Kicking Back in Bali

(184 days in)

So Pete’s being doing so well with the blog I’ve decided to give him a break and take on the Bali post myself. Hold onto your hats/grab some caffeine, it’s going to be a thrilling/tedious ride (delete as appropriate)!

At the time of writing (which is very different from the time of posting) we are camped out in our air-conditioned hotel room in Denpasar on our last night on the island.  Full disclosure: we spent most of our time in Bali taking ‘a holiday from our holiday’ (yep, I chose an easy post to write) so luckily there’s not much to wade through.

En Route Home

Having journeyed to the furthest city from London while in New Zealand, getting on the plane in Auckland marked the first leg of our (admittedly extended) journey home.  Despite being 3,600 miles closer to Big Ben, the Tube and a Wetherspoons, I knew that the next 57 days were the ones Pete was most worried about, having left the Western world (and his comfort zone) somewhat behind.  It’s also the part of the journey I’ve most been looking forward to, so we’ll see how this goes!

After (another) horrendously early start, flying to Brisbane (again) and spending more hours than I wish to think about in the care of the disappointingly basic Virgin Australia, we landed in Bali at the civilised time of 14:30.  Stepping off the plane into the tropical humidity was a stark reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, but we were safe in the knowledge that we’d splashed out on accommodation and had a relatively relaxing week ahead of us.

We breezed through passport control and were confronted with hundreds of drivers bearing hundreds of signs, each trying to identify their pick-ups.  We made one pass-by but couldn’t spot our particular driver, so decided to walk over to the carpark to see if he was waiting out there.  As soon as we left the safety of the arrivals hall and stepped into the afternoon sun we were immediately swamped with offers for taxis, with no one seemingly put off by the fact we’d declined each of their predecessors with a polite “no, thank you”.  Even Pete’s London face didn’t completely put them off, but he seemed to be doing a better job of deflecting than I, so I left him in charge of the bags while I set off in search of our driver.

Having wandered about the sweltering arrivals hall for a while I finally spotted ‘MR/MS MEGAN’ on a sign and led a very smiley gentleman over to Pete.  He whisked us to his thankfully climate-controlled car and before long we were on our way to our accommodation for the night, a four star hotel in Denpasar that we’d secured for the very reasonable rate of 476,010 Indonesian rupiah (about £27).

On the journey to the hotel I couldn’t help but smile at the change in our surroundings.  We were immediately surrounded by all sorts on mopeds, from families of four to men with entire food stalls balanced on the back, all with an extremely precise awareness of exactly how much space they had surrounding them (mere inches 80% of the time).

We blasted past beautiful Indonesian architecture and rundown shops, taking no heed of traffic signals or being cut up by other road users. After twenty minutes we arrived at the hotel, and after a cursory security check during which a guard half-heartedly looked under the car for explosives and glanced at our luggage, we arrived in the spacious reception area of the b Hotel Bali & Spa.  We forked up the £27 for our stay (plus a whole fiver for the taxi), were handed a complimentary drink and led to our flashy room overlooking the pool.

With not much to do except get over the jetlag, we spent the remainder of the day lounging in the cool, interrupted only by heading down for a buffet stir-fry and arranging a taxi to take us to our next destination the following day.

A Life of Luxury

After a buffet breakfast (Pete only managed four courses, ranging from chicken and noodles to scrambled eggs to pastries) (P: five if you count the second helping of pastries) we packed our bags in preparation for our trip to Ubud.  We’d arranged a taxi with the hotel, and were greeted at reception by the very friendly Wayan.  The first thing we learned about Wayan was that he was very chatty, regaling us with the stories behind different statues and assuring us that ‘the most important thing is that we’re happy’.  The second thing was that he drives like an absolute menace, always going at the maximum speed possible and regularly overtaking mopeds and cars alike on the JUST about two lane roads.  Luckily there was a decent amount of traffic leaving Denpasar which limited him somewhat, but as soon as the road opened up a bit he was off.

He enquired whether we wanted to visit a coffee plantation on the way, and given that we had some time to kill before check-in we (I) readily agreed.  Wayan had assured us that a taster and tour were entirely free, and then it was up to us whether we wanted to buy anything from the shop.  We were greeted by a lovely woman who gave us an extremely efficient tour of the gardens, pointing out the different plants they use to make their various coffees and teas with rapid precision.  We were also introduced to the civets – mongoose-like creatures who are famously fed coffee beans which, once ‘processed’, then form a high-end coffee.  Humans – weird, eh.

We were then sat at a table under a thatched roof and shown the list of teas and coffees we could try.  We decided on the Balinese coffee, only to be told that we could try all 14 for free!  A quarter of an hour later we had made our way down the menu, past the delightful lemongrass tea, wading through the various ginger concoctions (ew), caffeinated up to our eyeballs and sweating more than sufficiently.  A quick trip to the shop resulted in an overpriced bag of Rosella tea (“can muffled coughs, ease of urination, soften the dirt, cooling the body, antiscorbutic, antidiabetic, anti-cholesterol, anti-bacterial, prevent bone loss, reduce blood viscosity, reducing hypertension, lowering uric acid, lower blood sugar, prevent cancer, increase endurance, prevent premature aging” …and it tasted the nicest) and we made our way back to the car, dodging a surprise photo opportunity with a fruit bat and an iguana.  Thankfully Wayan was there waiting for us (just as well as we’d trustingly left everything apart from our passports in the back) and we continued on our way.

Half an hour later we arrived at what Google said was the road to our villa, although there was a concrete pile in the middle preventing car access (rightfully – we later found out that the path further down was only three feet wide in places).  After a confused phone conversation with the villa owner, Wayan explained that she was on her way and within minutes she had appeared on a scooter, loaded up my rucksack and taken off down the road.  With a shrug Pete and I followed, and found her gesturing us to seats outside a small shop.

Despite needing to pay Rp 3,500,000 (£192) for our five-night stay and the website saying otherwise, it soon transpired that there was no card machine available and we’d have to pay in cash – the nearest ATM being a five-minute scooter ride away.  Luckily for me Pete saved the day by perching himself behind a Balinese dude on the back of a moped and disappearing armed with a Revolut card (P: I tried hard to touch the man as little as possible for this short trip, but it was a small scooter and I’m not a small fellow so we got a little more intimate than I would have liked).

While I was waiting I made awkward conversation with the owner and her friends – including learning that one of her previous guests was in the ICU, apparently with severe anaemia (though I think this may have been lost in translation judging by the photos).  It was with great relief that I saw Pete reappear, alive and whole, and having counted out 35 Rp 100,000 bills we were both ushered onto the back of the scooters and whisked four hundred metres away.  This was only incredibly terrifying given the state of the path, the ditches on either side and the speed at which we were carried – so much so I forgot to pay any attention to our surroundings – but again we survived and were deposited at our villa.

Yes, we splashed out on an entire villa for five nights.  Well, I say ‘splashed out’ – the mathematically-minded among you will have already figured out that it cost us less than £40 a night.  For that bargain price we were afforded a bedroom complete with four-poster mosquito net and satellite TV, an en-suite bathroom with waterfall shower (which worked at least fifty percent of the time), a kitchen with a fridge full of beer and – most importantly – our very own pool.  Bliss.

Having calmed our heart rates from the scooter ride and cooled off in the pool for a couple of hours, it was time to source some dinner.  A ‘Mesari’ menu had been left in the villa and, having identified that this restaurant was only a couple of hundred metres away, we made our way back up the path (dodging scooters the whole while).  This gave me an opportunity to take in the surroundings I had previously missed – our villa was surrounded by rice paddies, complete with little old ladies in traditional headgear.  With the sun going down and the frogs croaking all around I could feel the residues of travelling tension leave, and we settled down in the restaurant for dinner with a view.  Given that we ordered mains, drinks and desserts and only managed to spend the equivalent of £9.45, Mesari quickly became our local.

The next couple of days were spent getting up whenever (6:30am if you’re Pete, apparently he doesn’t find sleeping through cockerels crowing particularly easy – more fool him), suncreaming up and spending a few hours reading in the pool, wandering down to Mesari for a late breakfast, heading back to the pool until the skies opened and the lightning flashed in the early afternoon and then heading out for dinner.  We did spend one night at a restaurant further up the road that had a constant happy hour (two cocktails for £4), but they were so alcoholic we only managed two each before we were in danger of falling in a ditch on our way back.  It’s a hard life.

Getting Around

After a couple of days of relaxation the guilt started to set in and we decided we needed to start seeing some of Bali, so after minimal debate we approached a local scooter hire company.  My main concern was that my stumpy legs would not be long enough to reach the ground, and given the condition of the roads and the amount of traffic I felt like being able to quickly and easily stabilise myself by putting my feet on the floor was a necessity.  As a result we only hired one scooter to begin with, so that Pete could find out whether he was confident enough to have me on the back of his.  Renting the scooter was an experience in itself – neither renter spoke English (fair enough when you’re not in an English-speaking country), and they pretty much just handed us the keys and a helmet and sent us on our way.

I’ll leave the next part of the narrative to Pete, so that you can get a first person perspective:

I’ve always wanted to learn how to ride a motorbike, and although different from the typical scooter I was about to get on I felt that this would give me adequate experience. The first thing that took me surprise was how heavy the thing was, almost pulling me straight over the top as I didn’t quite balance it. The weight also made it incredibly hard to get the kickstand under the back tyre, a feat that found me failing so hard a passing local gave me a helping hand.

Then it was time to figure how to turn the damn thing on… that took a minute or two of different key and switch combinations until it sputtered into life. I donned my helmet, straddled the seat and HOLY MOLY that acceleration was both sensitive and powerful. Annoyingly, it was easier to balance the vehicle the faster I went but I was on a path under three feet wide, with a ditch on either side and oncoming traffic, so my heart rate was climbing at this stage.

Maybe a hundred metres up the path I stopped and waited for Megan to catch me up. As I admitted to her, it was fun, albeit in a risky kind of way. We agreed that to get a proper feel for the thing I would go out onto the main road and do a short trip up to the nearby supermarket, as we were in need of supplies and cash anyway. I made it all the way to the first intersection pretty easily, taking bumps and dips in my stride. This gave me a false sense of security it seemed as I then tried to dart out into the traffic only to find myself then standing in the middle of the road with the bike horizontal between my legs. It had fallen over. Luckily with its relative short size compared to my legs (M: See?  I’d have been screwed.) I managed to avoid major injury by essentially putting my feet down and letting it drop to the ground – a slight scuff to the shin and thigh but I was good to go. Another local gentleman rushed over to my aid, picking up the bike for me and pushing it off the road before handing me back the reins.

By this point Megan had caught up to me again at the end of the road and I had to assure her that really I was fine before I was allowed to continue my journey. A little shaky but determined to get this experience under my belt I hopped back on and, now facing the right way in traffic and not trying to turn as the bike bucked beneath me, I was off. A couple of minutes later I had made it to the shops, alive and in one piece; I had managed to keep up with traffic, avoid pedestrians and even make another junction without embarrassing myself again. AND I didn’t need help putting the kickstand down this time. Magic.

I set about browsing the aisles and grabbing what we needed. By the time I had finished Megan was waiting for me back at the scooter – she had walked the whole way just to make sure that I wasn’t unconscious in the gutter somewhere, true love. Assuring her that I was still fine, despite the slight trickle of blood on my shin, I apologised for making her come all the way out here and then zoomed off back to the rental company. Confusing the gentleman by handing the key back to him a mere 45 minutes after taking it in the first place, he gave us back Rp 50,000. That was enough excitement on two wheels for me as I was definitely not confident about having a passenger.

After that semi-dangerous but relatively cheap debacle (the rental had been Rp 80,000 in the first place, and with the Rp 50,000 refund it cost us a whole £1.50), we made the executive decision to pay someone to drive us around instead.  Plenty of companies do this in Bali, and for Rp 450,000 (£25) we secured a gentleman called Kadek to be our chauffeur-cum-tour guide for the day.

I’d done some not-at-all in-depth research into what we could see around the Ubud area, and come up with a list of five sights: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, the Tegalalang rice terraces, the Gunung Kawi Sebatu temple, the Saraswati temple and the Ubud arts market.  The company also suggested that we go to the famous Holy Water temple, so this was added to the list.

I would describe our day of sight-seeing as semi-successful.  The reasons it wasn’t wholly successful were threefold:

  1. Having just visited a few ‘top things to see in Ubud’ websites, I didn’t do nearly enough research
  2. Our driver spoke a lot less English that I was expecting from a company that provides tours to English-speaking tourists (embarrassingly naïve and British of me, I know)
  3. In a bid to look like we knew what we were doing – a charade I fear did not pay off – we were reluctant to ask anyone where the hell we were in relation to what we were supposed to be seeing.

The day started off strongly with a visit to the Monkey Forest.  We were dropped off at the entrance and, having paid a whopping £4 entry fee, spent a glorious hour wandering through the rainforest and watching other tourists get mauled by monkeys (honestly, you’d think it’d be fairly obvious that if you’re holding a banana the likelihood is that a monkey is going to try and obtain it, but apparently not).  Amid the screeches of monkeys and victims alike, we took in a couple of temples and deftly avoided being jumped on by any primates (an easy feat when you’re not tempting them with food, as it transpires).

Back in the car and it was time to head up to the famous Tegalalang rice terraces.  I’d seen plenty of pictures of these on Instagram (yes, I’m a millennial), and was looking forward to experiencing the tranquillity they seemed to exude.  On the way we made a quick stop at the ‘Bali swing’ – an area where you can swing out over the rice terraces – but given the crowds we decided against having a go and so just took some snaps and were on our way.

At the Tegalalang rice terraces Kadek once again dropped us off and pointed us in the direction of the ticket booth.  At the time I didn’t question this and we coughed up the £1 ‘donation’, but in retrospect it was a silly move (which is where 1) and 3) come into play – more on that in a sec).

We followed the directions given by the man in the ticket booth and quickly found ourselves in another coffee plantation, with a ‘path’ leading down to the ‘rice terrace trek’.  Now, we hadn’t really prepared ourselves for a trek – I was thinking more of a viewpoint-type scenario – but having made the mistake of 1) we then proceeded to make the mistake of 3) and carried on down.

Now, this ‘path’ had been cut into the side of the hill and comprised two-foot steps made of mud – not ideal when we’d been receiving thunderstorms and torrential rain every afternoon.  After five minutes of struggling down, we stopped to have a look around (at this point we were essentially at the bottom of one of the rice terraces) and took note of other visitors balancing their way across a very unstable-looking wooden bridge in order to start climbing up the other side.  Given that we’d both lost a litre of fluids in sweat by this stage and hadn’t brought any water with us, we abandoned the idea of trekking up and down the terraces and made our way back up – no easy feat in the midday sun!

Feeling like we’d missed out by giving up, we returned to the car and settled ourselves in for a journey to the first temple.  As the car exited the carpark and drove further up the road, it quickly became clear that there were dozens of cafes and shops built into balconies overlooking the beautiful panorama of the rice terraces – we hadn’t needed to pay to slide down a hill to see them at all!  Bemused that Kadek had decided that this was the best option for us rather than mentioning we could have just wandered up the road, we shrugged it off as a funny mishap.  Should we have tried to learn from this mistake?  Why yes.  Yes we should.

It took us a further fifteen minutes on winding, one lane roads to reach the Gunung Kawi Sebatu temple, and once again I’ll freely admit that I should have done more research.  Kadek let us out of the car and gestured that we should walk up the road.  I was pretty excited for this visit as the photos I had seen looked stunning, and we had passed something that looked similar on the way (which should have been my first clue).  We trudged up the road casting nervous glances at the rumbling sky, and as we passed by a stall we were called to by a couple of women who explained we wouldn’t be allowed into the temple without a sarong (yes, Pete too).  This married up with what I’d read so I said we’d be happy to hire a couple for our trip, but the women were insistent that we’d have to buy them.  We apologised and started to walk away, saying that we’d hire some further up the road, at which point they rapidly changed their minds and outfitted us with a length of cloth each for our visit (it only saved us £6, but it’s the principle!).

Thanking them and swathed in sarongs we continued up the road – which was pretty much deserted – until we came across an elderly gentleman with a ticket book.  We paid the £1 entry and started down the stairs to the temple.  A couple of minutes later – both wondering if we were in the right place – we passed a sign with the correct name on, so we continued our descent.  A couple of minutes after THAT (and you walk down a lot of stairs in a couple of minutes) we came across two people paying their respects at a small shrine, which was very pretty but not particularly impressive.  We continued down – nearly at the bottom now – passing another small shrine and finally ending up at what appeared to be a dead end – one gentleman who didn’t speak English sat in a hut, and another man who had evidently found himself in Bali was getting undressed in preparation to bathe in the small stream nearby.  Thoroughly confused we watched as a family of four (who were definitely NOT wearing sarongs) started their way back up the steps, and, feeling completely idiotic and having once again made mistakes 1) and 3), we started up after them.  Ten minutes later we were at the top and trying not to have a heart attack/pass out from dehydration.

I’m still not entirely sure what went wrong.  I mean, I know what went wrong – we evidently weren’t in the right place – but I’m not sure how… did Kadek think we meant a different temple?  But then, the sign had ‘Gunung Kawi Sebatu’ on… did we miss a path at the bottom?  We had a good look round and it certainly SEEMED to be a dead-end… either way, with no internet I couldn’t check my facts and so, resigned to another semi-failure, we climbed back into the car.

Pete (with my full support) decided he was no longer in the mood for temples so we asked to forgo the Holy Water Temple and be taken straight back to the Ubud arts market.  It was exactly what I expected, and very similar to the markets I’d visited in Thailand – tonnes of stalls packed in, all selling pretty much the same wares with women trying to convince us to buy various coloured sarongs.  Given that we still have the ‘proper’ backpacking to come – i.e. where we’d actually be carrying our bags rather than keeping them in a boot of a car – I wasn’t too keen on adding to the weight and after a brief wander round, we exited the market and, after a quick look at the nearby Saraswati temple, asked Kadek to take us back to our villa.  I’ve never been happier to get in a pool.

So Here We Are

After that there wasn’t much left to do apart from repack our bags in preparation for the drive back to Denpasar.  We’d asked Wayan to take us back – which was even more terrifying than the first time as there was a lot less traffic, and I stuck my nose squarely in a book to prevent myself from squealing every time he slammed on the brakes inches from a moped.  We checked back in at the b Hotel Bali & Spa and here we are!

I’ve loved my time in Bali, and though I don’t regret treating it as a ‘holiday from our holiday’ I do want to come back and spend some time exploring the island properly.  Everyone we met was kind and as helpful as possible (with the exception of our driver Kadek), and even with the influx of tourists from the Western world it’s obvious they’ve managed to retain their culture.  Plus, I am determined to see that bloody temple one day!

Next up: Malaysian Borneo!

(Note: Writing this post took forever, and I now have a newfound respect for the effort Pete’s been putting in.)

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