Raja Ampat and the birth of paradise

These islands have the richest marine biodiversity in the world. Divers have discovered the region but it’s still an adventure for the average traveller.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


How to get to Raja Ampat Indonesia – and other useful info

Up before dawn and onto a small boat; speeding across the dark water as night holds on to those last moments; landing on a pier; walking down to the start of the jungle; turning my phone into a torch; and crashing into the trees and up the hill.

The sun is starting to come out by the time I finish the walk to the top through the jungle.

In these early morning minutes when blue becomes yellow in front of my eyes, I stand silent and still in a small clearing. I’m staring intently up at the branches of a tree, listening closely as well.

I hear them before I see them, a sound like a blending of a squawk and a crow. “Ark, ark, ark, ooh-ooh-oo-oo-oo-ahh.”

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

I spot one, then another, and another.

Three of them – red birds of paradise – here in the only place on the planet they are found in the wild: Raja Ampat in the West Papua region of Indonesia.

The birds are named appropriately. They really do come from a place that could be paradise.

What is Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1500 islands, has the richest marine biodiversity on earth. That, in turn, has created prime conditions for the evolution of animals and humans on the land above the water.

These islands are one of the most remote parts of Indonesia – and that’s saying something for a country where transport is notoriously difficult. The West Papua region is almost at the very east of Indonesia, more than 4000 kilometres from the other side of the country.

This rich ecosystem and the physical isolation have made Raja Ampat an incredible pocket of paradise. For most of time, it has been virtually untouched by the outside world. But now tourists have discovered its magic.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

The red birds of paradise jumping between branches above me are a proud symbol of Raja Ampat. In many ways, I think they represent these islands perfectly: They are rare, unknown to many people, require some effort to find, but are worth the journey for the undisturbed beauty.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

How to get to Raja Ampat

The first thing you’ll realise when you start looking at how to get to Raja Ampat is that it’s not easy to get here. It’s possible – and you hopefully won’t run into many problems – but it takes a long time and isn’t cheap.

The good news is that the hassle of working out how to get to Raja Ampat (let alone putting that plan into action) keeps the tourist hordes away. While they fight the crowds in Bali, you’ll have this unspoiled utopia almost to yourself.

Flight to Sorong

To get to Raja Ampat, you’ll first need to fly to the airport at Sorong. Because there isn’t a huge demand, the flights are limited – but the situation is getting better.

There are now a few airlines that fly direct from Jakarta to Sorong, which is useful if you’re coming direct from an international flight. However, if you want to come from Denpasar (Bali) you’ll still need to do a long inconvenient transfer in Makassar.

Sorong Airport to Raja Ampat boats

From the airport, you then need to get to the harbour to catch a boat across to the islands. The easiest way to do this is just get a taxi, which will cost about 100,000 rupiah. The trip will only take about 15 minutes.

Sorong to Raja Ampat

Stick with me – you’re almost there! Now you need to get from Sorong harbour to the Raja Ampat islands and the best way is with a ferry.

Most people will want to do the standard trip that goes rom Sorong to Waisai, which is the main town on Raja Ampat’s main island of Waigeo. Your accommodation will probably already have arranged to pick you up from there (more info about accommodation further down). If the accommodation thinks there’s a better way, they’ll suggest it in advance.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

There are a few companies offering the trip to Waisai but they’re all almost identical. There are two scheduled departure times they all use – 9 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

You can buy tickets on the day and it should cost about 100,000 rupiah for a standard ticket and 150,000 for a VIP ticket (which gets you air-conditioning and a nicer seat).

Waisai to your accommodation

And finally, as if this hasn’t all been enough, you’ll now need to get to your accommodation which may be on another island.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

The good news here is that your accommodation should do this for you. Make sure you have booked in advance and have been in contact about when you’re arriving. They’ll give you instructions.

And, remember while you think about the hassle of how to get to Raja Ampat, it’s what is helping to keep the feeling of paradise here!

Raja Ampat snorkelling

Now you’re here, it’s time to relax and enjoy it. And my favourite thing in Raja Ampat is snorkelling

Going underwater for the first time, I open my eyes and see fish everywhere. Different colours and shapes, they float by themselves or dart around in schools.

Bright, dull, big, small. They all have their place here in the water and I watch them peacefully navigate it.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

It’s estimated there are about 1500 species of fish and 550 species of coral in the seas around the islands of Raja Ampat. That makes it the most biodiverse underwater part of the world.

There’s a story of a fish scientist called Gerald Allen who went on a single dive to count how many fish he would see and got up to 284 different species!

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

What you notice immediately is how clear the water is.

It’s not just because visitor numbers are limited around here, it’s also because the locals generally take proactive measures to conserve the environment. Why wouldn’t you?!

There are lots of opportunities for Raja Ampat snorkelling. You’ll probably be able to just go swimming in the water near your accommodation and see a good range of fish. But I would suggest you arrange some boat trips while you’re here to see different areas.

Speak to your accommodation about this – it’s what they do every day. They’ll know the best places to go and will be able to arrange things for you.

Raja Ampat diving

I’m not much of a diver but I love being underwater, so I spend a long time in Raja Ampat with a snorkel and goggles, seeing what there is.

For divers, though, this is a mecca. Raja Ampat diving is among the best in the world – for the number of species, health of the sea life, visibility, and variety of underwater landscapes.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

If you are a keen diver, you may have already heard of some of the famous Raja Ampat dive sites – places like Blue Magic, Mioskun, Cape Kri, and even Arborek Jetty.

There are two main ways to experience the area as a diver – on a liveaboard or with a resort. If you’re interested in doing the liveaboard option, this one is a good company to consider.
I would strongly recommend the resort option because it will work out cheaper, give you more flexibility, and allow you to explore more of the other natural beauty in Raja Ampat.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

I’ve got a bit more information about accommodation further down, but there are two dive lodges I would recommend – Raja Ampat Dive Lodge and Waiwo Dive Resort Raja Ampat.

Even if you’re not staying with them, you should be able to arrange your dives through them and they’ll pick up for free from some other accommodation places.

What to do in Raja Ampat

Although snorkelling and diving are the highlights of the region and the main reasons many people come here, there are plenty of other things to do in Raja Ampat.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

One morning I head out on a boat to a place called Pianemo. It’s a small cluster of islands that creates one of the best views you’ll find in the area.

If you’ve ever seen a postcard shot of Raja Ampat, it’s likely it was taken from here.

There are a few places where you can jump off the boat and climb up to a viewpoint. But there is just one main one that now has a wooden staircase to the top.

It’s a steep walk up but the platform at the top has plenty of space to rest and enjoy the scenery.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

Across the hundreds of islands of Raja Ampat, there are lots of places to explore. However, you are somewhat limited because you need a boat to access most of it.

One afternoon, on the way back to my accommodation, the boat stops in the middle of the water. Well, that’s how it seems, at least.

What we’ve actually done is run onto a sandbank that has been exposed by the low tide.

It’s intentional because from here you can easily walk along the bottom of the sea, towards a small uninhabited island.

Surrounded by clear water water, bracketed by clear blue sky, it glows like an emerald on the horizon.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

Remember the birds of paradise? Getting up early to see them one morning will be a really special experience and one of the other best things to do in Raja Ampat.

And then there is also of my my favourite experiences – getting to know the local communities!

Local communities

Raja Ampat is not simply nature. The fish and the birds easily outnumber the humans here – the population of all the islands combined is only about 50,000 – but the local communities are such an important part of the region.

Many people live in small villages based around a single beach and jetty. Fishing is obviously an important part of their economies but tourism is becoming more important.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

It’s a relatively simple life but when I chat with some of the villagers, they tell me about how they enjoy their quality of life.

I visit a few different communities in Raja Ampat during my stay and meeting the local people is one of the highlights of the time here.

Raja Ampat accommodation

Raja Ampat is not like many other places you’ll go in the world – which is one of the reasons it’s so special. But it also means you can’t expect the accommodation to be like other cities (or even Asian islands) that you’ve been to.

The good news is that the variety of Raja Ampat accommodation has grown in recent years and so you’ll hopefully be able to find something that suits your style.
One of the complaints you often hear is that Raja Ampat is expensive. But, there’s now a fantastic modern hostel called Kakatua Hostel where you can often get good deals if you book in advance.

A popular way to experience Raja Ampat is to stay at one of the many homestays that the locals offer on the islands across the archipelago. Not only do you get a wonderful authentic experience, but you’ll see some of the local life and get to know the hospitality of the West Papuans firsthand.

Raja Ampat accommodation

And then there are also some larger dive resorts that offer very comfortable rooms and excellent service for exploring Raja Ampat – although you do pay much more for this than you might at other diving spots in Asia (remember, though, this is one of the reasons that these waters are still so pristine and uncrowded).

I’ve got some suggestions for the top places you might like to consider here.

Where should you stay in Raja Ampat?

If you’re looking for a social budget option, I would suggest the very cool Kakatua Hostel.
Another good cheap option is a homestay. There are lots of great options but have a look at Turtle Homestay and Alter Native Stay as good examples of what you’ll find.
For comfortable dive lodges, the best ones in Raja Ampat are Raja Ampat Dive Lodge and Waiwo Dive Resort Raja Ampat.
And if you’re looking for luxury then the Meridian Adventure Marina Club is a new upscale option in Raja Ampat.

Once you’ve made your booking, you can expect your Raja Ampat accommodation to get in touch to talk to you about when and how you’ll be arriving.

Leaving Raja Ampat

Waiting at Sorong airport to head off after my time in Raja Ampat, I bump into two friends from London.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s a bit of a shock to see people you know at a tiny airport in a rather obscure part of Indonesia.

They tell me they’ve just spent the past week on the islands here, mainly using their time for diving.

It hasn’t been their first time here either. They came the year before and loved it so much they had come back. They are already talking about doing it again next year.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

It doesn’t surprise me. There is something special about the paradise here.

You never feel like you’ve done it all, that there is nothing new here to discover. And I have a feeling that Raja Ampat is going to get more popular in the years to come. Even more reason to make the most of it now.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

13 thoughts on “Raja Ampat and the birth of paradise”

  1. Don’t forget the salt water crocodiles, malaria carrying mosquitoes, blood thirsty pirates and killer sharks…..enjoy Raja Ampat!

  2. I’m speechless. The views are so fascinating. This might be the best adventure blog I’ve ever read. I really felt the excitement here. The community must be so lucky for having a place like Paradise. I hope to visit Indonesia soon. All of your photos are beautiful.

  3. Oh, you got to go to Raja Ampat! I’m so jealous! This is number one on my list of dive destinations still to explore! When I was doing my DMT in Komodo last year, so many people were talking about it!


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