We’d landed in the Asian West – the road from Bali airport is covered with McDonald’s, Starbucks and H&M signs but what stroke me the most was the amount of traffic. The dual carriageway was filled with taxis, trucks, scooters (!) and motorbikes all squeezing in and between the lanes, and the infrastructure does not help the case: after booking a night in a hotel close to the airport due to our late arrival, we actually ended up driving all the way to Kuta where the first turnaround was for us to come back most of the way back as our hotel was on the other side of the carriageway!
Indonesia is home to just over 250 million people whereas the whole of the US has the population of 325 million but is 5 times bigger in size. Bali itself has over 4 million inhabitants which explained the notorious traffic – it’s not a big island…
We were walking on a path by an enormous cliff side at the very tip of the island looking towards the vasts of the Indian Ocean. On the very edge of this area sits the Uluwatu temple – one of the biggest tourist attractions in Bali and for a good reason!
The stunning views were surrounding from each direction and we were trying really hard not to let the unbearable midday heat affect our enjoying of them. I decided to take this opportunity for a great photo: Rhys put his rucksack on the side curb, I did the same with the camera case whilst passing the camera to him. I was putting on the most relaxed facial expression ignoring the sweat beads running down my nose when I noticed, in the corner of my eye, two monkeys running swiftly towards Rhys and suddenly grabbing my camera bag – Rhys miraculously managed to get this on camera as he moved it from me to the direction of the noise!
This was where the real adventure began – we started running after the monkeys in the hope of snatching the bag back however they are much quicker than you’d think! In seconds, they had disappeared in the surrounding bushes and the undergrowth. With the help of a park ranger who luckily showed up just at the right time, we search the surrounding areas for my bag and the naughty monkey. I was surprised by the treasures these animals had acquired – the jungle was covered with broken sunglasses, flip flops, jewellery and broken phones… Rhys and I had wondered off deeper into the bushes when we heard loud angry noises coming from behind us. The ranger had found the monkey with the camera case and was pulling it back towards him which caused an outrage in the local monkey community who have now gathered around him on the ground and tree branches and did not look impressed. They were screaming and jumping and hissing at him whilst I was walking away at speed – they were not joking when they said these long-tailed macaques were wild animals (despite the cute image in our heads)! With the bag in hand and a sling shot ready to be fired at the group of monkeys which were still following the ranger, he retreated towards us and handed the bag back to me. Thankful, we took it off our monkey hero only for me to voice one ‘small’ issue – my phone that had been in my camera case was gone, the monkeys kept it! The search resumed for a while however after a while we were not hopeful – macaques like shiny toys and I guessed that’s what my iPhone was now… We left towards the main temple (we hadn’t even made our way there yet!) slightly shook by the adventure and upset about the upcoming unplanned expense.
Just before we jumped on the scooter to leave the complex, we received a call from the park ranger with great news – my phone had been left by the monkeys on a pathway and found. He just didn’t exactly describe the state of it… I hope the monkeys had fun.
Besides the monkey accident, the first week in Indonesia had been pretty uneventful. We’d been staying in a hostel close to Kuta where I was teaching yoga in the mornings and afternoons. We managed to include a few small trips in between the classes however we were located in the most populated area between Kuta and Denpasar (the capital of Bali) on one of the busier roads. We ended up spending most of our free time catching up on reading and playing endless games of pool on the rooftop of the hostel.
We did wander out to Kuta to have a look at the local beach and explore but after the first attempt decided to not repeat the mistake. Unfortunately, what was a few years back a top tourist town in Bali due to its closeness to the airport, the town has now changed and what we found was a couple of long boulevards full of tacky Western bars advertising Happy Hour, and lots of drunk visitors in between. I was told this had become a prime stag -weekend destination for Australians due to the flights only (!) taking 6 hours.
Our first real destination in Bali was Canggu – a small trendy town known for its sunsets. Besides soaking in the views of rice fields and temples interchanging as we drove around the island some of the previous days, we had not yet done much sightseeing however the best way to enjoy Bali is to soak in the sun and have some great food (more on that below!). However this was our first free Sunday and we decided to spend it watching the sun set before the new week began.
And what a sunset it was – almost undoubtedly, it must have been the best we had ever experienced. The whole process lasted a couple of hours starting a while before the sun actually hid away and colouring the sky in all shades of purple and pink for long after it disappeared.
The beach is perfect for it with its wide white and black sand shores and endless surfing bars lined up further up offering bean bags and sunbeds to relax and enjoy the view.
The daytime was as enjoyable even though the sea was a bit rough, and so we were sad to leave Canggu after only a couple of days. There is not much to do however if you are looking for a laid back town with gorgeous sea and amazing food offering – it’s the perfect choice.
After taking a short ferry, we had come to Nusa Penida the previous day. It is a much smaller island mostly visited by tourists from Bali as a day trip to grasp some of its extraordinary beauty. Without a doubt, the west coast is where most would go and for a reason – two of the most famous attractions lie fairly close to each other, and are the Kelinking Beach and the Broken Beach (also known as Angel’s Billabong – don’t ask me why!).
We had heard great things about the island and had allocated two full days to spend exploring it. The best way (and basically only, unless you’re on a bus tour from Bali) to see Nusa Penida is by scooter – they’re available everywhere and the roads are mostly too narrow for cars.
We had found the Broken Beach and the Angel’s Billabong pretty easy as the main road of the island circles close to them and is fairly well marked. It did get a bit confusing towards the end where it becomes a dirt track with endless bumps and potholes to swerve around. Let’s just say we avoided the majority with only a small incident which left Rhys and the scooter half covered in mud… But the view was absolutely worth it!
The day only got more interesting as it went on. It was late afternoon when we found ourselves pushing the scooter through a half-a-metre-wide jungle track of sizeable rocks which were no longer suitable for driving on. We had been trying to make our way to the Crystal Bay, famous for its beautiful shores and great sunset views, which was just up the west coast from the Broken Beach. When you look at a map, you can see a clear road leading from one to the other but a road it was not. We were pushing and pulling the scooter trying to navigate the weight of it over the slippery rocks in flip flops over steep jungle hills. We came across only one person going the other way who seemed as confused to see us tourists there as we were by this experience. It was the most stressful driving experience we (Rhys) had had throughout the whole trip.
The Crystal Bay welcomed us with stunning views and an impressive sunset as if it knew what it had taken for us to make it there. The beer we had on the beach was one of the best I had ever tasted.
After the first day in Nusa Penida, we felt more ready for any challenges the island roads would bring us – after all, it was all paid off by a new vista behind each corner. I kept on telling Rhys that if I had to choose a place that looked most like Jurassic Park, this would be the absolute winner.
Rolling hills on each side, we were crossing the island in the middle from north to south in the quest of the so-called ‘Teletubbies’ – a round hill complex which look like the scenery from the well-known children’s show. I won’t hide that I started singing the theme tune as soon as I saw the view!
But of course we do not like to avoid an adventure and after our walking around the hills, we somehow took a wrong road to our next destination to only find ourselves pushing the scooter through the dirt tracks yet again. This time we were quite far away from the next destination and so it took us a few hours to get back on route again.
The East side of the island is undoubtedly much quieter due to the ferry port and main roads stretching mostly over the North and the West. As a result, we arrived at Atuh Beach to find only a handful of people enjoying its white sand shores.
The entrance to the beach is via a set of stairs leading down to it therefore your first viewpoint is from the cliff to the right of it – and it’s incredible!
I was so happy to see the curling waves (I was ready for a swim!) that I had not looked right at first. Once I did, there opened up another beach that I could only describe as a definition of paradise – a stunning white sand, silky blue water and palm trees surrounded by limestone cliffs and rocks. No wonder they call it a Diamond Beach!
What I found out later was that we got extremely luck as the limestone stairs had only been made at the end of 2018, and thus before the access to the beach was only available to the lucky ones with private boats.
I was in awe by the beauty of Nusa Penida – I had thought the incredible cliffs we had seen the day before cannot be topped but here I was running around the most beautiful beach in the world.
Arriving to Gili Air took a bit longer – after all, it’s much closer to Lombok than Bali, unfortunately the former was not on our itinerary for this trip (it is absolutely our wish to visit it in the future as it is said to be what Bali was a couple of decades ago before the Westerners made it their version of heaven on Earth) – and the three-hour ferry was chopping through waves with no problem until people started to be sick at the choppiness of the ride. The afternoon rains had gathered as clouds above the smallest island I have ever visited which was about to be my home for the next few days.
The Gili Islands (Trawangan, Meno and Air) are a world famous destination due to their closeness to Bali, as well as incredible lushness and beauty. Whereas Trawangan has become a top backpacker destination over the last years with its West shores covered in bars and all night party spots, Meno and Air have always been a quieter choice. Gili Air has a hippy island vibe and we noticed it the moment we got off the ferry – due to the size of it, no cars are allowed on the island, and so small dirt streets were full of bikes with baskets decorated with flowers, barefoot travellers and happy locals chilling around their shops and restaurants. We were staying in the very centre of the island and it took us 10 minutes whichever way to reach the shores.
The sad note is that all Gili Islands were tragically affected by the two August 2018 earthquakes, just days apart from each other. Hundreds died and thousands were left injured or homeless, and the results could still be seen less than a year after. The businesses were picking up and much hope has been put into tourism to help fund the recovery of life on these islands.
Our first evening here was fantastic – we enjoyed an authentic Italian pizza watching the sunset (yes, Indonesian islands are just the best for them!) over the calm crystal clear sea.
We had a small detour on our way home cycling around the island through small dirt streets and jungle tracks watching the bright stars through the palm leaves above our heads.
We were on a small fishing boat crossing the straights towards the coasts of GiliMeno, which was the first stop on our snorkelling trip. Only now I have realised how available and cheap such tours were in Asia (I am currently in Mexico where prices are adjusted to the many American tourists and are in line with most of Europe) – for about 10 dollars, we got to enjoy the 6-hour tour that takes you around the three islands with regular snorkelling stops and a lunch break on one of the Meno’s quieter beaches.
It was a special day for us because we saw turtles in the wild for the first time in our lives – they were feeding on the sea bottom and coming back up to breathe and we were diving up and down around them. I had not realised how huge they were!
We also stopped to see underwater sculptures part of a project ‘Nest’ by artist Jason DeCaires Taylor. It comprised of 48 human-sized sculptures in a circle which aim to act as an artificial reef for corals to grown on to attract fish and divers. Diving around these hugging couples left all of us amazed and inspired by how humans can support the environment in such a beautiful way.
We were spending our last week in Indonesia in the heart of Bali – Ubud. Known as a spiritual and yoga destination, the town is not only full of culture, great food and hundreds of temples, but is also conveniently located in the very centre of the island allowing you to use it as a base. Scooters can be rented on every corner and endless waterfalls, temple complexes and caves dotted around Bali offer a new day trip idea every morning.
Having had a few fun-packed days in Nusa Penida and Gili Air, we mostly enjoyed slow-paced days around town and I immersed myself back into my yoga practice at one of the known local studios. Today was also Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday) in the Western world and we followed our usual tradition at one of the many trendy cafés in Ubud.
Ubud Palace is located right on the main street of the town, and we had a quick stroll around its grounds enjoying the intricate carvings and majestic designs of the Indonesian Hindu culture.
Enjoying the lovely cooler weather further up from the coast (and also wanting to walk off the enormous amount of pancakes we had eaten earlier that day), we braved ourselves for a 45-minute walk outside of town to visit the famous Goa Gajah temple. Even though half of the walk ended up being on the side of the carriageway, we also came across a little waterfall in the distance of the surrounding rice fields!
The Goa Gajah complex is mostly known for the Elephant Cave which is believed to have been a sacred place of meditation and characterised by menacing faces that are carved into the stone – who’s purpose is assumed to be the warding off of evil spirits. As we walked through the impressive entrance, we expected it to open up, however it contained a couple of small spaces with shrines at each corner full of Hindu and Buddhist imagery and incense – we could not spend more than a few minutes inside for the need of fresh air!
Another interesting feature of Goa Gajah is the Bathing Temple, and we followed the tradition of splashing ourselves with water for good luck.
Today marked the 1941 Saka New Year of Hindus here in Bali, and is celebrated by local Hindus not by partying but by meditation. ‘Nyepi’ is Bali’s Day of Silence and no activities are allowed to take place on the day. We heard about this when we first came to Indonesia almost a month before but I did not realise the extent of this tradition.
That whole day we were not allowed to leave the hotel grounds, make much noise or light fires (not that we would!). Furthermore, there was no Internet in the whole island and all the flights were stopped from arriving to and departing the Denpasar airport! It is extraordinary and impressive how this religious festival was being taken so seriously in an island so heavily driven by tourism.
Most restaurants closed early the day before and of course no shops were open on the day (not that we could leave our hotel anyway) so we had been advised to purchase supplies the day before and inform our relatives about the lack of contact throughout the 24-hour period. I had a somewhat apocalyptic feeling about this!
I had an awesome day – it was like time just stopped: there was no reason to get up early and rush to complete one activity or another, there was no need to check phones at all and so mine was left untouched the whole day, there was no time really as we just enjoyed the day as it was happening spending most of our time catching up on books, playing cards and swimming in the pool. In the afternoon it started to rain monotonously which made us think of home and further cosy up in our comfortable room with a cup of herbal tea. There is absolutely no reason why we would ever do this back at home but I cannot explain how therapeutic and relaxing this experience was to us. I have much respect for the locals taking this seriously in these modern times and taking the time out to meditate, fast and spend a day silently reflecting on the year just gone.
With only one day left to go before our flight to the Philippines, we were surely sad to be leaving Indonesia. At that point I felt it was definitely the top country out of our list that I would be most keen to come back to – not necessarily because it was my favourite (although it’s absolutely a contestant) but because of how vast it is and how much it has to offer. We had only just touched on Bali, Nusa Penida and Gili Air out of the 18 thousand islands in the whole of Indonesia, and the tales we had heard from other travellers will definitely call us back to explore further.
We spent one of our last days visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud dedicated to preservation of the long-tail macaques (also known as crab-eating macaques due to their habit of foraging crabs in beachy areas). It is a village-run conservation project which means that a visit does not only help the preservation of the habitat of the monkeys but also contributes to the prosperity of local Balinese people.
And it absolutely offered a great day for us to reflect on our time in Bali whilst walking around the jungle observing hundreds of macaques getting about their daily routines. There were feeding stations of course, however they were roaming free and as they please otherwise, and the observation of and interaction with the animals were fully on their terms.
Following our previous incident with my phone, I was somewhat fearful still to get too close, and observed from a distance one of the small macaques jumping onto Rhys and climbing up his leg to the rucksack to get a plastic bag out of the side pocket. It jumped off as soon as the bag was retrieved, and kept itself busy for a while playing with it under a bush.
It was incredible to see how human-like the macaques are – they hug, scratch each other and cuddle up together for an afternoon nap. By the end of the visit I was much more relaxed but this time I did not leave anything out of my sight!
THE FOOD BIT
Whilst the growing tourism in Bali and the surrounding islands in the recent decades has had some obvious negative consequences, it has also contributed to the increase in the economic wellbeing of the local population, as well as the modernisation of the society. It is great to see locals being offered various language classes, attending yoga sessions and starting to open up Indonesian-run trendy restaurants and hotels. The strict requirements for foreigners to receive a working visa have also helped resulting in more involvement of the Balinese people in the niche tourist industries that have now started to spread into the lifestyles of the locals.
From a totally selfish perspective, Bali can seem a paradise to a Westerner – fashionable boutiques offering trendy garments made out of sustainable local materials, beautiful cafes and restaurants serving all imaginable options of vegan, raw and super foods, as well as endless studios for yoga, Reiki and other wellness, spiritual & lifestyle activities. And all in the surroundings of lush jungles, rolling rice fields and beautiful beaches! I can certainly see why so many wish to move there and create more permanent lives for themselves by starting businesses.
For us, Bali was a fresh breath (or should I say bite?) of air in terms of food – after months of almost strictly an Asian diet with rice or noodles making up most of our meals, we were over the move to be able to access a wide variety of global foods being offered in Bali. From ceviche to authentic Italian pizza, our taste buds were over the moon!
Should you be visiting Indonesia and Bali any time soon, I’ve noted down a few restaurant & cafe recommendations that were most memorable. Bon appétit!
GABS’ FAVOURITE EATERIES IN BALI & GILI AIR
Beach Bowl Bali – first and foremost, do not go to Kuta! However, if you really have to, this cafe is a lovely getaway in a tucked away street that offers exactly what it says on the tin – all sorts of fresh and delicious salad and smoothie bowls.
South tip of Bali, Uluwatu area:
Suka Espresso – a 5 minute drive from the famous Uluwatu temple, this small cafe is conveniently located to grab a refreshing bite after a hot walk around the temple complex.
Bukit Cafe – we visited Bukit Cafe on our way back from Padang Padang beach (makes a nice half-day plan!). Popular amongst tourists and expats of Bali, this cafe is always full of people and for a good reason – lush surroundings & delicious food make it worth at least one visit during your stay. Start your meal with a refreshing wheatgrass shot!
Atlas Coffee & Kitchen – a lucky find on our wanders looking for a new phone for me (thanks to the monkeys!), this small cute restaurant just off the main road makes it a perfect excuse for a lunch break. A must try is their selection of meats which includes Honey Roasted Char Siew Pork, Crispy Roasted Pork Belly and Hainanese Chicken – one of my favourite meals of the whole trip! Finish off with an Earl Grey affogato.
Coloni – Canggu is an absolute expat paradise (Ubud is another ‘hotspot’ but it doesn’t have the benefits of the seaside) and Coloni is undoubtedly one of their favourites. The quiet, air-conditioned, glass-walled inside area is perfect for those working from Bali and I swear at some point there were more Macs than people in the room! However, the lush garden is much more suitable for enjoying a leisurely breakfast under the shade of palm trees surrounding it. Home-made hash browns topped with grilled halloumi and poached eggs was my choice, but do not hesitate to add charcoal lemonade to be extra millennial!
La Casita – if I had known how much ceviche we will consume in Mexico (spoiler alert!), perhaps I wouldn’t have been so excited about this spot. However, at that time, it was the first and best ceviche of the trip.
Cloud 9 – deceivingly quiet, this beautiful restaurant overlooking the surrounding rice fields offers an exceptional gourmet burger selection. Crippled by choice, we ended up having a mini burger range instead of a real deal and it was totally worth it. Jalopeno mayo is the bomb!
Zest – also known as vegan paradise amongst the Ubud expat community (yes, 90% of them are yoga teachers…), it gets so busy on the weekends they start to run out of food! So my recommendation is to get there early and make sure you have your nice socks on – the ‘no shoe’ rule adds further to the gipsy vibe.
Atman Cafe – a little bit on a touristy side, this cafe is located conveniently on one of the main streets of central Ubud. It has a cute shop next door to fulfil all your ‘sustainable traveller’ needs – from bamboo toothbrushes to crochet bras. We chose this cafe for the Pancake Day, and we surely were not disappointed!
F.R.E.A.K. Coffee – hands down the best cappuccino I have ever had. Enough said.
Happy Falafel – a small shop with a small selection of what they do well. Simple but delicious falafel and chicken wraps, perfect to fuel up for lunch!
Mama Pizza – located on the west side of the island, this restaurant is a perfect spot for a sunset beer and pizza. Run by an Italian, the pizza they serve was the best we had had for a while and I am sure the freshly made dough they prepare daily has a lot to do with it. We met a family there who had been coming to eat at Mama Pizza for a whole week.
Musa Cookery – another barefoot establishment in a beautiful setting in the centre of the island is all about aesthetics. From the interestingly carved wooden chairs to carefully made energy balls, everything here seemed to be well through-through.
Patchamama – white aged wood furniture paired with plant pots hanging off the ceiling in white crochet, the cafe is super Insta-friendly. I was therefore surprised to find they do not offer wifi and encourage their customers to ‘disconnect and enjoy the experience’. Their selection of raw vegan cheesecakes is to die for!
Gogo’s Shakes – as you get off the ferry on your arrival to Gili Air, you will notice a small booth offering smoothies on your left hand side. It is easy to overlook but I suggest to give it a chance – refreshing combinations guarantee you will enjoy an exciting drink and you get a free bamboo straw with every purchase!
RHYS AND GABS’ INDONESIA HIGHLIGHTS
|Food||Cloud 9’s gourmet mini burgers. Life changing.||Meat selection at Atlas Coffee & Kitchen|
|Drink||Black Lemonade – Charcoal infused. Very metal.||Coconut smoothie in Gili Air|
|People||Our host at the Gili Air hostel. He had some eye opening stories about the earthquakes and tsunamis.||I met my friend Marie here who I did the yoga training with – it was a lovely encounter!|
|Place||Gili Air. A tiny tropical island surrounded by perfect water.||Gili Air was one of my favourite places – small and hippy|
|Experience||Zooming around Nusa Pendia on the front of a scooter.||Zooming around Nusa Penida on the back of the scooter|
|Culture shock||I worry that the Indonesians are being priced out of some of the best bits of their own country.||The traffic in Bali was not something I expected – the roads are busy and polluted L|
|Any other||Fuck monkeys.||I really enjoyed teaching yoga at the hostel in Kuta mainly because they employed local students and we got to spend some time with them & see how they live in Bali as locals|