Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise

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Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Pianemo Viewpoint, Raja Ampat Islands

In the age of exaggeration, it is rather hard to explain the transcendent beauty of Raja Ampat islands in our current parlance without sacrificing the intended effect. But let’s just pretend for a minute we are back in times where superlatives were reserved for something truly special, rare and extraordinary. Now read this –

Raja Ampat is a remote archipelago in far eastern Indonesia, blessed with unimaginable bounties both above and below water. Home to the planet’s most biodiverse marine ecosystem with 1400 species of fish and 75% of world’s all known coral species, Raja Ampat’s sublime marine beauty is amazing to put it in the simplest of terms. Above the surface, turquoise waters and dreamy limestone cliffs offer unreal vistas that could’ve been picked straight from a National Geographic documentary. In the rainforests, birds of paradise thrive and after dark, the stars and the seas shine.

In one word, Raja Ampat is marvelous!

(As a travel writer, I should’ve ideally avoided using the trite descriptors above. But I’m sure those words were meant to be used in a situation exactly like this. Here, describing Raja Ampat, they don’t seem superfluous. So when I say amazing or incredible here, I mean it like I have never before. But I digress.)

Let’s get back to the islands then. Here’s a primer to get you started; a comprehensive travel guide to Raja Ampat, Asia’s most spectacular and Indonesia’s remote island paradise.

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Raja Ampat Map

Raja Ampat is the name give to 1500-odd islands off the northwestern tip of West Papua in eastern Indonesia. Covering an area of 40,000 Sq. km including land and sea, it has a population of less than 50000. The four major islands of Raja Ampat group are Misool, Waigeo, Salawati and Batanta. While Misool is the farthest, most remote and most spectacular, Waigeo is the most visited island group. Majority of the tourist action is centered around Waigeo and nearby islands currently. Waisai, in Waigeo island is the capital of Raja Ampat Regency, and the port of entry for all adventures in the islands.

There’s an imaginary geographical boundary forming something called Coral Triangle in the waters of Pacific Ocean encompassing parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands. It is the underwater marine equivalent of Amazon rainforests on earth. The Coral Triangle supports 6,000 species of fish, 76% of the world’s coral species. It is the richest biodiversity hotspot for marine ecosystem on this planet.

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Rich marine life in Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat’s underwater riches are so spectacular and diverse that not only is it part of the Coral Triangle, it is also the crown jewel of this marine region, recording world’s highest diversity of corals and few species of marine mammals such as dugongs and whales. The coral reefs have been surprisingly (and thankfully) immune to the rising temperatures and bleaching that’s occurring everywhere else in our oceans currently. My fellow traveller from Australia confirmed that she’d never seen corals this abundant and pristine even in Great Barrier Reef in the recent times.

Not only are the reefs thriving, the waters of Raja Ampat are also home to few rare species such as Wobeggong Sharks, Omura Whales and Dugongs among others. Diving among schools of Manta Rays, Jackfish, Tuna and Barracudas is considered quite common here. No wonder Raja Ampat islands have long been the favorite of diehard divers from around the world for years now.

But even if you don’t dive, the scenery above water is quite phenomenal owing to the undisturbed nature of these remote islands. The pellucid waters and white sand beaches are the least of the island’s gifts. Rainforests cover many of the islands where you can spot several colorful birds including two Birds of Paradise – Wilson’s bird and Red bird. The forest-covered limestone cliffs, enchanting lagoons and islands peppered around vivid blue waters of Raja Ampat look so pretty they seem unreal. And the people are beautiful, warm and welcoming. Raja Ampat is not only one of Asia’s best-kept secrets but it is also truly one of the world’s most beautiful archipelagos.

Reaching Raja Ampat is a bit of an effort but one that’s totally worth it in the end. Here’s how to reach the islands –

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Flight to Sorong

Sorong – The gateway to Raja Ampat

West Papua’s Sorong city is the closest Airport to reach Raja Ampat. Garuda Indonesia runs daily direct flights to Sorong (Domine Eduard Osok (SOQ) Airport) only from Jakarta (4 hours 15 minutes to Sorong) and Makkassar (2 hours 15 minutes to Sorong). From Bali’s Denpasar, a long flight with a stop at Sulawesi’s Makkassar can be taken to Sorong. It can take a minimum of 9 hours and a maximum of 21 hours depending on the layover time in Makkassar to reach Sorong. Alternately, you could enter Indonesia directly at Makassar International Airport and catch a connecting flight to Sorong. If you’re going to spend a day in Makkassar, you may visit Rammang Rammang like we did.

Apart from Garuda Indonesia, Nam Air, Batik Air, Sriwijaya, Lion Air and Wings Air also run flights to and from Sorong. However, I recommend flying the country’s national carrier, Garuda Indonesia to explore #WonderfulIndonesia.

Here’s a much more comprehensive guide on how to reach Sorong - https://www.stayrajaampat.com/ultimate-raja-ampat-guide/information/how-to-get-to-raja-ampat/

From Sorong airport to harbour

After reaching Sorong, take a taxi to the city public harbor that takes about 15-30 minutes away depending on the traffic situation. If you’re travelling light, bike taxis might be a cheaper and faster option.

Take a ferry from Sorong to Waisai

Waisai town in the island of Waigeo is the capital of Raja Ampat Regency and the main point of transit to reach rest of the islands. There are two public ferries – Bahari Express and Sumber Bangka – running between Sorong and Waisai. The journey time is approximately 2 hours and the ferries leave twice a day, at 9AM and 2PM, from the Sorong city public harbor. We travelled in Bahari Express on a VIP ticket and it was quite comfortable.

Private transfer from Waisai public harbor to your island of choice

From Waisai, your homestay or resort or liveaboard host would pick you in a boat to take you to other islands.

Do take note that there are no public inter-island transfer facilities once you reach Waisai. The local hosts will be able to ferry you to other islands and sightseeing places at an extra cost.

Most countries, including India, can avail a 30-day free visa-on-arrival at several ports of entry in Indonesia.

There also seems to be a Marine Park Entry Permit which costs about 100USD and is valid for 12 months. The funds collected are earmarked for the operational costs of maintaining Raja Ampat’s five marine protected areas. I don’t remember seeing this permit but it is most likely that my organisers had taken care of this. As will your trip organisers unless you are travelling independently.

Raja Ampat is a sensitive place where unchecked tourism can wreak havoc to a great extent. But because it is so secluded and expensive, infrastructure is growing in a measured way. What this means is stay options are limited currently. The accommodation situation in Raja Ampat can be broadly divided into three categories – Homestays, Dive Resorts and LiveAboards.

For independent travellers, homestays and lodges run by the locals are the most affordable budget option to explore Raja Ampat. Homestays are located on several islands in Waigeo and Batanta group, and prices are usually inclusive of three meals a day and tea/coffee. They can arrange for dives either through in-house dive shops or tie-ups with other dive centers.

Kri Islands seems to be the most popular place currently, being one of the first islands to start offering homestays. So if you’re looking to meet fellow travellers and/or are travelling on a budget, Kri islands might be your best bet. But if you want to get away from the traveller crowd in favor of a local experience, there are plenty of other islands with homestay facilities. Do keep in mind that most of the homestays are basic houses built on stilts run by the locals, so you may find the stay low on creature comforts and amenities but high on warmth and kindness (and ocean views too!).

Read more about what services and quality to expect from homestays here - https://www.stayrajaampat.com/ultimate-raja-ampat-guide/information/raja-ampat-homestays/

Before the local community-run tourism took off, high-end dive resorts were the only source of accommodation in the islands. There are several dive lodges and eco resorts spread across the Raja Ampat islands that provide luxurious cottages on stunning locations along with fully functional dive centers and competent diving guides. I was put up at Raja Ampat Dive Resort that was quite nice, set on a stunning beach with piers running among pellucid waters full of thriving marine life. But the food options were a bit limited and felt repetitive. We also stopped one evening at Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, which is slightly more expensive than Raja Ampat Dive Resort but worth the higher price from the looks of it.

Estimated cost: 250 USD per cottage/night and upwards.
(Although there seem to be better deals for 7-night and longer stays)

If you’re going to Raja Ampat specifically to dive, can afford to shell out some big bucks, aren’t prone to seasickness and don’t mind staying on sea for few days, then you should consider booking a trip with a Liveaboard. I think Liveaboards are the most convenient option with maximum returns for divers, giving you access to remote and secluded sites.

Liveaboards are basically self-sufficient boats or yatchs on which you can live for days together. This way you will get to explore a lot more by cutting down on the inordinately long transit times going back and forth between your point of stay and the various dive sites. There are several Liveaboards functional in Raja Ampat offering mid-range to luxury diving cruises. But it should be noted that an Advanced Open Water certification and/or 50 logged dives are a prerequisite to be eligible to join these diving trips.

Estimated cost: 250 USD per day and upwards(inclusive of dives/food/accommodation)

Apart from the monsoon months of June to September, all other months are a good time to visit Raja Ampat. Even the monsoon months are fine if you don’t mind incessant downpour, choppy waters and stormy skies. Monsoon, as I always maintain, has a charm of its own!

I visited in December first week and there was an equal amount of rain and sunshine. It is said that Raja Ampat being a tropical island right on equator, you cannot fully escape rains. Also, Dec-Jan is said to be a second wet season due to the retreating monsoon. I found it confusing to suggest the best season, interwebs is only confusing me further. So it would be best to call up your resort/homestay/liveaboard to ask about the weather. One good thing was that underwater visibility wasn't affected by the stormy skies during my visit.

Read more here - Raja Ampat Weather

Transportation between the islands, dive sites, viewpoints etc will cost a lot because you’ll have to charter a longboat or a speed boat and the fuel charges are quite high, as it always happens in isolated islands.

Inter-island transfer in Raja Ampat is only possible by private hires as there are no public ferries. Your homestay or resort will be able to arrange boats on hire for travel between the various islands and sightseeing points. Costs can escalate quickly if there aren’t many to split the expenses. Often travellers band together to bring down the costs but it may not always be possible depending on where you’re staying and where you intend to go.

If there’s one reason you should consider undertaking the long journey to Raja Ampat islands, it is this. The marine life here is unparalleled and I’ve already sung enough praises to drive the point home. Expect to see anything and everything from big pelagic fishes, Manta Rays to massive schools of thousand-odd fishes as well as minute marine life such as pygmy seahorses and flashy nudibranchs on your dives. From everything I’ve read so far, it seems diving in Raja Ampat isn’t really suitable for beginners as the currents can be really strong. PADI certified divers with at least 20 logged dives or expert level divers will be able to make the most of diving here, safely if I may add.

Now since I don’t dive (yet), I do not have a list of top dive sites for you to consider. But rumour has it there are more than 200 dive sites in Raja Ampat and you’ll be spoilt for choice between magnificent corals and abundant fish. 

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Raja Ampat Snorkeling

Even if you are non-diver, Raja Ampat’s marine riches are so plentiful that you could just plunge your head into the water and a whole new world opens up. Although, do keep in mind that the currents are quite strong in many places. These are the places I snorkeled at and fell head over heels in love with Raja Ampat:

1. Arborek Pier

The cool thing about this small village that’s fast becoming the flag bearer of eco and community-based tourism in Raja Ampat is that the pier itself is a great place to snorkel and dive. The pylons below the pier are known to play host to large schools of mackerel, jackfish and sardines often among other fishes. (Just to give you an idea of how large these schools are, this is business as usual under Arborek pier. I mean, what is this sorcery?) My fellow traveller went diving at the pier and even spotted a black-tipped shark. While I wasn’t lucky enough to see the usual ginormous schools of fish beneath Arborek pier, I was lucky to have swum among decent schools of various fishes.

2. Friwen Wall

A steep wall extending into the deep sea, Friwen Wall is a popular diving and snorkeling spot in Raja Ampat islands. The corals around this island in Waigeo group are unbelievably healthy, without any signs of bleaching. The at least 20m wall supports a wide range of soft and hard corals, as well as some amazing fish life. I have to add the setting is quite unique with the reef wall suddenly plunging straight into the sea unlike (the very few) shallow reefs that I’ve seen before.

Many of the islands in Raja Ampat have thriving shallow reefs right by the beach and the waters are so clear that you can see the corals and schools of fish swimming underneath right from the jetty. It was a pleasant surprise and also a testimony to the abundant riches of Raja Ampat. While I did spend lot of my time watching the fishes from the deck, on the last evening we went for a snorkeling session at sunset only to be spellbound by the variety of fishes and corals right by the resort. The pylons below the pier once again proved to be a great place for watching a variety of marine life including a stray barracuda among others.

Who among us didn’t find ourselves in sudden awe of Birds of Paradise when Tim Laman brought back unimaginable pictures and mesmerizing footage of these colorful birds and introduced them to common public? Well, Raja Ampat islands are home to two species of Birds of Paradise (BOP) – Red BOP and Wilson’s Bird!

Sawinggrai on Gam island and Saporkren on Waigeo island are the two most popular villages for birdwatching. The two BOPs are endemic to Waigeo and Batanta islands and can only be seen here. The local homestay or the resort manager can organize an expert guide(like this knowledgeable and helpful guide from Saporken village) to take you to see the birds in all their glory at designated hides built and maintained by the local villagers. And here’s a comprehensive Birding trip report including species list - Birding in Raja Ampat and lots of pictures here.

In a cluster of 1500 islands, it is not entirely unreasonable to expect some epic views of sweeping blue waters with unreal aquamarine patches and forested limestone cliffs jutting out. There are quite a few viewpoints set up across various islands, requiring a varying level of scrambling to get to see magnificent views of the conical karst mountains set in the most unbelievable setting. Often we see pictures online and expect the place to be half as pretty. Not at Raja Ampat. You’ll only be busy picking up your jaw from the floor here!

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Pianemo Viewpoint in Waigeo, Raja Ampat
 

I visited these two viewpoints in Waigeo group during my recent visit to Raja Ampat. While Pianemo is undoubtedly the more famous and more spectacular viewpoint, I think the relatively low-key Star Lagoon has a quiet charm to it. Wouldn’t recommend missing out on Pianemo viewpoint but the Star Lagoon will be a nice addition if you can make it to both.

Pianemo viewpoint has proper wooden stairs (about 300 or so) and a viewing deck atop from where you can see tens of small islands covered in lush greenery spread around pellucid waters. The climb can be a bit taxing due to the steep incline and the tropical humidity but it’s totally worth the effort. Make sure you carry some water with you though if you aren’t used to much hiking!

Telaga Bintang (Star Lagoon) on the other hand is still not famous, hence rough around the edges, quite literally! There isn’t a wooden stairway to reach the top but a makeshift path along the sharp edged cliff is the way to the lookout from where you can see the blue lagoon. Put on your shoes, scramble up a bit and enjoy the view.

Other viewpoints

There are quite a few other viewpoints in Raja Ampat that I’ve heard of. Kabui Bay, Wayag islands viewpoint 1 & 2 (which I hear are quite spectacular but a bit far away), Harfat & Dafalen Peaks in the remote Misool Islands where there’s even a lovely heart-shaped lagoon to be seen.

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
Friwen Island Rope Swing

For quite a while Raja Ampat was inaccessible to most except for those with deep pockets who could afford to splurge on the luxurious dive lodges or expensive multi-day yachts. Nowadays, thanks to a robust association, both budget travellers and the local villagers are able to get a piece of the tourism pie. Not only that, it also provides travellers an opportunity to mingle with the locals and observe their way of life.

Unlike the majority of Indonesia, people of Raja Ampat are racially similar to Ambonese (mixed Austronesian-Papuan origin) with dark complexion and wiry hair. They are mostly fisherfolk, living off the sea in small communities across various islands. Today, Islam and Christianity are the major religions practiced in Raja Ampat Islands, which frankly surprised me because I would’ve guessed tribal religions would have the stronghold in such a fragmented, remote area but I guess religion spreads much faster than I can even imagine.

I’d have loved to know more about their culture and lifestyle but I couldn’t gather much because I was on short visit. However, I did get to spend some time with few lovely people in Arborek and Friwen Island where I found them to be very friendly and welcoming towards visitors. Life in such remote (and breathtaking) islands must be nothing like anything we’ve known and it’d be a privilege to share few days with the people of Raja Ampat and perhaps learn their story.

While travelling between various islands and snorkeling sites during my time in Raja Ampat, I couldn’t help but wonder what those lush green rainforests hid behind the seemingly impenetrable façade. Covered in pristine tropical jungles, the islands are home to an array of wildlife, many of endemic. And island ecosystems are always fascinating given how they evolve in isolation. If the scenery as seen from the boat is anything to go by, I imagine the interiors of these islands must be quite stunning. As I found out, not only can you go for day hikes, there are even multi-day trails in the jungles of Raja Ampat.

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise

I don’t think Raja Ampat will (should, rather) ever become a leisurely beach destination but after a rather long day of snorkeling and journeying by boat, I found resting on the wooden lounge chairs on a secluded jetty therapeutic. I watched sunset over the pristine waters every evening after returning to our resort, hearing the occasional fish plop over and listening to gentle crashing of the waves, with zero light pollution, waiting for stars to rise. On another afternoon, I found myself drifting past forests, along with the current on a kayak in the shallow waters off Friwen Island. Kayaks can be rented from most of the homestays and resorts.

With pristine white sand beaches, scores of uninhabited islands and serene blue waters that play host to bioluminescent plankton among others, the beaches of Raja Ampat are as good as any other coveted tropical islands for beach bumming. Only difference is that you’ll have an entire unexplored paradise at your disposal, all to yourself.

My friend Anshul Chaurasia visited Raja Ampat in April 2017 and he spent Rs. 1500 per day for stay and Rs. 2500 per dive approximately. So I assume you’d probably have to set aside a budget of about Rs. 1.5 Lakhs for a 10-day trip to Raja Ampat including all flights and transfers from India. 

Explore Indonesia's Raja Ampat - A Comprehensive guide to Asia's most spectacular Island Paradise
So who's packing their bags to visit these magical islands?


N
Neelima Vallangi
Last Updated : Jan 15,2021
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