Tuomas: Labuan Bajo and the Cruise Back to Lombok
West Manggarai Regency, Indonesia
(Feel free to skip to the part about the cruise, if that's what you're interested in, since this is going to be a long one…)
Flores? Where's that?
We were surprised how unknown this Indonesian Island is. Talking to a bunch of people on Mojosurf's surfing course, some of who work in Indonesia, you would think it's a small dot in the ocean at the other end of the country consisting of 17'000 similar islands. It's not. Going east from Bali you first come to Lombok, as everyone knows… After that it's Sumbawa, then the islands of the Komodo national park, then Flores.
Wait, what Komodo national park? Komodo. As in Komodo dragons. The largest lizards in the world, also known as Komodo monitors, big scaly things with a bite that will kill you in two weeks from listeria sepsis. The males have two penises. How come this isn't common knowledge? Anyway, we did a bit of reading before our trip (in truth we borrowed about half of Lappeenranta city library's Lonely Planets) and encountered this hidden gem of an island. To hear them tell it, Flores remains somewhat untouched by the tourism that has transformed the rest of Indonesia into something unrecognizable from what it used to be. There's jungle, diving, trekking, a volcano with three colored lakes inside of it (Mt. Kelimutu). And it's big too, was it 350km from west to east? And then there are the dragons. Anything that people have deemed worthy to be called a dragon is a thing I have to see!
About getting there
We looked into our options and found them to be quite limited. One can travel to Flores "by land", in Lombok we saw companies advertising busses to Flores for 450'000 IDR. That means at least two ferry crossings and a loooong drive through Sumbawa in a bus I'm guessing is more like a van. Been there, done that, wasn't that nice. So we looked into flights. Wings Air (somehow linked to Lion Air) was kind enough to offer us tickets to Labuan Bajo for 674'000 IDR per person. The only problem was that they only allowed 10 kg of check-in luggage. 10 kg! I'm sad to say, but with all of our cold weather gear still weighing us down, there was no way we could manage that, even with our daypacks as carry-on. Fortunately for us, the guys at Mojosurf are cool. Even though our course was done and the only connection we have to them is the voucher for a free surfing lesson (the one we missed on the course), they let us leave a garbage bag full of stuff under one of their beds! That enabled us to take the flight we wanted and to travel a while with a little less crap on our backs.
So we flew to Labuan Bajo from Bali. It was an easy 1.5 hour flight on a smallish propeller plane that seemed quite new. As we arrived at the airport we realized our plane was the only one there. The airport is futuristic looking, but tiny, though we've seen even smaller (mainly Tioman island in Malaysia). We'd made reservations, as we usually do, but hadn't really looked into how to get there. There was a prepaid taxi stand, with basically all destinations for 60'000 IDR. That didn't seem right, based on what we knew of how small the city should be. We checked the situation from our favorite travel app, Triposo, which has a ton of mainly Wikipedia based information on just about anything (and you can download the countries on your phone to use offline). There it said to be an easy 20 minute downhill walk. So we walked and even though it was really hot and humid, we made it to town easily enough. Then it was a matter of finding our hostel, the Bajo View. Standing in a crossroads we tried to ask, but the only help we got was from a passing bus/van that offered to take us there for 50'000 IDR, which they later reduced to 20'000. We knew we should be close and turned them down. Only then did we realize just how close we were: in the same crossroads they had a small black sign for Bajo View! We walked down some stairs and were there. How very sweet of those boys in the bus to offer us a ride for 50'000…
Staying at LB
The thing about Bajo View, it's easy enough to find and you can walk there from the airport. And as the name implies, the view isn't bad. That's about as far as my praise goes. The accommodation was a tent, which is fine, we have nothing against tents, but in Indonesia they tend to get a little hotter than in Finland, even with the provided fan. The wifi worked OK in the common area upstairs and the shared bathrooms and showers were clean enough. The problem was price. At 170'000 IDR it was the cheapest accommodation we could find and book online, but we stayed for 150'000 in the heart of Bali's Kuta, with ensuite bathroom and breakfast included. And after the two nights we'd reserved we found Manta Manta Homestay (not a real homestay, like many homestays here), with a real room, ensuite and the same price of 170'000. Manta Manta was just next to Bajo View and the only complaint we had there was that its reception, which was down the stairs at the street, was closed more often than not. They also only had wifi down there, but it worked fine even when the reception was closed.
We came to Labuan Bajo for a few reasons, mainly to see the beautiful Flores, the deadly dragons and also to travel back to Lombok by boat. We'd read on Lonely Planet about these cruises that take you through Komodo national park all the way back to Lombok, or the other way around. We decided to do the trip from Labuan Bajo to Lombok because it was cheaper and supposedly less crowded. With the cruise covering two of our main goals, we attempted to see Flores as planned. Turned out that Labuan Bajo is pretty boring, unless you're willing to spend money on all kinds of trips and treks and stuff. We never are. We tried to find a beach, but Pede beach to the south was small and incredibly dirty, and Binongko beach to the north was overcrowded with small ships and boats. The other beaches to the north were privately owned by resorts that wouldn't let us on their precious sand. We did see some of the fabled beauty of the island on our walkabouts, particularly to the north of Labuan Bajo, but not enough to keep someone occupied for more than a couple days. That is, if you are walking, as we were. If you opt for renting a scooter or going on snorkeling or diving trips, you could spend a lot more time in Labuan Bajo and its surroundings. As for us, the city is small, there is no beach, there are touts selling trips and treks everywhere, and it smells like fish.
It was a bit of a disappointment…
Organizing the way back
We could have traveled deeper into the island, I at least wanted to see Mt. Kelimutu with the crater lakes. But we didn't want to fly and going by bus would have been beyond tiresome. And coming to Flores had been about 52% about seeing the Komodo dragons and doing the boat trip back to Lombok, where we knew we wanted to stay. So we decided to look into the boats. There were two travel agencies advertising these trips, not surprisingly they were the ones mentioned in Lonely Planet: Perama and Kenkana. We talked to Kenkana first, their office was on the main street and caught our eye. They didn't seem to know all that much about the trip, other than it was 1'500'000 IDR per person (sleeping on deck), would last three days and two nights and embark on March 26th. At Perama (also on the main street) they seemed to know all the details of what would be included, what time the boat would be in Lombok, what kind of emergency equipment they have on board. A good thing too, since one of their boats sank last autumn… Their trip was a little cheaper too, at 1'300'000 IDR per person on deck, of which we got a 5% discount (sales tactics, nothing more). We also had to pay 235'000 IDR per person for entrance fees and such into Komodo national park. The total cost for the two of us thus added up to 2'940'000 IDR. They were also leaving a day earlier than Kenkana (or so we thought).
So we left Labuan Bajo. It feels wrong to say I didn't like the place, it's just that there didn't seem to be anything to do without paying a whole lot for it and there were too many people advertising the things to do. It definitely lacked the laid back little town feel we were looking for, it's just another town sucking in on the major tourist attraction on its doorstep (Komodo) without otherwise improving itself in any way. Sad to say…
We began on March 25th, but didn't really start yet. We had paid for a two days two nights trip, rather than Kenakana's three days and two nights. It would seem that they only differ in the way they count. At Perama they don't count in the first day when we gathered at their office at 5.30 p.m. and carried our things to the boat to have a welcoming feast and a party. The way it goes with them is that the people coming the other way (from Lombok to Flores) disembark earlier as the boat arrives into harbor at Labuan Bajo, only to return later for the same feast. We had a dinner of rice, noodles, chicken green curry, cooked vegetables, and some kinds of chips and hot dog-things. It was great. Later they organized a party on the front deck, they had music and flashing lights and all. Like half of the other newcomers, we were boring and started sleeping already at 11 p.m. The boat had been taken a little off the dock so we wouldn't disturb others with the noise. We spent the night there in the harbor without going any further. For a bed we had foam mattresses, pillows and short blankets spread out on the deck. They were comfortable enough for us, I at least had no need for another mattress even though there were plenty to go around. There had been some heavy rain earlier, but the covers rolled to the side of the deck had kept most of it off and the rest had dried out.
On the morning of our "first" day we woke up to the rumble of the engine at 5 a.m. as we were lifting anchor and starting the journey for real. It took about two hours to get to Rinca Island, which is a part of the Komodo national park. We had a good breakfast on the boat, toast with peanut butter and jam, pineapple, papaya and tea. Then we went to see the dragons! I was almost as excited as the smallest member of our group, a boy of maybe four years, who also went ashore with the little motorboat the large vessel carries around. We were only fifteen on the trip, which was nice since the maximum amount could have been as much as 50. On the island we had three guides who first took us through their camp where we saw ten dragons within the first fifteen minutes! They weren't the biggest of their kind, but still a whole lot bigger than any other monitor lizards we've seen before. We saw some monkeys too, but no buffaloes or snakes as we went a round trip over some hills and took in the scenery. It was great, though hard work in the morning heat, we went through 1.5 liters of water between the two of us. It wasn't too hard, even the little guy kept going the whole way, if only a little slower. We had our hiking boots with us and were glad of it, but one could do it in proper sandals.
We spent two or three hours on Rinca, during which we saw a total of twelve dragons! I thought it a success. After that we journeyed north to (I may be wrong about this) Gili Laba, where we were taken to shore to do some snorkeling. The shore was filled with colorful corals and fish nibbling them, it was a great spot even with the current that was trying to take us away from the beach. They gave us masks and snorkels, but no fins. I thought we saw some Nemos (clown fish is it?) but I was wrong… We had glimpsed the Kenkana boat earlier but here they caught up with us, so they apparently left the same day anyway! Or maybe it was another trip, I couldn't tell, but the boat was the same size as ours, so I'm guessing it was meant for the same journey. The Kenkana people didn't seem to go snorkeling but opted for climbing the steep hill on the island for a view that must have been breathtaking (if it wasn't, the climb in the afternoon sun should have done the trick).
We had lunch before the snorkeling, another buffet of rice, veggies, soft French fries with peanuts and fish curry. Dinner was more rice, pasta, chicken and some bread things with beef in them. The food here was always plentiful, but beware, they don't share our standards of cleaning the bones from fish or chickens (it's common to just hack the thing to pieces, cook it and to spit out the hard pieces as you eat). About drinking and boating, they have canisters of drinking water on board that you can fill your cup but not your bottle from. But they only have the cups out when they're serving food. This might be a clever way of making people pay for their drinks, there's a "minibar" with cold drinks onboard. Beer is 20'000 IDR per can, soft drinks 12'000, you mark what you take on a little notebook on the cooler and pay at the end. There's also some snacks for 12'000.
As for hygiene there are five western toilets with freshwater showers, they all seem to work, but the toilets flush with a bucket. There are also a couple of sinks to wash your hands and face and brush your teeth with. Water runs only when the engine does, same as electricity, you can charge your electronics easily enough. There is obviously no wifi onboard, but they had it in the Perama office in Labuan Bajo. The luggage is stored behind the captain's cabin in a room that can be reached while traveling. With only the fifteen of us it was no problem to go and grab stuff from the backpacks, but had there been fifty people on board, the small room would have been too full for that. Most of us had smaller bags at hand on deck. During the day we would hang out on the same deck as we slept on, the mattresses were piled away in the middle. There are comfortable benches on the sides, but many were also taking out the mattresses again and laying on those. The sea breeze keeps you cool and the sun is so high that it won't hit a person underneath the roof. And talking of that, the ceiling is high enough in most parts of the boat that even I wouldn't hit my head at about 200 cm (6'6").
The evening of the first day was a quiet one, with most retiring to their beds just after 8 p.m. We followed suit at nineish and slept relatively undisturbed until 7 a.m. When in motion the boat rocks, to be sure, but aligning your bed the same way as the hull takes the sharpest edge off. In the morning we had a breakfast of banana pancakes and fruits, accompanied by something that seemed to be uncooked porridge. Later we arrived at Moyo Island where we went to shore to see a waterfall and swim in the fresh water. It was a 20-30 minute walk inland, best done in sandals since we crossed the same small stream over and over again. The waterfall wasn't that big, but there was a rope hanging above it allowing for some swing-and-drop-action. More than a bit boringly we decided not to swim, I'd hate to have to explain our professor of infectious diseases how I came to acquire any of the tropical pathogens that dwell in such freshwater pools (we're medical students). After Moyo Island we were on the boat for another three hours, had a lunch of rice, noodles, veggies and chicken (and the fruit dessert, they had slices of watermelon or pineapple at every meal) and arrived at some tiny little island that we understood was owned by Perama. It took no more than ten minutes to walk around the whole thing, inland there were only few palm trees and a small shack of a building. The reason for stopping there remained something of a mystery, but it did wake a certain interest in adventure within me. How cool would it be to be left there with just some water and food, to lay back on the hammock as the outside world goes about its business?
We didn't stay on the tiny deserted island though, but returned to the boat. They were serving tea and deep fried bananas! After that the rest of the trip was just cruising made interesting by a short but powerful rain that got most of the deck wet regardless of the screens they rolled down. Had it been night time all of us would have gotten wet and probably stayed that way. The sun dried us out eventually though, cloudy as it was. Our last meal on the cruise wasn't a buffet one, they served us fried rice with vegetables and a quarter of an omelet, portioned out on plates. We arrived in Lombok's east coast at about 6.30 p.m. and were greeted by a bus that left the port at around 6.45. The drive through the island was dark and seemed a little dangerous with all the traffic and our driver passing pretty much everyone going our way. We arrived at Mataram at about 8.45 p.m. and unloaded some of our passengers before continuing to Senggigi, which was our destination. We arrived there at 9.15 p.m. and were left on the side of the road close to the homestay where we had made reservations, with our complimentary new Perama Tour T-shirts to keep us warm!
Putting it short
After flying to Labuan Bajo we found it to lack atmosphere but not touts, so we decided not to linger long. We chose to take the boat back to Lombok because the trip included a visit to Komodo national park and snorkeling, both of which would have been somewhat expensive to organize on their own. Perama Tours had the best information and were very open about their ships safety equipment, their cruise was also a little cheaper than Kenkana's. We enjoyed the cruise very much, we got to see the dragons, the snorkeling spot was great and food was good and plentiful. It rained a couple of times but luckily not during the nights that we spent sleeping soundly enough thanks to our earplugs and eye covers (take some with you!). We thought we got our money's worth, with the last goodie being an orange T-shirt that I at least am sure to use later on this trip. We liked the cruise and would highly recommend it to anyone not too prone to seasickness.
I felt a little nauseated while writing this on the boat, which probably meant that I had been at it too long. This entry turned out to be another five pager… Oh well, I like writing, so sue me. At least I'm pretty sure I covered some useful information here, in case anyone happens to stumble on this blog…