We left Myanmar and embarked on a marathon journey to Indonesia involving three days of flights, buses, bemos and a day in Singapore. We needed island life urgently.
Our sixty day visa for Indonesia would become invalid if we didn't get into the country by 23.59 on the 21st May. So we arrived in Jakarta in good time at 22.30. After a short stop we flew to Sulawesi, an Indonesian island where tourism hasn't yet diluted the local culture and where everyone still stares at foreigners in a sincerely curious way.
We slept one night in Manado, which was long enough to notice the absence of dogs on the streets. The locals in the area are famous for eating dog and from then on we carefully inspected our food for any canine traces. Manado is the gateway to a small island called Bunaken where serious divers head to for the abundant coral and myriad of sea creatures. Due to its protected status as a National Marine Park it managed to escaped the last 20 years of dynamite and cyanid fishing which has devastated most of the corals of South East Asia.
After a one hour boat journey with friendly stary locals we found ourselves at the peaceful Bunaken Sea Garden Resort, a place which had been highly recommended, and ended up staying for a week. Our four-star-for-the-price-of-two bungalow faced a large garden which descended to the sea, so we could be floating over the aquarium right in front of the resort in no time.
Life in Bunaken is slow, as it is in the rest of Sulawesi. The days go by while alternating in between meals, naps and snorkelling sessions to a point that we finally lost track of what day of the week it was. But in the sea every day was different.
The moon influenced the tides in such a way that at high tide there was no beach to be seen and low tide meant one could walk nearly all the way to the reef, hang out with a few resident turtles and watch the fish modelling on an underwater coral-walk, each exhibiting a palette of colourful designs permanently in fashion. The coral gardens were healthy, blooming and the best we saw in Sulawesi, the visibility crystal clear and the steep drop off vertiginous. In three words: A-maze-ing.
On this high note we were blown towards the Togean Islands, equally known for having a slow pace and underwater beauty if a lot more remote and undeveloped than Bunaken. On the way there we quickly did a jungle trek in Tongkoko Nature Reserve, guided by some very sociable black macaques and managed to spot the cute nocturnal tarsiers returning to their sleeping tree as dawn broke.
It wasn't easy to get to the Togean (aka Togian) Islands. After a hellish 12 hour car journey to a city called Gorontalo followed by a much nicer one which included an invitation to stay the night at our driver's home (who woke us up with a cup of the sweetest coffee in the world) we were taken to the port in Bumbulan where we boarded the ferry to Dolong.
The boat journey was in contrast really comfy with lots of space and even had mats to lie on, and seven hours later we arrived on the eastern tip of the archipelago. Over the next 10 days we slowly drifted west, from Waleakodi to Malenge and onto Bomba, one paradise island after the other.
Waleakodi is an island with with no roads so the only way to get there or around is by boat, as is the case with most of the Togeans. The only place to stay is the isolated Sifa cottages, a sweet bunch of bungalows facing a picture perfect white sand beach complete with overhanging palm trees. So perfect it looks fake. We happily stayed here for a couple of days snorkelling off the beach, even if this is no Bunaken. The coral is mostly dead and even though there are some fish, nowhere near as many, a sad result of the devastating fishing methods practiced until recently. However, at night, the water's edge turned into a stunning twinkle spectacle like I've never seen before: clear starry skies, trees covered with glowing fireflies and fluorescent plankton blinking in the seaweed.
As paradisiac as Waleakodi was we felt that after two days it was time to move on to Malenge, another island we heard great things of, only an hour away by boat. We arrived through Lestari's back door and moored on a deep turquoise lagoon upon which the guesthouse's restaurant was stilted. On the other side the bungalows also faced the ocean where 100 meters away a rickety 1 meter wide wood bridge spanning nearly a kilometre connected a fishing village to its school.
Every evening party drums echoed from the village and every morning prayer calls woke us up in time to watch the sunrise spectacle from the pier. Inside the bungalow the rats joined in to the nocturnal soundtrack, attacking anything that smelled remotely eatable. Having heard a few Sulawesi rat tales before, we tried to make sure we left everything out for them to take as they pleased avoiding holes in our rucksacks and clothes of which we heard other guests complaining over the following days.
Between a swim in the lagoon on one side and a snorkel on the other, we canoed to the fishing village and took too many photos of photogenic kids who couldn't get enough of it. We managed to walk across the bridge trying not to look down at the millions of sea urchins, poisonous spikes wide open and ready to catch us if we fell, got lost in the overgrown jungle trail and regretted stepping in an ants nest.
The snorkelling wasn't great in front of the guesthouse, but we got to watch one of the staff spear fishing every afternoon trying to catch our dinner. We also joined a trip to reef number five (local reefs have numbers instead of names) apparently the best in the area, where we found a coral garden in good health and got lucky to swim with black tip reef sharks.
At night the pier was an amphitheatre: there was always a lightning storm in the distance, falling stars till you had no more wishes to make and below the sea grass glittered away as if the plankton was getting electric shocks.
Lestari was also the best value for money we found in the Togeans, for 150,000IDR (just under £10) per person per night we had a nice big wooden bungalow, pet rats and geckos, panoramic views of the wood bridge silhouetted by the sunrise, including all meals. We could have stayed there forever.
But the public ferry picked us up in Malenge and after a five hour rough rainy journey dropped us in Wakai with 10 other tourists. The most foreigners we had seen in Indonesia so far. Everyone was headed to Kadidiri, but we were going to Bomba, on the south-western tip of the islands.
No public boats went there so we had to charter one which was expensive but worth it, in Bomba we had the place practically to ourselves. We stayed at Poya Lisa, a guesthouse on a beautiful private island, with a double-sided white sand beach. We got taken on free snorkelling trips to the nearby reefs where we saw lazy schools of one meter bump-head fish and the visibility was so good it felt like a zoomed in lens. At night we found out that the shimmering plankton also lived in the sand and experimented with that some more and inevitably befriended some more bungalow rats, these guys we found out the next morning had a taste for cocoa butter and soap and came back to munch through ours every night.
Bomba was the sort of place I always imagined when I thought of hiding from the world and the kind of place that would make a perfect retreat for a writer. No distractions. No people. Nada except time to do nada. Sunrise, breakfast, lunch, dinner, magical sunsets.
After 10 days in the Togean Islands we started dreaming of not having another meal of rice, fish (or egg for Kelvin) and sambal. And that was the only thing that made us want to move on. Even paradise isn't perfect after all.