Thailand and Indonesia 2017

After coming back from an adventurous, nature-filled trip to Tanzania mid-October, I soothed my post-vacation blues with a family-filled Christmas and distracted myself with researching and planning our upcoming trip to Indonesia. Luckily, I only had four short months until the trip and before I knew it, we were getting onto a Hello Kitty themed plane to Bali! But more about that later. Before posting about this year's Indonesia trip, I want to relive and recap our first experience there...

Z and I became certified PADI scuba divers in 2013 and since then, have made it our goal to go diving once a year. We were in the beginning stages of planning a two week trip to Southeast Asia for our 2017 annual diving trip, trying to decide between Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia and having a difficult time because HOW DO YOU CHOOSE? One of my friends, Nat, mentioned that I should follow her friend on Instagram for inspiration and I so glad that I did! Meet Lydia, avid diver and traveller. Doesn't it look like she's teaching a class to this school of fish? And she's actually a teacher!

I checked out Lydia's Instagram and immediately wanted to be her friend and ask her about all of her trips and dives. After getting lost in her travel and diving photos, I messaged Lydia, asking for advice and suggestions for our upcoming trip, if she wouldn't mind. She was super friendly and replied with the suggestion to visit Indonesia or the Philippines, as both are on her list of favourite places to dive. We settled on Thailand and Indonesia...and continued to ask Lydia a gazillion questions. She essentially planned our trip! A huge thanks to Lydia for being kind and so generous with her time, answering a complete stranger's many questions and offering knowledge and personal experiences and continuing to do so since I have informally made her my travel and dive consultant. Lydia, thank you thank you thank you! I owe you a lifetime of unlimited meals. One more shoutout needs to go out to Sara, someone who I've "met" and bonded with over traveling and calligraphy via Instagram over the last couple years; thank you for your many restaurant suggestions, ongoing travel advice, and pen-pal-friendship!

Before heading to Indonesia, we stopped by Thailand to dive for a couple days in Khao Lak and get our fix of Tom Yum, our all-time favourite soup. We stayed in one of the private villas in Phu Khao Lak, a quaint and quiet resort made up of a handful of simple, private villas and one larger building with some hotel-style rooms. The small price tag of 30CAD per night for a private villa was hard to beat! We loved our peaceful stay there without the buzz of a crowd and though pricier than street food, the resort restaurant was delicious and convenient.

We booked our dives with Big Blue Diving, including a refresher course the afternoon before our full day of diving to settle our nerves from not diving for over a year. Anne, the dive instructor, taught us so much in the short two days we spent with her. From introducing us to different types of dive computers (and even letting us try them out for our dives!) to giving us tips and tricks for improving buoyancy control specific to each of us, we felt like we were slowly graduating from super novice divers to novice divers.

Though it drizzled on and off all day when we had our refresher course, we were thankfully met with blue skies and calm waters the next day for our full day of diving.

After watching the nauseating GoPro footage from our dives in the Bahamas, both Zion and I tried our very best to take slightly less shaky videos and photos this time around. Again, it proved to be difficult given all the other things we have to constantly think about, being amateur divers: our breathing, maintaining neutral buoyancy, and not getting lost or falling behind. So please treasure the following underwhelming underwater photos...I had to mine for these by watching hours of terrible, gag-inducing videos!

Though seeing all the different shapes and colours of fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures is the main reason why I'm drawn to and love diving, spotting cool vegetation is fun, too. Watching anemone sway in the current has a mesmerizing and relaxing effect that I appreciate (and finding a family of clownfish hanging out in one is a bonus!) and seeing things like bubble coral for the first time is exciting!

Our last full day in Khao Lak was spent exploring on scooter. We stopped by the International Tsunami Museum, cruised through some side streets, stopped to walk through a market, then spent the afternoon at Ao Thong Beach (aka White Sand Beach) before eating at a local restaurant on our way back.

After the short stay in Khao Lak, we were off to Indonesia for nine days. Before booking this trip, I didn’t know much about Indonesia, but we learned a lot from Lydia, Sara, Google/Wikipedia, and other travellers we met. First off, it’s made up of tens of thousands of islands (is that insane just to me?!), the majority of them untouched, with under a thousand islands with permanent inhabitants (again, crazy!). To me, this translates to many exquisite, unpolluted dive sites - the dream! Lydia has gone diving in some of these areas, like Raja Ampat, which are now on our hit list for when we have more time. After landing at the Denpasar airport, we spent the night in Sanur before heading to our first island destination the next morning. We took a Rocky Fast Cruise boat to Nusa Lembongan, an island almost directly east of Sanur.

We stayed at Pemedal Beach Resort where we had our own private villa just a few steps from the felt like a dream.

Pemedal was a perfect place to relax because of its location on a quiet, uncluttered beach. We spent most of our free time reading and napping on the beach chairs set up along the white, sandy shore with the ocean in front of us, without any hustle or bustle in sight.

Not only is Pemedal itself a great place to stay, there's a PADI dive shop next door so we could roll out of bed less than an hour before we had to check-in for our first dive of the day. It really doesn't get better than that! After looking into diving around Indonesia, another item was added to my bucket list: to meet a Mola Mola. Unfortunately, the highest chance of spotting these sunfish is between July and November so it was no surprise that we didn't see one (though I had secretly hoped we'd be so  lucky).

We enjoyed our two days of diving with Edy from Blue Corner; he was an expert at finding and pointing out cool things like tomato clownfish, tassled scorpionfish, and a pregnant triggerfish. A brown-banded shark also swam below us, an unexpected but welcomed sighting!

My ultimate favourite moment of the Nusa Lembongan dives happened when I was in the middle of reminding myself to stay calm and breathe slowly because the strong current pulling us back and forth was making me nervous. I heard Edy tapping his oxygen tank with his metal pointer to get our attention and when I looked up, I saw a manta ray ahead of us! I'm pretty sure I squealed. Several groups of divers had all stopped to watch the giant manta ray glide through the ocean, with elegant and graceful fin movements that reminded me of a bird flying in slow motion.

Most of our days were spent simply diving or relaxing at our resort, but we did venture out to eat. Nusa Lembongan was easy to navigate around on scooter and we found delicious and cheap food options galore within a ten minute scooter radius. Mie goreng (Indonesian fried noodles), nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), and satay (meat skewers with a peanut-based sauce) became our staple meals. And while Z's daily beverage of choice was the Indonesian beer, Bintang, mine was fresh fruit juice or coconut water straight from the coconut.

After leaving Nusa Lembongan, we headed back to the mainland and took a short break from diving to spend some time in Ubud. We stayed in a private villa in Miko Villas, a convenient, five minute walk to the main street. A private pool and kitchen doesn't hurt, either. Though this was one of several villas on the property, plants and fences were strategically placed to make us feel like no one else was around.

When we started exploring Ubud, we quickly learned that seemingly simple routes laid out by Google Maps were often convoluted with the many side streets, alleyways and paths that appeared in person. It was fun to get lost in the maze of pathways that were lined with plant and moss-covered walls.

After some hemming and hawing, we decided to stay in Ubud over Nyepi day, the Balinese new year's eve, to experience the cultural celebrations. Nyepi day is observed by silence, fasting, and meditation for a full day which meant no excursions or exploring that day. When we arrived, it was the day before Nyepi, when all the excitement was taking place. There was a buzz in the air as locals prepared for the Ngrupuk parade, where they carry the Ogoh-Ogoh that they've built over several  preceding months up and down the streets of Ubud to purify the spiritual pollutants in the environment.

While having lunch on the tiny patio of a roadside restaurant, we saw parades of people in their traditional Balinese garb and women with offerings on their heads pass by.

Knowing the streets would soon be crowded with locals and spectators, Z and I set out to find a place to perch and watch the parade from. We set up camp at a gelato shop's patio and had gelato and a coconut while we watched. I was in awe of the magnitude and detail in which each Ogoh-Ogoh were made.

By the time the parade ended around sunset, our stomachs were grumbling and all the restaurants were filled to the brim. We grabbed the next available table at a nearby restaurant, which ended up being a six person table so we shared it with a friendly, Australian solo traveler. After making wishful plans to visit each other and our respective countries, we parted ways. We spent the entirety of Nyepi day reading and resting in our villa. Though I had brief moments in the morning where I felt restless because it felt unnatural and strange to be in bed resting when I'm not sick, the time of intentional rest was refreshing once I gave into it.

The following day, we signed up for a cooking class because we had enjoyed the one we attended during our honeymoon in Thailand. Chef Ketut's cooking class started with a tour of a local market, led by him. I had expected a busy, bustle-y market but it was fairly quiet and calm at 9AM as many people were setting up their stalls when we arrived.

All throughout the tour and class, Chef Ketut spoke in an excited, chuckle-y tone and constantly cracked jokes, that kept us engaged and entertained. As Chef Ketut led us through the market, he introduced us to common ingredients in Indonesian cooking, had us smell various spices, and gave us pieces of snake fruit, mangosteen and homemade Indonesian sweets to sample.

All around Ubud, we had noticed small woven baskets sitting on sidewalks, filled with flower petals and incense smoke rising from them and learned what they were during the market tour: Balinese Hindu offerings. Market vendors were selling pre-made offerings and flower petals in bulk for those who prepare their own.

Afterwards, we were brought to a teaching kitchen that overlooked a small rice paddy plot. The class started with a review of all the dishes we were making and various techniques we were going to use. I felt like we were on a cooking show because of how prepped and photogenic everything was!

Our final products, tada!: soup, satay, mie goreng, yellow curry, and otak-otak.

We left Chef Ketut feeling comatose from all the food so we decided to walk it off and explore Ubud. After wandering around town, we found ourselves on one of the main roads, Monkey Forest Road. Sure enough, we started spotting monkeys alongside the road, about a block or so from the entrance of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, which is home to about 600 Balinese long-tailed macaques.

Ever since a monkey stole a Gatorade right out of my hand in Thailand, I've been hyperaware of wild animals that seem unnaturally accustomed to humans. Instead of walking through the entire forest, we opted to stand outside the entrance to watch the handful of monkeys that were hanging out there. As we were walking away from the sanctuary, minutes after the photo below was taken, a larger monkey sauntered up to a girl ahead of us and started grabbing one of her grocery bags! Right away, Z walked up to the tug-of-war between the relentless monkey and screaming girl and kicked the monkey. The monkey scampered away to the other side of the street before stopping and baring its teeth at us. Eek!!!

After recovering from the shock, we continued to wander around and came across a street that had many rice paddies nestled in between homes. 

One of my favourite things about Ubud is the abundance of green; various plants can be found growing on or out of most cement walls and in the cracks in sidewalks. 

The next day, we were picked up by Gili Gili Fastboat staff and brought to the busy Padang Bai harbour where we immediately bonded with the first and last Canadians we met on our entire trip while waiting for our boat. After arriving on Gili Air, we immediately noticed a contrast in the way the locals dressed between Ubud and Gili Air because the island, like the majority of Indonesia, was predominantly Muslim. 

We stayed at Oceans 5 Dive Resort, recommended by none other than Lydia, of course. I loved everything about it: the small number of bungalows but still with two pools and a restaurant, the  convenience of being the closest accommodation to the dock, and affordable with private bungalows from 55CAD per night. We decided to maximize our number of dives and try something new, so we signed up for a night dive for the first night we were there, which was both terrifying and interesting...but mostly terrifying. I couldn't help but illogically picture a gigantic, deadly fish in front of me in the darkness, waiting to eat me! While I was nervous and on the verge of hyperventilating  the entire 50 minutes of our dive, Z was fully enjoying himself, relaxed because he couldn't see off into the distance. It's funny how the same simple fact can affect two people so differently. The highlight for me during this dive was seeing the plankton light up like fireflies when we swished our hands around in the water.

Our minds were blown on our next few dives with Oceans 5 because it was the first time we saw turtles! I'm now obsessed. They look like grumpy grandpas who, deep down, you know are softies. 

During our dive briefing before getting in the water, our dive guide Unus told us that the turtles of Gili Air are lazy and often found sleeping. As described, we found several turtles sleeping on rocks during our dive.

I loved Gili Air the most because of the great diving and the small island feel, similar to that of a small town feel. So small that you can stroll around the entire island under three hours. So small that there are no motorized vehicles or buildings taller than a few stories! Which also means, no traffic, lots of walking and there's always a beach nearby.

Mowies is a great spot for having dinner while watching the sunset as it's a short walk from Oceans 5.

We loved watching the sunset from the comfy beanbag chairs on the beach. Though there aren't a lot of tourist attractions besides the beautiful reefs and restaurants on the beach, the relaxed, easygoingness and lack of giant list of things to do and see helped me enjoy a few days filled with diving, reading, and lingering on the beach after meals with nowhere else to be. 

Before flying home, we spent a night in Seminyak, a busy town filled with tons of hip restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. When our driver couldn't find the exact address of our villa because the slow traffic was making it difficult for him to manoeuvre around, we decided that we would be able to find it easier on foot. But after circling the block with no luck, lugging our suitcases around in the afternoon heat, we went into a hotel on the main street to ask for help (and cool down in the AC). The manager there was so kind and personally drove us to our villa, which ended up being several blocks away! We stayed at Villa Frangipane and for 55CAD, we had a two bedroom villa that was beautifully furnished and had a private pool and yard. Thanks to Sara's recommendations, we enjoyed Sisterfields Cafe, swooned over handmade leather goods at The Bali Tailor (and couldn't decide on what to have made as the options were overwhelming, from shoes to bags to jackets!), and hung out on the Ku De Ta balcony with drinks at sunset.

As you already know, we loved Indonesia so much that we went back this year. And even still, I'm itching to plan another trip back! Though, hopefully a bit different from the two we have gone on;  for a longer stretch of time and ideally, include a stay on a liveaboard. Until then, I'll be poring over our past trips and dreaming...


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