Traveling To Bali, Vacation Island of the World

gili trawangan indonesia

I finally found the beach where Germans go when they're not on Mallorca.

When that Eat, Pray, Love movie came out, I think the island of Bali was turned upside down with desperate tourists...and the deluge hasn't stopped since.

The Indonesian island of Bali is anachronistic. So many of the things you find don’t make a lot of sense. It’s as if the island hasn’t had time to catch up with itself. Traditional wooden boats with  200 hp motors bolted on the stern. Island-wide LTE data but constant power blackouts. Gelato kiosks everywhere yet no air conditioning. Hard Rock Cafes in the midst of a caste system reminiscent of India.

Let me be clear: Bali is possibly one of the best destinations in the world for those wishing to soak up the sun. But in the past ten years, it’s developed so rapidly that it’s difficult to find the real, local aspect of the island. Even in Ubud, the mountain town that’s known as the arts and culture center of Bali, there is a Ralph Lauren store and one of the nicest Starbucks I’ve ever seen.

If I’d had more time, I think I could have ventured further into the mountains on a scooter and found more of what I was looking for. As it was, I only had seven days and two of those were spent out of necessity in the Western enclave of Kuta near the airport.

Padang Bai, the port town in the northeast of the island.

Padang Bai, the port town in the northeast of the island.

My Itinerary in Indonesia

I arrived at the airport early in the evening. Traveling to Bali via the Denpasar airport is quite nice, and you’re immediately impressed how modern and western everything is. The airport is immediately next to Kuta, which is as Western as it gets and is, honestly, as far away as the majority of visitors tend to go. I advise you to get out of Kuta as soon as possible unless you want to sample the local Burger King cuisine or perhaps try on a pair of Balinese Abercrombie & Fitch sweatpants.

I had booked a hotel beforehand and took a taxi directly to it. The place shocked the senses in the worst possible way (this place was uninhabitable) so I left and started walking until I found a place that didn’t have cockroaches crawling on the bed.

The first thing in the morning I got on a bus bound for the northeast corner of Bali. Four hours later we arrived at Padang Bai, a little coastal town. Within five minutes I found which boat was leaving next, jumped on it, and found out I was going to the Gili Islands.

Surprise! The Gili Islands are like tiny, sandy, beach-themed party reefs for Germans. It is the only place outside of the Vaterland itself that I’ve heard so much Deutsch. Even the signs are in German before they’re in English. The average age is 30 (taking the 65-year-old Bob Marley wannabes into statistical consideration as outliers) and the average number of Bintang beers consumed per diem is also probably around 30.

bali lombok beach

What most beaches around Bali look like: the water really is that blue!

I like to party less than an anti-social grandmother, so I mostly just watched the Germans do their thing. But what truly sets the Gili Islands apart are the beaches and the diving. I took the day off on Sunday and decided paying $73 for a day-long scuba course was worth the splurge.

And it was. Scuba diving was probably one of the hardest things, both psychologically and physically, that I’ve ever done (and I’ve actually sat the whole way through a Train concert). I thought I’d be fine since I’ve snorkeled without a problem. Turns out, being 40 feet under the ocean is a little different than paddling flippers in a pool. Also turns out, my ears don’t like to equalize pressure. So for the first five minutes, my head felt as if it was in a vise, I couldn’t breathe, and I found out the hard way why professional divers shave every day (beards and goggles don’t go well together). All that gave me the temporary IQ of the sea turtles swimming beside us. But after the instructor calmed me down, I started breathing and cleared my goggles of water by snorting through my nose. After I oriented and spent the next half hour gliding around the reefs along with sea turtles, anemones, clownfish, and schools of those long thin silvery evil-looking fish, it was entirely a different experience. The instructor guided me and my two diving partners around the ocean floor until our tanks were at fifty bars and it was time to surface.

The day after, I took a fast boat back to the main island of Bali (the two-way ride to Gili and back was 500,000 rupiah, which is around $38). I spent the night in Padang Bai, then took a bus back to Ubud. I visited the sacred monkey forest to be attacked by hordes of screaming monkeys tearing bananas from my hands.

sacred monkey forest

The Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali.

Tips On Traveling Bali

Indonesian cuisine is not the culture’s strong suit. I found the dishes to be good, but not great, and definitely more expensive than most of Southeast Asia. The average meal probably runs around $5. There is a wide array of foreign food, however, and it’s amazing. I had some Thai food in Ubud (a generous portion of pad thai was $3) and it was so spicy that I could smell the chili in my sweat for a few days afterward.

I give a hesitant recommendation to travel Bali via the Perama bus system. It’s the closest thing to an organized transport system that the island has, and it’s cheaper than any of the private bus lines. For 130,000 rupiah I got a flexible ticket to Padang Bai and back, which I could use to stop over in Ubud. That seems like a lot, but the exchange rate is ridiculous: at 13,000 Indonesian Rupiah per 1 USD, that means I got a $10 ticket which I used over the course of the entire week. The buses are nice, air conditioned, and you get the additional benefit of meeting other travelers along the way. However, they’re not punctual in the slightest. On my last bus trip, the driver suddenly decided that he didn’t want to drive the remaining kilometer to the bus office because of traffic, so he literally pulled over and made everyone get off. For a couple minutes, I thought there was going to be a passenger mutiny (the Germans did not like this deviation from the route at all) but there’s not a whole lot you can do when the driver has the keys. We all piled out onto the road, collected our bags, and toted them a kilometer into town.

It’s very difficult to get past the surface tourist-level Bali. It’s one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations, and with millions of tourists visiting a small island, it can’t help but show. It’s recent enough that prices haven’t stabilized to reflect the local economy. For example, the cheapest room I stayed in was around $15, but we’re hardly talking a room. Just a 9′ by 8′ wooden room with a mattress on a rebar frame, no shower, no air, no internet, no toilet paper, no power. Perhaps that’s close to the “real Bali” but I’m toting a laptop which I need on a daily basis. A place with amenities like power, internet, and a shower costs around $30 a night. But that’s still cheap in the long run, and there’s always other ways to cut costs on your RTW.

gili_trawangan_main_road

The main beach road on Gili Trawangan: early in the morning before anyone stirs.

Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by Cambodia, where the hospitality and personality were beyond anything I expected, but Bali differs so drastically from one town to the next that it was difficult to settle in. I felt, and I totally understand the sentiment, that I was just seen as another of the millions of tourists that tramp through every single year. It did lessen the further away from the south of the island that I got.

Summary and Thoughts of Bali

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the touristy side of Bali, so it’s important to get as far off the beaten path as possible. Ubud is probably a good destination to get closer to the mountains, but if you’re looking for beaches it might be harder to find a remote place to surf or scuba or just get a tan without a few hundred Germans watching you.

It’s a beautiful place: and extremely crowded.

Next up is New Zealand. It’s winter down there, and I’ve been traveling with a very light pack. I’ve been in scorching hot deserts and jungles for the past month, so I made the most of my last day in Bali and bought a jacket at the friendly local Zara.

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