We started the year 2015 by exploring Bali and the surrounding islands in Indonesia. Beautiful, fun, and easy are all adjectives that spring to mind but humid is the term that sticks with me most. The rainy season had just started and between being in the ocean, rained on, or sweating from the heat we were always varying degrees of humid!
The first leg of the journey was from Addis Ababa to Bangkok on Ethiopian Airlines. After spending one day in Bangkok for check-ups we departed for Denpasar airport in Bali with Air Asia. The flight was smooth and tickets were cheap (about USD 120 each, though we booked them a couple of months in advance). The flight departs Bangkok (from Don Muang airport) at 06:00 and arrives at 11:20 so you have the whole day to explore. The airport in Denpasar is fairly new and immigation, baggage claim, and getting a taxi are all fairly straight forward procedures. A ½ hour ride from the airport gets you to a lot of the popular beaches like Kuta and Sanur.
Where to Stay
During our three weeks in Bali and the other outlying islands we never spent more then USD 30 on a hotel room per night. All our hotel rooms included “western toilets” and air-conditioning, and more often than not were right on the beach or a 2 minute walk from it. There are lots of more expensive options to choose from, including all your brand name hotel chains for prices in the USD 150-300 per night range and these are the places you can book online. My advice would be just allow yourself some time to walk around to find a place that will suit your needs. There are plenty of mom and pop “home-stays” which are basically self-contained bungalows including all you need with plenty of smiles to make you feel welcome.
I have to measure my words carefully here – these are some of the phrases I was given: “a tourist toilet” and “the Cancun of Asia.” In fairness you have to know what you want out of Kuta and it has to suit your purpose. If you are single and young and wanting to party then Kuta is the place for you. We chose to spend a few days in Kuta because it has one of the few sandy beach breaks in Bali for teaching our son how to surf. You can also use Kuta as a staging point for for explorations around Bali, heading to Ubud for example, or the famous surf break of Uluwatu.
The Gili Islands
After a few days in Kuta we were ready for a change of pace. The Gili Islands were next on our itinerary. For USD 15-20 you are picked up at your hotel and driven to a pier 2 hours away for the 1 ½ hour speed boat ride to the Gili archipelago. The best way to describe the Gili archipelago is to say that they are three separate little islands that are almost perfectly round (all within a 5 minute put put boat ride of each other) surrounded by white sandy beaches. I believe Gili Trawangan is the smallest of the three, but this is the busiest and perhaps less appealing of the three. Basically, beachfront bars and hotels all around the island. Again, it depends what you are looking for and if partying until the wee hours is your cup of tea this is the island for you. Gili Air is a happy middle ground in terms of what is happening, and Gili Meno is the quietest of the three islands. Gili Meno is where we chose to spend a few days on, including over New Years eve. All of the Gili islands are small, and by small I mean you can walk all the way around them on the beach in half an hour! There are no cars, some of the islands have scooters, but Gili Meno only had bicycles and horse-drawn carts as means of transport. We spent our days snorkeling (a great spot to see sea turtles and we saw a few!), reading on hammocks, playing on the beach, and eating in loungy open air bungalows. Our “home-stay” was Cha-Cha bungalows run by a friendly young man named Adi who made us fresh banana pancakes and coffee every morning. To find them turn right as you come off the speed boat, then make the first left and walk straight for 200 meters. You will see the Cha Cha bungalows on your right. There are only two bungalows with King size beds, but the rooms are clean, the A/C works and it is literally a 2 minute walk to the beach.
Wanting to explore more islands we decided to try Nusa Lembongan. We got there by taking the speed-boat from Gili Trawangan and because of the island hopping took longer than expected. Granted the sea was rough and the tide wasn’t cooperating – the sort of trip where you leave in the morning and get there in the afternoon. Nusa Lembongan is much bigger and you can see the island of Bali from there. However, it has a much more laid back feel to it, some say like Bali was 20 years ago. I wouldn’t know. Anyhow, the speed boat ticket includes a car transfer to your hotel (or the main strip where you can find one). My brother had been here before and stumbled on a gem of a place called the Segara Beach Inn run by Ayan and Ayan (a husband and wife team who are extremely gracious and friendly). The place is right on the beach with Ayan’s sister in law running a Thai restaurant right behind (and they will deliver to your veranda). The cashew chicken and/or tofu are definitely the specialty dishes. We also rented scooters from Ayan’s sister and spent the next few days exploring. Tons to see, from mangrove forests and crab fishing (which we tried) to crossing a suspension bridge, to exploring the many secluded beaches and caves – it is definitely a place to unwind and spend a few days. For surfers, the main beach (and the center of the town as well) is directly across from three surf breaks. Ranging from the aptly named “playgrounds” for beginners to “lacerations” for the more advanced which involves slaloming around seaweed sticks poking out of the ocean.
The Wisdom of Hindsight
We learned a couple things (some the hard way) that travelers to Bali should take make note of.
- First, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months because AirAsia will not let you board the flight otherwise, and presumably you will not be allowed into Bali.
- When you leave Bali you will be charged a 200,000 rupiah “airport tax” fee per person, make sure you have the cash handy (though there are cash machines available nearby).
- AirAsia is great, however our back-pack on the flight back to Bangkok didn’t make it. Tickets are cheap because you don’t get any frills – including baggage loss/delayed insurance. If this is important to you make sure you include this option when booking your ticket (and also if you want to eat or drink anything on the flight as it is all strictly for purchase). In the end our bag made it in the next day and was delivered to our hotel in time for our flight back to Addis, and AirAsia was very apologetic for the mishap.
- In Nusa Lembongan and many of the other outlying islands there isn’t any police around so you don’t get hassled. However, in Bali (Kuta specifically) the local police past-time seems to be stopping the tourists on their rented scooters to “verify” documents. An international driving license helps, otherwise when in Rome …
- Travel with a backpack, NOT a suitcase. Wheels don’t roll on sand, and backpacks are a lot easier to manage, especially when walking short distances and on scooters.
All in all a great three weeks and definitely a family holiday worth recommending. Happy travels!