Today is our last day in Indonesia and this makes me sad. The last month has been out of this world and I’ve fallen for Indonesia in a big way. With its endless islands, stunning beaches, world class diving and amazing wildlife, Indonesia has it all for adventuring and exploration.
Four weeks ago I landed in Bali with the fella, about to embark on 30 days of island hoping around eastern Indonesia. Christmas and New Year fell slap bang in the middle of our month here, so before we left the UK we booked our festive lodgings, to ensure we didn’t end up homeless and party-less this Yuletide. But lets start at the beginning…
Bali was our entry point but we didn’t linger; we had friends from Oz and the UK having their holidays in the Kuta and Seminyak areas later that month so we decided to hold off exploring these towns until later in our trip when we’d have some company. That said, our overnight stay in Kuta revealed plenty of Aussie bars, well known restaurants and clubs. The long beach was scattered with pop up bars, served by industrious chaps with a freezer box full of chilled Bintang and a score of plastic chairs for your sunset gazing comfort. We spent one sticky humid evening sat here watching the sun go down and slurping beer.
We quickly headed to Lombok to see what this island had to offer, hoping for a more authentic Indonesian experience. We decided to visit the south of the island and stay in a place also called Kuta, fortunately the complete opposite of its namesake on Bali. What we found was a ramshackle village with a handful of surf shops, plenty of friendly warungs (small restaurants) and a collection of homestays. The road from the airport to this dusty village was brand new, and as the taxi whisked us through some small towns and villages we were able to get a glimpse of the lifestyle in these less touristy areas. Homes varied; some new shiny single storey abodes with glass windows and front doors, but mostly wooden and corrugated iron rooms on stilts, with little or no electricity supplied. Farm land surrounded the homes, mainly rice paddies, but there was also forested areas, stores and schools.
Arriving in Kuta village the newly tarmacked road came to an end and turned into the familiar potholed gravelly single track street we had seen in so many other places around South East Asia. Our homestay was a neat little bungalow, with a four poster bed and mozzie net, and the added bonus of a pool, albeit bath temperature. We set out to explore the village and soon found ourselves in what was to become our ‘local’ for the next 4 days; a small surf bar on the beach staffed by a gang of Lombok surf lads whose mantra seemed to be ‘don’t worry, be happy’. Reggae was constantly pouring out the speakers and the boys, Yoko, Bong and Reman in particular, entertained us each night with stories of their town, their friends and the bar. Leaving the bar each night we had an escort of dogs to guard our walk home. Each dog would follow you though his patch and then handover to his neighbour with a friendly (or not) woof or growl a few hundred yards down the road.
Exploration of the beach in Kuta revealed a rugged sandy shoreline. In places it is horribly littered, and in others it has a natural beauty accentuated by drift wood, seaweed, fishing boats and battered looking trees. Oddly there were also a few goats wandering around. The local children soon spot you as a potential sucker and approach you with their bracelets, which according to them are to pay for school books and pencils. In the evenings they also visit your table and basically sulk until you buy something, and when they have gone the cigarette and mushy sellers come and flog their wares; it can feel a bit endless but all part of being a tourist in this part of the world. A small market, horse and carts and mopeds with surf boards attached to their sides are all part of Kuta’s charm. Lombok and the people we met in Kuta will always be a fond memory for us.
From Kuta we decided that Flores would be our next stop. We decided to fly rather than board the boat which would take four days; the main reason being the weather and that sleeping on the deck in a torrential downpour wasn’t quite what we fancied. It is the rainy season after all, despite the sweaty temperatures. Some friends we made in the surf bar decided to take the boat and when we bumped into them in Flores they confirmed we’d made a wise choice, poor chaps.
So we flew to Labuanbajo (via Bali) and booked into a homestay in this unique harbour town. Our room was at the top of about 80 steps, and looked out across the bay and harbour once you reached the top. The town itself has an odd appeal; it’s main tourist draw is the diving, with there being a dive shop every 50 yards or so, it also has a surprising number of Italian restaurants and coffee shops. Nestled in amongst them are small warungs where you can eat simple local food. There is a dearth of bars, if you want to drink beer you need to buy this from the supermarket, or pay a lot in the expensive Italian restaurants. The town has a busy one way road running through it but despite this you still need to keep your eyes peeled for mopeds and trucks coming from the opposite direction. Walking along the road is however preferable to walking along the pavements, which are about a foot above the road, and can just end suddenly, or be covered in building materials, or open drains, or have big potholes in them. Hoping up and down the pavements became a workout for my quads, between that and the 80 plus steps up to our digs, I soon had toned pins and tight calves. Every cloud !
There is a bustling and whiffy fish market at the harbour. Every evening a row of pop up street vendors set up their BBQ coals and display their beautiful array of fresh fish. Once you have pointed out your chosen fish you can nip to the supermarket over the road, purchase a Bintang or two and sit down whilst your fish is being cooked. We chose snapper which was then butterflied and covered in a sweet and spicy marinade whilst it cooked over glowing coals. The meal was accompanied by the now very familiar raw green beans, raw white cabbage leafs, cooked baby aubergine, sliced cucumber, boiled rice and super potent sambal. We also got some sautéed spinach. All this came in at around £2-3 each. Delicious.
Surprisingly the fish market also houses a small barber shop. The fella popped in to get his locks chopped and it attracted quite an audience; apparently it was the lads first white mans haircut and he was heckled by his crowd for giving my man a ‘potato head’; number 4 shaved all over. All the guys here have excellent heads of hair; thick, black and wavy the young guys get it shaved at the sides and leave the top all quiffy and bushy, whilst the older guys have waves and curls to die for. Needless to say the fella admits to hair envy. To be honest, so do I.
Our stay in ‘Bajo was completed by meeting The Captain – a lovely man from Komodo who agreed to take us on a 2 day adventure on his boat, The Indonhesia, to swim with manta rays, snorkel at pink beach, see flying foxes, visit Komodo and Rinca National Parks to dragon spot and then stay in his home on Komodo Island. To read more about this part of our adventure click this link https://wanderingwillis.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/the-tale-of-the-clansman-and-the-komodo-captain-part-1/ (Part 2 coming soon!)
Needless to say our stay in Flores and Komodo was very special and when it was time to leave the only thing to soften the blow was that we were heading to the Raja Ampat islands for our pre booked Christmas and New year diving extravaganza.
To get to the Raja Ampat islands was an adventure in itself. Nestled off the coast of West Papua we had several days travel to reach our destination. First we flew into Bali, again, and stayed overnight in Seminyak. We then flew to Manado and stayed overnight. Here we obtained a small Christmas tree to take to the islands with us and then flew onto Sorong. Originally we had booked 5 nights in this town, which was an epic faux pas as there is very little to see here at all from a tourists perspective. We enjoyed the nice hotel pool and explored the town fully in 1 day. Walking along the street the children shout out “Mister Mister, my name is?!” and wave at you energetically. Despite 2 big hotels that are predominantly to house the divers entering and leaving the Raja Ampats, white tourists still seem a novelty to the locals and they all want to say hello and shake your hand. One guy almost crashed his car into the curb in his attempt to stop his car in time for his wife and baby to jump out and take a selfie with us.
Having seen all Sorong had to offer we emailed the owners of the homestay on Kri, our island in the Raja Ampats, and asked if we could come early. Luckily he had availability and we departed excitedly the next day. 2 very hot and sweaty hours later our ferry arrived in Waisai and then we jumped into a long boat for the final leg of the trip to Mambrassar guesthouse on Kri. Brothers Herman and Haga welcomed us to their home and gave us a tour of the facilities; we had a bamboo and palm leaf hut to sleep in, there was another hut housing the washing rooms – buckets of brackish water to ‘shower’ in and 2 loo’s – western pedestals but with buckets of water to flush. There was a final large open sided shelter that was the dining room; here there was a long table with 2 wooden benches, a water dispenser and 2 flasks of hot water to make tea and coffee.
In these humble surroundings we spent the most idyllic 10 days. Everyday apart from Sunday and New Years Day (the family go to Church and have a day off, fair enough !) we went diving and snorkelling. The house reef at the homestay was simply stunning and all the dives revealed underwater beauties such as black tip sharks, turtles, walking sharks, crocodile fish, Nemo’s and Dory’s, manta rays, sting rays, dolphins, sea snakes, eels, jellyfish, octopus and healthy colourful corals. The waters were crystal clear with the best visibility of our entire 4 month trip and the tiny islands we rested on between dives had powder soft sand and turquoise waters. In addition to this the people of the Raja Ampats are quiet, proud, welcoming and friendly. We simply had the most magical time.
In addition to our wonderful boat and dive trips the people we met at the homestay really made our trip special. New Years Eve saw us perched at the end of a simple wooden jetty, star gazing, drinking Bintang and setting off fireworks with our new buddies. Just perfect !
So now we find ourselves back in Bali, for the umpteenth time during our travels around Indonesia. This time we’ve been here for 3 nights, catching up with friends from OZ and the UK, eating western food, playing pool, shopping and laughing, a lot. It might not be authentic Indonesia but its certainly good for the soul. There are plenty of parts of Bali that we haven’t visited that will definitely have more to offer, but in terms of having fun, resting up in a plush hotel and eating something other than rice and fish, the Kuta region ticks a box.
Today finds us heading off to Singapore and then to The Philippines for the next leg of our wanderings. If either of these destinations can offer us half of what Indonesia has then we’ll be happy bunnies.