Flores Day 1: Volcanic Islands and Whimsical Signage

floresday12I always get most excited about travel when I’m forced to fly via a smallish turboprop, the kind of airplane voted most likely to Fall Burning Out Of The Sky for the past 50-odd-years-running. They are wobbly, shake about when a particularly large person gets on, an offer little to nothing in the way of beverage service — but if you’re forced to use a turboprop, you’re probably going somewhere interesting.

Such is the case with Labuan Bajo, a fishing village on the long and rather snakey-looking island of Flores smack-dab in the curious heart of Wallacea, where Southeast Asia’s distinctive tropical ecology suddenly gives way to older and odder forms, separate from the Australian and Asian continent shelves — likely due to a strait of deep water that made it hard for most species to wind their way here.

Wallacea is named after George Russel Wallace, the self-deprecating and malarial zoologist who figured out evolution at about the same time as Darwin did (or perhaps before, depending on who you ask).

I’ve always liked Wallace and his clear, surprisingly readable zoological writing — I am re-reading his Fauna and Ecology of Malaku (The Moluccas) or The Malay Archipelago, a classic that has stood up rather well to the test of time. LBJsundown1 copyHere is Wallace being entirely overcome by the species of butterfly pictured below — which, as you look at the Wallace’s Golden Birdwing (Ornithoptera croesus), becomes a sentiment that’s rather more understandable.

wallacebutterfly“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”

Which is Wallace for you. As an aspirant naturalist child, I understood this sentiment pretty well myself, and always wanted to visit the weird tropical islands where he’d made his discoveries — the immediate allure of flesh-eating monitor lizards providing another piece of the puzzle.

And that is why I decided to visit Flores above all other Indonesian islands, at least for my first time in this part of the world. I already feel I have made a good choice, and much thanks is due again to my friend Robert Delfs, who connected me with the good folks behind the DiveKomodo dive shop.

It’s nice to arrive in a curious Indonesian fishing town and to have friends there within a matter of hours. barbershopLBJ copyLabuan Bajo has a little main drag with dive shops, some boutiques, and some beach-shack style restaurants — as well as a profusion of nice looking Italian restaurants, which apparently can be explained by a rather sudden recent influx of Italian expatriates. This does mean you can get a pretty good Sicilian pizza after you return from being menaced by a wild Komodo dragon, another eccentric ode to the wonders of globalization.


Indonesia has already grown on me. It feels kinder and gentler to me at the moment than Cambodia, perhaps facilitated by the fact that I am entirely skipping Jakarta and Java this time around. People seem genuinely friendly, violent crime here in LBJ is downright unheard of, and you are able to take long walks at night, as long as you remembered to bring a torch along with you.

Bemos, the Indonesian vans that are used as a source of cheap public transportation, are painted with technicolor skulls and epithets to LOVE AND DEATH, while the trucks that roll by from the center of the island are plastered with images of sultry white women in bone-breaking poses.

I walked by a local soccer team and watched Red desperately attempt to fend off Blue for a while, kicking up red dust. Half the town appeared to have turned out for the pre-sundown game.

boatwreckLBJ copy


There’s no beach proper in Labuan Bajo, but a sandy strip along the water, and a cement walking path a bit overgrown with weeds used by couples, tourists, and families airing out their elderly. There are many dilapidated boats, and if you book a dive tour here, you may want to make sure you are not going out on one of them.

Speaking of, I’m going to try scuba diving for the first time tomorrow. I hear there will be cuttlefish.

Bali: Hmm, Not Bad

boatssanurWhen I first thought of going to Bali, I rejected it. The island, I was sure, was chock full of bloated Australian tourists nursing skin cancer and middle-aged women in the throes of Eat Pray Love sickness — there would be nothing for a cool, Anthony-Bourdainesque Traveller Capital T like myself there. The place would probably give me cooties.

However, Bali is the entry point to Flores, and my friend Robert Delfs offered to allow me to stay at his place in Sanur, which is located somewhat in between Kuta Beach and Denpassar.  And my friends who had been to Bali reassured me that the Australians and Eat Pray Lover-s tended to clump together in easily avoidable groups, and I was unlikely to be dragged either into a dubstep party or a consciousness-raising session against my will.

So I came out here.

Sanur turns out to be lovely — high end and pleasingly secure in a way I was seeking after Phnom Penh, but with a nice vibe all its own. I like the stone architecture, the friendly people, and the relatively pleasing weather as compared to the miserable sauna that is Phnom Penh in April and March.

Best of all, I was able to take a night-time walk to get a SIM card and some sate without having to spend my time worrying about getting mugged.


Call me paranoid, but Phnom Penh has been stressing me out lately, and Bali is already proving a very pleasing change.

Examples? Hmm.

I witnessed a violent mugging, followed by a rather impressive revenge beatdown (on the mugger) courtesy of four large Nigerians a few weeks ago, for one thing — and am reluctant to repeat the experience, telling all my friends to avoid walking at night at all costs. That’s not to mention the multiple smartphone thefts, although all of those were nonviolent.

There’s something weird in the air — April, jao (thief) season, balmy months when the scumbags of the city decide they need to top up their bank accounts the medieval and zippy way prior to the sometimes-pricy Khmer New Years festivities.

Reports of theft and threats keep funneling in from friends. The paper tells me about murders, machete wounds, acid attacks, and people finding and then inexplicably mucking about with grenades.

Corruption gets worse, the weather gets hotter, and I almost got squashed by a speeding black Rolls Royce on Norodom Boulevard near my house the other day, which would have been a news-making but ultimately rather unfufilling way to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Even crossing the street is something of a life-in-your-hands experience —although I’ll admit more and more cars lately have stopped to let me pass, a new development that is one bright spot in a rather starry filament of stress and paranoia. Still.

I have perhaps erred in spending the past two months in Phnom Penh without giving myself a break. It’s not good for my delicate Western psyche.

I should at least have gone to Kep, or something — though even sleepy, verdant little Kampot had that recent foreigner murder. I’ve become twitchy, snappy, attempting to minimize leaving the house (not that I carry any good stuff out with me anymore) — overreacting, absolutely, but perhaps behavior not entirely unfounded by the nastiness of reality.


It is all much worse for the Cambodians I know, and that grinds away at you too. You are largely powerless to help, but you try to do what you can. The problems of even this small Southeast Asian kingdom seem enormous and impossible to master.
Then it’s time to get away, if you can — and remember that many cannot. And feel bad about that, as you eat $1 sate out of a brown paper bag, and walk down a little coral beach laden with sea grass.

Off to Flores tomorrow, and hopefully will be able to stop in at Komodo. I will try to avoid being eaten.

Off to Bali

kualalumpurstoreI’m off to Bali and Flores this morning — a day or two in Bali attempting to collect some odds and ends, and then a flight to Labuan Bajo for a bit of — strange sounds so perverse, but that’s pretty much the overriding impulse here. Yes, there will be Komodo dragon spotting. There must be Komodo dragon spotting.

Then a couple of weeks doing whatever in Bali, which sounds pretty interesting largely because it’s Hindu But Not India.

I have to pass through Kuala Lumpur’s truly horrifying Low Budget Terminal on the way out, which makes me appreciate Phnom Penh’s rather nice — if oddly mosquito choked — airport facilities all the more.

Back in Phnom Penh on May 2nd, early.