When we were planning our trip to Bali, we kept stumbling across raving reviews about the Gili Islands. This forced us to change our itinerary slightly and it worked out for the better! Splitting our time between mainland Bali and the Gili Islands meant that we had the perfect combination of secluded getaway and hectic sightseeing. This trip was so enjoyable that I couldn’t not write a post with our suggestions and recommendations of how to spend your short trip to these Indonesian delights. There is really a bit of everything on this list – fun for all travellers!
Arriving late at night from Brisbane, we didn’t have much time to explore on Day 1. Instead we settled into our quirky hotel – Hotel Rhadana – and fell asleep thinking about the exciting week ahead! If you arrive in Kuta earlier than us, you could have a walk around the busy streets or party in one of the lively late night bars. However, after reading extensively about Kuta before we planned our trip, we knew this wasn’t really a scene we were keen on. We didn’t mind arriving late and heading straight for some shut-eye.
Tip: Organise your airport transfer or driver to your hotel before you get to Kuta Airport. The Airport is extremely hectic with locals trying to grab your bags and offering their services. While this can be helpful, we found it quite overwhelming at 10 o’clock at night.
After wandering around looking for a place where we could hire a private driver for the day, the security guard from our hotel fixed us up with his friend. For IRD 500, we were driven around the local areas for 10 hours. This is a pretty good deal and we were so glad we decided on finding a driver rather than a tour bus or the likes.
Our driver Madan, who spoke little English, decided on a route with us – this was mainly achieved by us gesturing to places on the laminated map in the backseat of his car and trying to pronounce the well-know sights.
Our first stop was Pura Tanah Lot. It was very busy here due to it being a popular tourist spot. This temple is especially pretty due to its location amidst the rock formations – it is one of the seven sea temples that line Bali’s coast. After this we were driven to Pura Taman Ayun – a state temple of the Empire of Mengwini. We enjoyed the tranquil gardens here which were full of purple butterflies – one even landed on Leo’s shoe.
For lunch Madan took us to a local BBQ Rib house, Iiga Warung where we enjoyed some flavoursome meals for a very reasonable price.
Our afternoon started with a visit to GWK Cultural Park where they are in the process of constructing a 66 metre high statue of Garuda. We could see different parts of the sculpture that had already been completed and read the corresponding story.
For our final stop, we visited Pura Uluwatu. It turns out we saved the best till last as this location was purely stunning! We stayed here for the sunset admiring cliff top views of the Indian Ocean whilst fighting off a monkey that tried to steal Leo’s glasses. At 6 pm the temple hosts a traditional Kecak Fire dance. These dances are particularly interesting due to the lack of music aside from the circle of men that form a choir. It is trance-like. The show’s final chapter was an exciting display of fire – well worth staying till the end for.
Tip: Hide all food, valuables and glasses when visiting Pura Uluwatu – this group of monkeys are notorious for taking tourists’ belongings. To make it worse, they move like lightning!
We chose Gili Air as our base for the Gili Islands. This was because it is known for being the best of both worlds. You have the quiet, more secluded feel of Gili Meno with half the hustle and bustle of Gili Trawangan. There is a decent amount of bars and restaurants to choose from on Gili Air but it definitely retains its island chill-out vibe.
To reach Gili Air, you have to take the ferry from Padangbai Harbour. We booked our shuttle and ferry crossing with a guy from our hotel in Kuta. He gave us a discounted price and we didn’t have to organize anything.
The coach journey took us threw windy roads, past rice fields and farmers, until we reached Padangbai. When we arrived it got pretty hectic as there are so many boat companies that leave from here, all going to the Gili’s. There are also a lot of street sellers who offer you saris, Pringles and mangoes. We kept ourselves to ourselves, preferring to people watch in a shady spot.
Once you’re on the ferry, it takes around two hours. The journey can be quite rough at times so I would recommend taking some travel sickness tablets if you’re anything like me and get woozy just at the sight of waves.
Arriving at Gili Air, we noticed the distinct presence of horse and carts. These are the islands only form of transport. Stupidly we decided to drag our suitcase to our accommodation, through the heavily sandy roads, rather than pick up one of these taxi services. It was further than we thought…
We stayed at Sayang Mama Inn – a cute accommodation block inland – where we were welcomed with a delicious iced coffee and a stunning double room decked out with an outdoor shower and balcony.
For your first night in the Gili’s, I strongly recommend walking a circuit around the entire island, stopping off at various bars for a cocktail and swimming at the different beaches. Then sit back and watch one of the colourful sunsets, just like we did.
Tip: If you arrive to the island and its the middle of the day, please succumb to the horse and carts. This is an experience that we wished we had done. Plus, who wants to walk around in the blinding heat with their luggage?
For our first full day on Gili Air, we said yes to a snorkel tour with Ada Ngolo. This tour was run by two local boys who obviously loved the ocean. They took us to four different spots around all three islands and were on the hunt for turtles. One of our guides was kind enough to free dive with our GoPro and get an awesome close up of a turtle that I now try and take credit for.
One tourist complained about the amount of snorkelers at the locations. The guide told her that if she didn’t want to be with the crowds, she could get a private charter. This was an interesting exchange to watch – yes it was crowded but really, what did she expect? Everyone’s on board to see the same things!
With this tour, we got to eat lunch at Gili Meno and watch baby turtles frolic in a small tank of water whilst doing so. You can definitely sense the difference in Gili Meno without exploring too much – it is so quiet, spacious and less populated. This would be a good day trip and this is another option we did consider due to the quick ferries that can get you between the three islands.
Tip: If you want to guarantee a turtle sighting, take a snorkelling tour.
Ever since we started planning to go to Indonesia, we knew we wanted to get some scuba diving practice in. There are plenty of dive companies on each island and to be honest, this makes it pretty hard to choose between them. Each dive company has the same prices so that isn’t really a factor. Instead we walked around until we found a dive shop that looked inviting but not intimidating.
We ended up signing up for some dives with Blue Marlin Air who offer three dives a day. We ended up completing two dives: one to Hans Reef and one to Turtle Heaven. As the name suggests, the latter is a haven for turtles and it didn’t let us down. We saw a giant turtle on this dive and I couldn’t have been happier! In both dives there was also an array of hard coral and colourful fish. The most surprising thing is the temperature of the water when you come back to shore – it is so hot, it almost burns.
We finished the afternoon off with some refreshing coconuts and tasty food.
Tip: Definitely take your go pro.
We started off with a dive before breakfast, again with Blue Marlin, where I found that my buoyancy was much better! This time we saw soft coral and went down to 18 metres.
We enjoyed treating ourselves to an iced coffee and banana fritters when we got back to our accommodation. We knew it was our last day on the island – a sad prospect. There are plenty of hammocks to laze about in and that’s exactly how we filled our afternoon. There’s also the iconic Gili Air swing which you can have a play with. We sipped on cocktails right into the evening, soaking in the beach vibes.
Of course what also makes Gili Air great is the amount of decent local food. We really enjoyed every restaurant we went to on the island but Wiwin cafe was the only one we ate at twice. This was because of its beautiful set-up, friendly staff and cheap meals of all varieties that you can see being prepared for you in the kitchen.
Tip: Get to a bar early so you can grab a comfy seat and be ready for the sunset. We often stayed at Lucky’s Bar due to its awesome views of the ocean.
You’ll be sad to leave the Gili’s – we were!
In fact, we were so loved up in island life that we forgot to confirm our ferry crossing for 11 am. We thought it would be fine to just turn up, but it wasn’t as the boat was fully booked. Queue having to wait until 3 pm for the next boat. This ended up leading us to one of the most authentic experiences we’ve had so far.
We wandered round the island trying to find a new spot for lunch and suddenly remembered a recommendation that the guys at Blue Marlin gave us. They had told us of a little warung inland that was operated by one woman and had just two tables and chairs outside. We were intrigued and decided to hunt this little place down.
Warung Sari is easy to miss. This is due to the fact that there is no clear entrance to the cafe. Later Sari told us that a tree had fallen onto their restaurant (pretty soon after they had finished construction) and they hadn’t managed to build it back up yet. We could see the tree in question with its big roots digging into the ground.
Sari cooked us up our meals in the little shed she used as a kitchen. I asked for Gado-Gado and her peanut sauce was richer than the other Warungs I’d previously tasted it at! If you’re looking to get away from the tourist bars along the waterfront, check out Sari’s Warung (near the Blue Marlin dive centre) and you won’t be disappointed. You’ll also get told interesting stories about the island’s power cuts, what it’s like living in Jakarta and how Sari’s husband burst his eardrum.
By the time we got on the ferry, we were sweaty, dirty and dusty! After the crossing and a two hour shuttle bus journey through windy roads, we arrived in Ubud. Our guest house, Bucu, was down a little laneway. It looked like it was close to the main road but we couldn’t hear any traffic once we were inside. We loved this guest house for its high ceilings, luscious gardens and beautiful swimming pool.
For dinner, we ate at Sawobali Coffee & Cake shop. This is a tiny vegan restaurant which doubles up as a cake shop and an art gallery. You can order individual meals or pay a set price for the vegan buffet. Over the course of our stay in Ubud we tried both of these options and this cafe never failed to impress us. We would definitely suggest you check it out – not only are the flavours to die for, but there is a large selection of gluten free and vegan cakes. And who doesn’t like cake?
Tip: Confirm your ferry crossing 24 hours before you intend to leave the Gili islands!
We knew we wanted to fit a lot in to our visit to Ubud so we made the effort to get up at 6 am and complete the Campuan Ridge Walk. This hike is awesome, taking you over the Bali forest, countryside and rice paddies. This hike featured in one of our top 5 hikes so far article, which you can read here.
We loved being so active before breakfast and were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of green pancakes acompanied with fresh fruit, brought right to our patio when we got back to our guest house. It is important to remember that a holiday to Bali is all about the relaxation – so make sure you allow some time for this. We lounged on the sun beds, watched other guests teach themselves yoga and took some cooling dips in the pool.
For the afternoon we ventured back out. First on our list was ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art) where we were in awe of the gilded gold doors that lined some of the buildings’ entrances. It is a good idea to visit ARMA if you want to learn more about Balinese culture as most of the art is inspired by the local rice terraces as well as the decadent cremation ceremonies. When you’re finished looking around the galleries, you can take a walk through ARMA’s own gardens and rice fields. Then to end your visit, claim your free Ice Coffee at the small cafe.
A visit to Ubud wouldn’t be the same without stepping in to see The Monkey Forest. We knew that this attraction would be saturated with tourists yet we couldn’t justify not going. When we started walking around however, I became pretty unnerved by these inquisitive monkeys and couldn’t wait to get out of there! Leo loved it and laughed at my fear. If you’re feeling comfortable, you can buy some bananas to entice these creatures to stand on your head. Definitely something for the gram.
After a day of exploring, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner out at one of the many yummy eats in the city. Definitely the perfect end to a perfect day.
Tip: There are more monkeys than you think.
Whilst eating breakfast, we got talking to the chef of the guest house. In a matter of minutes, he had set us up with his father, Wayan, who would take us out for the day. It really is all about talking to the locals in Bali!
This turned out to be a very active day. Tegenungan Waterfall was our first stop. There are lots of steps to walk down if you want to get to the base of the waterfall. Because of some recent rain, the water wasn’t the clearest. It was charming to see local boys setting up bamboo sun loungers and coconut stalls opposite the gushing water – this completely sums up Bali tourism. Apparently, in calmer seasons, this waterfall and its rapids turns into a popular swimming hole.
Our second stop was Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave). This has nothing to do with elephants despite its misleading name. In fact it was built around the 11th century and has influences that are as early as the 8th. The rock carving is exceptionally interesting – I stopped to do a quick sketch of the face that acts as a doorway, which soon attracted some curious tourists. They peered over my shoulder, told me I was doing great and proceeded to take pictures with me. Famous – nearly! Goa Gajah also includes several gardens, streams, water baths and temples. It is easy to spend an hour or so here, admiring the tranquility of your surroundings.
The next point of excitement was Gunung Kawi – an 11th century temple. It features 10 memorials carved into one rock face. They act as statues, rising above you. One thing to be prepared for is the amount of steps – there are over 200 so consider doing this climb early in the day! I guarantee you that the views of ancient majesty deserve your attention.
For lunch, Wayan dropped us off at a small restaurant – Pangkon Bali (Rumah Makan & Agrowisata) – which overlooked rice terraces. Every table had its own private space and you had to shake a wooden clicker to get the waitresses’ attention. The food was pretty average by Bali standards, though we did end our meal with some awesome banana fritters.
It started raining after lunch but we didn’t let that change anything. Tirta Empul was next. It is a Balinese Hindu temple that primarily operates with the focus on the holy mountain spring that runs through it. You can choose to try out the traditional purification ritual which involves getting into the holy water and bowing under each of the 11 spouts. Because it was already raining, we decided to just go for it. It is important to note that this is a sacred place and being respectful is required at all times.
Our last stop of the day was the iconic Tegalang Rice Terraces. These are perhaps the rice terraces that you always see pictures of on social media and, for once, they do live up to their photos. We didn’t get a chance to do the walk through the terraces as the rain was bucketing down and we were soaked through from our experience at Tirta Empul! If this happens to you then do what we did – grab a hot coffee in one of the nearby cafes and admire the vibrant green landscape.
Tip: Take a change of clothes to Tirta Empul.
Being our last day, we had no set plans. We decided to take this time to relax in our hotel, admire the boutique shops and finally take a peek at the Ubud markets.
Unfortunately this was our first experience with haggling and I can’t say we were very good at it! The vendors can be pretty forceful or aggressive. They will shove items in your face; sometimes follow you for a few metres. We wanted to buy some presents and only achieved this by our willingness to walk away from a few stands. This was the key. Once you begin to walk away, the vendors will instantly drop their price significantly.
The other thing to note is that once you offer a price, you’ll be held to it. Leo tried to walk away from one lady who wouldn’t budge on her price. Five minutes later she came after him and said he could have it for the price he negotiated. By this point we’d lost interest in the chosen products. When she could see we didn’t want to buy any more, we were told to “not bother trying to haggle with anyone else”. The lady got angry and in our guilt, we went back and bought the items from her. After this experience we vowed to get better at haggling for next time!
Please note: All photos taken by Leo Cox. All images copyright © Leo Cox 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.