If school holidays are on the horizon and you're lining up a repeat family trip to Indonesia but have already seen Bali, we'd strongly suggest considering giving Bali only the quickest glance before heading east to Nusa Tenggara to explore one of our favourite regions of Indonesia -- Flores and Komodo. Here's why.
There are direct and affordable flights from Bali to both Labuan Bajo at the western extremity and Maumere towards the eastern tip. This means you can easily fly into one end and out of the other, minimising the need to backtrack. We'd suggest flying into Maumere and out of Labuan Bajo as that way you get to do Komodo National Park, the highlight of the region, last. Also, this fits better if you plan to travel onwards by ferry or liveaboard to Sumbawa or Lombok.
If you're travelling as a family, and if your budget stretches to it, we'd strongly recommend hiring a car with a driver to take you across the island -- you can expect to pay around 600,000 to 700,000 rupiah per day for this -- roughly double the cost for a family of four when compared to travelling by share taxi (called Travel in Flores) -- but with the advantage that you can pick your own route, stop when you want, start when you want, and, most critically, have complete control over what music is played! If this doesn't fit your budget, the share taxi service is fine, but bear in mind you'll be speeding past some of Flores' most fabulous scenery.
Save a couple of small diversions, there is basically one main road in Flores -- the Trans-Flores Highway -- and it runs the length of the island. This means precious little backtracking is required and it is rather difficult to get lost. Running from east to west, we'd suggest starting in Maumere, then heading further east to the beach resort area, then backtrack to Maumere, then Sikka, Moni, Ende, Bajawa, Ruteng, and Labuan Bajo. Then you can ditch the car and explore Komodo National Park either on day trips or by staying on one of the islands. Side trips that could easily be added to this include Larantuka (further east again from Maumere), Riung Islands (four to five hours' north of Bajawa) and Wae Rebo (a three-day trek, south and midway between Ruteng and Labuan Bajo).
We're not going to lie to you: Flores is no Bali when it comes to accommodation. That said, there is at least semi-decent accommodation in all the centres people tend to stop at -- and, for the travel planning fans, most cannot only be booked in advance, but, in all likelihood, your booking will be honoured.
Really, seriously, the rice field valleys and conical volcanoes will take your breath away. Really! The east has stunning black sand and blue-pebbled beaches. In the north, among the islands of Riung, you'll find splendiferous white-sand beaches. To the the west, within the realm of Komodo, you'll find more beaches than you can poke a stick at -- even a pink one.
There's volcano climbing from Maumere, Ende and Bajawa; diving at either end at Komodo, Maumere and Larantuka; hot spring soaking and fascinating local villages near Bajawa; the Hobbit Cave, which shook up the history of humanity and the spider web fields, both near Ruteng; and then there's the Komodo dragons themselves -- you'll find them on Komodo and Rinca Island and their smaller cousins, mbou, on the islands at Riung.
While independent travellers have been cruising through here for decades, foreigners remain a bit of an anomaly. Expect a hearty welcome "Hello, misterrrrrrr!!" (whether you're a man or woman) mixed with lots of curious, but well meaning stares. Culturally it's an interesting island too; thanks to the Portuguese and then the Dutch, Flores is a predominantly Christian island -- you'll see more churches than mosques.
Day 1: Arrive Bali, overnight
Day 2: Morning flight to Maumere, then transfer out to Ankermi Happy Dive or Lena House
Day 3-4: Dive/snorkel/explore/hangout
Day 5: Morning return to Maumere, drive to Moni, break the trip at Sikka.
Day 6: Moni explore (ricefield walks, waterfalls etc)
Day 7: Climb Kelimutu for dawn, afternoon departure to Ende
Day 8: Ende explore the surrounds
Day 9: Ende explore the surrounds
Day 10: Drive to Bajawa
Day 11: Bena village and the hotsprings
Day 12: Drive to Ruteng
Day 13: Hobbit Cave, afternoon departure for Labuan Bajo
Day 14: Labuan Bajo waterfalls
Day 15-17: Kanawa Island or Komodo Dive Resort or Seraya or stay in Labuan Bajo & visit Komodo or Rinca from there.
Day 18: Flight to Bali/ferry to Sumbawa/liveaboard to Lombok
Before heading west from Maumere, continue east to Larantuka for diving, isolated beaches and the whaling island of Solor. Allow four to five days.
From Bajawa, head north to the Riung Islands for island hopping, more snorkelling and perhaps some Komodo dragon spotting. Allow three to four days.
3) Wae Rebo
Trek to this fascinating cultural village in uber remote Flores. Allow three days.
Flores is not well regarded internationally for its accommodation, however the following are all at least adequate. Outside of Labuan Bajo in peak season and Larantuka during Easter, reservations are not essential.
Maumere: Ankermi Happy Dive (flashpacker), Lena House (backpacker)
Larantuka: ASA Hotel (flashpacker), Hotel Tresna (backpacker)
Moni: Kelimutu Ecolodge (flashpacker), Bintang Lodge by Tobias (backpacker)
Ende: Grand Wisata (flashpacker), Hotel Ikhlas (backpacker)
Bajawa: Happy Happy Hotel (flashpacker), Korina (backpacker)
Riung: Pondok SVD (flashpacker), Nirvana (backpacker)
Ruteng: Hotel Sindha (flashpacker), Susteran St Maria Berdukacita (backpacker)
Labuan Bajo: Golo Hilltop (flashpacker), Cool Corner Backpacker Hostel (backpacker)
Komodo National Park: Komodo Resort (flashpacker), Kanawa Island Bungalows or Seraya Resort (backpacker)
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.