My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Understand
Borneo's Balikpapan is the Novosibirsk of Indonesia; it's the biggest city in Indonesia's version of Siberia - a frontier city inside a huge swath of land with precious few people but lots of natural resources. Indonesians refer to the huge island of Borneo as Kalimantan. The island has long been an 'exile destination' for forced and incentivized migration from the Java island to Kalimantan, mostly by the Muslim population of Java.
Kalimantan is an energy powerhouse, with many natural resources and seemingly everyone has a job in either the mining or oil industry. Balikpapan is the biggest city and is a gateway for oil workers and miners. It has a small town feel and a distinct frontier character but the oil and mining boom (until a few years ago) helped finance infrastructure projects and modern mall construction, which is rather rare for Indonesia.
While Balikpapan surely feels like an outstation, it has enough beaches and infrastructure to make your stay pleasant and interesting for a few days or as respite from the jungles of Borneo.
People in Balikpapan are distinctively less friendly than in Javaand much more suspicious (they though are still pretty friendly). Most of the service industry is staffed with cheap labor (think under $5 for an 8-hour shift!) who likely only completed primary school; this often makes for ridiculous situations (my 4th graders would easily outcompete in the skills of almost every service employee here).
Prices are generally higher than in major cities like Bandungand Surabayaand they are similar to Jakarta but with much lower quality.
Balikpapan seemed much colder than the Borneo city of Kota Kinabalu, with a constant ocean breeze.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Get Around
Uber, Grabcar and GO-JEK are all in town. I found Uber to be the cheapest and to have the most courteous drivers, though you often have to wait a little longer for a car. Rides in town are usually under $3.
In true Indonesian fashion, there are tons of motorbikes and cars and very little rules, though traffic jams are usually unheard of and there are sidewalks for most inner-city areas with a little less traffic on them. Traffic police are nowhere to be seen.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Safety
Besides the rowdy motorbike drivers who driver over sidewalks like it would be a road the city seems exceedingly safe.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Connectivity
For such a remote place you will be surprised how fast Internet can be. There is a direct link to a major undersea cable (How to predict Internet speeds before you travel) and you can often expect 10Mbit outside of the busy afternoons.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Pollution
Blessed with strong onshore winds and relatively little traffic and mostly new cars and motorcycles air pollution is not a major issue. The beaches are generally polluted though and swimming is a bad idea.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Sights
Balikpapan is not a tourist destination it has just a few things to do.
This new mall in the geographical city center comes with all major chains you'd expect in a South East Asian mall. It's as good as it gets in a mall and many shops provide more than just the usual mall fare.
The Plaza Balikpapan
The Plaza Balikpapan is another mall near the modern downtown and has much more upscale shops. It is more a place to see high end US and European brands - I can't think of many goods changing hands there.
Kemala Beach is a pretty beach for sunny afternoon. It will remind you of Seminyak (sadly there is as much trash in the water as in Seminyak). If you walk down the beach you'll see a Heli Port right at the beach. It makes for a lovely grassy spot to enjoy an ocean breeze (Balikpapan does not get as hot usually).
Batu Batu Banua Patra
Just a short walk from the heliport is this lookout point over the harbor. The sunset will set right over Borneo and the selfie experts will help you set up the best spot for the sunset photography.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Eat & Drink
Maxbar is a great place to get a fresh coconut at Kemala Beach. The breeze is fresh and the coconuts too.
The Beach House
This tranquil spot will remind you of Thailand. It has the same chill vibe and provides decent food and fast WiFi and you can ogle at the sea. The beach is too polluted for a skinny dip though. Bring mosquito protection or you will be eaten alive here.
Likely the best place to eat in town. You can sit right at waters edge and prices are moderate. The menu is necessarily big and many items not fresh. Get a grilled fish or other grilled items to avoid a nasty surprise the next day. It's all very tasty though.
If you like seafood and especially crab - this is the place to go. I'm no fan of either so I skipped the chain.
RM Padang Upik
This is the local chain favorite for Indonesian/Malay food. It is very cheap and yummy though not exactly healthy.
De-Sushi is the place for Japanese cuisine on the island. I'm not sure I would eat raw fish here but the Udon and Katsu were decent enough.
None of the employees here ever heard of Bondi Beach and I got a lot of empty stares. The good news is that there is actually a full service Indonesia restaurant with decent food and the baked goods and nuts are pretty good too.
My Favorite 12 Things to do Balikpapan, Indonesia - Where to Stay
I really liked the Novotel Balikpapan (Review) and thought it was a fantastic offer at the lowest rates. The Grand Tjokoro Balikpapan also gets good reviews and is close to the airport.