Life in Raja Ampat

The diving may be the main attraction at Raja Ampat but this Indonesian archipelago also has plenty of culture to explore.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

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

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Raja Ampat communities, West Papua, Indonesia

The children look up at me from the water as I stand on the small wooden jetty.

They have turned white styrofoam boxes into rafts and are playing in the shallow water. They smile and wave at me – big smiles, enthusiastic waves.

There’s something so genuine about their greeting and something so pure about the happiness they’re finding from their makeshift toys.

I imagine it would be hard not to be happy if you were growing up in paradise.

Last week I wrote about Raja Ampat, the stunning archipelago off the coast of the West Papua region in Indonesia. I described it as a ‘paradise’, with the natural beauty and wildlife (particularly underwater) drawing visitors here in increasing numbers.

But I want to also tell you in a bit more detail about the local communities. The diving and snorkelling may be the main drawcard of Raja Ampat – but visiting the small towns and villages was an unexpected highlight for me.

Sauandarek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Sauandarek Village

I meet the children on the styrofoam rafts at a community called Sauandarek Village.

Our boat has stopped here one afternoon so we can go snorkelling around the coral near the beach. While the others are getting ready to jump in, I wander down the jetty to see the village.

Sauandarek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

While kids splash in the water and jump off the jetty, parents sit in the shade of trees on the beach and keep half an eye on them. Past the beach is a collection of wooden houses, each separated by a sandy path and palm trees. Some men are carrying a long wooden canoe down to the shore.

Sauandarek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

I end up having a bit of a chat to the village chief, Korinus Urbata. He tells me there are 43 families living here, with a total of 209 residents, including the children.

Most of the adults here make a living from fishing, although some are now getting jobs at the local resorts or with diving companies.

Sauandarek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Korinus says his community is happy to have visitors – which I’m pleased to hear, seeing as I just walked straight in without an invitation!

There’s a small box for donations and they use the money to maintain the jetty. I ask about life here, pointing at the children playing in the water.

Korinus tells me that everyone enjoys their life here but the kids don’t have a real playground so there’s no option but to play on the beach.

Sauandarek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Sawinggrai Village

On the way back to our accommodation that afternoon, we make another stop. This time at a place called Sawinggrai Village.

The main reason for pulling in here is to catch the sunset. The colours really are incredible here when the sun goes down over the water – the whole sky slips through a spectrum of oranges, reds and purples.

Sawinggrai Village, West Papua, Indonesia

But I find myself also watching the residents of the local community, who have also come out to watch the show in the sky. They must have seen it thousands of times… but I can understand why it never gets tiring.

An old man sits on a bit of decking and just looks up silently as it gradually gets darker.

Sawinggrai Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Sawinggrai is quite small but it is popular with visitors because it has a few homestay options for budget travellers who might prefer not to stay at one of the dive lodges.

This is also the start of the walk into the jungle to see the red bird of paradise, the rare bird that can only be seen in Raja Ampat that I talked about in my previous post.

Sawinggrai Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Arborek Village

The next we visit another community, this one called Arborek Village. It’s a bit different to the others in that it is prepared for tourists.

Just after the boat arrives at the jetty and we step out into the blazing heat, a group of children start a performance. They are dressed in traditional outfits with traditional body paint.

Later, when we’re down by the beach, they pose with their bows and arrows for photos.

Arborek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

Two men from the village cut open coconuts for us – a refreshing snack. The community has also prepared lunch.

There are 197 people living here and, beyond the large golden beach, are their houses – again, small and wooden.

Arborek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

The village is the only thing on the small island, which you could easily circle. The men here are traditionally fishermen and the women make handicrafts.

Tourism is becoming more important for them, though, and the village sees the economic potential in welcoming visitors.

Arborek Village, West Papua, Indonesia

For me, each of the villages I visit in Raja Ampat feel slightly different. They look similar – but there’s a different attitude at each one.

The good thing is that none feels better or more authentic than the other. The locals at Sauandarek are welcoming and happy for me to just wander around and have a look.

Sawinggrai has seen the opportunity to provide accommodation, while Arborek creates an experience for tourists.

Meanwhile, boats still head out to fish and parents watch their children play in the water. And there are big white smiles all around.

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

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