In Jakarta you can be stuck for hours in traffic but, in Flores, you might be the only one driving!
By SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH
IF ONE is picking an island or beach destination in Indonesia, Bali is probably the most obvious and common choice.
Its long strip of white beaches and busy local night scenes are usually the attractions for European tourists, or perhaps Australians as Darwin is just three hours away.
However, an avid traveller would know better to not choose the island if one wants to enjoy Indonesian nature exclusively because of the high traffic of tourists. Chances are, you would bump into more Americans or Australians than the locals.
Not to worry though as there is always a much better option, and if you are already in Bali, you are halfway there.
It is just an hour flight away, crossing two neighbouring islands.
The island is called Flores, a truly hidden gem of Indonesia and still has not been flooded by tourists.
Flores is a part of Indonesia that is away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta. In Jakarta you can be stuck for hours in traffic but, in Flores, you might be the only one driving!
If you still have no clue of the whereabouts of this island, try to locate the southernmost part of Indonesia to the east on the world map.
You would notice that it is a part of the Malay Archipelago that sits on a volcanic arc.
This group of islands in Indonesia still have active volcanoes to this day. There are still ongoing eruptions in neighbouring Bali that had triggered earthquakes around the islands, but it is the risk that wanderlust travellers have to take.
Malaysians would be surprised at how people in Flores would make them feel at home. Beyond the language similarity is the warm Indonesian hospitality.
Getting to Flores Is Not A Walk In the Park
The moment you step into the airport, you don’t have to worry about getting there as the tour guides, or “Flores Uber” would be more than happy to be of service.
Sure, some of them might sound aggressive, but to be fair, tourism is their main source of income.
Due to the location’s “exclusivity”, getting to Flores is a little bit tricky as there is no direct international flight to the island. The flights are domestic either from Jakarta or Bali.
To explore Flores, one would start with the western part of the island, in the city of Labuan Bajo, one of its three main cities with an airport.
You can also reach Flores by one of those cruise liner-like boats — think Titanic but without the fancy dining restaurant or the grand staircase, and it is smaller in size too. But, it sure has cabins as most journeys would take two days.
Alternatively, if one is feeling adventurous, one can try a combination of overland and sea travel from Lombok.
Like Bali, Lombok has become a mass tourist attraction for its own white sandy beaches. Thus, it has many direct international flights from neighbouring countries.
From Lombok, it would take a full day to get to Labuan Bajo — two ferry rides and a total of 15 hours on the road. It is definitely the road less travelled as not many people like to be trapped in a car crossing from island to island.
You would need to take two ferries. The first is from Lombok to Sumbawa, which is another island in the archipelago. From Sumbawa, the second ferry brings you to Flores.
The ferries crossing the islands often depart once a day and will take off in the morning so that passengers could go on with their day, as sometimes the boats could be delayed by the ocean wind and rough weather.
The rides are often interesting as you observe the locals on the boat. You could see that the rides have been part of their daily routine, judging from the foldable mattress and pillow that they’d carry with them to get through the journey.
During the rides, small talks with the locals are encouraged as the view from the middle of the ocean could be bland after a while.
This writer was told by a regular Indonesian passenger that the “Malaysian-style headscarf” is a rarity.
You see, the locals are used to seeing Caucasians with their tank tops and short cargo pants. But what they are not used to is seeing women wearing headscarves, Malaysian-style.
As soon as you arrive in Labuan Bajo, you would see that many concrete-brick masonries are being constructed, replacing wooden buildings and timber structures.
If you have the chance to stroll around the city a little further, you would notice that an LED powered currency exchange board would show the US, Australian and Singaporean dollars as the top currencies traded in the city.
Journey in Flores Starts With Komodo Dragons
For sea travel-tourists who are arriving in Flores, they often opt to continue the journey by sailing to Komodo National Park, which comprises three major islands — Komodo, Rinca and Padar — to see the largest monitor lizard in the world.
Sailing to this group of the islands would take about five hours, depending on the weather condition.
Many might advise you against the trip, but if you sail at night to Padar Island, you would get that jaw-dropping sunrise photos that you might have seen on Google search.
The best way to get up close with the Komodo dragons is by visiting the Komodo Island, a 400 sq km island cohabitated both by humans and the monitor lizards, as there are park rangers who would bring visitors around the island.
Currently, there are about 300 households at the Komodo Village, mainly situated at the shoreline of the islands.
All safety measures have to be checked when one encounters with the monitor lizard, as you cannot be fooled by the forked-tongue lizard’s slow movement.
When hunting for food, it could run 15mph and uses its long claws and muscular tails to weaken the prey.
Recently, the tourism agency of East Nusa Tenggara announced that Komodo Island will be closed for a year in 2020 for a rehabilitation activity to improve the dwindling number of the vulnerable species.
After you have visited the Komodos, your boatman will probably bring you island hopping, and the Pink Beach is a must.
It is the most popular place after Komodo Island. The beach got its name from the distinctive colour of microscopic animals which produce a red pigment on the coral reefs.
So, when the tiny pieces of red coral combine with the white sands, it produces the soft pink colour that is visible along the shoreline.
Spending A Night Above the Clouds
Now that you have been in the water, it is time to hike some mountains and spend a night “above the sky” in Wae Rebo village.
From Labuan Bajo, it takes six hours driving through a bumpy and mountainous road.
Wae Rebo is one of Indonesia’s many traditional villages, located about one km above sea level on a plateau and takes about two to three hours to hike.
The traditional village is home for some of the Manggarai people, an ethnic group in the western Flores.
It has received the Top Award of Excellence from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2012.
Living up in the mountains, it means that Manggarai people in Wae Rebo have limited access to basic sustenance, such as rice and flour.
Sometimes when you are hiking up the hills, you would be passed by Manggarai boys carrying bags of rice and fruits on their shoulders — and they can reach the top in merely 30 minutes!
You will learn that each of the Manggarai children has their tasks and responsibility to contribute to their people.
The girls would often help their mothers to cook or process coffee beans, and the boys will do their daily trips every day to the nearby villages at the foothills.
It is only when they are of age that they would be sent to other villages at the foothills to have better access to education and come home during their school holidays.
Most tourists will be greeted by Michael, a young Manggarai man who speaks perfect fluent English. Apparently, after he finished his education, Michael came back to Wae Rebo to be the translator for visitors.
Visitors who arrive at the village will be greeted by the eldest member in Wae Rebo — Pak Thomas, in a ceremony.
Pak Thomas would start by praying to their ancestors, in Manggarai language, to give strength to the visitors and welcome them to the Wae Rebo community. Michael would act as a translator to the foreigners.
The 87-year-old Pak Thomas would continue with the story of Empu Maro, the main ancestor and founder of the village. The locals believe Empu Maro was “guided” to the plateau area some 100 years ago to start a community.
The Manggarai in Wae Rebo today is the 18th generation of his descendants.
There are about 600 Manggarai people who live in the area and about 200 are living up in the mountains.
The most interesting feature about the traditional village would be the unique abodes, which are built in a conical shape and constructed without an inch of nail.
The 10m tall houses are all made out of wooden structure covered in layers of dried palm leaves all the way from rooftop to bottom.
There are seven houses — each to honour the seven mountain peaks surrounding them, and each one consists of five levels serving different purposes.
The lowest level will usually be the families’ living area while the rest of the upper levels are the storage.
If you go to one of the family’s houses, you would find a peculiar area that somewhat looks like a kitchen at the centre of the house.
Come to think of it, it is rather a clever method to not let smoke from the cooking fogging up the house. Instead, it will go upward to the peak of the house.
The houses, called Mbaru Niang, typically fit five families, while the largest house fits eight families. The locals also built one Mbaru Niang for visitors.
Visitors would often do a day trip to Wae Rebo, but to get to know the simple life of this ethnic group, one would have to stay for a night.
If you are a city person, you might not enjoy Wae Rebo as the daily routine of the community is often simple and following the social structure.
The men usually go out for a hunt while women would be processing the beans for the famous Flores coffee or weaving their traditional Manggarai cloth.
Despite being isolated from civilisation, Manggarai people are impressively polite, especially the children.
When hiking to the village, the Manggarai boys would ask permission to lead the way when they surpass you.
Wae Rebo at night is nothing like you have experienced before. The air is cool and you will get a panoramic view of the mountains.
The sky is so clear that it is hard to believe that you are looking at the same sky that you share in Kuala Lumpur.
The Komodo Island and Wae Rebo village are just the tip of the iceberg of what Flores can offer.
You need a longer time to truly enjoy the Indonesian nature.