Spectacular panoramic view of  Blue   Star Lagoon , upon climbing 300 shaky wooden steps.

Spectacular panoramic view of Blue Star Lagoon, upon climbing 300 shaky wooden steps.

Raja Ampat  | West Papua, Indonesia  

Raja Ampat archipelago is located in West Papua province of Indonesia. It is a regency which comprises of more than 1500 small islands. It boasts to be the last paradise on Earth. It is well known among serious divers to be one of the best diving spots in the world. Why? It is said that Raja Ampat has 75% of the world's coral species, more than 1,000 species of reef fish, 700 species of mollusks. Manta Rays are also commonly sighted here. Its pristine, untouched natural beauty and its unsurpassed marine biodiversity, is a dream for avid divers and nature lovers. In other words, if one goes to Raja Ampat, one must dive, or snorkel at the minimum!

The Tale of the Four Kings

Raja Ampat means four kings in Bahasa Indonesia- the national language of the country. According to local mythology, there once lived a woman who found seven eggs. Four of them hatched to become the kings of the four largest islands (namely Misool, Salwati, Batanta and Waigeo) in Raja Ampat; hence the name. What about the rest of the eggs? It was said that one turned into a stone, one into a woman and one into a ghost!  On a side note: The indigenous people of Papua also speak their own languages, with the majority speaking Melanesian - one of the many Papuan languages. It is completely different from the national language - Bahasa Indonesia.

Panoramic view of the ocean from a Buddhist temple on top of the mountain in Sorong.

Getting There

There is no direct flight to Raja Ampat from around the world, not even from within Indonesia itself.  All flights will have to go through a different location in West Papua, i.e. Sorong Regency. Most people fly from Soekarno-Hatta Airport in the capital city- Jakarta, to Domine Eduard Osok Airport in Sorong.

Next, depending on the weather and power of the boat engine, you will need another one to two hours boat ride to the various islands in Raja Ampat archipelago.

It is about a 6-hour flight from Jakarta to Sorong. There are only three airlines available- Garuda Indonesia, Sriwijaya Air and Xpress Air. There is also no night arrivals into Sorong, as the airport is still not equipped with lights. We ended up taking a midnight flight and arriving at 6 am in the morning. We decided to spend one day in Sorong before heading to Raja Ampat.

 

Sorong

In Sorong, the port is busy, lined with huge containers for workers to unload. The fish market is full of people. Human-on-foot traffic alongside motorcycle zoom by you. At night, the only attraction is near the Tembok  (The Wall in Bahasa Indonesia) area. It is literally a stretch of stonewall that separates the ocean and the land. Here, you will find all sorts of street foods and people literally just ride their motorcycles in circles; sitting on the wall, star-gazing and listening to the sounds of the waves breaking on the wall. There are very little street lights around.

While in Sorong, we had the pleasure of enjoying the hospitality of a Sumatran and Makassarian family who moved to Sorong more than 30 years ago. They took us shopping for local handicrafts- Koteka (penis gourd) and Papuan Batik (cloth with wax-resist dyeing technique application using Papuan design) and took us on a mini sight seeing tour around the island.

Koteka : Naked Heritage of the Indigenous Papuan Tribes

Yes. A manually and intentionally shaped gourd used as article of clothing for the male precious private part. The land of Papua is still a tribal land, where tribal rules still play significant roles in the society.

Papuan Batik: An acculturation of Papuan and Javanese traditional batik art

As you can see from the pictures that the designs have elements of local Papuan elements such as drums, tribal houses, the Cendrawasih (Bird of Paradise) , etc. Indonesian Batik is listed in UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

 

A Day in Arborek Island: Experiencing local life and encounter with UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Arborek Island children having tons of fun in the water.

Arborek Island is a village, 45 minutes away from Waisai island, accessible by boat powered with 40 HP engine. This is also a tourist village, where you can find several homestays that welcome tourist to stay and experience the routine of the local lives. There is a church, a primary school, a micro-finance institute, and the most precious treasure - a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage object - Noken bag!

Noken is recognized by UNESCO in 2012 to be on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage object of Indonesia. The Noken bag is a local Papuan handicraft woven out of wood fiber or leaves. The process and skill of making this bag is passed down from one generation to the next as a Papuan tradition. They are mostly handwoven by women. Noken is a multifunctional bag used to carry produce, catch from the sea, wood, babies, small animals, as well as storing things at home. The Papuans have a distinctive way to carry this bag. It is not worn as a sling-bag over the shoulder, rather it is hanged on top of the head! You will see children carrying a soccer ball and their books in a Noken over their head!

I also ran into a group of Western scuba divers carrying their gears and air (not oxygen) tanks while they are walking back to the village from the deck. They caught my attention. I had the chance to ask brief questions about what brought them here and what they are doing? It turns out they are part of a marine conservation NGO whose base is in this very village of Arborek! They have been staying there for more than a year, documenting reef species and other marine conservation projects. These wonderful group of ocean lovers and scientists are part of Barefoot Conservation. If you are interested in homestay-ing in Raja Ampat, do contact them. I think it will be a ton of fun. They even have their own local Master Chef. Papuan food anyone? If you want to be a volunteer, they are looking for you, so check out their website for their ongoing projects.

While I was busy taking photos of Arborek children playing in the water, others in our group get to have a choir session with them. My favorite one is where they were all singing the Raja Ampat song and the popular Indonesian children's song, translated as Happy Everywhere in English. Here is a short video so you can get a glimpse.

As a photographer, I am very pleased with my spontaneous capture of the big smiles of the children at play. They are having so. much. fun. It reminds me that the simplest thing can turn out to be the happiest pleasure.

Sawinggrai Island: Feeding the ocean fishes by hand *gasp*

OMG they bite and pinch! Yes, feeding the ocean fishes by hand is a popular attraction at Sawinggrai Island. The local villagers will prepare a simple mixture of flour and water in a tub for you to feed the fishes with. You get down to the bottom of the stairs of the deck, pinch a small amount of flour-water mixture in your hand, and in a matter of seconds, your fingers are swarmed by schools of colorful ocean fishes, big and small. They are very very colorful and yes, more vibrant than what you see in the movie Finding Nemo!

Our local Papuan boat crew: Usher's twin brother and more

A picture of me and the crew! Frendi (Left) and Tepa (Right).

Meet Tepa. He is 22 years old. Finished high school. Speaks Bahasa Indonesia fluently. Chose to pursue the tradition of fishing, instead of going to university. Staffing a boat is his side job. He has one older sister who is the same age as my sister. When he was asked what was his dream. He said, "Let God arrange everything." He is a young man of faith. He wears a wood-bead Rosario over his neck all the time, as you can see in all his pictures. He looks so much, or even better than Usher! What do you think?

Meet Frendi. He is 16 years old. He has a rather shy and reserved personality. Frendi loves mobile phones and has a Blackberry phone. He was so disappointed when I couldn't transfer the pictures we took together via Bluetooth from my iPhone to his Blackberry.

 

 

 

Breathtaking, pristine view of Blue Star Lagoon: Sun stroke and the case of the drone camera

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Look at this. I can't even find words to describe this beauty. Well, we had to climb 300 stairs in the scorching sun to be rewarded with this view. The silence is broken when a group of Thai tourist decided to fly their drone camera. Our boat crew was with us and they have never seen anything like this in their lives. They asked how much this toy cost. To put in context of their fishing life, it is about the cost of one boat engine.

The drone is controlled via a joystick sort of controller which also includes the LCD monitor that shows what the camera is seeing. The drone can record videos and also take photograph with an unmatched view from high up above. Drones are the new trends nowadays especially because it is so fun and fresh to be able to capture images and footage that would otherwise be impossible in the past!

 

 

 

More photos from the trip, check them out! (click to enlarge)