Kalimantan: Orangutans on Magic Mushrooms

A lot of times I go to places for strange reasons: I might know absolutely nothing about a particular place, but the sound of it attracts me, or it has a cool vibe around it:) Kalimantan was one of those places.

Indonesia consists of 17,000 (!) islands. Borneo is the largest island, which is “shared” with Malaysia. Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of Borneo. It is not the coolest or most popular tourist destination in Indonesia. It’s quite far and wild, it’s called ‘the Amazon of Indonesia’. Well, it’s jungle.

In the morning before the flight I actually had an anxiety building up about this trip. I just had a one-way ticket who-knows-where and all I knew, I wanted to see some wild orangutans. No one I knew has been there, I had no place to stay and I couldn’t even remember the name of the town I was flying to. But that’s just how I go on this trip: minimum research and almost no planning. Usually I don’t have a plan beyond the next day (if that!) I’ve never owned a Lonely Planet book or any guide and hope never will. Local people and fellow backpackers are my Lonely Planets. If you tell me some place is super awesome, chances are I will send you a picture from there:)

Anyway, I was on my way to Pangkalan Bun. On the plane I met a Czech couple, Blanka and Radik. They had a plan. They were also going to see orangutans in the jungle and already found a good guide and all. I usually don’t like anything guided but here you needed a guide for sure. First of all, you’re not just gonna go into the wild and find orangutans, and also you simply just don’t screw with the jungle! Blanka and Radik are very chill, we made friends and the next day we set off on a 3-day boat adventure along the jungle river in Tanjung Puting National Park in search of wild orangutans:)

Our boat was a pretty rugged vessel, romantically called Mezzaluna. We occupied the upper deck, with a table where we dined and where at night we had our matrasses with mosquito nets set up. The crew slept on the lower level, where also the kitchen and the captain’s cabin were located. So from the crew there was captain Morena (I played Captain Lena sometimes:), a cook who prepared awesome Indonesian meals for us and our guide Andi.

Our jungle team (without Radik).

Our jungle team (without Radik).

Andi has been “in” the jungle since he was a little boy. He really is at home in the jungle: he knows all the plants, paths, animals and birds, their sounds and habits, can read their moods and intentions. We also called him a ‘jungle rebel’, because he can break the official jungle guidelines and go with the common sense and his experience. We often would go on crazy off-track paths, jumping roots and mud pools and going through the bush, in search of orangutans and other wildlife.

Blanka and I enjoying the ride and the view

Blanka and I enjoying the ride and the view

In Bahasa (Indonesian language) ‘oran’ means ‘man’ and ‘gutan’ means ‘jungle’, so orangutan in fact is translated as a ‘jungle man’. So there’re these feeding stations in the park. At certain times of day park rangers put a bunch of fruits there and start calling for orangutans to come and eat. It’s a good and pretty sure way to see the orangutans. On the first day we saw the apes only during the feeding time. Of course there could be no guarantee to find orangutans in the wild, because it’s the jungle, not a zoo. But we had trust in Andi and our luck.

Orangutan feeding station

Orangutan feeding station

About luck. Legend has it, that if a monkey pees on you from a tree – it’s for good luck. It’s called ‘jungle juice’:) Radik had a been jungle-juiced before this trip, so we all were enjoying the results of it and it was an all around successful trip. We even called our team ‘Jungle Juice’. And kept wondering, how lucky one must get after a ‘jungle burger’.

On day two we were walking deep in jungle and suddenly Andi noticed some tree movements in the distance (you must be very observant and detect slightest sounds). We went in, and there they were, the beautiful orangutans. Big and orange-brown, with their long awkward-looking paws (arms?), and yet so graceful. It was six of them. Two mothers with their babies attached to them (one 2-3 weeks-old, another 1-month old), 4-year old male who seemed to be crying all the time and an older big orangutan. We actually hung out with them for about an hour. First I was a little anxious. I mean, you just don’t know what they are up to. Sometimes they can come at you, steal your camera or bag hoping there’s food there. They were coming our direction, jumping from tree to tree above us and then coming down next to us… They are big and strong and its their ‘hood’. Andi gave them a fruit and told me to give one as well. I handed it to the mother and she looked at me hesitantly for a bit and then stretched her long hairy arm and took the fruit from me, very gently.

Andi said that they were in a good mood. And they actually just continued doing what they’d be doing otherwise. Digging the ground around trees searching for ants, lazily climbing trees and scratching themselves.

Mama orangutan and a 2-weeks-old baby

Mama orangutan and a 2-weeks-old baby

We saw some more orangutans in the distance later, but the funniest encounter was with the alfa orangutan Gundul (which means ‘bald’). Every area of the jungle has a dominant male, and guides recognize them. To become an alfa, orangutan has to defeat the previous alfa in a fight. There’s a legendary alfa named Tom in the other part of this park, who defeated his own dad, who had to escape and disappear (and probably was half dead). Now his wife (widow?) Siswi is depressed and crazy. We saw her a bunch of times, once she was rolling in a giant strip of some paper or cloth she found, another – she was lying on a path with her feet up. Tough stuff.

I kept the crazy Siswi company

I kept the crazy Siswi company

Once you become an alfa, all the females in your jungle area are yours. Like all of them. So we saw Gundul surrounded by a bunch of females. After we walked away we heard some characteristic sounds of orangutan love-making process. We rushed back and we actually saw an interesting part of it: Gundul pleasing the female! And she was just sitting there, casually looking around, another baby orangutan chilling and lazily watching nearby. Oh jungle!

We saw a bunch of crocodiles in the river, with long and short snouts. A couple of years ago an Italian tourist was swimming in this river and got eaten by a croc. At night, as we were settling for sleep on the deck, we saw crocodile’s eyes glow in the bushes nearby.

Then we did something really fun: a night trek to the jungle. In search of magic mushrooms:) These are some weird flat poisonous mushrooms that glow in the dark. We found them and they looked really cool and mystic!

The jungle at night is so alive and so vibrant! ‘Shrooms glowing. Spiders’ eyes glowing in the dark. It was also a full moon and it was shining so bright, leaving long spooky shadows. ‘Alarm insects’ just deafen you. Bats flying. And of course we saw snakes. Two. Not big ones but poisonous and brrrr. I got paranoid first, but then made myself look at them and not look away. They were just slooooowly creeping, making their way, hunting. Andi had seen king cobras and giant pythons in that forest just not long ago. Radik made a joke about my snake phobia: a good way to fight your phobia is when a cobra bites you, 24 hours later your phobia is gone:)

Spider in the night

We were trying to find some tarantulas. So we were poking sticks to their holes, and usually they would come out. But it was Saturday night, and seems like all the tarantulas went out partying.
At some point we stopped for a second and by accident lit some light ahead and juuust in front of us there was a giant 1 square meter spider web with a huge spider in the middle. We were so lucky to have noticed it! Jungle juice at work:)

At day time we saw a bunch of other animals: lots of macaques, long-tail monkeys, long-nose monkeys, wild pigs and even a mouse deer (yes, this is apparently a thing! A tiny mouse-looking deer). We also visited a village built on a jungle river. I keep traveling and visiting places like that, and I still get amazed how different living environments and realities can be. These people looked so relaxed and happy, just sitting on a bench with their children and laughing, doing their thing in no rush.

Moving around the village in  the jungle

Old man riding a canoe in the jungle village

Blanka and Radik have traveled all over Indonesia for four month over the two years and said that this was probably the best experience they’d had. I was happy to hear that. We all made a good team, the trip was relaxing and paced and yet so eventful and exciting. We were returning to the ‘city’ already in the dark and saw thousands of fireflies in the trees along the river, glowing like Christmas trees.

Here’s a little video I made about this trip:

I returned to Pangkalan Bun and stayed with a couchsurfer Wira and his family.

My couchsurfing host family

My couchsurfing host family

After the jungle their house seemed like a palace, so huge and it did look like a mosque, with a big dome in the middle. During the day I went with my non-English speaking host mother to the local market on her motorbike. Lots and loots of pictures were taken there, and lots of fingers pointed:)

In Pangkalan Bun I even got to volunteer one time, teaching English to people working in hospitality (it’s a program for promoting sustainable tourism in Kalimantan). It was a heavy tropical rain and all the teachers canceled and I just jumped in and it was a wonderful class!

Pangkalan Bun fun crowd

Pangkalan Bun fun crowd

I met so many of Wira’s friends and we were just hanging out. Indonesia is 90% Muslim, Pangkalan Bun is probably even more than that. There’s really no bar-club-drinking going on in town (which I don’t really do anyway). So we were doing the best thing: driving around and eating lots of tasty food. I was very touched by their hospitality and friendliness. I received a lot of requests for Russian wives and husbands, my beautiful friend Ivon specifically asked for a ‘Misha’. So I’m just putting it out there:)

It’s amazing, when I was leaving on this trip, one friend went to see me off in the airport in New York (thank you, love!) In Pangkalan Bun like 10 people came out, including the entire host family. Tri makasi, teman saya:)


Good-bye, Kalimantan!



Aaand one more orangutan for the road:)

Aaand one more orangutan for the road:)



  1. Hey Lena,
    I just saw your video, and I love it!! Now I want to go back to Borneo :) :)
    – Mirre

  2. Just in case, here’s contact info of our guide Andi:

  3. This is so awesome!! I can’t wait to get back to Borneo. I visited Bako National Park, and Semenggoh Wildlife center outside of Kuching over on the Malaysian side and I loved it.
    Our original plan was to go to Tanjung Puting on the Kalimantan side, after reading this I most definitely want to go there! Kind of bummed we didn’t the first time. And PS: I love the pictures :)

    • Thank you Nicole:) The “worst” thing about traveling is the more you go, the more you understand that you don’t have enough time for this and that place… Can’t see it all!

  4. Wow, this sounds so epic, Borneo has always been on my list, but now its definitely moved up! Thanks for sharing.

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