Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Gili Islands

With the last of our volcanic exploits behind us, Angela and I caught a ferry from Java to Bali, before bussing across the island so we could catch another ferry to the Gili Islands. We would explore Bali more later, but for now we wanted to check out the quiet, tropical getaway of the Gilis, which had been recommended to us by so many people we'd met on our travels. The archipelago comprises three small islands just off the coast of the larger island of Lombok, and they are famed for their gorgeously turquoise waters, quiet bungalow-lined streets, and plentiful diving opportunities.

After an uncomfortable bus journey and violently bumpy fast-boat ride across the Lombok Strait, the relaxing atmosphere of Gili Trawangan - the largest of the three islands - hit us immediately. Like Koh Rong in Cambodia and the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand, the Gilis have no cars or motorbikes, lending them a mellow, laidback character that can't be found in the traffic-laden cityscapes that blight many Asian beach destinations. It had been a tiresome few days, getting up before dawn to see the volcanoes, as well as making the long journey across Bali, so we decided right away that we would spend our three days in Gili doing little else but unwinding. We could have rented bicycles and cycled the circumference of the island, maybe climbed up to the viewpoint like we did on Ko Phi Phi Don, or perhaps taken a scuba diving class to admire clownfish, sponges, and sea turtles. But no. This was our relax time, and we were going to relax. We did little else but sunbathe and read our books as we sat in giant beanbags next to the ocean. Unlike muggy Koh Rong and the unbearably hot Phi Phi Islands, the weather here was perfect, warm enough to go in the ocean but with a nice mild breeze to cool us down. It was absolute paradise.

The only thing that marred it all was the fact that those three days of bliss were sandwiched between two awful travel days entering and leaving the islands. The Bali bus journey and fast-boat provided a long and unpleasant experience in itself, but getting off the islands was even worse. We paid around a hundred dollars each for our return tickets to the islands, and so were expecting to take an hour-long fast-boat directly back to Bali. It was a lot more money than we really wanted to be spending at this point in the journey, but at least it would allow us to get on and off the islands quickly and without too much hassle. However, when it was time to leave, it turned out that due to inclement weather, no fast-boats were operating that day. This meant that our hour-long journey would become a sixteen-hour ordeal, requiring us to take a slow ferry to Lombok, a bus to another ferry port, and a four-hour ferry to Bali, interspersed with long drawn out waiting periods where we stood around for hours on end, unsure what was happening or when we would leave.

Now, to be fair to our ferry company, the weather issue was outside their control, and we would rather take a slower route than risk our lives on rough seas. However, the way they dealt with the situation was pretty dire, refusing to give refunds despite the high cost we all paid for a fast-boat, poorly organising or informing people as we stood around waiting for ferries or buses and not knowing what was going on, and staff members generally being very dismissive and unhelpful. It was a complete shambles, and once again confirmed Indonesia as our least favourite country when it comes to value for money. If a country is going to be expensive, then it should be convenient and relatively hassle-free. Conversely, if it's going to be inconvenient, then it should be relatively affordable. Indonesia is expensive and it's inconvenient, which makes it doubly frustrating to travel through.

Whatever. The volcanoes were incredible, the Gilis were paradise, and Bali would be one of the absolute best parts of our trip, so we can forgive Indonesia for its flaws. More on Bali later. For now, here are our pictures from the Gilis.

This map shows our route by ferry from Banyuwangi to the Balinese port of Gilimanuk, then by bus across Bali to the port town of Padang Bai, and finally our fast-boat route to Gili Trawangan, the westernmost of the three Gili Islands.
Boarding the ferry in Banyuwangi, we said our goodbyes to the island of Java.
On board the ferry, a local Indonesian smokes from a pipe.
Java and Bali are practically touching one another, so it was a short ferry ride to the port of Gilimanuk, and easily the most stress-free part of our journey that day. As we approached the island we could see an example of Balinese architecture that already distinguished it from the island we had just left: the tall brown split gate, known as candi bentar, is used in many Balinese temples, as well as some contemporary buildings.
Arriving in Bali.
There's not much in Gilimanuk worth staying around for, so we went straight to the bus station and ended up paying fifteen dollars for a 70-mile journey that should have taken two or three hours at most. However, despite the high price (by Southeast Asian standards at least), it was a crappy local bus that stopped a thousand times along the way and thus took around eight hours. It was also incredibly uncomfortable, with tiny, hard seats, no leg room, and passengers crammed in so densely that people had to sit in the aisle in the middle of the bus. I'm almost certain we got scammed, since a bus ride this shitty should never cost fifteen dollars, especially in this part of the world. Hell, even in Malaysia, which is one of the pricier countries in SE Asia, we got luxury, first-class buses that took us twice the distance of this one for a mere five or six dollars. What happened, Indonesia?
We were in a pretty crummy mood for most of the bus ride, but at least there were new surroundings to admire outside the window. Bali is a completely different world to Java, to the point that it doesn't really even feel like part of the same country. The local people practice a uniquely Balinese variant of Hinduism, incorporating indigenous practices such as animism, ancestor worship and spiritual rituals, and this can be sensed the moment you set foot on the island. Our bus periodically stopped outside temples, and the ticket-collector would jump off and place alms at the shrines by the road, perhaps to ask the gods to bring us safety for our journey. This happened just a few minutes after we set off across the island, and it was something that immediately set the island apart from Java's Islamic culture. The most distinctive difference, however, is in the architecture. There are temples everywhere, and most people's houses have shrines in their garden, striking and conspicuous enough to make the houses almost seem like temples themselves.

Even this bank looks a bit like a temple. Notice it has a candi bendar or split gate like the one we saw before.
As well as houses and temples, we also passed many stretches of beautifully green countryside.

Some simple rice paddy fields. We would see some more impressive ones later during our time in Bali.
By the time we passed through the busy streets of Bali's capital, Denpasar, our backsides were sore and we were dying to get off this awful bus.
We were pretty nervous after nightfall, as many of the towns outside of Bali's bustling south are small and dimly-lit. We didn't have any hotels booked that night, and were worried that the port town of Padang Bai might be a dark, sparsely populated place with no accommodation available, and no ferries departing until the morning, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, we didn't need to worry. Padang Bai is indeed a pretty small town, but accommodation exists, and a guy offered us a room the moment we got off the bus. We also booked our return fast-boat for the next morning.
Waiting for our boat with some new friends.
The fast-boat was crowded with backpackers like us, and the ride itself was extremely rough, jerking us around and throwing us out of our seats. We could even hear people up on the top deck vomiting their breakfasts into the Strait of Lombok.
On the island itself, however, the frenzy and chaos dissipated immediately, and we were in a land of beach bungalows and horse-drawn carriages.

Gili is a popular place to learn how to scuba dive, something that our friends Kimmi and Matt did when they visited, but which we chose to ignore in the interest of saving money. Maybe one day we'll give it a try though.
A quick look at the pretty beach. We'd spend a lot of time here over the next three days, but first we needed to find our hostel.
Away from the beach there are some pretty backstreets where the locals live.

As well as these kids playing in the street, at one point we saw some young men gambling over a cock-fight.
The local mosque.
Once we found our hostel, we had lunch by the beach.
A small island with a big population of tourists requires frequent imports throughout the day.
We spent hours reading our kindles by the beach and occasionally dipping in the sea for a swim.

Exploring the main street by night.
There's a night market that offers some great street food, including these delicious banana pancakes.
The next day, we walked around the main town some more.
Though it's small, the island has plenty of modern amenities, including its own cinema.
It wasn't long before we returned to the beach.

A ferry sails out towards Lombok.
Enjoying some sheesha the evening before the day we were due to leave.
As mentioned above, there were no fast-boats running on our day of departure, so in order to get back to Bali we had to endure a sixteen-hour journey via Lombok.
Taking a slow-boat to Lombok. This part wasn't so bad.
In northern Lombok, we had to wait on the beach for a couple of hours while we waited for our bus to take us to the south. None of the staff members of our company told us how long it would take, so we all stood there on the beach getting sunburnt because we didn't want to leave in case the bus left without us.
Finally on a bus, heading to the ferry port in southern Lombok.
From what we could tell, Lombok seemed very beautiful, with quiet, pretty beaches and few tourists to be seen.
Probably the worst part of the journey was the southern ferry terminal in Lombok. We arrived around 2pm, and were rounded up into a dense crowd like refugees. This might have been okay if it was just for an hour or so, or if the staff told us how long until the next ferry. But they gave us no information, leaving us to stand around four or five hours with little shelter from the sun.
We got pretty close to the pier, but everyone was pretty stressed as there were so many people piling on behind us, and no one was sure if everyone would be able to fit on the ferry when it finally arrived. What if only one ferry came that evening and some of us got left behind?
Fortunately, two ferries finally arrived around six o'clock, and Angela and I secured seats on one of them. For the first time in hours we were able to sit down.
Kids played football on the shore as we waited to leave.
As the sun was setting, the ferry finally departed.
It took around four hours to reach Bali, so it was almost eleven o'clock when we arrived. Our company had told us they would provide us with free transport to Ubud, but once at Padang Bai they told us that we would have to pay fifteen dollars each to take their shuttle bus there. We felt they were the ones who owed us money, not the other way round, but we were too tired to argue so just got our own private taxi to Ubud. This was expensive, but at least we didn't have to deal with that awful fast-boat company anymore. By the way, the name of the company is Ekajaya and while the chances are that most people who use them are satisfied with their services, I cannot stress how poorly they handled us and other customers on that day, so would recommend finding a different company to get to the Gilis.
We arrived at Ubud late at night, and found our hotel, Jungut Inn, in the darkness.

We had a crappy time of it leaving the Gilis, but things would look up the next day. Ubud turned out to be one of the most charming and fun places that we visited on this trip, and helped us forget about the stresses we endured to get there.


  1. Wassup, buddy! Just been catching up on your blog and I am in complete awe of your travels. You have an amazing life at the moment and I'm quite envious (Or apparently, as they say back where we come from, I'm 'well jel'). I look forward to catching up with you one day! But untill then, stay safe and continue to enjoy your great adventure. All the best, your pal, Wayne!

    1. Hey, Wayne. Long time no see! Thanks for your message, it's always nice to hear from an old friend. Yes, can't wait to catch up, whenever that may be. Are you still in the Isle of Wight? I remember you mentioned potentially moving to SE Asia at some point?