Monday, 3 September 2012

Indonesian island hopping

Bali had been great, but it can be quite hectic and we were ready to leave for something a little slower-paced. So it was time to embark on our first bit of island hopping, something I'd read about, been advised about (how doable it is), and that I'd casually mentioned to people: "We'll be doing some island-hopping around Indonesia." But in my mind it had always been something of a far off fantasy, an unknown entity.

Then we were heading for the Padang Bai public ferry, our lives in our backpacks and our magic piece of paper from Pesona Bintang* Tours in hand. We went back to the office at the agreed time and the nice guy ushered us over to board the ferry, where we waved the 'ticket' at a couple of official looking guys who pointed 'onward'.

To get over to the Gilis from Bali in one day you have to be on the 9am ferry from Padang Bai so you can make it over to Lembar and then up to the north of Lombok in time to make the boats going over from Bangsal to the Gilis.

We'd gotten to the ferry quite early so managed to nab a couple of chairs upstairs on the open air deck. It began to fill up around us with a good few Westerners laden with their own backpacks and lots of locals too. A lot of people ended up sitting on the floor. While we were still in port, women prowled the decks hawking food and drinks like instant coffee, bananas (small and green but firm and sweet) and hot nasi goreng wrapped in brown wax paper. I hadn't wanted coffee, but after the 150th emphatic call from the women I suddenly needed one and caved (advertising works!) I bought two coffees and a few of the little bananas; the coffee was ridiculously sweet (some local sachet with sugar included) and Dave had to finish mine before I slipped into a diabetic coma. Once the ferry was ready to depart, the saleswomen vacated for shore and we were off.

Padang Bai harbour

Sitting at our table, we got chatting to a couple of Indonesian guys about various stuff like the price and strength of local cigarettes, and other cultural differences. This was also the first time we noticed the odd Asian phenomenon of men surreptitiously taking photos of young, beautiful Western women on their digital cameras. Bit creepy. 

We also passed the time reading (me still ploughing through On The Road; a good book but not one I couldn't put down so it was taking me a while) and snapping photos.

Gunung Agung on Bali, gently smoking away

It took about three hours to get to Lembar and then we sat for an hour waiting for the ferry in front of us to unload before we could even dock.

Our Lonely Planet guidebook had warned of the 'gauntlet' you had to negotiate at the port, where hordes of guys hassle you, trying to take your baggage and get it into their vehicles so you'd travel with them, and that the best thing to do was put your head down and get out of there. So when we disembarked we completely ignored the large crowd of Indonesian men shouting and bustling and walked straight past them towards the car park where we hoped to find our onward shuttle bus to Bangsal. With it not being immediately apparent, we asked the Tourist office for assistance; the very helpful man put a phone call in to the Pesona Bintang representative and along came a guy with a big frown on his face saying angrily to Dave “I call you! I say Bintang ticket!” - we'd been so freaked out by the Lonely Planet that we'd walked straight past the person who was trying to help us. To be fair, he wasn't communicating any clear instructions and was rather lost in the scrum, but the warnings did seem a bit over-dramatic considering they almost caused us to miss our connection. Anyway, no harm done and we were directed to our little bus. The magic paper worked again and we begun our trip north to Bangsal.

The ride was great; there were about half a dozen of us, plus the driver and the guide, so there was plenty of room. I donned my headphones, turned up the music, and gazed out of the window at the passing scenery of this new island, our second stop on our year away. More Indonesian life to witness. 

We stopped briefly at the outskirts of Mataram so those who didn't have their tickets to the Gilis could buy them. After a couple of hours, we arrived in Bangsal and once again showed our magic paper to a guy who ushered us away from the hordes of youngsters (including the others on our bus) who were heading for the 'party island' of Gili Trawangan.

After a little while of waiting around without much of an idea of what was happening - things kept being said about having to wait for more people to fill the boat or that the water was too choppy - we got chatting to a European yoga instructor who was living on Gili Air with her dive master boyfriend. She told us that this charade was a frustratingly common occurrence but after a while we were directed to a small wooden outrigger with about a dozen other people. A short chug over the Lombok Strait to Gili Air and we'd made it! About eight hours of travel, and by initial impressions well worth it.

A man driving a pony and trap, costing us 50,000 rupiah for two people and luggage, took us on a 10 minute ride to Harmony Beach House, where we'd made a reservation with the owner Colin. There are two rooms at Harmony, up some steps on the first floor above their bar and restaurant, and they're basic: small and pretty open to the elements, with a double bed, mosquito net, a table lamp, a fan and a couple of little bits of furniture. The two toilets and showers were downstairs in an outhouse, 50% of which were out of order. We dumped our stuff and, as I was pretty hungry after our long journey from Bali, headed next door to Legend bar – a red, yellow and green decorated reggae joint that plays Bob Marley on loop – for some dinner and a couple of beers.

There was quite a large balcony area at Harmony, and as there was no one occupying the other room, we chilled out there for a couple of hours before turning in.

We'd heard from Justin and Ros in Ubud that Bintang* Beach Bungalows was a great place to stay on Gili Air, so the next morning, while I was battling with the shower at Harmony, Dave set out to find it and take a look at their offerings. Under an hour later he returned and asserted “Pack your bags, we're moving”. We settled up and checked out of Harmony, carried our belongings on a three or four minute walk to Bintang, and were shown a couple of different rooms by the friendly, helpful boss Andi. We settled on a cute airy little bungalow, with a high ceiling and white walls, its own veranda and outdoor bathroom, a fan, mozzy net, little table and dressing table. The price was 150,000 rupiah per night (about £10) including breakfast - the same price as Harmony had been. Thank goodness for the recommendation for this place, as it was such better value!

A little about the island itself. Gili Air is a tiny paradise! You can walk around it in about 90 minutes and there's no motorised transport so there's only bicycles and the pony and traps. It's the perfect picture postcard spot: white sand beaches, turquoise oceans, and spectacular sunsets behind distant Gunung Agung. The sea is beautiful; clean and crystal clear. At low tide there are pools in the sand flats where loads of little creatures live – crabs, anemones, starfish etc. At night the skies are full of stars as there's very little light pollution and you can see the Milky Way, Jupiter and Mars with just the naked eye. There are plenty of bars and restaurants – pretty quiet while we were there as we'd arrived at the end of high season – and there's an ATM and some shops for sundries.

This is the place we'd call home for the next month.

* In a few Asian countries there is no enforceable copyright law so if something becomes popular, like Bintang beer for instance, it's ok for other businesses to use the name. In some places it might mean you ask a taxi driver to take you to the Hilton and you're dropped at a tiny guesthouse instead of a huge plush hotel, and allover Indonesia various incarnations of 'Bintang' pop up.


  1. This was a great read. Sounds like paradise once you arrived. I am about to start reading "On The Road" myself
    Dad xxx

  2. We certainly found throughout our travels in Asia that the Lonely Planet guidebooks have to be taken with a large pinch of salt: they over-sell places that we found pretty uninspiring but also talk up the 'hassle' that you can get. In this case the guidebook had made us paranoid to the extreme that we almost missed our onwards travel!