We're back in Bali since our last visit three years ago. We'd never planned to come to Bali, on this particular trip. However, the long range weather forecast for the Phillipines, our desired next stop, was not good at all. So we were off to Indonesia to explore some different places, find a small island and for me to get my PADI diving qualification before we visit some of the best dive sights around Asia.
The Classy Journey
We arrived at Singapore airport and checked in for the flight in one of the web kiosks. Annoyingly, it gave us seats far apart so as we dropped the baggage off and I asked if we could be seated together, they managed to find two seats at the back by the toilets so we took them.
We were happy enough and enjoyed a last pint of Singha and a fag in the cactus smoking garden before going through security at the gate. I got delayed by alarms going off and the fact I had forgotten to remove a bottle of sun cream from my hand luggage, oops.
As I approached boarding control John had already gone through and shouted to me that we had been upgraded to business class. I thought he was pulling my leg, but as I handed over my boarding pass for row 63 at the back by the toilets it was exchanged by the staff for one marked 1D, at the front, business class.
So there we were in our flip flops, slightly grubby shorts and dusty daypacks and we were ushered on the plane first and within minutes a nice cool glass of fizzing champagne thrust into our hands.
The rest of the flight was bliss as we played with the flat seats, flicked through the premium channels and sipped our way through the fine wine menu and ate a wonderful three course meal. Pichachu enjoyed the upgrade too.
Sadly the flight was only two and a half hours long so we didn’t have much time to soak in the upgrade, but we have tasted it now and a mere upgrade to exit seats will no longer be enough for us.
Its a good job we arrived pampered, as the Bali immigration and visa on arrival system is still as painful as it was. You queue at one counter to pay your $25 per person visa on arrival for which you get a voucher then join a second queue, avoiding the touts offering to speed up the process for double the fee!!
Finally, you get all your stamps and you think by this time the luggage should be whirring round the belt in luggage collection. Sadly not, another 20 minute wait for luggage to appear and finally you get out into the night heat. What awaits you is a final queue at the authorised taxi booth, pay your fare (these are all fixed price and reasonable) and you are on your way; in our case to Seminyak.
We had wandered to Seminyak
on our last visit to Bali, as it's so much quieter than Kuta, and has some great bars and clubs. We were both looking forward to a bit of partying and a blast before we toddled off somewhere more quiet, for some serious relaxation.
We stayed at a new hotel in Seminyak, offering a good introductory rate for about £23 per night, and you can find similar hotels on the Expedia
website. The rooms were fine, a little small but the hotel was OK and right on the main street in Seminyak.
Sadly the old gay beach and cafe at Petitengret has gone and been replaced with a new hotel. The new Bali gay beach, is centred around the Cantina beach shack just past the big W Hotel walking north. It’s a good 10-15 minute walk from Seminyak centre but the staff at the shack, the sunbeds, the bar and food prices are all great so its worth the walk.
We spent the next few days adjusting to the heat and seeing if the gay night life in Bali had changed since we were there last. Seminyak was as we had remembered it, but lots of new plusher hotels have popped up. There are more gay bars on the Jl. Dhyana Pura strip but Bali Joe still has the best atmosphere. A couple of wild nights were had by us and we were ready to plan the next quieter location.
We popped into Kuta to arrange our shuttle and boat to the Gili’s, after listening to advice from friends and other travellers we decided on Gili Air. There are two other islands to choose from just off Lombok, Gili Meno (very quiet and described as a bit Robinson Crusoe by our friend Deborah) and Gili Trawangan (party central).
Our journey there involved a hour long shuttle minibus from Seminyak with a most frightening driver and as I was crammed in the middle seat I had a beautiful view of all his near misses- heart in my mouth for most of the journey. When you reach Padang Bai you have a few choices, either a one and a half hour fast boast, a three to four hour medium fast boast or the public ferry which, with complicated transfers at the other end to get to the Gili's would make the journey last a whole day.
We decided on the fast boat with Miranda Srikandani and were transported across the Lombok Straits in just over an hour and a half on relatively calm seas powered by a beastly line up of Suzuki outboard engines. Note their advertised prices are a goal for them and you can always negotiate downwards particularly in the low season. We managed to get the shuttle from Seminyak to Padang Bai and the fast boat ticket for around £24 each all in.
We arrived at Gili air at 10:30 and made the short walk from the boat landing (it lands on the beach!) to the Sunrise Cottages. The cottages are traditional Sasak style, two stories high with your lounge bathroom and hammock on the ground floor along with a day bed and a mosquito net. Upstairs you get your bedroom, fan, plenty of space and a balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens complete with coconut palms, frangipani and other exoctic bushes. This also attracts a beautiful array of butterflies as well as other scary looking wasps and large buzzing creatures.
There are loads of cottages on Gili air an as we are in the low season all have availability so its easy to turn up at the island and find somewhere to stay. We had a look at a few others but decided on balance that we had a good spot at the Sunrise on the stretch of the island with the best beaches, snorkelling and a good selection of beach shacks and cabannas to choose from. The only thing we didn't have was a hot shower, but this wasn't an issue for us. In addition to being 'ambient temperature' showers they are also salt water as Gili Air has no freshwater supply on the island, it is all hauled in by boat in big tanks on small fishing boats or in bottles for you to purchase.
A walk around the island will take you an hour to an hour and a half, but the main concentration of accommodation and bars is on the east side facing Lombok. If you want to catch the stunning sunsets from this area its only a 15 minute walk south past the harbour to view the crimson skies each evening.
There is little sightseeing on land on the Gili’s other than listening to the gentle waves lap on the sandy white beaches or just watch the boats pootle up and down the straits or simply soak up the sun.
These islands are really about the water, whether for swimming in safe, warm (about 29 degrees) gentle sea or donning your snorkel and fins and venturing a few meters from the beach to gaze in wonderment at the selection of sea life and corals available for viewing without the aid of scuba gear. This is not surprising given Gili Air translates as "water island" in Bahasa.
What the Gili’s are also about is relaxation, there are no cars or motorbikes on the Island and if you cannot be bothered walking you have the option of the horse drawn taxis to get you around, or a bike ifyou fancy trying to pedal it through sand. As you would expect there is no meter on the horse carriages so all fares are negotiable and the price for a short hop up the island will depend very much on your bartering skills.
A typical day on Gili Air goes something like this, unless you are busy learning scuba diving.
After your breakfast you take your pick of the beach shacks find a cabana you like the look of facing out to the sea, rent some snorkelling equipment and you are set up for the day.
If you get hungry you can select some scrumptious Indonesian food (my favourites are a spicy Urap Urap seafood chilli concoction or if you’re feeling veggie some delicious Gado Gado with a peanut sauce) all dishes cost no more than about 30,000 IDR or about £2.50 if you stay away from the scrumptious local fish for which you would expect to pay £5-£8.
Our favourites places while we have been on Gili have been the Zipp Bar, it has wifi (slow connection as are all Gili internet spots) the best value food and does a smashing fresh seafood pizza if you are yearning a bit of carbohydrates.
The Freedom Bar near the Sunrise hotel comes a close second and is very relaxed and will do the occasional beach fire party if you are here for a few days. The host and owner there is just a star, he smokes, he drinks, he sings and he entertains and pulls in the crowds. If you get to Gili go here, you will know when he is in residence, the place comes alive.
If you feel like a drink you can choose from a large menu, but a large beer or a local spirit cocktail will cost a couple of quid, even cheaper in happy hours that run between 5pm and 8pm across the different bars.
You punctuate your eating and drinking by swimming to cool off, snorkelling to say hello to the fish or in my case diving
(of which much more in a later post).
The evening highlight is the sunsets which for a short walk around the south of the Island you are rewarded with some beautiful sights. Then you can settle into one of the bars for the evening post sunset relax, listen to the selected tunes, which does include some Bob Marley, but thankfully not too much. Now and again a guitar will appear from nowehere and some of the multi talented staff will take a break from mixing cocktails and belt out a tune or two. Some of them are not half bad, although a few bars maybe hummed as they forget the words.
For the more lively, there are an assortment of traveller/backpacker bars where you can obtain your favourite mushroom and herbal dishes.
I described this island as Paradise on a couple of facebook updates during our stay here and I still hold to that. It was where I learnt to dive, learnt to fully relax and just enjoy the natural pleasures of this beautiful little island in Indonesia. We met some wonderful people, and as we we're leaving the island, people ran up to us on the dirt paths, hugging and shaking our hands and shouting our names, everybody knows your name here. Special thanks to Saara my dive partner from Finland, and a beautiful couple from Barcelona who gave us a Gaudi T-shirt to remind us of them.
I had told them the previous evening it was my favourite city. That act of random kindness touched me, as did Gili Air, it will always have a special little place in my heart and I sincerely hope to return again before the magic changes. This may be difficult though as developments and the drive to make it more accessible to more tourists speeds up. So if you want to experience the idylic island of Gili Air get in quick, we saw bags of cement arriving daily being hauled from the boats, and some of the bars and accommodation are undergoing makeovers to move more upmarket.
Gili Air now boasts its own ATM. We had managed to fill our wallets before leaving Bali as all the guides said that they were still awaiting this momentus event. I can confirm in the form of pictoral evidence that Gili Air now has its own fully functioning and air conditioned ATM hut, that works! Here is the picture to prove it.
Its back to Bali now to decide what to do next and gorge ourselves on some fast internet and hot showers!