Beach bumming and snorkeling in paradise…
Wait, haven’t done that yet!
Then let’s go to the nicest beach and most highly touted snorkeling spot in Bali: not Bali!
The Gili (meaning ‘island’ in Indonesian) Islands first caught my attention when researching nice swimming beaches in Bali.
At first, there didn’t appear to be much available for aught but surfing, but then I stumbled across a few forums discussing Padang Bai and the fact that it was a nice little out of the way town that had a beach, and more importantly was a ferry hub that served as the main gateway to the ‘snorkelers paradise’ Island Islands (if you will) a thousand or so metres off the coast of Lombok (Bali’s 99% Muslim neighbor to the east).
So, after booking ourselves a shuttle bus (50K IDR each) similar to the absurdity that got us to Ubud from Kuta in the first place, we headed out to Padang Bai (which shall henceforth be referred to as PB).
The shuttle driver kept asking what we were going to do in PB, and after finding out we didn’t have an onward ferry ticket yet became very ‘helpful’ (read: insistent) and made it clear that he would be the one to get us our tickets.
Upon arrival in the ‘central market’ (I use that term very loosely, because there is really nothing at all but a dirt parking lot with a couple lousy shack-stalls around it), we were expecting to get swarmed by touts, but it appeared that since the driver had already ‘reserved’ our business for himself, we were left relatively alone until the driver himself could bring us to (one of the multitude of) ferry ticket offices along the shockingly unkempt and dirty waterfront.
Here, we were offered the ‘best price’ of 1,000,000 IDR each for the ‘fast boat’ direct to Gili Trawangan (Gili T), and proceeded to explain to the nice men that we could easily have purchased a return ticket package to Gili T for 700K IDR each (including all shuttle transfers) from Kuta had we wanted to spend that much, and since we’d already paid 50K each for the shuttle from Ubud and needed to get back to Kuta to catch our flight at the end of the month, we should be given an equivalent discount.
After some haggling to get the cash price down to 800K each, I got a bit fed up (also having read online that fastboat tix shouldn’t cost more than 600K-700K each) and started collecting my things to go in search of someone more amenable to our budget.
You know it’s low-season when they have a sudden change of heart and instantly take whatever price you quote them as you’re walking out the door…
And that is the story of how I got us open ended return fastboat tix from PB-Gili T – Padang Bai – Kuta for 650K IDR each (since we’d already paid 50K IDR for the shuttle from Ubud – PB).
As another ‘contribution’ to the Bali segment of our trip, I found us a highly recommended guesthouse (pretty much the only decent-for-the-cost accommodation) in PB and prescribed us a few nights stay to check out the local ‘scene’ before making our way to Gili T.
So, after purchasing our fast boat tickets, we unzipped our pack’s harnesses, hoisted them up (high fived), and made our way to the Lemon House, a foreigner-owned guesthouse about a kilometer away from the harbour down a few back alleys
past some youths carving a giant statue while blaring high energy j-electro/crap music (Julie later surmised it was for the ‘burn the demons‘ festival or something)
and up 77 vastly uneven steps (of which we’d thankfully been forewarned) that had a prime location on the hill overlooking a garden full of banana trees and the PB harbour further off.
We’d lucked out the day before and were able to book online what I’d read was the best room in the house (room #1) with a king bed and AC
(some of the rooms were fan rooms or dorm style)
which, after a week of relaxing but ‘roughing it’ in a fan room with split twin beds in Ubud, was absolute paradise.
Unfortunately, that’s where the paradise ended.
If you have low expectations and a generally positive attitude, then I’m sure the following account wouldn’t even come close to applying to you, and in fact you might enjoy the unique circumstances/lifestyle, but in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a bit of a hater and I admit to having got my expectations up for something a bit different in PB.
For starters, we were somewhat rudely awakened from our afternoon nap (:D) around 5pm by a racket of unprecedented proportions blaring from an array of treble-heavy loudspeakers mounted to a tower about a km away in the middle of town, and this turned out to be a less than stellar tape recording of a Hindu Mantra, our first exposure to what we would discover to be thrice daily religious aspect of the lives of the local population.
That is until we heard the Muslim call to prayer blaring from the local mosque’s minaret a couple hours later and realized that PB was a battleground for the two religions’ audio systems to fight it out at the 6-8 times daily expense of the seemingly non-interested inhabitants (starting early in the morning with the Muslim cacophony of praising Allah in whatever key the tape recording felt like spitting out that day of the week, and the Hindu Mantra getting going shortly thereafter).
We hadn’t expected that…
Anyhoo, we’d booked 3 nights, and decided to make the best of our stay by eating as much street food as we could find (slim pickings and more expensive than Ubud & Kuta),
exploring the surrounding area on foot, and chilling out in our comparatively luxurious guesthouse to ‘catch up’ on blogging (hahahaha sorry that was a good one) and watch Harry Potter movies on Julie’s laptop.
To be honest, there wasn’t much to do in PB, so although Lemon House was absolutely wonderful (banana pancakes for brekky!), and the ‘white sandy beach’ (the local beach which was a ~20 minute walk along an overgrown and underused rocky track up and down a small mountain) lived up to it’s name,
(we grabbed a durian to eat on the beach, and also played with a very cute kitten too, all the while noticing giant boats sitting out in the water for no obvious reason, before we decided to go back home due to some very ominous looking weather)
we were definitely ready to move on after the 3rd day and re-visited the ticket office to confirm/lock in our journey for the 18th.
After descending the steps from the Lemon House,
we arrived at the main pier around 12:30pm for the 1pm Marina Srikandi fastboat,
some more ominous clouds,
and I suppose someone told the locals, because the touts were out in full force; little girls hawking all sorts of snacks, old women selling drinks and other crap,
and inconsiderate @$$hole tourists milling around pushing and shoving to be first in ‘line’ to get on the boat pretty much ensured that the whole area was a complete gong-show.
There were no reserved seats on the boat, and there were plenty to go around (making all the pushing and shoving really quite unnecessary), so eventually all the luggage got loaded on by the staff (different part of the boat depending on if your final destination was Gili T, Gili Meno, or Gili Air; the 3 Island Islands) and we settled in for our 5x300hp fast boat ride across the stormy channel between Bali and Lombok.
The ride took just over an hour, and before we knew it, we were pulling up to the pier to unload in an orderly fashion while ensuring that the fragile marine ecosystem was not disturbed too much beach (WTF?!) at Gili T, where they dropped anchor directly onto what (used to be) a bed of coral (double WTF?!), started tossing everyone’s luggage bucket line fashion onto the sand, not really assisting the travellers off the boat and into the surf which was still a half meter deep at best.
We took off our shoes, hopped into the water, grabbed our now sandy luggage
and headed directly into the hornets nest of touts offering accommodation for unbelievably low prices (hullo bait and switch!).
These touts followed us incessantly down the broken mud track which served as the main thoroughfare around the island, and as we dodged horsedrawn carts full of construction supplies (which were being unloaded from a multitude of $hitty wooden boats [also anchored on the now former reef] by a bunch of slave labourors 100m down the beach)
and others pulling the carriages that served as taxis on this motor-vehicle free island, we navigated the completely $hite roads on a mission to find somewhere to stay.
One of my ‘brighter’ ideas was to arrive without anything booked and thereby find the best place to stay for the least amount of money, because it was low season and we’d read that there were many many places to stay, but few which had an online presence.
Don’t try this on Gili T unless you have lots of patience and somewhere to leave your luggage, because after walking around dodging dodgy touts for over half an hour in the sweltering humidity, Julie and I both started losing hope and decided to follow one of the touts to at least see what they were offering.
We looked at three or four really $hitty places before finally settling on a little ‘villa’ style place off the main nightclub strip that looked clean enough, and for 150K IDR/night promised free wifi and breakfast (although no AC).
We just wanted to put our luggage down and wash the travel dirt off our tired bodies, so we booked it for the night and Julie hopped in the shower while I ran out to grab a Bintang from the minimart across the street only to discover that we were now subject to ‘island prices’…
I got back to the room just in time to have a domestic with Julie because I tried forcing her to kill a cricket that had landed on her leg in our open air bathroom while she was showering…
Maybe I’ll do the bug killing from now on 😀
At this point I would ask you to recall that I mentioned the Gilis are under the purvey of Lombok, Bali’s 99% Muslim neighbor to the east, and we shall let that tidbit stat frame the ensuing events.
Not long after our little domestic, we heard a somewhat familiar sound from off in the distance: the Muslim call to evening prayer.
Then we heard what sounded like a different ‘voice’ almost echoing the first, but this echo seemed to be louder than it’s progenitor, and before I could evaluate this discrepancy, a third ‘voice’ joined the other two, and this was the loudest one yet.
Now that we were in proper Muslim territory, there was no ‘Hindu Mantra’ vs. ‘Muslim call to prayer’…
Instead, it was the good old game of ‘which mosque can crank it up to 11 for the longest’.
I don’t think I mentioned just how big Gili T is yet, but this might be a good time to do so.
During our stay, Julie and I circumnavigated the entire island in flipflops (‘thongs’ for you Aussies) carrying our mask, snorkel and fins (‘flippers’ for you non-certs), stopping for occasional dips in the sordid water, in just over one hour.
To say it is more than 3 km across at its widest point (~π1.5km2 around) would be generosity bordering on frivolity.
And yet there were no less than 3 mosques within earshot (literally) at any point during our stay.
To jump ahead a bit (spoiler alert!) and give you an idea of how seriously they take their audio systems at these mosques, we eventually made our way to the smaller Gili Air, itself a km or two away from Gili T, and even indoors and/or under water on the former, we could still here the strident tones blasting across the land and water and land and water and land again from the latter.
But now back to the story at hand.
15 or 20 minutes after we heard the first ‘Allah’, the refrain ebbed and we were able to hear ourselves think enough to discuss whether we liked the room enough to stay another couple nights.
The answer was a resounding ‘no’ from both of us, a sentiment more than a little encouraged by the lack of the promised wifi in the room, and decided by the fact that it was saltwater flowing from the taps and the shower, when we strictly recall hearing that the rooms had both good wifi and freshwater when negotiating a price for the night.
First world problems ftw!
We went for a walk to find some cheap eats, only to discover more and more what ‘island prices’ meant, and had to settle for something unmemorable for more than we wanted to spend before settling in for the night.
Only to be awakened at 5am the next morning by the vociferous symphony of Allllllaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh uh Akbar’s for the prescribed 15-20 minutes, followed by another round a bit later just when we’d gotten back to sleep.
Ok, well, this was certainly part of the adventure!
We left early the next morning in search of a better place to stay, and decided on a hostel/guesthouse thing Julie had previously discovered online that was a bit closer to the beach and had slightly better amenities.
After going back to the first place to grab our luggage, we checked out and moved our stuff to our new and hopefully better abode for the next few days.
It had better wifi, but the lack of freshwater (which we found out was island-wide and not just specific to the first guesthouse we stayed at), the fact that the roof leaked very badly right onto our bed (luckily there was a 2nd bed in the room that wasn’t underneath a crack in the roof) during the nightly rainstorms
and the shaving from a cup of hot water I got from the bar (I told them I was going to make tea :D),
made it so that even the local super affectionate kitty
and the sweet balcony
couldn’t make us feel 100% comfortable.
We tried snorkelling off the beach almost every day, and explored the entire island looking for good spots to do so, but everywhere we tried to get a good swim in was either a completely dead ecosystem, a murky mess, or a wave battered warzone with a dangerous current, and the beach was never better than the one we arrived on, which wasn’t saying much due to the number of boats tied up between the shore and the coral-destroying anchor they’d dropped on the reef.
Fast forward to the 22nd when we decided to move the party again, this time to Gili Air (the smaller Gili closest to Lombok), and not much had happened in the meantime (except that at my insistence, Julie bought a mask from one of the dive shops, and we both purchased reef walkers and proper snorkels for the hopefully-better conditions in future destinations).
All in all our stay on Gili T was supremely disappointing…
Maybe it was because we had high expectations, or maybe because we didn’t get very good sleep the entire time we were there (earplugs and two pillows over my head couldn’t keep the noise from the late night parties and early morning prayers from waking us up), but unless you’re a new grad who wants to drink mushroom shakes (or worse: cocaine & methanol) and party, or a rich foreigner staying at one of the 2 or 3 decent looking resorts and you know what you’re getting yourself into, I’d steer clear of this ‘was-good-10-years-ago’ destination.
So, after grabbing an ‘Islands Hopping’ [sic] ticket for 23K IDR each from the public boat ticket office (and confirming with the Marina Srikandi office that the open fast boat could pick us up from Gili Air as opposed to Gili T)
we waded through the light surf onto the wooden longboat that served as the mechanism for said hopping
waved goodbye to Gili T
hello to Gili Meno (in passing)
(and to Lombok off in the distance)
discussed between ourselves (again) how inconvenient it looked to be lugging around big unwieldily luggage in these circumstances
and landed safely on the slightly smaller Gili Air.
Once again, we’d decided to show up with no accommodation booked (although Julie had done some cursory research), so rather than following a tout around or both running around looking for a place to stay, we decided that Julie would supervise our luggage at the (extremely small) ferry office while I speed walked around the island (if necessary) to find something reasonable.
It only took me 10 minutes to check out a few different rooms before settling on a decent private villa at the ‘Sunrise Resort’ (that Julie had seen online) for 250K IDR/night, so I booked us a couple nights, walked back to get my gear (and Julie 😉 ), and then we made our way back to check in properly.
There was no wifi in the room, and no AC or freshwater, but by this point we’d become more or less reserved to this fate and we didn’t have to try too hard to enjoy the calmer and more beautiful surroundings
complete with our own deck hammock
all-important mozzie net (Julie had been getting eaten alive the entire time we were in Bali, and now that we were close to Lombok, there were very real malaria concerns)
nice big bathroom (still pretty ghetto, and open to the outdoors due to the lack of screens)
breakfast gazebo restaurant
and a bunch of quaint little beach huts where we could get (very patchy) wifi
and eat and drink
and play with the local newborn kittens.
Oh, and a monitor lizard.
Now accustomed to island pricing, and due to the complete lack of ‘street’ food we decided to make the best of what the local beachfront restaurants had to offer and ended up eating some great bbq tuna skewers and checked out a few of the different establishments for sundowners and happy hour beers where we got to meet a few other travellers and swap stories.
Weather wise, we must have picked a less than stellar week to visit, because we rarely got much direct sunlight, and although most mornings were relatively quiet, the afternoons and evenings were very hit and miss.
Thankfully, we were usually able to find a dry spot to watch one of the multitude of insane storms roll across the sky.
The snorkelling conditions were less destroyed here (unfortunately the same disregard was still being shown for the reef by the local boaters so just give it a few more years and there won’t be anything left), and we managed to get a few hours a day of very nice swimming in, along with some underwater pics using a little drybag we got for Julie’s camera.
After our two nights, we extended our stay by one night because we were finally able to chill out properly, but the following day when we went to the Marina Srikandi (henceforth MS because I’m sick of writing that) office on Gili Air to book our fast boat back to Bali, we were told the weather in the channel was too rough and the fast boats were cancelled.
We later heard from another traveller that one of the other fast boats had apparently capsized in the rough swells (everyone was safe, but luggage had been lost… unconfirmed though) and it was still not safe, so we decided to book another night to wait out the bad weather.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t get any better, and since we had to make it back to Kuta for our onward flight to Singapore a few days later, we started to look into other options.
The guy at MS offered to trade us a ‘regular’ ferry ticket from Lombok for our nice expensive fast boat tickets,
but would not offer us a refund, even though we had to wait indefinitely for the weather to cooperate, so we ended up having to absorb the loss and trade our MS tickets for the regular ferry (and associated transfers).
We were not really looking forward to a slow ferry ride, but what the heck.
We started off at 8:40am the morning of the 26th for the 3km wooden longboat ride to the closest pier on Lombok (coincidentally with the same fellow canucks we’d met a bunch of times randomly already and who would soon become good pals)
where we were set upon immediately by a bunch of thinly disguised touts asking to see our tickets and telling us that they were with ‘a’ tour company and we should come with them so they can conveniently take us to the bus terminal which was over 3kms away, but oh, by the way, the cost of the ride isn’t included in your all-transfers-included ticket that you just showed me.
No thanks, I think we’ll walk, but thanks for the outright scam offer.
And walking wasn’t a problem, because it was really only 500m along the road to the ‘station’ which turned out to be not really a bus station, but a mud lot where crowds of tourists were milling about waiting to be sardined into one of the seen-much-much-much-better-days vehicles.
When we arrived just after 9am, there were a bunch of ‘tour operators’ taking everyone’s tickets, so although we were hesitant to part with our only evidence that we’d paid for this entire trip, the guy promised to return it to us shortly, so I handed it over and kept an eye glued to him alert for more scams now.
The ‘tour operators’ all decided who’d get onto which shuttle, and started loading luggage.
Oh, and luggage goes on the roof (bereft of any sort of racks on most of course).
Van after van was filled with travellers, until it was only Julie and I and 5 or 6 others left, but mysteriously there were no longer any vans in the lot…
As we stood waiting around for 45 minutes, I crossed my fingers that we’d get one of the vans that was in ‘better’ condition, but alas, that was not to be.
Oh well, at least they had a roof rack.
We left at 10am, and although inside was a disaster
and you could see the pavement below through the rusted out floorboards,
the doors stayed closed enough for us to enjoy some of the mosques of Lombok along the way (I lost count after 20).
However, it was only a matter of time before something broke, and this turned out to be the rear left tire.
After a surprisingly quick swap (5 minutes! They get a lot of practice I’m sure), we stopped for gas, waiting for close to 5 minutes for service while the attendant turned off the pumps and wadded up all the cash in the register to take inside (spot audit I presume?),
before reaching the main ferry dock at 11:45am.
Because I was very hungry by this point, I (stupidly) bought some food from one of the incessant touts, and was rewarded for my stupidity by finding a tiny ball of rice and a mere speck of dried fish and veggies.
We stood around the terminal waiting for the ferry for a bit (being swarmed non-stop by touts, even though we told them 5 minutes ago that ‘no, I don’t want any bananas thank you’)
but I was still hungry, and there was a plethora of warungs and mini marts just outside, so I grabbed a proper meal to go
before walking onto the ferry at 12:40pm.
We claimed a nice outdoor spot (yes, Julie after being asked 28 times by the same tout if she wanted bananas finally succumbed)
because there was no AC inside and it was getting pretty crowded already.
Beds are 35K IDR.
Oh, and the touts followed us on board.
“Do you want some [whatever this is]?”
“Or some tshirts?”
“How about some [of this]?”
“Ok, how about I play you a song then!”
“Oh, you thought you’d escape the madness for the upper deck and some fresh quiet air?”
“Nah, you must want me to follow you to offer you some peanuts.”
Soda? DVDs? Watches? Chips? Snacks? Eggs? Sarongs? Beers? Water? Fruit? Instant noodles with hot water? More bananas?
Seriously, anything you want, you can get on board from one of the touts before the ship leaves.
After sitting in port for almost an hour after boarding, the majority of touts disembarked and left us to regret not buying two of everything, and we got underway at 1:30pm.
The first thing I noticed was how much garbage there was in the water.
Then I noticed a bunch of ships moored in the harbour.
Then I noticed the skies behind us were less than clear.
Then I looked in front and noticed we were heading directly into a giant wall of water.
It was actually pretty scary, because a little after an hour into our trip, the (very large) ferry started getting tossed around in the swells like a leaf and we could see how the channel definitely wouldn’t have been a good place for a smaller boat to be in a storm like that.
When the rain started, we moved inside where Jules and Elena thankfully made room on their tiny bench seat for us so we could watch a Xena Warrior Princess VHS on the lone 14″ CRT TV until the storm cleared.
We bided our time chatting with Elena, and also got to know some other travellers from Sweden (thanks for letting me win at iPad chess Oscar;), before approaching the shores of Bali around 6pm.
The sunset was quite beautiful,
and the storm framed the mountains for an epic shot.
For the next hour, we became one of the big boats sitting just off-shore from the white sandy beach that I mentioned earlier while the captain jostled for position with other ferries that were arriving too and waited for two other ferries to load or unload at one of the two docks.
At 7pm, we were finally next in line to dock (btw, there is no line… and if our ferry captain had looked away for a split second, one of the later arrivals would have unceremoniously swept in and docked before us) and everyone started clamouring onto the car deck area to be the first off the ramp (we actually happened to be lucky enough to have chosen a good stairwell and ended up at the proper area to exit first).
The moment the ramp was down, a swarm of tour operators (mostly legit this time thankfully) yelling “shuttle!? shuttle?!” guided us to the end of the parking lot area to wait while they allocated shuttles for us based on our destination.
Imagine the scene.
It’s dark by this point, and people are yelling:
“Ubud!? Ubud!?” Over there *points*.
“Sanur!? Sanur!” Over here *points*.
“Kuta!? Kuta!!? Wait.”
It was actually quite hilarious, watching people being clustered together, and once roughly grouped, the guides would yell out the destination again and start counting before telling specific numbers to “Go now with him” or something like that.
While we waited (Kuta didn’t seem to be a popular destination as there were only Julie and I and 3 other people), we watched other tourists get herded like sheep by their driver guides who all the while kept yelling out the destination to make sure the flock didn’t stray.
Finally our turn to be herded came, and we made our way to our thankfully air conditioned late model shuttle van (the first decent wheels we’d been on since the private taxi trip to Tanah Lot).
We’d been told nothing about how to get to Kuta once we arrived in PB, so I was actually quite relieved that we were being guided (herded) around in this manner, because it was it was dark, coming up on 7:30pm, and there wouldn’t be many options if we didn’t have a shuttle waiting for us, so even though it was a chaotic scene, it seemed to work.
The driver was good enough, but the roads were garbage, so although he drove very fast, the ride was very bumpy, and for some reason I’d chosen to sit in the smallest seat in the van with no legroom, and by the time we reached Kuta an hour later, I was very very ready to get out and crash for the night.
We were dropped off at Kuta square at 8:30pm, and headed for the guesthouse we’d booked online.
Since we’d already spent a week in Kuta and felt like we knew our way around, I hadn’t bothered to look at detailed directions, and this came back to bite me in the @$$ big time, and it ended up taking us wandering around until 10pm before we finally made it to our place (I eventually gave up wandering and we stopped to buy a drink so we could use some wifi and find out where the eff we needed to go, and granted, it was hard to find, but I really should have looked at detailed directions beforehand…).
Ok, safe and sound and time to sleep!
Beach bumming and snorkeling in [sort-of] paradise.
The rest of our time in Kuta was spent chilling and catching up on admin stuff, and on the 1st of March we caught a taxi to the airport for 35K IDR (we walked once, and that was enough).
We paid our 150K IDR each departure tax
dropped off some postcards at the airport
and headed to Singapore!