Banjarmasin by first impression is a scruffy back-end port and a typical sprawling noisy metropolis. With its harbour, its abundantly flourishing export trade in rubber, pepper, timber, not to mention coal, gold and diamonds, Banjarmasin has developed from a sleepy backwater into a crowded and noisy city. With this economic expansion, it has rapidly become filled with featureless concrete and much of its old splendour has been lost. However, there are still open spaces and little green squares in front of the splendour of the Sabilal Muhtadin mosque. But just behind the peaceful esplanade of the riverfront new apartments and offices squeeze and crowd carelessly amongst the old ramshackle wooden houses. Bedecked in advertising and seemingly strung up by power cables, these new blank buildings crowd oppressively up against the last remaining green civic spaces with an air of impending invasion.
The first thing one notices about the city is its utterly bewildering likeness to Venice and Amsterdam. Although clearly retaining its distinctive south-east Asian flavour. Originally an island much of the city remains balanced in or on the waterline. The Martapura River cuts its way through the centre, whilst smaller confluences of running water and canals, crowded with little craft, strewn with litter, dead dogs, hanging laundry and ebullient naked infants washing their teeth, join the Martapura as it weaves lazily towards the harbour and the sea. The main form of transport in Banjarmasin is expectedly water-based. River taxis pass, queue and bobbingly jockey alongside their land borne counterparts. Where the river shallows and enters smaller lagoons canoes of all sizes and ingenuity materialise carrying produce to the markets and local inhabitants to their schools, shopping or places of work.