Separated from Southeast Asia’s mainland 10,000 years ago by rising seas, Kalimantan was originally populated by the Dayak, who still define its public image. The culture of these diverse forest tribes once included headhunting, extensive tattooing, stretched earlobes, blowguns and longhouses – horizontal apartment buildings big enough to house an entire village. That culture has been slowly dismantled by the modern world, so that some elements, such as headhunting, no longer exist, while others are slowly disappearing. Tribal identity persists, but many Dayak have either abandoned their traditional folk religion, Kaharingan, or combined it with Christianity (or Islam).
In addition to the Dayak, Kalimantan contains two other large ethnic groups: the Chinese and the Malay. The Chinese are the region's most successful merchants, having traded in Kalimantan since at least 300 BC. They're responsible for the bright red Confucian and Buddhist temples found in many port towns, and for a profusion of Chinese restaurants that offer some of Kalimantan's best dining. The Malays are predominantly Muslim, a religion that arrived with the Melaka empire in the 15th century. The most obvious signs of their presence are the grand mosques in major cities and towns, along with the call to prayer. Several palaces of Muslim sultanates, some still occupied by royal descendants, can be visited.
Since colonial times Kalimantan has been a destination for transmigrasi, the government-sponsored relocation of people from more densely populated areas of the archipelago. This and an influx of jobseekers from throughout Indonesia has led to some conflict, most notably a year-long struggle between Dayak and Madurese people (from the island of Madura) in 2001, which killed 500 people, and a smaller conflict in 2010 between Dayak and Bugis in Tarakan.
Most of the struggle in Kalimantan, however, has taken place over its bountiful natural resources, and involved foreign powers. Oil, rubber, spices, timber, coal, diamonds and gold have all been pawns on the board, causing many years of intrigue, starting with British and Dutch colonial interests. During WWII oil and other resources made Borneo (the island that is home to Kalimantan) an early target for Japan, leading to a brutal occupation in which some 21,000 people were murdered in West Kalimantan alone. In 1963 Indonesian President Sukarno led a failed attempt to take over all of Borneo by staging attacks on the Malaysian north.
Today the struggle for Kalimantan's resources is more insidious. As one watches the endless series of enormous coal barges proceeding down rivers lined with tin-roofed shacks, there is the constant sense of an ongoing plunder from which the local people benefit little. Meanwhile, as palm-oil plantations spread across the landscape, the great Bornean jungle recedes, never to return. Numerous conservation groups are struggling to halt the social and environmental damage, and to save some remarkable wildlife. Best to visit soon.