyday activity in the legendary floating market.

Travelling in the rather small motorboat is not so easy. It is 5 metres long and only 1.5 metres wide, and with it frequently rolling left and right, I felt unable to move around when I first stepped aboard this classic Banjar mode of transport.

It was 4.45 am when we made our way along the tranquil Martapura River. Left and right I saw people’s homes still in darkness with no signs of activity. However in some of them I saw the lights on and people offering their dawn prayers.

The sound of the call to prayer that accompanied our little voyage and the morning mist drifting on the river was truly enchanting.

Leaving the residential area behind, the motorboat passed through an area of sparsely populated sedge grass meadows and plantations. Here it was dark and I could see the stars scattered across the sky even though they were starting to fade as the sun was beginning to rise. We saw other motorboats along the way. My guess was that they were carrying the market people we were about to see at the pasar apung.

“The boats with empty baskets onboard belong to the merchants,” said Pak Johan.

Pak Johan’s explanation made me realize that the people who run the floating markets are farmers and merchants. These farmers bring their yields directly to the merchants who purchase them in bulk. Then the merchants, with their klotok, take the farm produce and sell it to local people.

“That’s why the floating market can only be seen bewteen 6.00 and 8.00 in the morning,” added Pak Johan.

The motorboats carrying the empty baskets belong to the merchants who are going to fill them with the farmers’ goods which are bought wholesale. The motorboats stacked full with fruit and vegetables belong to the farmers. Almost everything bought and sold at the pasar apung is agricultural produce although there are a few traders selling clothes.

This business model, according to Pak Johan, has been passed down from generation to generation, although he does not know exactly when the tradition began. Communities have been located on the land either side of the river which is exposed when the water level is low, since long ago. They have therefore been using boats to go about their business for a long time.

We’d spent an hour on South Kalimantan’s second biggest river when we finally reached the village of Lok Baintan. There wasn’t much going on when we arrived at the pasar apung, which according to Pak Johan can move around depending on the river currents.

We dropped by a food stall near the jetty in Lok Baintan where the floating market is often located. Our breakfast that morning was a glass of hot, sweet tea and some local speciality cakes. The tea cost only IDR500 and the various light snacks – or wadai – were wrapped in different colours. One example was a cake made using a traditional recipe called untuk-untuk which is like a kind of bun with green bean paste filling.

I took the opportunity to head for Lok Baintan’s Jembatan Gantung (suspension bridge). I’m not sure exactly how high this bridge is but I had to hold on tightly to the steel cable as I crossed it because I found the swaying motion scary at times. From here the sunrise panorama was quite beautiful. As I took it in could see the klotok pottering back and forth beneath me.

Pak Johan suggested we return to the motorboat and go back across the river. By now the activity in the market, on a bend in the river not far from the jetty, was clear to see. The colourful fruit and vegetables decorated to the increasingly bustling river.
Most of the people working in the market are women. There were only a handful of men doing business there.

The folks in the market were unperturbed when we approached them and took some photographs. They seemed at ease and some of them even greeted us enthusiastically. We waved and took a moment to chat with them.

It is so busy here that motorboats often bump into each other. In fact collisions are commonplace at pasar apung. The ladies who move around using smaller klotok are experts when it comes to poise. They nip nimbly in and out of the nodding throng of boats without hesitation.

The fruit and vegetables sold here cannot be bought singly or by the kilogram like in the conventional markets. There are no weighing scales and plastic wrappers here, just big baskets ready to be filled with the produce. And there is plenty of bartering going on.

At 7.30 am we left the market and headed back to my homestay. Pak Johan’s motorboat made its way down the calm River Martapura. On the return trip I saw that the atmosphere had changed. Now there were people going about their business everywhere. People bathing, doing their laundry, and buying things from the merchants in their klotok.

I began to understand Pak Johan’s concern that the new infrastructure being built in the city represented a threat to the river’s potential as a tourist attraction.

“We need motorboats, not bridges,” said Pak Johan.

Life here is inextricably linked to the river. So many of the city’s houses are found along its banks. However, uniquely, these are not shanty town type dwellings like we see in places like Jakarta. These houses are orderly and clean. Indeed, many of them have garages at the rear with cars parked in them. We can also see plenty satellite TV dishes.

“Even though their activities involve the river, the water never smells,” explained Pak Johan.
Throughout my journey on the klotok, not once did I detect any foul or rotten smells from the river even though the local people use water from the river for their daily activities. Pak Johan was right: let’s hope the city with a thousand rivers does not become the city with a thousand bridges.

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