This is the third (and final) installment of the tales of my trip to Indonesia. It’s been more than a month in the works. It’s quite long because it covers the longest portion of the trip. There are a lot of other things that have happened in the past month that I’ve been dying to write about on my blog as well, but I feel like I can’t talk about those things without getting Indonesia out of the way first, so I apologize if it feels a little rushed. Now, without further adieu: Bali.
The Blue Waters of Paradise
When the ferry landed on the far western tip of Bali, we were sort of rushed towards a parking lot where a small, shabby van and its driver were waiting for us. We had arrived at around 6pm, a time when tourists usually don’t pass through this small town. In fact, we were the only tourists around. We were skeptical about taking this small van to our next destination, Pemuteran, and the guy who arranged the van assured us that he could get us a good deal on a hotel as well. Red flags indicating some sort of scam were going up everywhere, but we didn’t really have a choice and ultimately it wasn’t that much money. We reluctantly agreed.
It was a bumpy, boring ride to Pemuteran (difficulty remembering and pronouncing the name led to several people in our group referring to the small town as “Purple Tron”). The view out the window was nice, at least. We got to look out over the mountains as the sun set. Eventually we arrived at Purp—Pemuteran, and lo and behold, the hotel we were promised was fully booked for the night. After about an hour of walking up and down the street (the town of Pemuteran basically consists of a row of hotels, restaurants, and dive shops on one single street) to find a decently priced hotel with a vacancy. Eventually we found one. It was a bit more upscale than we wanted, and they only had one room available, but it was a huge room and they had extra mattresses. By cramming all nine of us into the one room, it only cost us about $8 USD per night. Not bad.
We spent the rest of the night finding somewhere to eat and talking to every dive shop in town about going snorkeling the next morning. After a long, tedious, and annoying battle with several dive shop owners, we finally agreed on a price and were able to enjoy the rest of the night by telling jokes and goofing off at our hotel.
We woke up the next morning around 7am. We had to be at the dive shop early, so we grabbed our swim suits, lathered ourselves in sunscreen, and headed out the door. It wasn’t long before we were out at the pier hopping onto a small, wooden boat. Luxurious she was not, but at least she was seaworthy.
We were heading to Menjangan Island, a small national park located not far off the northern coast of Bali. On the ride out there we got to know our fellow snorkelers a bit better. On the boat with us was a couple from Colorado that used to live in Austin. She told me that Ubud (a city in Bali we planned to travel to later) was a lot like Austin, an interesting claim. At one point, the dive master on our boat stopped the boat in the middle of the ocean and exclaimed “alright, this is the place, hop off!” After some protest that this couldn’t be the right place, one of the guys on our boat jumped into the water. That was when the dive master shouted “Hey! I was just kidding, get back in the boat before you get left behind!” Funny guy.
It wasn’t long before we got to the island. Surrounding Menjangan are some of the best preserved and prettiest coral reefs in the area. Equipped with snorkels, dive goggles, and flippers, we hopped into the clear-blue water and hoped to be amazed. We were not disappointed.
Before this, I had never been snorkeling before. In fact, the past few months have included the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th times I’ve ever even been to the beach. I had never seen a saltwater fish in the wild before, let alone the exotic marine wildlife swimming around en masse now. And if the puffer fish, eels, clown fish (yeah, I saw Nemo), barracudas, starfish, and millions of other fish weren’t amazing enough, the coral reefs stretched for miles.
We saw more different kinds of fish and more different formations of reef than I can even begin to count. Our dive master was doing crazy and questionable things like catching puffer fish and letting us touch them. Funny little creatures. I also touched a sea anemone. Freaky. Like a million tiny hands gripping onto your fingers and then pulling away as soon as they realize you’re bigger than it is.
We dove under the reefs, we swam through the middle of formations, we saw things most people only ever see on National Geographic or the Discovery channel. Before we knew it, two hours had passed and we headed back to the boat to grab lunch. A small box set of sandwiches and rice. Not great, but not bad. We scarfed it down before the boat took us to another part of the island for more snorkeling. The second round of diving was similar to the first. We spent another two hours or so exploring the reefs and the dive master brought us to a small cave where hundreds of bats were hanging from the ceiling. Soon, we hopped back in the boat and were on our way back to the mainland.
Swimming for four hours had taken its toll on everyone, and it showed. The ride back to the pier was much quieter than the ride out. Most people were sleeping, or were at least trying to get some sleep in between the waves splashing the boat every now and then. I was sitting up on the bow of the boat, gazing at one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid my eyes upon. Spread in front of me was a vast, deep blue ocean. The bluest I’ve ever seen. On one side was an island marked with caves, small temples, and recent memories of exotic fish and coral reef. On the other side, a trio of massive volcanoes dominated the horizon. I wish I had pictures. The boat ride back to shore after snorkeling is definitely in my top five favorite experiences from the entire Indonesia trip.
Once we got back to shore we rinsed off all of the saltwater and headed back to our hotel. It wasn’t long before we all started realizing that in our rush out the door that morning, we had overlooked a vitally important fact: sunscreen is not meant to last for four straight hours in the sun. Every inch of my body was burned to a crisp. My face hurt, my arms itched, my back was screaming. It even hurt to wash my hair because my scalp was the color of a fire truck. We had unintentionally agreed to trade four hours of amazing views, wildlife, and fun for the worst sunburn I have ever had.
How Do We Get There? Hey Let’s Take This Van
Once we got back to town we set ourselves up in a small coffee shop to figure out what to do next. Pemuteran wasn’t part of the original plan at all, so we were sort of at a loss as to where to go from here. After some disagreements of where would be the best place to go next, we reluctantly decided to split up. As a group of nine people, I was surprised that this was the first time this happened. A few members of the group were heading to Lovina, another town on the north coast of Bali famous for its early morning dolphin sightings. The rest of us, myself included, decided to book it straight to Ubud, a small city in central Bali known for its culture and relaxed lifestyle.
We ended up riding in a van even worse than the last van we rode in. This one was little more than a metal shell with wheels, a motor, and a windshield. One of the bench seats was a plank of wood. At one point, Kelly asked Tin (who was sitting in the front passenger seat) to close the window because the wind was bothering her, at which point Tin announced that there was no window. The driver had a good laugh at us for that.
The drive was three terrifying hours up the side of a mountain, followed by two just-as-terrifying hours down the other side. The road was narrow, bumpy, and mostly unpaved. I’m pretty sure that at several points we were only inches from careening off the side of a cliff. Every bump we hit made it feel like the floor of the van was about to drop out, and the lack of seat belts made for a less than comfortable ride, which is why it completely baffled me that the only people awake during the ride were Judy and myself.
We really were worried that we would not make it to Ubud. Judy spent a large part of the ride scribbling in her travel journal about how we weren’t going to get there in one piece. At some point, I decided there was nothing I could do and just started laughing at the entire situation. Judy didn’t like the fact that I was smiling and laughing while she was writing her last will and testament. We had a good laugh after the ride when she read parts of her journal to me, especially the part cursing me for not being as freaked out as she was.
Eventually we did get to Ubud, though, and we got there in one piece. We headed straight to our homestay to check into our rooms. On the way here, we had called ahead to this hotel and were assured that enough rooms would be available for 130,000 rupiah (about $13 USD) each. When we got there, that was not the case. There were only two rooms left, and we were told that they would be 350,000 rupiah each. Annoying.
We negotiated a little bit. I got the price down to 200,000 rupiah per room, including breakfast. It wasn’t the 130k we had agreed on before, but it was better than 350k. The owner asked me if I wanted to see the rooms before making a final decision, and I did. I expected it to be across the street or perhaps a few buildings down the block, but as I followed him outside, he hopped onto a motorcycle and motioned for me to get on the back. So I did, and off we went speeding through the city.
Have I mentioned how dangerous driving is in Indonesia? Well as I’m sure you can imagine it doesn’t get any better when riding on a motorcycle. It’s definitely a bit more exhilarating, though.
Once we got to the rooms I found that they were definitely worth the price we were going to be paying. They were probably worth three times that, actually. They were right in the middle of one of the busiest parts of town, with restaurants, stories, and an internet café right downstairs. The owner took me back to the others and I told them that we would be stupid to not accept the offer. We all picked up our packs and started to walk back in the direction of our rooms, but the owner stopped us. He told us to hop in the back of his truck instead, and he would drive us there.
To understand what is fully going on at this point, you need to know that we are not at a hotel, and we aren’t even at a hostel. We are at a homestay. Essentially, a homestay is someone’s home that they have opened up to travelers to stay in for a small fee. In this case, Nyoman (the owner of this particular homestay) had several rooms to stay in at his actual house and had a few smaller rooms in other parts of the city. It was 11pm, and we had woken Nyoman up just to check in to our rooms. On top of that, we had just talked him down in price. He didn’t exactly have any reason to be kind to us, and yet here he was offering to take more time out of his night, away from his wife and kids, to drive us to another part of town. He’s a nice guy, to say the least.
After we stashed our stuff in our room we wanted to find something cheap to eat. Nyoman overheard us and yet again offered to drive us across town to a warung (basically a small diner) he knew of. He even offered to pick us up when we were done eating, but we politely declined and told him to go back home and enjoy the rest of his night. We were fine with walking. The food at the warung was nothing spectacular, but it was cheap and filling. We ended up back at our hotel by 2am, and were asleep not long after that.
Before going any further, I want to say to anyone that has seen the movie Eat, Pray, Love that Ubud is the city in which the Bali portion of the movie takes place. In fact, most of that part of the movie was filmed in Ubud. Parts of the city look almost exactly like portrayed in the movie, and if you want an idea of what Nyoman’s home looked like, it very closely resembles the home of the movie’s Ketut.
As a result, the city has already seen a large spike in tourism. The guidebooks even warn us that the phrase “that damn book” has become common with the locals when referring to the effect on the local area that the tourism has caused.
That Indonesian Hospitality. Oh, and Monkeys, Lots of Monkeys.
The next morning we woke up and went for breakfast. As we descended the stairs from our rooms, I glanced across the street to see none other than Nyoman sitting at a small café. He saw me come out, and with a huge grin on his face, told me he wanted to give us a ride back to his home for breakfast. From what I could tell, he had been at that café all morning waiting for us to wake up just so he could give us a lift. I like this guy.
Breakfast was simple and good. Fruit, mostly, but the coffee is what I really needed. While eating we met another traveler who lent us her guidebook and told us about some sort of festival happening in Ubud that we were just in time for. Apparently it is a festival that occurs only once every five years, and we had arrived on the exact day it was happening.
Nyoman, along with his son and daughter, used motorcycles to give all of us rides to the festival. It was a cremation festival. Essentially, the Balinese people construct these enormous statues of various animals, and leave the inside of them hollow. Inside, the remains of the deceased are placed alongside various gifts and offerings. After a lengthy celebration and ceremony, these figures are lit on fire and there is much fanfare as they burn.
Before the festival was over, the group decided to split up and head to different areas around the town. I flew solo for a little bit, but it wasn’t long before I met a traveler from Norway and we hung out for a bit. As we were walking down one of the many narrow streets of Ubud, Nyoman unexpectedly shows up on his motorcycle, telling us he had come to give us rides back to the center of town. Seriously, this guy is too good to be true.
While on the back of the bike, he told me that my “two pretty girl friends had arrived” and were waiting for me. Err, what? I was confused. “Your friends, from Canada! They are looking for you!” Oh, he means Alison and Cynthia! Right. “Very, very pretty! You are a very lucky man!”
Heh. Thanks, Nyoman.
He dropped me off at my hotel where his brother was waiting to tell me that Alison and Cynthia had just left to go walk around the city. I set off to find them, declining both Nyoman and his son’s offers to drive me around on their bikes. I walked around for about fifteen minutes, but had no luck in finding them. But as I passed by a small barber shop, a voice yelled at me from within. “Hey! You didn’t find them yet?”
Nyoman. This guy is everywhere. I told him that I hadn’t had any luck, and he again offered to drive me around on his bike. I told him that he should finish getting his hair cut, first.
“Oh yes, it’s no big deal. When I came to pick you up earlier I was in the middle of getting my hair cut but I stopped when I realized I should come get you.”
Hold up. What? What?
In case you haven’t caught on yet, I was (and still am) completely baffled at this man’s generosity. He had absolutely no reason to give us free rides anywhere, let alone any reason to interrupt his own personal life to do so. So far, he had woken up in the middle of the night to give us a cheap deal on lodging, woken up early the next morning and waited alone at a diner to give us a ride, interrupted his and his family’s work to give us rides to the festival, and had even hopped on a motorcycle with only half of his head shaven to come pick us up.
No, Nyoman, you stay here and finish your haircut. I’ll come find you if I need you. Thanks, though.
Eventually I was able to reunite with Cynthia and Alison and we set off to explore the rest of the city. First stop: the monkey forest.
I think the name “monkey forest” is a little self-explanatory, but in Ubud there is a small sanctuary of trees and temples that has been entirely overrun by a large group of monkeys. Visitors are able to walk through the forest along stone pathways, and park staff is around every at couple of turns to make sure you don’t try and harm the monkeys (or so the monkeys don’t harm you). The monkeys literally just run around everywhere. There are no cages and no designated areas for monkeys or for people. As you are walking along the path, all around you are monkeys playing, fighting, eating, and sleeping. You can walk within inches of them, play with them, and touch them (though I recommend not touching them. One of the monkeys almost ripped my hand off after I lightly grazed it.).
Monkeys are hilariously intelligent. I saw one monkey jump onto the back of an unsuspecting tourist, steal his water bottle, and then run away to try and open it. Eventually he was able to twist off the cap and was gulping down fresh water until another bigger monkey came and stole the bottle from him. Another monkey had learned that some of the humans were scared of it, and was entertaining itself by hiding behind a rock and jumping out whenever a group of tourists would walk by. I could have sworn that it was laughing every time one of the tourists flinched.
And then I had a monkey climb on me! He kind of just lounged on top of my head.
After the monkey forest, our next stop was the Ubud Market. It was basically just a bunch of small stalls of cheap, mass-produced trinkets and souvenirs where the shop owners tried desperately to convince you to buy things. I wasn’t interested in anything they were selling, but it was actually a lot of fun to haggle prices. I found that I was actually quite good at it. The trick to is act completely uninterested, and when they offer you a price (and the first few prices they give you are always around ten times the amount they will actually accept), just walk away and keep walking. Eventually you will hear “Fine, fine! 10,000!” and you’ll have yourself a deal.
They did get annoying after awhile. Some of them are very, very persistent to get you to buy their cheap little pieces of jewelry. I was grabbed on the arm and yanked backwards several times as I walked away, and I had to make it extremely clear to a few of the sellers that I was not going to give them anything and they needed to just leave me alone. But overall, it was a really cool experience.
After a few more random shops, we met up with the rest of the group at a fancy Indian restaurant for dinner. So far, I have found that the vast assortment of Indian food is my favorite cuisine in Southeast Asia. Naan, chicken tikka masala, lamb briyani, dosai… delicious.
We had a good time recounting the events of the day before we crashed for the night. On agenda for tomorrow: the beach. We were all looking forward to a few days of relaxing on the beach.
The next morning Nyoman was once again waiting to give us a ride to breakfast. I figured then was as good a time as ever to ask if he knew of the best way to get to Kuta, the main beach and resort area on Bali. He offered to drive us himself, and was willing to do it for a much lower price than I knew was the norm. I accepted and thanked him for all of his hospitality over the past couple of days, to which he responded by saying “No, don’t thank me, thank you for being so kind to me.”
What? I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand.
When it was time to leave, Nyoman’s wife handed me the bill for everything. Nothing was on it except for the agreed-upon price for the two rooms. I paid it, but not without slipping in a few extra hundred thousand rupiah for all of their trouble. They deserved it.
Much Needed Rest
We arrived in Kuta later that day and spent most of the evening exploring the relatively small area of restaurants, shops, bars, and beaches. After a quick meal, we made our way to one of the more popular clubs in the area. It was fun, but Kuta is about as touristy as anywhere can be. The only people around were tourists, mostly from Australia, and I don’t know if I saw a single local Indonesian other than the staff.
The next morning we went straight to the beach. The entire day was filled with just relaxing on the beach and playing in the waves. I rented a body board and swam out into the surf for awhile. The waves at Kuta beach were bigger than any of the waves I have ever seen, so it was a lot of fun. Tin got himself a surfboard and spent quite awhile on it. He actually got really good at it, and was out surfing some of the bigger swells by the time the sun was setting.
Ah, and by the way, the sunset on Bali is amazing.
A relaxing day on the beach is exactly what we all needed after a hectic 6 days of travel across Indonesia. I can’t think of a more perfect way to end the trip.
Our flight back to Singapore was at 6:00am the next day, which meant we needed to be at the airport even earlier. I didn’t even bother sleeping that night. We caught a ride to the airport and sleepily waited in line to check in. Many students from our university were on the same flight, so we exchanged stories from the past week. It wasn’t long before we were sleeping on the plane and then drowsily making our way through Singapore customs.
Because we have student visas in Singapore, we were able to go through the immigration line reserved for Singaporean permanent residents. As the automated immigration machines checked us in, there was a moment of strange, yet comforting relief when a message flashed across the screen in bold letters:
“Welcome home, Philip.”