We have long loved the beach lifestyle. We are the type of people who can lounge on a beach for days without doing anything but reading a book and taking the occasional dip in the ocean. We felt like we could live this life for months and given the time we had, we wanted to try it out, to push it, to overdo it.
With this in mind, we started researching places in Asia that we haven’t been to and soon found Bali. I had been wanting to go to Indonesia for a few years now, but given how long it takes to get there, how long it takes to get around the country, we always passed, opting for more accessible countries instead (Thailand, Cambodia, Philippians). Without these restraints, we made the easy decision to spend our final month in Indonesia with a focus on Bali.
We put together a rough itinerary just before we headed to Chicago. We would start easy and head to Canggu where we ready offered top-notch Balinese food, kombucha, and beaches. We would then head to the islands for a few weeks, back to southern Bali to stay at a promising surf camp and finish in whichever place we liked best. We booked a few stays but kept things more open then we generally had.
That was the plan as we eagerly boarded the plane in Negombo for a 12-hour flight that had us laying over in Malaysia. The flights were seamless, we were able to sleep in the Malaysian airport for a few hours (sprawled across several plastic seats) and arrived in Bali in the middle of a Monday afternoon. A driver was waiting at the airport and took us to our villa, crawling through the Balinese streets packed full of cars with motorbikes zipping by (we would join them down the road).
We arrived at Villa Kano and were immediately impressed – we had traded in the rough-around-the-edges guesthouses of Sri Lanka for luxury. That is how it felt at least. The villa was tranquil, well designed with polished concrete floors and walls, natural wood beams and plants all around. We settled into our room and took the best shower we had in weeks before heading out for some lunch.
The first couple of days we walked. Not quite ready to join the masses on the motorbikes, we fought our way down the street in hot and humid weather. Not a walking city, but despite several stubbed toes and a few missteps in puddles full of mud that resulted in stained clothing, we made it work.
This first afternoon we ordered “Super Bowls” and smoothies and sat down to the enthralling scene that was Crate Cafe. Beautiful people surrounded us, all wearing their most fashion-forward beach digs, sipping kombucha out of bamboo straws while Childish Gambino blared from the speakers. We were not in Sri Lanka anymore. Frankly, it was a bit much to take in at the time and we would eventually find more relaxed cafes. Nonetheless, the food was great: a bowl of fresh greens sauteed in garlic, avocado, mushrooms, tempeh. A Haloumi cheese sandwich smothered with mushrooms on top of a thick piece of sourdough. We washed it all down with cucumber water. Did this place really exist?
We slowly walked back to our villa, heads spinning with our first encounter of the (westernized) Bali culture. Like most first days, we felt the need to get a feel of our surroundings. That night we walked to the beach, went to a few beach clubs for a pre-dinner drink – “The Lawn” where over 75% of the people were on their phone actively Instagramming, followed by “Old Man’s” where beer pong tables were set up and rowdy groups had gathered – we felt out of place at both and headed to the beach to escape. We walked while watching the sunset over the ocean wondering What is this place?
That night we had our first dinner at Shaddy Shack. This when it all clicked. Shady Shack encompasses everything we love in life (and what we would soon love about Canggu). It’s an old cottage with a high bamboo roof and large windows with wood shutters that open to a wrap around porch. The decor is properly beachy, with distressed wood, potted plants and relaxing music playing. They have a garden with tables placed under dimmed lights, surrounded by soaring birds of paradise, palms, and other wild plants. Overlooking an open field, you can see the sky turning various shades of orange and purple as you the occasional motorbike sputters by.
The food was the best part. Vegetarian, fresh, and balanced (seasoning is hit or miss in Bali). We ate here every night. I usually opted for the best veggie burger of my life (beetroot, feta, hummus, smashed suds) while Jess would go for the delicious grain bowls and salads. We sipped on kombucha and jamu jamu (an ancient herbal health tonic made of ground turmeric, ginger, lime honey, and pepper), and enjoyed delicious raw, chocolate desserts.
This is the kind of food that we have started making at home in recent years. Simple whole food using whatever vegetables are available at that time. Healthy food that tastes great. We were delighted and realized that there is a side to Bali that is more in-line with what we enjoy – a healthy, relaxed lifestyle. We didn’t have to drink beers listening to party music while people played beer pong, instead, we could enjoy a jamu jamu while eating vegetables and getting to bed by 9pm.
We had four nights in Canggu. The days were spent mainly at Echo Beach where we read books and swam in the ocean. We visited local shops, got afternoon smoothie bowls and enjoyed the beach lifestyle we had been craving for so long.
It was Friday before we knew it and time to leave Canggu for Gili Air. We had to take a car to Padang Bai, the port town where we would take a boat to the islands. The port was only 30 miles away and we attempted to use Go Jek (the local Uber app) that promised rides at a quarter of the cost of what the taxi stands were charging. It didn’t work. The driver picked us up, canceled the ride in the app and charged us the taxi stand rate in cash. He got us. Sadly transportation remains a monopolized market here despite efforts to disrupt it.
An hour and a half later we arrived in Padang Bai. We had bought our tickets ahead of time, but still got thrown in the tourism gauntlet they had set up. A motorbike pulled next to our car as we approached the port trying to sell us tickets. The boat company tried to force us into buying return tickets. We had to talk to several people just to get the tickets we already purchased. People insisted on carrying our bags 30 yards in hope for a tip. We were constantly solicited while we waited on the dock (mainly people selling Pringles of all things). It was exhausting. Finally, the boat pulled on and we boarded. We just wanted to get away from it all and were happy to be heading to a remote island.
Located off the northeast coast of Bali, Gili Air is one of the three Gili Islands. We had read it was the “chill-out” spot of the Gili Islands with white sand beaches, no cars, and a locals vibe. This sounded so good that we booked seven nights at a beachside bungalow on the island. Unfortunately what we read proved to be a bit misleading. It may be the result of a recent 6.9 magnitude earthquake that devastated the island in August. Or the information was just outdated. But what we found was a dilapidated, overdeveloped mess of an island. There was stuff everywhere – abandoned boats, stacks of tables and chairs, wires, and general debris.
The island is small and walking around it (which only takes 90 minutes) revealed every piece of land had been developed. I am not kidding, there was not an inch of oceanfront property that did not contain some kind of beachside resort or restaurant. The problem was, they were all empty. It was a complete ghost town. Less than 5% of the establishments had people in them at all. It was incredibly bizarre and frankly a bit off-putting. There was little green space to escape the development and the island was covered in dirt roads that were unkempt.
We were staying at Mowie’s, which turned out to be the most popular spot on the island, although mainly for their Bar & Restaurant. They had about ten bungalows and ours was the one closest to the road. It was great in that we had a covered porch with a view of the ocean and prime people watching spot. But not great in that it was noisy and slightly rundown. Despite the lack of people, the island had an aspiring party vibe – techno music everywhere, solicitations for beachside parties, the occasional DJ playing to an empty beach. This lasted until 3am at times, it was all very confusing.
We wanted to check out soon after we arrived, but had already paid for the seven nights which was not refundable. We instead tapped into our newly acquired beach zen and did everything we could to make the most of it. This was fairly easy during the day. While the beach was not really swimmable (full of broken coral and only a foot deep given the tide) we did have access to beach chairs and umbrellas. The food was surprisingly good. I looked forward to the salty cup of coffee and savory breakfast plate we were served each morning. And the water was a beautiful turquoise color. We lounged and read books all day long as planned.
The evenings were the best part. Mowies was clearly “the spot” for sunsets on Gili Air. We sat on ocean side bean bags, played dominos and sipped on big Bintags (the local beer) while watching the sky put on a mindblowing display. Some of the best sunsets I have ever witnessed. The sun residue painting the sky with vibrant colors of blue to purple and yellow to orange. It felt like a dream as we paused our domino games to take it in. Once the sky settled into darkness, we would order dinner before heading to bed.
The nights were oddly tough. It was as if we could no longer escape the strange environment we were in. Whether it was the blaring techno music or the occasional drunk reveler screaming Bruno Mars as they walked home, we constantly found ourselves up in the middle of the night. The bungalow was old with an outdoor bathroom and without natural water. This meant a week of salt water showers and, as a result, very grimey bodies. Tolerable, until one morning we spotted a cockroach crawling around, followed by a snake slithering behind the toilet that night. This created an uneasiness that lasted throughout the stay.
We eventually decided we had enough and checked out a day early. As we were enjoying our final breakfast (served on the beach) Thursday morning, we started to hear and feel a deep rumble. It escalated as glass began falling from inside the bar across the street and people start screaming as they scrambled in all directions. We stood up and moved away from the tree we were sitting under as a great sense of uneasiness overtook us. It was another earthquake, this one not as strong as the one in August, but still registering in at 5.7 magnitude. The people working at Mowie’s were clearly rattled as were a few of the other guests staying there. We were thankful to learn that no tsunami wave would follow (crazy how fast we were able to find this online) and saw it as a sign we were making the right decision leaving a day early. We packed our bags and sat at the beach the rest of the morning waiting for our 12:30pm fast boat.
Overall, the stay was memorable, especially in the evenings. We ate good food, had plenty of time to read and experienced beautiful sunsets. The thing about travel is that all experiences are great, even when your body is covered in salt for a week, snakes occupy your bathroom and obnoxious techno blares until 3am. There is no such thing as a bad experience.
Our next destination was Nusa Lembongan. We left a few days open days between Gili Air and returning to Bali where we had a week booked at a surf camp. Once we realized Mowies was not worth extending beyond the original week, we found an ocean front property on Nusa Lembongan, an island that was located just east of Bali and on the way back there.
We took a fast boat (The Queen Mary) from Gili Air south to Nusa Lembongan, an island just east of Bali. We arrived in the late afternoon and were taken in the back of a pickup to Ombak Bay where we were staying for the next four nights. Very different from Mowies. Situated on the edge of a cliff, the unobstructed ocean views were spectacular. Four newer bungalows sat behind an infinity pool that bled into the ocean. There was a common space on the corner of the property.
A very friendly woman greeted us with fruit smoothies before showing us to our bungalow. I immediately took an incredibly refreshing fresh water shower, cleaning a week worth of filth off my body. One of the best showers of my life. We relaxed before grabbing dinner and playing dominos in the common space as the sun made its descent. There was no one else there. The only sounds we could hear were the waves crashing below us. The calm was a great relief after the week on Gili Air.
After breakfast the next morning (food was not nearly as good as Mowies) I obtained a motorbike. As I alluded to earlier, this is the preferred mode of transportation in Bali. I was tempted in Canggu but the traffic seemed intense, people drive on the opposite side of the road from the States (strange how much this challenges you) and my lack of experience was too much at the time. But here on Nusa Lembongan things were much calmer. Our property was located away from the main drag and the traffic seemed pretty light. I was given a Honda Vario without any paperwork or instruction except how to turn it on and off.
I believe the last time I rode a scooter was with Jordan Veit when I was 10. Nonetheless, I got on and took it for a spin. It went… okay. I was wobaley. I got in the way of others and I didn’t go too fast. I almost bit it on a right turn – the right turn (more like the left turn I am accustomed to) was the hardest part. But eventually I kind of got the hang of it. Enough to make it it back to the bungalows, down a completely unpaved, rocky road and pick up Jess. We headed for lunch, both not fully revealing how nervous we were to be riding.
It didn’t take long until I got comfortable driving the Vario. Having transportation again felt incredibly freeing. We were able to cross the island in no time and could go anywhere to eat lunch (opposed to simply the best place in walking distance). We ran some errands after lunch, picking up cash, and took the long way back to the bungalows. This is when I really got the hang of it, riding on wide open, paved roads next to the mangrove forests.
There were 4-5 different beaches on the island and we decided to check them all out, since we could. First Dream Beach, then Sandy Beach, then Mushroom Beach. Dream Beach was beautiful and the small swimming area was full of enormous waves. We took a refreshing dip and were in awe at the power of the ocean. Sandy Beach was ironically too rocky to swim but had a great beach club where we enjoyed an afternoon snack. Mushroom Beach was full of boats tied up to the beach and as a result not swimmable.
It felt really great to get out and explore again and riding the scooter turned out to be highly enjoyable. We decided to take it easy that night, dinner and dominos at Ombak Bay while the sun went down over the ocean. We didn’t want to risk driving the scooter in the dark just yet. Baby steps.
Saturday we headed back to the main drag for lunch before heading to Dream Beach. We rented a covered beach bed for the day where we lounged and read. We got an afternoon snack in front of Sandy Beach and visited the cliffs that surrounded it – known as Devi’s Tear. Here you witness the power of the ocean up close. Waves (~15 feet high) come crashing into the rocky cliffs below, shooting upward and falling on the rockbed below. This gives the appearance that the rock is “crying” as water comes rushing back to the ocean below. It was mesmerizing. We stood there for 20 minutes taking in the sight, sounds and smell of the waves while the salty mist floated by and cooled us down.
Same drill for dinner back at Ombak that night, dominos, ocean. Sunday morning we arranged for a snorkeling trip. We were picked up in the morning and taken to the beach where we boarded a small boat with a father and son from Holland. Nusa Lembongan is part of a group of three islands that make up the Nusa Penida district, the other two being Ceningan (smallest) and Penida (largest).
We anchored off the western coast of Penida and jumped into the water with our snorkeling gear. Here we were told to look for Manta Rays, although our chances were slim as they swim south for the winter. We weren’t in the water for more than ten minutes when the duo from Holland (who were much more experienced) wanted to move on to a more promising area. Jess and I didn’t realize this and were naively trying to keep our snorkels above the massive waves that were filling our mouths with salt water. It was then that I looked down and saw a giant Manta heading my way. It was both beautiful and terrifying. I panicked. I didn’t know if they were aggressive or really anything about them. I frantically started swimming back to the boat. Jess was concerned but oblivious as I signaled to her to look down. She missed the Manta and I had to convince the Dutch duo that I actually saw one.
We moved on to another spot where they both saw one, but Jess and I missed it. I swallowed so much salt water that I started to feel queasy. Luckily we moved on to a much more calm spot where we could observe schools of fish swimming among the coral. The sun came out and the Dutch son pointed out all sorts of fish for us. It felt great to be floating in the water again even if the coral was mostly bleached and the abundant plastic left us feeling disheartened. We finished on the western part of Nusa Lembongan where we fought an incredibly strong current while witnessing underground caves full of fish, statues built on the ocean floor (they love statues in Indonesia) and more colorful coral.
We were back on land in the early afternoon and took the truck back to Ombak. An hour later we took the scooter back to the main drag for lunch and booked a fast boat back to Bali for the following day. We spent the afternoon at Ombak taking it easy. Swimming wears you out, especially when you haven’t really done anything for two weeks. Same drill for dinner.
A few months prior to landing in Indonesia, while doing general research, we found Dreamsea Surf Camp. Located on the side of a cliff, overlooking the ocean, the pictures were stunning. They offered daily surf lessons, yoga, and great sounding food. It was the dream ocean spot we had been searching for. A place we could splurge on and spend more than a week at, something we had never done but had always wanted to. We would end up booking 8 nights and based our entire itinerary around the availability of it. Safe to say we were looking forward to it.
Monday morning we were picked up by our fast boat operators, Scoot, and taken to the beach where our hour boat ride would depart from. After another delicious avocado smoothie bowl from B’ Fresh Juice Bar we jumped on the speedboat and crossed the ocean back to mainland Bali. It was a rocky ride as we soared over large waves, but it went by quick and without incident. Once we reached land we were shuttled to Dream Sea Surf Camp on the southern tip of Bali in the area known as Uluwatu.
Dream Sea was beautiful and initially lived up to the hype we had created in our own heads – the design, the furniture, the atmosphere were all picturestique and perfectly Bali. We took the in the views while we enjoyed a fantastic mushroom sandwich and Indonesian nachos for lunch while waiting for our room to be available.
Once we were shown our room things started to change. The room was small, we knew that going in, and lacked a bathroom (it located across the hall). That was a surprise. As we unpacked we were startled by voices that seemed like they were coming from within our own room. This is when we realized how thin the walls were. This is something that has never really bothered me before – thin walls – but this was a different story. The walls were made of thinly woven bamboo and offered zero privacy. This means we could hear every word, phone notification, sneeze, burp, fart, bowel movement, morning alarm, and late night conversation that happened in the rooms that surrounded us. When the Australian woman next door decided she needed to blow dry her wet bathing suit for over an hour we had trouble talking to one another. When the mother next door expressed concern to her daughter that she had been on the toilet for too long we were made aware. When the same Australian women left her phone in her room while she ate breakfast downstairs, everyone woke up to her 7am alarm that was never silenced.
But the view from the room was spectacular.
We were inevitably disappointed with the situation given our high expectations going in and the fact that we paid such a premium to stay here. Luckily we had only prepaid for 4 nights and were able to strike a deal with the property management for us to forego the final 4 nights. This shorter time period made everything much more bearable.
We rented a scooter from the property and spent our days at Thomas Beach (about 15 minutes from Dreamsea) and our nights eating around town. Uluwatu proved to be very enjoyable, it was less crowded and operated at a slower pace, similar to being in Northern Michigan. The roads were easy to navigate and the food was delicious (we especially enjoyed our meals at Cashew Tree). We did run into a few obstacles – flat tire on the scooter, ATMs that did not work, credit card machines that would not take our cards – but we took them in all in stride and enjoyed our time. In the end, we were able to find the humor in the Dreamsea situation and enjoyed the time we spent there.
Canggu, part II
We considered a few different options when we decided to leave Dreamsea early – find a new property in Uluwatu, travel somewhere else in Bali or head to Canggu. We had already booked four nights at the same villa we started our journey in Bali at (Kanu Canggu) and decided the simplest thing to do was to just make it 8 nights. We knew Canggu had everything we liked about Bali – beach, good food, shops – and liked the idea of completely relaxing for the final week of our trip.
With that in mind, we hired a car to take us 24 miles north from Uluwatu to Canggu. We departed late Friday morning and 2.5 hours later arrived to the familiar, smiling faces we had left three weeks prior. We were shown to our villa (a different one which was oddly unsettling even though it was exactly the same except), unpacked and arranged to rent a scooter. This would be the biggest change from our previous stint in Canggu and proved to really open the place up for us. We headed to lunch before making our way down to Echo Beach in the afternoon. It was great to be back.
The next week was spent doing very little. The morning consisted of either browsing shops, a massage or catching up on some blogging. After lunch, we would head to Echo Beach, rent two chairs and an umbrella for $3 and spend the afternoon reading and taking the occasional dip in the ocean. We would head back to the villa to meditate, shower and change before going back to Echo Beach to sit on bean bag chairs, sip Bintangs and watch the surfers as the sun went down behind them. We would then jump on the scooter and head to dinner, usually at Shady Shack, where we would enjoy Balinese food, sip on Jammu and soak in the warm evening. We would return to the Villa afterward and get to bed early.
We did this for 7 straight days. At first, it felt strange. We had been traveling for over three months at this point and had seen and done so much. I felt pressure to continue that and there was a sense of guilt in doing so little as if I was missing out on something or not making the most of the situation. But it’s rare to have the opportunity to slow down like this while traveling. To live such a simple, relaxed life was an experience in itself and one that proved to be very fulfilling.
It was now time to head home. It was hard to comprehend the experience we had just had. Nearly four months on the road, away from our friends and family, away from the life we had built for ourselves was more challenging than I thought. We missed California. We missed Rob the Cat. We missed our home. While we were sad our amazing journey was coming to an end, we were excited to see our family for the holidays, to see our friends for New Years Eve and to bring back a new outlook on life that we could carry with us in everything we did.
Looking back now, this trip changed me in so many ways. It made me appreciate things in a new way, it made my problems feel small and life feel big and full of possibilities. It taught me to value relationships above all, to be mindful of how I spend my time and lead to more balance in my life. Ultimately, the trip rewarded me with a whole new way of living and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have done it.