Flores Island Expedition: Labuan Bajo
After a considerable amount of time, I think I can say after traveling to the tropics, and at one point hiking barefoot through the Indonesian forest, I did not get Malaria or any other diseases! It’s like a second Christmas.
Golden Week is known to be one of the worst traveling periods in Japan, so I was looking around for things to do outside of the country this year. A couple of my friends were interested in heading to Flores Island in Indonesia, which is most famous for having the Komodo National Park on the west coast. The diving there is said to be top notch, and although I don’t hold any certifications, I decided to tag along.
Before I go any further, I have to say I went into this trip a bit of the opposite way I usually do: While I asked plenty of questions about what to expect, I honestly didn’t do too much research myself about the island, or frankly, Indonesia. I took this as an opportunity to go into something 100% fresh. While I can’t say this made my trip any better/worse, things did seem to stick out to me a little bit more, regardless if you want to call it having an open mind or tourist ignorance.
Also, I’m writing this as an informational piece more than anything else. When my friends were doing their initial research, they found that many of the information was outdated, with prices, accommodations and general resources either changed or added. Take any of this as just my anecdotes if you are to go anytime soon. Having said that, Trip Advisor is going to be the best resource for just about anything on the island so I highly recommend doing some searches on there before going.
Flores Island is just starting to grow as a tourism destination, specifically the west-coast city of Labuan Bajo, the closest to the national park. The city, as of now, is basically a one street with an odd mix of hole-in-the-wall markets, homes, and very fancy restaurants all adjacent to each other. Surprising though, locals told us the architecture we saw was only about three years old. To think what it might become in another three, five or ten is a bit hard to imagine, but I’m sure more buildings will be remodeled, bringing more cafes, bars and western restaurants to the streets.
But now it’s not uncommon to see chickens walking in the middle of the said singular dirt road, children playing on the side on dirt mounds, and have mopeds fly by as they honk their horns as a notice of presence. I’m not saying this as a negative, but rather as a statement of where Labuan Bajo is as a developing city. While there are plenty beautiful beaches and reefs once you leave the main port, the actual city is probably reminiscent of what Cancun looked like before the hotel and spring break boom. In that way, I was lucky to be able to visit a place that still had some untouched charm.
We stayed at two hotels during our time, Bayview Gardens and Villa Seirama Alam, which are both located up the main hill from the city. Both hotels were the stereotypical “Tropical Destination” type places, but for the prices we paid (split three ways) it was a good deal: Good AC, an always stocked fridge, and breakfast with a nice assortment of pancakes and fruit. The staff at both locations were also some of the best I’ve ever met, and we were only able to stay at Villa Seirama Alam because of connections between the two. Whether it was asking for recommendations around the city, getting a driver, or anything we needed in our room, the staff was fast and friendly. Special shoutout to Hubert if you ever go.
The restaurants in Labuan Bajo range from local seaside BBQs, Italian sit-downs to Bar and Grills. We frequented “The Lounge” almost every night for a couple of beers. Unfortunately they close at 10 p.m., so we trudged back to our rooms with some tall Bintang bottles from one of the local markets on the way back as a replacement. One of the restaurants that stood out to me was Warung Mama: a purely Flores Island a la carte cafeteria. One of the general highlights of traveling in Indonesia was the relatively low cost of food, with Warung Mama being a delicious and cheap option for anyone who wants to try some local dishes.
Since the original plan for my friends to come to the island was to dive, their first order of business was to find a dive shop. We opted for Wicked Diving, mainly because all the other dive shops seemed to be completely booked, but the front office staff was also very accommodating. Our trip would include two days, three dives each, and meals for just around $300. My price was a little bit cheaper because I only went snorkeling, but I have to say I still had a lot of fun. The staff was always really cheerful, especially the two local boys who ended up being my guides. The boat we stayed on (first time for me!) was well-equipped and was much more pleasant than I thought sleeping on a boat would actually be.
I will say I felt a little left out because of my under-qualifications for diving, but obvious logistics got in the way when I tried to get certification out at sea: We were only staying one night, and by the time the equipment might get there it would have been too late. Snorkeling ended up working out for me though, as I had one extraordinary encounter with a group of manta rays.
On the last dive of the first day, the guides were worried that the current at the site was too strong. As they ventured a little out of the originally planned area, one of the guides noticed a large group of fins cresting the water. “We better snorkel now if you want to see those mantas!” one guide said, as we all eagerly hopped in. Like any good fish story, the number keeps increasing every time I tell it, but about 30-40 large Manta Rays swam past me in that half-hour span. Every time I would see one manta, another snorkeler would point out another group swimming by, and then another, and another. At one point the guides started hysterically laughing because they had never seen so many Manta Rays at once, even yelling at a passing boat what we just saw. We then saw people hopping off the other boat in orange life-jackets, but it was far too late for them.
I feel like I’ve gotten the general diving bug after that experience, but I’m sure that experience will be hard to beat. My friends said they saw fish and other creatures they would never see anywhere else, so the national park really lived up to its “best spot in the world” reputation.
Komodo National Park
Speaking of the park, we couldn’t leave Labuan Bajo until we visited the Komodo National Park itself and see the famed dragons. There were plenty of tour companies to pick from, and we opted to go with one the staff at Wicked Diving recommended. However, it was this tour that really made the “developing tourism economy city” thing stick out the most. Here’s a breakdown of what we paid for the trip.
Transportation cost (with lunch included) ~$30
Ok, fair enough.
Park Fee ~$20
Photo Fee $5
Ranger Fee $5
Ranger Tip $5
In the end, it ends up around $60-$70 dollars just to get to one of the islands. And we had to pay even more because we went on a Sunday.
Now, this is not even me trying to be cheap. But the combination of the original prices we found online increasing and the general urge to keep paying more wherever we went did start rubbing me the wrong way. Every park area would make you pay a ranger fee, entrance fee and then urge for a tip, even if it was just seeing a small lake (~$8 entrance fee), going up a hill to see some rice fields (~$7), or going into a national park with a 15 minute walk to go to the top of a volcano (~$15). But I’ll get to those at a later time. We often heard too that many of these fees rarely go back into the parks themselves, or at least there was nothing to show of it. I have no evidence to claim either way, but I have no doubt these prices will either increase with the notoriety.
It was also advised that we visit Rinca Island instead of the actual Komodo Island, since there were more positive stories of seeing the dragons. It was also only a two hour trip to Rinca as opposed to the four it would take to Komodo. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to say too much about the tour itself. It was nice, the guides were good, and we did see plenty of dragons, but it was really just a short hike in the woods. Not a bad thing in my book, though.
I did greatly enjoy my time in Labuan Bajo, and I would not have minded staying in the city for a little bit longer. However, we had to start heading east and see as much of the island as we could. I highly recommend going to Komodo National Park and doing all that you can while you’re there, but just know that those costs are going to add up to do so. While this wasn’t a cheap vacation by any means, I was able to budget well enough for all that I was able to do, and even go home with plenty left over. Next I’ll breakdown my road trip across the island, which included plenty of volcanoes, windy mountain roads, and unregulated Indonesian moonshine.