Sometimes a good photo is all about the place and time, and has little to with the photographer or their equipment – as is the case here. I snapped this picture out the window of a speeding van with my broken down Samsung Galaxy S3 one sunny morning leaving Da Nang, Vietnam. It is also the subject of my most popular tweet to date on Twitter (small victories). Da Nang was lovely because we had the place to ourselves. It was a slow city, and our first real taste of the beach on that trip.
I don’t think I was ready to say goodbye when we did. I had grown attached to Vietnam, learned to appreciate the beautiful countryside, the moto-packed cities, and learned about the ease of making fast friends on the road. I was just getting a feel for a new country when a taxi drove us through town to the international airport, heading for Indonesia.
Eighteen hours later, we touched down on the rainy tarmac in Jakarta. Thirteen hours more and we were unloading from of a bus that had taken us across the island, from the capital to Pangandaran, on the south side of West Java. It was about 12am, and pitch black outside the gates of the ocean side town.
The bicycle rickshaw drivers spotted us immediately.
“Where you going?”
This is, of course, how all conversations with drivers start. We countered with the usual, “How far is it to town?”
After a small haggle, we took the offered ride – drivers almost always know where you want to go. After stopping at the gate to pay the entrance fee to the town, we made straight to the doors of Bamboo House. The group decided on the family-run guest house based on the general consensus of Trip Advisor. Bamboo House was my first sight waking up in one of my favorite locations of the trip and home for the next three days. It featured a gorgeous courtyard, reset-them-yourself breakers, and excellent banana pancakes.
Waking up in Indonesia after 30 hours in transit washed away any thoughts I had of missing Vietnam. Where life in Vietnam had been busy, fast-paced and full of things to catch your attention, Indonesia appeared to be more laid back, casual, and about relaxing. Maybe it was because it was so hot there being near the equator. Whatever the reason, it didn’t take long for us to seek out the beach.
A note of caution here people: DO NOT forget the sunscreen. The sun is big time hot. Especially if you’re coming from a cooler climate in the dead of winter. Anyways.
The beach at Pangandaran is wonderful. The darker black beaches of Pangandaran may not photograph as well as the picturesque white sand beaches of Bali, but they are no less desirable for swimming, suntanning, and acclimatizing to beach life. Hanging out on the beach is also a great way to interact with local people from the town and with other Indonesian tourists. Be prepared to possibly have your photo taken. This happened quite often on West Java, as well as in Vietnam.
Pangandaran is a surfer’s destination, with decent if smaller waves, and a sandy bottom. These two things make it a popular learn-to-surf destination – a fact that local Indonesians have not overlooked. On our first morning in Pangandaran, we had the good fortune of stepping out onto the beach next to Yoga’s Learn-to-Surf Camp. This meeting shaped our time in the town for the better.
The boys rented surf boards and hit the waves, after a on land theory lesson about paddling, catching a wave, and making use of the current. “Maybe later, I will come out and show you how it’s done, ah?” says Yoga. While the boys surfed, Yoga told Amy and myself about life in Pangandaran, asked us questions about our homes, and helped us become acquainted with the restaurant menu. We talked about the giant tsunami that ravaged the area in 2006.
Meeting Yoga and his brother is a huge part of what made visiting Pangandaran so special. Experienced travelers will tell you that seeing a destination through the eyes of a local can make all of the difference in the world, and really bring a place to life. This principle became clear to me that first afternoon on the beach.
Yoga came over and asked, “You know rambutan? ”
No… Who or what is a rambutan? A type of fruit, as it turned out.
“You want to pick some fruit? My brother has a fruit tree, with extra. You can come pick!”
A bit skeptical, we asked a few questions. How do we get there? “I pick you up, in my van.” How much for the ride? “Nothing, just come see the tree! Pick the fruit.”
It seemed too good to be true, so we packed up and left the beach for the late afternoon while the tide was low with our surf coach turned tour guide at the wheel.
The drive alone would have been enough. After Vietnam in the middle of winter, Indonesia is so green! You can look anywhere and see a mountain or a volcano on the horizon and the rice fields are lush and green. Yoga took us into a part of the town normally not accessible to tourists. The entrance is guarded by a lady manning a bamboo gate!
Driving through a wooded part of town, we eventually came to a group of houses with the promised rambutan tree centered in the front yard. For 30 minutes or so we picked our fill of the red spiky fruit, and met Yoga’s family. I poked around a bit, checking out the chicken coop and exploring with my camera. These ladies even asked me to take their picture! I didn’t have to be told twice. All told, it was a great introduction to Javanese culture and set the pace for Indonesia.
Pangandaran was also our first taste of Indonesian food. Some of it was standard, like fried noodles and rice, but served with a fried egg on top in Indonesia. Some of some of it was particularly memorable. The rambutan picking experience definitely qualifies as memorable. But so does the spicy as hell chicken dish we ordered for the first time at 1 in the morning after arriving in Pangandaran. The dish I dubbed ‘Beach Soup’ also qualifies – a rich, clear broth flavored with hot sauce, and floating tofu, meatballs, and fish balls ladled out by a man wandering the beach (10,000 IDR). Our first encounter with the local rice liquor, arak, was definitely memorable. Even more so the next morning.
Like many places we visited, I wanted to spend more time in Pangandaran. I would happily return to the beach town. We stayed three days, but two French Canadians we met there were spending two weeks there – “Who knows, maybe we stay longer.” Life was easy, relaxed, and uncrowded after the well-trodden backpacker loop we had gotten used to traveling in Vietnam. All that mattered was eventually getting to Bali, and beyond that to the Gili Island’s. And so we pushed on to Yogykarta.
Compared to Vietnam, the pace of travel through Indonesia has been slower and more relaxed. If we like a place, we stay! And that is how we spent two weeks between the tiny Gili Islands to the north of Lombok, and stunning Lombok itself.
Gili Trawangan – Tourist Hot Spot, Island Paradise
Although recently fairly unknown, the three small islands known as the Gili’s off the north coast of Lombok have exploded in popularity. It’s not hard to see why. When planning the leg of the trip to Indonesia, the Gili’s were a top destination for our group for so many reasons! White sand beaches, clear turquoise waters, great diving and snorkeling, and a popular party spot amongst backpackers. Sign us up!
Our first stop was on Gili Trawangan, the most developed island of the three and recognized as the ‘party island’. We visited during the off season, so the island was in a fairly relaxed state – but still a lot of fun. The perfect balance. During the off season, the local bars have a different night of the week to host the party so that everyone gets a share and there is always something fun going on at night.
Although Gili T is the largest of the three islands, it is still quite small. It is possible to walk around the perimeter of the island in about 2 hours. With bicycles rented from our homestay operator, it took about 35 minutes. One of the nicest things about the Gili’s is the lack of motorized transport so a bicylce is definitely the way to get around. If you need to go a distance and don’t feel like walking or biking, a horse drawn cart is the only other taxi option available.
We spent a week on Gili Trawangan touring around the coast, snorkeling and doing a little bit of scuba diving. If you aren’t a scuba diver, the snorkeling is just as good! We were lucky enough to see many turtles, as well as a wide variety of tropical fish. For me, the turtles were a highlight since it was my first time encountering sea turtles (mainly Green turtles, but also some Hawksley turtles as well). With excellent visibility, healthy coral, and excellent species diversity, the Gilis are an excellent place to jump in the water with a mask and fins. Other encounter-able wildlife includes reef sharks, octopuses, manta rays and even whale sharks (if you’re lucky). No matter which island you are on, all of the dive shops visit the same dive sights around the islands.
Gili Air – Gili T’s Little Brother (and more behaved)
After a full week on busy Gili T, we booked a seat on the island hopping boat (40,000 IDR) and moved on to Gili Air for two nights. Gili Air is a slightly smaller island, the closest to Lombok and less developed than Trawangan. People say that Gili Air is about 15 years less developed, but you can tell that is about to change as the Gili Islands are booming in popularity.
We stayed at the Fantastic Gili Hostel, a set of bamboo and grass huts set just back from the harbor and close to a wide variety of food options. Newly built, the hostel has a decent common room complete with hammocks and satellite TV. Sometimes sitting down to a movie on a rainy or lazy afternoon is a good thing. That being said, power outages were much more frequent on Gili Air – something we began to anticipate when staying on the islands. Power outages are a fact of life on the islands, and businesses often have portable generators to adapt.
Lombok – An Island on the Bubble of Development
To leave Gili Air, you can either jump on the island hopping boat (leaves at 8:30am for 10,000 IDR), pay for a fast boat (100,000 IDR leaving multiple times a day) or wait for the public boats to fill up (leave when they are full, 12,000 IDR). Since we slept in, we defaulted to the public boat to cross the straight between Gili Air and Lombok, to Bangsal Harbor. Bangsal has a reputation for being ‘seedy’ and full of persistent hawkers, and we wasted no time finding a car to take us to Senggigi, on the northwestern coast of the island.
Lombok is stunning! Before you even arrive on the island, the jagged peak of Mount Rinjani can be seen for miles around. The coast line is equally jagged, full of beaches, coves, and little inlets. The land itself is mountainous, and mostly jungle, with small towns and villages breaking up the route. We spent our first night in Senggigi before moving to Kuta to spend a final week in heaven.
Kuta is a little beach town on the southern coast of Lombok. There are no hostels in town, but it is still filled with plenty of cheap hotel options for backpackers. The streets are full of vendors, restaurants, hotels of varying quality, and surf shops. The best way to see the are is by renting scooters from one of the many services offered around town. Talking to your hotel is the easiest way to get this done. Then pick a direction and follow the road!
There are beaches everywhere and beautiful views along the way. Some are good for surfing, others for swimming and some are good for both. Heading east out of town towards some of the larger beaches on the coast, you can also visit a large bat cave. A local family lives on the land next to the cave, and can take you in if you don’t mind the heat and the smell. Plenty of things to take pictures of.
We explored the coastal roads and beaches around Kuta for our final week in Indonesia, and our final week on the road (for now). I really loved it there! And I can honestly say I can’t wait to go back. There was something wonderful about waking up in the morning by the ocean, picking a direction and driving around in the open air on a scooter for the day. Only stopping for gas, or to catch some sun or the waves at a good looking beach. I didn’t do any surfing this trip, but Kuta is a great place to do it if you’re interested!
And just like that, two months of traveling around South East Asia is over. I was excited to come home, but that was mixed with some sadness about the end of a journey as well. A year ago, we decided we were going to travel and see some of the world. Today, I am sitting at home again. But this time I am planning my next trip, although I have only been back in Canada for two days. Everyone tells you this is going to happen, but I guess it’s another
one of those things you have to experience for yourself.
The end may be in sight for this particular backpacking trip, but as far as I am concerned, the best has been saved for last. I can see why people love it here. Whether you are lying on the beach, or just touring around, a common question is, “Is this your first visit to Bali or your second?” Clearly there is a high return rate.
Uluwatu – Land of Waves and Sunsets
After flying out of Jogyakarta on West Java, we landed in Denpasur and headed south to the Bukit Peninsula. Finally in Bali! The peninsula area has a reputation for great surfing, nice beaches and beautiful sunsets. We chose Uluwatu as home base for a couple of nights while we explored.
To keep costs lower, we chose accommodation further away from the beach at Jolie Hostel. This place was a bit challenging to find, but completely worth it once we found it! Set back off the main street, Jolie was quiet, full of friendly people, had a nice pool and comfy dorm rooms. To top it off the staff were awesome and the price was right. Cheap and delicious food is readily available on the main street. Check out ‘Stop’, our favorite warung/restaurant while we were in the Jimbaran area.
Because we were a fair distance away from the beaches, our group opted to rent scooters through the hostel for 50,000 IDR a day to tour the area. Beaches are not within walking distance from the hostel we chose, but scooters are a fun adventure if you are comfortable driving (or riding on the back as I opted to do). The main beaches in the Uluwatu region are Dreamland, Bingin, Padang Padang, and Balangan.
My favorites were Dreamland and Balangan! Dreamland is a lovely beach to play in the surf, swim and sunbathe, especially if you keep heading to the right, past the first main cove area. The waves can get high enough at high tide, so make sure you aren’t too close to the beach. Otherwise, you may face-plant in the sand like I did, after paddling to the top of a large wave and being deposited on the other side before the water. Fun times were had by all!
Balangan Beach was also fantastic. The waves can get pretty big at high tide, which makes it an excellent beach for surfers. It is also a little harder to find/get to than some of the others beaches, and there seemed to be less tourists there on the days we visited.
Besides visiting the beaches daily, we used the scooters to head to the cliffs and watch the sunset over the ocean. To switch it up, you can head to the temple of Pura Luhur to watch the sun go down. We did not make it this trip, so it’s going on my list for next time.
Kuta Beach – Tourist Central of Bali
On our way up to Padang Bai, we spent two nights in Kuta Beach. Known world wide as a backpacker hot spot and a great place to party, we had to check it out. Apparently the world comes to party in Kuta Beach. It is also a really good ‘jump off’ point to explore the rest of Bali due to its central location.
We were not to be disappointed, although I could only handle one night out in Kuta Beach. That place would drain your budget in a hurry! The streets are full of vendors, hawking clothing, jewelry, DVD’s, and a wide range of Balinese handicrafts. The Balinese people seem to be extremely creative.
Head down to the beach proper, where the town takes its name from, and the hawkers multiply by 10. Bow and arrows, pedicures, surf boards, sun chairs, drinks, fruit and who knows what else – you name it, there is probably someone selling it on Kuta Beach. Be prepared to bargain, as prices are massively inflated for foreigners.
Padang Bai – Fishing Port, and Portal to the East
Padang Bai was a very relaxed stop on our route to the Gili Islands after Kuta Beach. A small fishing village, Padang Bai acts as a portal the islands to the east for those who don’t want to fly. Shuttle buses are available from Kuta Beach, but we opted to bargain for a private car. Since there are five in our group, we got a good price.
Arriving in Padang Bai, everyone tries to sell you a ticket for the fast boats to the Gili Islands. There are two options: the fast boats that take about an hour, or the slow ferry which can take a few hours or many, depending on weather and currents. We opted for the fast boat, since the price difference was not that great.
Before heading east, there is enough to do to keep you busy for a couple of days. Many people pass right through, but they are missing out. Visit the Blue Lagoon and White Sand Beach for wicked local snorkeling spots. Turtles, rays and all manner of tropical fish and coral! There is also a temple on the northern arm of the bay. Keep an eye on your gear, as the temple is full of macaque monkeys pillaging the shrine offerings.
For the most adventure, talk to one of the local tour agencies about booking a volcano trek to Mount Batur, or one of many dive shops around. The smaller shops are going to offer the best price, especially in low season! I opted for the dive and got in two with Widana Dive Service. I chose that particular shop because they offered me the best price, and were located directly across the street from our hostel (the Fat Barracuda). If you have the time, stop in Padang Bai and get in some diving because the sites were quite fantastic. The rest of the group decided on trekking, and conquered Mount Batur. Padang Bai has something for everybody.
So all of this in a week! No surprise here that our time in Indonesia is flying by. Next up: A week (or two?) in the Gili Islands.
The first two weeks of this backpacking adventure I was jet lagged, culture shocked and more than a little homesick. After a full month spent in Vietnam touring North to South, and down the coast to finish our journey in Ho Chi Minh City saying goodbye was HARD!
If you would have asked me during the first week spent in the North, I never would have expected that. Somewhere along the route, however, things changed. Maybe it was just getting over the shock of being so far away and in a new place, maybe it was the ton of new experiences had along the way, or the new people we met on our journey. Or maybe just all of those things together. But I think I finally have my travel legs under me. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
Having been in Indonesia less than a week, I can already say with certainty that I love visiting this country! To sum it up – the friendliest people, amazing food and gorgeous natural scenery. Killer beaches, volcanos, and hot, hot sun. Despite being rainy season, we haven’t been impeded all that much in the time we have spent in West Java. More highlights about West Java to follow.
Today, we are leaving Yogyakarta via the airport and flying east to Bali – the final “phase” of this particular trip (Phase Beach Bum). I come to you from the international airport there. After a slow first two weeks for me (in Vietnam), time is flying by. Everyone tells you that is going to happen, but I guess it’s one of those things that you need to experience for yourself to understand.
Thanks for reading!
Only a week and a half left in beautiful Vietnam before we pack up our bags and head for the equatorial warmth of Indonesia. After our time in the relative cool of Northern Vietnam, moving south down the coast has been a welcome change! Especially for us Canadians who are coming from -30 degrees Celsius in Ontario.
Exploring Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
After a second stop over in Hanoi, we turned our eyes slightly southward – towards Ha Long Bay. Although we didn’t move very far in terms of geography, I would say that Ha Long Bay is one of the “sights of Vietnam”, if you will. Looking around on the internet, many people say that a visit to Ha Long Bay is one of the highlights of their trip here! Others will tell you that it is overrated and not great. So we decided to check it out, and find out for ourselves. Ha Long City was the first stop on the Ha Long Bay leg of the trip, and honestly, I wouldn’t go back there again if the opportunity presented itself. The western part of the city (Bai Chay) is mostly a tourist city, populated with restaurants, hotels, convenience stores and other businesses of that nature. When we arrived, the place seemed pretty dead and the vendors seemed hungry – for business. It was a weird vibe in the town, so after walking around for a while we took a city bus over the bridge to the eastern part of the city (Hon Gai). Food, people, traffic – all of the signs of a normal city! Just not where we were staying.
Our minds made up about Ha Long City, we decided pretty quickly to move on to Cat Ba Island, of which we had only heard good things. The island lived up to its reputation and we spent the next two days exploring by foot, by motorbike and by kayak. Highlights included a visit to Hospital Cave, hiking Ngu Lam Peak, and of course kayaking on Ha Long Bay itself. More about this leg of the trip later! Cat Ba was beautiful, and we made the most of our time there despite a “wasted” day in Ha Long City.
Stopping over in World Heritage Site, Hué
Finally headed for the south! We hopped on a bus/hydrofoil boat/bus combination from Cat Ba Island that took us through Hai Phong and half way down the Vietnamese coast to the UNESCO designated World Heritage Site of Hue (pronounced “hway”, according to Lonely Planet and about half of the people we meet). That is to say, 18 hours later on a bus with no washroom and no WiFi (WeeFee?) we arrived in Hue. Slightly cranky, and slightly tired but happy to be moving.
The city was the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam. It is the home of the ancient Imperial City, which you can visit for 105,000 VND, and a good stepping off point if you want to visit the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) ~70 km to the north. Although we only spent one night in Hue, the Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel was a fun time (free beer hour on Sunday’s!) and we tried some local specialties.
Da Nang – A Developing City by the Beach
Although many people seem to skip Da Nang, we loved it and were happy we stopped there on the way through to Hoi An. Out of a full bus, we were the only people besides two other backpackers that got off in Da Nang. The first night was accommodations in the Da Nang Backpacker’s Hostel, which was clean and new, but offered an extremely relaxed vibe with not a lot around in terms of things to do. The next morning we did our research and set off across the city in search of the Sea Wonder Hotel, rumored to have fair prices, good service and closeness to the beach! Hallelujah!
And so finally, we had our first beach day. And yes people, it was glorious. As glorious as I always thought a beach in the middle of January would be. Mountains are nice, but “we are beach people”, as one of travel mates happily pointed out as we soaked up the rays on that first day. I couldn’t agree more!
With a week and a half left to explore Vietnam, upcoming stops include Hoi An (current location), NHA Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh City. Although we have given ourselves a month to see Vietnam, it hasn’t taken us long to realize that it is just enough time. We all want more, and already I am thinking about coming back to this place – despite not having left yet. I won’t lie and say I’m not homesick, because I am. But that doesn’t change the fact that Vietnam is unforgettable.