Motorbike Diaries: 20 Days Around Bali and Gili Air
This is a long one, so if you have less time but are curious about things like sunrise volcano trekking, motorbiking through treacherous mountain roads, scuba diving with sting rays, spontaneous dolphin spotting, or straight chilling beachside with baby turtles, I recommend the Control F feature to skip ahead :)
Motorbike Diaries Day 1 – February 24th
Day one of a three-week road trip begins today.
The plan actually came together just two days before. We didn’t have the exact route mapped out, bikes, a GPS set up or place to leave our heavier unnecessary things – just a rough draft in our brains and fingers crossed that all the logistics would come together in some mystical way.
Remember that interview we did with Juju? Turns out (in hindsight), he would soon become our Bali road trip guardian angel, introducing us to the ingenious MapsMe, essentially a Google maps powered by data, not wifi, and filled with many more points of reference. It’s basically made for expats and travelers looking to navigate the lesser-known bucolic roads while exploring an island like Bali. Big score #1.
In casual convo with Juju, we also mentioned we were looking for a phone to bike mount to complete the GPS set up, and turns out, he had the perfect mounts for sale. Score #2.
Oh, and we’re looking to rent strong, reliable, ideally new bikes for 20-30,000 a day (for a month). Who has the hookups? Juju. Score #3. Seriously, this can’t get any better.
For a three-week motorbike trip, it surely doesn’t make sense to drag around those giant backpacks. Our homestay landlord Agung generously offered to keep our things at his place, taking about 25 pound off my back! If you ever think about doing the same, know that in addition to downsizing to a smaller backpack, you can also store up big time inside your motorbike compartment (all my clothes, extra pair of shoes, toiletries) and yes – wearing 3 outfits in 3 weeks is also part of the adventure J
And so it began – Ubud to Munduk with a stop at Nungnung waterfalls and spontaneous look around the lakeside town of Bedegul. Forty-six miles of infinite shades of green, miles of rice paddies, mountainous turns and epic sunshine soaked countryside – even an elderly Balinese woman basking in the sun, shamelessly topless and living it up. Puppies and rooster roaming free, marigold farms dotting the fields, gamelon chimes filling the airwaves, and traditionally dressed Balinese men packed in trucks possibly en route to temple. In times like these, I wish I had a go pro strapped to my head to capture it all I did sneak a few goodies in though…
As the sun began to set against the backdrop of dramatic mountaintops, the reality hit that were had 10 more miles to go before reaching Munduk, and no place to stay yet. The temperature dropped pretty rapidly and I struggled to keep my eyes open, dodging the tiny insects that were aiming right for my eyeballs. The downward turn became sharper and steeper, and I could barely feel my fingers anymore. The sounds of the jungle grew louder and more alive around me.
Finally, the roads leveled out and humans, homes and lights emerged from miles of pitch-black darkness. We arrived!
Motorbike Diaries Day 2 – February 25th
Highlights amidst an overall lazy and plan-less day:
Coffee with cocoa powder and milk, taking in the panoramic perfect mountain, rice paddy combo of views of our Gangga Homestay, catching up on some ‘On Being’ while watching and hoping for a rain cloud to pass, riding through a nondescript street of Munduk and being in the presence of ONLY locals (for the first time since arriving in Bali) who happened to be students in uniform leaving school (and mounting motorbikes at the very young age of 12, maybe 13??), indulging in delicious bodega ought Oreo ice cream cone while watching ‘Billions’ episode two.
Of course, can’t forget the best part of the day – sleeping inside a mosquito net with the doors wide open, allowing the cool, junge-ly breeze to seep in. Done donating blood to those sneaky bloodsuckers.
Motorbike Diaries Day 3 – February 26th
Today’s route: Munduk > Panas Banjar (hot spring north of the village) > Lovina > Munduk
Many miles by motorbike later, we made our way over to a holy sulfuric hot spring, an underwhelming beach town whose sand Lonely Planet described as ‘sparkly black,’ and managed to motorbike up a mountain via a one-foot wide path. The phrase “off the beaten path” literally took new meaning. I had an epiphany in the hot springs as I looked around at all the smiling Balinese. Through I know zero Bahasa (the island’s local dialect) and very little about the culture still, I feel extremely at home with these people, much more so than when I’m surrounded by Chinese people. Wylie says I look like the Balinese children too…I’ll take the compliment in that?
Another random thought bubble – the vegetarian food options are upper slim up here in the north. For the first time I see how frustrating it can to be full on vegetarian, which is what I am now apparently. When you’ve been exposed to so much food vegetarian food, you wonder how menus can miss out on the opportunity of experimenting with more plant-based ingredients. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss the vegan buffet in Ubud…
Motorbike Diaries Day 4 – February 27th
Munduk is teeming with life in the jungle – its beauty seeming to stem from waterfalls, coffee plantations, and spice trees. If you’re like me and have a strong resistance to bugs, I promise you Munduk has a special enough charm to make you see past the largest most venomous looking eight legged insects. We hired Bauhau, who comes from a family of rice and nutmeg farmers, to take us on a trek through the jungle. Wearing simply flip-flops, I imagined he would be taking us through easygoing flat paths. It wasn’t until I was caught pushing through a thick wall of plants on a nonexistent path with cicadas screeching all around and mosquitoes gnawing at my ankle that I realized I may have underestimated the meaning of ‘trek.’ OH WELL. I packed on the insect repellant, which never seems to keep the bloodsuckers away for good, and decided to embrace all of Nature. Trying raw coffee bean, taking in the scent of guava fresh off the tree, catching glorious mist from a local waterfall, and sipping on cinnamon coffee while chatting about Balinese Hinduism made the entire day worth it.
It made sense after the trek why Munduk feels like a ghost town, at least when you’re on the main road – 40% of the 6000 villagers live in the jungle. Straight up jungle living right here!
Motorbike Diaries Day 5 – February 28th
Staring out onto the ominous clouds that looked just about ready to strike, I lay tired in bed wondering if I had it in me to make a journey from Munduk to Mount Batur. I had gotten a very real taste of motorbiking through mountains without proper warmth, and it’s no joke. A nap in a heated car sounded so appealing right now.
The first ten minutes would suck, but I knew it was time to go. If motorbiking in wet, cold, mountainous, cloud cloaked terrain has taught me anything, it’s the simple art of the motorbike “lean.” Essentially, you never want to turn your bike handles, no matter how steep a curve is – you want to simply lean, and let the bike turn on its own. The LEAN is all about how committed you are, trusting in the buoyancy of your body on the bike. About four hours of biking and one hour-ish of looking for a place to stay in the town of Kintamani, we finally found a decent enough cottage to land – lakeside with clear views of Mount Batur. It might sound like my standards are way higher than a budget traveler’s should be, but when I say ‘decent,’ I’m referring to how mosquito proof a place is. A part of me feared I’d wake up as one giant mosquito bite, but the fatigue won me over.
Lights out at 8:30 PM.
Motorbike Diaries Day 6 – March 1st
Theme of the day: Amazing lakeside / volcano-side vibes.
Waking up at Baruna Cottage was like dessert for breakfast. Perfectly blue skies and expansive plumes of cloud spread across the horizon. A fisherman glides through the glassy clear shore while bantering with local villagers nearby.
People come through this village specifically to hike the volcano, Mount Batur, but nothing about the current mood inspired that in me – I was so content soaking in the views from the comfort of my bedroom. I could chill all day.
That’s when Wylie pulled up on motorbike after going on a little exploration of his own, saying he had just discovered a hostel with European-reggae vibes that had just about everything you’d want in a volcano-based hostel. Love me a good deal, answer is YES.
Upon arrival, the dream came true – puppies, a miniature hot spring overlooking Mount Batur, small CLEAN bungalow, and of course, the reggae tunes bringing it all together. Did I say there were puppies??
And also, in case it wasn’t clear, the hostel was perched literally ON the volcano. Within an hour of chilling, drinking coffee and consuming way too many welcome pastries, we had signed up to hike Mount Batur the next morning with a wake up call of 3:30am. In the right conditions, I guess I can be convinced pretty easily.
Chill afternoon with a dip in the springs with some ‘On Being’ whilst horizontal followed by a linner (lunch dinner hybrid) where we fed some voracious ducks fried bananas. Just lovely.
Motorbike Diaries Day 7 – March 2nd
Alarm goes off at 3:30am while the most lively and boisterous voices trail outside the bungalow.
It’s time to go climb a volcano. More specifically, Mount Batur, an active volcano that last erupted in 2001. She stands gloriously 1717 meters high and surrounded by her sister crater lake.
We all gathered in the open kitchen space to drink our pre-trek coffee and gear up with headlamps and hiking sticks. And off we went! Blazing through darkness on a path that would only continue to narrow and steepen in the next two and a half hours.
As the sky began to light up and my vision settled with the surrounding blackness of early morning hues, I started to make sense of the unfamiliar ground beneath me – these oversized crumbly Oreo-textured sediments. Basically, looseness and shakiness under my feet that crunched upon contact. Of course, this must be the volcanic ash that has accumulated since the eruption took place over a decade ago.
I’m hiking the same volcano that wiped out two villages on two separate occasions. What the….
Digging my hiking stick into volcanic ash while attempting to create friction between my pretty much useless Nike sneakers and the unstable stuff of volcano below, I took in big gulps of air just thinking that this better be the best looking sunrise I’ve ever seen, or else.
We finally arrived, peakside, tired and sweaty and ready to see some sun! As we waited for our guide to cook up breakfast, it dawned on me – the sky was lighting up but there was still no sign of sun…we were literally stuck inside a huge cloud and there was no telling when the cloud would break. Defeat and deflation came over me.
I decided to take a bathroom break in the meantime, meaning scouting out a protective brush nearby. As I emerged, that’s when I saw it – the clouds breaking wide open to reveal the surrounding mountains through which the sun danced overhead in her most glorious morning ritual.
All the go pros camera phones and selfies broke out too.
Our guide pulled us unwillingly away to show us to breakfast, as it lay steaming inside one of the volcano’s natural openings. The same hole which at one point “burped lava” as Wylie so accurately put it.
After breakfast of eggs and bananas on toast, we began the much-dreaded descent. We made an extra long pit stop to play with the monkeys and dogs that call this volcano home. Happy to see my two favorite animal kingdoms get along in this most unexpected habitat.
Upon descent, we soaked in the warm hostel hot spring likely procrastinating the long journey ahead – yes, another long journey lay ahead. It seemed like the day should have been over, but it was only something ridiculous like 9:30am.
And, so part II of the day began. After eating a delicious meal and dessert combo of cap cay, rice and fried banana with ice cream on the side (while cuddling the hostel’s puppy for the final time), we packed up and say our goodbyes.
Little did I know the stretch of road ahead would be twice as hard as the trek we did that morning. The only path to Amed, our next destination on the northeast coast of Bali, unfortunately involved nine miles of the most treacherously volcanic (metaphorically speaking) ups and downs, twisty turn-y roads with all the potholes and gravel any crazy person could ever ask for. These roads spelled disaster, but here we were with no choice but to tread ahead.
Nine miles later, I was alive but battered. That invisible gravel will really get you down especially when you’ve got the scorching sun beating down and post-volcano trek fatigue settling in. I may have lost control at one point and fallen off the bike in front of a large group of villagers while two Balinese guys tried persuading me to ride with them. Nothing like a trauma like that to get you going nearly 1mph for the rest of the 8-ish mile road down to flat land.
Alas, we arrived in Amed, a super chill dive and snorkel town with colorful homestay signs and glimpse of ‘organic, vegetarian food’ that lifted my spirits out of the longest emotional pothole of the last 3 hours.
We parked our bikes outside Adventure Divers Bali Bungalow, our home for the next 5 days. Two newbie diver at a dive resort, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until we got there. One delicious watermelon welcome drink later, and it felt like part II of an intense day was finally coming to a close. Part III of bottomless non-alcoholic drinks, breakfast, a funny UK host and dive community was about to start.
Motorbike Diaries Day 8 – March 3rd
I turn another year today! Spent most of it underwater diving for the first time, or above water chowing down on delicious chocolate almond birthday cake courtesy of my awesome partner in crime <3
Also, saw this amazing face today…
Motorbike Diaries Day 10 – March 5th
Oh wow, I’m pooped. My ears are clogged and I’m completely wiped. I’m now 29 years and two days old -- I must be getting old. Then I remember, I’ve just completed five dives in three days and discovered a completely new world underwater.
I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the shapes, colors, structures and life forms I’ve just seen. It’s crazy to think I’ll be open water certified in about a day.
I’ve been a Pisces my whole life and it wasn’t until my birthday two days ago that I finally saw eye to eye with my own people.
You know that sensation of spotting a double rainbow after a storm you thought might drown you out? Or that moment when you spot that iridescent rainbow glossiness shining in a giant puddle of water sitting in some unassuming pothole? Or let’s get real here – your first psychedelic experience? Remember that?
Diving is something like that, but more. You are sober (I hope), you can’t breathe through your nose, you can’t walk, and your body is completely weightless. And there are a whole lot of bubbles.
While you’re multitasking to equalize the inevitable pressure that’s closing in on your head, pressing the button attached to your dive jacket to control for buoyancy, learning to rely solely on the oxygen coming in and out of your mouth, and reminding yourself to kick your fins with strong smooth strokes for the biggest impact, a whole new reality hits – how to be yourself in an environment that’s completely devoid of oxygen and gravity. In place of words, you have cool new sign language; in place of moving with two legs, you guide your fins with the internal gears of your inhalations and exhalations; and it’s now become normal to awkwardly bump into your neighbor as you learn how to control your body underwater.
Oh, and also, no smiling or laughing allowed – that will without a doubt move your mask right off your face and before you know it, your eyes will be filled with salty cold sea water. Or, if you have a moustache like Wylie, you’ll want to grease up with Vasoline to minimize all air bubbles from forming around your mask.
Never thought I’d be learning how to walk again as an adult, which sums up day one and day two of diving plus a few more surprises – motion sickness towards the end of dive one followed by a drowsiness/near panic attack/freezing combo while descending during dive two. I finally understood what claustrophobia feels like. The feelings of fear and failure quickly sank in, which translated as shallower breaths, clumsier kicks, and an immediate disconnection from the beautiful community of sea life around me. Just the feelings you’d want to avoid at all costs, especially on your own birthday!
Dive three on day two was the real light bulb moment. Against the self-deprecating chatter of “diving is for everybody BUT me,” I decided to give it another go. The memories of the delicate seahorse, majestic jellyfish and rainbow fish queen-ing about from the first dive came flooding back. The descent of this dive was a whole lot smoother, as I continued refining the art of removing water from the mask and connecting serious dots – scuba is literally yoga underwater. Being present with one breath, one movement can bring about flow and inner harmony underwater; everything is just a few seconds delayed and your breath takes on the sound of bubbles. Silence stands as backdrop and you are quite literally in your own world, at one with the sea.
Oh, and side note, did I mention I wore a wetsuit made for 12 year olds? It was the last resort for warmth, and ego had no place in that equation.
And that brings us to today, day #3 – dive four and five. Today, we moved locations to Tulamben to explore the shipwreck of the USAT Liberty, where an American equipment ship was torpedoed onto the shores of Bali by Japanese WWII forces, and then subsequently drifted back into sea following the 1963 eruption of nearby Mount Agung.
The initial awkwardness of getting comfortable and decently buoyant while fighting a milky current and navigating a coral-covered shipwreck was a trip. I may have accidentally brushed up against burning coral while clumsily kicking Wylie in the face with my fin (remember, underwater = slow mo). But, it was such a step in the right direction. Caught my first glimpse of a sea turtle snacking on coral, a gigantic bumperhead parrotfish stoically in motion, and the craziest looking coral dancing a light sway back and forth. My favorite coral resembled a neon yellow dumpling with a giant toothless mouth sucking on nearby plankton, happily exiting underneath me.
To think I was deathly afraid of the ocean only a few days ago is a funny thought to have. This Pisces has only scratched the surface, 18 meters to be exact.
What lies on the other side of fear?
(Wylie's favorite question of the week)
And more importantly, which body of water to dive next?
Motorbike Diaries Day 11 – March 6th
· 3 liters a day for 5 days CHALLENGE begins (in response to severe dehydration)
· Water consumed: 3 liters
· Episodes of ‘Billions’ consumed: 3
· Coconut gelato consumed from the best Balinese restaurant in town: 1
Motorbike Diaries Day 12 – March 7th
It’s official – I am open water certified! Got me a shiny fancy card to prove it too. Just finished up the multiple choice exam and walked myself across the street to another bungalow where I’m now horizontal and happy, looking out onto the incredible ocean I’ve just spent the last few days diving.
Another official announcement: today marked my first two “fun” dives, meaning dives without mandatory instruction beforehand. Still feeling the trauma of the last few days lingering, I wasn’t exactly feeling the fun quite yet in dive 6, but when dive 7 came around, that was it. The moment of real unabashed fun of diving finally clicked, wahoooooooooooooo! The line between fun and fear is a delicate one in the world of scuba, at least for me, and one that I seem to tread quite often. Like that moment you see a 7-foot long eel peeking out from its dark nest and praying to God that you don’t accidentally lose control and drift right into it. Or that moment you think you’re about to land on a sandy patch of ground only to realize two slightly creepy eyes peeking up at you that’s actually attached to the body of a blue spotted sting ray – and oh WAIT, there’s actually TWENTY of them rising up from the ground ALL around you. Steve Irwin moment? Fun or fear? It’s confusing right?!
Especially when in that same moment, out of the corner of your eye, you manage to spot the most adorable (and chubby might I add) starfish nestled on a rock below you. Breathing resumes to something resembling normal, and things start to feel fun again…
Motorbike Diaries Day 13 – March 8th
Day of Rest and Rock Collecting
Motorbike Diaries Day 14 – March 9th
85% of the world is covered in water :)
Water absorbs heat 25x faster than air :):)
Sound travels 4x faster in water than in air :):):)
Water is amazing, period. And what you can see in the ocean water can be even more amazing.
Today, we met up with Juju and his friends to boat around on the soon-to-be Surya Namaskar, otherwise known as the soon-to-be first ever solar electric boat to grace Bali’s fine waters. We were a bunch of seven: me, Juju, Wylie, Fancy (originally from Java and relocated to Ubud to manage a museum on ‘spiritual marketing,’ a whole other thing), Diana (originally from Venezuela and drawn to Amed to fulfill her dreams of oceanography), and Kristen (Texas native who’s been travelling for five years and most recently made Bali her home).
We took off from Amed’s coast and made our way north past Tulamben, soaking in the dramatic curvature of Mount Agung and her vast surrounding kingdom of countryside greenery.
Somewhere between scarfing down a juicy mango and trying to stabilize that ever so subtle motion sickness, I looked out on the horizon just in time to receive the water’ most beautiful gift of the day: a family of DOLPHINS!
There were, what, 30-40 something fins poking out from the pearly dark blue waters and we were the only humans in sight to witness the magic – googly eyed and jaws down, we all coo-ed and caw-ed hoping that they would stick around for a bit while everyone grabbed their masks ready to jump in and see the action underwater.
I was too chicken to jump in and swim after them. A little dolphin must have telepathically heard my wish because it jumped up and out of the water not just once, but TWICE, Free Willy-style except it was at least half a mile away and I was not pumping my fist underneath it L But really, J
Hands down, highlight of the day.
Motorbike Diaries Day 15 – March 10th
Gili Air bound today with nothing but a small backpack and yoga mat! Love a good weight shedding adventure especially en route to islands with much heavier humidity.
Now officially have my things spread out across Ubud, Amed and Gili. Feels light and feels good. We had to leave our motorbikes in Amed as the island is a strict no-motorbike zone for travelers.
Highlights include: touching soft sand for the first time on this trip (none of that sparkly black stuff that Lonely Planet tries to tout), biting into a divine eggplant pesto burrito while sipping on cucumber infused water (ignoring the strong visual resemblance of the place to Eat, Pray, Love), seeing a slithering 3-foot lizard creep through a nearby bush, landing a SWEET hostel called H2O Yoga and Meditation with discounted yoga classes including one I plan to check out called Aqua Yoga, and biking around the island in less than 2 hours while spotting more than one sign advertising magic mushroom shakes.
So far so good!
Motorbike Diaries Day 16 – March 11th
Morning observation: I feel like I’m at adult summer camp for yogis. Think Gili-nese style cabins with a dining hall (aptly called Good Earth Café with the tag line: deliciously gluten-free, vegan, raw), two yoga shalas, a swimming pool, and an arts and crafts station that offers guests paint-your-own Buddha ceramic busts. Everyone rides a bicycle and there are kittens being cute almost everywhere you look.
It’s been over a month since doing yoga in a properly spacious hall, and I can’t tell you how much of an impact space can have on the practice. Feeling space both internally and externally expand while doing Surya Namaskar is like moving into a new apartment twice the size you’re used to and feeling a new opening take hold. A real breath of fresh air.
With all the moving around on this trip, I’ve gotten a bit rusty with the daily practice. From climbing a volcano to riding around mountains by bike and then learning how to move around 18m of water, I can appreciate more than ever the experience of finding stillness on rock hard solid ground. Immense gratitude for stillness, space, and the practice. And, of course, the baby geckoes crawling around the vaulted bamboo ceiling of the shala.
No coincidence that with all my recent reverence for water, I came across this quote mid-vinyasa: “Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes it is also water” – Thich Nhat Chan
Highlight of the day came around sunset, watching Sun/God set on the waters between Gili Air and Meno while recovering from a full belly of mushroom, pineapple and banana shake.
Motorbike Diaries Day 17 – March 12th
Hammock chillin + podcast fun
Full moon bike ride with ambient Muslim prayer filling island airwaves
= Good Life
Motorbike Diaries Day 18 – March 13th
Gili Meno day trip wisdom = slow down, sea the shells (literally for 2-3 hours), and eat some dragonfruit and papaya too
Don’t leave without saying hello to baby turtles at the local sanctuary!
Lesser known facts about our shelly friends:
· Held in protection from human predators
· Released back to the sea at the young age of 8 months old
· Hatched once a year in the hundreds by mama turtle, who doesn’t stick around to see birth through
Motorbike Diaries Day 19 – March 14th
This morning, I pulled a gnarly muscle in my neck during yoga and it spread like wildfire all through my upper back and neck.
Okay universe, clearly I haven’t been slowing down quite enough. No big plans for the day, gotcha. Take her easy.
Stayed in Gili for another day, and it was a rainy one.
Highlight came at 7pm, while watching a movie on the big screen (I think this may have been the first time listening to movie-grade surround sound since October). We were watching that war film “Fury” (definitely not the highlight), when all of a sudden a crowd of people formed a tight huddle to our left. The curiosity won me over and I crept over to see what the commotion was all about, and what did I find?
Newborn BABY turtles fresh out of the sand! The locals simply dug them out of a little hole and scooped them out one by one as their body parts appeared in the most fragile and delicate ways, moving all four little legs as they peeked ever so slightly out from behind their tiny shells.
The juxtaposition of newborn life was a welcome respite from the terror of “Fury,” so I stuck around for much longer. I mean, baby turtles!!!
Motorbike Diaries Day 20 – March 15th
Home sweet home today back to Ubud by way of ferry and motorbike.
Before heading out, I connected with this special lady lover..
Came back to Ubud just in time for a traditional ceremony at Agung’s, which begins tomorrow. All the bamboo building and preparation would finally culminate in this mysterious ceremony we had been hearing about since arriving in Ubud in February.
Indulged in the classic vegan buffet, and apparently all my nostalgia and talk about Jukie’s coconut gelato while on the road manifested an opening on our very own street! Might I remind you that this gelato includes coconut meat and brittle? #heaveninyourmouth
It’s good to be back <3