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The Seven Principles of Nusa Penida: A Nomad Travel Diary Update

There is no one official boat to Nusa Penida from Nusa Lembongan, even though the guy that drove us from our hotel to the beach walked us to an office underneath a big red banner: THE OFFICIAL BOAT TO NUSA PENIDA. We bought two tickets for 60,000 Rupiah each (about $4 or R60 each), and were told to wait. The captain will only take the boat when there are enough customers. It wasn’t long before someone pointed to a little boat pulling up right next to the yellow bridge and we boarded with about 6 other people and 10 chicken pens.

I’ll start off by saying that it only took a few days for Joel to decide that he never wants to leave this island. We were initially going to stay for 3 days, but stayed for 7, because each day Joel would convince me to stay another night. He was basically working for Mr Harry, the snorkelling guy, and talked about buying land with Agus, the owner of Tentacle Bali, as he drove us to catch our boat out of there.

As Agus said to Joel: “I think you belong here, you must stay.”

So despite having our first South East Asian scooter crash on Nusa Penida (read on), we had an incredible time on this island. Our days were seemingly endless, and then all of a sudden it was over and we realised the days were too short. I was having a hard time trying to come up with a way to describe this spectacular place, so I decided to compartmentalise:

These are the 7 principles of Nusa Penida, according to our experiences.

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First Principle: BEACHES

Inspiringly beautiful beaches are the defining characteristic of Nusa Penida. Many people take day trips from Bali just to see them (which is why staying over one or two or seven days is also a good idea). So naturally at the the top of our priority list was to see all them all.

 

First was the sunset one, Crystal Bay, where the current can be a bit strong depending on the time of day, with rocks and dead coral hitting your ankles as the water pulls back to sea. But then you lift up your legs and float in the waves and the orange sunset flares up against the rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay and you forget all about the dead coral hitting you on the ankles.

Crystal Bay

 

And then there was Angel’s Billabong, which is not really a beach, but actually a tidal pool. At high tide the water crashes violently against the hewn cliffs, but at low tide you can float around in the green seaweedy pool. This is the one where lots of day trippers come for 5 minutes to take a photo on the edge before they have to leave. But for us, this was the one where I floated for what seems like forever with my ears under the waterline, drowning out all the noise.

Angel's Billabong

Just peering over the edge of Angel’s Billabong. Luckily the one and only crazy talented Moira was there to take a photo because I was far too involved.

Then there’s the one close by that looks like a T-Rex from the top. Kelingking beach. Or as we know it now, the most beautiful beach we have ever seen.

 

Then there is also Atuh Beach: the one with the really far drive. We drove almost an hour to see this beach, passing by an illegal cockfight on the way (read on!), so it was totally worth it. And the beach feels grandiose, even though it isn’t. This may have something to do with the fact that it’s encircled by towering cliffs. We floated among the starfish in what was starting to be low tide, while locals fished out on the rocks and cliffs, and an inevitable instagrammer did a yoga pose (you do you, girl). We chased this bliss with freshly grilled tuna, a beer, and, our favourite, lots of sambal (a spicy peppery Indonesian salsa). Then we experienced our first and only rain – one dark cloud moving over the beach and inland – 10 minutes of waiting under a beach umbrella and it was gone.

Atuh Beach

Second Principle: VIEWS

The second defining characteristic and principle of Nusa Penida is the views, and part and parcel with the beaches, the number one reason tourists venture out south-east of Bali. Around every turn and very bend the brightest and deepest blue stretch out into the vast open sea, or up to the south edge of Lombok, or all along the shores of Bali, which is visible most of the time. And then from Nusa Penida you also get the very best view of Bali’s biggest and baddest volcano: Mt Agung. I don’t remember the first time I saw it – it was on one of the island beaches waiting for a boat – but I was absolutely blown away. We’ve only been on Ubud and Seminyak up until this point, where the volcano lies far, far back behind other hills and mountains. So I looked back to Bali, which was covered under a blanket of clouds, and wondered which one of these mountains might be the volcano. And then I noticed that far, far, way above the other hills, peeking out just above the towering clouds: a bit of land. Mount Agung is GIANT. And a very pretty picture at sunset from Nusa Penida.

Also, you know what makes a sea view just that much better? When you can see giant manta rays from way up on the cliff.

manta ray views

Spot the mantas

Broken Beach

Views on views at Broken Beach

Third Principle: STEPS AND STEPS AND MORE STEPS (AND A TEMPLE).

Behind every gorgeous beach is a set of impossibly steep stairs.

To get to all these vistas and beaches in Nusa Penida you have to climb a million and one steps, which is why it is one of the main principles of the island. I cannot imagine a Nusa Penida without them.

Our favourite steps were definitely the steep blue stairs of Peguyangan Waterfall, which ends at the bottom of the cliff face at a temple that has been pressed up to the rock. What a spectacular and dramatic place of worship. This may or may not have been my favourite set of stairs because Joel was required to wear a traditional sarong. We had grand plans to go and find some sort of natural pool in Tempeling village, which we only knew of because I followed our taxi driver on instagram and he posted a story where he jumped into it, but we were done after 20 minutes of climbing back up the steepest stairs you can imagine. We were done and hungry, so we set off to find food, aka Mie Goreng (fried noodles).

Atuh Beach

Taking on the steps at Atuh Beach

We caught these guys in the act of carving out silly steep steps down to Diamond Beach (pictured below).

Diamond Beach

Fourth Principle: BROKEN ROADS & BROKEN BIKES

It is a huge giant irony that all the roads to these tourist destinations are very, very, horrifically terrible. Meanwhile you can take a freshly paved, super smooth road to nowhere in the middle of the island. Again, a sort of defining characteristic of Nusa Penida: the roads are bad. Everybody talks about it. Instead of small talk about the weather, it’s more in the line of ‘can you believe those roads?’ It even feels like a kind of rite of passage for adventurers. Tourists who brave them on scooters glance with contempt to tourists who paid drivers with 4X4s. We scoff at your need to comfort (though we would happily abandon our bikes if you offered a lift.)

After a day of exploring the west side of the island visiting Broken Beach, Angel’s Billabong, and Kelingking beach, my back was absolutely shot. I popped some pills and rubbed some ointments before going to bed, but still I had to sit out of a snorkelling trip the next day. Part of traveling with arthritis is knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

And then on our very last day, on a perfectly paved and flat road (oh, the irony!) on our way to drop off the bike where we rented it (oh murphy and his laws!), we totally crashed our scooter. The SE Asian scooter gods finally initiated us and now, I guess, we are true backpackers.

A very friendly (and fluently Indonesian or Balinese) Welsh guy rushed out and ushered us into his dive centre, where he tended to our light wounds and offered us water. Luckily we walked away with only some scrapes, bruises, and exhaust burns, and only about $10 of damage to the bike.

Pre-scooter crash, back when we were young and naive.

Fifth Principle: MANTAS

We met Mr Harry at out accommodation early in the morning and we followed him on our bike to the port. There was a bit of waiting and some small talk and we were shown to a small boat with a driver that speaks almost no English. After a pretty bumpy ride we pulled up next to lots of other boats just like ours, filled with tourists just like us, geared up with snorkelling masks and fins. The boats were driving around in circles, going from one rocky point to the next, where the swells seem to double in size and crash against the cliffs. We were looking for mantas. Then one appeared. Our driver yelled “Manta, go! Go go go!” while we were still figuring out which fins would fit our feet. I leaned over the edge of the boat and saw it flying right underneath us. It was gone, and Joel was already in the water, swimming like a crazy person at full blast. I finally slipped on my fins and jumped in to join the crowd, every now and then coming up to see where the shouting drivers are all pointing at. I swam in the general direction, but was at the back of the pack. And then the manta must have changed directions because all of a sudden I was at the front. I was right above it, I dipped down and I could almost touch it. I couldn’t see anyone else and I felt like I was the only one snorkelling. I came up in astonishment, strangely calm in between a frenzy of swimmers who still need to see it. I found Joel, whose mask was totally messed up. We exchanged gears and he set off in a blaze of swimming fury to see it for himself.

We have gone diving and hung out with divers enough to know that seeing giant manta rays is pretty rare. Not on Nusa Penida. Joel went snorkelling twice more after this, and got to swim with mantas three times (I sat one out because of my back).

The last time we got to meet some new Instagram friends, Alex and Lucille (WeMovedAbroad on instagram), and they got awesome footage which they just posted on youtube – check it out!

Sixth Principle: FIGHTS

Back to less ethereal moments, but, I hate to confess, one of my favourites.

We were on our way to Atuh Beach when we drove past a crowd of 80 – 100 men, standing in a circle and making a lot of noise. I saw just a flash of feathers in the shade of the bamboo lapa and knew immediately it was a cock fight. Naturally, we pulled off the road to take a peek.

I thought better just watch and not take any photos, having read that cock fighting is done somewhat clandestinely. Clearly this was off the beaten path for cock fighting authorities, whoever they may be. We were the only two white people, and I was the only woman. But it only took two minutes of reading the very clearly friendly crowd to test out taking my camera. And as I did people started nodding ‘it’s ok’ with big smiles, and later sort of cleared some way so I could see better. These guys are very proud of their cocks. (…)

It works like this: two guys will go in with the cocks and sort of psych them out to each other – pointing them to each other and stuff. Then after this…display…there’s a lot of noise and the ring leaders go around collecting bets. Then it quiets down again, a bell is rung (round one), and the cocks fight. The crowds gasps and oohs and aahs in near unison at each big move. the bell rings again (end of round), and the cocks are taken out, and bandaged up, and they take off or tighten the blades on the feet.

The reason I say this was one of my favourite moments on the island is that it gave us just a completely unguarded look at a part of the culture that people get very passionate about. I am all about tanning on beaches and sipping watermelon juice with a view, but it is a special moment as a tourist to be confronted with completely different cultures off the beaten path and be welcomed to be there in the moment. I do not believe that foreign cultures and customs are better or worse just because it’s unfamiliar to my own.

Anyways, it turns out that cockfighting is common and permitted with certain ceremonies, but totally illegal when there is gambling involved.

The Final Principle: FRIENDS

Finally, the most important principle. I can’t imagine a better way to see a sunset or explore an island on some badly maintained roads than with friends. And besides being ultra cool people, it turns out that Moira and Constant are especially useful to have as friends on Nusa Penida, because Constant is a pro biker and we got to just follow in his tracks, and Moira who is in now way Indonesian actually…speaks Indonesian. How crazy. She learnt Indonesian from an e-book before they settled in on Bali island. She’s very modest about this but it’s hella impressive.

And if there is one valuable lesson we learnt on this island: no man is an island. If you’ve read my previous updates you’ll know that I had to ship my passport to Germany from Denpasar to get a UK tourist visa. After shipping it from Ubud, we got a reply from TLScontact (the third party visa company that handles most western European schengen visas) saying that ‘THEY WILL NOT SHIP BACK MY PASSPORT.’

HA.

Wait, what.

So it is only after Antonia so graciously agreed to take a power of attorney to our storage space and rummaging through all our shit and finding the original document that is needed for pick up and sending this to another friend in Berlin. All the while she actually had to get ready to go to a trade show in Paris the next day.

Then our other friend Hagen, who is quite possibly the busiest person in the Berlin tech space, actually agreed to pick up my passport from the damned TLScontact and ship it back to Denpasar. It is because of friends like these that I will not be stuck in Indonesia forever. I picked up my passport today and I am the happiest girl in the world (with a brand spanking new visa!)

 

And these are the Seven Principles of Nusa Penida. Lest we forget.

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Bright Blue Nusa Lembongan: A Nomad Travel Diary Update

I initially downloaded the Indonesia Meteorological and Climatological app to keep an eye on Tsunami warnings. But a few days before our boat trip to Nusa Lembongan, the island next-door to Bali, I was borderline obsessed with checking the Bali strait swell forecast. After a particularly rough crossing to Cozumel on our honeymoon, we have some light ferry trauma. And the stretch of sea in between Bali and Nusa Lembongan was marked bright red, labeled ‘rough’, with 1 – 4 meter swells. Great.

So two hours after I made us drink what I only later realised was drowsy motion sickness meds (sorry for drugging you, Joel!), we waded into the water and heaved our backpacks onto our fast boat to Nusa Lembongan. A quick thirty minutes of motion-sickness hell and it’ll be over, we figured. Five or six songs max, or half a podcast.

In the end it was totally fine. I got used to the boat slamming after the swells, which weren’t so bad anyways. That’s the secret, I guess: Expect worse, you’ll love it!

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(So if you’re thinking of taking a ferry to Nusa Lembongan from Bali, take the not-so-strategically-named Rocky Fast Cruise boat. It’s better than the name implies.)

Where Bali is overwhelmingly green, Nusa Lembongan is blue blue electric blue. After we checked in to our island hut, we walked over to the Devil’s Tears point (‘tears’ as in sad tears or tears as in a tear in a cliff, I am still not sure), hitting it right at sunset. And here Nusa Lembongan made a startlingly strong impression. Giant waves, pulsing blue even in the fading daylight, crashed up onto the rocky coves, spraying huge clouds of mist into the air. Droplets of sea catching some sun and being tossed aside in the wind. It’s beautiful but alarmingly treacherous-looking. It’s clear why this is the devil’s place (whether he’s being sad or aggressive…who knows).

After dreaming of giant swells and crashing waves (and also passports and visas), I was excited waking up the next morning to see the sights, and more of that blue we had a glimpse of at sunset. We set off on our new scooter with a bit more trepidation than before – the roads coming in on the truck taxi were questionable: tar roads suddenly giving way to bumpy sandy rocky stretches; potholes here and there; quite a few steep slopes. We were off to Nusa Ceningan, yet another island, except this time we could just drive from one island to the next (PTL), over an iconic bright suspension bridge.

Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, and, spoiler alert, it was BLUE. As in the bluest shades of blue you could imagine. Intense, deep dark blue. Electric neon cyan. Soft milky baby blues. All these blues swirling and frothing and crashing into another stunning cove. You haven’t seen blue until you’ve been to the Blue Lagoon. And watching all these blues ebb and flow made us pretty tired so we rewarded ourselves with some blue-themed lounging at Secret Beach.

And then when it’s not blue, it gets green and dark and whisper-tone quiet back in the mangrove forest where we kayaked around in between large and lazy iguanas.

Lembongan and Ceningan are our first tastes of the ocean on this 5-month journey that should be packed with more ocean hues. It gave us the entire range as a taster to come. Every shade of blue and green; giant waves crashing against water hewn cliffs, to lounging in wooden docked boats rocking gently in two feet of lapping crystal clear bays at high tide between the two islands.

It was only a moment and then it was over – we were waiting around the ‘office’ of the ‘official boat to Nusa Penida’ with our backpacks to continue our trek. We paid 60,000 Rupiah each (about $4), waited until there were enough customers, and hopped on a tiny boat with about 6 other people to make the crossing to Nusa Penida.

Another day, another island.

 

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Nomad Travel Diary: Ubud, Bali

I was skeptical when our Airbnb host told us to meet her at the big Bintang Supermarket in Ubud before check in. I wanted a quiet, peaceful, typical Ubud experience. Something quasi-spiritual. I didn’t want to stay behind a giant supermarket on a busy main road.

Tria, our host, is a friendly, likeable person who struck up conversation easily. She walked us out of the market’s parking lot, asking as she walked, “do you ride scooter?”

Joel immediately: “Yes, can you help us get one?” 

“Oh yes. This one is mine,” she pointed as we approached. “You can use it,” she said and handed us the key. Done. Okay, we have a scooter now.

We entered a little alleyway right next to the supermarket and it wasn’t long before the sounds of cars and scooters whizzing by faded into the background and then gave way to the buzzing of cicadas and locals singing songs in their courtyards. Tria led us through this urban jungle-scape maze. “A bit like a labyrinth here,” she said. We turned left and right and right and left and then I lost track, looking for visual cues instead. We passed the scents of burning incense and cats peering precariously, butterflies flitting over our heads and small snippets of neighbourhood rice terraces, offerings with flowers and sweets and cigarettes perched on every stone deity and placed at each corner, the occasional used coconut shell or rubbish dump in between. It is like the quiet jungle version of a middle eastern medina. A maze giving way to scents and sights here and there.

Tria unlocked the door, and to my relief, the house was even better than in the pictures on Airbnb, and Tria’s dad gave us the best welcome drink a weary traveler could ask for: a giant coconut with a seemingly bottomless pit filled with fresh coconut water. We jumped in the pool immediately.

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I was so overwhelmed by this quiet beauty that I almost immediately succumbed to a sort of anxiety to see and do everything there is to see and do in Ubud. I wanted to feel with immediate clarity that I was definitely in Ubud. I wanted to live the Ubud life – be still and zen – but I wanted to see everything at once. It took about two days of me kicking Joel out of bed early to snap out of it.

Our first petrol stop in our new whip. If there’s one thing that’ll get Joel out of bed it’s the idea of whipping around an island on a scooter.

And then just as I would settle into the peace that I craved for this leg of our journey, the underworld god of the visa realm would rear its head and unsettle our peace. I had applied for a UK visa in Germany, but it wasn’t processed in time, so we ended up shipping my passport to Berlin from Ubud. And then, as it arrived  it turned out that they (third party visa company) won’t ship it back. And of course organising what seems like two simple sentences means one mealy email a day that starts with “dear valued applicant” and ends with no other way to reach them.

Eventually I managed to not think about it when I wasn’t thinking about it. But it’s not the best feeling being in Indonesia when your passport is somewhere else, especially with the recent earthquakes and volcano eruptions.

Then again, there are worst places to be stuck in the world than Bali. Ubud is unlike any other place we have been to yet. The jungles, the rice fields, the temples, the waterfalls, all of it. I have to admit, it lives up to its reputation. And, as its reputation divulges, it’s a place where tourist and expats abound. As much as we loved Ubud, we hated driving through downtown. Besides the traffic, it’s the Billabong and Ripcurl stores, and, wait for it, giant Starbucks that really irk us. The only time worth driving through downtown Ubud is before sunrise, when the streets are clear of taxis and motorcycles, but packed with locals selling fruit, vegetables, and chickens and things. And, while I am on the topic of sunrise, very importantly, if you have any intention of seeing the Tegellalang rice paddies as you see them on Instagram and elsewhere, you need to get there before sunrise. We did, and it was a beautifully serene, and brilliantly green and gold experience. There were only a handful of other people on site – a couple on a shoot, one very dedicated instagrammer and her instagram bf, and two or three regular backpackers. We’ve heard that not only does it get packed with tourists, hawkers and shopkeepers are especially aggressive in this neck of the rice fields. And today, in Nusa Penida, we heard that a fellow traveler’s least favourite village visited in Bali was Ubud. A shock to the system.

It’s a precarious balance one needs to navigate when visiting Bali. One of the reasons places are nice to visit is because they cater for tourists – there’s a solid infrastructure to make you feel comfortable. Safe roads, medical products you’re used to and actual medical doctors (instead of natural healers), coffee shops with wifi for when you desperately need to say hi to your mom (or the visa office), burgers and pizza when you’re tired of noodles and rice. But this infrastructure can disappoint you – can make you say “it’s too touristic.” I am not a fan of tourists who complain of ‘tourism.’ Is it just me or is it very hypocritical to be frustrated when you come to the realisation that other people love to travel and see the iconic sites too? (Get up earlier and stop asking people to move out of your photo plz).

But then again, we got lucky with Tria’s Airbnb. I didn’t know anything about Ubud and its downtown and the lay of the land. I just booked a good-looking airbnb with some nice reviews. The Ubud we know is a mecca of jungle villas and backyard rice fields, snuggling cats and tropical fruits, wafting incense and friendly local faces, poolside sun and rainy afternoon naps, and a little bit of river rafting adventure with friends in between.

You can find the famed airbnb here, and use this discount if you’re new to the airbnb scene.

 

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The last few weeks in Berlin has been a wild whirlwind of hosting family and friends, selling whatever we were able to sell, cleaning out closets, packing up and, finally, moving out. Without moving in anywhere else. This was a peculiar feeling. It is August now and the prospect of our next home, or rather base, will be in January in another hemisphere. Instead of moving in anywhere else, we each packed a backpack and boarded a 14-hour flight to Singapore.

Though, not before I had a small meltdown the day before, jumped on my bike, and bought a bigger backpack. Great start. (In my defence, I was trying to squeeze a three-month trip into a 20L fjallraven day backpack.)

I don’t personally, in real life, know another couple who has traveled like we have the past 3 years. We have seen and experienced a lot in an appropriately short amount of time. Traveling has become our priority – our passion and obsession. Living like this, however, inevitably means sacrifice otherwise: we don’t have many, or nice, things; we miss out on deep connections in a local community; we are often unavailable to the friends we have; and, sadly, the benefits of having pets don’t actually outweigh those of seeing the world. We’ve spent every second weekend in a different country, a week here, two weeks there. In one especially blurry week this year I checked in to California, Cape Town, Berlin, and Moscow.

And then I decided on doing my PhD in Cape Town and Joel quit his job, and we decided – why the hell not. Let’s be those people without a home. Let’s just travel without any notion of ‘returning’ anywhere for the next 5 months. That’s right. We are going full throttle with two backpacks.

So, because this feels like a special a time in our lives we will probably never have again, I am switching it up here on our blog. I will write short, more personal, updates on each instalment of our home-less journey. To share with friends and family. But mostly to remember. Because like every traveler we see so much more than we can remember and we remember so much more than we have seen.

Some corny quote I saw somewhere. Most likely Instagram.

 

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SINGAPORE

So fast forward a long flight (+- 13 hours) in an enormous plane later and we disembarked in Singapore. Perfectly timed for dinner. We’ve heard so much about the street food in this city that we immediately headed to the nearest food market to pick up some signature satay.

It might have something to do with the fact that our hotel was right in Little India, but it became clear quite quickly that Singapore does not let itself be defined easily. It is a central hub with all different kinds of people making their homes in Asia’s smallest country, bringing with them all of their cultures, customs, and cuisines, but also keeping to the set of rules that makes this big city so available to everyone. Strolling through Little India, or China Town, or the Arab Quarter, you might easily assume you’re in another shabby Asian downtown, with locals navigating complex individualities in a sort of laissez-faire system where a moral code of conduct supercede practicalities. Except then you realise there is almost no garbage in the gutters, no stray dogs or cats vying for attention and fighting for food, the tap water is entirely drinkable, everybody speaks English, and nobody will cross the road until the traffic lights permit them to do so (my greatest annoyance anywhere in the world) – and we’ve never experienced pedestrian traffic lights that stay red for this long. The taxi driver who picked us up from the airport actually joked and said, “Singapore is called the fare city. You drop a plastic bag, you’ll get fined. You drop a cigarette, you’ll get fined. There are fines for everything.”

These ‘Asian quarters’ intersecting so awkwardly with the skyscraper city actually reminded me of a sort of liveable Dubai. A sort of casino-type las vegas city, except with the possibility of an outdoors life and lots of things to do. And exceedingly well set up for families. I wasn’t shocked to learn later that the city’s rapid expansion in the last 15 years was actually based on Dubai.

I was at once surprised and not at all surprised at how green Singapore is. On our first morning we headed to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to check out something called a treetop walk. The density and humidity of the forest made complete sense as we stepped into the reserve even when I did not associate this with a potential Singapore visit. This walk (we found out only as we started) is at its shortest about 7kms. It takes you through the reserve on raised boardwalks over ravines and rivers, with butterflies fluttering over your head and monkeys sometimes blocking your way. We hopped over the 250m-long, 25m-high suspension bridge like pros, mostly because we survived the world’s longest suspension bridge at the ungodly height of 113 meters in Austria some two weeks before.

It was a green day with a lot of walking (20,000+ steps).

The Cloud Forest was absolutely incredible. I was nervous about this one. Nervous that I had ruined it for myself by looking at so many pretty pictures of it on Instagram. But it blew me away. We stood in the mist of the 35-meter indoor waterfall and stared with gaping jaws at this manufactured paradise. It’s absolutely surreal. And absolutely…scary…that something man-made like this can be so incomparably beautiful.

And the Super Tree Grove did not disappoint either, despite having to watch the sunset in a long line as we waited to get up to the sky walk. The first daily Garden Rhapsody (light and sound show) started as we still gaped up from the long queue. But we made it up there just in time for the final hurrah. When the music is booming and the lights are flashing, and you can see the city lights and the giant ferris wheel and the sky scrapers from all the way up there, it is suddenly the Singapore I imagined it would be.

People laying down to watch the Garden Rhapsody above

It is always a good day when we get to meet up with old or new friends. We met Piruze over four years ago at a wedding in Tel Aviv and we knew right off the bat that she is a badass lady. The bride and groom actually organised an epic Israeli road trip with whoever wanted to go instead of a honeymoon (so great), and Piruze was one of the 40 or so guests who we got to know over campfires, desert views, and dead sea floating. We didn’t ever get to hang out again, but she did point us to an excellent hospital in Istanbul when I contracted pneumonia, and she works in the same sector as Joel. That is until now! We met up with Piruze and her husband Andreas for the famous Hainanese chicken rice that everybody raved about and reacquainted while we slurped noodles and sipped Tiger beers on the sidewalk. Meeting up with people is not only what makes travel special – it is the lifeblood that keeps any traveler going. Connection on the road – forging new and old bonds like little roots all over the world. Little shining stars of familiarity and warmth to take care of you for a second before you fly away again.

“It is always worth it to meet up with people.”

J. Bronkowski

 

Singapore.

You were unexpected and cool and unpretentious and crazy and easy and abundantly green and beautifully manufactured and very well balanced all at once.

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Picture sparkling blue lakes surrounded by rising fjords, lined with the ancient walls of medieval castle ruins. Imagine not far from these fairytale inland scapes, a glittering and transparent azure coast, lapping onto white sandy beaches forming bays below the cliffs, kissed by the sun. Think about the smell of freshly caught and grilled prawns, octopus, fish steaks; the sound of ices cubes gently patting the sides of your glass of chilled white wine or an afternoon Spritz. That is not Bosnia. We had just spent  three nights in the charming old city of Kotor, surrounded by the stunning, surreal landscape of Montenegro. But the time has come to pack our bags, check out, and – against all our inner voices pleading us not to – leave this incredible mediterranean jewel behind. All for…Bosnia.

Bosnia? Hmkaayyyyy…interesting choice?, I hear you say-ask.

(If you’ve already decided you’re going – YAY – stay tuned for some useful tips at the end.)

In that moment, leaving behind one of the most beautiful and peaceful corners of the world that is Kotor, Montenegro (and just in time, as a cruise ship the size of the old city docked the morning we left). We weren’t actually sure why we were going to Bosnia in that moment. We had so much fun in Montenegro, we had forgotten all about the past versions of ourselves who somehow had some interest in Bosnia.

Mostar, Bosnia. It's even prettier than the pictures.

And the reason we actually planned this little Bosnia-detour is not very inspiring either. On a previous trip to Croatia, we saw a shabby advertisement outside of a sleepy tourist office in Cavtat. It read ‘day trip to Mostar’ – with a picture of an idyllic old bridge spanning a beautiful emerald river. ‘Woah, where is Mostar?’

‘Bosnia?!’ one of us exclaimed with Google Maps pulled up.

We briefly considered it, decided we’ll go and try to cross the border (I didn’t have a visa and I needed one, supposedly), but then we got distracted by all the Croatian wine and ended up somewhere in between wine lands and oyster bays. Oh well.

We’ll make a mental note of Bosnia & Herzegovina for next time.

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Pin to pinterest! Bosnia: the most underrated destination ever.

 

Instagram has changed us. I mean all of us.

Gone are the days when we paged through books without pictures to plan routes on paper. Heck, we all travel so much that none of us have time or space for libraries filled with Lonely Planet encyclopaedias. And the planet doesn’t feel so lonely anymore.

Instead we get inspired on Instagram: drone footage of turquoise waters and sprawling forests (should we get a drone?). Tents with fresh morning coffee on a Norwegian cliff somewhere (I could rough it in a suspended sleeping bag thing!…?). A pretty tanned girl candidly staring somewhere just outside of the picture frame, which is framing something like a palm tree bending over a Balinese beach, or that infinity pool. Maybe I could be her?

Anyways, we click the geotag, or we swipe up. We want to go where everyone else has been (and also pretend like we’re the only ones there).

And, most of the time, I like being swept away to these foreign places where I haven’t been or even the foreign places where I have. But let’s face it: Instagram favours the strong. In more ways than one. Bali, Paris, Venice, Morocco, the Amalfi coast or Cinque Terre, Iceland – yes.

Malawi, Mozambique, Romania, Cambodia outside of Siem Reap, Andaman and Nicobar islands? Not so much.

I mean, it’s just trends. I get it.

But Bosnia & Herzegovina is just not a country that is likely going to show up in your Instagram feed. 

 

Planning to go to an underrated, or un-rated, places are fun. You get to scour two or three blog posts for every inch of information you can find, you can plan routes that haven’t been planned before, and then you see it all for the first time when you get there.

 

Skip to seeing ‘it’ the first time:

We made a painless border crossing from Montenegro and made our first stop in Stolac, a small town built around a creek with trees planted along it and ducks paddling by. And then, while some parts of the town was pretty (and bare in mind we spent a whole of 10 minutes here), what really caught our eyes was the debris of the ruins of abandoned buildings and shelled apartment blocks. And it’s right there in town, next to the pizza place or opposite the café.

I never know about the Bosnian war. I was born in 91, and it wasn’t part of the history curriculum in South Africa. All I read while researching our trip, was war-torn Mostar this, and war-torn Sarajevo that, but not really much beyond it. But it was startling to see a place who that has recovered from war still living with the debris of it in such an unceremonious way, so matter of factly. I say ‘still,’ but Bosnia has lived in peace for only about two decades – land mines still litter much of the countryside. As a South African who grew up in the wake of apartheid, I know two decades are but a breath, just a moment. But as a foreigner without any knowledge of the history or links to local identities, two decades can be made to feel like a completely different time and place.

We stayed all of 10 minutes in Stolac. We were looking for lunch, and found nothing – just some dark bars and a pizza place that only serves food at 4pm even though it’s open at lunch time.

The ruins of the Bosnian war in Mostar

Ruins from the Bosnian war on the banks of the river in Mostar.

We finally arrived in Mostar, and we were hungry, or should I say hangry, having been disappointed food-wise by Stolac. So we checked in to our perfect little room by the bridge and on the river (more on this later), and headed to the nearest restaurant (next door).

And here we made an important discovery: Bosnian food is INCREDIBLE.

We did NOT see this coming.

I remember sinking my teeth into a grilled lamb chop and it tasted like home. It was (almost) as good as a piece of meat home grilled over the hot coals in South Africa (the famous South African braai). And then eating some grilled Cevapi kebabs that tasted like meat from the other place that have made me felt at home – Turkey. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, paprika and some of the tastiest meat I’ve ever had (and clearly I’m a meat buff). Bosnian food is off the charts.

And on the charts – it definitely makes our list of top 5 European countries in terms of food.

The picture perfect setting of Restaurant Hindin Han in Mostar

The picture perfect setting of Restaurant Hindin Han in Mostar

Bosnian food will blow you away!

Bosnian food = Euphoria

 

So then we were fed and the hunger veil slipped from our eyes, and we were able to take in the quaint little place they called Mostar. Up until this point all we’ve seen of Mostar was that one picture of the bridge (you best believe I’m including all our own versions of it here), and pretty bad exterior shots of hotels on booking.com. So – I knew we were gonna see a pretty bridge. But we had no idea how beautiful the medieval old town surrounding it would be, and how huge that pretty little bridge actually is!

It’s 30 meters long, and almost 25 meters high, and it is very important. Mostar is named after the Old Bridge (Stari Most), which was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and which stood for almost 430 years before being destroyed by the Croat army during the war.

Mostar, Bosnia.

The view from the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia.

Mostar had been a battle ground during the war, even though no one knew about it because the news centred around the battle in Sarajevo. Then the croats targeted it, and more than 60 shells brought it down. The reason the outside world even took notice of the Mostar battle is because someone caught it on camera, and the film was released by new agencies.

It turns out that the guy who filmed it is the owner of the place we stayed at. He traveled underground with the tape to get out of Mostar, then rode across the country on horseback to Sarajevo, in order to get the footage out to the world. That is some badass bravery right there.

And we stayed in his house.

 

The bridge was rebuilt and reopened 11 years later, and most of the town was rebuilt too, though some battle scars mark the memories of not long ago. These pieces of ruin (and, I’ll admit, some plastic trash – the old town isn’t perfect) stick out between the cobblestoned streets, the Turkish taverns, minaret spires (did you know Bosnia is 50% Muslim?) the stone bridges, rushing water the colour of precious gems, all built up the feet of the mountainous valley.

Mostar is a remarkable city.

Mostar, Bosnia

Old town of Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

An easy 16-minute drive from Mostar is the medieval village of Blagaj. It feeds from the brilliantly emerald water of the Buna river and if you follow its stream you’ll find the Dervish monastery hugging the cliff, with it’s wooden balcony hanging over the crystal liquid.

It is beautiful and brief.

A 20-minute visit, a moment’s detour.

A small house for the modest Dervish cult, pressed up against the orange rock, which towers over that bubbling green.

Underrated, in a word.

The Dervish monastery in Blagaj, Bosnia.

 

Drive a beautiful snaking hour’s drive from the village of Blagaj, and you’ll be hearing the drone of Kravica Falls, just a stone’s throw away from the Croatia-Bosnia border. These falls sneak up on you, tucked down in the valley, showing itself right at the very end. It opens up in a small horseshoe and douses you with its spray. It’s not very big, but it’s very confident.

It was very, very wet when we visited the Balkans. The rivers were full up or flooded (almost half of Plitvice Lakes National Park was closed due to flooding), and Kravica was no different. The water was rushing through with definitive intent, but when it isn’t – in the summer months – the falls are open for business. Literally – entrance fee is 2EUR or something similarly little and you can swim and dip under the falls and let the long summer day go by. It’s free in winter. (Or it was for us).

Kravica falls was our last stop before crossing back over into familiar blogged-about, instagrammed Croatia, and it felt like we were leaving behind a secret.

Kravice falls in Bosnia

So, what is the most underrated place we’ve ever been to?

Definitely, for sure, 100% Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Blagaj, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Kravice Falls, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Blagaj, Bosnia & Herzegovina

TIPS & TRICKS: THE USEFUL STUFF

SLEEP OVER IN MOSTAR

As per the origin of our knowledge of Mostar: it’s in a day trip itinerary from Dubrovnik. But if at all possible, sleep over in Mostar. We did, and, like any day trip destination, it’s amazing when the day trippers clear out. The old town becomes at once cozier and roomier. And getting up early to see a new place before it has waken itself up yet, is like another way of looking.

 

WHERE TO SLEEP OVER?

We found Pansion Villa Cardak on booking.com and it was perfect. The room is large and beautiful, the bathroom was large and clean, it is just a couple of steps from the river in front of the Old Bridge, right next to some great restaurants, and owned basically by regular Bosnian war heroes (read above).

It’s squeezed right in there on the river bank, with a little balcony to peruse the goings-on. When the thunderstorms lit up and doused the little city clean that night, we happily took it all in from the comfort of our balcony. 

It’s got free parking, but it’s tight. Luckily the owners are awesome and will kindly pull in your car from the main road and expertly park it in the tiny little side street.

Book a room here.

 

WHERE TO EAT IN MOSTAR?

Restaurant Hindin Han is where we were served that most amazing meat described above. It is right next to the river, and if you go downstairs there are tables on a little overhanging balcony.

 

KRAVICA FALLS

If you’re going when it’s warm, just remember to take your swim stuff, because I think it would be amazing to take a dip there,  or rent some kayaks. You may or may not be charged a minimal entrance fee.

Kravice Falls, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Kravice Falls, Bosnia & Herzegovina

CROSSING THE BORDERS

Crossing the Bosnian-Montenegrin and Bosnian-Croat borders were quick and painless. The longest wait we had was probably 15 minutes. When you get to the front it’s a quick look in the passport and another stamp for your records – woohoo!

 

WAIT, WHERE IS EVERYTHING?

Google maps really struggled in Bosnia. It will show you the preview for your route, but you won’t actually be able to press ‘go’. I am uncertain wether it was because of poor coverage or of it’s one of those places where it’s disabled, but I would suggest downloading maps.me. It saved us many a time, despite Joel’s skepticism. And it works offline once you have the area downloaded.

 

NOT TRIED AND TESTED

Una National Park sits against the Bosnian border between Spilt and Zagreb. We had to choose between a coastal Croatian drive and an inland Bosnian drive, so we went with the coast, but man I really wanted to go to this place! I fell in a youtube wormhole watching river rafting videos one dark winter afternoon, and it looked amazing. So please go and let me know how it is!

PIN FOR LATER

Take it to pinterest! Bosnia & Herzegovina is the most underrated destination ever.

 

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