Impressions of Labuan Bajo
There was a time when migrants from the fishing village of Labuan Bajo sought better opportunities in other parts of Flores. “They used to look down on people from Labuan Bajo,” a local guide tells us offhand, “but now it’s the opposite.” Today his once-sleepy hometown is in the midst of a tourism boom, attracting labour from the rest of the island and even further beyond.
Literally ‘Bajau Harbour’, a nod to the seafaring communities who founded the village, Labuan Bajo is the endpoint of our 530km journey across Flores. It is also the main gateway to the reefs and dragons of Komodo National Park, and the fastest-growing area in the entire country. As we drive by vacant plots ringed by corrugated iron fences, Dino remarks, “four or five years from now, all this land will be hotels.” He adds that large tracts around Labuan Bajo have been snapped up by developers, not least a consortium of wealthy Jakartans under the name Plataran Komodo. “They buy land like kacang goreng,” Dino says, alluding to the fried peanuts sold at street stalls.
Both the government and investors alike see Labuan Bajo as an alternative to Bali. Luxury pinisi schooners – many converted from traditional cargo vessels built on the beaches of South Sulawesi – anchor in the calm waters of the bay. The local airport boasts a brand new terminal, with a spotless interior of glass and white pillars, sitting behind the ruins of its tiny predecessor. Bama tells me the airy, ultramodern structure is even larger than that of Semarang, a city of roughly two million and the provincial capital of Central Java.
But the oversized terminal is a strange contrast to the propeller planes on the tarmac, and much of Komodo Airport still resembles a small, dusty airstrip. Dino points out nearby hills being flattened with dynamite, so the runway can be extended to accommodate Boeing 737s from the capital.
We find that the town itself is full of similar contradictions. Hippie backpackers share the pavement with conservatively dressed residents, among them veiled women who frown at their Western counterparts. On the main strip a German-speaking couple sips Bintang beer and nibbles on bruschetta at an upper floor restaurant overlooking the harbour. A sunset yoga class is taking place on an outdoor terrace, while the call to prayer echoes loudly from the speakers of a nearby mosque. Save the mournful wailing of the muezzin, the mood reminds Bama of an up-and-coming version of Seminyak, an upmarket neighbourhood in southern Bali. With all the luxury pinisi in the harbour and the rash of hotels being built, he may be right. ◊