Pontianak is the capital of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. There is an old charm to this city. It is crowded, but not overly packed with thousands of vehicles cramming up the streets. The citizens of Pontianak are not rushed off their feet every second. This is certainly not the fast paced lifestyle urbanites are used to. Here it feels as though you are taking a step back in time.
For Malaysians, images of vampiric ghosts; spirits of women who died while pregnant comes to mind whenever the word Pontianak pops up. Turns out, the history of Pontianak’s name does in fact relate to the Malay and Indonesian mythology.
Legend says that thousands of years ago, the first sultanate of Pontianak, Sharif Abdurrahman Alkadrie, was disturbed by the female poltergeist, which by the way is known as Kuntilanak in Indonesia, while looking for a place to settle down and build a kingdom. He ordered his men to shoot the pontianak with a cannon. Following that incident, the sultan built a city and named it after the ghostly creature. The first palace was built, as well as the first mosque, now called Jami Mosque (Sultan Sharif Abdurrahman Mosque), located along the straits of the Kapuas river.
The city of Pontianak lies on the banks of Kapuas river, the longest river in Indonesia meandering 1143 kilometres west, passing 9 of west Kalimantan’s 14 districts til it reaches the South China Sea. It is also one of the longest rivers in the world. Visiting the Jami Mosque is accessible via the Kapuas river-cruise.
The mosque, is green and yellow in colour so it’s hard to miss. Traversing across the famous river, there are wooden homes built on stilts, and plenty of wooden boats docked by the river banks.
The locals live a simple life and are friendly to tourists. Some wave to us from their wooden houses, with heartwarming smiles.
If there’s one thing you’ll notice when in Pontianak is the absence of high rise buildings. Due to its swampy grounds, high rise buildings are difficult to build, but views of large paddy fields stretch the horizon. That aside, this city has so much potential to be developed and modern.
Looking for a taxi in this city is like finding a needle in a haystack though. Reason being, getting from point A to point B is not too far from one another, so this results in a low demand for public transport. The most popular mode of transport in this city is motorbike.
CITY OF EQUATOR
It’s not a visit to Pontianak if you don’t make your way to the Equator Monument. Granted, there aren’t many outstanding tourist attractions but nothing beats telling people you’ve been to the middle of the earth.
The Equator Monument is exactly where the exact middle of the world used to be. Back in 1928, the equator spot was marked with an arrow by a Dutch geographer when he visited Borneo.
The monument, looks like a pillar, topped with a globe to cap off the work. But according to recent GPS readings, the exact spot which points to the centre of the earth does not lie underneath the monument anymore.
In fact, it can be found underneath the waters of the Kapuas river – making the monument the closest mark to the exact equator. In 2005, the equatorial line was recorded a short distance south of the monument, and it continues to move south, increasing the inaccuracy of the equator spot.
Here in Pontianak is where the community celebrates the time of spring and autumn solstices, when the shadows of the monument and everything around it disappears at noon. This event takes place twice a year.
Getting to the monument is not far, as it’s located around 5 kilometres on the north end of the city. Visiting the monument is free, and you will also get a free certificate to certify your visit to the centre of the earth. If you’ve ever dreamt of being in two places at once, stand astride the equatorial line which you can find at the monument.
HARMONY IN DIVERSITY
Pontianak is home to a wonderful diversity of people, each with their own unique heritage. Following the Chinese comes the Malays, Bugis, Javanese, Madura, Dayaks and others.
A good number of its population, are muslims, followed by catholic, buddhists and so on. Roam around the city and you will find mesmerising mosques and churches like the Raya Mujahidin mosque, and the St.Joseph Cathedral, designed with amazing architecture.
The Raya Mujadhiddin mosque is the largest and grandest mosque located in the city of Pontianak, and is fairly new. The mosque was officiated by the President of Indonesia Ir H.Joko Widodo in January 2015 before it began its operation.
The city of Pontianak welcomes the Eidulfitri celebrations with a bang; literally. If in Malaysia they opt for fireworks, the Indonesians ignite the carbide cannon. The interesting history to this tradition stretches back to the first sultanate of Pontianak, Sharif Abdurrahman Alkadrie who uses the cannon to fight off ghosts.
Now, firing off carbide cannons is Pontianak’s signature Eidulfitri tradition to welcome the festivity and has become a tourist attraction. But, as dangerous as it sounds, the carbide cannons are not the exact real weapons used in the war. The traditional carbide cannon used for Eidulfitri is made with carved durian tree trunk, filled with water and calcium carbide. When the cannons’ fuses are ignited, fire will be lit up by torches, which will result in a huge blast.
Pontianak is a great place to discover and appreciate the diverse in culture and historical background this city has to offer. If you’re a lover of culture and history, include this in your bucket list!
(All photos by Syahirah Mokhtazar)