When we got married a few years ago, Bali had been a top contender as a honeymoon destination. We ultimately ruled it out in favor of Fiji because it was a bit too far from Boston and a sense that it was a bit too weird. This meant that skipping it a few years ago put it high on the list for our Southeast Asian Adventure. As for that sense of Bali being a bit strange? Without a doubt.
Like most who arrive by plane, our first stop was Kuta, just north of the airport. Warned not to stay long by guidebooks and friends, our 10p arrival after a long day of travel from Bangkok meant that we needed to find someplace relatively close-by to crash. To give us a full day of rest and planning our escape, we arranged two nights at Hotel Sayang Maha Mertha in the slightly quieter north edge of town. Overrun with tourists, Krazy Kuta’s famed beach is littered with trash and the narrow streets are slow moving rivers of noisy traffic. We couldn’t wait to leave.
We dubbed Ubud as being ‘Better than Kuta’, but while worthwhile, our three days there were distinctly unsatisfying. Supposedly the center of cultural and spiritual enlightenment, the Eat, Pray, Love crowd might find it distressing that it’s just another tourist town with its share of Starbucks, RipCurl, Dolce & Gabbana, and the ubiquitous Circle K. Thankfully, we didn’t have to stay in Ubud itself, finding a ‘homestay’ in Siangan, across from a rice paddy in a small village about 15 minutes away. A must-see in Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest, which we snuck into one morning before the ticket booth opened – there are no gates, and the locals use the walkways to get around. When the cheeky macaques weren’t eating yams, grooming each other, or engaging in random sexual acts, they swarmed us looking for handouts. During a moment of distraction while looking at a map, one of the monkeys made off with our sunscreen. We eventually got it back after he’d lost interest, albeit with a few bite marks. Our one foray into culture was watching a ‘Kecak and Fire Trance Dance’, wherein a hundred men provided vocal chatter during a reenactment of the story of Rama and Sita being tricked by Rawana, followed by a man on a hobby horse kicking around flaming coconuts.
We left Ubud after three days and rode a ‘bemo’ – their local mass transport, essentially a large van with bus seats – and headed southeast to Padang Bai, where we caught the slow boat to Lombok. The first westerners to board, we were the center of a feeding frenzy of pushy vendors. We inadvertently discovered an unspoken rule upon trying to buy some water when we said we were not interested in the first vendor’s small water in favor of the larger bottle being offered by vendor #2. Apparently, the first vendor gets dibs, so we had to first buy from them before we could buy from the second seller. Amusingly, we could have bought the large bottle, chilled, from the boat’s bar for the same price. Almost five hours later, we pulled into Lembar harbor and met our onward transport to Senggigi, where we spent the night.
Finally, the next morning we hopped on a dive boat bound for Gili Air, the closest of three small islands off the northwest coast of Lombok. The furthest is Gili Trawangan, the party island which most of the tourists flock to, with nightly parties going late into the night. Sleepy Gili Meno is the quiet middle island, and like the story of the three bears, Gili Air is just right – chill and relaxed, but with a number of restaurants and lodging options. With a bit of an “anything goes” mentality, there is no police force on any of the islands, and any issues need to be brought to the village elder. Because of their small size, the Gilis are blessedly free of motor vehicles – one gets around by donkey cart, bicycle, or their own two feet.
We were met at the dock by a tout who showed us to one of the best bungalows on the island, which also happens to be one of the cheapest. Situated on the quiet southwestern corner of Gili Air, we have a view of Lombok, the other Gilis, and the sun sets behind Bali in the distance. The price? We negotiated down to $8/night from $11. While Gili T might be the craziest island, Gili Air is not without strange character. Walking down the sandy path that circumnavigates the island (which takes about 90 minutes), many of the bar/restaurants and lodging complexes have a distinctly Burning Man theme camp feel to them, beckoning passers-by to stop in and hang out for as long as they like. The pinnacle of absurd familiarity is the day-glo blacklit Space Bar, complete with aliens, lights, and a kick-ass sound system playing psytrance. Needless to say, we feel right at home.