How to visit Komodo National Park
In April, during Thai New Year, to escape getting soaked by the water festival, we headed to Indonesia to fulfill a bucket list dream, seeing wild Komodo dragons. Kris has written an account of our trip: Enter the Dragon, including all you need to know about Komodo dragons before you go and several bad dragon puns. When we were planning the trip, we found it hard to find information about how to do it. So here you go. A guide of how to visit Komodo National Park.
Nuts and Bolts
Transport to Komodo National Park
Visitors to Komodo National Park stay in Labuan Bajo, a small harbour town on the island of Flores. You can fly to Labuan Bajo from various places in Indonesia, as well as from other cities on Flores. The main airlines are Garuda Indonesia, Wings Air and Nam Air.
We flew with Wings Air, which is a part of Lion Air, the second-biggest low-cost airline in Asia after Air Asia. The first flight was on quite an old plane but the return was modern. Service was ok.
You don’t seem to be able to book Wings Air flights on the website, because it doesn’t accept foreign cards. Instead, we booked through Skyscanner with Kiwi. They receive complaints because if you book several flights to get to a destination (e.g. going from Bangkok to the UK via Dubai), they book individual flights which means your luggage isn’t booked through and if one flight is delayed so you miss the connecting one, you have no compensation. However, we were only booking one internal flight, and it all went fine.
We paid about $150 each for the return flights.
Labuan Bajo airport is really close to the town, and is new and modern. Most hotels will organise an airport pickup for you.
Transport in Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo is a small town and you can walk around fairly easily. Since we stayed outside the town, our hotel offered a drop-off and pick-up service, which was either free or 30,000 rupiah, depending on the time of day. Alternatively, there are small minibuses that drive around the town and pick people off and drop them off for about 10,000 rupiah. ‘Taxis’ drive around and pick people up. I put that in inverted commas, because I think some of them were just people with their own cars, earning a bit of extra money. They charged 50,000 for each journey for both of us and the cars were new and comfortable. Motorbike drivers will also give you a ride, for around 20,000 rupiah per person.
Whenever we wanted to go somewhere we just stood by the side of the road for some form of transport to come along. We never waited for more than 2 minutes!
Accommodation in Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo is a harbour town, so most of the town runs along the sea. There are hotels, guesthouses and hostels all around the town, some near the harbour and some a bit further away. As I said above, transport is plentiful and cheap, so it doesn’t really matter where you stay. Some places are high up and have spectacular views over the bay, like Sunset Hill Hotel and Golo Hilltop Hotel and Restaurant, which both have good reviews.
If you are looking for something cheap and cheerful and are happy to share a room, Ciao Hostel also has pretty amazing views.
We decided that since we were going to be touring the national park during the day, and that we could enjoy a beer looking at the views in the evening, that views didn’t matter too much. You do generally pay for the views. We chose to stay at the Hotel Green Prundi, which is near the airport.
The Hotel Green Prundi is a set of rooms around a garden, with en-suite bathrooms, cable TV and air-con. The rooms are relatively basic, but they have what you need. The staff are really helpful and friendly, they provide a local style buffet breakfast (noodles or fried rice, toast with a huge variety of spreads and fruit) and there is a shop onsite.
We paid less than £20 a night for the room, through Booking.com. Considering that accommodation in Labuan Bajo is pretty expensive, we thought it was a good deal.
Tours of Komodo National Park
The Komodo dragons can be seen on Rinca and Komodo islands. Rinca is nearer to Komodo, so that’s where most people go to see them. Komodo is a four-hour ride on a wooden boat, or 1 1/2 hours by speedboat away.
When we were doing research on visiting the Komodo dragons, this was the area that had the least, and most misleading information. Because of our fascination with the animals, we wanted to see them on both Rinca and Komodo islands. The internet was full of tours to Rinca, as well as a few small islands. It was a different matter with Komodo. I read that you had to hire your own speedboat to see them, because wooden boat tours rarely went there, as there wasn’t enough demand.
The main ‘tourist strip’ in Labuan Bajo (where most of the restaurants are- look for Le Pirate on Googlemaps) is full of tour operators offering tours. Outside many of them are boards, displaying what tours that have going the next day. If they need extra people to run a tour, these boards say so. We walked down the street and called into a few tour operators, asking about trips to Komodo. Every single one had a wooden boat trip going out the following day. One had four people on, one six…….
This ‘you won’t get enough people for a wooden boat trip’ was clearly a myth.
Then one tour operator, Perema tours, gave us a different option: a group speedboat trip with Alba Cruises. We didn’t need to hire the whole boat and could get to Komodo island in half the time. As you can see in this blog, it turned out brilliantly, as we were the only ones on the boat. A private boat trip, for the price of a group tour.
Tours to Rinca Island
Tours to Rinca Island include some smaller islands such as Kalong, as well as some snorkelling. The wooden boats range in standards and facilities, depending on how much you pay. The cheapest trips go out in boats with a covered seating area with wooden benches. They are usually staffed by a man and a teenage boy, as boats in South East Asia tend to be. We always assume the boy is his son, but it could just be a paid assistant.
The trips usually start at about 8.30am and return at about 3-4pm. Quotes we got for this tour ranged from 300,000 – 500,000 rupiah each. This seemed to depend on how many other people were on the tour. The price includes lunch, but doesn’t include entry fees for the national park.
Tours to Komodo Island
Komodo is further away from Labuan Bajo and there are two ways to travel: wooden boat or speed boat. The wooden boat takes about 4 hours and leaves at 5.30am. It costs about 500,000 rupiah per person.
You can rent a speedboat for your group, or you can take the public speedboat run by Alba Cruises.
The Alba Cruises speedboat also leaves at 5.30am, but takes only 1 1/2 hours to reach the first stop: Padar Island, before you go to Komodo. At both stops, we were one of the first boats there, a clear advantage of taking the faster option. It meant we had the dragons on Komodo nearly to ourselves, and were at both Padar and Pink Beach with only one other group of tourists.
Alba Cruises are a new company, so we got a special introductory offer on the trip: 1,200,000 rupiah. This included lunch, snacks and water, as well as snorkel rental. The speedboat had over 30 soft seats inside, an air conditioned cabin with a TV playing videos and music and importantly, new lifejackets. It was really lovely. There were several staff, including our English speaking guide, Mario and they were all lovely and helpful. We’d completely recommend a tour with them.
Most tours to Komodo Island also include Padar Island, which has a fabulous viewpoint, and some snorkelling. They also stop at Pink Beach, on the other side of Komodo Island. This beach is apparently one of only seven in the world that has pink sand. Indeed, when you pick the sand up, it has little red particles of coral in it, which makes the beach look pink in the right light. There’s an area for snorkelling just off the beach.
Many tours include manta point, which has, surprisingly, manta rays. They also usually stop at Kanawa Island, where you can snorkel from the shore. There is a small resort on Kanawa, with a restaurant and beach chairs.
Diving trips to Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park is famous for its underwater life and apparently amazing for diving. I’ll take divers’ word for this, as we don’t dive. There are many diving companies in the town, and you can arrange dive trips with them, and dive courses. There are also liveaboards.
The dive shops offer a combination of a couple of dives with a trip to Rinca or Komodo Island, which is an interesting choice if you want to see both the on land fauna and that under the sea.
We can’t comment on any of the companies, except to say that our friend went with Neren Diving and was very happy, and we spent most nights enjoying the sunset in Blue Marlin‘s bar, which looks like a professional outfit, and was full of happy divers talking about fish and bubbles and those things divers like.
National park fees for Komodo National park
You have to pay national park fees for each day you spend in the national park.
The first day we paid 620,000 for two of us on Rinca, because we paid for the young guy we had who was training to be a guide. On Komodo we paid 540,000 for two of us. This includes the hire of a national park guide to take you around the island. This guy is essential, not only because of his knowledge of the area and the dragons, but because he has a big forked stick in case they attack.
You pay the fee as you land on the island and they give you a big bundle of tickets in return. If you go to both Komodo and Rinca on the same day, you only need to pay the fees once. However, we didn’t see any day tours offering both islands on the same day.
Food and drink in Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo is set up for tourists, so there are enough eating and drinking options, both local and international. There’s a market at night along the harbour where you can buy fresh grilled fish and other seafood, which you’d imagine is very fresh, considering its distance from the water.
Some places we visited were:
This place overlooks the bay and is a great place for sunset. It’s attached to the Dive Shop, so is generally full of people talking about regulators and fish, but don’t let that put you off! There is good food and the staff are friendly.
Le Pirate has restaurants and bars on Flores, Nusa Ceningan (off Bali) and Gili Trawangan. They also have boats and offer 1-2 night cruises of the national park. The bar is high above the road, so you can see over the buildings in front to the bay, although the view isn’t as good as some of the other places. They do have a swimming pool and they show films though.
We ate here and the food was good, but more expensive than some of the other places.
Next to Le Pirate, this place also has views over the bay and serves tasty Indonesian food, for cheaper prices.
Other recommended places are:
This place used to have a great view over the bay, according to the pictures, but another building has been built in front and it blocks their view. They seem to be rectifying this, and there is more building work going on. If they get the view back, I’m sure it will be lovely, but without the view and with lots of building, we found the atmosphere to be a bit lacking.
This place serves cheap local food and was always packed when we passed it. We didn’t get a chance to try it out though. It’s directly opposite Le Pirate.
Don’t miss the sunset at Paradise Bar. It’s a bit of a trek from the main strip but well worth it. The whole bar opens onto a fabulous view of the bay and the sunsets were just stunning. It’s open late and they often have live music.
Recommended reading before you go to Komodo National Park
As Kris says in his account of our visit, David Quammen has a great book, Song of the Dodo, on island biogeography and the current extinction crisis, which is really interesting and accessible to the non-biologist. I read it during the trip. In the book, he visits a lot of islands around the world, speaks to the scientists who work there and sees a range of endemic species. One of these is the Komodo dragon. His story includes a goat being ripped apart by dragons (it used to be a display for tourists, but they don’t do it now) and more on the poor bloke who was eaten by dragons on the island.
Read Song of the Dodo. It really is great.
Another fantastic read about endangered species is Last Chance to See. Back in 1989 the awesome writer of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams and the biologist Mark Cawardine, travelled the world visiting a range of endangered species, including the aye-aye in Madagascar and the mountain gorilla. They went to Komodo to see the dragons and wrote the story in the book.
After Douglas Adams’ death, Stephen Fry paired up with Mark Cawardine to do the same journey, and they made a BBC series out of it. It’s really worth watching. After you have seen the Komodo dragon one, watch the episode on the kakapo in New Zealand. It’s hilarious. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you why (but it involves a flightless bird trying ‘have relations’ with a bloke).
If you like wildlife and national parks and you’re planning a trip to SE Asia you should read our posts on Thai National Parks: How to Visit Khao Yai, How to visit Khao Sok and Camping in Kaeng Krachan.
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