In terms of natural beauty, Indonesia tops my list. The country spans 5,000 kilometers – about the distance from California to Bermuda. Within the massive archipelago are some 17,000 islands and 127 active volcanoes, which seem to soar above the clouds in every direction you look. There’s just way too much to see here, and never enough time to see it.
So, with 30 days left in the country, we got right to it. Tara flew in from Australia, and the following morning we took off on a flight for Flores island, East Nusa Tenggara.
We spent our first night in Labuan Bajo, a port and stopover town which most visitors to Flores inevitably end up passing through. I found this predominately Muslim town a distinct contrast to my first month of Indonesian travel on Hindu Bali and Nusa Lembongan. The town itself isn’t anything to write home about, but the views out to the surrounding islands are superb and made me feel like I was visiting Mars. I vividly remember watching this sunset from the balcony of our bungalow, while the nearby mosque’s adhan blared over a crackling loudspeaker – a tune somewhat foreign to my ears. Looking out over the vista, I felt like the whole experience in that exact instance was so fitting: this new region we’d never before visited, the unfamiliar sound of an Islamic call to prayer, and this consuming desire to see what lie just over the horizon.
Both Tara and I wanted to beach it for some time. We’d heard of this tiny private island called Kanawa, but seeing as the island limits the number of visitors and reservations are required weeks in advance, we assumed it’d be a no-go. In some ridiculously lucky turn of events though, we ended up being able to book a cheap beachfront bale bale for two nights and a tent for a third.
The reef in Kanawa was an absolute dream. 30 meter visibility and some of the most vibrant and rich coral I’ve ever seen. And plenty of fish! But unfortunately our three-day search for the sharks was unsuccessful.
Nights were quiet. There was one restaurant on the island, and unfortunately the food was expensive, mostly western, and mediocre. That’s my only qualm about this place though! If Kanawa had a decent local-cuisine restaurant, we probably could have stayed there for a week. But it didn’t – so after 3 days of eating overpriced shit-spaghetti, we were ready to head back to the mainland to plan out the rest of our time on Flores.
While at first I was impartial to the small city, I developed a liking for Labuan Bajo after being introduced to my first nasi ayam goreng (rice and fried chicken) at a local makasan padang (restaurant) there.
I was worried that after spending months in Thailand where the pork is heavenly tasting, I’d have trouble going cold turkey in a Muslim country like Indonesia. Turned out to be a piece of cake. All in all we must have eaten this dish a solid 20 times during our month here. And it’s easy to do that, cause every joint cooks it up a little differently.
Generally, you get a piece of fried chicken (ayam goreng), and a scoop of white rice (nasi putih). The small circular nugget on the plate next to the chicken is called perkedel. Think of mashed potatoes dipped in egg yolk and then fried. Perkedel is an absolute must with this meal. The red chili salsa in the top right is called sambal – also 100% necessary. You won’t be served a meal without the stuff here. The small bowl of soup is called gulai, and is like a jackfruit coconut curry – I’d argue it’s what holds the entire meal together. The result of combining all of these is an unbelievably tasty mouthful of flavors and textures, all for right around $2-3 USD.
Following our discovery of this culinary masterpiece, Tara and I decided to take a tour out to Rinca island to see the Komodo dragons. Unfortunately, the only way to see them is by taking an organized group tour. Ours was fine – except for the the obnoxious and condescending couple that spoke to the locals like they were misbehaving six-year-olds, and the uptight couple with an “appointment” they needed to be back for at 3pm – they got real fussy when they realized we’d be cutting it tight. The dragons were impressive though! They were massive, and sort of just laid there and stared at us as if they were trying to decide between taking another nap or eating the pudgiest person in the group.
During the boat ride out to Rinca we’d be cruising along and all of a sudden would just come up on these electric blue patches of water with dry arid islands in the background. Once again…I’ve never seen a place like this. For the Washington locals, it almost reminded me of a super tropical Lake Chelan.
Following the Rinca tour, Tara and I decided to rent a motorbike for a week and try and make it to the Mt. Kelimutus crater lakes, some 400 km east across Flores. We set off and were instantly stoked to be exploring by bike. As Labuan Bajo’s drier surroundings gave way to the rural low-mountain villages, the people became friendlier and friendlier. Little kids scampered across their family’s farming land shouting “hey mister!” between their beaming smiles of just a few teeth. By Ruteng – 100 km later – we were overwhelmed by the utter warmth of the people. We’d stop on the side of the road to snap a picture and would make a handful of curious new friends – there was almost always a group of little kids with ear to ear grins laughing uncontrollably at who knows what, and several times a random driver or two would pull over just to make sure we were alright. I’ve never encountered this type of genuine affability before, and I’ll always remember how welcoming the people of Flores were to us.
Unfortunately about 100 km into our route Tara put her calf down on the scooter’s literally piping hot exhaust, which normally has a plastic cover over it. It turned out to be a seriously gnarly burn that got infected and sort of dictated where we ended up going later in our trip through Indo. Moral of the story: no more renting motorbikes unless they have exhaust covers.
Our first night on the road was in Ruteng, a cold mountain town where Tara and I stayed in a nunnery. There’s a strict 9pm curfew when the nuns close the gate, and we were gently woken up at 5:30 am by the choir’s dreamy hymns emanating from a nearby hall. There were no double beds in the entire nunnery, and it seemed that the sisters had a vested interest in making absolute sure that Tara and I were sleeping separately in our room’s small single beds. Needless to say, this was a super unique experience.
Of the 250 million people living in Indonesia, 87% are Muslim, making it the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. But Flores island, due to its early beginnings as a Portuguese colony, is predominately Roman catholic. I found it pretty intriguing to see such deeply-rooted Catholicism in an elsewhere Muslim-majority country.
Following Ruteng, we rode 140 km east to Bajawa, a mountain town both colder and foggier than Ruteng, which for me was already frigid after having acclimated to the humid 90° SE Asia heat over the past 9 months.
At this point, both of us just wanted to be back on Kanawa. It was cold, wet, and foggy on nearly every leg of our trip so far. But we couldn’t turn back now that we’d made it this close to Mt. Kelimutus. So we moved onwards towards Moni, which was the base for exploring the mountain and its apparently epic colored crater lakes. Thankfully the route brought us back down to sea level through Ende, where we could finally take off our heavy jackets we’d purchased in Ruteng.
That was short lived though – it wasn’t long before we were back up in the fog and drizzling rain, climbing our last leg to reach Moni by nightfall. But…we made it! Moni is a tiny little mountain village that’s constantly in the clouds, and it was literally wet for the entirety of our 48 hour stay there. So we waited and waited at our guesthouse for some of the fog and rain to clear, and decided to make our way up Kelimutus to see these lakes that we’d traveled 400 km for.
Once we’d made our ascent, we peered over the railing to take a look into the crater at the marvelous lakes, and this here is what we were greeted with:
This is what it looks like on a clear day:
Deflated and disappointed, we hopped on our scooter and began the return voyage. Four days later, we were in Labuan Bajo once again, bummed to have not seen the crater lakes, but stoked on the experience itself of driving the 800 km journey. We headed west back to Bali, where we spent our last twelve days in Indonesia between Ubud and Amed – two of my favorite places I’ve been thus far:
Tara and I then headed to Bangkok for a week to sort out our Burmese visas and eat (the latter of utmost importance):
Next up: Burma