Island Hopping – Beyond Bali to The Gili Islands
Mention the island of Bali Indonesia or a Bali holiday to anyone and they will often sigh softly and go all misty eyed at the idea of travelling to this tropical paradise also known as ‘Island of the Gods’.
Indeed, Bali is a lush and spiritual place.
Bali lies in the western Lesser Sundra islands in Indonesia: east of Java and west of Lombok.
It is an island rich in natural beauty with a landscape that features a dramatic volcano, a natural rainforest, cultivated rice fields, and a coastline of beaches and swaying palm trees.
Lonely Planet calls it “a mood, an aspiration, a tropical state of mind.”
So, let’s explore Bali for a few days and then go island hopping beyond Bali and by boat to the tiny group of remote islands in the archipelago known as The Gili Islands.
Bali is somewhere I’ve always wanted to experience and explore but on this particular trip our arrival on Bali was just a planned three-night and two-day stopover before travelling onward and beyond Bali and by boat to the tiny group of more remote islands in an archipelago known as The Gili Islands just off the neighbouring island of Lombok.
We arrived in Bali on an Air Asia (no affiliate link) flight from Kuala Lumpur late one September evening (pre-pandemic) and my first impressions on arrival at Ngurah Rai Airport in the Bali capital of Denpasar, was that it was incredibly hot and humid and very busy.
I’d booked a hotel conveniently close to the airport for our first night’s accommodation, so that arriving after dark wouldn’t be an issue for us and we’d be well rested and ready to explore Bali first thing in the morning.
And I’m glad I did because the first thing that impressed me in the sharp morning sunlight was the huge modern and gleaming white mythical sculpture of gods and horses and chariots embroiled in battle that stands at the first road intersection just outside the airport.
It’s the Satria Gatot Kaca statue and it is truly breath-taking.
The magnificent statue, built in 1993 by Balinese artist I Wayan Winten, is a larger than life Balinese battle scene depicting Gatot Kaca, a courageous and powerful fabled flying knight, who is identified as being responsible for air defence and security protection for the Kingdom. The statue is therefore not only beautiful but believed to give spiritual protection to the airport.
We were excited and in great anticipation of our first day on Bali because we were heading to the cultural and spiritual heart of the island to a place called Ubud. Ubud is also famous for its markets, restaurants, temples and its monkey forest.
As we only planned to spend one day and one night in Ubud, we wanted to make the most of every minute and opportunity. The owner of the homestay in Ubud where I’d booked accommodation via Booking.com (no affiliate link) had already been in touch with us to offer his services as a taxi. He’d offered to pick us up at our airport hotel and drive us back to his place in Ubud for a very reasonable price and we learned that happily this courtesy to guests is a common and much less-expensive way to travel from one place to another in Bali.
We drove for an hour past green and picturesque rice paddy fields and then trundled slowly through the stone carving village of Batubulan. Our friendly driver also acts as our guide and tells us that the name of Batubulan is derived from two words – Batu and Bulan – meaning moonstone.
I was fascinated to see so many art and craft workshops lining the main street.
Stone carving is important in Bali and the evidence of this is everywhere. But it really is amazing to see a whole village full of stone carving studios. Bali, it seems to me, is full of artist and art!
The streets are lined with statues and carvings for sale that range from small Ganesha and Buddha deities to devilishly scary looking Balinese mythical figures and life size rearing horses.
I had to wonder how tourists who buy these fabulous souvenirs actually get them home.
Some of the sculptures looked very old but our knowledgeable local driver explains to us that they are carved from ‘paras’ or volcanic ash, which is like pumice and actually much lighter than stone, and so soft that it manages to look old very quickly.
We soon arrived in Ubud and I was excited to see there were lots of monkeys everywhere but then Ubud is the famous home of The Sacred Monkey Forest! And rather than to stay in the forest, the monkeys obviously liked sitting casually at the side of the roads, sometimes alone and also in groups. They looked really cute all sitting in lines grooming each other and especially the tiny babies clinging onto their mothers.
There were many monkeys sitting in the middle of the road so that cars and cycles had to go around them.
Our driver pointed out a sign warning people to be cautious of the monkeys and to ‘watch your stuff’ because apparently the monkeys will steal from you and have a particular penchant for handbags and cameras.
We reached our homestay in town – Taman Ayu Ubud which was set in a really lovely garden accessed from the road through a narrow stone arched entrance gate. Our room was a beautiful and comfortable apartment with a private bathroom and an outside balcony but we were keen to free ourselves of our backpacks and head straight into town.
We walked the streets of Ubud in fascination at everything we saw and then we came across the market.
The market was colourful and noisy and crazy busy. I loved it – although not so much the hawkers selling cigarettes and pushing stuff in my face – but I took my time to browse the stalls selling fabulous trinkets and fabrics and spices and shoes and I treated myself a pair of beautiful sandals.
The backpacking husband absolutely hates crowds and he finds people pushing and waving stuff in his face beyond irritating. So at the market he trailed in my wake with his face set with misery!
After the market, deciding it was time for lunch, and we roamed the street looking for one particular restaurant that the backpacking husband was very keen indeed for us to try that had been highly recommended to us.
The restaurant we were looking for is world famous Ibu Oka Restaurant in Ubud.
It’s famous for it’s local food but also for Anthony Bourdain’s endorsement in his travel show ‘No Reservations’. The restaurant specialises in the Balinese culinary experience known as ‘Babi Guiling’ which is roasted suckling pig. You can get this traditional dish in lots of places on Bali but this particular restaurant is famous as a place of pilgrimage for lovers of roasted sucking pig.
Now, those who know me will know that I’m not normally a meat eater, but I do on occasion make an exception while I’m travelling the meal is of cultural significance.
It took us many wrong turns down narrow streets to find the restaurant and so when we did eventually stumble across it we were both convinced we’d found it purely by accident!
I have to say that it was curiously delicious meal incorporating crispy pork fat, spiced meat, and a blood sausage.
We decided it was well worth the effort to find the original and the most famous ‘Babi Guiling’ in Bali.
Next, it was a sightseeing trip to The Sacred Monkey Forest, but we actually saw many monkeys along the way there.
I saw a monkey grab a bottle of water from the hand of a woman who was standing right next to me at a road junction. It then sat down in the middle of the road, unconcerned by the traffic whizzing around it, where it unscrewed the cap of the bottle and drank the water. What a cheeky but clever monkey!
The Sacred Monkey Forest is a leafy nutmeg and banyan tree forest and monkey sanctuary close to the town centre.
In the forest, there are many old temples and statues, all covered in moss and monkeys. It’s a beautiful and ancient looking place and it’s perfect for photo opportunities – but do heed the warning to beware – because many tourists report being ‘terrified’ ‘chased’ and ‘mugged’ by the monkeys!
The next morning, our homestead owner drove us back towards the coast to Bali’s primary beach resort town, a place called Kuta. And, we had actually been prewarned, that it was reputedly the worst place in Bali.
Indeed, we found it to be a touristy and sleazy place, with fast food restaurants and a noisy stretch of beach packed with aggressive hawkers and swathes of tourists. We stayed at the H Sovereign Bali for the one night and took a walk along the beach road to get dinner from a well-known burger restaurant. We decided we couldn’t wait to leave Kuta.
Note: I’ve since been assured by travelling friends that there are many more beautiful and far more peaceful places on the island of Bali that we didn’t see or experience during our short stay. We have been told that we shouldn’t let our disappointment and impressions of Kuta overshadow the rest of what Bali has to offer. Places like Seminyak & Canggu and Munduk and, in particular the neighbouring islands of Nusa Ceningan, Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan.
So, I feel that perhaps we do need to go back again for another visit and to give Bali another chance.
I will admit that I was also particularly keen to leave from Kuta at Padang Bai ferry point because we were in great anticipation of travelling on to our ultimate destination in this trip: the Gili Islands from Bali.
Gili Islands Indonesia
The Gili’s are three picture perfect small tropical islands off the northwest coast of the larger neighbouring island to Bali called Lombok. There are no cars or motorised transport on these islands and they promise a simple laid back tropical island vibe.
In the local Sasak language, the word gili, means small island.
The three islands are called: Gili Trawangan, (known as Gili T) Gilli Meno and Gili Air.
We researched our sea crossing to the Gili Islands and booked with Blue Water Express (no affiliate link). There are many fast boats and slow boats to take you from Bali to the islands. I highly recommend you do a bit of online research before you make your choice of sea transport, as there have been many incidents of sinking, near sinking, capsizing, on board blasts and explosions that have resulted in tourist fatalities. So don’t just go for the cheapest boat tickets.
The ferry stops as Gili T first, Having done my prior research on the islands, we’d planned not to stay on the larger and livelier of these three islands, as Gili T is often described as a ‘party island’ and as we’d had our fill of hedonistic party islands in Thailand – on this occasion at least – we were looking for a more tranquil and laid-back vibe.
We were looking for quiet, relaxation, diving, snorkelling, great seafood, and a beach bar with a laid back ambience.
So we stayed on the ferry boat and we went onto Gili Air.
On arrival at Gili Air, pony and trap taxi’s were waiting on the sandy path main street to take us to our lodgings
We had booked for five nights on Gili Air at Anugrah Bungalow, a clean and basic homestay accommodation in a small garden villa. We were delighted with our bungalow. It looked comfortable and clean and we had a nice bedroom and separate private bathroom and we thought it very inexpensive at around £100 for the entire five nights.
On our first day, we walked slowly around the whole island, which took us around ninety minutes while gazing out at the clear turquoise sea and the neighbouring islands on either side of us. Then, as we were heading down the sandy track of main street again – feeling thirsty and lured by all the bar signs to buy a cold beer – we headed to a beach bar.
Just when we were thinking we were just about as far away from anywhere as one could possibly be here on these tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where it meets the Pacific by the Wallace Line – we suddenly recognised two familiar faces coming down the beach – and we could hardly believe that two very good friends we’d first met in Thailand were also here in the island!
Our friends told us they’ve been travelling in Malaysia and Indonesia following the F1 Grand Prix and were now taking some time out to spend a few days on Gili Air. What an amazingly small world it is when you meet people totally by chance like that!
It was so great to see Rebecca and Mark again and happily we got to spend the next few days in their lovely company.
We enjoyed some lazy days and some really fun evenings together on Gili Air.
We also all went out on a dive boat together too with Manta Divers.
As a non- diver myself, I went snorkelling off the boat, while the backpacking husband and friends went scuba diving.
Then, after five wonderful days and nights on Gili Air, the backpacking husband and I bade farewell to our friends and hopped back onto the ferry heading across the sea to the next island hopping adventure on the neighbouring island of Gili Meno.
Gili Meno is an even smaller and even more laid back island than Gili Air.
Gili Meno is often described as ‘Robinson Crusoe Island’ as it certainly looks like a castaway’s paradise with white sand beaches, coconut palms, clear warm waters and lots of peace and quiet. Below is my photo of the harbour area. Idyllic!
Again, there are no cars or any motorised transport on the island and the best way to get around is by walking along the sand tracks or taking a pony and trap taxi ride.
We planned to stay on Gili Meno for five nights at Kebun Kupu Kupu Eco Resort. Our accommodation was situated inland amongst a coconut plantation and about a fifteen-minute walk from the ferry point. In the high heat and humidity and with our backpacks (and the backpacking husbands dive gear – we decided that we’d take a pony and trap taxi to our resort and enjoy the tropically scented breeze blowing on our faces as our pony trotted along the sandy pathways.
We’d also decided to splash out a bit more for our stay on Gili Meno and The Kebun Kupu Kupu Eco Resort is gorgeous.
Our bungalow on Gili Meno was luxurious and the resort’s swimming pool and sun lounging area was fabulous. Just a short walk away was the beach and on our first afternoon we took a leisurely walk around the whole island.
Our walk around the island only took only an hour and then we found ourselves right back where we started and at a fabulous beach restaurant for lunch. It was a spot that we soon we adopted as our favourite place to drink and eat and watch the sun going down on Gili Meno each evening during our stay.
I kept having to pinch myself because it was all so incredibly beautiful!
The only downside to all this relaxation and indulgence was that on our last day on Gili Meno, I suffered a bout of sunstroke. I’d spend most of our days lounging around the pool in the hot sun when by our final evening I began to feel very ill. Unfortunately, we’d planned another lovely sunset dinner on the beach, which we then had to abandon.
Thankfully, I was more or less recovered by morning, as we had two boats and flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur the following day. And, it has to be said that after ten days spent in paradise, we were really sad to leave.
We felt we could have stayed in this paradise forever.
Or at least carry on exploring the island chain along this stunningly beautiful archipelago beyond Bali.
Indeed, the island of Lombok looked appealing and the journey onward further to Flores and the islands of The Komodo National Park, and what an adventure that would be. But, alas, one for another time perhaps, as we did have a return flight booked to take us from Bali back to Kuala Lumpur.
And from Kuala Lumpur – our base and the gateway to Asia – we knew we could pretty much go anywhere!
Have you ever been to Bali?
If so, what were your impressions?
If not, is it on your travel wish list?
Have you travelled to The Gili Island?
If so, which island was your favourite?
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