Ai, sometimes spelled Ay, is one of the smaller islands in the Banda Islands group (general info here), a beautiful and relaxed tiny place without any restaurants, cars or even paths wide enough for a car.
It is a perfect destination if you want to escape from the civilized world, a true paradise for those "tired of technology".
There are just 4 small guesthouses, so tourist numbers are very limited, we met only one other than us during the three days we spent on Ai. Some key things to note before deciding to visit Ai:
- to get there you need to get to another island from the Banda group first, which may add a whole day/night to your travel, the same applies when leaving Ai
- there is electricity for only 4-5 hours a day - in the evening
- there is no Internet connectivity, except some areas of the beach facing Neira - there you may get some 3G/4G coverage, if you are lucky
- guesthouse stays include all meals as there are no places to buy food on the island, which makes accommodation (and food) generally more expensive
- the rooms are very basic, even the best ones don't have running water - shower means a bucket of water and a cup to splash yourself
- mosquitoes potentially carrying malaria and other unpleasantness are present as everywhere on Banda, bring enough repellent
- people are less used to tourists and cultural and religious aspects of life are more noticeable. This means no speedos for men and two piece swimsuits for women - when going into the water, boardshorts and rash vests/t-shirts are recomended, out of the water is best to make sure shoulders and knees stay covered.
The main reason people go there is snorkelling, and honestly, there is very little more than that to do there. Here I will give you a detailed list of things one can see and do on Ai, but let's start with...
Regular boats connect Ai with Neira and Rhun only, and so, as the majority of tourists avoid sleeping on Rhun, you most probably will be arriving from Neira, as we did. There is a boat leaving Ai at 7 am, which gets to Neira around 8 am and heads back to Ai at an unspecified time during the day - may be as early as 10 am or as late as 4 pm. Speak with your landlord at Neira, he may have a better idea when the boat is going. Otherwise, just go to the pier and ask around, due to the small number of boats it is easy to find the one you need.
Our boat ride to Ai began with a funny scene - right after leaving Neira two people got cut-out plastic bottles and began throwing out in the ocean the water that has been collecting at the bottom of the boat. I joked about it, something like "Oh, they have it under control, we can relax now.". Then 5 or maybe 6 other people were given identical repurposed bottles and they all joined in the effort to have more water out than in the boat.
The boat is relatively slow and I highly recommend riding on the roof or as I call it - "upper class". With some sun protection, one can enjoy more fresh air, better views and more leg space.
The ride takes one hour and we paid 50 000 IDR per person.
Choices are very limited and most people arrange their room before going to the island. Several guesthouses are located near the pier, two of those are directly on the water. There are also bungalows further on the island. We chose Green Coconut Guest House, the one you can't miss when arriving at Ai - yellow-white house with a big terrace. We were lucky to get the big room on the second floor, although 350 000 IDR per person we considered a bit steep for the spartan conditions. $50 per night for a very basic room is double the average price on Neira and on the larger island you get a better room with WiFi, running water and aircon. On Ai, the water was brought by hand in buckets to fill a big bucket in the bathroom and there were no mosquito nets on the windows.
Here is a quick summary of the options for sleeping on Ai:
- Green Coconut Guest House - Top choice despite being overpriced, great ocean views from the terrace. They were building a large bungalow a bit further down the beach, probably will be ready by March 2020.
- Green Peace - Right next to the pier, possible noise from there, basic and cheap
- CDS Bungalows - Far from the pier, but another traveller we met said it was a nice and quiet place
- Ardy Guest House - The only one not on the water, looked nice from outside
Snorkelling (off the beach!)
Don't forget your snorkelling gear when going to Ai, you don't want to miss the opportunity to enjoy a great snorkelling spot right in front of your accommodation. Mere meters away from the house you can see the first corals and going further into the ocean a minute or two later a colourful and diverse world unveils, still within shouting distance from the terrace. The water was very clear and one can enjoy beautiful views even in the shallows, but if you reach the dropoff, which is about 50 meters from the shore, this is where the best corals and most fish are. We saw our first Napoleon fish (Humphead wrasse) in the first five minutes there, many more followed. There aren't many places in the world where you can leave your room and 10 minutes after encounter those weird, but oddly cute giants.
We spent many hours at the reef "patroling" the sharp edge of the dropoff and saw numerous other fishes in addition to the famous Napoleon fish, including several small sharks. Don't worry, they are not dangerous and or interested in humans. Talking about danger, the real one is the currents. They change direction and strength without an obvious pattern, we were pulled left and right, sometimes very rapidly.
The beach itself offers amazing views in every direction, with the pier to the left, vast empty ocean in the centre and Gunung Api (the volcano) and parts of Neira to the right. A walk along it is good at any time, but really a must at sunset.
Day trip to Rhun (Run) and Nailaka
This trip can be done from Neira as well, but combining Ai, Rhun and Nailaka in one day, in my opinion, is too much. This will mean almost 4 hours of travel time by boat, which leaves little time to enjoy the stops. Surely, it is worth doing, but we recommend doing it like us - sleep on Ai and have a full day to go to Rhun and its tiny neighbour.
Rhun is about 1 hour away from Ai and the history of the island is more interesting than the place itself. During the 17th century, Rhun was one of the very few islands in the world producing the precious nutmegs, and England and Denmark fought a series of wars for control of the region. This all ended in 1667 with a treaty, that left Rhun as a part of the Dutch empire and the English got another island as a compensation. Everybody was happy and battles in the region ended. Which island did England get? It's called Manhattan.
Nowadays Rhun is literally at the edge of the world and offers very little to see. A slow walk around the island can take up to one hour and this includes time to walk all the main paths (two) and visit the fort, which is similar to the others on the neighbouring islands. Also take a look at the mosque, the only modern building standing above the small houses, with its bright yellow domes and deep blue ornaments it is the first thing to notice when getting close to the island.
Nailaka is a tiny piece of land on the north-east edge of Rhun, connected to the larger island, but reachable only by boat. Uninhabited, wild and empty, a great place for a day trip. Ours was the only boat parked there for many hours. We went snorkelling twice for more than an hour each time, the area around the island is quite flat and shallow, currents are not too strong and there is a lot to enjoy underwater - corals and fish are abundant. We also walked around the island, it takes less than 15 minutes for a lap, found shade under a small tree and had lunch there. A small army of hermit crabs was also enjoying the shade and we shared with them some of our nasi goreng, those little guys really love cooked rice!
Other things to do on the island
We enjoyed many long walks along the narrow concrete paths that act as streets. In the mornings one will surely see crowds of kids going to one of the two schools on the island, some locals carrying trays with homecooked snacks to sell, fishermen returning from the ocean with their fresh catch and villagers going to work on the plantations. Many houses have piles of nutmegs left to dry in the sun, some have small stands selling food and drinks, and everywhere curious locals, many of which will want to greet you. It is a pleasure to be a guest in such a small community and have the chance to soak in the atmosphere of rural Indonesia.
As I said above, Ai is a very small, remote and quiet island. The energetic walker can tick off all the attractions on it in less than two hours, but that's not the point of going to a tropical paradise, is it? Here I have highlighted the more noticeable stops one can make along the island, it is not easy to miss them. It is very easy to navigate the island - the two main paths are parallel to the beach and if you somehow manage to get lost, don't worry - all locals know where you are staying and will point you in the right direction.
Fort Revenge (Benteng Revenge)
In the early 17th century, as a part of the British empire, the island prospered - they build the fort, trained and armed the locals to fight against the Dutch. Their combined forces successfully repelled several attacks, resulting in hundreds of dead Dutchman, but eventually, the Dutch bribed the English commander in charge, who moved his fleet to another island, the Dutch took control of Ai and slaughtered most of the locals. Since then the fort bears the sad nickname "Revenge".
The main historic site on the island has been abandoned for a long time and now a single sign (in Indonesian) greets the very few visitors. The massive walls are crumbling, but if you look closely in the grass you can find several of the canons still lying there.
The island has just one small pier, which is not even usable during low tide, the boats just "park" on the beach. Regardless, an afternoon or evening walk around the village is not complete without taking the sights from the pier. Locals use it for fishing and storing produce, like whole banana stems and sacks of cassava, to be loaded on the morning boat to Neira.
The sole reason the island has electricity from 18:00 to 22:30 every evening! One can hear the rhythmic throbbing of the huge Komatsu engine from quite a distance, it is positioned in a small shack next to the fort's gate and the chimney/exhaust bellows dark black soot on one of the ancient walls. The man looking after it was happy to let us inside the shack for a close-up view of the noisy machine.
The high canopy of the huge and old kenari (type of almond) trees gives a nice shade, which is essential for the sensitive nutmeg trees. They grow better in the shadow of the taller trees, and we, just like them, enjoyed the cool, shady forest, a nice place for a walk. Some locals were taking care of their goats there or collecting harvest from the trees, a good opportunity to observe rural life on the islands.
The Kora kora boats
Kora kora is a type of a bamboo canoe typical for the Maluku island group, traditionally functioned as war vessels. Nowadays, they are used only for the annual celebration race, in which every island participates with its own fleet. Each island from the Banda group has several boats with distinguishable decorations kept in a shed, Ai is no exception. Alternatively, go to the beach or watch from the terrace in the late afternoon as kids in their small canoes race against each other, practicing for when the time comes to represent their island.
Remnants of nutmeg plantations
Several colonial plantations existed on the island, but now, are almost completely gone. What is left from the Matalenco compound is just the gate arch on the main street. A little more remains from the Welvaren Residence, a once sizable compound, with hundreds of workers, now just some of the old walls still standing. Locals living in the area are using those for their shacks.