I’d seen the movie, of course. Hasn’t everyone watched the ever-endearing Julia Roberts amble across the globe on her soul seeking journey that all started in Bali with Ketut, the toothless medicine man who read her palm and set her future in motion? It’s a heartwarming tale, based on the author’s own life, worth a watch for the beautiful scenes of Ubud with it’s jungles and rice paddies alone. What I hadn’t realised was that Ketut’s character in the film is actually the same, real-life Ketut that the author had met and been so influenced by. And that he was still living right here, in Ubud.
When I spotted the sign pointing down a nondescript side road, I yanked my boyfriend so hard in excitement that our scooter nearly went careering off edge of the road and into the jungly undergrowth. The sign read simply, ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ and we followed the road to a small, pretty guesthouse. Since the movie’s release, Ketut has become a local celebrity and his house a magnet for tourists who come to visit him and get their palms read by the cheerful medicine man. When we visited however it was late 2015 and Eat, Pray, Love had been released over 5 years ago. Remembering his crinkly face and toothless smile from the movie, I had to wonder how old Ketut could possibly be now…
The entrance to Ketut’s house and garden leads into a pretty courtyard, filled with flowers, caged birds and the heady smell of incense. The raised platform where Ketut does his readings is adorned with ornate images. I spot a faded photograph of a smiling Julia Roberts with Ketut and his family, but no sign of the man himself. The friendly man who welcomes us introduces himself as Ketut’s son and tells us that unfortunately his father is too tired to greet visitors today. ‘He is very old’, he laughs, ‘100 years old!’ Incredible. No wonder the guy wanted some peace and quiet. We wander around the guesthouse grounds which are serene and beautiful. It’s not hard to see why Elizabeth Gilbert was so enchanted by this place.
Sadly, I recently saw in an article that Ketut passed away in the summer of 2016, at the age of 100, only a few months after we visited. I’m sure though that his memory will live on. In those who will watch the film and be seduced by the mysticism and serenity of Ubud and will flock to visit his guesthouse to sit cross-legged on that well-worn platform in the hope of catching some words of wisdom from a wise, old medicine man.
Rest in peace Ketut, or as you would say, ‘See you later, alligator.’
Before I visited Cambodia, I didn’t know a single thing about the country except that it was pretty close to Thailand and had a famous temple with a funny name. Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was the extent of my knowledge of the country that would soon become my favourite in South East Asia. Cambodia really does have it all. It is a country with a fascinating yet tragic history, beaches to rival those of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and the hotspot cities of Siem Reap and Pnohm Penh are a must for culture junkies who aren’t afraid of a wild party or two. Not to mention Cambodia has one of the largest temple complexes in the world, the 400km expanse of Angkor, an ancient Khmer city filled to the brim with crumbling, Tombraider-esque temples slowly being taken over by the jungle. (Read on to the end for some top tips before you visit!)
Angkor Wat is the superstar here, claiming the number one spot in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel List. (Grab a copy for your coffee table here.) The best time to visit the iconic temple is sunrise, so take it easy on the beer pong the night before, especially if you’re staying at the Downtown Hostel in Siem Reap which is notorious for it’s Pub Street bar crawls. Your hostel can arrange for a local guide to pick you up on a tuk-tuk in the dark at around 4.00am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. Despite the early hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists, there is an undeniably mystical, serene atmosphere here. The morning mist hangs heavy in the humid air and countless dragonflies dance around the crumbling stones. Try and wrestle your way to a spot right in front of the water so you can watch the sun slowly appear behind the magnificent temple and see its shimmering reflection. Or just do what this lady did and ignore the temple right in front of you to snap a picture of a postcard…strange.
There is far, far more to the temples of Angkor than Angkor Wat alone. There is a vast array of temples dotted around the ancient complex. You won’t be able to see everything in a day, your best bet is to buy a 3 day ticket and let your guide ferry you around the temples on a tuk-tuk. Just remember to tip your driver after the 3 days! Your other options include cycling, but the midday heat is seriously sweltering and the temples are spread widely apart. You could take an elephant too, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to see everything and, with all tourist attractions such as this, the welfare of the elephants is always questionable.
Bayon is a mind-boggling temple where 216 serene stone faces smile down at you from every angle. The entire temple is covered in bas-reliefs, figures etched into the stone, depicting mythological scenes and everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Inside feels like a giant hall of mirrors with its endless, long hallways of crumbling stone and small shrines sit in silent corners adorned with flowers and incense.
Nowhere is the power of nature more apparent than at Ta Prohm temple, or ‘The Tombraider Temple’, where the jungle has literally taken over. Long tree roots have entwined themselves around the stones and grown around doorways, enveloping the temple which buckles under the force of nature. You can’t help but unleash your inner Lara Croft here, or picture yourself in an Indiana Jones movie. The temple itself is a maze of narrow hallways and you’ll find yourself at a twisting series of dead ends, the passage blocked by fallen stone blocks. The light filtering down through the trees and the sounds of the surrounding jungle add to the mysticism and other-worldliness of this place.
Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are only the tip of the iceberg of temples to explore. Take your time and prepare to be enchanted by this truly incredible part of this beautiful country.
Things to be aware of before you visit:
Dress code: Although a tourist attraction, Angkor is still a religious site and therefore you should dress appropriately. This can be a struggle in the midday heat, as you can see from my photos I didn’t always follow my own advice. Your best bet is to keep your shoulders covered with a loose shirt or kimono to stay cool while dressing respectfully.
Child hawkers: You will be followed constantly by cute kids selling postcards and trinkets. Remember that the Angkor complex is enormous and there are populated villages scattered around so these children’s families live nearby. Although the constant hassling can be tedious, remember that these families often have no other option than to send their children out to make a living.
The heat: Oh god the heat. The temple complex is huge and you will spend full days walking around endless temples in the midday sun. Bring lots of water and suncream and try to stay in the shade as much as possible. Some temples have hundreds of steps, so take it easy!
Tourists: Try to visit the most popular temples mentioned above as early or late in the day as possible, to avoid the crowds. There are so many other temples to explore during the day that you’ll often find yourself the only person there!
I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.
1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.
Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.
There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops. Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.
2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.
I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.
We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…
3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter
(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)
There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!
4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.
If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.
At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!
5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university
If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉
Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.
6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’
Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.
You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)
7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe
Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:
Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
Don’t make eye contact with drivers
Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…
If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.
8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .
Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…
9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife
Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.
A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!
10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel
It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…
The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!
Despite being a big believer in shoestring travel and hostel life, (I spent the best part of 8 months in a sweaty communal dorm room and loved every minute,) every so often you crave a little luxury. Nothing too fancy. Maybe just a place where you don’t have to race everyone to the kitchen at 7am to get the last scrapings of free jam to put on your toast. Or somewhere I didn’t have to sleep on the bottom bunk with dead cockroaches smushed into the side of the mattress and a pissed Irish guy passed out on top of me. (On the top bunk that is, not actually on top of me. Usually.)
South East Asia is top of the list for backpackers looking for an exotic adventure on the cheap, the usual itinerary being the easy-to-navigate loop around Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. But as any Aussie will tell you, your SE Asia trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bali. Not only is the country breathtakingly beautiful, it’s also a great budget destination for thrifty travellers looking for 5 star surroundings on a 1 star budget. Many standard hostels offer dorm beds for less than a fiver a night and if you’re travelling as a couple, a double room between 2 costs about the same. Since arriving in Bali I’d barely made a dent in my budget, choosing tasty street food over restaurants and staying in great value accommodation. (Click to discover some great Bali hostel options in Kuta and the Gili islands.)
Whatever Aussies may tell you, there’s more to this country than Kuta and it’s Magaluf’esque strip of party bars and cheap booze. Bali’s real beauty lays inland, away from the beaches. Winding jungle roads past crumbling Hindu temples will take you to the dreamy, cultural town of Ubud. The Puri Saran Agung palace dominates the main street, where traditional dances are held every evening. Down narrow lanes bustling markets are filled to the brim with exotic goodies; silver jewellery, pretty trinkets, colourful throws and countless spices. Make sure you grab a bag of the ultimate Balinese souvenir, some Kopi Luwak coffee. Considered a delicacy, this coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed, partially digested and then pooped out by a small animal called a civet, similar to a weasel. Sounds disgusting, but this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Just outside of Ubud centre we check into the Sankara resort, a luxurious, spa style hotel tucked away in the midst of rice paddies and sprawling jungle. When we checked online at Booking.com the rooms in this hotel appeared very much outside our budget but after calling the hotel directly we were quoted half the price. Don’t be fooled by online prices! Often contacting a place directly or just walking in without a booking is the best way to get a cheap deal on an otherwise expensive room.
The hotel offers free activities, such as a guided walk around the neighbouring village. We have to edge around a few growling dogs who, we are informed casually by our guide, may or may not have rabies… We pass a dark, arena style area where the local villagers pay to watch cockfighting and our guide shows us some of the caged birds that are used to fight, huge birds with vicious looking claws and beaks. These birds can sell for millions of rupiah, just to be forced to fight to the death for people’s amusement. Poor things. On the way back we pass two men carrying a live pig tied to a pole, ready to be slaughtered and cooked. They’re not too concerned about animal welfare around here! The village is a stark contrast to the luxury lodgings just up the road and despite the strange customs and relative poverty, the locals seem happy and friendly, greeting us and our guide with smiles and waves. Balinese are very religious people, and as we head back to the hotel our guide tells us about the dvarapala, fearsome statues of warrior like creatures that guard temples and homes.
A short scooter ride from the hotel takes us to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This is a beautiful, open sanctuary filled with crumbling shrines and lush jungle where wild monkeys roam free and are fed unlimited bananas by eager tourists. It’s a pretty surreal experience if you’re not used to being surrounded by hungry monkeys. These guys aren’t shy. They’ll try to mug you (literally, they will go through your pockets and try to open your bags!) and will happily scramble on top of you and perch on your head for a banana. (Cute if it’s one of the little ones, terrifying if you’ve got a big, alpha male charging at you.) And don’t try and fool them by being stingy either. Holding out an empty banana peel will result in a very annoyed monkey. As one of the wardens says, laughing as a monkey bares its teeth and takes a swipe at me, they don’t like to be tricked!
About a 20 minute scooter ride out of the town are the Tegalalang rice terraces, a giant, sloping valley of staggered rows upon rows of green rice paddies. Small walkways weave around the terraces, up and down like a crazy maze. Be prepared for a lot of steps and quite a long climb to get to the top, in the midday heat it can be a struggle. You’ll need to take some change too, as there are a couple of ‘donation points’ along the way (if ‘donation’ means compulsory payment or you’re not getting past…) Also, try not to slip into the actual paddy as you take photos, these things are like quicksand and you will lose a flipflop….
On the road back to the hotel we spot a sign for ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ pointing down a side road. Ketut is the real life medicine man from ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and his house is where the famous scene with Julia Roberts was filmed. (See you later, alligator!) Though it’s late in the day we decide to pop in and are greeted by Ketut’s son who tells us that unfortunately Ketut is too tired for visitors. He is, after all, 100 years old. We take a look around the house grounds which have been made into a pretty guesthouse and take a few pictures in the same spot Julia sat.
It’s easy to lose track of time in Ubud. You’ll find yourself completely taken in by the serenity of the surrounding jungle, the mysticism of the ancient temples and the cultural hub at it’s centre. You may find that you never want to leave. And that’s OK. Relax, you’re on Ubud time!
Ubud Travel Guide
Where to stay:
Sankara Resort and Spa. It’s not hard to see why this stunning hotel has 5 star reviews, check it out here on trip advisor (but remember, book directly for the best prices!): https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g297701-d5279694-Reviews-Sankara_Resort-Ubud_Bali.html
What to do:
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Entry: 20,000 IDR Buy your bananas inside, but don’t be stingy!
Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Free Entry but there are compulsory ‘donation points’ along the way if you want to go higher up
Cultural Arts and Dance performances at the palace, 80,000 IDR, tickets are sold outside the palace
Visit Ketut Liyer, the medicine man, For a fee you can have a chat with Ketut and have him read your palm, if he’s awake! This guy is seriously old and may not be around much longer to entertain tourists…
Visit the markets dotted around the town, make sure you take home a penis keyring and a bag of Kopi Luwak!
Book a few nights in a luxury hotel, go on, treat yourself
Take a scooter and explore! The winding roads are beautiful and will take you past deep ravines filled with temples, shrines and vines for swinging monkeys! Immerse yourself in the jungle, just remember your mosquito repellent!
Thailand has always had a special place in my heart. For years I had dreamed of visiting this enchanting land of elephants, jungle fringed beaches and spicy noodles and when I finally did visit, it was my first taste of somewhere truly ‘exotic’. The first time I had ventured, completely alone, into the unknown. I was 22, fresh out of uni and keen to start teacher training. I knew I wanted to take a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I also knew I didn’t want to do that at home when there were so many CELTA courses on offer in countries all over the world.. Of course, I chose Thailand but instead of flying off to bustling Bangkok I chose a school in Phuket where, I reasoned, I could island hop and bum around on the beach on my days off.
This was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Upon arriving in Phuket, I coincidentally connected with a French friend who was working on a nearby island. Ignoring my jetlag, we met up and immediately hired mopeds to explore historic Phuket Town and some nearby beaches. Sitting on the sand, watching the sun set with my first ice cold Chang and a bowl of something spicy and delicious I had a pinch me moment. Here I was, finally, in this beautiful, otherworldly country that had been on my wish list for so long. And I was here for 5 weeks.
My French friend assured me that the place to party in Phuket was Pattaya, an infamous party province. By this point I was ready to crash, my jet lag well and truly set in, but not wanting to miss a chance to party we took the mopeds along the winding coastal road to Pattaya. 10 hours later, after a blur of buckets, ladyboys and promises of ping pong shows, not to mention almost hammering a nail through my hand and a moped crash which involved a smashed set of front teeth (luckily not mine) I finally staggered into my hotel room and passed out. I had survived my first night. I managed to behave myself for the next month, settling for a couple of cold Changs in the evenings with my fellow trainees. But at the end of the course there was still a week left until Christmas and I was in no hurry to rush back home. And so, with my straight talking, Californian classmate Sara, we took a boat to the island on every backpackers itinerary, Koh Phi Phi.
Phi Phi was my ultimate destination of choice. I too wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many over-excited teenage girls and find the exact patch of sand where Leo DiCaprio had sat in The Beach. I wanted a piece of the paradise. I also wanted to party and had been informed that Phi Phi was the place to do it.
The island did not disappoint. From the moment I jumped out of the boat into the crystal clear water I was in love. The narrow streets were hectic, backpackers fresh off the boat hauling their luggage through throngs of people. A guy cycled past with a monkey dressed in a suit on his shoulder. Vendors called out to us, beckoning and smiling. I had never been anywhere like it. We spent the day exploring the island, taking in the lush scenery and lazing on the beach. A longboat trip took us to neighbouring Phi Phi Leh where I finally visited Maya Bay, snorkelled with turtles, fed wild monkeys, had a beach party in a private cove and swam with bioluminescent plankton. I was drunk on sensations (and a copious amount of cheap alcohol) and convinced that this island was paradise.
Pattaya had somewhat prepared me for the party scene of Phi Phi, but I hadn’t quite become hardened to the buckets. (Basically a small slug of energy drink mixed with an entire bottle of vodka in a bucket with a party straw.) And so it came to be that on my last night on the island we made our way to Slinky’s beach bar and from that point on the night became a blur. When I eventually sobered up enough to realise where I was, I found I was sitting waist deep in the sea with a South African guy talking about the meaning of life and watching the sun come up. I had a nasty gash on my foot. I had also lost my bag, (which I later found empty and discarded on the beach) and, undoubtedly, my dignity. I managed to drag myself up to our hilltop hostel where I found Sara asleep on a pool lounger. I had managed to lock us out and lose the keys. After breaking into our room we passed out and woke up with the worst hangovers known to man. I still don’t know what I got up to that night, and thats probably a good thing. But I was young and wild and if you can’t be stupid and irresponsible when you’re 22 then when can you? I’m still eternally thankful to Sarah for lending me money for a hotel room and cab to the airport the next day, not to mention some weird medicinal powder for my bloody, infected foot. And so I bid farewell to paradise and fly home for Christmas, dazed, hungover and with a doctor’s appointment for my foot (and probably my liver.)
4 years later, I come back to Koh Phi Phi. This time I am older, wiser and I’m not going anywhere near a bucket. I’m excited to show my boyfriend this crazy island eden where the waters are clear turquoise, the beaches beautiful, the people friendly and the nightlife wild. But the island is not as I remember it. Far from being an unspoilt backpacker’s haven, the beaches and streets are strewn with rubbish and evidence of last night’s debauchery. It is pouring with rain and the locals glare at us, not a hint of the famous Thai smile here. I locate the notorious Slinky’s beach bar which had been the starting point of our wild escapades, where I first saw a tattooed teenager walk a tightrope while juggling flaming batons, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer simultaneously. The relentless rain has put a stop to the fire shows and the bar sits, dark and dingy, on the polluted beach. I realise that the island probably hasn’t changed that much at all, but that the younger me was seeing everything through rose tinted glasses, not to mention bucket goggles.
We leave the beach and hike up to the famous viewpoint, passing a sour faced woman at the bottom who snatches our proffered money as we pass. Giant, ugly hotel complexes have popped up around the island, large areas of bush bulldozed to make room for these monstrosities trying hard to ruin the once breathtaking views. I am confused and saddened. It seems Phi Phi really has lost its charm. Maybe, as many will tell you, it lost it decades ago. We don’t linger on the island, heading instead to Koh Lanta which, we are told, is still truly unspoilt. But as the boat speeds away from Phi Phi I still feel a familiar pang in my chest as I watch the island recede into the distance. It may not be what it once was, but the island will always remain special to me as my first taste of paradise, of reckless abandon and, when I’m old and grey, a reminder of what it felt like to be young, free and completely, wonderfully irresponsible.
I have been wedged between my boyfriend and a sweaty stranger, my bare thighs sticking uncomfortably to a plastic seat, for almost 3 hours. The window nearest to me stubbornly refuses to open more than a crack and the colour of most of the passengers faces combined with the relentless rocking of the stiflingly hot boat explains the pervasive smell of vomit. A wooden dock comes into view finally, and the overloaded boat slows down to moor beside it; exquisite turquoise water lapping at its sides. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief before the captain calls out, ‘Lombok.’ Around half the passengers scramble to the exit, leaping from the side of the boat into the cool, clear water, bags in tow as the rest of us groan in our seats, reluctantly moving over as a new load of passengers embark. Apparently this is not a direct service to Gili Trawangan island I grumble to my boyfriend reminds me of that classic paradise found, paradise lost movie The Beach. Remember the beach was a bloody faff to get to, but it was worth it in the end he points out. I decide not to mention that most of the characters in that movie ended up dead.
Another sweaty hour later the boat finally docks at Trawangan. As we walk up the jetty and onto the island I forget all about the hellish journey that seems to have brought us to another world in another time. Colourful horse-drawn carts, or cidomo, trundle down dirt tracks, carting tourists and supplies past open store fronts and beach bars, passing under decorative umbrellas suspended overhead. There are no proper roads on the island and so no motorised vehicles. It’s a relief from the chaotic mess of taxis and motorbikes back on the mainland in Kuta, however we soon realise Gili T has a madness all its own. We dodge cyclists and jump out of the way of the horses, their drivers incessantly honking their little plastic horns. But as we venture away from this bustling drop-off point the crowds disperse and the ‘road’ becomes practically empty save a few locals.
We discover our hostel tucked down a dusty side road, the Woodstock home stay, where we check into a wooden bungalow nestled in greenery by a shady pool. This place is a peaceful haven, away from the bustle of the harbour, run by a super chilled German lady and a handful of friendly locals. Each bungalow is named after a classic band or singer: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or in our case, The Who. We try a plate of delicious mie goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and fresh watermelon shakes as we sit by the pool, petting the resident cats.
The quickest way to get around the island is by bike, with the island only 3km long and 2km wide you can get from one side to the other in less than 20 minutes. The Woodstock home stay offers free bike hire and we head inland, over dusty tracks and scrubby, undeveloped patches of land. The locals eye us curiously as we pass. It seems that unlike other popular island hot spots, such as Koh Phi Phi which has been all but destroyed as a result of over-development, pollution and too many tourists, the Gili islands still remain relatively obscure and untouched, though sadly this is bound to change. For now the tourist scene is confined solely to the beaches on the edges of the island. But venture further inland and the heart of the island lies quiet and unexplored, reserved for the locals leading a simple life, unmoved by the steadily growing tourist presence and building sites cropping up around the tiny island.
We have dinner at a beach restaurant, nestled on cushions in a little wooden hut. The restaurant is almost empty and we see only a few other tourists wandering around. Peaceful though it is, I am confused. Isn’t Gili T supposed to be the party island of the 3? I wonder. This is high season, where is everyone? All becomes clear after dinner when we follow the road further around and find ourselves suddenly in the hustle and bustle of Trawangan’s main ‘strip’. Here, there are heaps more restaurants, bars, gelato stands and many a painted sign freely advertising ‘Bloody good magic mushrooms.’ It seems islanders have taken liberty with Bali’s strict drug laws. We decide to skip the shrooms and opt for the open air beach cinema instead. Tonights movie is, of course, The Beach.
We wake early the next day (hard to sleep in with the island’s only mosque so close by, the reverberating call to prayer can be heard all over the island) and head off on a snorkeling trip. The clear, warm waters around the islands are perfect for spotting fish and turtles, just be careful if you opt for a lunchtime cocktail. Pretty wobbly legs after a Gili island ice tea, they don’t muck about with their measures! In the evening, it’s time to to see if Gili T deserves its title of party island. After a delicious plate of cheap eats at the night market we head straight to the infamous Sama Sama bar where we get talking to English Sam, who dreams of living a nomadic life in the Peruvian hills and Nora, his statuesque (6ft2), Californian girlfriend. After making the most of the ridiculously cheap cocktails the night passes in a blur of beer pong and pulsing music and we spend the next morning sweating out a pretty heavy hangover by the pool. But hey, there are worse places in the world to deal with a sore head! By the afternoon we have recovered enough to cycle over to the other side of the island where we perch on the famous Lombok Swing and watch a spectacular sunset over distant Mount Rinjani.
The next island on our itinerary is just a hop across the water. Gili Air is Gili Trawangan without the party, a favourite spot for couples. (Fun fact: ‘Air’ actually means ‘Water’ in Indonesian.) We check into the tranquil Toro Toro bungalows, tucked away down another little side road near the beach.(Of course, everywhere here is near the beach! Air is even smaller than Trawangan) This island is much quieter, sparsely scattered with tourists and here the roads are lined with seafood restaurants and beautiful hotels rather than bustling bars. The gorgeous white sand beaches are almost empty and the water is clear and unpolluted. Huge turtles swim lazily beside you in the shallows, only a few feet from the sand. Here, the locals go about their daily business, hauling their fishing boats out or loading building supplies onto the cidomo.
This time we skip the bikes and explore the island on foot. It’s become second nature now to dodge the cyclists and horses charging down the tracks. We stumble across a cooking school and decide to try our hands at some Indonesian cuisine. We start with kelopon, sticky, coconut based desert balls which look like playdough (and kind of taste like it too.) We make delicious fried noodles, or nasi goreng, and a spicy peanut dipping sauce with crushed peanuts, palm sugar and chillies. So simple, but so tasty.
The days here are spent in typically indulgent island style, sunbathing, strolling around, taking lazy swims and eating everything we see; refreshing coconut gelato and the local specialty pepes ikan, spicy fish wrapped in banana leaf with fragrant rice.
On the last night we have dinner on the beach, the tables sat inches from the ocean, the surf lapping lazily around our ankles as we eat. One thing is certain, these idyllic islands were definitely worth the journey and I’d happily stay here another week, or a month, or maybe just build myself a little beach shack and live on island time forever! I’m sure I’m not the only one with the same idea though.. so word to the wise, check out the Gilis sooner rather than later. Something tells me this little patch of paradise won’t stay this way for long…
Getting there: We booked through The Island hotel in Kuta, this included the bus to Padang Bai and the (very) slow taxi boat to the Gilis. Fast boats are available if you don’t mind spending a bit extra. Boats between the islands are quick, cheap and run often.
Where to stay:
Woodstock homestay, Gili Trawangan – super cheap, super chilled and in a great location. Definitely on my list of favourite hostels.
Toro Toro Bungalows, Gili Air (also confusingly known as Limitless hostel.) Good value, lovely bungalows, no pool but with the beach so close you won’t miss it!
What to do:
Anything that starts with an ‘S’: sunbathe, snorkel, shop, swim…!
Gili Cooking classes, from 275,000 Rupiah (about £14)
Eat at the night market
Watch a movie at the open air cinema next to Villa Ombok, for a couple of dollars you get a beanbag, free popcorn and drinks service
There are places that have a certain allure to them, countries that seem impossibly exotic. Hawaii for example. Fiji, Bora Bora. And Bali. Bali has an irresistable appeal, the name conjures up images of pristine beaches, delicious food, monkeys and jungles, rice terraces and temples. I tell my Sydneysider friend that I’m heading to Bali as soon as my Australian visa expires expecting her to be green with envy and beg me to take her with me. Her reaction is unexpected. ‘Why would you want to go to Bali?’ she snorts, ‘it’s horrible. Full of drunk Aussies getting into fights and pissing in the street.’ Apparently Bali is the Aussie equivalent of a cheap holiday to Magaluf. In other words, a hellhole.
Determined to keep an open mind however, I jump on a plane from Sydney, boyfriend in tow and land a few hours later in Denpasar. Sticky heat envelops us as soon as we walk out of the airport and are immediately accosted by insistent cab drivers. Our cab weaves through Kuta’s late night mayhem, narrowly avoiding mopeds, pedestrians and stray dogs, passing busy bars with flashing neon lights. I worry that, maybe, my Aussie friend was right…
We have booked a room at the great value Island hotel in Legian, the halfway point between the two hotspots: crazy Kuta and posh Seminyak, hoping for a mixture of the two. Our cab stops at the top of a dark, narrow alley. ‘Your hostel, down there’, our driver points into the darkness before speeding off. We exchange concerned glances before heading down the alley where we find ourselves at a dead end. Eventually we realise, after a few frantic phonecalls, that the hostel is right next to us, the entrance hidden behind a huge bamboo curtain. The website wasn’t kidding when it said this place was tucked away.
In the morning, we wake up to brilliant sunshine and the thick, sticky humidity that is typical of SE Asia. Our room looks over a small courtyard with a pool and beanbags dotted around. Tucked away in a corner sits a sacred shrine, flowers and offerings at its base, filling the courtyard with the sweet scent of incense. There are hundreds of these shrines scattered around Legian, hidden down narrow streets, tucked unassumingly into corners or holding pride of place in gardens and at shop fronts. Each morning, the locals place small offerings on the shrines and in the doorways of their homes and businesses, small woven baskets of incense, flowers and some form of food (often, for some reason, packets of mentos.)
During the day, we explore the streets of Legian, peering down the many little alleyways, or ‘gang’ and stepping over countless offerings scattered over the ground. We walk until we find ourselves on Seminyak beach, a long stretch of white sand sprinkled with chilled out beach bars and colourful parasols. We pick a spot and try the famous Bintang beer and fresh coconut milk. Later, in search of food, we try hiring scooters. Originally we decide to take one each but it becomes very clear, after I almost crash into a sunglasses stand and at the insistence of the very concerned shop owner, that this may not be the best idea. So instead I hop on the back and cling to my boyfriend as he navigates the way through the narrow, bustling streets that seem to have no traffic rules whatsoever, (overtaking from any direction, 4 people and a baby squeezed on a moped, no helmets etc…)
It’s chaos, but everyone we meet during our brief stay here, especially the hotel staff, are smiling, open and friendly and despite the traffic madness and the night life, I wonder where Kuta’s unsavoury reputation has come from.Give me Kuta over Magaluf any day…
After exploring our Balinese starting point we go to sleep early in our hidden away little hostel. We wake up at dawn the next day to board a hot, stuffy bus to Padang Bai where we board an equally hot and stuffy boat that will take us to our next highly anticipated destination, the enticing Gili islands…