Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 3 Weeks
From Australia we flew North to Bali, Indonesia.
Indonesia is beautiful but very built up in a lot of areas, particularly along the coast and the Islands. We visited the Gili Islands and there was barely a patch of beach that wasn't occupied by a sun lounger. However, Ubud was something else. Go to Ubud!
These are my Indonesia highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
Travelling Around Indonesia
To save money and stress some forward planning is essential. Due to the level of tourism, every opportunist on the scene likes to make an appearance and sway you into the back of their car. Be vigilant, book ahead as much as you can and know where you’re going to, and who you’re going with.
I found travelling around Indonesia frustrating and confusing. The number of people who approached us claiming to be with certain tour groups and literally trying to force you into their carriage was absurd. Some were so forward as to lift your bags off the floor and load them onto their horse, van, car – whatever. Just be aware.
Keep an eye out for...
Giant kites! Yes, giant (10 meters) and absolutely stunning. Apparently every year in July there is a kite festival which sounds magical. You can watch them being constructed and tested out.
Our plan on arrival was to get to the Gili Islands as soon as possible for a week of paradise beach time. Bali didn’t appeal so much because it was so touristy and a typical Oz holiday destination. We needed something a bit more remote.
We stayed in Sanur for 1 night before heading to Gili. Sanur is apparently a nicer alternative to Kuta (which is apparently best avoided if you’re not really into party scenes and dirty beaches). I can’t say anything for Bali’s beaches as we didn’t visit any – what I read about didn’t appeal to me but I’m sure there are some gems out there – possibly attached to expensive resorts?
I would go back though…why? Ubud! (which I’ve covered below)
Beach resorts really, and from what we could physically see (as we passed both other Gili Islands to get to Gili Air), Gili Air was by far the best. Not as busy as Trawangan – the party Island ( I couldn’t see a patch of land – just bars, bars, bars), and more going on than Gili Meno.
Paradise? Not quite. Gili Air was overdeveloped and let’s just say, nobody really lived there, they ‘worked’ there. Every home was a home stay/hostel and everything pretty much catered to tourism. But we had a nice enough time – nothing special but worth a visit.
From Sanur we travelled to Padangbai to catch a boat to the Gili Islands. The boat company provided transport from our accommodation in Sanur. From Sanur the journey was 1.5 hours to Padangbai and a fast boat to Gili Air took 2 hours.
We took the Blue Water Express (fast boat). Warning: If you suffer from sea sickness sit at the back. Fast boats cost around Rp750,000(£45) per person /one way. There is a ferry that is much cheaper but it can take over 8 hours.
My sister travelled to Gili Air in the 1990s. From her description I imagined turquoise waters and long stretches of empty, sandy beaches and a nice scattering of beach bars and local restaurants. Well the water was turquoise but the beaches were all mostly coral and every inch of space was taken over by a restaurant, café, bar, hotel and sun loungers. In fact, space was so precious we made a point of getting up extra early to bag a spot we had found on a sheltered part of the Island. Lonely Planet describe Gili Air as ‘unspoiled natural beauty.’ That is very very far from the truth. In that respect, because our expectations were not met, we were disappointed.
BUT that disappointment did subside as there were a few little hidden gems we were delighted to have found; a yoga retreat, cosy beach bars and lovely food.
Places to Stay
Before looking at accommodation options it's important to be aware of a few things...
If you are a light sleeper avoid anywhere that’s directly on the beach. These accommodations are often overcrowded and noisy. Also avoid sleeping near the mosque during Ramadan.
As this is an island, fresh water is precious and you are encouraged to recycle. We were provided with a bucket at our accommodation to use during showers and to use as a flush for the toilet. The toilet had a flush which we could use but it is worth using the facilities provided to help sustain resources.
You may be put off by reviews of shower water smelling bad. Our accommodation had complaints. However, this is common. I left the water running for 15 seconds (into the bucket I used for the toilet) and the smell goes as soon as it comes. It’s that eggy sulphuric smell, it’s not dirty water, it’s fine for washing in, not for drinking obviously.
It may look like a high flying resort but it is an Island off a third world country. It has it limitations but it's the limitations that make it paradisiacal.
Gili Air Santay
If you do a search for accommodation on Gili Air you’re faced with an overwhelming number of options. The problem here is that the entire Island is pretty much a resort.
We stayed in a bungalow in Gili Air Santay. The reviews for this place are pretty average. Like some of its competitors it doesn’t have a pool. I think that’s all it didn’t have that I felt I would have liked. But even if I did return to Gili Air with more money I would stay here again because, quite frankly – it is the only place on the entire Island that doesn’t feel like you’re sitting on top of everyone else.
You can walk out into the dirt road and not all of a sudden see a hundred people walking around and maybe 100 meters down the road was the only piece of beach on the entire island that promised a bit of space, the best snorkeling spot and no wind. The gardens surrounding the bungalow were beautiful, well kept and it was utterly peaceful.
The bedroom was basic but completely charming and rustic. The bathroom facilities were attached to the room but located outside (which is quite common), and nowhere near as bad as you may think. No one can see in and we didn’t get any bugs or nasty surprises. Rooms were cleaned on request and decorated with fresh flowers from the garden. Perfect.
In fact, the grounds are so tucked away you’ll even have the opportunity to see the Island’s Komodo dragons.
Average but if you’re staying, eat here at least once (I suppose out of politeness if anything). Drinks are reasonably priced and the setting is lovely. The pad thai is pretty good but there are some incredible places to eat on the Island that you wouldn’t want to miss.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Chillout Bar and Bungalows
Hands down our favourite place to grab a bite to eat. The BBQ is incredible – fresh and delicious and the cocktails are great – don’t miss the 2 for 1 happy hour. This beach front bar/restaurant looks pretty much like the rest of them but when we discovered how good the food was here, with the brilliant happy hour prices to boot, we came back again and again. The big crowds say it all.
Mowie’s – food and cocktails
Beanbags, beach, sunset, happy hour, gorgeous cocktails and good food. This is the part of the island you come to to enjoy sunset, but after the sun does set it is a bit of an ‘oontz oontz’ party bar.
Excellent food but slightly pricier than a lot of places. Worth it though.
Again, excellent food but expensive.
Things to See and Do
My favourite part of staying on the Island was finding this tranquil spot. H20 offer retreats, daily meditation and yoga, massage, aromatherapy and Reiki healing. It’s just the perfect place for winding down.
The best spot is by Gili Air Santay, where we stayed (they also rent out snorkel gear). You see quite a lot of marine life including turtles, although they are few and far between. However, watch out for strong winds and changing tides. When the tide is out you feel like you are walking for miles before you can start to swim out.
Snorkel with a buoy or something to make you visible to oncoming boats. Be vigilant and always snorkel with someone else.
We originally planned to stay a week but didn't have a particularly nice time, so cut our journey short to 3 days and went back to Gili.
We took a boat from Gili Air and travelled to Lombok. This is fairly straightforward as there is a ticket office at the harbour and people speak English. Once you land in Lombok however, you need to walk 100 yards up the main road (if in doubt follow everyone else) and make your way to a cafe/bar three quarters of the way up the road where you can get a connection.
Wait there for your transfer. You will get hassled as soon as you get off the boat by people claiming to be anyone and everyone. They can be quite forceful and will try and charge you over the odds. Try and stick to instructions that accommodations you have booked with give you.
The beach by the town was quite polluted when we visited. We visited some beaches just outside of town which were beautiful but the owners of a few bars and restaurants were persistent for us to sit at their tables. The constant fighting for our attention was just all a bit too much and a little intimidating at times. Behind these local businesses lay huge piles of rubbish and rotting food. It was sad to see.
I'm sure there are some gems in Lombok but we didn't have time to venture further.
Places to Stay
We stayed in Mimpi Manis Homestay.
The owner, an expat, was friendly and took us around in a car to all her favourite businesses and offered herself as a taxi service as she said it wasn’t safe to travel on foot at night. They hired out scooters too which was brilliant.
Tripadvisor rated this place as outstanding – but I soon found out that the reviews came mainly from the owners friends and family who came to stay with her. She told me herself, that’s how it worked round those parts.
The worst part about staying here is that it is on a main road. The traffic is constant and it is also next door to a mosque. We stayed during Ramadan. Not good. You get earplugs on arrival and I tell you what – even the earplugs did not drown out the noise. We couldn’t even hold a conversation. We stayed for 3 days out of politeness as we had originally booked for a week, made our excuses and got out of there.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Fresh, tasty cheap food. Always full – that tells you something. Next door to that is a Moroccan style place – nice, but expensive.
Beautiful, vibrant, peaceful, unique. Before catching our flight to Japan we stayed in Ubud for 4 days. I would go back in a heartbeat.
The town of Ubud, in the uplands of Bali is set in and amongst rainforest and rice fields, and is dotted with Hindu temples and shrines. Ubud is also a foodies dream with restaurants serving excellent food. There are hundreds of shops selling antiques, woodcarvings, crafts, textiles, paintings and jewellery. I loved how busy and buzzing it was. The main road really is a paradise for arts and crafts shopping and if it all gets too much you are just a stones throw away from the peaceful and stunning rice fields.
I absolutely cannot recommend Ubud enough and wish I’d had longer here. It is predominantly a Hindu area so lots of smiles and very welcoming and relaxed. For the first time in Indonesia I felt at ease. The rice fields are spectacular – not to be missed. Walking through them was utter bliss.
Places to Stay
On a budget – Jati Homestay
We were on the ground floor overlooking Hindu statues and a small, hazy tropical paddock with a stream and visiting geese. Outside our room was a sofa we could sit back in and enjoy the view. You can get lost in the scene so easily you quickly forget that the homestay is situated so close to the main road. It is so peaceful.
Things to See and Do
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary – Mandala Suci Wenara Wana
The Ubud Monkey Forest is a nature reserve and Hindu temple complex home to 3 Hindu temples, all apparently constructed around 1350. Walking through the forest is like walking through a movie set. There were also hundreds of monkeys. But be warned – they will try and steal from you. Aim to leave any bags/belongings at home. Also, do not touch the monkeys as they will bite. I got a nibble from one who I noticed was trying to get into my bag.
They also jump all over you but they get bored quickly and hop off. It was really good fun!
Shopping – Ubud Market and the main road Jalan Raya Ubud
All along the main road and throughout Ubud’s streets you will find all sorts of arts and craft stores. Next to Mexico this was probably one of my favourite shopping experiences on the trip so far.
Click here for more information about the markets and stores in Ubud.
Ubud is pretty small so if you have the time just go and see it all. The market is more expensive as it draws more tourists so try some of the local shops instead.
Rice field walk – yoga, wood carving
Unforgettable. You can spend all day here, walking, chilling out with food and drink in one of half a dozen little family run eateries. You can even come to do wood carving or join a yoga retreat (accommodation is available in the rice fields). I’ve heard reports of some of the rice fields being overrun with tourists – I think we passed about 4 tourists the entire day. Maybe we didn't go to the touristy one? Again, Ubud isn't big so you'll have plenty of time to explore.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
There were some super foody places that I’d heard about that do exceptional food but we were saving our cash for Japan and decided to stick to budget cheap eats.
Rated the second best place to eat in Ubud, this restaurant also gives back 100% of its profits to the foundation and its health and medical care programmes. When you buy 1 meal you fund 2 medical treatments and the building of local hospitals and medical facilities.
The food and the atmosphere is simply stunning. You’re best to book ahead if eating here in the evening but lunchtimes are fairly quiet. If I had known about it sooner I would have eaten here every day!
Next stop on The Great Escape: Japan
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere else I travelled to as part of this expedition: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.
For highlights and travel tips for all countries I've travelled to click here.