Raja Ampat, Indonesia: Getting There Is the First Adventure

I just spent an amazing two weeks SCUBA diving in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Raja Ampat is a grouping of islands in the West Papua province, off the west coast of New Guinea. It’s gorgeous, full of incredible marine biodiversity and REMOTE. It is a long way from California to Papua Explorers Resort, on Gam Island. This is basically the only way to get from the US West Coast to Raja Ampat, so I thought it might be useful for anyone interested in traveling to that region. (Which, spoiler alert, it is totally worth the travel time!)

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Greyson’s parents did all the planning for this amazing trip; I basically just had to show up with my luggage, ready to dive. I knew going into this trip that the journey would be long, but I really just did not have a sense of how far away Raja Ampat was! Our route would include 5 flights, 6 airports, 2 massage chairs, 1 hotel, 1 boat ride, 24 hours of time in the air, and 48+ hours of travel time.

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Greyson and I left Truckee, heading for Point Reyes, where  his parents live. Once there, we made last minute packing adjustments, checked our passports for the 500th time, packed up the car, and left for the San Francisco Airport.

Leg 1: San Francisco, California > Taipei, Taiwan

We arrived at San Francisco International Airport ~6 hours before our flight. While we teased Greyson’s mom about our super early arrival, it was for a good reason. We were hoping to be first in line and request emergency exit seats. It turns out, we showed up two hours before the check in counter even opened, but, hey, we were definitely first in line. Turning up so early ended up being the right decision, as the restaurants in the SFO international terminal closed at around 7 (weird) so we had to scramble to eat. Our early bird-ness paid off, and we all got the emergency exit row for our 13 hour SFO > Taiwan leg. The flight left at around midnight, so I took a sleeping pill and managed to sleep on an off for close to 8 hours. When I woke up, they fed us breakfast, Greyson and I watched Skyfall and part of Spectre, and we landed. It was so much easier than I was expecting!

Taipei, Taiwan > Changi Airport Singapore

This trip was my first ever trip to Asia, so touching down at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was my first visit to a new continent! We went quickly through the line for arrivals and were directed towards our gate. We arrived at the Taipei airport super early morning local time, but early afternoon by our internal clocks. I needed caffeine! We walked around until we found a coffee shop about to open, then sat on the floor outside until it did. The caramel latte I ordered gave me the caffeine jolt that I needed, and we set off to do some airport exploring during our 5 hour layover. One of the coolest things about this airport is that all of the gate waiting areas have different themes, like Orchids, Taiwanese Culture, Green Relaxation, and Hello Kitty. There’s a ton of Hello Kitty stuff at this airport – including a Hello Kitty themed nursing room called “Baby Kitty”, and we got to fly to Singapore on a Hello Kitty theme jet! We spent most of our time hanging out in the free massage chairs in the Green Relaxation Area. (Go to the nearby bookstore for the free massage tokens)

Changi Airport Singapore > Jakarta, Indonesia

I had a window seat for this leg and spent most of the descent craning my neck for the best views of Singapore. Flying over the harbor was gorgeous! It was cool to see all of the empty container ships contrasting against the tropical turquoise water. We got off the plane and headed towards baggage claim, since we would be switching airlines and needed to re-check our baggage through to Indonesia. The flight attendants had brought customs declaration forms around the cabin during our flight, but since we were just passing through Singapore, I didn’t think we needed to fill them out. Turns out I was wrong! You definitely need to fill out your customs form when arriving at Changi – learn from my mistake. It’s always nerve wracking going through customs, and we all made a couple of mistakes filling out the form. The customs officials were very efficient and helpful with our rookie mistakes though. The customs agent will look at your form and scan your passport, then stamp and tear off a section of the form. You’ll need this small piece of paper when you head to departures. Don’t lose it!

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24 hours of airports down, 24 hours to go.

The Changi Aiport Singapore is always topping the lists of best airports in the world. Now that I’ve spent quite a bit of time there, I can definitely vouch for that. On our way to Indonesia, we hung out at the airport for about 12 hours, but there was so much to do and see that the time went by pretty quickly. I visited the butterfly garden, checked out the high end shops, searched for the massage area (closed for construction, boooo.), charged my phone, and and stretched my legs after the 13 hour flight. Greyson’s family gently teased me the whole trip for my obsessive phone charging, but they appreciated the fact that I always knew where the outlets were! I use my phone as a Kindle, so it was basically my only entertainment for the whole trip, so I was a little obsessive about charging it!

Before this trip, I had only been in airports in the US, Canada, Europe and Costa Rica. One thing I learned from this experience is that, at many of the gates in the Singapore and Indonesian airports, you go through another metal detector/baggage scan and the gate area doesn’t have food/water/bathrooms/any amenities. We went through this security earlier than we needed to quite a few times, and got stuck with no bathrooms or water. For the gates that did have bathrooms, the bathrooms were usually quite nicer in the main terminal.

Jakarta, Indonesia > Makassar, Indonesia

Our flights to and within Indonesia were all relatively short (~2 hours) and went through the middle of the night (ugggh). After we arrived in Raja Ampat, I told Greyson that I literally could not remember anything about the Jakarta Airport. I knew we went there, but it was totally a blank spot in my mind. When we got there on the way back, I vaguely recognized it. We had a pretty tight connection on our way back, so between that and the exhaustion induced memory loss, I don’t really have any suggestions on what to do at the Jakarta Airport. Sorry!

Makassar, Indonesia > Sorong, Indonesia

Makassar, Indonesia is on the island of Sulawesi, which is known for it’s coffee production. So what is the first thing we did upon arriving at the Makassar Airport? We went to Starbucks. In my defense, it was the only thing open, and I bought nice Sulawesi coffee from the airport gift shop on my way back! The Makassar Airport has a gorgeous tiled ceiling, really clean bathrooms, and several different gift shops if you need some last minute souvenirs. I bought coffee and some batik on my way back home. Makassar Airport has free wifi that was better than the wifi I pay for at my house!

Sorong Indonesia > Raja Ampat

The city of Sorong is a fast expanding hub for Indonesia’s oil and gas industry and the gateway to Raja Ampat. We spent all of our time in Indonesia at Papua Explorers Resort. I’ll do a full post just on my amazing experience there, but they were great for arranging the travel logistics for our final leg. The boat to and from the resort only travels on Sunday and Wednesday, and we arrived on Saturday (48 hours of travel and we lost a day when crossing the International Date Line), so we had to spend a night in Sorong. Two drivers from the resort were waiting for us outside of baggage claim at the Sorong Airport. They loaded up all of our baggage, dropped us off at our hotel (Swiss BelHotel Sorong), and let us know when they’d be picking us up in the morning.

Swiss Belhotel is a Western-style hotel with a pool, nice in room bathrooms and a good restaurant. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Sorong, I’d recommend it. We were exhausted, and, honestly, there didn’t seem to be any “must dos” in Sorong. We basically showered, napped, ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, tried to stay awake, and fell asleep around 6 pm. I woke up ridiculously early and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I just browsed the internet (Swiss BelHotel has free wifi) until breakfast. Breakfast was a HUGE buffet spread of Indonesian and western breakfast favorites. I wish fried rice and noodle dishes were a popular breakfast item in the US. After breakfast and some re-arranging of our luggage, we jumped in the resort’s hired cars and headed for the marina.

The ride to the marina wasn’t too bad, just lots and lots of people on scooters wearing unbuckled helmet. We arrived at the marina without incident and the resort’s porters quickly loaded up the boat for our two hour journey to Papua Explorers Resort. I have never gotten seasick, so I wasn’t too worried about the journey. I felt fine the whole way (though the boat smelled strongly of fish), but Greyson wasn’t too happy. We were closed in a fairly airless cabin, as the boat was low to the water and lots of water was splashing in the front. The ride was pretty calm, but it felt much longer than two hours, and we were all sick of the fish smell by the end. As we slowed down to navigate through the shallow reefs, we made our way onto the small open deck to watch the small islands go by. We finally caught a glimpse of the resort, and saw that the staff had all come out onto the dock to sing a welcome song. It was a great way to end our long journey, and my time at the resort only got better from there!

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First look at Papua Explorers Resort!

Whoa, that was a long one! Thanks for sticking through the whole thing, and I hope it was useful for those planning a trip to Indonesia. I have a few more ideas for Indonesia posts, but would be happy to answer any questions anyone has about our trip, SCUBA diving in Indonesia, Raja Ampat, etc. Just let me know in the comments or via email.

P.S. Check out my Instagram for more Indonesia photos!