This has been very much a bucket holiday, exotic as it sounds to visit these islands when you are tucked up in Europe, we are so close here in Malaysia and Air Asia makes it cheap and cheerful a reality. It was this that prompted us to take another dash to soak up yet a new Asian culture, ever conscious not to regret taking an opportunity and to visit places we had longed to explore.
A rather quiet and mellow journey through Lombok and Bali, we have only just scratched the surface and taken a peek into Indonesia and all it beholds. A direct flight from Johor Bahru, Malaysia and within 4 hours or so we were on the West Coast of Lombok at the beach resort of Sengiggi. I had heard this coastline was already overdeveloped and touristy, but actually I’d say still rather understated – kind of a wonderful middle ground between Cambodia and Malaysia.
We booked into a small local hotel, Puri Bunga Beach Cottages which suited us well for a couple of nights. Our room rather shabby had seen better days, but its redeeming feature a fabulous balcony view out across the sea to the shores of Bali. A few steps from the hotel brought us out onto a sandy bay, taking our lunch and admiring the view. Sadly the weather didn’t play ball, and both afternoons saw us caught in a torrential downpour and we whiled away the time in coffee shops playing endless rounds of Uno. These holiday moments are actually so very special, nothing else to distract us from each other and more than anything I will hold onto these times as our lives start to pick up pace again.
By the time the rains had passed, we were fortunate with fabulous sunsets at Cafe Alberto on the beach, even a pick up service direct from our hotel. Right on the beach we devoured pizza and cocktails with our feet in the sand, not bad. Not bad at all.
Gili Trawangan, Lombok
Next-up a transfer to the Gili Islands, an archipelago of three small islands just off the northwest coast of Lombok. We settled for the larger of the three islands, Gili Trawangan to meet our dear friends the Andrews from our days in New Zealand. The journey was not quite as smooth as I had hoped, the heavens opened and it was rather a treacherous journey both by taxi, and subsequently by boat from Bangsai harbour in the midst of thunder and lightening across the waters to Gili Trawangan. It is these moments that test my lust for travel, the kids dear little white faces reminded me how little they still are, how far they’ve come and yet still how a tweak of the comfort zone is never easy.
With no motorised transport on the island, our only transfer to Hotel Martas was by horse-drawn cart – even this was nerve-wracking as the travel at quite a speed and you must take care not to unbalance the load! Family Andrews were awaiting our arrival and it was truly a fabulous reunion. Hereonin 3 full-on days of boys being boys, barefoot, sandy and free, loving every single moment of their time together. Sadly the weather still didn’t play ball, and after 36 hours of rain, mud and power cuts we were a little tired of the damp and dark. A good few coffee and cocktail stops soon rectified our disheveled and muddy selves.
What better way to exhaust these young boys than to circumnavigate the island – by bike for the boys, and by foot for the adults. Around 7km at a fast pace the walk is about 1 1/2 hours, completely flat, and with plenty of delightful rest-stops for a refreshing Mojito along the way.
A backpackers mecca in the 90s, the Gilis are certainly still very much on the backpacker-Asia trail. Families were few and far between, and in general they select the more relaxed and boutique accommodation and tempo of the north and west side of the island. Certainly there is still a rustic charm to the place, but the east coast is one enormous long strip of bars, restaurants and souvenir stalls rather ruining what would’ve once been an idyllic island hideaway. You can feel the pressure of the volume of tourists – regular power cuts, and just one street behind the beachfront is sadly plenty of trash and overworked, noisy generators.
Snorkelling and diving is another major attraction of the Gilis. The sea and coastline are just fabulous, and what better way to explore then hiring a glass bottom boat for a personalised snorkel trip around the islands. Within minutes of our first foray into the warm waters we were spotting neon coloured fish, turtles, and to the excitement of all 4 boys, scuba divers!
We quickly discovered a few favourite spots, particularly Pearl Beach, only a few minutes walk from Martas and a delightful sandy patch of beach with even more delightful sodas and cocktails to match. With Kiwis in our group, we soon sniffed out the best haunt for caffeine, Kuyu Cafe, a fabulous menu and in a rather Kiwi-esque style.
Our 3 nights in the Gilis passed too quickly and soon we were waving goodbye to our fab travel companions and transported via Scoot Cruise to the island of Lembongan, West of the Gilis and part of the Bali group of islands. We waited on the beach as our bags were loaded aboard, and waded into the shallow waters to board the boat. A 2-hour hot and stuffy ride, the boat was packed with travellers taking the journey across to Bali.
I hadn’t much knowledge of Lembongan other than through my research it had seemed significantly more appealing than the large, expensive over-commercialised hotels of Kuta, Sanur and beach resorts of Southern Bali. We arrived for check-in at our hotel, TS Hut, completed our arrival forms, sipped our welcome drink and awaited our room. It was to be a long wait, eventually informed by the hotel they had over-booked and we would need to check into the owners cousin’s hotel next door. Needless to say, this was a bad start and an hour or so later we had ditched TS Hut and found another cheap hotel of our own at Mushroom Beach Bungalows. A rather shabby resort but it commanded a fabulous sunset view out across the bay that more than made up for the quality of its rooms.
I am not sure if our bad arrival had left a sour taste in our mouths, or we just didn’t take to Lembongan, but it was not as we had expected – over-commercialised with poor quality at over-inflated prices. The place is teeming with Australians, only a 3 hour or so flight from Darwin and Perth they have sadly done what us Europeans have to the likes of Magaluff and we didn’t feel much desire to explore the island – hilly and teeming with tourists travelling way to fast on their mopeds. We decided instead to hang by the beach and treat the boys to their first surfing lesson at the local club. We headed out by boat to a reef around the bay and watched from afar as 2 surf dudes whisked the boys out onto the waves. I was convinced they would bail out, but instead we watched as their confidence grew with each wave, soon standing and riding the waves to the screams of delight from their parents.
We moved on from Lembongan after a couple of nights, taking the Scoot Cruise transfer again across the waters to Sanur Beach, Bali. I hadn’t expected the crossing to be quite so fast in our small but 4-engine speedboat and true to form Zac soon delighted our fellow passengers by filling a sick bag. It wasn’t a pleasant arrival particularly, just a chaotic transfer to a minibus and out of the city up to Ubud in Central Bali.
I have always wanted to visit Ubud, a creative paradise and home to anything and everything organic and yoga! 5 nights for myself and the boys at Swasti Eco Cottages, 2 for J who left us early to return to work in Malaysia. A couple of us were a little unwell by this stage of the trip, and decided to take it very slow and easy for our first few days. The hotel was certainly super-eco, and we were pretty much glamping in the delightful hotel gardens, perhaps a little too close to nature with the sound of squirrels or similar running through our hut late at night made me a little edgy.
The gardens and hotel property was delightful, although the restaurant menu perhaps a little too organic and healthy for the men in the family. I believe J has been living on white bread bacon butties since his return to Malaysia. Situated only a few minutes walk from Monkey Forest, it was an easy walk into town, and a longer but cheap taxi ride back at night.
Ubud wasn’t quite as I had expected, much larger, busier, and teeming with tourists from all over the world and a little overwhelming (and we hadn’t quite hit the peak season). I have rarely seen quite so many souvenir shops and restaurants, all selling pretty much identical selection of hats, cheap batik cloth, necklaces, clothes and carvings. By night it was magical however, most restaurants lit by candlelight and many overlooking small rice paddies with flowing fresh mint, ginger and lemongrass sodas, Bali Bintang beer and the odd martini to fight the bugs, of course.
I did my best to keep the boys busy, taking a day downhill cycling tour. We were picked up early and took a drive to Kintamani Village for breakfast in a local restaurant overlooking the fantastic lake and semi-active volcano of Batur (I told the boys this last fact once we returned home!). Next a coffee plantation and a chance to try the premium Civet cat coffee.. better known as Kopi Luwak (“Asian Palm Civet”, a native mammal in Asia), this coffee is made from seeds of coffee berries once they have been eaten and defecated. Obviously I am not a coffee connoisseur after all, or perhaps it was this particularly touristy plantation, but I certainly didn’t rate this cup.
Finally we were given bikes and we set off for a couple of hours ride through the countryside and Balinese villages. Just our luck to be hit by a torrential downpour halfway through, but it didn’t seem to dampen the boys spirit of adventure and they loved every moment.
A dash of culture for the remaining couple of days with a visit to the Neka Art Museum and taking good care to keep our distance from the inhabitants of the Sacred Monkey Forest. We were fortunate to also have an afternoon play date with an old friend from Bath days, now living in Ubud and a real highlight for the boys to do what boys do, swim, eat popcorn and watch a movie! Not forgetting we were in the heart of creativity, the boys had a good afternoon learning wood-carving in a local village which they absolutely loved.
Perhaps many of you will not understand my feelings, but maybe you will, for we have taken such a journey this past year and in some ways this has taken its toll on our lust for typical travel. I have found it significantly more rewarding to spend time getting to know a place, warts and all. Our travel certainly hasn’t been luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, and we are constantly juggle our finances, trying to live to the essence of Sunflower Journey and make the most of every opportunity that presents itself although perhaps we have started to take this for granted.
We are only too aware of the increasing financial pressures and a ever present desire to be settled and stable, to be with friends and family. I am not convinced any more travel will enlighten the boys more than what we have already exposed them to and my hope is whatever we do next these Asian experiences will be etched in their memories forever.