By: Kelly Campbell, co-founder The Village Experience
Indonesia has been at the top of my bucket list for many years now. It has the perfect combination of religious diversity, beautiful beaches, indigenous communities, artisan handicraft, and over 17,000 islands to explore. It’s been sitting on the back-burner for years now because I was too overwhelmed when reading the guidebooks and travel blogs to even know where to start. There were just too many places to explore for one trip. The waiting paid off, though. My friend, Jennifer, went to Bali last year and rented a villa in the northern region for a month so she could relax, unwind, work and rejuvenate. She loved the villa and the staff so much that she bought it. So, decision made… Bali it was!
We decided to spend a month at her villa and use that as a home base to explore the surrounding areas. Villa Sedang was a three bedroom, three and half bath stunning space with an infinity pool and a staff of eight. It was situated right on the ocean in a village called Kalisada. The nearest tourist spot was about 30 minutes away in Lovina Beach. We arrived and settled right in. I could not believe the view. The villa had a completely unobstructed view from the front door entrance all the way to the ocean and black sand beach. I knew this was going to be a place I could relax after several long days of travel. We spent the first week getting to know the village, walking around the beach, shopping and eating in Lovina, trekking through the rice paddies, and snorkeling and scuba diving at Menjangan Island.
Lounge spot on Gili Trawangan
Our trek was spectacular and organized by a local community-based tourism initiative known as Mayong Green. Locals in the village acted as guides and explained how the rice paddies were harvested, took us through traditional homes, introduced us to families, and let us try locally grown fruits. Mayong Green creates jobs in the village and with every guest, a donation is granted to projects in the community. It was blazing hot walking through those rice paddies, but it was my first experience doing so, and I couldn’t get enough of the lush, green surroundings, especially knowing that my tour was making a difference to the people I was meeting. Our guides, Putu and Komang, were great. They held our hands as we slid down the hills and then caught us before we could tumble into the river or damage the crops. It was clear that we had stepped into a completely different world.
On Menjangan Island, we arranged a day out on the water with Arrows Dive and spent hours exploring the beautiful coral reef walls in an underwater paradise. While I had my PADI diving certification, I felt just plain rotten at diving and preferred to snorkel. Snorkeling around off the shores of Menjangan Island was the best snorkeling I had ever experienced. The bright yellow and blue corals, giant purple clams and multitudes of brightly colored fish were breathtaking. Lately, snorkeling had become my sanctuary when I needed to unplug and turn off all the noise. Nowhere above water had I felt so much serenity. The pure quiet seemed to lovingly wrap itself around me and I felt an overwhelming sense of peace when I took off on my own and glided through the water. At the end of the day, we motored back to the harbor and I sat back and took in the mountains that surrounded us on every side. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen.
Shore line of Lombok
After a week of staying close to the villa, it was time to pack a bag and get on the road. We traveled down to Ubud – the hub of tourist activity on the island – and checked into an Airbnb located directly across from the Monkey Forest. The next four days were spent shopping, shopping… and shopping. Hence, the reason I ended up paying more in baggage fees than on my plane ticket!
Ubud is a charming town full of handicraft markets, trendy boutiques, quaint cafes and a splash of Western influence. Owning a fair trade company makes me constantly intrigued by new ideas and products in this industry, and Bali is known as one of the best places on Earth to source beautiful, handmade products. We scoured the markets for new ideas and samples, and of course we got charmed into buying a few things for ourselves. On several days, we went to the outskirts of Ubud to see the artisans in their actual workshops. We visited artisans making baskets, wood furniture, glassware, silver jewelry, statues and stunning textiles. I was thoroughly impressed by the talent around me. I often find so much joy in watching simple natural resources being turned into gorgeous, relevant products for house and home, (and at prices that seemed criminal!). Jennifer found huge wooden statues, glassware, giant baskets, paintings and more at a fraction of what the cost would be in the United States. And I was happy to find colorful rugs, wall hangings, blessing baskets, and wood products that barely fit into my luggage.
Artisan making a basket out of natural fibers in her workshop outside of Ubud
Following Ubud, we spent a night in Sanur and caught the fast boat to the Gili Islands. The fast boat was more like a third class cattle car you would see in India. It was downright horrible, and even though we purchased a ticket ahead of time, we were left without a seat… for two hours. We pushed through and finally arrived at Gili Air to be met by tons of horse drawn carts waiting to take us to our hotel. These islands don’t have cars, which means they have an abundance of fresh air, no traffic and no annoying horn honking to deal with. You can bet we breathed a sigh of relief to these discoveries. We loaded our luggage onto one of the horse carts and began the journey to Sunrise Resort. This boutique hotel sat right on the beach, had a great restaurant, and provided accommodations for all budgets: backpacker to private suite. The only thing missing was WiFi (the entire island lacked WiFi, so we were encouraged to truly unplug for the five nights we were staying). Anyone who knows me or has traveled with me knows this is incredibly difficult for me. Whenever I am exploring a new destination, I am always anxious to post on social media to inspire others to travel. I enjoy telling my story right away in the hope that someone else will go out and have their own adventure and tell their own story. But, alas, I powered through.
Self guided bike tour of Gili Air
The Gili Islands are made up of three islands: Gili Trawangan is the biggest and most popular island. This is where most of the tourism in the area is centered. There is an abundance of beach clubs, restaurants, dive shops, boutiques and spas. Basically, there is never a dull moment in Gili T. The second biggest island is where we were staying, Gili Air. This island is closest to Lombok, has great diving, and is relatively quiet compared to Gili T. A favorite activity of those staying on Gili Air is to rent bicycles and ride around the entire island. We did this one morning and were delighted to discover fun beach shacks, reggae bars and beautiful green spaces hidden along the path. The smallest of the islands is called Gili Meno. This island is where you are most likely to interact with the local population as there are limited numbers of hotels and restaurants. This is the island to choose when you want to escape it all and really connect to the village and its culture. It was beautiful and relaxing and genuine in a way the other two islands weren’t.
Endless supply of fresh fruits on the island
Our time in the Gili Islands was perfect. We snorkeled at the reef right off of the beach in Gili Air. We had fresh seafood meals every evening: calamari, king prawns, black snapper and lots of tuna. We lounged on our private rooftop patio and read books to our hearts’ content. We then hired Captain John and his boat to take us to explore the other two islands. There was no shortage of beachfront massages in Gili Trawangan. A highlight of our time there was swimming with a beautiful sea turtle that Captain John led us to. This was a first for me, and I was in complete awe at how agile and serene the creature was under the water. I could have followed it for hours. We then walked the entire island and met with locals in Gili Meno while sipping on fresh fruit smoothies. We also plotted our return trip to the deserted beaches we found dotting the coastline of this less visited island.
Vendors selling their wares in Gili Air
On our last full day, we decided to hire Captain John and his boat again to take us to Lombok to go in search of artisans. Lombok is famous for artisan products, and we wanted to see for ourselves what was being produced. The shore of Lombok was alive with beautiful green trees, fishing boats and women and children awaiting our arrival. As we pulled onto the shore, I felt flutter of excitement about our adventure. Our first stop was to an artisan village where every household was equipped with a loom to weave colorful textiles – rugs, scarves, sarongs, wall hangings and more. We stopped at a few places to see the process and then settled on entering into serious negotiations. One cooperative in particular caught our eye. We loved that it was specifically a women’s weaving cooperative. From making the products to merchandising the wares to the battle of the sale, everything was determined by fiercely talented and independent women. I bought meters and meters of fabric to take back to Kenya to make into pillow and cushion covers for a few hotels and dhows I work with. I knew they would be completely enamored with the colors and designs. After the deal was struck, we shared a Lombok coffee and my friend and I moved on to go in search of pottery. We discovered several pottery workshops where handmade vases, candleholders and cookware were being processed. Again, the entire village was set up to produce products for the international market. We even saw hundreds of boxes destined for Pier 1 in the United States containing gorgeous human-sized outdoor vases. We wrapped up the day in Lombok with a seafood lunch on the beach in the tourist town of Senggigi.
As our time in the Gili Islands and Lombok came to an end, we tried our best to avoid the cattle car fast boat back to Bali and booked with another company promising a quicker boat and better service. Needless to say, the trip took just as long and was even hotter than the ride over. We did have actual seats this time, but the bad experience of the boat rides to and from Bali were enough to have us looking for plane tickets, helicopters or private charter boats for the next visit. Fast boat transfers were not for the faint of heart!
We returned to Villa Sedang for another week of village immersion and local activities. Once I was recovered from the Gili Islands excursion, I started designing a village tour with the Villa Sedang staff members to benefit the local community. The tour would act as an income-generator for local projects and serve as an introduction to the area for guests to the villa. Villa Sedang staff, Ari and Budi, took Jennifer and me around the village to show us potential stops. We sampled food from independent food stalls. We stopped into the community center to see a school assembly. We visited a temple dedicated to water. We witnessed the process of harvesting rice. And we visited with a local family in their home. Once we returned to the villa, we hashed out an itinerary and a plan to promote the tour to villa guests. It was important that we stressed the impact it would have on the village and the projects that would be funded through it: coral conservation, beach cleanup, and recycling. It was so fun making this idea a reality. The best part of the entire process, though, was watching Ari’s eyes light up when he realized that through running this tour, he could play a real role in bringing change to his village, his family and his neighbors.
Smiling face of one of the artisans in Lombok at the women’s weaving cooperative
With only a few days left in Indonesia, I decided to pick one more place to check out before heading to the airport. I chose Seminyak in the South. When I was researching cafes and coffee shops in Bali, the great majority of the ones on all the “must try” lists seemed to reside in Seminyak, as did the chic boutiques. As soon as we pulled into this area and drove down numerous streets lined with stores, restaurants, markets and spas, I knew I would love wandering aimlessly around the town. Hotels on the beach in Seminyak can be pricey, so I opted for a mid-range place among the hustle and bustle of the shopping area. It was great to be able to walk out of the hotel and immediately have tons to do. I ate at a colorful Vietnamese restaurant for lunch, had tasty gelato for dessert, sipped cappuccinos, and shopped until I couldn’t shop anymore. I took a short stroll on the beach, but the sand was incredibly hot and the waves were a bit too wild, so I returned to my hotel to begin finding space for all of my treasures in the limited luggage.
On the ride to the airport, I felt conflicted. I found myself not ready to leave; not ready to say goodbye to the warm embrace that had welcomed me to Villa Sedang, and Indonesia in general. I also found myself anxious to leave so that I could start planning more amazing adventures around this insanely beautiful country. Thoughts of Borneo, Java and Sumatra were in my mind as the plane took off, and I eventually fell asleep dreaming of my return.
Message greeting you at the beachside restaurant at Sunrise Resort in Gili Air
Kelly Campbell is the co-founder and partner at The Village Experience (a community-tourism organization that brings travelers and community members together to make a difference). She is passionate about connecting with communities around the world and spreading awareness about human rights issues.
Learn more about Villa Sedang on their Facebook page here.