Gilli Air – A tiny tropical paradise

Catching a “fast boat” from Bali to Gilli Air was easy. At the cost of only $25(USD) per ticket – which included the taxi to the small port town of Padangbai – we were sorted. We even managed to purchase tickets from our AirBnB host, saving us the hassle of having to ‘shop around’.

We departed Denpasar early (waking around 6am) and made it to Padangbai within 2 hours – a wee maritime town which in itself was a pretty cute little spot, with a small selection of food and coffee vendors and the crow of roosters filling the early morning air. And having arrived early, we sat beneath a tree for an hour or so with some snacks (sweet potato chips, peanut flavoured biscuits, fresh bananas) that we purchased from a cheeky little old lady called Mama San and watched the port come alive around us.

And soon there were tourists crowding the pier-side as our boat pulled in. So we were shuffled along with the crowd, lugged our bags through the tiny doorway of a reasonably sized speed boat and leapt into seats at the hurried instruction of crew members still awaking from a morning haze. And from the outset it was clear that these crew members, despite rushing all of the oncoming guests to seats, were super friendly and up-beat. And they even treated us to un-improvised song and dance as they threw the larger bags about the boat. Bringing immediate colour and flare into our day.

A smooth ride and less than an hour later we pulled into Gilli T – the largest and most touristic of the Gilli Islands. Which I’m proud to say was not our stop. Some guests jumped off, some guest jumped on, and then we continued on to Gilli Air. And here, we did disembark. To our little island paradise for the next 2 days.

It is possible, we found out, to walk from one side of Gilli A to the other in about 30 minutes. All the while along sand and gravel roads, to the sound of the ringing carriage bells of the horse drawn transport there.

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We spent our first day meandering about beneath tropical fauna, indulging in a quick snorkeling dip, lying at a beach-front bar with beer and milkshakes and beautiful food. Relaxing. Chatting with the oh-so-friendly island locals. Sussing out a snorkeling trip for tomorrow. Dozing.

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Gilli Air is beautiful. The locals are some of the loveliest people you will ever meet. And despite its small size and general lack of activities, I am so, so glad we stayed there.

But on our second day we did pick up the pace a little – we headed out for a day long snorkeling trip. Awaking at our leisure we ate a light breakfast and then met the long boat which would take us snorkeling on the beach front at around 10am. We were supplied with snorkels and masks and fins (which we all later rejected) and sailed off into the open ocean.

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For only 100,000 Rupiah (about $10AUD) we were taken to four different snorkeling spots around the Gilli Islands – starting just off the beach of Gilli T and spending most of the day closer to Gilli M. And we decided that Gilli M (Gilli Meno) had the best waters – gracing us with turtles, hoards of fish and even some multi-coloured coral. The latter of which was sadly omitted from the oceans surrounding the Gilli Islands due to chronic bleaching.. A fact which deeply depressed and also fascinated me during our swims. To find so much life and also so much death coexisting in these waters set mixed emotions swirling in my mind. I know too little about the death and bleaching of coral in international waters. But what I do know is devastating. And to think too long about it, as with any great issue facing humanity today (because there are so many), would have been to ruin an otherwise brilliant day.. So I swam on.. Noting in my mind another injustice done by the human species to the very earth that allows us life.. aware so starkly of how my physical motion of swimming past the destruction so matter of factly metaphored rather perfectly humanities continued negligence towards the earth..

Why is it that the world over I find tragedy?

… None the less.. the snorkeling trip was great. Definitely I would recommend it to any visitors to the Gilli Islands. The sheer variety and number of fish life found in the clear waters here was dazzling. Every colour of the rainbow could be found, if not in the coral, then in the multitude of alien fish forms hiding beneath the surface of the sea.

And by the time our long day was over and our short two days in the tropical Gilli Islands were done, we were taken. Collectively in love with the slow pace and gentle nature of the place. As always it was with reluctance that we departed. Heading onwards, again by boat, to the much larger neighbouring island of Lombok.

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Beautiful Bali

Our first day on the island of Bali did not, by any measure, disappoint. We snorkeled, we strolled peaceful temple water gardens, we bathed beneath a waterfall and we peered out over lushious rice field after lushious rice field after lushious rice field. We dined on traditional Indonesian noodle and rice dishes, we drank dragonfruit smoothies and banana milkshakes and we gently soaked in a culture that I can tell already is quite different from the rest of South East Asia. 

And the magnificence started at dawn. 

Awaking in our Airbnb accomodation in Ubud at around 7am we parted the curtains to a view that immediately pressed upon us the weight of beauty that Bali is renowned for. And it is such a thick, weighty kind of beauty.. So lush, so coloured, so natural, so warm and yet so cultivated, so necessary to human survival and requiring so many hours of hard, hot labour. A beauty forged. But also, a beauty that feels wild. 

And this view is surprisingly typical of the landscape of Bali (or at least East Bali). Throughout our first day this is the kind of scene that we drove through almost continuously on our way about the Eastern edge of the island. And yet somehow Bali only produces enough rice to feed it’s own people.. They export nothing. Which means that all of this vast expanse of work feeds only an islands worth of people. But, of course, I’m glad that the fields are as expansive as they are because they are so damn gorgeous to drive through. 

And so we drove through these beautiful fields for a full day with a driver we managed to hire for a mere $70 (AUD), stopping off at various sites along the way. Our first stop was a secluded bay in Amed where we hired snorkeling gear and spent a good hour gazing into the depths of the ocean. 

And although the coral here lacked colour in comparison to many of the spots I have snorkeled in Thailand and the Pacific Islands it was none the less a beautiful place to explore. We swam with the friendliest fish I have ever encountered! – completely unafraid to come right up to our bellies and swim alongside and beneath us. We swam with fish larger than my head, smaller than a finger, fish that were rainbow coloured, yellow and white angel fish and almost luminescent blue fish. We swam with long thin fish thay looked like sea snakes and swam vertically in search for food. We swam with a whole school of silver fish who could dislocated their jaws to catch floating debris as they swam. We saw huge blue star fish, brain coral and a sunken pagoda, and yet only a handful of other swimmers the whole time. 
And when we eventually tired of the pressure of our snorkles pressing into our faces, we swam ashore to a beautiful little beach side restaurant and ate Indonesian food at a table on the sand. 

It was perfect. 

And then we re-boarded our hired van and headed for Tirta Gangga Water Palace – an absolutely beautiful water garden comprised of mossy grey stone, intricate white statues, lush green plants and clear, still ponds full of Koi Carp. Here, we could skip along stones in the middle of a giant pond and quietly contimplate in a still surrounding. It was beautiful. And we took our time strolling about the grounds as the afternoon passed by. 

But soon it was time to continue our journey. Next stop: Besakih temple – Balis’ largest temple and another place of absolute beauty. Here we spent at least an hour walking the grounds of a massive temple complex that sits at the base Mount Agung. And with our entrance fee came a guide – who walked with us and explained to us some of the basic beliefs and worship rituals that pertain to the temple. He walked us up through winding stair ways to a look out at the top of the complex that provided a spectacular view of black, thatched temple rooftops bowing to the mass of Mount Agung in the near distance.

The whole place had a very ‘King-Kong-Island’ or ‘Jurassic-Park’ kind of feel, for lack of better words. With a thick, wild green backdrop and low-hanging mist presenting to us the blackened, stone and wood temples with moss covered tiered, thatched roofs. And with a jangle of Indonesian instruments clanging in worship in the background, drifting out over the mountain side, laying down a sacred air. 

And to add to the mystical beauty of the place all visitors are required to wear long, ankle length sarongs – men and women alike. Which could be purchased at a marketplace at the bottom of the mountain at a very reasonable price. And all that were available were brightly coloured and boldly patterned so that all people passing through these grounds stood out in stark, beautiful contrast to the otherwise dark and sacred backdrop, adding bursts of colour and activity here and there. Seperating us mortals from the plain, dark colours of the mountain. Highlighting our insignificance as small beings in a great world. 

And then, all too soon the sun was preparing to retire for the day. So we hurried on, arriving at our final destination with the light quickly fading from the sky and ran down a steep staircase to a small but powerful waterfall called Tegenungan. Here we were able to bathe briefly in the fresh water before the falls “closed” for the day – which simply meant that a lifeguard stationed here blew his whistle and went home.. so we hurriedly stumbled in over dangerously loose stones and attempted to creep up to the powerful waterfall and touch it’s mass before it stilled and quieted in the small lake below. But the power was significant and the falls pushed back at all trespassers who dared to approach with a kingly riteousness. So I floated at a safe distance in awe of the strength of something that I could so easily move through under any normal circumstances while Sam and Casey tried to push closer, battering their way towards the beast. And then the whistle blew. So we retreated to shore and stood for the few final moments of dusk and admired the power of the falling water from a safe distance. Entranced in this hidden place. Small bats flitted over head, the falls roared, the sun set and a small group of other tourists and peace-seekers chattered and prayed. 
And then we ascended back up the hill side, reboarded our van and headed homeward. 

Our night ended with a heavy meal in Ubuds’ centre and a deep sleep above the rice fields. 

Koh Tao snorkeling.

On our second full day on the island of Koh Tao we discovered the backpackers hub – a whole street, which ran along the beach line, of hostels, bungalows, restaurants, dive schools, multicoloured clothing retailers, bars and pubs. And we moved in. We relocated from our original apartment near the port, to a cozy bungalow one street back from the main beach – called Sairee.

And, unfortunately for our continued snorkeling intentions tropical rain hit that afternoon.. just as wet and strong and sudden as always. So instead of jumping back in the sea, we spent, quite literally, ALL day at a restaurant. Sipping fresh coconut milk smoothies from the shell, snacking on garlicy bruschetta and drinking beer. And we watched the rain come down around us from our patio position, while nestling into large bean bags.
And perhaps unsurprisingly… there were a few backpacking couples doing exactly the same thing alongside us.. because sometimes all you can do to stop, and watch… and it was damned beautiful.
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So it was on day three that we got back into the water. And we spent a whole day on an island even smaller than Koh Tao, which is located just off it’s coast, called Koh Nang Yuan.
And there the same white coral beaches and supremely clear waters we had found in Koh Tao persisted.
We snorkeled over lots more sea cucumbers, with lots more blue and white striped fish, and I found even more rocks covered in my favourite little, coloured anemones! (which I have just found out are actually small worms that have feather-like extensions for catching food.. So that makes them a little less cute… But they’re called Christmas Tree Worms! So I had my description right).
And there were all kinds of brightly colour Parrot Fish, with beak-like mouths, and a few large orange anemones with fluorescent purple tips that homed little orange (with a white stripe) Anemone fish.
The under water world has so many colours! And so many shapes..

And on our fourth day, we continued with our streak of fabulous snorkeling experiences. This time by buying tickets for a round island tour (like we did on Phi Phi). This took us along the coast of Koh Tao, and dropped us off at 3 deep water spots along the way – the type of spots where you jump out into the ocean and immediately start snorkelling, because we didn’t stop at any bays or beaches or any areas in general where you could actually stand up.
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And all of the stops were completely beautiful. In fact they made the days worth of snorkeling we had done in our own look almost mundane..

We swam over huge boulders covered in corals and Christmas tree worms. We swam over brain corals and branching corals, corals that looked like giant ears, and coral gardens that stretched on for metres and metres around us. We swam over clams with brightly coloured lips that were spotted and metallic. We swam over big parrot fish that were green and pink and yellow and striped, and small anemone fish that were an unusually purple hue of orange… We swam in ocean several metres deep, and over tall corals that left us only a few centimetres of water to drift in. And we swam again, with schools of fish whose total mass would have easily rivalled our own.. And every moment of it, was breathtaking..

Our final stop for the day was the small island of Nang Yuan once again. Which, having already snorkeled, we chose to enjoy simply – by bathing on the sand, paddling in shallows and snoozing..
All in all.. it was a perfect day.

And the next morning it was time to move on once again.. And it was a long journey this time.. A taxi, and then a ferry, and then a bus.. 12 hours… and an eventual arrival back at our starting point – in Bangkok.
And it actually felt quite appropriate to have our last dinner back on Kaoshan Road (‘K Road’), amongst the crowded atmosphere that is so generically considered Thailand. It was a little bit of a shock after so much time spent island hopping… But it none the less meant that we got to say our goodbyes to the city that had welcomed us to this beautiful country in the first place..

And the very next morning we left it all behind. We flew out of Bangkok airport.. to Cambodia!

From one island to the next. Our first taste of Koh Tao

It took a couple of ferries and a bus to get from Phi Phi to Koh Tao..
But all connecting trips like this are run extremely efficiently in Thailand.
When you check in for your first ride your receipt (which you are given when you book these long haul journeys) is exchanged for 2 stickers and a number of tickets equal to the number of transfers you have to make. One sticker is for your bag and one is for your self. The stickers are colour coded so that your end destination can easily be determined by any Thai employees who see you, and you can therefore be pointed in the right direction very efficiently, without having to struggle with any language barriers. The colour code system also means, that like fish in an ocean looking for the right school, you can group together or follow others with the same tag as you if your unsure of where to go…
And the tickets are taken off your hands as you board each mode of transportation, so that everyone knows you’ve paid.
It brilliant.

What is not brilliant however, is the way that large bags are stowed on ferries in Thailand.. Because, they aren’t really ‘stowed’ at all… They’re just piled.
And this isn’t a problem because I fear that the possessions I’m carrying around in my back pack will be damaged in said pile. It’s a problem because it makes the disembarking process a painfully slow one…
All of the bags will be stacked in a tall pile along the wall at one end of the ship. And there’s very little chance that you know or can see where your bag has been placed in the pile, unless you are one of the last traveller’s on to the boat, and your bag is on top.. AND there are no staff appointed to the task of unloading the bags once the ferry has reached it’s port.. Its just a giant free for all..
So, every time the ferry docks, a huge crowd of people surge forward to try and dig their possessions out of 1 giant, overcrowded pile.. and it’s anarchy.

But, despite this one recurring issue, our journeys have all been smooth within Asia – once we’ve figured out where we’re going and how we’re going to get there that is (usually through online research and asking around at tour shops).. which is something that we generally leave until the last minute, to give us maximum flexibility.

But anyway!!! We made it to the island of Koh Tao – which lies just off the coast of Thailand. And we stayed for five nights there, riding around on a very cheaply hired scooter and doing A LOT of snorkeling.
It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was fun. It was super nice to be spending so much time in the water, saved from the heat. And! we got to stay in our very own bungalow.

Within our first 2 days on the island we had sorted out a cheap scooter hire (at 150 Baht, or about NZ$7.50 a day) AND a cheap snorkel hire (at 100 Baht, or about NZ$5 a day). So with the help of an extremely comprehensive guide book, we immediately set off to see some fish!

We spent our first full day on the island (after the night of our arrival) zipping around on our hired scooter to as many beaches as we could find and fit in. We somehow managed to navigate the roads despite a poor map which only showed half of the roads which actually existed.. and we made it to a good number of snorkeling spots as a result!

Our first stop was Jansom Bay – a privately owned beach (so we had to pay a 100 Baht fee to swim there) with white coral sands and the very definition of crystal clear waters.
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Little fish were present there, swarming at our feet curiously as soon as we stepped into the ocean. And they were the same friendly blue and white stripped fish that I had already come to love at Phi Phi. But with these ones swimming so far into the shore and in such clear waters, it was hilarious just to stand and watch them as they swarmed over to each new visitor who entered the water, to suss them out. And one of them was even brave enough to take a nibble at me! Although I do think it was just going for the dead skin around one of my itchy bites – so they remain a friendly image in my mind.

And there were also LOTS of big, black cucumbers about as well, and some larger, beautifully coloured, almost fluorescent fish as we swam out deeper. AND there was one rock which was covered in these really cool little anemones! Which were about the size of a thumb nail, and looked kind of like short, thick pipe cleaners. They came in every colour possible! – red, orange, purple, yellow.. There were even green ones with white tips that looked like tiny Christmas trees! and whenever something swam too near.. they would retract back into the rock they were fixed on in a fraction of a second, leaving no trace of their beautiful selves behind.
They were my favourite find for this location.

Our second stop was at a much bigger beach called Chalok Baan Kao Bay and from this one we waded out to sea and then climbed over a hill to reach Cape June Juea and June Juea Bay. Although when I say “we waded out to sea” I mean, Sam walked though the shin deep water, dragging me (floating, with a snorkel) behind him.
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There was nothing to see at Chalok Baan Kao fish wise. It was just super warm, shallow waters and weird sticky, slimy feeling sand.
And Cape June Juea was quite rough, and also really shallow – far to shallow to snorkel comfortably over the sea bed which was littered with sharp, broken coral skeletons and slick black sea cucumbers.
BUT the best must’ve just been waiting for last, because at June Juea Bay we got to swim with a huge school of sardines!
And at first I have to admit, they terrified me… So many of these little fish had packed themselves so tightly together in a school, that there was no way that you could see through to the other side of the crowd. All that was visible was a thick wall of fish that disappeared gradually into shadow.. and initially I thought that they might be schooling around something bigger than themselves – which was a terrifying concept considering how close they were to me. But as it turns out, we may just have been that ‘something bigger’ because they soon began circling around us, and I even felt a few attempt to jump over my back. And it was incredible. Suddenly the whole ocean was hidden from us by this living wall, which darted and swayed and rearranged itself constantly around us. And every move we made would cause a new rearrangement, so that the fish were always outlining our form from a safe distance.
But of course they soon had to move on.. and without them, the bay suddenly felt empty.. So we watched giant crabs crawl over rocks above the sea for a while. And then began the walk and the wade back to the shore of Chalok Ban Kao Beach.

We managed to spend an entire day snorkeling between these beaches and bays. And ultimately we returned home, satisfied with a full days touristing.