Labuan Bajo is a tiny port on the far west of the Indonesian island of Flores. Though the bay is mostly shallow, there is a single deep channel sufficient to allow passage for a large container ship every now and then, but normally it is just small fishing vessels and tall sailing ships that come here. The little town has become, in recent years, a stopover for tourists visiting the incredible Komodo National Park, roughly 50 kilometres west of Flores. Some fly into LBJ, as the town is locally known, and then sail off to Komodo on organized tour groups, and others sail over from Lombok. The wealthy fly into Labuan Bajo’s Komodo airport and then charter superyachts and luxurious sail boats out to the collection of stunning volcanic islands which the dragons call home.
As such, Labuan Bajo has become slightly more than just a tiny harbour town for a handful of containers and small loads of fish to be dropped off… it has now morphed into a clutter of hotels and restaurants and tour agencies. It sits on a miniscule stretch of land between steep, forested hills and the sea, and there is a single road running through, which is lined by these tourist-focused businesses. Nearly everyone seems friendly to the visitors, who arrive in groups whenever a tour ends, and rather overwhelm the town before heading off again just as suddenly. It is not really a place anyone chooses to stay very long, although it is certainly not without its charm.
When I first arrived, after spending a day photographing Komodo Dragons, I looked around the town with a few friends I’d made on the boat, searching for accommodation. Yet, such is the size of Labuan Bajo, there was none to be had. It seems that having a few dozen tourists arrive in one day is too much for the sleepy little village to handle, and I was forced to return to the boat and sleep on deck yet another night. I longed for a shower but I knew that one more night of being filthy wouldn’t harm me, and so I bought beers for the boat’s crew, and stayed another night on the sea.
In the morning I awoke to the incomparable beauty of a small harbour town at dawn. Fishing boats puttered around on glassy water, families paddled in little canoes, seabirds dove and cawed, as the drone of Arabic boomed from the town mosque. I bid farewell to the crew and soon found a small room overlooking the harbour. It was here I began the long, difficult process of trying to get out of Labuan Bajo. Flights are irregular and expensive, and boats and buses combine over several days to reach the next best airport, in Bali. I soon found a flight and resigned myself to a few lazy days wandering back and forth along the length of the town.
On the streets, like elsewhere in Indonesia, women walk around in headscarves and men in white skullcaps, and the drone of Arabic prayers is heard everywhere many times a day (and night) from the local mosque. It is colourful, yet it is also very impoverished. Though the restaurants and hotels catering to the influx of tourists can often be quite high-end establishments, most of Labuan Bajo is what they call a “kampong,” which means slum, shanty town, favela… These simple wood and tin buildings are everywhere, but largely cluster around the port. In Labuan Bajo, you either make your living from tourists or from the sea, and the kampong residents make their living out on the waters, fishing from small canoes.
Out on the edge of town, at the top of a long, dark road is Paradise Bar. Although some restaurants in the town serve beer and spirits, this is the only true bar in Labuan Bajo. Every night it has live music on its ample-sized stage. As with most parts of Southeast Asia, it is reggae music which is king, although many locals have told me they also very much enjoy Spanish music. There is a large veranda looking out over the sea, where tall ships bob in the darkness, their lights twinkling just where the sea meets the stars. A cool breeze blows in, which is a pleasant change from the heat of the town at the bottom of the hill. At Paradise Bar, locals and tourists mingle and drink together, whereas in town, in the Western-style restaurants, there are only foreign patrons. But out on the edge of town, where the reggae beats sound out late into the night there is a very different and very pleasant atmosphere. Yet it is very definitely other. You have to walk along a pitch black road to get here, and it is beyond the town limits in more ways than one. This is a place which is not welcome in the devoutly Muslim fishing villages below, and you remember that as soon as you wake up, several hours later, to the sound of the mosque, as loud in your ear as the reggae music was.
If the world was flat, Labuan Bajo is where you’d come to stand and look out into the abyss. If it weren’t for its proximity to Komodo National Park, it would be hard to imagine anyone ever staying here. Yet, it is a warm and friendly place, and the area surrounding it is just beautiful. For me, it was a nice place to relax after a long journey. It took me three days to escape this sleepy fishing village on the edge of the world, and it required a 27 hour journey via Denpasar and Shenzhen at great expense just to get home in time for work… back into the insufferable crush of people in China, a far cry from Flores.