The handpan is a new melodic percussive instrument invented less than 20 years ago. It was invented in Bern, Switzerland and consists of 2 curved shells of steel, glued together and painstakingly tuned into a musical scale. Unlike the steel drum, the handpan is played by hand. Each note that is struck activates several overtones, giving handpans a mesmerising and rich sound.
Because the handpan is still rare, you can’t buy this instrument at your local music shop… You have to order a handpan directly from the maker. A quality handpan costs between £1,500 and £3,000. Due to the high cost of these drums I wanted to find one and personally check its quality so we flew to several places to check them out in South East Asia. After a month of searching I found THE ONE.
I met Thai, who we had been trading with for 11 years already, buying quality musical instruments made by his family. Thai had to spend 5 years studying and perfecting his drum. I went to check them out and see how they were made.
These drums take many man hours to produce. Everything is done by hand. There are no shortcuts that can be made when producing a drum of this quality. The most time consuming part is tuning the drum shell – finely tuning the steel shell by striking it gently with a steel hammer. This is done while measuring the frequency of each tap. Tap, tap, tap, for hours on end until each note gives off the perfect frequency. All in all it takes around 36 hours to tune one drum. That’s 4 hours per note for a 9 note drum! Patience is indeed a virtue.
Since the tuning of a Handpan is a very complex and complicated task, i will just point out the basics. You could write a book (and people have) on the specifics of tone colours and so on.
All the Tonefields are shaped elliptical. When the Tonefield/ the Dimples/ the Ding gets a beat by the player, the two axis of the field start swinging and a sound is born. Because of the different length of the 2 ellipse-axis this sound is created by two overlapping, harmonic but different frequencies. Advanced players are using this knowledge, to “filter” frequencies. You can ‘press’ one finger on one of the axis to prevents the swinging of this axis. In this way, you get out much more different sounds from just one Tonefield.
Once this mammoth task has been completed and each note is tuned correctly the drum moved on to the paint shop where it is coated in aluminium paint then baked in an industrial oven.
Now these amazing inventions are ready to play. Check the gallery below and the video of Thai cousin playing the finished article. These drums are available exclusively on Terrapin Trading. These are drum that truly make the grade. 5 years of study and graft have went into the project and it supports 30 jobs. We pay Fair Trade prices for these drums so you get a superb quality drum, made by the original method, thai and 30 workers get paid properly for their work. Each drum comes with a quality hand made case and playing diagram plus links to great videos on how to play, right from the start until you master this incredible instrument.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands are an archipelago of around 300 mostly uninhabited islands in the Bay of Bengal, famous for their powder white sands, mangroves, lush rainforest and pristine coral reefs. Although geographically closer to Myanmar these islands are part of the Territory of India, with the exception of a few in the North, including the Coco Islands which do belong to Myanmar.
Most of the Islands are out of bounds for tourists with the exception of a few, of which the most popular are Havelock, Neil & Long Islands, however a special permit is required. I flew firstly to the main town of Port Blair on one of the many daily, direct 2 hour flights from Chennai. Port Blair also receives regular flights from Calcutta and Delhi. Having missed my pre-booked flight I found it easy enough to secure a next morning departure at the airport with IndiGo Airlines. Spice and Jet also have direct flights to the islands.
The permit for the Islands, which I was told was to be carried on person at all times, is acquired relatively hassle-free from a small desk at the airport after completion of a rather long-winded form. From the airport I took a friendly tuk-tuk to the small travel agents in town to buy a ferry ticket and it’s worth mentioning that whilst I was successful, my fellow travellers who opted to go direct to the ticket office at the port discovered the ticket office to be shut for lunch between 12pm-1pm and subsequently missed the ferry.
There are a couple of companies, Green Ocean, which is the more rustic of the two, and Makruzz, which is an expensive, air-conditioned catamaran – they run different schedules. The cheapest option however is to travel with the local ferry company, again on its own schedule. As you can go up onto the deck with the 2 cheaper options then for me those were my favoured choices. The schedules are a bit confusing, the printed timetables on display were largely out of date and appeared to change monthly, and so it is best to ask when there.
It takes around 1.5 hours to reach the most popular island of Havelock. There are numerous stunning beaches around the island to explore, which are rather systematically referenced by a number rather than their actual names. Of Beaches 1 to 7, Beach 3 isn’t actually a beach, but in-fact the small town centre of the island where can be found 2 ATMs (only one of which worked with my visa card), a supermarket, a fruit market and a jumble of small restaurant shacks. Further down the coast stretches Beach 5, a stunningly beautiful beach whereby a number of scuba resorts, upmarket hotels and basic backpacker bamboo huts are scattered off the main (single track) road down towards the beach.
It is apparent with the recent development of a number of large and very expensive resorts that the local government are targeting the wealthy, middle class Indian tourism market, and with the introduction of one-month permits and large price hikes are trying to distract the establishment of a budget backpacker scene. But whilst some of the beach chalets were on offer at around 15,000Rp/night, it was still possible to find basic cheap beach shacks for a fraction of the price, and very basic huts can be found from 600rp upwards.
Alcohol is scarce on the island, more-so on Neil Island than Havelock, as these aren’t party islands and there is no nightlife, music or bars. The restaurants are mostly small, family run shacks, although some of the dive centres along the beach front of Beach 5 have introduced an element of hipster modern, selling European priced cakes and lattes. While a recent change in the licensing laws mean it is now technically illegal to sell alcohol within 500 metres of a road, a few of the large resorts do sell beer or spirits so long as they are hidden from view. However these tended to be, in my experience, very expensive, mostly un-chilled and super strength. There was one upstairs beer den we found on Havelock island at beach 5, selling reasonably priced (250rp) strong Premuim Kingfisher, or whisky, and although it was a bit rough and edgy, it was friendly enough establishment and we had a good time.
But these islands are mostly for peaceful relaxation and are beautiful to explore at a laid back pace. Powder-white soft sands, pristine coral reefs, dense tropical jungle and crocodile-lurking mangroves spread a rich carpet of colours across the island floor. Inland the rural life is slow-paced and heavenly; kids play on tricycles amongst mango, coconut and banana trees whilst ducklings and baby goats laze around amongst fruits drying in the sunshine.
On Havelock, we rented a scooter and explored the island in one day, stopping at beach 7 to swim in turquoise waters (keeping a close eye for elusive crocodiles near the nearby swampy riverbank). There have been very occasional reports of attacks and there are signs up warning tourists to be careful, but no-one seemed particularly concerned so we figured we were safe enough. On our way back we stopped off to trek through the jungle, a 2km hike to Elephant Beach where these big creatures can be observed bathing in the sea. The trek itself can be taken without a guide and is really beautiful. We did take one wrong turning and enlisted the help of a very capable and professional 5 year-old tour-guide sent by his parents to show us the way. Elephant Beach closes at 3pm, and as it gets dark around 4.30-5pm on the Andaman Island, so it is wise not to hang around too much later as the jungle is a decent hike even in daylight.
The food on Havelock was mediocre. It consisted mostly of South Indian fare, dosa, idli, fish/veg curries. However, due to the remote nature of the island, most things were sparse and often most of the basic menu was not available. There were a few top-end restaurants selling Western dishes, pizza/pasta etc, with Western prices to match.
Travel to Neil Island from Havelock can be arranged through Macuzza (1200Rp) or Green Ocean (400Rp). I opted for Green Ocean which was a pleasant enough 1.5 hour journey. Your permit is necessary to purchase a ticket. Neil Island is more rural and picturesque than Havelock. A single track ‘main road’ runs through the 5 km island, joining together the numerous beaches. A few little shacks are dotted along the road selling crisps, biscuits and juice, along with the occasional roadside restaurant or bamboo beach hut. Neil Island was less expensive than Havelock, less developed, and very quiet and laid back. I hired a basic but clean beach hut for 1000Rp/night from Dream Garden, a tiny 3-bungalow and restaurant family run affair set in a beautiful garden rich with mango and coconut trees. We feasted on fresh mangos which dropped from the trees and supped lush fruit juices from the tiny restaurant. I was often the only person on any beach, which were stunningly tranquil. There was sadly a litter problem on a few of the beaches which could easily have been remedied by a regular clean-up.
We hired bicycles for 100rp/day and cycled around the island in one afternoon, soaking up the laid back village atmosphere. Kids played on tricycles as goats and ducklings meandered through the lush green tropical backdrop. We stopped at Sunset beach to snorkel in search of the elusive Sea Cow, a famous and celebrated creature of the Andamans. The coral was thriving and there was plenty of colourful fish.
For nightlife, the Holiday Inn resort on beach 5 or the Sea Shell on beach 3 are the only places on the island selling alcohol when we were there, and shut around 9pm. However I have since heard that there was a Hindu festival during my visit which was prohibiting the sale of alcohol and so perhaps outwith this time it may not have been so restrictive.
To leave the island, an application form along with a copy of the permit is required. I chose the local ferry to return to Port Blair – tickets are issued on a first-come-first-serve basis, from 6.30am for the 8.30am departure. Everyone, however, was issued a ticket for the crossing. The Xerox shop was closed, however the dive centre at the jetty was open and issued photocopies for 20rp/page. The dive centre also provided an ok Wi-Fi connection for a fee. To check out some of the beautiful clothes and crafts sourced during our travels, please click here.
My family and I recently travelled to Iceland for a 2 week break and for me to source our new products. It’s well known that Iceland is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit but is it possible to make it more affordable? The answer is yes. Follow some of the tips in this guide and you will save yourselves a lot of money. I’m not saying that Iceland will become a cheap experience – it won’t but it will allow those of you who can nearly afford it to afford it.
1. Book your flights early.
This old chestnut again! It’s true though. Wizzair and Easyjet offer amazingly cheap flights from Europe if you get in early and are flexible with dates. Use the flight comparison site skyscanner to save you going to each airline directly and save you time. Book an extra bag to take food with you. Iceland’s food prices in the supermarket are 2-3 times more expensive than in the UK. Nothing is cheaper so the extra bag with Easyjet is about £40 which allows you to pack about 15kg of food to cook. You will definitely save £40 buying it at home – especially if its alcohol. Alcohol is super expensive to buy over there. You can only buy alcohol over 3% ABV from the government ran Vinbodin store.
2. Get a kitchen
We used Airbnb to get ourselves a whole house and kitchen. Its comparable with hotel prices but with the bonus of more space and facilities. Almost all have Wi-Fi. This allows savings to be made easily. When you consider even a hotdog costs £7 you realise that eating out is going to kill your wallet. We cooked most of the time. We still had to buy food over and above what we carried in the extra bag (see (1)) but being able to buy from Supermarkets such as Bonus (The cheapest supermarket in Iceland) and Netto is way cheaper than eating in a restaurant.
3. Use the public bus/boat
It’s hard to find out about it on the net. Those Icelanders are keeping quiet about it but it’s possible to get to and from the airport by public bus and avoiding the overpriced flybus. Sure it doesn’t run quite as often and takes 10-15 minutes later but if it’s going to save you 20 bucks then it’s worth it. The official flybus is 2700ISK each way (approx. £20) whereas the public bus is only 750ISK. You can find the timetable here. If you want to go to Videy Island (Where Yoko Onos Peace Tower is) then don’t book a tour. Use the boat. It’s so much cheaper at 1000ISK. Check the timetable here. You can get over gratis on John Lennon’s birthday thanks to Yoko (9 October).
4. Use your legs
Reykjavik is a very compact city with most of the mains sites within a 2km square area. It’s not difficult to walk around and not need any transport within the city. The BSI bus terminal is also easily within walking distance of the centre. Only a 5 minute walk from the southern point of the lake.
We even walked out to the fabulous Grotta Lighthouse at the cities westernmost extreme and it only took about 40 minutes along the lovely coast. Make sure its low tide so you can actually reach the lighthouse which is on a little island on the peninsula. It’s well worth it by the way. Tide times can be found here. It’s a great free place to see the Northern Lights.
We bought some beuatiful lava bracelets, made from the local lava which can be purchased here.
So I bid farewell to my travel buddy after sharing some final beers at ‘5 Barrels’, one of the few remaining half decent pubs in the tourist hell-hole that is Kuta, Bali. We were sorely tempted to toast the holiday with an 18 year old Macallan spotted perched upon the top shelf, shining down upon us like a silver thrupenny bit, but at 6,000,000 (£350)/nip, we sadly took a rain cheque and made do with an Asian Strongbow and some peanuts. I discussed my plan to reach Bukit Lawang, a tiny village buried in the depth of the jungle on the remote island of Sumatra by the following evening, which would prove to be a bit of an arduous undertaking. A far cry, it would prove to be, from the beer pong, hookers and motorbike mayhem I was currently immersed within, but I really couldn’t get out quick enough.
So early the next morning I got my first flight to Battam, somewhere near Singapore (which took around 2.5 hours) and then a connecting flight which departed almost the instant I touched down and scrambled through the transfer desks. This flight wasn’t much more than an hour, and so I soon found myself out on the tarmac of Medan, Indonesia’s second largest city, after Jakarta.
Although it is easy enough to be pointed in the right direction for a mini bus to the station and then a public bus onwards for budget travelling, I opted this time to splash out on an Uber, to avoid wasting a night in the capital. There does seem to be a degree of Taxi Mafia prevalent in Indonesia, and Uber is not exactly made welcome wherever I’ve used it. Uber and Grab drivers have often ended up in fisty-cuffs with local hawkers for the job. However they are a whole lot cheaper though, so worth using if you can handle the potential drama.
Uber is also largely unlicensed in Indonesia, and so it wasn’t perhaps the brightest idea for a single girl to be hopping into an unlicensed vehicle to go on a 5 hour journey into the deepest depths of the jungle, and perhaps considering the bus would have been the more sensible, albeit longer option. But I was tired. So, having temporarily taken leave of my senses, I met the driver in the parking lot and under the hot midday sunshine we battled a new price in-front of a gathering bemused crowd of fellow drivers munching on fruit and snacks. 350,000 Rupiah was finally agreed, the original Uber having since been cancelled (another story).
It took 2 hours to fight through Medan’s hellish perpetual traffic jam, and finally, as the city thinned out, the buildings were replaced with coconut trees, smoke with butterflies, and the roads turned to dust tracks, we begun to creep closer to the edge of the forest. But…
Unfortunately, it was no longer a forest.
Instead we passed mile after mile, hour after hour, wall to wall, leaf to leaf of …Palm.
The palm oil industry is a monster in Sumatra and Borneo, the single main factor in the alarming deforestation and destruction of the irreplaceable jungle, and the unique and diverse species who live there (many sadly now facing inevitable extinction). It is worth considering avoiding palm oil products due to its catastrophic effect on the environment.
So further and further we rumbled along the dirt track which became increasingly rough going. Unpaved with huge potholes you could lose your granny down, and choc-a-block with logging trucks hauling the innards, the soul and the spirit out the jungle. The endless stream of these foreboding trucks was rather disconcerting and difficult to watch, making their way from the heart of the jungle, clogging up the narrow roads with chainsaw massacred jungle veins.
Whenever we ground to a halt, however, local villagers peered into the car, wide eyed and curious about this peely-wally tourist, who in turn, peered back at them with similar curiosity. And their faces fell into huge welcoming smiles and light hearted chuckles, as they thrust lychees and ripe passion fruit towards me, and I warmed to the spirit and the soul still fighting for existence despite the carnage upon Mother Nature. Time crept past and the sun began to set like a big red tomato, to be swallowed up greedily by the ravenous appetite of the mountains, and we were left with nothing but darkness by the time we reached Bukit Lawang, 5 hours later.
The driver got lost trying to find my hostel but stopping to get bearings we were immediately surrounded by travel guides, all desperate to know where we were going, presumably to try to befriend me into signing up for a trek before I’d even set foot in the village. However they all abandoned ship when one guy miraculously pulled an A4 sheet out his pocket with my full name written neatly in large capital letters. I was slightly confused how this guy knew who I was – was this some kind of weird party trick? However it turns out he worked for the hotel and was expecting me, so, rather hesitantly, I followed him blindly along a pitch dark path by the riverbank to reach the Rainforest Hostel, some 200 yards along the bank. I was shown to a basic (mattress on the floor) but clean and very cheap (50k Rupiah) private room and within minutes I was falling asleep to the sound of the river perpetually drumming the heartbeat of long forgotten Sumatra soul into the surrounding jungle.
Bukit Lawang is a charmingly ramshackle jungle village, some 90 kilometers northwest of Medan, situated at the eastern side of Gunung Leuser National Park. The village consists of a cluster of shacks with corrugated tin roofs scattered along the bolder clad banks of a fast flowing hypnotic river. An orang-utan sanctuary was set up here by a Swiss organisation in the 1970s to attempt to rehabilitate orang-utans captured from the logging industry. The rangers were trained to teach the orang-utans vital jungle skills to enable them to reintegrate into the forest, and provided additional supplementary food from a feeding platform. However, within the last few years supplementary feeding has ceased as the orang-utan rehabilitation program has been deemed a success, the orang-utans having been fully rehabilitated, and the jungle (or the remaining part of) is now at saturation point, so the sanctuary no longer accepts new orphaned orang-utans.
Tourists slowly found their way to the sanctuary in trickles over the years and Bukit Lawang in time became a firm favourite on the intrepid backpacker route, now one of the most popular spots to visit in Sumatra. In 2003, due to illegal logging, the village was swept away with a torrential flood, sweeping downstream, described as a 20 foot ‘tidal wave’. The flood swept away virtually the entire village, taking with it mosques, bridges, market stalls, homes and killed over 200 people including tourists. It has been very difficult for the village to rebuild given the very limited government support and high poverty in the area, and the emotional and financial loss has been incredibly hard for the community to come to terms with, however there has been some basic regrowth, and the banks are once again dotted with guest houses and market stalls, and the community are to be found once again congregating en-mass along the riverbanks of an evening, living their idyllic jungle life.
Monkeys hang out on tin roofs and peer curiously in through windows, whilst occasionally an orang-utan can be spotted venturing down bravely to drink or bathe by the river bank. The call of the gibbons can be heard in the evenings as the sun sets softly; joining the chorus of crickets and geckos, and the village really does ooze a truly magical organic feel.
I spent a number of days here, soaking up the atmosphere, writing from my hammock, and taking lazy walks in the hot afternoon sunshine, only to cool down with a splash in the river. It is the perfect place to while away a few days if you are looking for some peaceful relaxation. This is no party place however, although the locals are very keen to include tourists to join with them around a riverside fire and enjoy a barbeque or a beer of an evening. There is one party a week, on a Saturday night, currently at Thomas’s hostel, across the rather precarious bridge. There, the young men from the village gather alongside backpackers to watch a local band perform various popular covers, from The Beastie Boys and Nirvana to Ed Sheeran, and Bob Marley. Any single western girl is immediately swamped with a seemingly never-ending line of young men keen to get together. And although harmless and polite, it can be a bit tiresome if you just want to watch the music, so be warned…
So the reason to be here is of course to meet the orang-utans and other fine jungle treasures. It is almost 100% guaranteed to see these incredible ‘men of the forest’, no matter which duration of trek you opt for. So being somewhat lazy, I chose the shortest trek, 3 hours costing a fixed price of 35 euros. For 45 or 55 euros, there are 2 or 3 day treks available, which is much better value for money. Much longer treks can be arranged easily with a guide. And many tourists opt to finish their trek with ‘rafting’ for a quick fun return and cool down after days in the hot jungle. (‘Rafting’ consists of a series of large rubber rings tied together and steered with sticks as they glide down the rapids.)
I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer abundance of nature we saw during the 3 hours. I had joined up with a group of 3 who were doing a 2 day trek and I would leave them later to return to my guesthouse hammock. We firstly happened upon a rehabilitated mother orang-utan and her 3 year old child, who showed off his newly acquired acrobatic skills to his delighted audience, just feet above our heads, whilst she sat supervising lazily some distance away. After 15 minutes or so of tree swinging, cartwheels and general showing off, she summoned him to follow as she made her way back into the depths of the jungle. Leaving us with big happy smiles, and a million leafy photos.
We wandered further along and 10 minutes later we were approached by a huge male, fully wild, orang-utan emerging from the trees, who happened to be passing through on foot. We froze silently to the spot and allowed him to choose his path. He came up, rather close to us to investigate curiously; we gently backed away on instruction from the guides. The orang-utan made another slow move in our direction, and I was aware I was within his long arm reach as I backed away even further. This guy was the size of a car, he was an entirely wild animal (the guide informed us this one had never been rehabilitated) and I could clearly have been squashed like a bug in an instant. However, he just sat down, relaxed amongst us, scratching his bum and begun munching on a handful of leaves, occasionally looking up with big brown eyes. Then, after a while, he got up and walked off. It was utterly magical and my heart was beating in my throat.
Further on we were lucky enough to catch a whole family of very shy and elusive gibbons, a peacock, and a huge cobra. (the latter luckily slithered at speed into the undergrowth. My guide was visibly excited. He explained he had almost died from a cobra bite as a teenager, and spent a week in a coma. However because he survived, he now believes he is immune to the cobra and they fear him, which is why, he surmised, the cobra chose not to attack us. I was very dubious of his reasoning here, but extremely thankful the cobra was as scared as me, as the medical facilities in Bukit Lawang consist of little more than a first aid kit..)
I found the guides on our trek to be very informative, interesting and clearly proud of their forest and its treasures, however shop around for a guide you are happy with and don’t feel pressured to take the most pushy. There are hundreds of guides and only a few dozen tourists at any time so it can be a bit overwhelming. Follow the guide’s instruction and don’t get too close to the animals, although mostly gentle giants, some of the orang-utans (one famous girl in particular, Mina) have been known to stalk and attack humans. Given that some of these animals spent years in horrendous conditions in captivity, it is no real surprise, so be careful.
Bukit Lawang is a truly magical place, and well worth the arduous journey. Experience it and help keep this pocket of jungle protected and safe from logging.
Terrapin Trading is always keen to keep traditional crafts alive and so while on another Indian opus looking for new products I learned of the famous block printing traditions in Rajesthan.
Basing myself in the Pink City in Jaipur and explored its labyrinthine streets, heaving with talented craftsmen making everything from you can imagine. During my early morning runs (before the sun gets too high and the heat hits) I was sometimes accompanied by elephants and camels although more usually dogs.
Block printing is practised in the Jaipur area and it the technique of printing patterns onto fabric by means of a dye and a hand carved block of wood which is pressed onto the material. This art has been practised here for 300 years and despite huge competition from modern printing techniques it still endures.
Before going to the centre of the industry in Sanganer I wanted to learn more about the technique and its history so we took a visit to the excellent Anhoki Museum of Block Printing where you learn all about the fabrics, the patterns and what they mean to each area. Its an excellent resource and we even got to watch a craftsman making a block for printing and to try our hand at the printing itself. You are able to buy a tshirt or piece of blank material in the shop so you can have a go yourself. After the museum I had a relaxing chai in the museums shady garden cafe.
The Sanganeri printing technique developed between the 16th & 17th century. During colonial times it became one of the major export items for the East India Company, and its trademark was the original dye used for printing designs. Sanganer was a far less sanitised experience than the polished presentation of the museum. Real in-the-field production! I walked along a whole street of tiny little shops with craftsmen, chisel in hand, carving out blocks in the traditional way.
I was told that down by the river I could see the textiles produced by these blocks being washed and dried in the sun. I had to pay my way in to this area by means of a little baksheesh to the foreman of the little outdoor dyeing factory.
Here, men and women were up to their knees dying the printed fabrics and hanging them up on huge bamboo drying lines. This was a fascinating day. I had been asking all the people i met how to get a hold of some antique blocks that i could buy and finally i struck gold!
A man made a call to his brother in Jaipur and on my return to the pink city I was taken on a mystery tour on the back of a moto to the basement of a residential area east of the Pink City. I had been taken to a the store of a retired block printer and he was willing to sell me some of the beautiful blocks he had carved over the years. You can see these and maybe even buy one here.
The Gili Isles consist of 3 beautiful coral islands splashing a slice of paradise off the north coast of Lombok, now easily accessible by fast-boat from Bali, Indonesia’s gateway for tourism. These once very peaceful and idyllic islands are now the location for Indonesia’s liveliest and hottest party scene.
Gili Trawangan is the largest of the 3, and home to beer pong, live music and Full Moon parties, and is perhaps a bit overrun with gap year students on a mission to have a taste of hedonistic fun in paradise. Gili Meno is nicknamed the Honeymoon Island, is very charming and peaceful, and favoured by couples. Whereas laid back Gili Air is something in between, still clinging fiercely onto the charm the islands used to ooze, but keen to shake its sandy booty every once in a while.
I had previously arrived at Gili T some 10 years ago, on the precarious local ferry, which cost only a few pounds, but took almost a full day of slow and laborious travel. But those days are long gone now as affordable speedboats offer a super fast service from Padang Bai. Back then the island was barely touched by tourism and there was merely a small strip of 4 or 5 bamboo shack beach bars, a few dusty shops and some very basic accommodation, filled with a small flock of scruffy hippies high on the island’s still famous mushroom delicacies. The reefs at that time were near pristine and the island trundled along lazily at the slow village pace befitting an island devoid of any transport other than the occasional bicycle or pony cart. Children played in the dusty streets as old men sat mending their fishing nets in the morning sunshine.
Sadly those days are inevitably gone as mass tourism has cascaded in, bringing with it the shrieking squawks from public school graduates, never ending construction and the heavy bass from house music. But beneath all the chaos,, the Gillis somehow still manage to cling fiercely to an undeniable charm and special magic that is so very difficult to find elsewhere.
To get to the islands nowadays, is simply to buy a ticket from one of the many hundreds of tour operators packing the street walks of Kuta Bali, the entry point for the majority of tourists stepping off the plane in Denpasar. We shopped around and found vastly differing prices, being quoted everything from 400k IDR to 1.3 million. There are several different tour operators, each with varying standards and conditions of fast-boat. We opted for the cheapest, and possibly one of the best in terms of value for money and party atmosphere, Wahana Fastboat. The 400k IDR included an open return ticket including hotel pickup and transfer by minibus to the main port at Padangbai, around 1.5 hours drive away. We were picked up on time along with 2 other travellers, a crazy travelling Scot, Greg, and a freshly graduated English student we nicknamed Handsome Jim – for obvious reasons.
Our Brit-pop bus hurtled us swiftly to the port of Padang Bai, which proved to be a chaotic mess of backpackers and students checking in to collect their particular coloured sticker to identify their particular boat. Hawkers touting the usual were everywhere – crisps, fruit and cold beers were thrust under our noses in a relentless hopeful stream, mostly accompanied by wide toothy grins. So, keen to maintain our reputation we felt obliged to sink a few Bintangs and get into the party spirit. Let loose on the top deck with music belting out the massive speakers, we sunk a fair few more and by the time we arrived on the pure white sands of Trawangan, burnt to a crisp, and soaked to the skin, we fairly bounced and rolled off the boat.
The boats go direct to Trawangan, then on to Meno, Air and Lombok, before returning back to Padang Bai. It seems that everyone on Gillis now use www.booking.com as their choice of booking app, but although we hadn’t booked online we found it easy enough to get a room, as hawkers line the jetty awaiting fresh blood to catch. However we reckon in high season it would be worth booking ahead, and certainly, we found it much more tricky to find accommodation on Gili Air.
On both Trawangan and Air there are numerous ATMs and money changers (we never visited Meno so cannot confirm), long gone are the days of money runs to Bali. However bare in mind the exchange
rate given by money changers on the island is poorer than on the mainland.
Most of Trawangan’s bars and restaurants are on the beachfront, offering Bintang, Radler (a 2% Bintang with ‘lemon’) and various cocktails made with either local spirits or imports. The local wine tends to be sickly sweet, gloopy and utterly rank. Also be wary of local spirits, as often these are improperly made in a makeshift distillery, and can still contain traces of methanol, which can make you extremely ill and in some instances, fatal. Buy branded if you’re unsure.
Alcohol prices are much higher than in Bali, a large beer set us back 50,000 IDR, and cocktails outside of happy hour were 50-90,000 IDR. Local spirits were 35-40k.
And if none of that floats your boat, there’s always the suspiciously dodgy marijuana and magic mushroom sellers whispering manically and offering to ‘try before you buy’ – dabble at your own risk there, we abstained so can’t advise on the quality, but
they seemed sketchy as fuck to me.
If you’re on a budget, the fish market in the main square is where to head for for a tasty BBQ- choose your fresh tuna/snapper/chicken or tofu/tempe, and load up on free salad and rice, for 20k/skewer. Always busy with a great atmosphere. Or if you take a wander down the sandy backstreets away from the beach you can find some hidden treasures selling local fare, typically Nasi/Mie Goreng for around 25k per meal.
The low budget homestays are also to be found in the quaint backstreets of the village, where local kids play around in the streets, and chickens peck and scrape in the dust. I found a lovely and bustling little home
stay called Gili Life, ran by a local family for 160k IDR, including a decent, tasty 2course breakfast. Pay a little more for aircon, and the rooms were immaculate. It was a great place to meet fellow travellers. There’s numerous noisy dorms on the island at around 100k for the young team with afternoon Bintang pool parties, or there’s a whole host of mid-to-high range accommodation scattered all over the island offering luxury spas, fine dining and private swimming pools for those who want to indulge.. a far cry from hippy-ville!
The island is now home to a whole host of hipster gaff: bakeries, gourmet pizza joints, boutique clothes shops & craft bottle shops and if you get bored on the island there’s a zillion agencies and their grannies willing to sell you boat parties, snorkel trips, dragon adventures or volcano climbing- all of which are no too bad given the feedback. Most people rated the quality and prices are pretty reasonable.
Finally, there’s now tourist police on the island. Historically Trawangan was self-policed by the chief of the Island and his committee – but, probably due to the sheer numbers of tourists, this has been handed over and there’s a police station right in front of the jetty. I’m not sure of the situation on the other islands though.
We took a 75000 Rupiah speedboat to Gilli Air to spend a few days. It’s much quieter than its big sister and a bit more couple orientated. However the bars take turns to host a party each night so there should be something should you wish to let loose your wild party flippers and boogie on the beach.
Gili Air still retains its charm and there’s a very laid back, chilled out vibe, with comical signs offering ‘very fucking fresh magic mushrooms’ and ‘skinny people are easy to kidnap, eat burgers’, although there’s an increasing number of guest houses, boutique hotels and high-end resorts creeping in at an alarming rate.
The flat rate to leave the islands seems to be 350k, (includes transfer to Kuta at the other end), regardless of the cost you paid to get there, unless you haven’t lost your return ticket in amongst pub receipts and snorkeling stickers. To redeem your return, you must find the office of the company you bought from. They are all situated along the beach front near the jetty and ask the locals, they’ll point you in right direction. You have to book at least one day in advance and there’s no guarantee they won’t be sold out. I decided to return early because of the tsunami warnings, and so ended up paying for a seat on another boat as my original return was booked out. You can’t get a refund so don’t even ask, they’ll not entertain it.
So I headed down to register my ticket half hour before scheduled leave and settled myself at the jetty to await the boat. I was issued a plastic lanyard and myself and my baggage green labeled disconcertingly like a tour-group factory product. The jetty was utter chaos. Hundreds of subdued, partied-out people looking confused in different coloured stickers.
Amidst the chaos however, they managed to load the boats with the designated passengers, albeit a 1-hour delay. Also, given the additional return stops of Meno, Air and Lombok, the journey took closer to 3 hours, with a few people kicking off. If you have a flight to catch, head back the day before to avoid the stress. At Padang Bai, the mayhem continued as we lost the the rep guiding us through the chaotic crowds to our particular minibus, and ended up at the wrong one a couple of times before finding our overbooked bus. It’s advisable to keep the wee stickers on till you’re in the bus as within the chaos someone somewhere knows what your colour means and will send you in the right direction.
Rush hour traffic meant that we reached Kuta Sky Garden (our drop off point despite being told we’d be dropped at our hotel) a good 7 hours from scheduled departure… just so you know. My pal wasn’t so lucky and was dropped in the middle of nowhere. Uber and Grab are good apps to use if that happens, just watch the local taxi mafia don’t catch you, they don’t like it. Some have resorted to fisty cuffs in the street with the Uber drivers over their patch.
Finally, respect the customs on the islands. The villagers are a Muslim community, and although beachwear is tolerated on the beach-front, cover up within the village and turn off your music during their call-to-prayer.