After Sri Lanka, I headed to Indonesia. I had no plans other than a flight to Bali, one night’s stay in Ubud and a very rough route in my head about getting around the country.
My journey was a miserable one spent feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t want to leave The Stephens. I was also a little apprehensive about my lack of planning and having to get my head around a new culture, language and currency. That said, I did enjoy some comical relief on my flight. If you’d asked me how I’d react if I saw someone pull on a balaclava during my flight, I’m certain I wouldn’t have said that I’d laugh…
What wasn’t so funny was panic buying a Lonely Planet guidebook to Indonesia at KLIA for what I later learned was £40. Yes, forty. Four, zero. Oops.
Anyway, two flights and two taxi rides later I arrived in Ubud – Bali’s cultural heartland. It’s also a tourism heartland. The scooter filled streets are lined with western brands, stylish boutiques, trendy cafes, countless restaurants and endless tour operator offices. Seeing Starbucks brush shoulders with Ubud Palace made me wince, but many of the holidaying families and honeymooning couples didn’t bat an eyelid. It seemed far removed from Sri Lanka where, at times, I was the only white person in town. This stark contrast wasn’t welcome. I was already coming down hard after Sri Lanka and being somewhere tailored to tourists and not raw, real life – which is what I want to experience – wasn’t helping my mood. At times, I felt like I was in the Indonesia zone of Disney’s EPCOT Centre.
That said, Ubud does boast it’s share of authenticity. You can barter with the locals at the morning food market, watch local kids play football in the park,watch a Balinese dance at the Palace, eat some really good Indo food, wander around nearby paddy fields and talk freely to locals who just want to know where you’re from and not how much money is in your wallet. That’s where I met Nyoman, “the coconut man”, an Ubud native who harvested rice and sold coconuts to make a living.
Being a tourist hub, there’s plenty to do – which I eventually enjoyed after a couple of days moping around and shacking myself up in a homestay rather than a hostel, just because I didn’t feel like meeting new people. A few pep talks from my family over FaceTime helped.
I enjoyed a great cooking class, during which we were taken to the food market before spending the morning preparing, cooking and eating eight Balinese dishes.
I also completed a cycle tour, which started with breakfast beside the impressive Mount Batur and ended with lunch at the home of our guide, Wayan. The journey toured through nearby villages, giving a (blink-and-you’ll-miss-it) insight into how Balinese people live.
Ubud is very easygoing. It’s a hive for yogis, which means yoga centres and vegetarian cafes are on every corner. I’ve always liked the idea of yoga, so I thought when in Rome… I visited The Yoga Barn – Ubud’s yoga Mecca – and joined a free one hour lesson. I only fell over once. That was relaxing, unlike wandering around the tropical Monkey Forest where wily and mischievous macaque monkeys maraud around scavenging for snacks.
After five days (two days too many, really), I did what most travellers in Ubud do: head to the Gili Islands. I wanted to go via Amed, a quiet fishing town in the north that sounded more like my kind of place, but Bali’s infuriating travel system scuppered that plan.
There’s no public transport system on the island which means to get from A to B you need to either take private shuttle bus, private taxi, hire a car or hire a scooter. Fine if you’re not on a tight budget or in a group, but if you’re a solo traveller counting every penny then they’re not affordable options. I found that to get to a new destination I either had to foot a large bill or go somewhere lots of other people were going (buses only ran if the minimum passenger target was met, which was never the case whenever I enquired about buses to Amed; I would be asked “how many people?” followed by a deadpan “oh” when I said it was just me).
I had no trouble finding a bus and boat to Gili Trawangan (Gili T) – the popular, attractive party island that’s one of the three Gili islands that sit just off the northwest shoulder of Lombok. Many people had recommended I visited them, for their natural beauty and social perks, so I booked a bus and boat transfer the night before in one of Ubud’s many, many tour operator stalls.
At first, I could see why people recommended I went: it’s pretty, with near-white sands, blue waters, leafy palms, views across to misty mountainscapes; it has character, with dusty, crisscrossing back alleys and only horse and cart transportation (there are no cars). However, as the sun fell during a very beautiful sunset, my fears of not liking the place came to life. Walking around the island (which takes little over an hour), I saw nothing but beachside bars and restaurants come to life as if life was about to end. And that’s great if you want to blow off some steam, but I didn’t and endless partying isn’t my scene.
Alarm bells actually rang when I checked into my (very nice) hostel, as I saw the receptionist boasted a tattoo that read “For The Lash”.
Like in Ubud, I did some of what there is to do in Gili beside drink, dance and drink some more. I joined a snorkelling trip which toured the waters around the three islands, managing to see a couple of turtles in the process. The trip was spoiled a little, though, by the sheer volume of other people doing the trip – a downside of being in a tourism hotspot.
The highlight, though, was the food – in particular the the night market. In my two days on Gili T, my diet was split between eating sweet butter-glazed corn on the cob bought from the roadside for lunch and a piles of freshly made Indonesian food for dinner. The market hangs right behind the main strip of beach bars. It’s a courtyard that stands idle during the day, but as soon as the sun sets it comes alive with colour, flavour and smells so sweet and spicy you feel like you’re on the plate itself. Dozens of vendors exhibit a salivating collection of dishes and snacks, looking and smelling so good you want to eat them all.
My plan from Gili was to head to Flores – an island just over 400km away as the crow flies, but a journey that would take four days by boat. A great thing about travelling in this part of the world is that you can book things on the fly, hours before departure.
Every tour operator told me the trips run Monday, Wednesday and Saturday only, which wasn’t the news I wanted. I arrived on a Tuesday and while I was keen to leave Gili, I wasn’t prepared to leave after one night. For one thing, my hand washed clothes were still drip drying and were not ready to go back into my bag. But, I also didn’t want to stay until Saturday. #travellingproblems.
On Wednesday, knowing I’d missed my getaway, I thought to leave for nearby Lombok and hang there for the boat trip. But, just before I succumbed to that, I tried one last operator. They just happened to be leaving on Thursday – aka tomorrow. Result. I enjoyed one last night market dinner before packing my things, ready for what would be the best thing I’ve done on my trip so far…
Overall, I would say I hadn’t gotten off to the best start in Indonesia. I probably should have made better use of the world’s most expensive guidebook that I bought.
That said, things really went up a notch on that boat trip. More on that soon…
Accommodation: Shindu Homestay
Recommend? Yes, for solo travellers wanting some respite or couples/families wanting a hotel experience without the hotel price tag
Accommodation: Dewa Hostel
Recommend? Yes, for solo/group travellers on a budget
Transportation: There’s no public train or bus system on Bali, so you need to either get a taxi, private shuttle bus, hire car or scooter to/from Ubud. Getting around the centre of Ubud is doable by foot.
Ubud’s good for… Unwinding, enjoying familiar comforts of western life
Accommodation: My Mate’s Place
Recommend: Yes, for solo/group travellers on a budget
Transportation: The only way to get to any of the Gili islands is by boat. I got mine from Padang Bai, Bali but could also have got one from Amed. There’s also connections to Lombok. Getting around Gili is doable by foot, hiring a bicycle or taking a bemo.
Gili Trawangan’s good for… Partying, drinking, socialising