To get to Raja Ampat, we flew via Makassar. Air Asia offers convenient direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to the city, which is also known as Ujung Pandang (UPG). This literally translates to “Pineapple Corner” – cute! Located in South Sulawesi, Makassar was a much bigger a city than we thought – with the centre a good 45 minutes from the airport, and according to Wikipedia, home to over 1.3 million people. Historically, it is also significant as one of the first places the Dutch East India Company set up shop – in a large star-shaped fort on the coast, which they named Fort Rotterdam.
As we descended, we noticed a great many rice paddies beyond the urban sprawl. I learnt later that the Makassarese (and also the Bugis, who constitute one of the largest cultural groups in South Sulawesi) are great seafarers, who specialise in building boats and in fishing. In the verdant foothills and up in the cooler highlands live the Torajans who are famous for their distinct architectural style and for growing coffee. I would have loved to have explored these picturesque rural areas beyond the Makassar, but I didn’t know they existed before coming here!
Emerging from the airport, we were greeted by huge crowds of people – the size of the crowd didn’t diminish much even at 4am in the morning, when we returned the next day to catch our onward flight to Sorong. The atmosphere appeared somewhat festive, with food stalls and people sitting on picnic rugs, including heaps of kids. No one appeared to be going anywhere!
Although I had pre-booked a hotel transfer, our driver was nowhere to be seen so I had to negotiate for a cab with my limited Bahasa Indonesia and start quickly working out what 175,000 Rupiah was in Australian dollars (approximately AUD16!). Our cab was upholstered in bright blue, with silver buttons all over the place – quite a funky aftermarket job!
Pro tip #1: Cash is king in Indonesia – especially in less touristy areas. Bringing Rupiah in small denominations will save you the hassle of having to find a money changer in a strange, foreign airport.
As we approached the city centre, it became apparent that our driver knew the street where our hotel was located, but didn’t know where it was as Jalan Hasanuddin is quite long. What I learnt quickly was that Citadines is pronounced CHI-TA-DINES in Indonesia, and that our driver could not read. How I worked out he was illiterate was that we could both clearly see the building with white letters on its rooftop spelling out its name, but no amount of trying to repeat its name helped him. I ended up explaining in Indonesian that we needed to get to the building with white letters on the roof before we finally got here. Phew!
Pro tip #2: Bring a Bahasa Indonesia phrasebook – very handy in parts such as these as very few spoke any English at all. This one is not bad: Lonely Planet Indonesian Phrasebook & Dictionary
At Citadines Royal Bay Makassar, the staff spoke limited English but we all got there in the end – we ended up checking into a nice, clean, quiet and bright room that looked pretty new on level 12. Non-smoking and with free Wi-Fi and breakfast included (even though we were long gone before the restaurant opened). They also helped us book a taxi transfer back to the airport the next morning, with reception calling us to that evening just to confirm that the driver was booked. Thoughtful. This transfer cost a bit more – about AUD20 – but fair enough, it was so early in the morning!
Pro tip #3: Use my referral link below to get AUD20 off your booking.com hotel stay. https://www.booking.com/s/34_6/7c4c82d2
As we had the afternoon free to explore, we decided to walk – bad idea, it was hot and very humid. So after sticking our noses into the swanky Galael supermarket next door, which stocked Dutch and Australian cheeses, along with beautifully cut up tropical fruit and bakery items, we came back outside into the heat and wondered what to do. A weatherbeaten becak (pedicab) driver approached and I haltingly explained that we wanted to go to Fort Rotterdam. He didn’t appear to understand my poor Bahasa so luckily a friendly passerby helped translate. I think locally they call the fort “Benteng”??
For the exorbitant cost of IDR15,000 or less than AUD1.50, our becak driver would take us the 15 minutes to the fort. I gave him a fair bit more plus a box of cut up watermelon for his efforts – my god, we both weighed far more than him!
At Fort Rotterdam, we were approached by a guide asking for IDR100,000 which we initially declined, but after wandering around for a bit, I thought it would be beneficial to have someone explain stuff to us so Anwar ended up accompanying us around and giving us a brief history of Makassar.
Makassar isn’t touristy by any stretch – there was only us and a couple of other Malaysian VIP tourists (who arrived in a convoy) so I’m not sure how often Anwar actually got work but he spoke excellent English and had good knowledge of the region’s history.
Pro tip #4: Stay longer than one day – I wish we did! South Sulawesi is pretty off-the-beaten-track as far as tourist destinations go. If you’re after a guide, Anwar’s mobile number is 0852 9967 3189 or 0856 5732 2408.
The museum (for which we had to pay a nominal entry fee) had an interesting collection of model boats and fishing implements used by local seafarers. It also documented the different building and dress styles favoured by the Macassarese, Bugis and Torajans.
However, before we could even get in to have a look, we got swarmed by high schoolers who wanted to film us, take photos and practise their English with us. Halfway through our “interviews” (questions appeared to be stock-standard; where do you come from, what do you think of Makassar, where else in Indonesia have you been?), a security guard barged in. Uh-oh, trouble, I thought. But all he wanted was his own photo with hot, sweaty me! Too funny.
After this tour, we were again approached by another wizened becak driver outside the fort, who offered us a grand tour before taking us back to the hotel. Ali was a Bugis who spoke good English – in fact, his English was better than his Bahasa Indonesia – and he braved heavy vehicle traffic through the main street (which was oddly, lined with gold shops) to get to Pantai Losari (Losari Beach) where a line of food and trinket vendors were setting up for the evening. It was a pretty kitschy place but interesting nonetheless, with monuments depicting handsome penisi ships – a specialty of the region, as well as the various distinct architectural and dress styles of the main cultural groups: Torajans, Makassarese and Bugis.
Sadly, we didn’t stay long enough to explore much more, but I will definitely be back through this intriguing part of the world!
Read about the next part of our journey here: