Labuan Bajo 

11.10.23 12:58 PM By Putri

Well, well, well. I have returned from my annual journey that was part telenovela, part Indiana Jones escapade and part David Attenborough nature special. Or as an Indonesian, we call it as mudik. 

Every year, like clockwork, I make the pilgrimage back to my homeland, Indonesia, to visit my family. Except for the years 2020-2022, bien evidemment. Thanks a lot, pandemic (*insert eyeroll here*).

My annual mudik includes a healthy dose of drama and adventure. It is my secret recipe for an unforgettable mudik and it has been always a success, on it's own chaotic way. I chose to go home to see my family by myself so I can enjoy a quality time with them and also sneak in my yearly girl trip. Because let's face it, mudik without at least one adventure is no fun at all.

Yep, my mudik is incomplete without my annual girl trip. It's a tradition that my best travel side-kick, Dian and I have been doing for years. We take turns planning the trip and exploring different parts of Indonesia that are often overlooked by tourists. So after surviving another round of family love, hugs, feuds and theatrics that could rival a telenovela, I’d hopped on a plane with Dian, glampacking. 

Dian and I have a bond that's hard to explain. We don't have the typical friendship where we constantly keep each other updated on every mundane detail of our lives, but when we do see each other, it's like no time has passed at all. We're kindred spirits, united by our love for adventure and our aversion to small talk. Whether we're hiking through mountains or simply zoning-out on a beach, Dian and I just seem to click in a way that defies explanation.

Dian and I were former colleagues, both worked as teachers at an international school. She was a great colleague and the best travel buddy. She had that je ne sais quoi, a coolness that seemed to come naturally. Poised and collected, but always ready for the next big adventure. We both have a strong curiosity for experiencing new cultures and embracing the unfamiliar. She shared my love for adventurous travels, but also valued comfortable accommodations at night like a true princess. For the past few years, I've taken an annual girl trip with her every year. Reminiscing about those adventures reminds me that I should write about them too, ahem.

Our adventure this year took us to Komodo Island in Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia, famous for its population of Komodo dragons. We chose this destinations for one obvious reason: neither of us have seen a Komodo in its natural habitat before.

He might look cute but one lick and you're out in the dead.

Organizing a trip to Labuan Bajo was fairly straightforward. The most difficult aspect is probably creating a budget as it turned out to be quite expensive. As with any travel destination, there are various choices and prices available. However, since we both appreciate good food and comfortable accommodations, our trip tends to lean towards the higher end of the spectrum. 

We decided to do a five-night stint in Labuan Bajo. Although most visitors use Labuan Bajo as a gateway to Komodo National Park, we soon found out that the town has its own hidden gems. From picturesque secret paths to being one of the last surviving traditional villages in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province, located smack dab in Manggarai Regency - Labuan Bajo is more than just a jumping off point for dragon sightings. Dian and I each had a list of our own of what we want to see in Labuan Bajo. We settled on these destinations which already quite a planification to do to visit them all: 

  • Witnessing the legendary dragons at Komodo National Park (whether on Komodo or Rinca Island)

  • Hiking on Padar Island for some epic sunrise

  • Catching the sunset at Kalong Island and watching thousands of bats take flight into the fiery sky

  • Taking obligatory selfies on Pink Beach - because let's be real, our 5 Instagram followers need to see it

  • Indulging in a seafood feast at Labuan Bajo harbor - gotta refuel after all that snorkeling

  • Visit the village above the clouds, Wae Rebo

We quickly realized that trying to cram all of our must-see spots into a 5-day trip would be a logistical nightmare. So we did the smart thing and divided and conquered with not one, but two tour agents. Because why stress yourself out when you can just stress out two different people?

We took the morning flight from Jakarta to Labuan Bajo with Garuda airlines for safety sake, ahem. While there were other cheaper options available, but let’s not take any chance, shall we? Our first day was easy. We arrived early and rented a scooter. Thanks to Dian’s riding skill, we drove around Labuan Bajo on scooter that day. It was rider ladies edition. 

Little that we know, we actually arrived just before an important regional conference, it meant that most of the infrastructure had been recently updated and cleaned. New roads had been built and hotels upgraded their standards. Our home for the night was the charming Eco Tree Otel, conveniently located a stone's throw from Labuan Bajo harbor. With just 17 thoughtfully designed rooms, it almost felt like a private beach house. And let's not forget the rooftop restaurant and bar with its unbeatable ocean view - the perfect spot to catch a stunning sunset with a cocktail. Can you say #hotelgoals?

After dropping our backpack at the hotel, we went around checking out some interesting spots on scooter. We decided to do some spelunking in the afternoon. Yep, it’s a legit word, meaning checking out a cave. We went to a cool little cave everyone's been buzzing about: Batu Cermin, also known as the Mirror Cave. The cave is about a 15-minute ride from Labuan Bajo town by scooter, without getting lost that is. Let say it took us a bit longer since we both suck at reading maps. 

Now, this ain't your typical dark, dusty cave. The cave itself isn’t very huge, we literally had to crouch down to enter the cave and walk sideways on some parts, which probably not a good environment for claustrophobics. The cave is full of stalactites and stalagmites covered with with shiny salt crystals and minerals to distract me from my impending panic attack.

After visiting the cave, we decided that our little escapade for the day has came to an end, so we cruised back into town effortlessly.

The streets were strangely deserted, and the twisty-turny roads felt like an amusement park ride. Thank goodness for Dian's expert scooter skills. There are spots on top of the hills overlooking to the ocean with absolutely out-of-this-world spectacular view! My photos don't do justice, obvi! This is one of the moments where I miss having Nico while I'm travelling solo (read: without him) because he would've been able to document the view properly. 

Our day trip on scooter turned out taking longer than we expected because of all those impromptu stops to check on the amazing views, and while the fish market at the marina wasn't exactly on our dinner agenda, but fate (my grumbling belly) had other plans. We stumbled upon a vibrant outdoor seafood haven, Kampung Ujung – a far cry from your typical fancy restaurant along the marina of Labuan Bajo. Imagine rows of enthusiastic fishmongers, their booths overflowing with the day's glistening bounty. It was like a posh outdoor market, with the added bonus of a playful "fishy competition" vibe in the air.

Now, here's where things got interesting. Unlike most restaurants, there were no price tags or menus in sight. Yep, a visions of a hefty surprise bill danced in our heads automaticallyHere's the beauty of this place: This wasn't your typical order-from-a-list situation. The experience was interactive, almost playful. You point at the plumpest, most appealing fish (or squid, or maybe a cluster of juicy prawns) and the friendly vendor tells you the price per kilo. No pre-determined portions, just pure seafood freedom! Here's the kicker: the cooking was entirely up to us! Do you want your catch grilled to smoky perfection? Maybe a light sauté to showcase its delicate flavor? Or perhaps a deep-fried extravaganza? – the possibilities were endless. And the best part? The price remained blissfully unchanged no matter how we chose to "torture" (their words, not ours!) our chosen seafood.

Forget fancy menus, tonight we were dining by "Catch, Cook, Conquer!" philosophy.  After perusing all the fishmongers' display of their catches which to me, looks like contestants on a fishy reality show, we weren't really sure what to order. Trouble was, most of these contestants looked like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book – funny patterns,  all bulging eyes, spiky fins, and enough teeth to make a shark blush.

Our expert advice? Play by the golden rule of seafood selection at the marina: pick the most vibrantly colored creature, or, if you're feeling adventurous, grab the one that looks like it could wrestle an octopus. We opted for a safe bet (breaded calamari) and a daring choice (grilled barracuda). 

Breaded calamari is my forever favorite when it comes to seafood, but this calamari we had at the marina came out like little golden nuggets of pure deliciousness. Crispy on the outside, it practically begged to be shoved into our faces. Next up, the grilled barracuda. Why barracuda? First, because none of us had eaten a barracuda before although we heard about it a lot. Somehow in my head barracuda sounds so bad-ass. It turned out this wasn't your average joe (fish) at the market. This bad boy had a char so smoky and perfect. Ah, delicioso! 

To add a touch of green to this pescatorian feast, we ordered a plate of stir-fried Morning Glory. Don't let the name fool you, this local veggie was anything but sleepy, and it's definitely not some limp, leafy afterthought. I don't know what ancestor recipe that they cook this veggie in, but it was definitely kick-ass, it went really well with the fish. 

Now, let's talk sides. As any Indonesian dish, it typically came with a steaming bowl of fluffy rice, a refreshing medley of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and leafy greens, or we call it lalapan and the pièce de résistance – a fiery, homemade salsa (sambelguaranteed to wake up your taste buds. Sambelnya nonjok cuy!!

We flushed it all down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice each, because at this point, Fresh, Fresh, Fresh was the motto of the night. Fresh fish, fresh seabreeze, fresh fear of what exactly that polkadot fish thing on the counter might be – this place was all about freshness, with a generous side of "fresh catch, who dis?". 

Finally, the moment of truth: the bill. To our surprise (and immense relief!), it landed well within reason, even without any haggling. The lack of a pre-set menu, it turned out, wasn't a recipe for sticker shock, but rather an added charm of the entire experience.

After the awesome dinner by the marina, we decided to call it a quits for the night. Back to the hotel for a shower and some serious shut-eye. Tomorrow,  the real Labuan Bajo experience starts; Wae Rebo, trekking the village above the clouds, then, we set sail on a Phinisi boat to the private island of the Komodos.