18 September 2019.
Soaring at 37,000 feet, I crane my neck back and forth across the window as the twisting trail of Indonesia’s Sunda Islands slither by far below. The stark peak of Mount Agung peers between the clouds, mighty Mount Rinjani reveals its glimmering crater lake and the vivid green of Sumbawa’s farmlands sprawl towards the horizon.
Speckled across the vast inky expanse of the Flores Sea, Komodo National Park finally glides into view, marked by dramatic hills that cascade into wide tracts of aquamarine reef.
With a perfect storm of raging currents, warm nutrient-rich waters and an explosion of marine life, Komodo has long been coveted as a mecca for divers, but I’ll soon discover that the landscapes that climb above the surface are just as magnificent.
Watching the morning light creep across the prehistoric folds of Padar Island is an undeniable highlight, while hiking dusty trails in the footsteps of the world’s largest lizard, cooling off in the crystalline waters of a pink coral-stained beach and catching an incredible sunset as it stains the sky an impossible shade of fuschia are also experiences that make the journey here unforgettable.
What’s more, your days will be filled with the kind of sun-drenched, salty haired bliss that only comes from back to back days on the ocean.
Of my three months in South East Asia, Komodo National Park was the place that stole my heart and despite spending far more time (and money!) here than I had anticipated, it’s a place I’d happily return in a heartbeat. Surprisingly, many visitors pass through for just a day or two to drink in the otherworldly landscapes and be engulfed in the kaleidoscopic world that lies hidden in its depths, but you could easily spend more time if your budget allows.
If you’ve already begun planning your trip, this comprehensive guide to Komodo National Park covers everything you need to know, including all the possible ways to get there, what to budget for the trip and the best ways to experience this incredible pocket of Indonesia.
Psst… Only visiting for the diving? Don’t miss this post on diving in Komodo.
* This post includes affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you. *
Komodo is really a year-round destination, but whether you’re seeking fewer crowds, rich green landscapes (or parched brown ones), calm seas, minimal rainfall or the best chance to see manta rays will dictate when is the best time for you to plan your Komodo trip.
Overall, April to November is considered the best time of year to visit Komodo National Park, but this period still sees a great deal of seasonal change.
December to March is rainy season which means plenty of wet weather, strong winds and big waves that reach their peak in February when many tours are cancelled in anticipation of bad weather (i.e. February is probably the worst time to visit). However, this time of year is also when mantas are most prevalent.
April through June brings calm seas and landscapes washed in green following the summer rain. This is one of the best times to visit when tourist numbers are low, the islands are lush and ripe for exploration and there’s still a good chance to see the lingering manta rays. I visited in late May and was lucky enough to see them every day!
July and August are high season for tourists when prices soar and crowds increase considerably, especially at popular dive sites and day trip destinations. Temperatures are milder at this time but wind and waves are common. This is also mating season for the Komodo dragons which makes sightings more difficult.
September through November is another fantastic time to visit when the tourist hoards have ebbed to a trickle and the area begins to welcome whales and mantas back for the season. Hot and humid conditions mean the islands are painted with a dry brown palette.
Diving in Komodo is excellent all year round but some locations are only accessible at certain times of the year.
Ultimately, April to June or September to November would be my picks for when when to visiting, providing the best mix of stable weather, wildlife spotting opportunities and few crowds.
Labuan Bajo acts as the gateway to Komodo National Park and for many will be their first stop before setting off to explore the area, but that’s certainly not the only way to do it. Depending on your time and budget, these are your options for getting to Komodo National Park and Labuan Bajo.
The fastest and easiest way to get to Labuan Bajo is by plane with several direct daily flights from Denpasar (Bali), Jakarta and Surabaya (Java), Makassar (Sulawesi) and Praya (Lombok), as well as connections to the main towns on Flores. It’s possible to find flights for as little as 700,000IDR (€45) one way on a low-cost airline, even during high season, so try book your tickets a few weeks in advance to get the best deal.
TOP TIP | Flights departing or connecting through Indonesia do not allow tripods, selfie sticks, Go Pro sticks and the like to be packed in carry on luggage. Bali is particularly strict on this rule! If you’re travelling with carry-on luggage only, some airlines will check these items for you free of charge, others (looking at you Air Asia!) will ask you to pay the full fee for checked luggage.
Pelni Passenger Ship
Pelni operates a handful of services each month on large passenger ships departing from Benoa (Bali) and travelling either direct to Labuan Bajo or calling in at Ampenan (Lombok) and Bima (Sumbawa). Direct crossings take around 25 hours while those with stops can take around 7 hours longer. If you’re on a tight budget, this is the cheapest option for getting to Labuan Bajo with prices starting from 230,500IDR (€15).
Onboard there are four cabin classes as well as economy class which is more of a dormitory set up. Note that boats are often overloaded and can be a little chaotic, so know what you’re walking into and keep an eye on your stuff.
Ferry + Bus
The bus and boat combo between Bali and Labuan Bajo is a rather long winded affair, takes four days and involves a series of transport changes, but it’s another affordable option for those not wanting to wait around for the passenger ship.
First, you’ll need to take a ferry from Padangbai in Bali to Lembar on Lombok, followed by a minibus to Mataram. From there, it’s a bus to Bima on Sumbawa (with a ferry crossing) and another bus to Sape before jumping on the final ferry to Labuan Bajo, Flores.
It’s about the journey, not the destination right, so why not make getting to Flores an experience in itself.
Setting off from Lombok or Bali (and vice versa), it’s possible to join a multi-day tour that allows you to experience all the beauty of Komodo National Park and northern Sumbawa as you make your way toward Labuan Bajo. Expect plenty of snorkelling stops, waterfall hikes and epic sunsets onboard, along with all of Komodo’s highlights.
Some tours are geared toward the budget backpacker crowd, like Wanua Adventures, with prices starting at 230,000IDR (€145) for the 4-day tour, whereas others have a heavy focus on diving while still making time to explore the otherworldly landscapes, like these Komodo Liveaboards.
Thankfully, Labuan Bajo offers a range of accommodation to suit any budget, from bohemian backpacker haunts and comfortable guesthouses to luxurious villas with spectacular views.
La Boheme Bajo | One of the best budget options in town so you can spend more of your hard-earned rupees on the fun stuff. La Boheme oozes that quintessential backpacker vibe and offers basic dorms, a number of affordable tours and plenty of chillout spaces complete with hammocks and bean bags. The onsite restaurant and bar also has excellent happy hour deals though the internet here isn’t great.
Ciao Hostel | A top rated-hostel with exceptional views across the bay, Ciao is a 10-minute walk from town and offers spacious dorms, a gorgeous terrace area, tour desk and free shuttle to the airport and town.
If you’re travelling on a tight budget but looking to avoid the hostel scene, there are also plenty of affordable, locally run guesthouses scattered around Labuan Bajo. Search the full range of accommodation here.
Mid Range + Luxury
Puri Sari Beach Hotel | Located 15 minutes from the centre of town, Puri Sari offers bright spacious private rooms, a pool, lush garden, private beach access and breakfast included.
Plataran Komodo Beach Resort | A collection of beautiful luxury Indonesian-style villas boasting beach access, an onsite restaurant and bar, spa and gym.
AYANA Komodo Resort | Cascading down the cliff towards the beachfront, this sprawling 5-star resort offers up stunning ocean views perfect for catching the sunset along with a full suite of services and amenities. Check its superb location in the shot below.
Hike Padar Island
My personal favourite of the trip, Padar Island is a spectacular sight to behold. The otherworldy furrows and peaks crawl into the distance like some prehistoric beast making for some epic island views. It’s just a 20-minute hike to the upper viewpoint and is an essential stop for anyone visiting Komodo. Even better is to visit for sunrise or sunset.
Visit the Komodo Dragons on Komodo Island or Rinca
You could hardly come all this way and not see the Komodo dragons right! Both islands have various hiking options to see the lizards where you must be accompanied by a guide.
Hike Gili Lawa Darat
Gili Lawa Darat is another spectacular viewpoint off the northern tip of Komodo Island and is visited by far fewer tourists than Padar. It’s a steep 15-minute climb to the top.
Snorkel or Dive Komodo’s magnificent underwater world
Komodo has some of the most pristine reef, vibrant fishlife and charismatic underwater critters of anywhere in the world and if you’re not taking the time to explore it, you’re sorely missing out. Read more about diving Komodo here.
See Manta Rays at Manta Alley
Manta rays are one of the most majestic creatures I’ve ever seen and while they’re most abundant during the rainy season, they do frequent the area for much of the year. Manta alley, a channel with several cleaning stations, is the best place to see them.
Snorkel and Sunbathe at Pink Beach
Made famous for its rose-tinted shoreline, the water here is also impossible clear and calm and bursting with beautiful soft coral gardens.
When it comes to actually visiting the national park, the only way to do that is on a Komodo tour of which there are three main options – a day trip, a multi-day trip or a diving liveaboard.
If you’re short on time, a day trip will allow you to tick off all the main highlights, including climbing Padar Island, snorkelling at Pink Beach, visiting the dragons on Komodo Island and a quick dip at Manta Point to see the spectacular rays doing their thing. It’s a long but awesome day and is excellent value for such a jam-packed itinerary.
Multi-day tours generally go for 2 or 3 days and follow much the same itinerary as the single day trip with added stops at Rinca Island, Batu Cermin Cave, Gili Lawa and another snorkelling spot. The added time allows for a much slower pace and more time to drink in the beauty of the park. Spending the night on the boat rather than having to make the 3-hour commute each way also has its benefits, such as being able to climb Padar Island for sunrise, visiting Komodo Island in the morning when the dragons are far more active and watching one of Komodo’s signature blazing sunsets across the bay.
Though I ultimately went with the one-day tour, I would absolutely do an overnight tour were I to visit again.
It’s possible to book tours online or in Labuan Bajo where dozens of agencies line the main road. Some tours are very basic though so if you’re after a more luxurious experience or a private tour rather than joining a group, be sure to confirm exactly what boat you’ll be on and what is included (see below for prices). Check Komodo tour options here.
Most liveaboards are unsurprisingly all about the diving, with your days spent in a blissful loop of eat, dive, chill, repeat. But there are a few operators that combine the underwater world with Komodo’s major land-based sights and include places like Komodo Island and Padar on their itineraries. Find the best Komodo Liveaboards here.
When reports began surfacing in early 2019 that Komodo Island would be closing to tourists, the travel media rumour mill was rampant with stories encouraging travellers to ‘get there while you still can’.
So, what’s the deal?
At this stage, any concrete details are still being finalised, but it does appear that while Komodo National Park will remain open to visitors, Komodo Island is expected to be off-limits from January 2020.
The decision was sparked after an alleged smuggling ring was busted in East Java attempting to traffick 41 Komodo dragons alongside other endangered animals for use in traditional medicine. Officials say the island’s closure will focus on environmental rehabilitation to help preserve the dragon’s habitat and increase population numbers.
However, for those worried they might have missed their chance to see the Komodo dragons up close, you’ll still be able to view the enormous beasts on neighbouring Rinca Island which many actually consider to be more beautiful.
**2020 UPDATE: In October 2019, authorities announced a backflip on the decision to temporarily close Komodo Island to tourists, citing that over-tourism did not pose a threat to the dragons. The island currently remains open for visitors and tours are continueing as normal. Read more here.
A chance to see the last of these enormous prehistoric beasts that have wandered these islands for millennia and deliver an infamously venomous bite is a big part of why this tiny group of islands has landed on so many bucket lists.
Sadly though, many visitors walk away somewhat disappointed with their dragon encounters. Something I heard repeatedly was that, sure, they were cool to see, but the rest of the park was far more impressive. In all honesty, this was exactly the sentiment that crossed my mind as I sailed away from Komodo Island.
Perhaps this could be taken as an indication of just how breathtakingly beautiful the park really is, but I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that, for the most part, the whole dragon viewing ‘experience’ just isn’t done in the best way.
For a start, many tours arrive at the hottest part of the day when the lizards retreat to the shade and stay dormant until the temperatures begin to cool. It’s just not the best time to see them. More concerning, however, is that after an hour of hiking the island’s forest trails, it’s a little too convenient to then find a group of lizards congregated around the restaurant’s kitchen.
What’s more, I heard several stories about dragons being fed on Rinca Island in order to keep them nearby and ensure the tourists got their photos and left happy, which is incredibly disappointing.
This is not a zoo. These are wild animals that should be allowed to stay wild, whether tourists are disappointed with their inactivity and abundance or not. But I’d suggest it may be best to temper your expectations accordingly.
However you plan your trip, chances are you’ll be spending some time in Labuan Bajo as well. Here’s a few things to keep you occupied near town.
Catch Sunset At Amelia Sea View
Sunsets in Labuan Bajo are something of a spectacle and this cluster of conical-shaped hills just 4km from town provide the perfect vantage point to watch the sky ablaze. It’s a popular spot, but many people leave as soon as the sun has dipped below the horizon. Wait a little longer and you’ll see the candyfloss pinks dissipate into a vibrant orange glow.
Looking for somewhere closer to town? You can also get a beautiful sunset show from virtually anywhere along the promenade with several rooftop bars offering up exceptional views.
Eat At The Fish Market
Every evening around 7 p.m., smoke wafts along the boulevard, embers burn orange and the fish market bursts to life with dozens of stalls offering fresh fruit juice and various seafood options.
The barbecued fish I ate here, basted in some intensely flavourful sauce that will have you salivating in an instant, was so delicious I’m still kicking myself for waiting until my last night to eat here.
It’s one of the tastiest and best value places to eat in town with prices starting at around 40,000IDR (€2.50/A$4) depending on the type and size of fish though, feel free to haggle, respectfully of course.
Cunca Wulang Waterfall
Down a truly horrendous road through the forest, across a bridge and into a narrow canyon, you’ll find the aqua hues of Cunca Wulang Waterfall, one of Labuan Bajo’s most popular day trips. It’s about 30km from town and costs a fairly steep 130,000IDR (€13.50/A$8.50) per person to enter including a guide. Fees are reduced the more people that are in your group.
Internet isn’t always great
Unsurprisingly for this relatively remote corner of Indonesia, internet can be pretty hit and miss. In my hostel it was often non-existent or so painfully slow that just trying to check your emails had you pulling out your hair in frustration. Elsewhere in town, you’ll find a few spots with a far more stable connection, like Bamboo Cafe which was the best I found.
Respect local customs, especially during Ramadan
Usually falling somewhere between April and June, Ramadan is the most sacred time of the year for Indonesia’s Muslim population. As a tourist, you may notice that the vibe around town takes on a more mellow tone, at least during the day, and there are a few things you can do to be more respectful during the holy month.
It may sound obvious, but actually putting on clothes is a good start. You can wear whatever you like when you’re out on the water, but once you mosey back into town, it’s a basic sign of respect to at least throw something over your swimwear. Also, try to avoid openly eating on the street during fasting hours.
How much time do you need?
How much time have got? Or perhaps more importantly, what’s your budget.
Some slow travellers roll in, tanned and salty-haired, having spent four days on the boat from Lombok and head straight to the airport, while others jet in for their well-earned 10-day vacation and do little else aside from diving, drinking and taking in the glorious sunsets.
Whichever way you do it, I’d recommend allowing at least 2 to 3 days, though if you’re not on a tight time frame (or budget), you could easily stretch this out to 5 or more days allowing enough time to dive, visit the islands and explore the countryside surrounding Labuan Bajo.
There are ATMs in Labuan Bajo but…
There are numerous ATMs around Labuan Bajo and they’re generally reliable, that is until they start running out of cash.
Not wanting to stash millions of rupee in my hostel locker, I tended to take out only as much as I needed to cover the following day’s tour or dive trip and my daily expenses. For the most part, this was a good tactic, but on one occasion I had to visit at least 4 ATMs before I found one that could actually give me money.
Many ATMs also have a fairly low maximum withdrawal limit, often around 1 million rupees (€65), so if you’re getting charged any bank fees and need to make several withdrawals, these costs can add up quickly.
Be Conscious Of your Plastic Consumption
Indonesia has a huge issue with waste management and despite being perched alongside one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse ecosystems, Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park are sadly not immune to the inundation of plastic brought to the archipelago.
For the most part, the ocean appeared relatively clear of trash, but it was impossible to miss the layers of garbage that have accumulated along the shoreline or in empty plots around town. Heartbreakingly, when the rainfall comes, what begins on land will inevitably end up in the sea.
As visitors to this stunning corner of the world, we all need to do our part to keep it clean and by doing just three simple things, you can dramatically reduce your daily plastic consumption.
| Carry a reusable water bottle – always have it with your and fill it up as needed at one of the many free water refill points around town.
| Ask for NO straw with every drink – many cafes have already made the switch to eco-friendly alternatives, like bamboo or paper straws, but that’s definitely not true of everywhere. Ask for no straw, just in case.
| Bring a tote bag – for market visits and spontaneous shopping sprees, a large reusable tote will help you avoid needlessly accumulating plastic bags.
To go even further, support those businesses that actively aim to reduce plastic pollution in their day-to-day operations. Many dive shops already use this approach inhouse and on their boats, but unfortunately, many of the smaller day-trip operators don’t.
Around town, Trash Hero Komodo, the local chapter of the global, community-led, non-profit organisation, is a constant presence whose mission is to bring communties together to clean and reduce waste. They’re supported by a number of local businesses – look for the flyers in the window – who provide onsite water refill stations, stock plastic-free products, assist with weekly clean ups or provide support to clean up crews.
Day tours and pricey dive trips can quickly burn a hole in your travel budget, especially if you’ve been shoestringing your way across South East Asia. The good news, however, is that they’re absolutely worth it! Here’s a breakdown of exactly how much you’ll need to budget for.
For budget travellers, dorms start from around 100,000IDR (A$10/€6.50), while a basic private room at a guesthouse in town will set you back around 350,000IDR (A$35/€22). On the higher end, you can find comfortable mid-range rooms for around 800,000IDR (A$82/€50) through to lavish waterfront resorts and villas with all the extras for several million rupees. Find the perfect accommodation for you here.
Compared to somewhere like Bali, the food options in Labuan Bajo, particularly on the cheaper end of the scale, are fairly limited with just a few local warungs and a number of restaurants that cater heavily to tourists, with prices to match.
Warung Mama, Rafael’s Kitchen and the nightly fish market are decent for cheap eats where you can get a meal and drink for around 40,000IDR to 80,000IDR (A$4/€2.50 to A$8/€5). At most other restaurants, expect to pay upwards of 100,000IDR (A$10/€6.50) per person which is still super affordable by western standards, though rather pricey for Indonesia. Bamboo Cafe was my go-to chillout spot during the day serving up delicious vegan smoothies and tasty veggie lunches, while La Cucina is perfect for dinner, serving up excellent pizza and pasta dishes with a lovely outlook over the water.
Getting to Labuan Bajo can cost anywhere from €15 by passenger ship to around €145 on a multi-day tour through the national park with flights falling somewhere in between.
Labuan Bajo itself is easily navigable on foot but for exploring the nearby countryside, scooters can be hired for around 75,000IDR ($A8/€5) per day.
Diving and Tours
A full day of diving including 3 dives, lunch and all gear will set you back around 1,800,000IDR (A$185/€115, not including park fees) per day with discounts available for multiple days. Liveaboards start from around €500 for a budget 3D/2N trip and soar well into the thousands for longer and more luxurious expeditions. Compare Komodo Liveaboard options here.
Basic one-day tours to Komodo National Park start from 400,000IDR (A$41/€25, not including park fees) while multi-day trips cost around the same per day. For private tours on a more luxurious boat, expect to pay around 3,000,000IDR (A$300/€200) per person for a multi-day adventure. You’ll find a number of agencies offering tours around town, or check these online options.
Park Entrance Fees
For each day you spend inside Komodo National Park, you’ll need to pay a series of fees in addition to the cost of any tour.
On dive trips, expect to pay 275,000IDR (A$28.50/€17.50) per day which includes fees for Komodo National Park entrance, boat access and scuba diving. For day tours that include stops at Padar and Komodo Islands and any snorkelling stop, expect to pay at least 300,000IDR (A$31/€19) which covers park entrance, snorkelling, hiking on each island and a ranger’s fee for Komodo Island.
Any trips that run over a Sunday or Public Holiday will incur an extra charge of around 100,000IDR (A$10/€6.50).
In late 2018, there were rumblings that a significant price hike could be on the cards for the national park entrance fee, with a slightly ridiculous US$500 marked as the minimum price, but it remains to be seen whether this will actually occur. Let’s hope not!
Underwater camera | Seriously, you’ll want to capture every single second of life beneath the surface, whether it’s the incredible macro life, a chilled-out green turtle munching on coral or a giant manta soaring inches from your head. The Olympus Tough TG-6 paired with the underwater housing is an excellent choice of compact underwater camera system with a number of specialised settings for underwater and macro to help you capture fantastic stills and video. The camera alone can be used to 15m while the housing extends its depth capabilities to 45m.
Reusable Water Bottle + Bag | Please don’t contribute unnecessarily to the piles of plastic water bottles and bags that already lie discarded around Labuan Bajo – use reusable ones instead! I use this bottle along with a durable tote.
Reef Safe Sunscreen | If you’re travelling all this way to visit one of the most beautiful pockets of reef in the world, chances are you don’t want the chemicals in your sunscreen to destroy it. Honestly, I’m still trying to find a brand of reef-safe sunscreen that I love, one that’s easy to apply and doesn’t make you look like a ghost, but these are a few brands that are recommended: Stream2Sea, Sun Bum Mineral, Tropical Sands and Blue Lizard.
Sun protection | Most boats have ample shade, but between swims, it can be far too tempting to while away your time at sea sprawled out in the sun. A hat, sunglasses and light, long-sleeved shirt are essential!
Swimsuit | Obviously, you’ll need your swimsuit. Two sets are best as the humidity means things take a long while to dry.
A light jumper | With average temperatures well over 30 degrees, I never thought I’d be craving a jumper in Indonesia, but in the afternoon when the wind picks up and the clouds roll across the sky, having a dry, warm change of clothes on the boat isn’t a bad idea.