Komodo Island is the perfect three-day weekend jaunt in Southeast Asia. It’s got the 1) scuba/snorkelling, 2) adventure (Komodo dragons and bats), and 3) the infamous laid-back Southeast Asia beach vibe.
Pro tip: wait to travel to Labuan Bajo in 2020 when airlines will offer direct flights from Singapore, Thailand, and Australia. But even with our layover in Surabaya (which we almost didn’t make our second flight), it was definitely worth the trip.
Best snorkelling I have ever done in my life: I’ve been fortunate enough to have scuba dived in some of the most beautiful underwater landscapes, but snorkelling in Labuan Bajo almost seemed like cheating — it shouldn’t have been this easy to see so many colourful fish at the water’s surface. Schools of fish casually floated together in packs, with no rush to dart anywhere. Their seeming malaise reflected our laid-back attitude during the afternoon. There were so many neon fish, marlins, needle nose fish, sea stars and other critters. They didn’t even need our banana bait — they were curious and friendly enough to swim right up to us.
But observing the coral fields was heartbreaking. While I delighted in the wasabi green and electric blue coral, the white-washed coral reminded me of how much coral had already bleached itself due to the warming oceans, a direct result of climate change.
Island hikes: Previously in the afternoon we did a small hike up to the top of Flores Island. Guides told us it would take us 10 minutes to ascend the steep, but short, “mountain.” We took it as a challenge and raced up the hill in four minutes flat… victory! And our reward was 360 degree views of scintillating blue waters. The steep descent was even more challenging than climbing up, but the boat staff graciously greeted us with a cooler full of ice-cold Bintang beer, the local beverage of choice. Sipping the Bintang while wading in the perfectly tempered ocean water was the definition of paradise.
Water sport: In the afternoon, I could see the coral up close and personal from another vantage point — via kayak. I channeled my inner Pocahontas and was able to circumnavigate Eagle Island with relative ease. The greatest challenge was rowing through shallow waters, especially at low tide. I had to paddle far out from the island to avoid swiping the shallow reefs with my oar. But I did get to see stunning coral from the kayak.
Not pictured: me concentrating very hard so as not to destroy the coral ecosystem with my paddle
Adventure time! It was time for the main attraction: the Komodo dragons.
Lucky for us, Komodo dragons only eat once a month, odds that I found quite favourable. I was willing to take a 1 in 30 chance that they were still stuffed from last month’s feast. We stepped off our boat onto Rinca island, and walked through the main gateway: a garishly colourful sign that felt more appropriate for a theme park.
As soon as we walked past the gateway, we were immediately greeted by one of the giant reptiles slowly creeping towards us. This was a “small” one, only about 5 feet in length. Our group of 8 stayed close together on the slightly raised concrete path. The 6-inch platform gave us a false sense of security, as if the concrete could repel the dragons should they decide to devour some breakfast. I stuck close to our guide, who swore that his wooden prong was all that we needed to keep the dragons at bay…
The island was probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to Jurassic Park. There were at least a dozen komodos milling about near the gift shop and other buildings within the park. We rounded the bend and each of us audibly yelped as we saw a cluster of six giant dragons surrounding the kitchen, mere feet from us. Each was at least 10 feet in length from end to end. Their snake-like tongues silently hissed in hunger as they eyed the cooks… I thought they only ate once a month??
We stayed just long enough for a photo opp, and then skedaddled for a nice, easy hike around the island. The views of the crystal blue ocean were beautiful, but the landscape itself was parched of any water, and contributed to a Savannah feel. We saw a couple more komodos, then decided that after an hour of tempting fate with the giant beasts, heading back to the boat was a good idea.
Holy smokes, Batman! Komodo dragons weren’t the only fascinating creatures inhabiting the islands. Kalung cave was home to hundreds of thousands of bats, and from our boat, we got to watch their daily migration from their cave to another island just after sunset. Slowly the bats rose from their island, like a scene from Birds the movie and peppered the entire sky. We were fortunate that none of them decided to flap too close to our boat. But even from a distance, we could tell that these suckers were large, not your average six-inch bat. Their silhouettes looked more like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.
Where to stay
The Ayana Hotel is the only 5-star resort on Labuan Bajo, and boy, is it worth every star. The lobby itself is a design masterpiece. The sleek open-air design is punctuated by intricately carved wooden statues and wall hangings. Bougainvillea drapes over the balconies to add warm pinks and oranges to the landscape. But the lobby pays homage to the turquoise ocean by not overshadowing the true focal point of the scenery.
Ayana Lakodia: I didn’t stay at the hotel, but instead spent the night on the Ayana’s boat, a spectacular 18-person boat that cruised around various islands over the 2-day period.
The grand-suite (which the three of us shared) was luxury beyond imagination. The room’s dressers and nightstands all resembled vintage luggages that exuded a Transatlantic voyage feel. But the various succulents strategically placed throughout the room kept the space feeling airy and alive. The all-wooden bathroom with gold chrome fixtures felt other worldly, and the shower had the smell and spaciousness of an entire sauna. We even had our own balcony, which supported us chilling and watching islands get smaller as we sailed away to the next island. When on vacation, I have zero problem waking up in time to watch the sunrise, which was a magical treat from such a beautiful vantage point.
And the boat itself could boast its stature as the largest one sailing in the archipelago. It could comfortably sleep and serve 18 guests, but there were only 8 of us for the weekend. We could roam and settle upon numerous places to lounge: from the roof deck, the front bow, or the cool indoor living space. I definitely could have spent at least a month living on that boat.
The staff was at our beck and call for anything we asked for. Every time we boarded the boat from a jaunt on one of the islands, a welcome fruit drink plus a refreshingly cold towel awaited us. Any food request (coffee at sunrise? Re-toast my croissant? lots of sambal on everything, please?) was eagerly fulfilled.
Mohini Resort: this hotel opened just mere months before we arrived. It was still a work in progress (men were manually cutting doors with a handsaw), but it was stunning nonetheless. The walls and floor were whitewashed with a Greek island feel, but the decor was cheerily tropical. Each room was a little hut with its own balcony, perfect for sipping tea in the morning and enjoying the ocean view.
Bottom line: there’s something in Labuan Bajo for everyone!