On the westernmost tip of the Island of Flores, the town of Labuan Bajo, or also spelled Labuhan Bajo sits peacefully: a small fishing site with surprisingly comprehensive tourist facilities. The central logic for its wide range of amenities is the extraordinary interest of travelers to the existence of the Komodo dragon, locally called ora, if not for its superb national park that encompasses some 80 islands.
Facing two important islands – Rinca and Komodo – the only habitat in the world for the mythical and endangered species, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the town of Labuan Bajo acts as a transit port and a destination to Flores’s newly discovered interior. The town at the most western end of Flores provides a place to stock up on groceries and other necessities for those traveling on liveaboards to the islands or further east.
Prior to entering the Indonesian version of Jurassic Park, travelers will seek for important information in and around this busy port. Labuan Bajo has quite a few travel agencies, stores, restaurants, money changers, dive operators, and a wide range of accommodation, from simple guesthouses to starred hotels along the beachfront that can provide free information about the Komodo National Park. The information is also available for the whole Island of Flores that stretches 450 kilometers from west to east. Here the term ‘Long Island’ suggests more than just a refreshing cocktail or the largest island in New York, when avid travelers to eastern Indonesia would probably romanticize the term for the Island of Flores itself. In fact, getting across the island is absolutely not a short trip when you go overland.
Aside from the assortments of good tourist accommodation, the town itself is quite poor in functioning infrastructures. Expectations should, therefore, be curbed to a moderate level, especially when going on a city tour on your own, where you will find the town somehow pretty simple. Fortunately, it is quiet so that heavy traffic is unlikely. Although watching a colourful sunset over the romantic bay from a restaurant on a hill is quite a stunning experience.
Administratively, Labuan Bajo is the capital of the West Manggarai District that covers a quarter of the total area of the Island of Flores. Although the pace of the hospitality industry is accelerating, yet 65% of its income still comes from agriculture. Agricultural lifestyle in Flores, Sumba, and Timor, gives considerable impact on the simplicity of its people, imbued with extraordinarily vibrant cultures. The tradition to celebrate what Mother Nature has to offer is authentic, namely the Pasola and the Nyale in Sumba, the Caci in Flores, the Baleo in Lembata and Alor, and the Reba in Ngada. All are associated with agricultural and coastal lifestyle of its people. In Manggarai and West Manggarai, the majority of the people embrace Islam as they are migrants from Sulawesi, Lombok, Java, and Sumatra, with a few of them still believing in ancient animism.
To most travelers and to westerners who own many businesses here, the developing town is somehow favorable and even romantic. The view on wooden cottages with thatched roofs camouflaged by shrubberies and towering trees up in the sloping township, overlooking an idyllic harbour, make an evening conversation with traveling partners an unforgettable experience. For some adventurers, Labuan Bajo can be an ideal getaway.
Padang food is everywhere in Indonesia, and Labuan Bajo is not an exception. Food is cheap and they are sold along the main road in Labuan Bajo. Several nicer restaurants and cafes are available at the hotels. Try The Corner, The Gardena, The Lounge, and The Matahari. Also try The Paradise, and Arto Moro. These places sell everything especially western food as the owners are mainly western expatriates or investors. Due to its geographical positions and the lack of convenient transportation, several menus offered are sometimes not available.
Go out to the inner town of Labuan Bajo to find rows of souvenir shops selling key chains, local fabric called ikat, T-shirts and Komodo dragon carvings. The best souvenirs you can get is the local coffee as it tastes very strong and also aromatic. Some people come to taste the spicy chilly. One miniscule chilly is much hotter than the jalapenos. Be careful if someone challenges you to taste one although it is only an addition to your noodle soup. You will cry in tears, sweat as if you are sitting in a sauna, and have a running nose.
Although the infrastructure is limited, an internet connection is available.
Komodo National Park is definitely an ultimate destination as you head to Labuan Bajo. Imagine this is a life size Jurassic Park in your own lifetime travel. The dragon is far from either mythical or animated animal as depicted in the Hollywood movie. But, be very careful as you come across a Komodo, however lazy it looks. A ranger will guide you along the trip within the national park and show you the best places.
Female travelers are advised to make sure that you are not within a menstrual period, or you will turn the long journey into a waste of time, energy, and money. The rangers in Komodo National Park will never allow female visitors to enter the park during menstrual period, as the scent of fresh blood agitates and attracts the Komodo dragon to approach with an unpredictable appetite. Aside from all these simple etiquettes, every corner of the park, especially on the hilltop is picturesque and worth the trouble and the lengthy journey.
Rinca and Komodo Island are two islands, habitat of the Komodo dragons, although on Rinca, you are more likely to sight the pack rather than those on Komodo Island. Buy a 3-day park pass for US$ 15.00 and you are set to enjoy the spectacular nature of the deer and water –buffalo – eating lizards.
Scuba Diving in the national park is amongst the best in the world, since the biodiversity is almost untapped. Since the straits around these small islands of Nusa Tenggara are corridors between the southern ocean and the northern part of the globe, various sea giants like whales, manta rays, sharks, and dolphins and huge turtles are often within your sight. Beware, though, that the ocean currents can sometimes be strong in certain spots, and extra caution and skills are an absolute requirement.
Kanawa Island is amongst the most idyllic islands in the world. Its vicinity to turquoise shallow seas and coral reefs is hard to find. With only around IDR 200,000 per night you can stay on the island that provides simple accommodation called bungalow (not a luxurious one). Turtles, reef sharks, and a thousand types of fish most valuable compared with the money you spend. Seraya Island is close to Labuan Bajo. During low tide, several coral reefs are exposed and the water is clear for you to snorkel and swim. It is one of the idyllic places in the vicinity of a fishing town of, Labuan Bajo. Rent a rowboat if you wish, and enjoy the experience of being a diving fisherman looking for prey.
At dusk, flying fox bats are soaring from their natural habitat in Kalong Island. Watch the sunset as these bats decorate the golden sky with lines of flying foxes.
You can take a rented car or travel by car from the Labuan Bajo airport to any place on the Flores mainland. The rate depends on your negotiation but currently it is about Rp 500,000 per day. Hotels can help you find a rented car.
For your mobility within the city, bemo’s (traditional public transportation) and motor taxis are available, but they only operate until 9.0 pm. If you want to visit the nearby islands, such as to Komodo or Rinca, rented motorboats and speed boats are available at the port.
Labuan Bajo is accessible by air, land, and sea. Its favorable location on the Island of Flores and entry port to the Komodo islands make Labuan Bajo a potential growing destination, aside to its rich agricultural potentials.
Flying to Labuan Bajo is possible for the Komodo Airport (LBJ) is open for operation. Trans nusa Airlines are directly connecting Labuan Bajo with several cities in Indonesia, such as: Denpasar, Kupang, Ende, and Mataram. With connecting flights, Labuan Bajo is also connected with Kalabahi in Alor. It also connects with Bajawa, Sikka, Manggarai, and Larantuka via Ende, Kupang, Maumere, Ruteng, and Tambolaka.
Lion Air has started operating Surabaya-Denpasar-Kupang-Maumere-Kupang flights using B737-200 aircraft. Flights to Maumere are 4 times weekly on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
While Citilink Airlines flies Kupang-Maumere, and Garuda Indonesia flies only Jakarta-Kupang (on the Island of Timor) from where you can connect on local airlines to Flores.
An overland trip across the Island of Flores is possible but costly, connecting Labuan Bajo in the westernmost part to the renowned destinations in the eastern part. Regarded as the hinterland to the more advanced development in Bali and Lombok, infrastructures here is limited and so is transportation. The consequence would logically fall to the cost of transportation. A four-day trip from Lombok or Bali to Labuan Bajo may cost you IDR 1,000,000 (around US$ 100) per person. A much costly yet convenient way of getting there and around is by renting a 7-seater. The condition of vehicles are said to be above average, but the roads are not. Taking antimo (pill for motion sickness) is usually recommended by your driver.
A bus from Denpasar, Bali, would probably go to Mataramin Lombok. From there you are set to take a long overland adventure in the bus to Bima, Sumbawa. In Bima, you will resume the exhausting trip to Sape. As you kiss the land in Sape, you can take a ferry to Labuan Bajo for around IDR 40,000 for eight hours (in 2009). If you have no interest in photography, this overland trip can be a distressing challenge. However, with all the hours and places passed, an adventure photographer would be very pleased.
If you can imagine very well the kind of transportation when people say ‘bemo’ or ‘angkot’, then you must redefine the mental picture for the same moniker. Angkot or bemo in Flores can be a bit bigger, and as a matter of fact it is twice as big. You would probably panic when the people direct you to a diesel-powered truck. This transport is especially chosen, if not designed, for Flores to adapt with the challenge of its beautiful but harsh nature.
Lonely Planet has good updated information as to the non-existence of a bus terminal in Labuan Bajo. You need to have a good relationship with the people in your hotel so you can have a friendly assistance when ordering a bus ticket to get out. The price might be a little higher if you order a bus ticket from your hotel or a travel agency. If you have an advanced ticket, the bus will pick you up from your hotel.
To reach Ruteng (four hours), the cost would go around IDR 30,000 per person. To Bajawa (ten hours), it will cost you IDR 70,000. The bus departs as early as 6 am. Do not be late for this one. To reach Ende with its 15-hour trip, it cost you IDR 105,000. A couple of thousand IDRs should be wisely invested on the pill of motion sickness pacifier, the antimo. You might have a strong stomach, but it is highly recommended that you do not speculate on this, especially when you take the passenger truck. Choose a seat in the middle of it, if you must. Do not sit at the rear as antimo has no influence around this projectile area. It could be fun, but four to ten hours of this ride is definitely a little too much.
Maumere, including exceptional routes to: Wuring, the sea-gypsy village, Sikka, and Paga Beach.
It is very convenient if you join one of the liveaboards serving Komodo and Flores. Many travelers come home satisfied after a week or longer on one of these around eastern Indonesia, as they get wise enough to choose the package, perfect timing, and best spots. Make sure the time of visit and weather condition fit one another. Never speculate on one aspect that will put you hapless.
Once every two weeks, Tilongkabila from PELNI is the ship cruising from Beno, Lembar, and Bima. It also crosses the Java Sea to Sulawesi’s east coast. Tatamailau from the same company plies Maumere, Timor, and West Papua.
Find the ATM in the town of Labuan Bajo to withdraw some money. It can deliver up to IDR 1,500,000 per transaction with IDR 50,000 notes. Money changers are available, but those in Bali and Jakarta offer better rates.
Make sure that you bring along anti-mosquito lotions and anti-malaria medicines, since Labuan Bajo is a malaria endemic area. Bring along also sunblock lotions, a hat, and sunglasses, as it can be very hot here during the dry season. You can buy these at the supermarket in town or from your hotel shop.