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As Long as We Remember...

November 26, 2014

Surprise after Surprise

Tom McLaughlin

Samarinda and Tenggarong, Indonesian Borneo – We hired a car and drove about two hours to the capital of the Province, Samarinda. The drive up was pock marked with the strip mining for coal. Ugly gashes in the earth laid bare the orange clay. One could see the remnants of coal embedded in the land.


Behind houses, hills were reduced to orange mountains completely bare of vegetation. On the positive side, non-governmental organizations from the Netherlands were just starting to reclaim the land with trees. We saw very few palm oil estates like we do on the western side.


We expected Samarinda to be small sleepy town and were greatly surprised to find a medium metropolis filled with motorbikes and Toyota land rovers. The town wound around the Mahakam River and then burst into a residential area around the port. There were many government buildings and not much else.


After a night at the hotel, another business like place, we took another car and proceeded to Tenggarong. This was another small town up the river from Samarinda. We wanted to see the infamous bridge.


It was decided by gas and timbers speculators to change Tenggarong into the gateway center to the interior of Borneo. Large high rises were planned and a megalopolis laid out. Fuelled by the vast gains in natural resources, the first thing was to build a bridge across the river.


Unfortunately, the bridge collapsed because of corruption in that the cement procured was not mixed correctly to facilitate money going into Swiss bank accounts. Following the bridge’s demise, the rest of project failed leaving blank spaces in the town.


The Sultan's Palace was next on our list. It was his home until, in the early 1960s, the central government in Jakarta decided that the Sultan was viewed as a threat. His palace was seized and turned into a museum. He now lives in a modest house.


The museum is an unbelievably large and ornate building filled with treasure. On the bottom floor are about a hundred pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain displayed in cases. There beauty and rarity is astounding. It was incredible that such a collection could be found in this sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.


On the second floor are belongings of the Sultans seized during the early 1960s. There were traditional clothes, native traditional implements, the throne room, the Sultans’ ornate bedroom and an exhibition of the head gear worn by the Sultans of various tribes throughout Indonesia. Ancient trade beads, old mining implement, currency and coins, plus a myriad of different old treasures were displayed.


The building was constructed over a long period of time ending with the Dutch adding a roof in the early 1900s. The roof was blue and white glass extending over half a football field and just as wide. Muted tropical sunshine poured through. At the magnificent entrance, a pair of lions and cannons stood guard. Thick concrete walls helped during the days without air conditioning.


On the outside, the outer buildings were taken over by batik sales people with only one person selling old antiques. It was quite a sales force for only one or two people – if that – who visited the palace and museum each day.


As a surprise, the Sultan showed up for a visit. He was a very elderly man dressed in beads of finery as well as his crown. He moved very slowly, regally as it were, and disappeared with his entourage into the warren of buildings.


We drove back to Samarinda and then to Balikpapen to spend a couple of nights before our return trip the Kuching.


...Life is good. . . . .


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