One of Indonesia’s more glorious spots, the Togean islands, set within the Tomini Sea in Central Sulawesi, get a steady trickle of visitors year round, but are at their busiest in July and August, when, shock horror, a reservation may even be in order to secure that beach bungalow. Not the easiest place to reach (from Bali you’re looking at one or two flights and/or long bus and ferry rides just to get there), what to do once you get there? We’d suggest dedicating at least five days here. And here’s what you should consider doing.
The east-west running archipelago is clustered around seven primary islands, with accommodation stretched from one end to the other and while just about everywhere has their own strip of sand and perhaps a house reef, most of the activities will involve boats to get there.
While some of the resorts offer good off-the-beach snorkelling, doing a snorkelling trip is a great way to pass a half- or full-day. Depending on where you are staying, you may just be taken to one spot, or a handful and, the further you want to go, obviously the more it will cost. Trips tend to rely on a minimum of four passengers. If you’re staying between Kadidiri and Malenge a snorkelling trip is easily combined with a trip to jellyfish lake and Karina Beach. As far as coral is concerned, the standards can be very mixed — some of the reefs are in quite poor conditions — but expect plenty of fish. Another option for a trip from Kadidiri is to Hotel California. To the west, Taupan offers excellent snorkelling (and diving).
A great half-day trip is to jellyfish lake and Karina Beach. Caused by a big and presumably sudden geological change that sealed off the lake (real name Mariona Lake) is what it says on the can: a large lake full of jellyfish. Isolated from predators for untold jellyfish generations, they’ve lost the ability (and need) to sting and so the jellyfish here can be safely swum with and gently prodded. This is one of only a handful of places worldwide where you can do this — another is Palau in the Pacific — so it’s well worth doing. A visit to the lake is generally combined with a stop at nearby Karina Beach, a beautiful strip of radiantly white sand. We thought the snorkelling was mediocre, but others we talked to raved about it, so perhaps we swam in the wrong direction.
As with snorkelling, if you are diving you’ll find some of the reefs are in quite poor shape thanks to cyanide and dynamite fishing, but the more isolated and deeper sites do serve up good conditions. Particularly noteworthy is the wreck of a B24 Liberator bomber that ditched on the south coast of Pulau Togean (about a 30-minute speedboat ride from Kadidiri Paradise). The wreck’s highest point is at around the 17-metre mark so this is unfortunately too deep for snorkellers and Open Water divers, but it can dived by Advanced Open Water divers or as an Adventure Dive. To the west of the archipelago it’s all about steep drop-off dives — some of the walls off Taupan apparently plunge more than 200 metres — with numerous atolls and shallows well worth exploring. Black Tip, Island Retreat and Kadidiri Paradise all have active dive shops.
A number of local villages can be visited on the islands and, if you’ve not visited a small Indonesian village before, it may be of interest. Many of the fishing villages are stilted and attractively set. Expect to see loads and loads of children. The bigger villages, such as Bomba and Wakai, are more typical affairs and of less interest. If you’re staying at Poya Lisa or Island Retreat you can combine a village visit with hornbill spotting, where at dusk dozens of hornbills fly overhead (most days). Great for kids.
On Batudaka there is an extremely poor dirt road that runs from Wakai in the east to Bomba in the west. We hired a motorbike in Bomba and tried to ride it, but gave up after about four hours. The road is truly horrendous. But towards the Bomba end there are a few fair-sized villages that may to interesting to visit, and the jungle in-between is impressive in places.
With all this cruising around on boats, you’d be mad not to just visit a few beaches and islands other than the one you are staying on. Sifa Cottage, Fadhila Cottage, Bolilanga Cottage and Kadidiri Paradise all have decent off-the-beach snorkelling, while Poya Lisa has some great cliff jumping.
For the truly athletic, you could consider climbing Gunung Una Una — the volcano that spectacularly exploded in 1983. You’ll need to charter a boat — we were quoted 800,000 to a million rupiah for a boat from Kadidiri Paradise. You’ll then need to arrange a local guide on Una Una, which we were told would cost an additional 300,000 rupiah. While the peak doesn’t look all that massive (compared to a more typical volcano anyway) we were told the climb is challenging and at the summit you’re able to see into the caldera and its sulfur clouds. In 2012 a German traveller slipped and fell while climbing and broke her spine — she needed to be carried out. When we asked a climber if he’d climb it again he laughed and said, “No way!”
So there you go. While many could easily spend five days doing nothing but laying in the hammock, if you want to do some exploring, there is plenty to fill five days on the Togean Islands.
Confession: We spent 18 days there.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.