Thursday, July 23, 2009

The journey home

We'd booked the shuttle bus from Ubud directly to the airport, and since out flight was leaving at 21:35 we had a lovely easy last day in Indonesia. The shuttle bus arrived spot-on time, and there was no traffic to the airport, but once through check-in and security we found our flight was delayed by a couple of hours. Amazingly, this was one of the longest delays we've had on the entire trip, and given our next flight wasn't until late afternoon the next day, we didn't have anything to worry about.

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur late at night meant no public transport, not even an express bus service (the last one had left 30 minutes earlier). Again we were lucky to meet another couple in the same situation, and so we all shared a taxi into the city centre. We got dropped off at the door of Wheelers hostel, which I'd rung from the airport to ensure they were still open. So we went straight to bed and got up late the next morning, hoping to grab a nice lunch in the Old China Shop restaurant (and after grabbing a couple of gorgeous cakes from the bakery around the corner from Wheelers).

So after another fantastic lunch, I felt just a tiny bit rushed having to get a metro to the main city terminal to connect with the airport bus, but in fact it literally only took a few minutes before we were seated in the comfy airport bus and on our way directly to the airport.

Check-in was smooth as ever, and our flight left for Stansted, London spot-on time again. The flight was 13 hours, and although we didn't bother paying for the entertainment system (on which you could watch movies and stuff), I managed to get a good bit of sleep.

After a strange delay getting our baggage in London, we strolled about Stansted and once we found the Ryanair check-in desks we just plonked our bags down on the floor and went to sleep, along with the couple of hundred other passengers doing exactly the same thing (this was at about 23:00, and our final flight to Dublin was at 06:30).

So after a great sleep (the airport was really quiet, and everyone seemed to be considerate of everyone else sleeping), we were the first ones in the queue for the bag-drop. Again security and customs was all easy-peasy, and our flight to Dublin left on time.

So after 25.5 months on the road we finally arrived back in Dublin at 07:30, picked up our bags straight away and headed out to Sarah's awaiting parents in arrivals. After a quick teary reunion, I was dropped back to me Ma in Malahide, where the smell of a freshly cooked Irish fry greeted me as I walked in the door.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pottering about Ubud

For the next few days we both just pottered about Ubud really. I was going to rent a bike and explore the environs, but in the end I just couldn't be bothered, as it's quite hilly around Ubud and I was just feeling a tad lazy.

The first day we walked the couple of kilometers to a famous restaurant, Mozaic. Apparently it's rated by some as the best restaurant in Indonesia. It was nicely decorated, but nothing special really, but after looking at the prices we decided it was too steep at this late stage in the trip (US$65-US$120 per person without drinks). So instead, I had a quick look at the nearby Neka Museum (I just strolled through the shop into the museum, thereby bypassing the ticket-desk, while Sarah waiting outside too afraid of getting 'caught').  Then we just crossed the road to check out another well know place, Naughty Nuri's. We had to try their famous martini, but it seemed to me to be pure gin and therefore disgusting. But the spare ribs we tried where probably the best I've ever tasted (not that I try ribs often).

Next day I used the internet for a good bit and then checked out a few more of the town's cool cafes. We booked a local specialty of smoked duck in the cool local restaurant beside our hotel (Dewa Warung), which we had late afternoon the following day before getting the shuttle bus to the airport for our 9:30pm flight back to Kuala Lumpur.

So all-in-all it was just a nice few days relaxing, reading and strolling about Ubud before the long 2-day, 3-flight journey home.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Back to Bali - this time Ubud

I had to haggle hard with the bemo driver to take us to Mataram so we could get a connection to the ferry departure point at Lembar, but at least he agreed to drive there directly without the usual stopping to pick up other passengers. At Mataram it was fairly easy to get another taxi to Lembar, although in general it seems that short-distance public transport in Bali and Lombok is rare if not non-existent. The bemos seem to have disappeared or are not too common, with agency-sold shuttle buses and taxis being the only way to get around - which of course leaves you wide open to being ripped off all over the place.

Anyway, we got to the harbour at Lembar very easily and quickly, and without getting ripped-off much. The ferry ticket was straightforward as we'd gotten the ferry to Lombok in the first place, so I knew the correct price (although I actually got the tickets from a very suspicious-looking tout right in front of the official-looking ticket collector dude).

The ferry was another easy, relaxing crossing. But at Padang Bai I couldn't see any sign of a local bus, or a bemo or even an official taxi to take us to Ubud. Luckily an English couple approached us and asked if we were heading to Ubud, and so together we managed to negotiate a decent price with an unofficial taxi guy (of course he tried to mess us around on the price, but thankfully the English couple knew the ropes and played the 'walking away' game very well). So again we were in a comfy taxi heading directly to our intended destination, and an hour later we were in central Ubud.

The nice English couple headed straight off to a place they knew while we grabbed a fantastic lunch in the guidebook-mentioned local place of Dewa Warung. It turned out to be a fantastic Nasi Campur - even better than Fatima's on Gili Air, and cheap-as-chips too at 10,000 rupiah. After lunch, and while I watched the bags, Sarah strolled about looking for somewhere to stay. The best place happened to be just a few doors up the road (not in the guidebook of course), and was a lovely quiet place (Sudana, only 70K a night with huge breakfast included).

That night I tried to find the place that had posters advertising the movie 'Home', but I started off walking the wrong way, and so only found the place well after the movie had started. So as compensation we had a nice lamb biryani in a nice Indian place before an early night.


Arriving at Bangsal with Richard and Claire gave us extra bargaining power with the taxi drivers, and in no time at all all 4 of us were relaxing in a comfy taxi on our way directly to Senggigi on the Lombok coast.

The first few cheapy places we tried were all full, but luckily we got decent rooms at the lovely beachside hotel of Lina's (125K, no brekkie - the president was making an appearance in the town the following day, so rooms were scarce I think). It was still just late morning when we'd all settled in, so after showers and resting for a bit I went for a refreshing swim. As I was heading back to the room, Richard arrived at the beach with his Waboda ball (a present from a mate back home apparently). This high technology 'invention' is basically just a bean-ball that bounces along on the water when you throw it to someone, and Richard had been keen to try it out for ages apparently. So needless to say I was keen to try it out too (Richard had dragged Claire down to the beach to 'play', but she didn't seem too keen really!). It was quite a workout firing the ball back and forth, and it was good fun - it would have been great to have little goal posts!

Later that afternoon all 4 of us strolled along the beach to explore a bit, and to try out snorkeling (well, just me and Richard snorkeling while the girls lay on the beach). Richard (who is a very experience scuba-diver and general water-baby), found a cool white spotted moray eel under a rock and quite a few shrimp, but I'm pretty sure we weren't in the best snorkeling location.

After a great dinner that night in central Senggigi it was a fairly early night and the following morning after a very tasty breakfast at the local bakery we said goodbye to Richard and Claire as they set off for a tour of Lombok and Flores. It was weird saying goodbye to them as they continued on their travels - they still had over 3 weeks of traveling, while we were heading home in less than a week. Even though I've been on the road now for over 2 years, I actually felt a tad jealous of the fact they were heading off adventuring to Flores and Kimodo, while all we had left was a few relaxing days in Ubud before going home.

But I planned on heading to Ubud the next day, and so for the rest of that day I rented a bicycle and explored the coastline north and south of Senggigi, while Sarah just relaxed on the beach and used the Internet to investigate jobs back home. Using the bike I checked out a cheaper hotel that had been full the day before, and getting a lovely room I cycled back to Sarah and we relocated (only 60K a night and a good deal quieter as it was well off the main road, although the nearby Mosque woke us both at 5am!).

The coastline was lovely, with lots of sandy coves and headlands rising gentley to provide commanding views. I had lunch in a cozy little bakery/cafe in Ampengan about 14km from Senggigi, I stopped off a very large and ornate Chinese cemetery, and I took a detour through a very local fishing village (lots of the locals starring at the Westerner, with kids laughing and pointing and saying 'Hello Mister!' all the time - I don't think many tourists cycle through normally). It was a lovely slow pace to explore the beaches, a couple of which were almost totally deserted, while a couple more were packed with locals (it was a weekend). I was literally the only Westerner I saw on the packed local beaches.

We could have stayed another day in Senggigi, but after exploring with the bike I thought I'd seen pretty much all of it. There were a few interesting looking restaurants (and I was tempted by the Sheraton hotel, around which I had ambled about of course), but in the end I decided Ubud would probably offer more culinary options, and so the next morning we headed off - this time without a pre-booked ticket, we'd just wing it.

Diving and relaxing on the Gili Islands

The Gili islands are all so small, and so close together that diving from any of them allows you easily dive all the sites in the general region. So in retrospect I reckon we definitely picked the best island to base ourselves, as Gili Air has a bit more life that Gili Meno, but isn't as crowded or touristy as Gili Trawangan.

The Irish owner of Blue Marlin had explained to us that the PADI diving rules had changed in recent years. Before you had to complete a full, and expensive, Advanced PADI diver course to be allowed dive deeper than 18 meters, but the term 'Advanced' was thought to be putting people off, and so now PADI have split up the advanced course and they allow divers to be certified for each of the individual dives that previously had made up the complete Advanced course (i.e. deep dive, navigation dive, search and recovery dive, etc.). So Sarah now had the option to simply get certified for deep diving without any of the other (basically in my experience) unless dives that make up the full Advanced certification. The certified deep dive cost more of course ($60 instead of the usual $35 fun dive cost), but once completed she would be free to dive any site I would be able to dive, and basically frees her up to dive anywhere.

I thought this was a great initiative from PADI, and so Sarah's first dive was a deep dive with her very own personal instructor. After successfully completing that dive she was now free to dive practically any fun dive site in the world.

So our first dive was at Shark Point, and it turned out to be probably the best dive of all 5 that we did (you also get a further discount for doing a 5-dive package). Although myself and Sarah weren't together (she had specific stuff to do with her instructor), we were both in the same area. It was a fantastic dive with great visibility and no currents or swell. I got to see two big white-tipped reef sharks, both really close, a few turtles and lots or other life (Sarah got to see sharks and turtles too, and 3 octopuses, 2 of them free swimming).

After our dive we got dropped off on Gili Trawangan to explore it for the day, and although it had some great looking bars, cafes and a couple of very tempting restaurants, we never bothered to relocate there. Basically the main stretch of beach was quite crowded (although the snorkeling from there was great), and I suppose in the end we just felt really relaxed and comfortable on Gili Air.

Since we had lots of time to spend on the Gili's we spread out our 5 dives over the next good few days. It gave us plenty of time to check out the various restaurants and to discover the cool little shack of Warung Fatima that had the best Nasi Campur I'd had so far tasted in Indonesia, and by far the cheapest at 5,000 a pop (although she put her price up to a cheeky 8,000 while we were there - still well below the usual 15,000 - 40,000 of everywhere else!)). Fatima herself was a mad 'auld dear, with a crazy toothy smile and a cackling laugh, and although her shack had no sea views like all the 'proper' eateries, her personality, seriously tasty Campur and honest prices certainly made hers my favorite place on the island (a young Aussie traveler who sat beside me there one day said he loved the place too but he couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was that he specifically liked - when I said it was simply it's 'honesty' I really don't think he had a clue what I was talking about!).

Anyway, on our third scuba-dive we met a lovely English couple who happened to be on their honeymoon, Richard and Claire. They weren't your typically stereotyped honeymooners pretending to be all loved-up though, in fact they were totally relaxed and laid-back about everything. Their wedding had cost the princely sum of 1500 pounds and their honeymoon was a very respectable 5 weeks long - both were in their early 30's and had traveled extensively before, so they were pretty savvy compared to your usual Epsilons.

We ended up diving with them for our last 3 dives, and then traveling back to Senggigi in Lombok with them for a couple more days. Our remaining dives were all very good I must say, although I think most of my previous dives on this trip have been in pretty poor conditions by comparison.

Our last dive was on a 'wreck', which was just a pontoon, but it turned out to be a huge pontoon and I was well impressed (I got to see a couple of really cool free-swimming cuttle fish, changing colour in real-time and everything, and a huge octopus, although he was mostly hidden inside his rock).

In fact we left Gili Air a day early because Richard and Claire were heading back, and it just made things a bit easier to travel independently as a group. So after 11 days of wonderfully relaxed lazing about, chatting with Richard and Claire over Bingtang's and sunsets, and good scuba-diving, it was time to head back to Lombok.

Early in the morning we grabbed the same brekkie we'd had every single morning at Lucky's (banana pancake and tomato/egg jaffle), and strolled to the public ferry departure point. After waiting about an hour (and finishing our hastily grabbed breakfast), we were back on the local boat to the mainland of Lombok, and on our way to the local Indonesian tourist town of Senggigi.

Gili Air

It was fantastic to just relax in our lovely wee hut at Lucky's on Gili Air for the first couple of days - basically we were in no great hurry to do anything much. Those first couple of days were spent just walking around the tiny island itself (about 90 minutes to circumnavigate the whole island on foot), and popping into each of the 3 scuba-diving operators on the island.

All the operators on all 3 of the Gili islands have a price fixing thing going on, but on arriving at the 3rd of the operators on our island it turned out the owner was an Irish woman. After chatting to her for a bit, she offered us a 10% discount if we went with them (they do offer a 10% internet booking discount, but she gave it to us 'cos we were Irish!). Since the other 2 places didn't offer any discount, and all 3 were pretty much identical otherwise, we went with the Blue Marlin operation (and anyway, they had a lovely pool and a cool general hang-out area with hammocks and free coffee, and we could use their snorkeling gear whenever we wanted). They also offered to drop us off at either of the other two islands after a dive, which we used to check out the main Gili island of Trawangan, although I assume the other operators would have done the same.

Anyway, after picked a scuba operator, but not yet booking any dives, the next day we just got the island hopper boat across to Gili Meno to check it out. Again it's a very small island, and we walked right around it in a few hours, stopping off at various spots to swim or for Sarah to sunbath for a bit. It's labeled as the quietest of the 3 islands, and it certainly seemed to live up to that when we were there, but it did have some great stretches of beach. At 4pm we hopped back on the island hopper boat back to Gili Air, and booked our first scuba dive for 8:30am the following morning.

Getting to the Gili's

The next day we had at our leisure as I used the internet (in vain trying to find the best way to get to the Gili Islands off Lombok - the Internet can be a real pain sometimes when looking for very specific information!), and then instead just walking around Kuta shopping for the best ticket price through an agent. The best price I could find was 140,000 rupiah ($14US) each, which included all transport to the island of Gili Air and a pick-up from our hotel (most places advertised 185,000). I found this at a fairly non-descript place on Poppies Lane, a pretty cool laid-back backpacker laneway that I hadn't noticed in Kuta before (although it is in the Lonely Planet of course).

So the next morning our taxi arrived at 6:10am and our driver ran into another hostel looking for a third passenger who it turned out had canceled - leaving just the two of us in the lovely comfy, modern air-conditioned taxi all the way to Padang Bai, about an hour's drive away. It's from here that the public ferry leaves for Lombok (you can get a fast boat direct to the Gili's, but it costs 690,000). At Padang Bai we had to wait nearly 2 hours before boarding the ferry (basically the agency leaves you waiting around until enough tourists arrive to fill one of their shuttle buses on the far side).

The ferry trip was an easy, relaxed 4 hours, and we got picked up on Lombok and taxied (via Mataram) directly to Bangsal. From here we were deposited at a restaurant about 200 metres from the harbour and told to wait. After about another 2 hours we were told to move down to the harbour itself, and after a further 30 minutes waiting around (basically for more tourists to arrive to fill a boat), we left for the 30 minute boat ride to Gili Air.

Once on the island I traipsed around and found fairly cheap accommodation (85,000 a night with a great breakfast included), at Lucky's Hostel, which turned out to be a great place, although a bit far from the scuba places and the main stretch of restaurants (but a much better location for watching the sunsets). Our rustic hut was right on the beach and even had an extra double bed on our veranda, which was a great spot in which to read.

Basically it had taken us a full 12 hours to get door-to-door from Kuta to Gili Air, and that was after paying for a single ticket to cover all the various hops in taxi, shuttle bus, ferry and local boat. But along the way I was noting the cost of each hop, and although it turned out we had paid a very fair price, the delays along the way were unnecessary really. If you make you're own way you can just hop in the next taxi, ferry or shuttle that's leaving, whereas if you travel the whole way with a single operator you have to wait until they have a full load before moving on. Anyway, on the way back to Bali I now knew we should be able to do it quicker and even cheaper, which was exactly how it turned out.

But for now we had safely arrived on the very pretty Gili Air. After just about catching the sun setting into the horizon as we arrived, we had a lovely dinner at Lucky's and I was really looking forward to a relaxing couple of weeks on the islands and hopefully getting in some good scuba diving.