When it comes to Indonesia and idyllic islands featuring crystal clear waters of various shades of deep blue and turquoise, and small but bustling villages chock full with scooters and dusty cars, most think of Bali, and not without good reason. Bali's one of Indonesia's most visited places, and brings in a shedload of money from tourism.
For me though, Bali, especially in the south like Seminyak, Kuta and Legian, has become a little too over commercialised, to the point of losing its character, so I took a flight out of Bali and landed on the western port of Labuan Bajo in Flores Island.
Flores is a little like taking a step back in time, or a land that time forgot.
My recent week and a bit had me taking wooden boats out into the Flores Sea, lounging in the sun, snorkelling in the clear waters, and coming face to face with the last dragon alive today— the Komodo Dragon.
Labuan Bajo is the main port of entry if you're looking to visit the islands around the Komodo Island, of which there are plenty islands and lots to do in the way of snorkelling, island hopping, hiking to surreal views etc., and many tour operators offer a combination of islands in their daily itineraries.
There are several airports on Flores Island, including Labuan Bajo and Maumere, and there are daily flights linking Labuan Bajo to Bali's Denpasar Airport. Carriers include the flagship Indonesian national carrier Garuda Indonesia, which are usually around US$135 / €115 one way from Bali into the high season, which picks up in July and peaks in August.
Otherwise, you can also take Nam Air, Wings Air, and Lion Air. Wings Air falls under Lion Air, so my experience would be with the latter two. These are all smaller Indonesian carriers mostly operating domestically, and other travellers mentioned they went with the more expensive Garuda option because it's the only Indonesian carrier not blacklisted. I'll mention though, that my experience flying in and out of Flores with Wings Air was completely fine. Of course, nothing happens until something happens, so if it truly does give you the peace of mind, you can opt for Garuda. Wings Air, Lion Air and Nam Air offer fares of around US$75 / €65 for the same season, and plenty of people use these airlines so I was never overly worried, and any fears I had at the start quickly disappeared when I realised how stable the flight was.
Mind, we were flying under clear blue skies so there wasn't much in the way of turbulence (hence the stability). We hit some cloud cover coming back into Bali but only for a minute or two, so I can't accurately measure what it would've been like in more challenging conditions.
The airport in Labuan Bajo is new and clean, and it was never crowded so the queues were never crazy, and when we landed, we were out of the airport in a matter of minutes. From there, you'll be bombarded with "taxi?", "where are you going?", "what's your hotel?" and other such touts not dissimilar from many other countries and cities of the like.
And this will unfortunately be your only way into town, and we were advised by our hotel (Le Pirate Beach Club) to not pay anything above IDR 70, 000, but I'll one up this and say if you're heading anywhere into the main town area, I wouldn't pay more than IDR 50, 000.
Labuan Bajo is a really small town, and by that I mean there's only one main street running through the town, lined with everything you'll need, from large convenience stores to bakeries to retail shops to restaurants, hotels, hostels, and many, many tour operators.
The town isn't pretty, but it's not meant to be. It's functional and that's what matters.
Day Trips vs. Liveaboard
Another big question would be taking day trips out by boat to the islands, or to do a liveaboard and sleep on a boat anchored in the sea.
This very much depends on what you'd like.
Day trips are a cheaper, more budget friendly option. Tour companies with a massive online presence are usually started or helped by an enterprising foreigner who has started their tour or diving business in Flores, and I consulted a whole lot of them by email 2 months before arrival, and I was quoted upwards of IDR 1, 400, 000 for a group of 4 on wooden boats (easily far more for speed boats or private tours). Some offer sharing boats with other travellers which helps bring the cost down a tad, but it never went that low in my opinion, and of course the more in your party, the more cost effective for everyone. Some of these companies also offer speedboats, but that, of course, also comes at a price.
I decided to forgo the above, and book everything once I was in Labuan Bajo, with local tour operators. And I was perfectly happy with what I got.
The street is literally lined with tour operators with some of the most humble offices, which might not inspire much confidence, but they're totally fine. Itineraries into the Komodo Island, Rinca Island, Padar Island, and other small surrounding islands are pretty standard so no one operator is going to give you more than what their neighbour can offer you. It's perfectly fine to walk in, enquire about rates with destinations you want to go to, that they can offer you.
We ended up going with two operators in total (three if we're counting the trip I took with Le Pirate's Explorer which I'll cover in a separate post more in depth about the trips we took and islands we visited), the first being Komodo Explorer and the other being Perama Tour & Travel.
Expect to pay around IDR 1, 400, 000 for a boat, so splitting costs we paid around IDR 350, 000 per person for a group of 4, and slightly less if you share the boat which we did on another trip. Tour operators are often looking for travellers to join their trips for the next day, so head in and ask.
Liveaboards are more straightforward, with everything included. Of course these are going to be more expensive because they include a lot more, and there are plenty of ships ranging from the modest to the luxurious type. Most of these bigger boats will have a smaller boat tagging along which will bring you into the islands while the bigger boats are anchored somewhere further out. Some recommended ones include Wunderpus, though there are plenty catered to those looking for diving liveaboards.
Ultimately I felt like day trips were a tad rushed, and you’re often given half an hour to an hour at any one place, because the sailing distances can be far, especially if you’re travelling to Komodo Island itself or Padar Island. Perhaps with a liveaboard, we would’ve been afforded more time in each place which I would have appreciated given how stunning some of our hikes were.
To Komodo Dragon or Not?
These beasts occupy 5 islands, including Komodo Island and Rinca Island, which are the 2 bigger ones where there are over a thousand on each according to park rangers.
It’s a trek to get out here, as it includes almost up to 3 hours of sailing into the open Flores Sea, which gets choppier near Komodo Island. I didn’t feel like I was ever in any danger with the waves but a bigger boat would’ve been a smoother ride for sure.
Is it worth it?
For me personally I wasn’t gonna come all the way here without seeing it, but I’m going to say that Rinca Island was a better spot for them.
Komodo Island’s National Park charges a fee to dock and enter, as well as ranger fees and here’s a breakdown of what I had to pay as part of a bigger group of around 12. And no, you don't get a say in which charges you want and which you don't. And these are all only valid for a day.
Entrance Ticket to National Park (Karcis Masuk Pengunjung Taman Nasional Komodo): IDR 150, 000
Admission Ticket for the National Tourism Object of Dragons (Karcis Tanda Masuk Lokasi Obyek Wisata Nasional Komodo): IDR 50, 000
Ticket for Snorkelling in the Nature Park (Karcis Kegiatan Wisata Alam Snorkelling): IDR 15, 000
Ticket for the Observation of Wildlife (Karcis Kegiatan Wisata Alam Pengamatan Hidupan Liar): IDR 10, 000
Ticket for Trekking, Hiking and Climbing (Karcis Kegiatan Wisata Alam Penelusuran Hutan, Mendaki Gunung): IDR 5, 000
On top of that, we were made to pay for the fee of 3 rangers because they decided our group was too big, but only got 2 following us and when questioned about it, was told there weren't enough rangers to go around. Make of that what you will, but truly the only thing that annoyed me here was that you had to pay whatever they wanted to make you pay. We didn't snorkel in and around the National Park, we didn't have 3 rangers, but trying to get our point across pretty much fell on deaf ears.
The second go around, when we went to Rinca Island as part of another tour, we decided to stay at the ticketing office and not go in to essentially pay for the same thing, and guess what? We saw numerous dragons, water buffaloes, cows, monkeys and deer. We saw a fraction of those animals in the Komodo National Park. Of course, a lot of this has to do with timing and luck, for you can't control the movement of these animals. But to say I was annoyed about my prior experience at Komodo Island while waiting at Rinca Island would be an understatement.
The dragons are mostly dormant in the heat of the afternoon sun too, and you have to be really lucky to get to see them hunting, as they only hunt once a month and usually in the mornings, according to the rangers we did get.
We got a medium trek as well, which only lasted for about an hour or so, so whether it's worth it or not really is up to you. At the end of the day I'm still glad I got to see them, but I wish fees were more black and white. We were told one of the fees was a harbour docking fee; there was none written down on the ticket they gave us, which is what I used to recall all the fees above.
How Many Days Is Enough for the Islands and Labuan Bajo?
We had plenty time, 10 days to be exact. You don't need all 10 to get the most out of your experience.
The must-dos of Padar and Rinca will only take a couple of days at most, one at the least. Labuan Bajo doesn't offer much in the way of attractions, and other natural attractions are further out of town, the closest being the Mirror Caves, further ones include the Wae Rebo Village, which requires a 3 to 4 hour hike in the mountains to get to the village, or the coloured lakes or waterfalls which require hours and hours of overland travel.
With just Labuan Bajo and the chain of islands surrounding the Komodo Islands, 3 full days will be enough to see them all, more days will just be for lazing about. Note that there isn't a beach on Labuan Bajo itself but there are a few nice restaurants to hang out at, but most of the town falls quiet by about 10pm.
Food & Drink in Labuan Bajo
The main street in town offers loads of restaurants and cafes, and most are of good quality because some have been set up by enterprising travellers that have decided to make Flores home, so you'll find some fantastic food even in this small port town.
Locals here eat at home, so you won't be finding any 'local favourites' in this town in terms of restaurants for the simple fact that prices are very much catered to tourists, but is still a fraction of the price you would pay for in similar establishments in other cities around the world.
I've compiled a proper list of what to eat in Labuan Bajo, and in it you'll find all the places I got to try, which were all varying degrees of good.
From my trip to Flores and Indonesia, I've turned some of my photography into my brand of everyday products which you can check out below. Worldwide shipping is available so if you're looking for a tote bag to take home to remember your travels if you too have been to this part of Indonesia, and if you'd like to support this passion project of mine, look no further!
View the full product catalogue at the shop here.