Indonesia was just one of the 8 countries I never managed to visit during my 7 month trip through South East Asia in 2013 and so I had to come back to spend some time exploring Bali & the Gili Islands. Based on my early research I got the feeling that the island of Bali was relatively small and so I assumed I could cover large parts of it quite quickly… boy was I wrong. Its a pretty big island and you could easily give the island a solid month, there is lots to see and do, let alone the islands surrounding such as Lombok, Gili’s, etc. Bali suffers from the classic ridiculous traffic issues as the rest of Indonesia so don’t expect to get from A to B very quickly.
First things first, the Denpasar Airport is not actually in Denpasar… its closer to Kuta/Seminyak and Uluwatu basically being the division between them. Ubud is inland about 1h30mins north of Kuta and Mount Batur is even further north, and from central parts of Bali the Gili islands can easily take 5 hours to reach including transfer to Padangbai and then the fast ferry.
Ubud is truly fantastic, it was everything I expected. Rice Paddies, Palm Trees, Hindu Culture, Ice Cold Coconuts, westerns here to ‘find themselves’ ala Eat Pray Love. Interestingly of all the popular SE Asian towns I have visited, Ubud definitely has a larger middle age western women population. The town is filled with food options from burgers, sushi, to the more health conscious vegan & vegetarian options. Arriving quite late we managed to find a meal from a Makan Panang Warung (restaurant). This is a style of restaurant where you will see plates of food stacked up in the windows. It may seem really odd/unhealthy to a westerner to see food piled up in the shop window, but these are definitely worth trying as once you sit down you will be brought one of every plate of food they serve along with a big bowl of rice. Ultimately you will only pay for the plates you have touched or eaten, (I generally push all the dry looking fish to one side and head straight for the Beef Rendang) think of it like a conveyor belt sushi bar.
Ubud is thick with culture, the balinese temples and architecture is prominent on every corner and every morning the offerings (Canang sari) of Frangipani flowers, Incense, Fruit and Rice are laid out in the street in front of everyone’s houses as a thanking for the peace in the world.
I spent my first day walking the streets from Sunrise to Sunset exploring the streets filled with amazing statues, lined with rice paddies, beautiful sculptures and deep caverns of flowing water surrounded by thick forrests. The common tourist attractions included the Monkey Sanctuary, shopping and trying a local ‘salad’ known as Gado Gado which they have a fantastic fresh version of at Rococo Warung as normally the veg is blanched. A great way to end the day is to take a stroll along the Camphun Ridge Walk, enjoy an ice-cold coconut to cool off and watching the sunset as you wander on home.
Hiring a motorbike is a great way to get around Ubud, although beware of the risks involved as traffic is nuts! I prefer to explore on my own without a tour guide and so headed north for the day to see the Tegalalang Rice Terrace. The rice terrace has clearly become very popular with tourists and the Balinese know it, making this beautiful spot feel a lot like a tourist trap with ‘forced donations’ to enter and again to walk further through the terrace. Why not just call it an entry fee and be done with it I am not sure. They are spectacular though and well worth spending some time just wandering around enjoying nature.
Heading a little further north are some coffee plantations, where the guides giving you a very interesting guide of all the local plants & fruit trees. Its great to see the Dragon Fruit, Mangosteen, and Coffee plants. These plantations also offer Kopi Luwak where you can even see some of the poor little civets kept in cages. The temples in the area are fascinating, be sure to visit the less popular Gunung Kawi (Bali’s oldest and largest ancient monuments), not far from the extremely busy Pura Tirta Empul. Oh, and don’t be tricked into buying a sarong to enter the temples. Every single temple we visited we were given a sarong as part of the entry ticket price. The next day I threw on my board shorts and headed south from Ubud, first stopping at the Goa Gajah Temple (Elephant Cave) which is a small temple with a cave as part of the temple complex. The Tegunungan Waterfall was my ultimate destination to cool off during the heat of the day. It’s a bit of trek down the stairs into the valley but the cool misty air is the best reward after a hot morning templing. The drive back to Ubud takes you right past the Mask Museum that lets you dive deeper in to the dance, architecture & puppetry of Bali.
Leaving Ubud at 11am and getting to Gilli Trawangan at 4pm makes for a pretty long stressful journey, part of which is spent dumped at a very chaotic ferry ‘terminal’ where hawkers will try sell you everything from a beer to a sarong. I put the word ‘terminal’ in inverted commas because its more of just a dodgy building on the beach surrounded in trash, with no one communicating with you as to which boat is yours or what time your boat will even be arriving to pick you up. The reward though, once on Gili T is well worth this classic asian madness.
The Gili’s are 3 little islands, the biggest being roughly 2/3sqr km, just off the north west coast of Lombok Island. They are an excellent escape from the traffic filled madness of Indonesia since they have no motorised vehicles, only bicycles and horse drawn carts. The islands are an home to some excellent diving & snorkelling with the waters teaming with life from Morish Idols, Rays to Turtles as the nutrient rich currents flow south from the Java Sea toward the Indian Ocean. A day out snorkelling will cost around $8usd, fins and mask included. Gili T is easy enough to cycle around in a morning, but take your time, stop for a coconut and enjoy the amazing beaches, bars and palm tree groves as you go. The roads are a little sandy & bumpy in places but heading to the west side of the island for Sunset is a magical experience, especially if the day is clear, you can see the sunset over Mount Batur on Bali mainland.
As I mentioned the diving is brilliant, and all the dive schools adhere to a fixed dive price. So just drop in at a few of them and choose the one you feel most comfortable with as there appears to be a pretty high standard across the islands. Out of the 3 days I spent on Gili T the bulk of them were spent underwater, there is just so much to see. Be sure to check out the Turtle Sanctuary on the eastern beach, and learn how humans are impacting these beautiful creatures.
Food choices on Gili and around Bali are impressive, if you have been traveling asia for a while and craving some western food you will be in heaven. The islands offer some excellent Pizza, BBQs and even a pretty good little Mexican restaurant. If it were not for other plans, I could easily find myself getting stuck here in the Gili’s.
The home to some great surf beaches, aussies and beach parties. Its proximity to the airport means that most visitors to Bali will at some point end up passing through Kuta. It has some great wide beaches and to hire a surfboard here only cost $4usd per hour along with a rashie. The waves roll in consistently and cleanly nearly all day, although its always best to time your surf sessions with the tides. Weekends are prime for hotels to host beach/pool parties where the cocktails flow, the music pumps and the girls show off their bikinis. Nights are fun, with beach bars opening up serving food and drinks to guests sitting on beanbags scattered across the beach.
Bali is a must see destination, at least once in you life. I will definitely be visiting the Gili islands again sometime soon as they really stole a piece of my heart.