Forgotten ‘bandong’ boats

PONTIANAK: Three river transport terminals can be found in Pontianak, the West Kalimantan capital — Kapuas Indah, Kapuas Besar and Teng Sheng Hie. Carrying passengers and food supplies, the boats from the terminals ply different routes through Kapuas River and these unique ferries are called bandong, Jakarta Post reported.

Attractively designed in the form of houses 12-14 meters long and 3-4 meters wide, bandong boats produce a very loud yet rhythmic sound from their engines: dong-dong-dong. “The name bandong may have been derived from the engine sound,” said Suyatman, a bandong helmsman at Teng Sheng Hie terminal.

Bandong boats are only operating in Kalimantan with its major rivers, such as the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan and the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan. Although the origin of the name is unclear, some sources interpret it as coming from the word Bandung, without elaborating on its link with the West Java capital.

With the river and its tributaries flowing through West Kalimantan, river transport in the region can reach areas relatively remote from the city center, as far as the regencies of Kapuas Hulu, Sintang, Sekadau and Sanggau.

In the 1970s and earlier, when several regencies were not yet connected by highways, the boats were the most reliable means of transport of food, agricultural produce and passengers in the province, sailing the 1,086-kilometer Kapuas, the country’s longest, never-drying river 70-150 meters wide and over 10 meters deep.

Since the introduction of regional autonomy, the province has intensified road and bridge construction, thus increasing public mobility. With a rising number of buses and taxis, the routes linking Pontianak and the various regencies can now be traveled by land faster than by the waterway.

Unsurprisingly, residents in upstream areas who used to go by boat to major cities have now turned to land transport. “I can now go by bus from Melawi to Pontianak in only 10 hours,” said former head of Sebaju village, Melawi regency, Martinus.

He related that when he studied at Tanjungpura University, Pontianak, 30 years ago, the access from his village to the city was very poor, while there were only a handful of public vehicles with a very high fare. It forced him to go by bandong to return home during long vacations. “We didn’t go home if we had just five-seven days off because the Pontianak-Melawi boat trip takes four-five days,” he added.

The sight of parading bandong boats carrying goods and passengers along Kapuas River, however, has become a rarity today. Every year, the number of these boats has been shrinking in the region as the use of land transport means like buses and trucks is preferred in order to save time. The distance of 700 kilometers between Pontianak and Kapuas Hulu, for instance, can be covered by bus within 16 hours, compared to three days and nights by bandong.

“Most service users choose to go by land so we sometimes have to berth at the Pontianak terminal for 10 days to wait for freight and passengers. The other constraint is the diminishing river water with shallow parts in the dry season, with the risk of running aground,” said Amiruddin, 47, one of the bandong helmsmen still active.

The other helmsman, Syahril 64, said he and his four crewmembers could now only make a single Sanggau-Pontianak round trip in a month. In fact, 30 years ago he managed to skipper five to six trips and earned Rp 300,000 (US$31.80)– Rp 500,000 per trip. There has also been the problem of engine breakdowns as most bandong boats are 20-30 years old, despite the easier way of sending for mechanics at present.

The primary concern of bandong boat crewmen today is actually the rapid growth of land and air transport facilities. Airfields have even been built in West Kalimantan’s upper Sintang and Kapuas Hulu regencies. The boats are thus increasingly sidelined, with only part of the local people being aware of the presence of these ferries and just dozens of them around, while they were in the hundreds decades ago.

Nonetheless, the boats remain effective for remote interior villages still without road access to urban areas and widely used for the transport of various goods, household furniture and food supplies from district capitals, taking one to two weeks to reach the settlements.

Some students from upstream areas studying in Pontianak even still rely on the waterway, for reasons of avoiding damaged roads, which make passengers unable to sleep for being rocked along the way and also carsick. Besides being free from carsickness, according to Sri Pujiyanti, a Tanjungpura University student from Jongkong district, Kapuas Hulu, going by boat is cheap.

For the Pontianak-Jongkong route, the boat fare is Rp 200,000 per person including two meals daily for 4-5 days. Traveling by bus costs Rp 150,000 per person and taxi Rp 350,000 excluding meals, which passengers have to buy three to four times at restaurants chosen by the driver.

Boat passengers are accommodated upstairs, where they sleep on mats instead of beds, and enjoy their meals also on the floor. “It’s like camping,” said Rupinus, a bandong passenger. Uniquely, the lucky one will find his or her match on board. After getting acquainted, some pair will express their love to each other. “The several days’ sail allows a better change for romantic approach,” added Sri.

During the journey, passengers are given the opportunity to watch beautiful countryside and forest areas from the rooftop in the morning and afternoon. Some parts of Kapuas riverbanks are uninhabited, with stretches of mangroves along river basins. “I’ve seen orangutans, proboscis monkeys and hornbills in the forest,” said Ferdy, another passenger.

The drawbacks of bandong boats are their very low speed when they sail against a strong river current, mostly during nighttime and the cargo they carry, some with a bad smell. “The old boat I boarded once had to sail for a week as it halted now and again at night. The helmsman said he was afraid the boat would get caught in floating branches and twigs,” Sri related.

What passengers try to find out before going by bandong is whether or not the boats carry rubber as part of their cargo. “Unless we’re watchful enough, we’ll lose our appetite and have difficulty sleeping,” said Ferdy, who had experienced it himself.

“Sadly, the regional government hasn’t yet considered the interesting and unique features of bandong to make it an icon of inland water tourism,” said Mulam Kushaeri, a West Kalimantan cultural expert. In fact, the Kapuas River stream has a very strategic position as a reliable regional transport waterway.

According to him, it’s like Venice, Italy, with its famous gondolas on the Venetian canal. West Kalimantan actually can boast its bandong boats along Kapuas River, offering memorable sights to tourists as they sail past attractive riverbanks while enjoying sunset atop the ferries.

On the other hand, during official meetings between West Kalimantan authorities and state guests from Jakarta, bandong boat miniatures made by local craftsmen are always handed over as souvenirs at the end of the functions.

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