Indonesia Travel Diary 1: Amed, Nusa Lembongan, & Gili Air

Scuba diving, rainy season storms, and non-stop seafood

It was the end of January, and despite Chris’ best intentions to stay as far away from over-touristed destinations as he could, we somehow found ourselves in ground zero: Bali, Indonesia.

Bali is the most internationally famous travel destination of the 17 thousand islands that make up the nation of Indonesia. Its unique cultural identity – a Hindu oasis in a Muslim country – plus its fabulous beaches and friendly citizens have brought so much tourism to the island that it’s gotten completely out of hand. Backpackers, luxury travelers, and yoga & surf hippies have long made this laid-back island their number one travel choice; the level of westernization and English makes it an easy travel destination for foreigners to live comfortably as well. Unfortunately, this poor little island is struggling to manage the traffic and crowds. In fact, the epicenter of commercial tourism, Kuta, in south Bali, frequently tops lists of the worst places in the world in which to travel.

Although this sunset from Nusa Lembongan is pretty nice…

So how did we end up there? It was hotly debated. Indonesia was perhaps the country I was most excited to visit in Southeast Asia, but my original vision included copious amounts of sunshine, scuba diving in crystal clear blue waters, and hiking epic volcanoes above the clouds. But, as our time in Thailand expired, we realized that we had missed the dry season for the commonly travelled Indonesian Islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Lombok. This meant, simply, that heavy rain may preclude volcano hikes, and stormy seasons may destroy all my hopes and dreams of diving with some legendary 40 meter visibility.

We spent some time debating instead whether to travel to the Philippines, which, along with the far east of Indonesia, is home to some of the best scuba diving in the world (and dry season in February). But, after debating the relative merits of each (the food, the amount of island-hopping flights required, etc.), we did eventually conclude that Indonesia in the rainy season was still worth some exploration. And as we found throughout our month-long trip, the cheaper prices and lack of crowds was well worth the occasional afternoon rain shower.

With diving still on the brain, we decided to make a bee-line straight for the hotspots that we’d read had adequate conditions in low-season. Our first stop was Amed, a small diving town on the north coast of the island of Bali.


The black sand beach of Amed. Coupled with the grey skies of the rainy season, it actually reminded me of Vancouver Island back home.

Amed, and the neighbouring village of Tumbalen, boast the best scuba diving on Bali. As the beaches on the north coast are black and rocky, with more than a few rough waves, most tourists that aren’t into scuba give it a skip. We found the small town very charming, although very quiet in the low-season. Amed’s downtown is a single street full of warangs (local restaurants), cafes, hotels, and dive shops. There is also a huge French presence in Amed, with most of the dive shops offering dives and courses in French (I was never able to discover why French people seem to love Amed in particular!). Chris and I had to clarify repeatedly that we were English-Canadian, and not French-Canadian!

We stayed in Amed for about 4 days, and got out for a couple days of diving. The area is famous for its wreck diving, most notably the USAT Liberty, a massive WWII-era ship sunken about 10 meters off the coast of Tumbalen. The Liberty, a cargo ship, was damaged whilst at sea, and was able to limp to the beach, where it sat for years. However, seismic activity from the nearby Mt Agung, an active volcano, ended up pushing this ship fully into the ocean. These days, it’s the most popular wreck in Indonesia, and boasts a thriving marine eco-system.

In addition to our USAT Liberty dive, we dived a few deep walls, and one artificial reef site called ‘pyramids’ right off Amed Beach. The dives were fantastic: we saw four octopuses, a rare treat! We had been worried about poor visibility during the low season due to wind, rain, and storms, but visibility was fine (about 15 meters). While Amed can see up to 30 meter vis during the high-season, our dive shop informed us that the density of the marine life is actually lower in high-season due to the water temperature. We were content with our timing! Our dive centre, Abyss, even made a cool little video of us diving – check it out here.

Amed was our first experience in Indonesia, and we were blown away with how friendly the locals were, the excellence of their English (better even than Thailand), and the deliciousness of the food. The highlight? Getting a ride in a traditional outrigger boat, called a jukung, to the dive sites. These narrow boats fitted with two huge outriggers accommodate only four people, and you must put all your dive gear on once in the water to not upset the balance! And the rain? Yes, we got some huge rainstorms, but they occurred somewhat predictably in the afternoon, and only lasted for a few hours. A little rain for no crowds seemed like a fair deal.

A jukung fishing boat – sort of like a canoe with outriggers (photo taken on Gili Air island, not Amed – Amed’s beaches are not that white!).

Nusa Lembongan

After diving in Amed, our next stop on the diving itinerary was Nusa Lembongan, one of a set of three islands located just off the south coast of Bali. Lembongan, and the larger neighbouring island of Nusa Penida, is the busiest dive destination in Bali (or rather, just off the coast of Bali). And, similar to Amed, while low-season sometimes comes with lower visibility, it is also the best time of year to spot huge manta rays. And again, less crowds!

A sunny afternoon on the main beach of Lembongan. We almost had this whole beach to ourselves!

To reach Nusa Lembongan from Amed, we started by taking an incredibly rainy taxi ride south to the local ferry at the Kusamba pier. We were relieved that our boat ride was only 30 minutes, as the day had been stormy, and the water looked a bit choppy. As big waves seem to preclude a permanent dock, the ferry employees have come up with an entertaining temporary dock scheme: when the ferry is ready to depart, about 8 men roll large pieces of metal bridge down the beach and into the surf, and then assemble and hold this structure in place with their hands while passengers cross. Crossing of the bridge must be timed carefully with the waves however, which was very entertaining and only a little bit wet.

Boarding the local ferry at Kusamba. Fun.

Nusa Lembongan was significantly more touristy than Amed, despite it being low-season. While we got an excellent deal on accommodation, food was very expensive. The restaurants, shops, and general vibe of the town was a lot blander than Amed, similar to all other tourist hot-spots. But what Nusa Lembongan lacked for in character, it made up for in delicious French pastries. We wisely chose to stay across the street from a truly excellent French bakery.

We got our own little bungalow for the week for about $15 a night.

Our first mission in Nusa was to go diving. The vast majority of the dive sites in the area are located off the neighbouring island of Nusa Penida, and are split into a couple areas during rainy season: the north, featuring many drift dives and strong currents, but with reasonable visibility, and the south, which included the famous Manta Point dive site. We initially booked trips to both north and south, but as I came down with a bad cold at the beginning of our trip, we only ended up doing three dives in the north. Visibility was decent, and we saw some cool creatures, but it was nothing amazing. While Chris was initially bummed out to be missing Manta Point and his chance to see a manta ray, we heard later that visibility in the area was extremely poor (about 2 meters), so we probably would have seen absolutely nothing if we ended up going anyway.

Some colourful caricatures of creatures we met diving.
Dinner at one of the many beachfront restaurants.

Unfortunately, much of my time on Nusa Lembongan was spent in bed recovering from, firstly, the bad cold I had acquired, and then secondly, some unexpected back pain. Aside from some beach sunsets, a round of mini golf, and lots of fish barbeques, I didn’t get the chance to experience much of the island, but Chris was able to get out for a few runs to explore.

After about a week taking it easy on Nusa L, we packed our bags and hit the beach to catch a boat to our next island destination: Gili Air.

A round of mini golf and a beer is good for the soul, if not for the cold.

Gili Air

Gili Air is one of three small islands located just off the northwest coast of the island of Lombok, the neighbouring island to Bali. A three-hour ferry ride took us from Nusa Lembongan to Gili Air, and dropped off on a wave-battered dock on the small island. Of the three islands, Gili is the second largest. The largest, Gili Trawangan is the most developed, with a strong party reputation. Gili Meno, the smallest, apparently is a quiet, secluded, and somewhat romantic island, with not much going on. Gili Air, famous for its diving and snorkeling, lies somewhere in the middle in terms of atmosphere.

The dock at the south end of Gili Air. The island of Lombok (a 15-minute boat ride) is visible just behind it.

Still a small island, Gili Air only takes about 20-25 minutes to walk end to end. No gasoline-powered vehicles are present on the island; the primary mode of transportation, aside from walking, is bicycles and electric scooters. To move goods around, locals use horse-drawn carts. The entire island is bounded by beautiful beaches, as well as a perimeter path (some paved, some packed dirt, and some just sand!). While all the beaches were gorgeous, the waters can get a bit rough on some sides (especially the south where the ferry dock is located). We elected to stay in a cute bungalow house near the best beach in the northwest. This was also close to the some of the prime snorkeling sites.

These horse-drawn carts are all over the island. While there’s no cars to dodge, if you hear bells jingling behind you on the street, you better get out of the way quick!
A street view from Gili Air.

While I’d enjoyed my time in Indonesia so far very much, Gili Air rapidly took the lead as my favourite spot. While missing some of the green and dripping jungles of wet Bali, as well as the striking grey and orange carved Hindu temples, Gili Air was bursting with island charm. It was quiet and relaxed, with a great mix of local and international restaurants. The locals were so friendly, and the lack of vehicle traffic noise made for a very relaxing stay. While, interestingly, there were zero dogs on the island, there were plenty of friendly cats, rabbits, chickens, cows, and horses. Chris enjoyed a number of early morning runs around the island perimeter trial, while I had some truly beautiful bike rides through the quiet streets, green farms, and sandy beach trails.

These ocean colours are pretty hard to beat.
A sleepy kitty on the laundry scale at our bungalow.

While a very laid back island, Gili Air was not without culture. As with everywhere in Indonesia outside of the island of Bali, the primary religion of Gili’s local population is Islam. As our first visit to a Muslim village, we enjoyed the novelty and striking melodies of the daily Call to Prayer. The Call to Prayer occurs five times throughout the day. It is a series of sung prayers that are broadcasted from the minaret of the local mosque, which summons worshipers to join in prayer. As Gili is so small, these can be heard across the island.

Our time on the island was mostly spent relaxing, exploring, and eating excellent Indonesian food. We spent most afternoons inside, hiding from the heavy rainstorms, but these would pass through and leave things dry by dinnertime. We laid on the beach, went snorkeling, and I even indulged myself with a hot stone massage and an afternoon at the hair salon. While we considered doing some diving, as there is a big scene on Gili Air, we decided against it. The conditions apparently weren’t amazing, and our snorkeling excursion confirmed what we’d heard: a lot of the corral near the island is dead due to the practice of dynamite fishing. While I think Gili Air used to be a great scuba destination within Indonesia (and perhaps still is at the right time of year), I got the impression that perhaps it was past its prime.

A admiring photo of the pool at one of the fancy resort hotels. I just came here for a massage.
Beautiful beach views.

One of our most engaging activities was an Indonesian cooking class with a very friendly man called “Chef Hero”. Here, we learned about the basis of Indonesian food: bumbu paste. Bumbu is basically a mixture of a variety of ingredients (such as garlic, onions, ginger, turmeric, and galangal) ground into a thick paste, and used as the basis for classic dishes such as mie goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice), and curries. We even learned how to make the classic spicy sambal sauce – a salsa made with chilis that accompanies almost every Indonesian meal. In the end, we made waaaay too much to eat, and left with a few boxes of leftovers for later.

Watching a storm blow in off the island of Lombok. I had about 7 minutes to get inside before the torrential downpour started!

After our time in Gili Air, we booked a ferry back to Bali and bused back to the airport to prepare for the next leg of our Indonesian journey. After much, much, MUCH planning (there was a spreadsheet created and everything), we had booked a fancy scuba diving liveaboard trip in Komodo National Park, located off the coast of Flores Island to the east. We eagerly awaited our flight to Labuan Bajo, Flores, for our next adventure. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Indonesia Travel Diary 1: Amed, Nusa Lembongan, & Gili Air

  1. Barb says:

    All i can say is Wow!!!! Amazing journeys. Safe tracels you two❤️

    Sent from my iPhone


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