Sleeping Dragons and a Stirring Town
Five years ago this June, Bama and I embarked on an unforgettable week-long adventure across the island of Flores. It remains one of my favorite corners of Indonesia not just for its astonishing natural beauty. Here, in a predominantly Muslim nation, the Catholic faith brought by Portuguese missionaries mingled with tribal traditions; the rugged landscape held megalithic villages that seemed nearly as old as time itself, perfectly formed volcanoes, and superb coffee made with local arabica beans grown in the mist-laden highlands. At the end of our journey lay Labuan Bajo, a sleepy fishing village turned tourism boomtown, where a glorious sunset bode well for an overnight cruise around the UNESCO-listed reefs and islands of Komodo National Park.
A recent pair of work trips, spaced just six weeks apart, meant an unexpected opportunity to revisit Labuan Bajo. I was curious to see how it had grown and changed – if the building boom already evident in 2014 had accelerated further, and if the town had managed to keep its ramshackle charm. This time, I flew in direct from Jakarta on a Boeing 737. It descended perilously close to a hillside and came to a screeching halt on the runway, at 2,250 meters (7,381 feet) just long enough for a commercial jet plane.
A young English-speaking staff member from the guesthouse stood waiting for me outside the arrivals hall. He looked immensely surprised when I introduced myself in Bahasa Indonesia, explaining that I lived in Jakarta but was really from Hong Kong. “With a name like that,” he said, “I thought you were American.” On the short drive into town, the driver pointed out that the roads were now in much better condition than in years past, and a private hospital had recently been built not far from the airport. Then, a surprise. The informal food court by the water where Bama and I had once feasted on grilled fish now featured sturdy picnic benches and permanent sinks at each stall. Gone were the makeshift tarpaulin canopies; in their place sprouted a row of canvas-roofed steel structures. It looked like something that belonged in a much larger town.
But the most conspicuous change on Labuan Bajo’s low-slung skyline proved to be a boxy five-story structure under construction, part of a multimillion-dollar hotel, mall, and marina development financed by two state-owned companies. After dropping off my bags at the guesthouse, I went out for a stroll to take a closer look. Workers were putting the finishing touches on a wide stretch of tiled pavement just outside the marina’s glossy shopping arcade, whose glass walls at one end were emblazoned with a familiar green mermaid – marking the very first Starbucks outlet in all of Flores. Change was already here.
Farther along the main strip, I stepped inside the Tex-Mex restaurant Bajo Taco and headed straight to its rooftop terrace. Service here turned out to be hit-and-miss; a bottle of Bintang beer materialized barely a minute after I sat down, though my fish tacos took an hour to arrive because the waitstaff had simply forgotten. Not that it was a big deal, of course. I didn’t have much else to do at the time, and was perfectly content with the vista of tightly packed houses, all with rusting corrugated iron roofs, stepping down to a sturdy sea wall that doubled as a raised promenade. Off in the distance, a series of headlands farther down the Flores coast reared up like a crocodile rising from the ocean, their grassy hillsides now a lustrous green after the wet season’s rains. I counted more than 20 recreational pinisi – two-masted schooners built on the beaches of South Sulawesi by the seafaring Bugis people – moored in the calm waters of the harbor. The smell of sea salt and drying fish wafted in with the gentle breeze.
I spent a night in town before heading north to check in at the Ayana Komodo Resort, a 10–15 minute drive from the harbor. The property had been billed as the first five-star hotel in Flores when it opened last September, and the warm reception I received on arrival was a little overwhelming. All the staff members bowed slightly and placed a hand on their hearts; one gingerly draped an ikat scarf over my head, while another brandished a tray with a cool face towel and a glass of lemongrass iced tea. It felt just like the polished resorts of southern Bali, where the Ayana brand runs a sprawling 90-hectare (222-acre) flagship property. But this was far more compact and decidedly more “urban” by nature. The developer had carved away a portion of the hillside to make room for a 10-story main building that descended from the rooftop lobby. And I couldn’t ignore a certain familiarity about the place, although I had no idea why this was so. It wasn’t until much later that I realized this resort was the work of American hospitality design firm WATG, whose London office took me on as a summer intern back in my architecture days.
Inside my room, housekeeping had creatively shaped a bundle of towels into a snout-less Komodo dragon, with paper eyes stuck on for comedic effect (it would be followed the next afternoon by a manta ray). The heat and humidity was such that I ended up staying indoors to catch up on work. It was only around 5:30 that I went out to admire the view from the rooftop bar with a sundowner in hand. Seated nearby were two government bureaucrats in buttoned-up, too-large clothing who seemed utterly confused by the menu. They quizzed a young waitress about the lack of items that were easily available at roadside stalls. “You don’t have hot chocolate or coffee here? No fried bananas?” The server shook her head. “Oh, so this is all international food. Never mind.” The disappointed bureaucrats left shortly after. As the skies darkened, I headed down to Ayana’s small man-made beach to join a handful of guests eating grilled local seafood, with the heat dialed down for non-Indonesian palates.
There’s an Indonesian phrase, lapar mata (“hungry eyes”), which describes the state of being so enticed by the food on offer that one ends up ordering too much. I fall victim to this condition time and again, especially in the absence of a level-headed companion (usually Bama). Now, I stood frozen by indecision, mulling my options as I confronted a display counter piled high with the day’s catch. Eventually I picked out a “giant seafood skewer” that had thick cuts of snapper, swordfish, and squid, along with a tiger prawn; when a waiter asked if I wanted anything else, I threw in a 100-gram tuna fillet and three large clams. I immediately regretted my decision once the seafood platter arrived at the table. It was an ensemble fit for a king, served with spicy stir-fried banana blossom, a basket of fluffy white rice, and four kinds of sambal – all of which, save the rice, I barely managed to polish off. By the time the waitress handed me the dessert menu, I was stuffed to the gills.
Luckily, the rest of the trip turned out to be full of adventure. I rose well before dawn the next morning for a sunrise hike up nearby Bukit Amelia, a grassy hill between two bays. Leading the way was Jeri, a trim 26-year-old Labuan Bajo local who was a member of the Ayana’s fitness team and lived just 10 minutes down the road by motorbike. A straightforward half-hour climb brought us to a deserted viewpoint that looked out over the heavily indented shoreline in both directions. We perched ourselves on two large boulders, waiting for the sun as the brightening sky revealed wreaths of mist burning off the coastal hills and mirror-flat waters down below. Jeri told me how he’d spent a few years working at Ayana’s Bali property while pursuing part-time studies in hospitality. “Then I heard that the Ayana was opening here in Labuan Bajo. I’m grateful I was transferred – it’s so good to come home and see my parents again.”
That day I was joined by Putu Sayoga, a Balinese photographer who swiftly became a newfound friend. He was a joy to have around, especially at mealtimes, and I appreciated his good company and his knack for effortless conversation. He regaled me with stories of his various trips around Southeast Asia, including a photo festival in Cambodia where some badly timed antics nearly landed a group of fellow photographers in trouble with the local police, and his amusement at one of my ex-coworkers, a born-and-bred Jakartan, who reacted to a sky full of stars with wide-eyed wonder. “You can always see the stars from my village in Bali, so that was really funny.”
No visit to Labuan Bajo would have been complete without exploring the constellation of reef-fringed islands in and around Komodo National Park, and so we joined a family from Melbourne for a day trip aboard the Lako Cama, the Ayana’s 12-meter (39-foot) flybridge cruiser. Putu and I embarked from the sinuous wooden jetty the hotel had christened Naga Pier (naga means “dragon” in Indonesian) not long after breakfast, settling in on the indoor banquettes as the crew members prepped the boat for departure.
Our first stop was Padar Island, a poster child of the national park and the subject of countless Instagram posts by virtue of its rugged, jaw-dropping scenery. It was not yet a well-known locale when Bama and I first visited the park in 2014. Under different circumstances, the 40-minute hike up the southernmost arm of Padar might have even been pleasant. But there was precious little shade from the scorching sun as we trudged on in the sauna-like humidity, and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock in the morning. A middle-aged woman in a bright orange sun visor hat, presumably from Jakarta, sat catching her breath on the side of the pathway. She lamented the lack of infrastructure as I approached. “Why isn’t there a lift?”
In a sweaty, delirious state, we clambered back onto the Lako Cama and motored to the far side of the island. The crew prepped our masks and fins for a snorkel session at Padar’s Pink Beach – one of several places in the park where granules of organ pipe coral have mixed in with white sand to give the shoreline a peach-hued tint. Much to my surprise, we had the entire beach to ourselves. For a good hour we drifted along a healthy reef of hard coral, cooling down in the crystal-clear water and watching colorful fish darting in and out of the crevices. Then it was time for lunch: generously sized bento boxes stuffed with gado-gado salad, nasi goreng (fried rice), and soy-marinated fried chicken. We were all looking forward to meet the Komodos of Rinca Island later that afternoon.
Loh Buaya, the placid, mangrove-fringed bay where Bama and I came ashore on Rinca in 2014, looked much as it did then, though with noticeably more plastic detritus in the water. A welcome change was the brand-new uniforms and footwear of the island’s rangers and naturalist guides, who once wore flip flops even on two- or three-hour hikes. At a gateway pavilion on the pier, a young guide quickly introduced himself as Jojo, and he took us into the expanded ranger station to begin a short circuit into the bush. We didn’t have to wait long to see the infamous reptiles. Eight komodo dragons were lazing in the shade near the ranger station’s kitchen, with several piled on top of each other. Another two slumbered behind the open-air canteen and souvenir store.
Putu recounted meeting a ranger on a less-visited part of Rinca during a previous assignment with one of my coworkers a few years back. “It’s quite dangerous to live here alone at this ranger station,” he confessed at the time. A month after that encounter, the ranger was bitten by a dragon and evacuated to Bali by helicopter, the closest place with a hospital that stocked effective antivirals to prevent serious infection. He survived the ordeal, but others are not so lucky. One poor old man, Jojo recounted, was killed while tending to his garden. When Putu asked him how it was to live side-by-side with the beasts, he appeared nonchalant. “We’re already used to it,” Jojo replied. “People here respect the animal. It’s said that if a Komodo enters our home, good luck will come our way.”
The highlight for me, though, was the dive site of Manta Point. We watched in awe through our snorkel masks as one gentle giant glided above the coral-filled seabed, gracefully flapping its pectoral fins and swimming upwards to feed on plankton near the surface. Another emerged out of the deep blue darkness, its mouth wide open, so close it appeared to be just two arm-lengths away. In all, five reef mantas came and went in quick succession. But there was also a wad of plastic debris that floated by – a wrapping for Malkist crackers that I instantly recognized from supermarket shelves in Jakarta. I grabbed it and held the garbage tightly in my fist until it was safely disposed of aboard the Lako Cama.
I couldn’t return to Jakarta without meeting Jingjing Yan, the Ayana’s resident marine biologist. Born in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, she had spent the first few years of her life in South Africa and then grew up in Thailand, before going to university in Canada and then Germany. Her enthusiasm for marine conservation was infectious; I listened intently as she told me how guests could be involved in coral replanting efforts, and explained the intricacies of harvesting broken fragments of staghorn coral from the nearby reef and attaching them to steel frames in a nursery two-thirds of the way down Naga Pier.
Another facet of her job was raising awareness about the effects of plastic pollution in local schools and villages. Indonesia has a woefully inadequate garbage disposal system, especially in rural areas, and things are compounded by a prevailing attitude that someone else will clean up the mess once it enters the public domain. In Jakarta, I’d observed how this habit had nothing to do with education levels, wealth, or class – it isn’t unusual to see well-dressed residents throwing tissues and plastic bottles out of shiny cars, and white-collar workers carelessly littering on the streets. Jing was altogether more forgiving when the topic shifted to those living in and around Komodo National Park. “One of our boatmen comes from Mesa Village. It’s on a tiny island that has nothing else but houses,” she said. “There is no waste management so everything is thrown straight into the sea. It’s not the villagers’ fault, or that they’re evil; the government has to support them by sending in boats to take out the trash.”
For its part, the Ayana has banned single-use plastics in the resort’s staff areas and dormitories. Jing also detailed plans to replace disposable bottles in guest rooms with tumblers and install water stations on each floor. And she would have to dispel the notion that water inside sealed plastic bottles is cleaner than that dispensed from a barrel, especially since they are collected at the same sources. “I cannot save the world or change the habits of hundreds of people in just a few months,” Jing told me. “But if I can change the minds of four to five people, then that’s already a good start.” ◊