Most people who go to Indonesia end up on Bali or the Gili islands. Some venture further into Lombok, Java or Sumatra. But if you’re after a bit of a new frontier, look no further than the island of Flores.
I spent two weeks in Flores and loved every bit of it. Mind you, it’s a decidedly low-key destination: unlike Bali it’s not exactly filled with convenient tourist attractions, nor is there always a wealth of accommodation options available. But if you’re a bit of an explorer, that might just make Flores all the more rewarding to you.
Flores has a different flavour to the other islands. It’s much less developed, with just one main road running through it. As you pass through the small villages in the countryside, you’re often greeted with friendly curiosity and choruses of ‘hello mister!’. (To the amusement of my female travel companions, children will call you mister even if you’re a girl.)
The dominant religion is also catholic, as opposed to the mainly Hindu or Muslim islands elsewhere. Just as you’ve gotten used to hearing the morning Call to Prayer on Lombok, you might just wake up to the sound of church bells on Flores. It’s a cultural variety that I think makes Indonesia so interesting.
Some fly to Flores only for its star attraction: the Komodo Islands, home of the largest lizards in the world. However, if you’ve got enough time, I recommend exploring the rest of Flores as well.
The Komodo Islands
The Komodo Islands are by far the biggest attraction drawing people to Flores; in fact, many fly to Labuan Bajo only to for the Komodo National Park, before heading back to Bali or Lombok.
The national park is famous for two reasons:
1. It’s home to the Komodo dragon, the largest lizard on Earth, a ferocious animal that you can see in the wild on some of the islands here.
2. The waters around the Komodo Islands also happen to be overflowing with nutrients giving them some of the largest marine diversity anywhere in the world. The snorkelling and scuba diving is phenomenal here, and I say that having explored many coral reefs all over the world.
While the dragons are what made the park originally famous, it’s now equally renowned for its underwater wonders!
Seeing the Komodo dragons
To visit the Komodo Islands, all you have to do is go to the small port town of Labuan Bajo on Flores, which is the hub for any Komodo Islands activities. Labuan Bajo has a small airport with many flights to Bali, which take about an hour. Another way to get to Labuan Bajo, a method popular with backpackers, is to go on a multi-day boat journey from Lombok. If you’re getting to Flores this way, you can visit the Komodo Islands as part of your boat journey.
The park entrance, which made us hum the Jurassic Park theme…
The two islands where you can see the Komodo dragons are Komodo Island and Rinca Island. While the Komodo dragons are notoriously fast and ferocious predators, they are unlikely to be in hunting mode during your visit, so expect to be mainly looking at some lethargic and unimpressed animals. The park rangers are there to always keep them at bay, should they miraculously stop being couch potatoes.
In the high season months (june/juli) it’s mating time which makes it more difficult to spot komodos… I was in the park around this time, and saw only one in the forest. There were a handful of others at the visitor’s center, drawn there by the scents coming from the staff kitchen. This is not exactly the wildlife experience you might have had in mind, though you may have more luck seeing them in natural environments during other months of the year.
I preferred Rinca Island over Komodo Island. The latter is more heavily forested, making it more difficult to spot any lizards. It also felt a bit like a mild tourist trap, with various souvenir shops and picnic areas near the docks. Rinca has more open landscapes and felt somehow more inviting. If forced to choose between the two, I’d say go with Rinca.
ENTRANCE FEES: national park entry fees all across Indonesia were increased by as much as tenfold in recent years, so check the current prices to avoid surprises (tickets that used to cost $1 might now be $10, etc.). Multi-day boat trips from Lombok used to visit Komodo on Rinca on separate days, though they typically now visit them on the same day as park entry tickets are valid for only 1 day under the new rules. If you see a Lombok to Flores boat trip itinerary that puts these on separate days, it’s likely to have changed now.
Enjoying the underwater wonders
The waters in the Komodo national park are teeming with marine life. Snorkelling and scuba diving tours leave from Labuan Bajo daily, and there are plenty of operators around. All you have to do is walk the main road in town, walk into any dive shop, and sign up.
I went snorkelling around the national park as part of my boat trip from Lombok. I saw countless species of fish, sea turtles, sharks (don’t worry, not the dangerous kind), a school of squid, a Mantis shrimp, several moray eels, and countless other creatures. The corals are lush and healthy everywhere. This is pretty much as good as snorkelling is going to get.
On one occasion we also anchored near a small island where we could swim ashore. While relaxing on the white sand beach, I suddenly heard some rustling and grunting the bushes behind us. Our guide joked it must be a Komodo dragon, but in fact it turned out to be a wild hog. It was surreal to be on a beach together with a wild hog, but it just goes to show that you might encounter all sorts of animals.
From a hilltop, I spent some time watching some impressive eagles swoop over the bay. There’s also some spots in the park where at dusk you can witness thousands of bats coming out of the mangroves—it’s a cool little spectacle that feels like something out of a nature documentary. (Again, you can experience these as part of day tours offered in Labuan Bajo, or during a backpacker boat trip originating in Lombok.)
If you want to go scuba diving, it helps to already have a few dives under your belt. I spoke to some of the local dive instructors who told me the conditions at the dive sites change dramatically throughout the year. Sometimes the waters are calm, other times even the most experienced divers avoid certain sites. The dive shops will know which sites are appropriate given the weather and time of year.
If you’re not an advanced diver, the dive shop can still find appropriate reefs for you to dive. If you’ve done some dives, the dive sites at Komodo are not necessarily that challenging. I had done about 40 dives at this point and had faced much worse currents before, though this admittedly depends on the moon cycle and other factors. At one tricky dive site we were told to strictly stick very close to our dive buddy, but that was about it.
You have a very good chance of seeing many manta rays. I was sadly not so lucky, and saw only one out of the corner of my eye. Others saw as many as 12 on a single dive. I went on 3 dives looking for mantas and saw none, so it is definitely possible to be unlucky! That said, if your goal is to see manta rays, the Komodo dive sites are among the most reliable places.
Labuan Bajo is a small port town from which tours to Komodo depart.
There is a lot of conflicting information and impressions on Labuan Bajo out there, and so I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Some blogs said it was a ghastly place unworthy of photographing at all, other sources claimed it was a boomtown experiencing an explosion of tourism. In my experience neither were true.
Labuan Bajo is mostly just an unremarkable port town. The ‘tourism boom’ that sources such as Lonely Planet speak of is based mostly on assumption, as the town recently got a new (but small) airport and some land got purchased for future development. A the moment, Labuan Bajo is just kind of an average backpacker town, and it sees barely the sort of crowds you find elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It’s not hugely pretty and has its share of traffic noise, but there are some nice spots up the hills. It feels like it’s right on the frontier of the Southeast Asia backpacking trail—it’s sufficiently on the map to have a bunch of Western-owned restaurants and a dozen or so dive shops along its main road, but you’ll also definitely feel far away from Bali here.
Finding good budget accommodation in Labuan Bajo was a challenge for me in 2015. I went to 7 or 8 different places and found it difficult to find something acceptable. There are some nice budget hotels but they start at $30-40/night, which was more than I wanted to spend. Then there’s some super grubby and dubious $8-10 a night places, but there was very little between these two extremes.
At the time of writing there is only one backpacker hostel, the Cool Corner Hostel. It’s decent enough, though it’s super cramped, only has one bathroom, and no common room or garden area. In other words, it’s not the best option around. Manta Manta Homestay is a much nicer alternative that I recommend. You can also read about some other options on the WikiVoyage page for Labuan Bajo (I made a some contributions to that page to help other travellers find the rare few gems).
There isn’t a whole lot of entertainment in town, though the Paradise Bar just out of town has a nice view and regular live music.
For a great cheap eat, go to the night market along the docks on the western side of town for some great seafood. I swear I had the best damn fried calamari in the world.
Exploring the rest of Flores
After visiting the Komodo Islands, many people simply turn back to Bali or Lombok. That’s a shame as the rest of the island of Flores is wonderful to visit.
I recommend Flores if you travel for the immersive experience, and don’t mind being slightly off the tourist trail. There are only a handful of actual sights to put in your Flores itinerary, but what I enjoyed most were seeing the landscapes and meeting so many friendly people.
Lots of friendly faces on Flores
Renting motorbikes is a great way to see Flores and one that’s been recommended by several travel guides. It can be difficult to find rental motorbikes in Labuan Bajo however, with no actual rental shops in town when I visited. Some people I was travelling with had to ask around for a few days, and ultimately one of the staff at the Paradise Bar hooked them up with two motorbikes.
In brief I’ll mention a few places of interest on Flores, all easily reached either by private motorbike, public bus, or unscheduled minivans which go along Flores’ main roads throughout the day.
Ruteng is a small town a few hours east of Labuan Bajo. It’s fun to explore the surrounding area by motorbike, and it’s easy to rent these here as there are at least two or three rental places in town. The spider web rice fields are pretty interesting, and make a great excuse for a day trip. There are several traditional villages nearby, which are also worth a visit.
In Ruteng I stayed at the Kongregasi Santa Maria Berdukacita, a convent that also rents out a few rooms to visitors. It’s a peaceful and clean place, where nuns will make you a simple breakfast in the morning. The doors get locked sometime in the evening, but if you don’t mind this it’s a great place to stay, and something a bit different from your usual guesthouse or hostel.
Moni is a small town near Ende, rather peaceful among the rice fields. It’s a very rural place with barely any internet here. Moni is a great base from which to visit Kelimutu, a volcano with three crater lakes with different colored water. While I came to Moni for Kelimutu, I actually ended up remembering it more for the nature and villages around it—be sure to spend a day just walking around as it’s a chill and friendly place.
Maumere is another scuba diving hotspot that several travellers recommended to me. I sadly didn’t have a chance to go, as I was at the end of my trip and had to catch my flight back!
Ende doesn’t really have much going on, and is mainly a base from which to take a flight back or from which to take a ferry onwards to West Timor.
Something that I most enjoyed about Flores is just driving around on a motorbike and waving or high-fiving all the kids that greet you everywhere. The locals seem excited to see foreigners and will greet you friendlily everywhere you go. After a while all this attention can actually get a little exhausting and eventually annoying, but I appreciated the good vibes for the most part.
Crowds gather for a volleyball match near Moni
How to get to Flores
There are essentially three ways to get to Flores. Since most international arrivals are to Denpasar airport on Bali, let’s assume you are trying to get from Bali to Flores.
- Flying from Bali
This is really the most obvious option. There are daily flights from Bali to Labuan Bajo, the town closest to the Komodo Islands. There are also a handful of flights going to Ende or Maumere further east on the island. The flight should take no more than 45-60 minutes if going to Labuan Bajo.
- Boat from Lombok
A couple of companies operate regular 3- or 4-day boat trips from Lombok to Labuan Bajo. On the plus side, these sailing tours will pass through the Komodo Islands, letting you visit Rinca and Komodo island and snorkel in many places. On the down side, this trip is not for the faint-hearted. The boats wasn’t 100% confidence-inspiring, and the trip is not entirely without its risks as this blogger’s story attests. Also, you might not get extremely solid sleep with all the noise from the engines at night. That said, it’s still a wonderful adventure. I’ll never forget us singing songs on deck under the starry night sky, seeing an orange glowing moonrise on the horizon, or jumping in the waters in the morning to look at all the incredible sea life below. If you are a backpacker and don’t mind a little adventure, going by boat is an excellent option.
- Overlanding through Lombok and Nusa Tenggara
Not an easy feat, according to those who have done this. Expect something like 30 hours of sitting cramped buses. As far as I know, there are not many points of interest in West Nusa Tenggara for a tourist, so this is a tough journey with little reward.