Island-hopping: life in the slow and fast boat

Most travelers consider sea travel as a last resort due to time and convenience factors,  but if you opt for it (and have too much free time like me), you’ll see a unique side of island hopping that planes miss. And depending where, you could go it by slow boat or speed boat. Two recent boat trips illustrated how Asia’s archipelago neighbors — the Philippines and Indonesia — are different, for better and for worse.

Before I few from Manila to Bali via a transfer in Singapore, I spent 15 hours on a slow 2GO car ferry, packed with mostly Filipino passengers. Two days later, I was on my next boat — a 30-min speedy, yet bumpy affair that landed me on Nusa Lembongan, one of 14,000-plus islands in Indonesia. The contrasting trips were enlightening.

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Due to the Philippines’ limited infrastructure (and my lack of planning), my time there can be summed up by slow, tedious travel interspersed with moments of excitement and adventure. To my surprise, the 2GO ferry had a karaoke stage complete with a bar so entertainment to pass the time wasn’t a problem. I drank and shared travel stories with some fellow backpackers, ended up being the first passenger to sing (I can’t resist Bon Jovi), and was invited to join a Filipino group before I fell asleep on a bunk bed (not my assigned bed, but it was the first available one I saw). A jeepney and a taxi ride later put me at the airport to wait for Indonesia.

On the other hand, Bali — what most tropical tourist islands strive to copy because of its immense popularity — doesn’t lack tourist services (or touts). As soon as I got off the plane at Bali’s recently expanded Denpasar Airport, I was hounded by taxi drivers trying to charge me double. You can avoid this by turning right when you exit the terminal, and going to the taxi ticket office that has set prices. Soon I was whisked away by taxi (100,000 Indonesian Rupiah) to Sanur, the oldest tourist resort area in Bali. I chose Sanur because it’s a short boat ride away from Nusa Lembongan, which boasts good waves for surfers as well as crystal clear water for divers. (It was recommended to me by a Canadian couple in Puerto Galera.)

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The driver dropped me off at Café Locca, which offers comfortable dorm beds for 90K, a short walk from the beach. Sanur is highly developed, and mostly caters to the older, middle-aged crowd, with pricey resorts, yet you can find warungs (local restaurants) that offer cheap, delicious meals everywhere. Try the Gado Gado (mixed vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce) and Mie Goreng (spicy noodles with vegetables). Although be careful with the Indonesian hot pepper sauce — it packs a punch! Despite the high number of souvenir shops, tour agencies, and money changers ($1=13,500IR), there weren’t many tourists to spoil the beachfront so I had a quiet, relaxing experience. I wrapped up the evening at Linga-Longa Bar, where I listened to an amusing local cover band, playing rock music requests from the Bintang (Indonesia’s beer of choice) drinkers.

The next morning I watched as a local woman placed an offering of food and incense on the street in front of the warung I was drinking Bali coffee at. Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but Bali is mostly Hindu so the daily religious offerings are a common sight. The traditional practice lends to the exotic allure that gives Bali its nickname: Island of the Gods. I didn’t find the same magic in the Philippines. Perhaps its due to my Western bias, but Filipino churches, found throughout the Roman Catholic country, didn’t have the same power over me.

The Philippines has its fair share of incredible sights, but it’s tough to beat the majestic view of Mount Agung, an active volcano, as I was speeding from Sanur to Lembongan. Which archipelago is better? Too soon to say. Which mode of transport is better? Both slow and fast travel have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, you could get the same incredible view from the public slow boat for a fraction of the price.