Quick start guide Bali is late arriving. At the point of writing (November 2019), I am sat in a coffee shop on the island of Gili Air. The last month has been down-time and reflection. I am changing.
Things that I thought were important seem less so. Projects that I have poured my every waking moment into are feeling more like exercises in ego and validation. Relationships seem to be shifting too. Is this what finding yourself feels like? If so, it feels more like losing a version of oneself. Maybe that is the point?
Bali South: Guide notes from my diary.
Late October, and with my Thailand tourist visa nearing its end, I have a choice to make. I can go with my original plan and check out Vietnam, or I could go with the flow.
As it happens, Lucy has a nice long break programmed for November. She is not up to lots of travelling and is keen to get a tattoo. She has suggested we look at Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands.
I have no plan, so why not.
I land at Denpasar airport in a bit of a stressful state. I am unusually anxious about getting into Kuta from the airport. It is merely a taxi ride, after all. Denpasar is bustling with taxi firms all vying for my attention, and I have forgotten to get cash out. I had even arrived at the cashpoints first because everyone else was dealing with baggage claims. (I travel with my rucksack and a laptop bag only).
In my anxious state, I had walked straight through to the arrival lounge. Now, the baying crowds of taxi reps remind me of my error. I backtrack, and as I turn the corner, am greeted by half a planeload of people queued up. Grateful for the time to think I make a mental tick-list. I need to get a tourist SIM and enough money to see me through the next few days. Is that it? Why am I so wound up?
The queue edges slowly forward. One of the two cash machines runs out of cash. Note to self: always get to the cashpoint as quickly as you can, or load the Revolut card, so you have money on arrival. It is not difficult!
A warning to fellow nomads who use TSB bank
TSB does not make travelling abroad easy and have blocked my cards twice on this trip already. Their justification for doing so is “Unusual activity”. Is it unusual for someone who is travelling to use a cash-point in a foreign country? I don’t think so. Yet, phone calls have yielded nothing but apologies, and the ominous message that my cards will continue to be blocked regularly throughout my travels.
Apparently, there is no system in place for TSB to acknowledge that I am travelling. The algorithm will block my cards and suspend my account. I will have to ring to have them cleared. This will involve sending a code to my UK phone number, which I am not using.
Diary notes-First impressions count-Bali South.
Lucy has booked us one night in Kuta. The accommodation has been chosen on price; cheap and cheerful. The venue is well-positioned for accessing the ferry port early tomorrow.
Before my arrival, I heard many people talking about Kuta and how great it is. I have been here for an hour, and I cannot stand it. This part of Bali South stands as a monument to how western, and first world travel habits can ruin a culture. It is regrettable to see what was undoubtedly a beautiful part of the world, turned into some plastic strewn, seedy playground.
Now, I do accept that I have travelled 3800 KM and am a little tired. Still, I feel that the energy of the place is off — I have been approached twice by drug dealers in the space of an hour. I have also been asked if I sell drugs! I am not your average fifty-year-old, I admit, but I really don’t think I look like a drug dealer.
Bars are full of drunken assholes. I have heard the words ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’ and ‘cunt’ more times in the last hour than I have in all of the previous two months, and I am sat in a family restaurant. Kuta is Newquay in the east. I cannot wait for Lucy to arrive, and for us both to leave this place.
Messages from other realms
I have a genuinely bizarre lucid dream that first night which serves only to underline the weird vibe in Kuta. I can say, hand on heart, that the spirits are not happy with what has happened to their sacred place. One night is enough.
As we wait for the minibus to take us to the ferry, I share my thoughts with Lucy. “I have no intention of visiting Bali again”. She smiles at me, as she does—a knowing smile. It carries with it the understanding of my hasty opinions and Bali North. “We will see” she laughs.
Digital Nomad life on the Gili Islands/Lombok.
The boat journey from Bali to Lombok is pretty painless unless you forget to put suntan lotion on. Both Lucy and I sit on the Upper deck. Neither of us has suntan lotion, and both of us are getting sunburned inside of an hour. It is three hours from Bali to Lombok. If you plan on using the upper deck, make sure you have cream before you board. There are plenty of market stalls at the port selling everything you could need, and if you haven’t had breakfast, there are local warungs and western food too.
The sea is calm, and the weather terrific. The boat stops at both Gili T and Gili Air before we go on to Lombok. As we leave the port at Gili Air, I feel like we should be staying. All three of the Gili’s are beautiful. Gili Air seems to have some exceptional magical quality about it. I am keen to find out more. As it is, we continue to Lombok.
Ten minutes later, and we dock at the jetty. A barrage of young men on mopeds meets us. They welcome us off of the boat warmly. “We will take you to the harbour office and arrange your transport”. For the record, these guys are NOT your official transport. The ferry staff will direct you to the free taxis on arrival at Lombok. (This free service operates within a certain radius. Past that radius, you will have to pay a surcharge). We are unaware of this arrangement and jump on the back of mopeds—our bags on other bikes. Only as we are halfway down the jetty, do Lucy and I realise we have been duped.
Nomad tips-know your agent’s drivers.
Now, I am not in any way complaining about the young men that meet us. They are friendly, funny and respectful. It helps that Lucy speaks fluent Bahasa, and true to their word, they eventually sort us a cab. Expect to be taken to a local restaurant, the brother-in-law’s jewellery business and any other potential revenue stream before you even get to discuss a taxi. When the cab finally arrives, we pay over the odds. Of course, price is all relative. A two and a half-hour taxi ride to Koeta costs us 200,000 IDR, which equates to about £10.00/$13.00, a fraction of what it would cost back at home, but still twice the price we should have paid.
Personally, I like their style. These lads are good-natured opportunists and deserve the win. Our driver takes us the long way, (of course), but that does involve a stunning route over the mountains of Lombok. As we pass through various towns and villages, mopeds buzz past at breakneck speeds on all sides. I feel like we are seeing things we would have otherwise missed. At least, I am. Lucy is snoring.
Two days in Koeta
It seems that we have been travelling more than experiencing. It gets like that sometimes. Lucy and I want a few days to chill, so Koeta is ideal. There are a few charming cafes and some potentially useable co-working spaces. I have one consistent issue on Lombok, and that is the WiFi infrastructure. WiFi is painfully slow here. If you intend staying for any length of time, or if you need to have a good WiFi connection, then forget using WiFi networks and buy a tourist SIM.
Eventually, I went with Telkomsel which worked well on Lombok, Gili Air, Bali and Java. The service was consistent, economical and good enough to upload, download, stream audio and video. With the native WiFi infrastructure, I struggled to upload a PDF.
As far as working on Lombok, it doesn’t happen. A month travelling in Thailand, and the big journey down to meet Lucy has taken it out of me. One of the things I have learned on this trip is to listen to your body. With no pressing deadlines and minimal mental capacity for creating anything, I switch off for three days.
Digital Nomad Life On Gili Air.
The Gili’s are a set of three islands to the west of Lombok. As mentioned earlier, Gili Air had piqued my interest. When I found out that there were no petrol engines allowed on Gili Air, and all transport was either bicycle or pony and trap, then I knew I wanted to go. Lucy and I take the short boat ride back to Gili Air to find out what the island is all about.
Gili Air is the second largest of the three islands. Gili T is the party island, Gili Meno is the Honeymoon island, and so Gili Air seems to suit our needs best. A quiet and relaxing beach break, with watersports and quality time. I fall in love with Gili Air very quickly. Lucy and I have a good time, but I am sensing some weird energy forming. I am not sure what is going on, but it feels significant.
We have some excellent meals, massages and I am invited to perform a DJ set at the beachfront bar where we are staying. I play for three hours to a packed beach. It is over ten years since I last DJ’d, and I enjoy the experience. I am asked to come back and play the following Thursday too. The bar provides free gin and food all night.
Island hopping in Indonesia is easy
We have to return to Bali for Lucy to have her tattoo. I have no hesitation in planning my return to the island after Lucy has returned to work.
Evidently, I have nothing good to say about the South of Bali. I am going to reserve final judgement until I return. Possibly the South has more to offer than I experienced. Maybe Kuta was a wrong choice. Tiredness, anxiety and a four-hour argument with TSB to get my cards switched back on did not help. The lucid dream left me very weirded out. So, what is Gili Air like for the Digital Nomad?
Where to Stay On Gili Air
I stayed in two different levels of accommodation during my time on Gili Air. As Gili is such a small Island, there are two choices to make. One option is to stick to the perimeter next to the water. The other is to stay in from the waterside and hire a pushbike to get around. You will save money on accommodation and food by staying away for the beachfront areas, which carry a large premium. Remember, even in the very centre of the island; you are no more than ten minutes cycle from any beach.
Lumbung Bungalows – Gili Air
Lumbung bungalows are on the higher end of the accommodation budget. Booking through Agoda, we were able to secure a private hut, with air conditioning, and a very substantial breakfast. The bungalows have comfortable beds and open-air bathrooms which gives them a premium feel. Each has ample veranda space. There is a large pool for guests to use.
Lumbung has a restaurant and bar. Friendly and engaged staff are always on hand. The food is delicious, and up there with the best I have eaten in Indonesia. Lumbung Bungalows are on the sunset side of the island. They have a mixture of entertainment in the evenings, which you can enjoy while chilling out on bean bags. You can order your drinks and food to the beach, so you don’t have to do very much other than chill out.
Expect to pay just under £40.00 a night at Lumbung. This price is relatively high for Indonesia and would be unaffordable for me travelling on my own. That said, if you have that budget, Lumbung Bungalows will not disappoint.
The local WiFi infrastructure is a non-starter for Digital Nomads, so do make sure you get your tourist SIM!
Beranda Eco-Lodge- Gili Air
Once Lucy had returned to work in Sumatra, I looked to downgrade my expenditure. At the other end of the budget is Beranda Eco-Lodge. Again, I booked through Agoda and was able to secure a private hut, with a single mattress, mosquito net and fan for £7.00 a night.
£7.00 includes a basic breakfast, which remains the same throughout the week.
The sacrifices made for paying less are simple. There is no furniture in the room, aside from a mattress and mosquito net. You share communal showers and toilets. Also, you are in the middle of the island, which means a ten or fifteen-minute walk, or 5 minutes cycle, to any beach. None of these things presented an issue for me at all. Being in the middle of the island gave me a much better vantage point. I found I visited a wider variety of warungs and beach-side bars as a result.
The Beranda Eco-Lodge is a simple accommodation, but it is very comfortable. They have a large swimming pool and expansive sunbathing deck. My only slight criticism is that the pool was over-chlorinated. You may require goggles. The name Eco-Lodge is a reference to the economy, not ecology. The venue sells plastic water bottles, with no centralised water hub for those with refillable bottles.
I would suggest earplugs if four AM morning prayer is a problem for you. You cannot sleep through it without them. I chose to get up with the morning call, jump on my bike, and cycle to the other side of the island to meditate. I grew to love these sessions.
Digital Nomad hotspots on Gili Air.
I found two places which were conducive to work. It is tough to remain focussed on a beautiful island like Gili Air. The holiday vibe is infectious, and that can lead to a lackadaisical attitude towards getting things done. Fortunately, there are two spaces which lend themselves to work.
This venue is a lovely airy cafe in the main street running up from the harbour. I enjoyed it for its space and the fantastic coffee. There are plenty of electric sockets for your laptop and phone, and you have a choice of working inside or al-fresco. The outside space is comfortably cool thanks to dense foliage.
One slight criticism is that the staff are a little forgetful. Twice I ordered food, and it didn’t show up — worth a visit for the coffee alone. Given the prices of the food, you might want to try elsewhere if you plan to work all day.
B52 is another place which attracts Digital Nomads. The coffee is excellent, and the air conditioning is a big plus too! The cafe is small but laid out very well. There are desks or benches to choose from, and an outside area if you fancy it. Again, I didn’t eat here, but the coffee was lovely! I met several nomads while working here, and it is easy to concentrate on work.
These are two great venues for anyone looking to get their head down and get some work done. No doubt you will find more as you explore, and it is nice to break out for food at any one of many local Warungs.
What to do on Gili Air
Gili Air is a beautiful island. It is all too easy to get caught up in the beach vibe. The sunsets are amazing. As the sun sinks in the sky, the palette of colours is breathtaking. There are also several organised trips to nearby islands, snorkelling and horse riding on the beach. I can highly recommend visiting Hassan at Gili Air Tourist information. Based at the Coco Loco Resto Warung, he can arrange:
All of the above tours and activities are great fun. They will give you a beautiful perspective of the surrounding islands.
I enjoyed the snorkelling; I went twice. The company that organises all of the trips are Gili Line. You can pop along and speak with Abdul direct, or get your trip booked with Coco Loco Gili Air.
Gili Air as a Digital Nomad Destination
I found Gili Air to be a challenge when it came to working, as life is so laid back. That said, it is incredibly inspiring, so if you are writing poetry, fiction or a play, it could be perfect for you. I had some good inspiration for my next play. If you can remain disciplined, and need to get away from the maddening crowds, then Gili Air could be just the ticket.
Nomad tips-The Ferry from Bali.
There are several choices of ferry company which will transport you from Bali to the Gili’s. During my time in Indonesia, I went to and from Gili Air twice. Every time I have booked a ferry from Bali, a cheerful and friendly driver has arrived to collect me. All of the fast boats are OK.
By far the best experience was with Bluewater Express. Gili-Gili was OK too, but take care on the roof. I was nearly washed overboard by a rogue wave which drenched two crew members and I and stopped the boat dead in its wake. Very troublesome in the middle of the channel.
If you are not a fan of bumpy rides, be wary of the Freebird Express. The boat is super-fast, but it is a little disconcerting at times. I would use them again, but it was the bumpiest ride out of all of the ferries I used. They favour speed over comfort. I was more than a little panicked on a few occasions.