Our visit to Pulau Seram, a rugged island in Indonesia’s Maluku province, was inspired by a photo in an Indonesian airline magazine. The photo was of a row of stilt bungalows on a gorgeous turquoise bay backed by mighty green forested cliffs. The accompanying article was only in Indonesian, but we found the place name, Pantai Ora (Ora Beach) in the caption. A few days and some Google Image searching later, Ora Beach on Pulau Seram in Maluku province was on our bucket list. We were already thinking about a trip to Maluku to see the Banda Islands, and the chance to add a visit to Pulau Seram firmly placed Maluku on our itinerary.
We do a lot of internet research to help us choose destinations, hotels, and things to do. The most striking thing we learned when researching Pulau Seram travel is how little information there is! The available information in English consists of a couple of pages in the Lonely Planet, a thread on the Thorn Tree forum, and a few blog posts. We were a bit worried that Pulau Seram would be an anticlimax after our amazing visit to the Banda Islands, but we were keen to go to a place even further off the beaten track.
As it turned out, Pulau Seram is so far off the tourist trail that traveling around and seeing the island’s stunning natural beauty is quite difficult. The island’s small tourist industry isn’t well geared towards independent foreign travelers, and the language barrier was challenging. But we persevered and can say that we have seen one of the world’s last truly rugged, remote islands.
Map of Pulau Seram. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Pulau Seram is the largest island in Maluku province, but it is sparsely inhabited and largely untouched by civilization. The island is covered with rugged, jungle-clad mountains where the indigenous people reportedly engaged in headhunting until the 1940s. Seram, along with Sulawesi and the Banda Islands is part of Wallacea, a designation for a group of East Indonesian islands that house incredibly rich biodiversity.
Pulau Seram’s tourist traffic, such as it is, is concentrated in and around the stilt village of Sawai on the north coast. Ora Beach is a secluded strip of sand, only accessible by boat, around a headland from the village. The rates for Ora Beach Bungalows listed in the Lonely Planet were on the expensive side for us, but we thought it would be worth a splurge. Paul e-mailed the resort to ask about current rates and availability, and they came back with an exorbitant price list for three-day, two-night packages starting at $300 per person: way, way, above what we were expecting to pay. Fortunately, the Lonely Planet listed a backpacker option in the village itself, the Lisar Bahari. We wouldn’t be able to stay at the private beach at Ora after all, but it looked like day trips to Ora were available.
Getting to Sawai involves a ferry from Ambon to the southern port of Amahai followed by a 4WD drive drive across the island’s interior via the main town, Masohi. The ferry journey from Ambon takes about two hours on a comfortable hydrofoil with free Indonesian karaoke at earsplitting volume. The connection from the ferry to the road journey is fraught with perils for foreign travelers, as we found out soon.
Scammed in Seram
Our first impressions of the people of Pulau Seram weren’t great. The first two locals we met tried to scam us, starting before we got off the ferry. A pleasant local man approached us, offering his taxi service to take us to Sawai. He quoted the very reasonable amount of IDR150,000 per person ($11) for the four-hour trip. We should have smelled a rat, since that was less than the amount given in the Lonely Planet, and no driver in Asia will ever charge a foreigner less than the going rate. As we disembarked, we joined up with the other two foreigners on the boat: a retired lady from England and her German travel buddy. We didn’t get their names, but I’ll call them the Queen of England (QE) and German Dude (GD). They were also headed to Sawai and we decided to share transport.
We followed the taxi man, who led us to a bemo (small bus) by the harbor. Here, our bullshit detector went off. We know that the normal way to get from the harbor at Amahai to Sawai was to take a 15-minute bemo ride to the nearby city of Masohi, then change to a Kijang (Toyota 4WD) to Sawai. We figured out that the tout on the ferry was going to charge us 150,000 for the bemo and get a fat kickback from the bemo driver. Argh! Greeted by a scam. The Banda Islands had been happily honest and scam-free and here the locals were already treating us like walking ATMs. The scam here was surprising since less touristed places are usually free of con artists.
As we stood there trying to figure out what to do, a Kijang driver approached us and offered to take the four of us to Sawai for 150,000 each. GD spoke pretty good Indonesian and confirmed several times that this price was to take us all the way to Sawai. Satisfied, we got in the vehicle and drove away. The tout from the bus ran after the car, shaking his fist at the driver, probably because he wouldn’t get his commission from the bemo scam. We thought we were in the clear, but a few minutes later, he told us that the 150,000 per person was only to go to Masohi! Double argh! GD, with his good Indonesian, calmly but firmly said that we had agreed on 150,000 per person to Sawai. I understood enough Indonesian to get the gist of the argument but not enough to join in, but GD handled it well. Jerky driver, yelling the whole time, refused. He dropped us at the Kijang stand at Masohi. The four of us each gave him 50,000 (probably too much) and refused to give more. As GD said, the driver was in the wrong and could not force us to pay more. We’ve used this tactic a few more times since then when drivers have quoted us insanely high foreigner prices upon arriving at the destination. Pay the correct fare, ignore protests, and leave. Works every time. Grumbling, the jerky driver went off and left us waiting for another Kijang to take us to Sawai.
This was the first of many times over the next few days where I wished I had a better command of Bahasa Indonesia. People in Indonesia generally speak enough English to communicate, but English is less common in off the beaten track places. I had already picked up enough Indonesian phrases to exchange greetings and ask prices, but not enough to have proper conversations. From what I can tell, Indonesian is a very easy language to learn. It uses the Roman alphabet, pronunciation is mostly as you would expect, and there is no gender, number, conjugation, declension, or tense. The vocabulary is limited; for example, the Indonesian word “saya” can mean “I”, “me”, “my”, or “mine” depending on context. I have resolved to get an Indonesian textbook and study every day when we go back to the Bandas.
Our new driver was a friendly young guy who took us for the price given by the Lonely Planet: 200,000 per person. We relaxed and settled in for the three-hour drive north through the island’s interior. As we wound higher into the mountains, there was no sign of civilization, only thick jungle with glimpses of misty peaks. It made a pleasant change to see almost no garbage on the roadside and no smoke, fire, or evidence of clearcutting in the forest beyond. We had the first wildlife spotting of the day when Paul and the driver glimpsed a cassowary running away through the jungle by the side of the road. The huge flightless bird is just one of many species on Pulau Seram and was foreshadowing for our amazing bird sighting the next day.
We chatted with QE and GD for most of the drive, although QE did most of the talking. Formerly a well-paid civil servant in England, QE now lives in a bamboo hut on the Indonesian island of Sumba and earns a few dollars here and there teaching English to the villagers. As she explained, she got divorced two years short of retirement age and as a single person in England, it was impossible to save money because of the insanely high cost of living. Instead, she went traveling and decided to stay in Sumba, where she would earn nothing but spend nothing. We have been tempted by the laid-back island lifestyle a few times on this trip, but I don’t think we are quite committed enough to drop everything and move into a bamboo hut… but check back in a few months when it’s time for us to come home!
On Our Own in Sawai
We got to Sawai without incident and checked in to Lonely Planet’s recommendation, the long-standing Lisar Bahari. After we had dropped our bags and settled in, QE and GD decided to check into the competing guesthouse, Oanain Munina, on the other end of town. This left us alone in the hotel with a staff who barely spoke English. This was to be an annoyance for the rest of our stay in Pulau Seram. The hotel consists of several wings of overwater bungalows with at least 20 rooms. Apart from an Indonesian group that checked out on our first morning, we were the only guests. Like other lodgings in remote Indonesia, prices are for full board with home cooked meals. It was more expensive than similar places in the Togeans or Pulau Hatta, and we thought it was overpriced at IDR300,000 ($22) per person per night.
The Lisar Bahari doesn’t hold up to Sera Beach in Malenge or Neira Dive on Pulau Hatta, but it has a striking location jutting out into the bay on the edge of the village. The bungalows are on stilts over the water, and you can look out your window and see parrotfish swimming underneath your house. Unfortunately, the water isn’t too inviting for swimming since it is right in front of the village with all of its waste, and a lot of the coral shows signs of dynamite fishing. Unlike the Togeans or Pulau Hatta, you are dependent on guided excursions to get to good swimming or snorkeling spots, which was another annoyance during our stay.
That evening, the one member of staff who spoke some English came to the porch and showed us a video about Pulau Seram, with sumptuous footage of jungle river trips, snorkeling, and an amazing canopy platform where locals hoist you onto a platform 45 meters off the ground. The video really whetted our appetite to get out and explore the island. The catch? The prices! Apparently, Lisar Bahari gears its offerings to large groups, and all the activities are priced per group. For a couple, with no other tourists to share with, a lot of the trips were far above our budget. The birdwatching canopy, for example, cost a whopping IDR1,800,000 ($130). Slightly bummed at this, we signed up for a half-day jungle trek the next morning for a more reasonable IDR250,000 ($18) and hoped that more tourists would turn up the next day to do a river or snorkel trip.
It looks like Lisar Bahari mainly caters to domestic and Malaysian group tourists, given its limited offerings for independent foreign travelers. It’s too bad, since it is the kind of place that could become an off-the-beaten-track hotspot if enough buzz built up around it, and if the staff spoke a bit more English. Right now, though, there just aren’t enough foreign visitors to build up a travelers’ vibe with the kind of affordable activities that backpackers enjoy.
The Durian Forest
The next day, we plunged into the jungle for a half-day walk with our guide, Jamie. He spoke only a little English but was great at pointing out wildlife. We walked through the town cemetery and followed an indistinct path through a forest of towering durian trees. For those of you who are unfamiliar with durian, it’s the most notorious fruit in Asia. The thick exterior is covered with sharp spikes that can only be hacked through with a machete. Inside, the fatty, custard-like flesh sits in quivering lobes covered with a thin white membrane. People either love or hate its heavy texture and mixture of sweet, sour, and sulfurous flavors. I think it’s revolting; Paul loves it.
Durian trees can grow to hundreds of feet tall with hundreds of fruit on each tree. There is an element of danger in hiking through a durian forest: at a couple of points, we heard a crash nearby as a durian fell to the forest floor. The paths through the jungle are for the benefit of locals who harvest durians and process them in town, where we saw village women extracting the flesh and piling it into buckets. We found two young boys who were harvesting durian, and our guide offered one to Paul. He took his machete to the durian and expertly opened it.
Paul was in durian heaven for the next few minutes. He gobbled down an entire fruit and declared it to be the most delicious one he had ever tasted. For the rest of the day, I kept my distance from Paul and his durian belches!
As we walked back towards the village, we heard a loud whoosh-whoosh-whoosh in a tree above us. “Hornbill,” said Jamie. It was in a tree right over our heads, but the foliage was too dense for us to see. Argh! We wanted to have another hornbill sighting. We pored over the canopy with the binoculars but saw nothing. Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh! As if by request, the hornbill flew across a bare patch of sky and settled on a high branch in perfect view of the binoculars. We figured out later that it was a male Blyth’s hornbill, and in flight the whooshing sound of its wings is distinctive of several species of hornbill.
We broke out of the jungle onto the road, and walked a kilometer to the Seram Bird Rehabilitation Centre in the nearby village of Masihulan. We had heard about the rehabilitation centre from Cesair, our host on Pulau Hatta, and were eager to visit. We were told it was set up with the help of a couple from Seattle, and that it rehabilitates and releases birds from Maluku and Papua that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade. Indeed, a few days later we would see caged red parrots for sale, evidence of the wildlife trade, down a back street in Ambon while we were looking for the local market.
Among the many showy birds of Seram, the Moluccan cockatoo is one of the most distinctive with its peachy-white crest. We didn’t see any in the wild, but we got to see many at the bird sanctuary. With Jamie’s limited English and our extremely limited Indonesian, it was hard to find out more about the center’s mission and operations, and I haven’t been able to find much information about it online. The centre was simple but seemed clean, professional, and dedicated to returning birds to the wild where they belong.
Swimming and Snorkeling around Sawai
We were still on our lonesome in the hotel, so we decided to bite the bullet and booked a full-day boat trip to various islands and snorkel spots around Teluk Sawai, including the famed Ora Beach, for IDR750,000 ($54). Our boatman, who spoke no English, picked us up the next morning and zoomed us out to a spot in the middle of the ocean with a shallow reef. Paul was hesitant to jump in without a ladder, so I got in on my own and checked out the coral, which wasn’t impressive. The visibility was poor and the coral looked damaged. The problem with snorkeling on Pulau Hatta is that no other snorkel spot will ever measure up, but this one was really uninteresting.
Our next stop was a little island at the mouth of the bay. As we traveled along the coast, we could see the steep cliffs of Pulau Seram jutting straight down into the sea, and marveled at just how beautiful and rugged this island was. It reminded me of the Na Pali Coast on Kauai, minus the civilization, roads, and trails. We just wished it were easier to get out and appreciate it without spending so much money! Also, it felt awkward to be on our own with the boat captain but completely unable to communicate with him because of the language barrier.
We moved on to Ora Beach Bungalows, the place we had originally wanted to stay, on its own beach around a headland from Sawai. The setting for Ora Beach is really astonishing. The afternoon clouds were gathering, but the moody weather made the scene even more dramatic.
Still, we wouldn’t have paid $600 for two nights here, and we congratulated ourselves for choosing the cheaper option nearby. But we wanted to double-check the prices, and we asked the manager of Ora Beach how much it cost to stay there. 500,000 per room per night, plus 250,000 per person for meals, for a total of 1 million rupiah ($72). Huh? This still isn’t particularly cheap, and seems high given that the bungalows are rustic, but it was much less than the inflated price we were quoted by email.
The walk-in price would have been a bit of a splurge for us, but we would have considered staying there if we had been quoted the actual price up front. I can only think that Ora Beach quotes ridiculous prices when foreigners enquire by email, and must charge Indonesians a lot less. Ora Beach, like our place, was almost deserted. There were a Russian couple and two Indonesian army guys from Ambon. I can only imagine that their strategy of quoting insanely high prices has scared away a lot of business, and there aren’t enough wealthy foreigners on short trips who will take the time to get there. The resort could actually have an amazing beachfront vibe if it charged more realistic prices to attract a bigger crowd.
I had another quick snorkel around Ora Beach, but again the visibility wasn’t great and the fish were nothing special after Hatta. We got back in the boat for our last stop, a picnic table perched on stilts in the water at the base of a cliff. The water was clear and shallow, and we had a float around the sandy bits in front of the coral. Paul came crashing over to me, looking terrified. “Stonefish!” he said, pointing to an innocuous-looking rock near a patch of coral. I floated closer and looked where he was pointing. It was a rock… with a long fishy mouth and an eye that blinked menacingly. Our first sighting of a stonefish, and it was so well concealed that I wonder how many we times we have unknowingly swum over one of the highly toxic beasts.
Back to Ambon
We had planned to stay in on Pulau Seram for four nights, but after two full days we had exhausted the possibilities of affordable excursions from Sawai. Striking out into the jungle on our own wasn’t a sensible option given how faint the paths are. A few trekkers, who are much tougher than us, attempt multi-day treks into Manusela National Park in the interior, but we were not geared up for the mud, heat and humidity (check out this trip report of a gnarly ascent of 9905ft Mt. Binaiya, the highest peak on Seram). If there had been other travelers around to chat with, we might have had a lazy day around the hotel, but the atmosphere was lonely with only us in the huge resort.
So, we decided to cut short our visit to Pulau Seram. Although our visit to Pulau Seram came with plenty of frustrations, I’m glad we visited. It is a truly beautiful, pristine island with lots of scope for wildlife adventures (if you have the budget or are in a large group). It is always interesting to get off the tourist trail and see a bit of local life in unusual locations. Right now, Sawai is a village where nobody has properly capitalized on the tourism potential. If a local entrepreneur set up a reasonably priced, traveler-friendly establishment, like Abba Rizal has done in Bandaneira, I have no doubt that a steady stream of hardy travelers would make their way to this little paradise.
We had an uneventful trip back to Ambon and spent the next few days catching up on our blog and enjoying the local food. As we said in our previous post, the food in Maluku is the best we’ve found in Indonesia. Typical Indonesian fare is satisfying but bland, like Thai food minus the spices, herbs, and sauces. Think fried rice, fried noodles, and fried chicken with a squirt of packaged sweet chili sauce if you’re lucky. Maluku cuisine, on the other hand, is adventurous and spicy, featuring lots of fresh fish and sharp flavors. One of the joys of visiting less touristed places is that restaurant staff don’t have the false impression, so common across Asia, that foreigners don’t like spicy food. It can actually be difficult to get served an authentically spicy, flavorful meal in countries like India and Thailand because local people refuse to believe that foreigners like spicy food. Waiters in Maluku are unaware of this stereotype and serve proper food to tourists!
We kept going back to two standout restaurants in Ambon. The Patita Resto in the City Hero Hotel serves fresh tuna steaks in unbelievably fiery chili sauce, bitter papaya flower salads, and the tastiest mango smoothies we’ve found anywhere. The nearby Sibu Sibu Cafe is an Ambon legend. Every inch of the walls is decked with posters and album covers of musicians from Maluku. This is the most musical area of Indonesia that we’ve visited. The local music style favors soaring ballads with a large helping of schmaltz like a late Hawaiian Elvis. We had dinner there on a Saturday night when a local crooner and keyboard player performed a live set. Spontaneous jams broke out with a large crowd of locals and foreigners singing along. The food at Sibu Sibu is fantastic, too. We enjoyed the black coffee with ginger and kenari nuts and the avocado smoothies with chocolate sauce (trust us, they’re delicious).
Rested and refreshed, we flew from Ambon to Kuala Lumpur and on to Krabi, Thailand, to meet up with my mother and sister for the holidays. From one end of the pendulum to the other, we went from a remote region with barely any travel infrastructure to the hedonistic tourist paradise of southern Thailand. We saw more Western tourists within 5 minutes of checking in for the flight to Krabi than we had in three weeks in Maluku. It is nice to dip into easy, comfortable places like Thailand once in a while, but only after visiting out-there places like Seram, if only as a reminder that such wild, remote spots still exist in the world.