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10 interesting things to know about Balikpapan, Indonesia

Located on the east coast of Borneo island, Balikpapan is the industrial, commercial and financial center of Kalimantan.

It is the second most populous city in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia, after Samarinda.

If you want to know more about this city, here are ten things to know about Balikpapan, especially on its unique history:
Water fountain at Bakapai Garden, Balikpapan. Credit: Pixabay.
1.The various stories behind its unique name

Those who understand Indonesian Malay might find the name ‘Balikpapan’ unique. ‘Balik’ means ‘behind’ while ‘papan’ is wooden plank.

Legend has it a king who was afraid of his daughter falling into enemy hands had bound her to several planks and sent her out to sea. Waves came and hit the planks, turning the daughter – who was still a toddler at the time – over. When the planks washed ashore, a fisherman found the daughter still bound to the board. The area where she was found was called Balikpapan.

Another theory is that the Kutai sultanate’s Sultan Muhammad Idris sent 1,000 planks to help the Paser kingdom build a new palace. They shipped the planks from Kutai to Paser through Borneo shorelines. Out of the 1,000 planks, 10 was washed away and resurfaced at a site which is now called Balikpapan.

The last theory is that it was named after a couple. Kayun Kuleng and Papan Ayun were the ancestors of Pasir Balik tribe, a native people of Balikpapan. The area that they lived is called ‘Kuleng-Papan’ and “Kuleng” means “Balik” in Paser language.

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2. The city was part of an old kingdom called Kutai Kartanegara Sultanate

Before the late 19th century, Balikpapan was just a group of Bugis fishing villages which was part of the Kutai Kartanegara Sultanate.

Then in 1844, the Dutch came and defeated Kutai’s ruler Sultan Aji Muhammad Salehuddin. The event forced the sultan into exile, allowing the Dutch to take control of the whole sultanate including Balikpapan.

3.The booming oil industry in Balikpapan under Dutch Rule.

The first oil drilling in the city began on Feb 10, 1897 and the oil well which was called “Mathilda” has been commemorated by its very own monument. The date was set as Balikpapan ‘s anniversary.

Then in 1907, Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM), a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch Shell oil company made the city its headquarters. This caused many skilled workers and engineers from overseas to work there, resulting in the blooming of the economy.

More roads, warehouses, offices and bungalows were built in Balikpapan during this period.

4.The Japanese targeted Balikpapan during World War II due to its oil industry.

When the Japanese planned their offence during World War II, their main focus was usually on any city which had an oil industry, such as Miri (Sarawak) and Tarakan (Indonesia).

After they captured the oilfield at Tarakan from the Allies, they found that it was already destroyed.

So the Japanese force headed to Balikpapan in the hope that the oilfields had not been destroyed.

Knowing this, the Dutch commander Lieutenant Colonel Cornelis van den Hoogenband ordered the oilfield in Balikpapan destroyed, evacuating his staff to Samarinda on Jan 18, 1942.

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When the Japanese finally landed in Balikpapan four days later, they were met with about 1,100 troops of the Dutch army.

However, this number was easily defeated by the Japanese who came with 5,500 infantry and 1,100 naval infantry.

5.In 1945, Balikpapan served as the site of the last major ground operation of World War II.

From July 1-21, 1945, Allied Forces from Australia, the United States of America, Netherlands and United Kingdom started a series of heavy bombing and shelling on Balikpapan.

This battle was one of the last to occur during WWII before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which effectively ended the war.

6.CIA once air raided the city back in the 1950s
The coastline of Balikpapan has seen so many battles over the past century.

Although WWII ended in 1945, Balikpapan saw another battle in 1958. The US ran a CIA covert mission to undermine President Sukarno’s government by supporting right-wing rebels in Indonesia.

In 1958, the CIA then attacked Balikpapan and stopped oil exports in the area. This was to weaken the country’s economy.

The Balikpapan air raid subsequently caused Shell to suspend tanker services from Balikpapan.

To fight back, the Indonesian naval and air forces shot down a plane and captured its CIA pilot causing the Americans to withdraw their support of the right-wing groups.

7. The unique multi-cultural society of the city

Looking at East Kalimantan’s overall population, the most populous ethnic group in the province is the Javanese. Coming in second is the Bugis who live in coastal and urban areas. Meanwhile, the third largest ethnicity is the Banjar who live mostly in the city of Samarinda and Balikpapan.

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Although the Dayak is only the fourth largest group, their cultural heritage, such as costumes and handicrafts, are widely displayed in Balikpapan in places like shopping malls and airport.

8.It is among most liveable cities in Indonesia

Thanks to its well-maintained facilities and environmental wellbeing, Balikpapan was voted the best city for living in 2013. It was also voted as the Most Loveable City for 2015.

9.The city’s mascot is the sunbear

The city is home to orangutan, sunbear, deer, proboscis monkey, gibbon, pangolin and plenty of endemic birds.

Of these animals, the sun bear was picked as Balikpapan’s mascot. Unfortunately, the population of sunbears in the area is maybe 50 or less.

Orangutan can be found in the forests near the city particularly at Wain River Protected Forest.
10.It offers plenty of tourist attractions

Being a seaport city, Balikpapan has many beaches including Manggar Beach, Segara Beach Monument Beach and Kemala Beach.

Other tourist attractions include Wain River Protected Forest, a crocodile farm called Teritip and Bukit Bangkirai rainforest.

For Sarawakians, the city is just two flights away from Kuching. Visitors can fly from Kuching to Pontianak and then take another flight to Balikpapan.

The city’s airport.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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