Raja Ampat. Even the name, Four Kings, has a sense of the exotic. Or maybe it’s the photos of the emerald green islands pushing through the surface of the aquamarine waters. Whatever it is, the Raja Ampat attracts travellers from all over the world. They come here mainly for the diving (Raja Ampat is one most ecologically diverse regions of the world).
Statistics help to put this into perspective; 75% of the coral species in the world are found in Raja Ampat. That’s 600+ species of coral, which supports 1,427 species of fish and larger underwater life. The result is the feeling that you’re swimming in an enormous underwater aquarium, which in a sense you are.
Where is Raja Ampat?
Find Indonesia on a map. Got it? well now try to find Papua. Yes the big island at the far eastern edge of the country. Raja Ampat is located off the north-west tip of Papua in a place known as the bird’s head peninsula. Believe me when I say it is much easier to get there when you know exactly where it is, at least on a map.
Raja Ampat: The Four Kings
Let’s start this guide at the very beginning. The name Raja Ampat comes from local mythology, which I guess makes it more exotic. According to the myth a local woman found seven eggs. Four of the seven eggs hatch into kings, who occupied the four largest islands of Raja Ampat (these are the islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo). The other three eggs turned into a ghost, a woman and a stone.
While the name Raja Ampat comes from the four main islands, the archipelago consists of 1,500+ islands. That’s a lot of islands, but more importantly space for coral reefs. These reefs happen to be located on the eastern edge of the coral triangle, which spreads across to Sulawesi in the West and includes the Komodo Islands in the South.
How to Get to Raja Ampat
The gateway to Raja Ampat is Sorong Airport. There are flights to Sorong from Jakarta, Makassar, Ambon and Manado. Most flights transfer via Makassar, which is a regional hub for flights to the East of Indonesia. Garuda Indonesia offers the best service to the region, though you can also catch flights from low cost carriers like Lion Air and Nam Airlines among others.
As long as you book quite far in advance you can purchase tickets to Raja Ampat quite cheap. Return tickets from Jakarta to Sorong start from about $250 depending on the season. If you make a late booking though expect to pay a lot more (which is why it’s so good to be organised).
A slow alternative to flying is the Pelni Ferry. Again there’s a route connecting Sorong to Jakarta. You can catch the Pelni Ferry from Tanjung Priok Port. The journey takes 4-5 days and I’d only recommend it if you’ve got a lot of time and you’re really on a budget (I’ve covered how to arrange your own tour through Raja Ampat in this post).
Choosing Where To Visit
From Sorong you need to decide where you want to go. With 1,500+ islands there’s a lot of options available. Due to the size of Raja Ampat and the difficulty in exploring the region, unless you happen to be on a liveaboard, most tourists choose to focus on one of the main islands (and the islands surrounding it).
I should emphasise this; Raja Ampat is difficult to explore. The region has minimal infrastructure and the public ferries run between the main islands (they’re not that frequent). If you plan to explore the smaller islands around Raja Ampat and visit some of the famous tourist sites you will need to arrange a public boat. This is expensive (check two links above for more info).
Waigeo is the largest of the four main islands in Raja Ampat. It is also the most easily accessible by public ferry (a two hour ferry ride from Sorong to Waigeo). The island hosts the administrative capital of Raja Ampat, which is the small town of Waisai. There’s really not much to do in Waisai nor is there much accommodation around the town (so make sure to book a hotel ahead of time).
From Waisai you can explore several of the villages that are dotted around the island of Waigeo. A lot of these coastal villages have basic home stays. You can also take tours into the interior in search of the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise as well as the more common Red Bird of Paradise. Make sure to bring plenty of mosquito repellant for these tours.
A major tourism highlights around Waigeo is Pulau Wayag and the Pianemo islands. Both offer the classic ‘Raja Ampat’ viewpoint overlooking green rocky islands surrounded by the dark and aquamarine ocean. Pulau Wayag is a few hours sailing to the North of Waigeo, while the Pianemo Islands are between Waigeo and Batanta Island.
Closer to Waigeo you’ll find Pasir Timbul Beach on Mansuar Island. The island is to the North of Waigeo and separated by a small strait. It’s one of the best and longest beaches in Raja Ampat. Right next to Mansuar Island is Cape Kri (on Kri Island). Cape Kri is one of the most famous diving spots in Raja Ampat.
Salawati is the closest island to the mainland. It’s separated from Papua by the Sele Strait. Like the other four main islands in Raja Ampat, Salawati is covered in thick forest punctured by rocky outcrops and largely inaccessible to tourists. The resorts, human settlements and tourist attractions are all close to the coast.
Salawati Island offers the usual mix of natural attractions. On the coast there are plenty of beautiful beaches, some towering cliffs and offshore coral reefs. Inland you can do some trekking through the forest and there’s normal an opportunity to go off in search of birds of paradise.
In addition to the natural highlights you’ll find a lot of bunkers and even some plane wrecks dating back to WW2 around Salawati. Most of the old Japanese bunkers are falling into the sea. On the plus side these do make interesting artificial coral reefs and you’ll find plenty of fish swimming around them.
Batanta is to the North of Salawati and South of Waigeo. Out of the four main islands it is probably the least developed. Yet it’s a nice place to be based. Within a few hours boat ride of Batanta you can visit the Pianemo Islands, Cape Kri and Pasir Timbul Beaches (three of the highlights of Raja Ampat).
There are a few nice eco-dive resorts on Batanta Island and on the islands just off the mainland. One notable example is the beautiful Papua Paradise Eco Resort. It’s one of the many luxury in paradise resorts that you’ll find dotted around the Raja Ampat archipelago.
You’ll also find some coastal settlements where one of the villagers will offer you a room for a night for a nominal fee. A more convenient way to explore this region is on a private tour. Many of the liveaboard and private tours around Raja Ampat will combine Waigeo, Salawat and Batanta Island into one package.
Misool Island is the odd one of the group. The island is far to the South of the mainland. Most private tours and many liveaboards will do Misool. That can be a big plus. For starters it means you’ll find a lot less tourists in Misool. The resorts are also a bit more exclusive, like Misool.
There’s lots to see and do around Misool for nature lovers. One of the islands highlights is Harfat Peak, which offers panoramic views over the ocean and dozens of small islands (similar to what you’ll see at Wayag and Pianemo). There’s also a healthy selection of beautiful beaches, coral reefs and thick forests.
Raja Ampat is one of the jewels of Indonesia. The archipelago offers some of the best diving in Indonesia set against a picturesque setting of emerald islands. While it’s a beautiful region to visit, it’s difficult to explore. I hope that this guide is a good starting point for arranging your trip. If you’re planning to backpack through Raja Ampat make sure to check out our backpacking guide.
Have you ever visited Raja Ampat? Which of the islands did you visit? Share your feedback with other travellers in the comments below.