diving

Backpacker Guide to the Perhentian Islands: Malaysia’s Hidden Paradise

Ummm…what is the Perhentian Islands?!

That’s a great question, considering most people who visit Malaysia haven’t even heard of it! The Perhentian Islands consist of two islands, Perhentian Besar (big) and Perhentian Kecil (small) and are off the east coast of mainland Malaysia. Not only do the Perhentians have the cheapest diving (seriously, cheaper than Koh Tao aka $18USD for a fun dive including all gear), but it’s also amazing! The visibility is typically excellent (I saw 20+ meters vis at some sites), and I have seen everything from sharks to turtles to octopi to Humphead Parrotfish to Trigger fish. The Perhentians are a hidden diver’s oasis, but are also great for relaxing on the beach with crystal clear water and white sand. I have a feeling this place will become a lot more popular once more people start finding out about it :).

 

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When to go:

The Perhentian Islands are open from March through mid-October and completely close from November to March during monsoon season. Peak season is June-August but you can find great weather and diving conditions throughout the season.

 

What to do:

Diving is definitely the number one thing to do on the Perhentians, but snorkeling is also popular and even cheaper. Relax in a hammock or on the beach, explore the viewpoints and different bays, go to the beach parties at night on Long Beach, or watch a movie at the multiple places who offer free movie nights. I recommend heading to Ombok Hotel/Restaurant at Coral Bay for their nightly big-screen movie 7:30, which is an awesome way to relax with some popcorn or dinner.

 

 

How to get there:

Part of what makes the Perhentians a hidden gem in Malaysia is that not everyone is willing to go through the effort to get there. However, those who do are greatly rewarded and I am one of the many people who came back for a second time.

Fly: You can fly into Kota Bharu airport and take an hour long expensive taxi ride to Kuala Besut, which must be timed right unless you want to stay overnight to catch the ferry.

Bus: The majority of budget backpackers take the night bus from various locations around Malaysia. I have gotten to the Perhentians from both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, which are on the opposite side of the country, but it was relatively painless. You can book a bus at easybook.com or busonlineticket.com and simply check in with your emailed boarding pass at the bus terminal of your choosing. The bus ticket cost will vary, but mine was 46 ringgit from KL, which is about $11 USD. Not bad for saving a night of accommodation as well!

After you arrive to Kuala Besut, you can catch one of the ferries to the islands which run from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The return ticket is 70 ringgit no matter where you buy it (doesn’t save you any money to buy a return since one way is 35, it’s just more convenient), and just show up to the ferry terminal 15 minutes beforehand. The boat ride is about 30-45 minutes, depending on conditions and how many stops the boat makes. To get back to Kuala Besut, you can take any of the ferries which run at 8:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., usually the first or last depending on whether you want to take the day bus or night bus back to a main city.

 

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Where to stay:

Perhentian Besar- nicer resorts, more expensive, “honeymoon” area

Perhentian Kecil- cheaper, more backpacker vibe, especially Long Beach

Note that many people are put off by the Perhentians because virtually no accommodation options are listed online, so they think they have limited/expensive options. Not true! Just show up and find somewhere that fits your needs :).

Recommended accommodation:

Matahari Divers (Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil)- 25 ringgit for a fan dorm room and the best dive packages. I highly recommend diving with them whether you stay there or not! To give you an idea of cost, I paid 400 ringgit (a little under $100USD) for 4 nights of accommodation and 4 fun dives with all gear included. How crazy is that?!

Panorama Divers (Long Beach)- Inexpensive dorm rooms are available here (Somewhere around 25-30 ringgit if I remember correctly) with dive packages, but Matahari has better package pricing. This is a much bigger dive resort and has an AMAZING buffet breakfast that you should definitely try once!

Monkey Divers (Long Beach)- 50 ringgit for an air-con dorm room (game changer!) and they also offer affordable diving packages.

Oh La La- Dorm rooms run around 30 ringgit per night and the location is great (right next to Panorama, Monkey and Matahari dive centres. I haven’t personally stayed here but I’ve heard good things!

Maya Bungalows (Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil)- 50 ringgit for a 2-person fan bungalow on the beach with ensuite bathroom. I stayed here for a few nights last year and thought it was a great deal!

Sunrise Hostel (Long Beach)- 20 ringgit for a dorm room, but I really wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you are desperate for super cheap accommodation. There is zero security and the staff was rude last time I stayed there, even after someone got robbed in my room!

There are also plenty of random bungalows you can walk around Long Beach or Coral Bay to find, but pricing will depend on the place. Bubu Villas are on the far side of Long Beach from the pier if you’re looking for a fancier hotel and Ombak is on Coral Bay which is also on the pricier side.

 

 

Extra tips:

Bring CASH with you! There are NO ATMs on the islands- nope, not one. If you plan to do a big diving course, most places will accept credit cards for an extra fee. However, Matahari does cash advances from a card with a 5% fee for customers and 10% for non-customers (handy to know!). Also, bring your own locks because most of the budget accommodation options don’t have much security (no doors, keys or lockers), so it’s better to be safe than sorry :). Bring plenty of books for relaxing at the beach between dives, because all of the book exchanges on the island require you to trade two books to take one, aka BYO!

 

Have any more recommendations for the Perhentians that I missed?! Let me know in the comments section! If you do decide to visit, feel free to reach out to me and I am more than willing to answer any questions! Thanks for reading and happy travels :).

 

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Backpacker’s Guide to Indonesia

To be completely honest, I don’t even know where to begin with this post, because there is just THAT much to say about Indonesia. Did you know that Indonesia is made up of over 18,000 volcanic islands (that’s almost triple the number of islands in the Philippines!) and is home to the largest Muslim population in the WORLD? I spent a month in this beautiful country and didn’t even scratch the surface of what Indonesia has to offer, but I wanted to share some tips for anyone planning to visit or hoping to learn more about it!

 

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Route:

One of my favorite parts of solo travel is the ability to be flexible with your plans, and I certainly was in Indonesia. I met some of the most incredible people in this country and switched around plans to travel with different groups, so I definitely didn’t make the most efficient use of my time, but that’s fine with me!

When most people think of Indonesia, they immediately think of Bali, which is probably the most popular island for tourists to visit. You could easily spend a month alone just on Bali, but I personally think two weeks is enough if you are limited on time or want to hit some other unique areas in Indo. In most countries I have made guides for, there is a typical route or a logical way to plan your time, but that really isn’t the case here and it totally depends on what kind of experience you are looking for. Because of that, I will touch on each place I visited and also include a few suggestions for places I haven’t gotten a chance to see yet.

Where to Visit:

Kuta:

Alright, so let’s get this one out of the way. Kuta gets an extremely bad reputation amongst the majority of travelers and almost every person who gave me advice about Bali before I arrived said “Whatever you do, get out of Kuta immediately,” so I went in with low expectations and planned on staying only one night since it is close to the airport. But guess what! I LOVED Kuta! I will shout it to the sky over and over- yup! I loved Kuta!!! Okay, now that’s out of the way.

What Kuta is good for: partying (Skygarden- don’t ask questions, just go and enjoy all you can eat and drink for $8 US), meeting people, learning to surf, variety of food options (both local and western), walkability, shopping, activities (two words: WATERBOM waterpark), accessibility to airport, sunsets on the beach

What Kuta is NOT good for: interacting with locals, authentic Indonesian culture, learning to ride a motorbike (LOL), people who think they are too good for “touristy” areas, people looking for peace and quiet, people who can’t handle people constantly trying to sell you things, peaceful/serene/beaches

There you have it. To some people, Kuta sounds like hell on earth, but I had the best time ever there and met some of my closest friends I met traveling, including my current roommate in Melbourne! With all of this information, decide for yourself if you want to visit or not. For my purposes, Kuta did its job and I actually came back to the same hostel three separate times and stayed a total of 12 nights! No *ragrets*.

Where to stay: Captain Goose Hostel. I actually counted and in my 6 months in Southeast Asia, I stayed in 57 different hostels. This hostel is in the top 3 best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, mostly because of the people, the pool, the awesome vibes, and the free pancakes all day. I can’t recommend it enough!

Other options: Coco Beach Hostel (no pool, but free breakfast and nicer rooms than Captain Goose, good to just chill out, not as social), Ayu Lili Garden Hotel (very cheap for a hotel, good location, great pool, not as social but good for a splurge night if you’re on a budget), or any of the other nice resorts/villas in the area

 

Ubud:

Ubud is becoming more and more well-known and is definitely not one to be missed. This is where you can experience more authentic Balinese culture, relax, get a massage, see the rice terraces and monkey forest, and do plenty of shopping. I will say that a lot of people come to Ubud expecting it to be more of a “village” experience than it actually is, so be warned that the main part of town is crowded and touristy, but it has a totally different vibe than everywhere else in Bali.

Where to stay: Puji Hostel or In Da Lodge Hostel. I stayed at Wanderlust (owned by same people as Puji and just down the road) for a night, and it wasn’t bad, but Puji is definitely more social and also has on-site laundry!

Don’t miss: hike up Mount Batur volcano for sunrise (though you can book this from other parts of Bali, it is closest to get to from Ubud), white water rafting, monkey forest, Umah Ubud (amazing food, best pizza for cheap)

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Spas: Sedona Spa was unreal and I highly recommend it. For $16 US, I got a 90 minute spa package, which included a private room overlooking rice terraces with a full body massage, green tea scrub, soak, and flower bath with tea and watermelon afterwards. It is DEFINITELY worth going to a nicer spa in Ubud rather than a cheap massage parlor off the side of the road.

Splurge meal: Chill Out Restaurant has an amazing filet mignon steak for only $7 US- highly recommend :).

 

Uluwatu:

This chill surfer town is such a unique place with AMAZING food. When I think of Bali, I think of hippie/vegan/healthy food, and this is definitely where you can get it. So much good food here and fun places to explore on a scooter. DISCLAIMER: You must be able to ride a scooter/motorbike to get around Uluwatu. Public transport is non-existant, Uber/GrabCar/Blue Bird Taxi are not allowed, and everything is too spread out to walk. It’s an amazing place to visit, but not worth it if you can’t get around on a scooter in my opinion. However, it is a very easy place to learn if you aren’t experienced! There is little to no traffic and most of the roads are easy to navigate. As always, be careful and don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. Another note: have a plan for getting out of Ulutwatu so you don’t end up taking an expensive private driver out like I did. I even tried getting an Uber/GrabCar but there were no drivers in the area or they wouldn’t come because they are banned there. We had no other choice but to get a private driver to get us to Jimbaran, the nearest big town, then get an Uber from there. This definitely shouldn’t deter you from visiting; it’s just one thing I wish I knew beforehand :).

Where to stay: I stayed at Bingin Inn, which was super nice with a pool and reasonably priced. I hear Karma Backpackers is great as well but it was a bit out of the way so we decided not to stay there.

Don’t miss: Bukit Café is an absolute MUST, so is Cashew Tree..such amazing food here!

Things to do: Hire a scooter and check out some of the beaches like Padang Padang, Bingin, and Dreamland, and Single Fin Bar has an amazing party on Sundays if you can make it for that. It’s not to be missed! Check out the M Resort for an incredible sunset and see this super lux hotel- just walk in with confidence and no one will question you :).

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Canggu:

Canggu (pronounced Chang-goo) is another beach town a bit farther out past Seminyak from Kuta, and I absolutely loved it! This is another place where you definitely need to be able to ride a scooter to get around (Uber/GrabCar is also banned here, but you can still be dropped off if you’re coming from somewhere else) but it is definitely more accessible to other places than Uluwatu. If I had to choose one of the two to visit, I would probably pick Canggu simply for convenience in location, but I loved both places!

Where to stay: We splurged a bit and stayed at Butterfly Beach Apartments to chill out, but LayDay Hostel was recommended to me by many people if you’re looking for a budget hostel.

Things to do: Rent a scooter and check out the beaches around the area, watch all of the surfers or surf yourself, try all the amazing food, go shopping at the cute boutiques (they are expensive), visit Tanah Lot temple

Don’t miss: Crate Café for breakfast, Betel Nut Café, Nalu Bowls, Cloud 9

 

Lombok:

I was planning on going to Lombok and never ended up making it, but wanted to share a few tips from other travelers I talked to about it. Lombok is an island near Bali (close to the Gili islands) and has a lot to offer, including beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and the famous volcano, Mount Rinjani. Mount Rinjani is quite a strenuous multi-day hike, but everyone I know who has done it said it was totally worth the effort and the cost! I personally opted for the easier and cheaper sunrise hike up Mount Batur on Bali, but I hear Rinjani is much more special. Overall, I’ve heard mixed but overall positive things about Lombok, and if you are looking to get away from crowds on Bali or Gili T and have the time, Lombok is great to visit for a few days!

Where to stay: From what I hear, Kuta (not to be confused with Kuta on Bali) is better to stay at rather than Senggigi, which is closer to the port.

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Gili Islands: Just to clear up confusion, many people refer to “the Gilis” but most are actually just referring to Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three islands. If it wasn’t obvious, “gili” means “island” in Indonesian :). The three islands off the coast of Lombok are Gili Trawangan (aka Gili T), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Gili Meno is known for being the “honeymoon” island and is mostly comprised of expensive resorts, so I just visited the other two. One of the coolest parts about the Gilis is that there are no cars or motorbikes on the islands. The only way to get around is to walk, ride a bicycle, or be driven in a carriage pulled by a horse!

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Gili Air:

Gili Air is the more chilled out version of Gili T, and I like to think of it as the happy medium between Gili Meno and Gili T. There are definitely more families and couples here, but there are still plenty of backpackers to meet and places to go out. I surprisingly had amazing food on Gili Air (I wasn’t expecting much for a small island) like fresh seafood and I found the prices to be lower than Gili T.

Where to stay: Gili Air Hostel was good but does not have WiFi. The bar in the back is great for meeting people (a lot of dive instructors living on the island actually come here for cheap drinks before going out), and they offer free movies!

What to do: Diving and snorkeling are both fantastic, and it’s a great place to chill out on the beach and avoid the crowds of Gili T. If you dive, I highly recommend Manta Dive Centre (shoutout to Dani for being the best instructor ever!). Note that the dive and snorkel spots are pretty much the same as the other islands, so if you don’t visit Gili Air, don’t worry about missing out on any secret spots since boats from all three islands go to the same spots.

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Gili Trawangan:

Gili T was one of my favorite places I have visited in all my travels in SE Asia. I’ll be honest, after liking Gili Air so much, I had low expectations for Gili T because I have heard that it’s just a party island. After visiting, I found out that it is SO much more! I will definitely be back at some point. I could honestly picture myself living there!

Where to stay: Gili Mansion is cheaper than Gili Castle, which is their partner hostel, and you can still use the facilities at Gili Castle like the rock wall and the pool! When I visited, Gili Mansion was still under construction (they seem to be building an awesome pool!) and only had a small common area, but most people just hung out at Gili Castle anyways.

What to do: Play mini golf, enjoy the outdoor movie theater, check out all of the cool bars (huge party at one place every night), visit the beaches and famous swings for sunset, go on a boat trip (either snorkel or there are several party boat trips), walk or bike around the island, check out the night market

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Labuan Bajo/Komodo National Park:

This place had been on my bucket list for a very long time, and I knew it would be my grand finale of diving for my trip in SE Asia. If you Scuba dive, I HIGHLY recommend going to Komodo National Park. Though it is by far the most expensive diving I have done in SE Asia, it was an experience of a lifetime and I do not regret it for a second. Komodo….as in, Komodo dragons, you ask? Yup! This is also where you can see the largest lizards in the world. Trust me, they look like a cross between a crocodile and a dinosaur and they are massive!

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Disclaimer: Though Komodo Island/Rinca Island are cool and Labuan Bajo has a few other things to offer besides the world famous diving, I would not make the effort to come to Komodo if you aren’t a somewhat experienced diver. To be eligible to do a live aboard trip (which is what I did), you need to have your advanced open water license and be very comfortable in the water. Komodo is known for strong currents and potentially dangerous spots, so it is not for the faint of heart. Some companies will let you go on day dives with just your open water certification, but I think it really depends on how experienced and comfortable you are in the water. Plus, I highly recommend doing a live aboard trip over day dives because there are SO many spots you can’t reach from Labuan Bajo in one day and it is an entirely different type of experience. I did mine with Blue Marlin Komodo and had one of the best experiences of my life. You can read more about my experience here if you’d like! If you are considering visiting Labuan Bajo/Komodo, feel free to reach out to me and I can give you more detailed tips! If you’re considering, DO IT. Once in a lifetime diving with mantas, sharks and turtles with ideal conditions, that is all I will say.

How to get there: Fly into Labuan Bajo (you can usually get cheap flights from Denpasar) or take a four day boat trip from Gili Islands or Lombok

 

Other places to visit in Indonesia:

Sumatra, Sulawesi, Java/Yogyakarta, Nusa Lembongan, and so many more! I know I hit only the highlights, so definitely do some additional research on other cool islands to visit :).

Visas:

Luckily, Indonesia offers an easy, free 30-day visa on arrival for most countries, so no need to arrange anything in advance. If you know you want to extend your visa for more than 30 days, you can pay $35 US on arrival for a 60-day visa, which is easier and cheaper than trying to extend at a later date through an agency (however, still possible to extend later on).

Warning: Don’t be like me! Learn to count! Clearly I was distracted and made a stupid mistake when I booked my flight out of Bali. I accidentally overstayed my visa because I somehow forgot that October had 31 days and just assumed my one month visa was good from October 17 to November 17. Lesson learned- Indonesian visas are 30 days and 30 days only, no matter how long the month is. I’m still salty about this and don’t even want to get into the story, but I ended up having to pay an extra $50 US on my way out because of my stupidity. Oh well…everyone makes mistakes while traveling and I’ve just learned to laugh at it!

 

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Food:

I will be totally honest here and say that after spending 6 months backpacking in SE Asia on a tight budget, eating mostly local food, I was ready for a break in Indonesia. I did try several Indonesian dishes like Bakso soup and nasi goreng (local version of fried rice), but I ate a LOT of western food and a lot more McDonald’s than I ever thought possible. Not sorry! However, I definitely encourage you to try the local cuisine wherever you go and try as many new things as possible :).

 

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Phew! That was a ton of information. I hope you found this guide to Indonesia helpful and choose to visit this beautiful country as soon as possible! As always, let me know if I missed anything in the comments or shoot me a message or email if you’d like any additional advice. I’m happy to help!

Diving in Flores: Why You Should Choose Blue Marlin Komodo

If you haven’t heard, Komodo National Park in southeast Indonesia is one of the top dive spots in the WORLD. With unparalleled sea life, including white and black tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, manta rays, plenty of sea turtles, and hundreds of unique species of fish, as well as ideal diving conditions, there are few places that beat Komodo. Thousands of people visit Labuan Bajo every year specifically for the world-class diving Komodo offers, and it is no surprise.

Planning a visit? You have a few options to go diving at Komodo, but I highly recommend going with a live-aboard trip rather than day dives. Is it expensive? Sure, but day dives also add up. Is it worth every penny? Absolutely. If you’re considering a live-aboard trip out of Labuan Bajo, do not miss Blue Marlin Komodo, a PADI 5 Star Dive Resort, which offers unbeatable, once-in-a-lifetime trips.

 

Blue Marlin offers a variety of options for live-aboards at competitive prices, but I went with the 4 day/3 night trip on the Ikan Biru, and had one of the best experiences in all of my time in Southeast Asia. Imagine spending four days doing nothing but three things: eat, sleep, and dive in paradise with a small group of awesome people!

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Why choose Blue Marlin Komodo?

The shop: Blue Marlin is one of the only dive shops in Labuan Bajo with an on-site restaurant, making it even more convenient to hang out when you’re not diving. They offer both local and western food, and it also happens to be a perfect spot to watch the beautiful sunset over the harbor. As I walked through the town, I saw that many dive shops were overcrowded and understaffed, so I was glad to be welcomed by the friendly staff and people hanging out at the restaurant each time I walked into Blue Marlin.

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The instructors: The three instructors on the Ikan Biru, Sean, Cat and Fai, were all experienced, professional and extremely personable. One of the most unique parts about the live-aboard experience with Blue Marlin is the comprehensive and informative briefings before each dive. I learned more than I could’ve imagined from Sean’s briefings, and even the dive masters who were guests on the boat said they were very impressed. He gave us detailed explanations about sea mounts, currents, splits, the geography and topography of Komodo, and even drew diagrams of each dive site on a white board. I have never seen any other instructor provide that kind of education before! Something else I appreciated was how accommodating they were to all seven of us on board. The instructors catered not only toward varying skill levels, but they also made sure we saw what we wanted to see (mantas, Komodo dragons, sunsets, etc.) and gave us plenty of options for our dives.

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The crew: I was surprised that there were actually more instructors/crew than guests on the Ikan Biru, which was awesome. The crew provided great service, always had our gear perfectly arranged, cooked and served all of our food, did all the dishes, and even served us drinks on the deck whenever we wanted! You don’t always notice when everything runs smoothly on a boat and typically only pay attention to what goes wrong, but I definitely noticed that nothing went wrong. They all did a fantastic job and went above and beyond to make our live-aboard experience unforgettable.

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The equipment: This is something that could easily be overlooked because you always assume your gear will be fine, but I just wanted to give Blue Marlin a shout out for having top notch rental equipment that no one ever complained about. If you’re diving four times a day, you are bound to have some type of issue with your wetsuit, booties, fins, etc. but none of us did. The staff at the shop fits you with all your gear beforehand, so I was glad to leave with not even a single blister!

The food: I couldn’t possibly leave out one of the best parts of the Ikan Biru live-aboard- the food! Our chef made us huge meals with both local and western options: pasta with meat sauce, beef curry, bruschetta, spring rolls, fish curry, coconut soup, chicken with peanut sauce, fresh fruit, fruit juice, tofu, tempeh, huge breakfast with eggs, French toast, pancakes, oatmeal with fruit, just to name a few. We also had unlimited sodas, water, and the infamous Pocari Sweat while on the boat. Even in between dives, our chef served us snacks like fried bananas with Nutella. Yum!

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What I like to call the “ninja” approach: The staff, instructors, and boat crew took care of all the behind-the-scenes stuff without a hitch to make sure we could focus on what we were there to do, which was dive and relax. I can only imagine how much effort and logistical planning must go into preparing for live-aboard trips, and I appreciate how smoothly everything ran from the time we left the dive shop to when we arrived at varying times back at the harbor (some people stayed a few extra nights). On the Ikan Biru, I swear there were ninjas somewhere on board who cleaned and restocked everything, made up our beds, arranged our gear, and cleared away all of the trash when we weren’t looking. But I know it was just the amazing crew!

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Overall, Blue Marlin Komodo is not to be missed, and I couldn’t imagine a single person regretting doing a live-aboard. Even if you choose to do day dives through Blue Marlin, they have an awesome speed boat, Toby, which allows you to do three dives in one day to be back at the shop by 4:00 p.m.

 

Pricing:

Before you go into cardiac arrest, keep in mind that you definitely get what you pay for with the price of a live-aboard, and there is a LOT included. The price of 3,450,000 rupiah per night ($265 USD) includes four days of non-stop diving (I was able to do 12 dives!), incredible food and drinks all day long, a full professional crew, multiple instructors, hotel standard accommodation under the stars, top notch equipment and gear, trekking on Komodo island to see the Komodo dragons, and a truly unforgettable experience.

 

Accommodation in Labuan Bajo:

If you have a few extra nights before or after your live-aboard, Blue Marlin Komodo also offers affordable accommodation right downstairs from their shop and restaurant. Dorm rooms run at 150K rupiah per night, but private rooms are also available.

 

If you have any questions about Labuan Bajo, how to get there, Blue Marlin Komodo, or Komodo in general, I would be happy to help. Or feel free to contact Blue Marlin Komodo directly:

 

Email: info@bluemarlinkomodo.com

Website: http://www.bluemarlinkomodo.com

Facebook and Pinterest: Blue Marlin Komodo

Instagram and Twitter: @bmkomodo

 

As always, thanks for reading! 🙂