The Island of Gods

The first time my blog post was featured in a publication magazine was the Paris post for the magazine’s Feb 2014 edition. Now this is the second time in which my feature on Bali and Komodo Island was published in the March edition.

Here’s the text format for easy reading:

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THE ISLAND OF GODS

In debunking the romantic myths of Bali, Kathleen Poon and friends realise an adventure of a lifetime trailing Komodo Dragons in Indonesia.

Hey guys, how about we go to Komodo? “Komodo? You mean the Komodo Dragons?”

This conversation was over pints of beer and as usual, part of the fun was discussing the trip. As much as I was interested to see Komodo dragons, I wanted to make sure that I was going with like-minded friends. Within a few weeks, flight tickets, hotel rooms and private tours for Bali and Komodo Island were booked, and the next thing I knew we were heading to the wilderness of Eastern Indonesia.

The weather in Bali was warm and sunny. Perfect setting, I thought, as it was my first time setting foot on this Island of Gods. I had wanted to go to Bali for a very long time but because it was frequently featured in the media as a romantic island getaway, I only wanted to be in Bali with a loved one. Fate changed my perspective and I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer because a Bali holiday does not necessarily have to be with a significant other. When I read about Bali in travel guides just before this trip, I realised that this island is a perfect getaway for any kind of holiday. It has sights and activities for culture, hiking, scuba diving, surfing, snorkeling, nature, dolphin-watching, mountain climbing, family activities… you name it.

Our guide transported us from the airport to Harris Hotel in Kuta. Harris Hotel is a 4-star bright orange accommodation, just a few steps from Kuta Beach. Some of us were initially reluctant to stay at Kuta because of its commercialism and crowds, but we changed our minds as the main objective of the trip was dragons, boat, beer, music and more beer! What better place to stay than at Kuta Beach, just a couple of doors away from the infamous Hard Rock Hotel.

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KECHAK-KECHAK-CAK-CAK

We checked into our rooms, freshened up and off we went for a late lunch. Lunch was local grub under a shed—local fried chicken, fried rice and veggies—cheap and simply delicious. Our driver later drove us to Uluwatu which is known for its cliff-hanging temple and the Kecak performance at sunset. You need to be properly dressed when entering the Uluwatu area—no shorts allowed, or you will be given sarongs to cover your legs. Sashes will be given to you at the entrance to wear around your waist.

The view at Uluwatu is gorgeous—a temple perched precariously on a 70-metre cliff with the thunderous sounds of the Indian Ocean waves below crashing against the rocks. As you walk along the temple grounds towards the Kecak dance area, there are a lot of monkeys who are very skilled at snatching visitors’ cameras and eye glasses. I suspect the monkeys are trained to snatch tourists’ belongings in exchange for money.

I must say the highlight of this area is the Kechak performance. Kechak is a form of Balinese dance and music  drama, depicting a battle from the Ramayana where the protagonist Prince Rama rescues his beloved Sita who was kidnapped by the evil King of Lanka. There is no musical accompaniment but chants of synchronised “kechak-kechak-cak-cak” by 150 or more male performers wearing checked cloths around their waists, swaying their bodies and  throwing up their arms.

The dance, which is also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, is always best to watch during sunset. As the story reaches its climax, the sun sets and the skies darken, a circle of fire is lit in the centre to dramatise Hanuman setting fire in a few places in the kingdom of Lanka as a message to King Ravana that Rama would come to rescue Sita, and also to attack and destroy the kingdom.

After the Kecak performance, we had a sumptuous seafood dinner at Jimbaran followed by music entertainment and more drinks at Hard Rock Hotel Bali. And we had to make sure we woke up early next morning to catch a flight to Flores!

DRAGON-SPOTTING 

To reach Komodo, one has to fly from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo in Flores—just a short hour’s flight away. Labuan Bajo is an entry port for trips to the Komodo National Park, namely Komodo Island and Rinca Island, home to the famous Komodo dragons. Our guide greeted us at the airport and brought us to the harbour where our boat was anchored.

The boat was going to be our accommodation for the next two nights. We met our captain, Pak Augustine, or Pak Gus, and his crew. The boat was relatively large—there were three rooms with double decker beds and two bathrooms, dining area and a lovely deck which was our chill-out place. The kitchen crew was absolutely amazing. They cooked us simple Indonesian food that was so delicious. Or perhaps it was the sea breeze which made me hungry and willing to eat anything!

All of us were excited on the boat. We went up the deck, lazed around on the deck chairs, admired beautiful sparkling blue waters and rugged mountains of islands dotting the Indian Ocean, took photos,chatted, laughed, and just had a good time. And then it was time for work, i.e. trekking. Yup, we reached Rinca Island, our first stop to see the dragons.

Rinca Island is a small island near Komodo Island, a lesser known and less visited island, but in my  opinion, we saw more dragons here than on Komodo Island. These giant lizards can measure up to 10 feet long and they are at the top of the food chain. There are local people living on this island too, so this means they are at the mercy of this great predator. There had been reports of farmers being attacked and eaten by the dragons.

After registering at the park headquarters, we started to trek through the grasslands. It was the dry season which made it easier for us to spot some dragons. Within a couple of minutes, we saw three dragons lying underneath a villager’s house built on stilts. Although the dragons have attacked villagers before, the local people on the porch of their house seemed very comfortable, knowing too well that if the dragons at the bottom of the steps started to
become cranky, they would be the first to be eaten alive!

Within the next two hours of trekking the island, we found more dragons and a pitiful buffalo stuck in the mud, awaiting its fate. I knew, in just a matter of a few hours, a dragon or two would have found the buffalo and attacked it. Such is nature, huh?

Overall I quite enjoyed Rinca Island because it was wild and rugged, thus a perfect place to see the Komodo dragons in its natural environment with fewer visitors disturbing them.

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ORANGE AND PURPLE SKIES  
We returned to the boat in time for tea. The kitchen crew whipped up delicious banana fritters for us, and we were chomping on those with Bintang beer! One might think that a glass of iced water or a nice cup of tea would be suitable to quench our thirst after prowling in the wilderness for a couple of hours but we were on holiday… Bintang beer at teatime is perfect! We hung around on the deck to wait for sunset. A perfect remedy for tired limbs.

Sunset was absolutely beautiful, almost surreal. We sat there and watched the skies turn from yellowish-orange to orangey-red and finally to purplish-red. The waters were still and one could feel a slight breeze. No other sounds could be heard. That was when I realised that my friends and I, with Pak Gus and his crew, and this boat were the only things in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There was nothing or nobody out there…well, except for a few dolphins.
I also realised during that dreamlike moment that none of us spoke to each other. We were all deep in thought, enjoying the sunset.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL 

As early as 8am, we anchored close to Komodo Island, our second island stop. Komodo Island is the largest of the islands in the Komodo National Park. I personally didn’t quite like the landscape of Komodo Island—it felt somewhat “manicured” or seemed to be catered for tourists. It doesn’t have the wild ruggedness of Rinca Island. Nevertheless, we were given the opportunity to see some dragons from a little “grandstand” which overlooks the river bed.

These dragons were about 10 feet long, shuffling slowly and crunching on some bones on the ground. I was literally standing about five feet away and the grandstand was not too high either—probably about two feet high. If the dragon could jump, I could have been mauled alive!

Although the guide assured us that being on the grandstand was safe, I couldn’t help but be fearful of that giant lizard. At the same time, I kept thinking how lucky I was to experience this once-in-a-lifetime moment of seeing the Komodo dragons up close and personal.

SUN-BURN REALITY 
After two days, we’d had enough of dragon-spotting, therefore it was time for fun frolicking in white sands and blue waters. Pak Gus transported us to Pantai Merah (Red Beach). The beach isn’t red but there are some fine red grains of sand, hence the name. Our boat headed back to Labuan Bajo in the afternoon and once again, we had the boat to
ourselves. Due to the early morning rise to Komodo Island and sun frolicking at Pantai Merah earlier, we were exhausted by the time we finished lunch.

We sat at the deck again under the shade, and as the boat sailed towards Labuan Bajo with a nice strong sea breeze and full stomachs, all of us fell asleep on the deck. Some friends were snoring loudly on the deck while yours truly was nursing a bad sunburn and heat stroke. I had forgotten to slap on sun-block when we were at Pantai Merah, hence I was feeling the after-effects of hot and red skin and body aches. By that time, I couldn’t wait to return to Bali for a cool massage to reduce the heat.

Our boat anchored in Labuan Bajo for the night and it was our last night in Flores before flying back to Bali the next morning. Returning to Labuan Bajo meant returning to civilization. Although the harbour was small and not very busy at that hour, seeing other boats and lights and hearing the sounds of azan calling for prayer from a nearby mosque made me feel grateful for the wonderful opportunities and memories in life, no matter big or small.

It was indeed a memorable trip for us, and it’s a trip which we would continue reminiscing about —boat, Komodo dragons, trekking, tired limbs, beer, sunburn, good fun, laughter and great friends!

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