Friday, June 08, 2007

The World's Best Island

Touching down in Bali I feel excited. After several months of "easy" travel - NZ, Japan etc, this is back to backpacking and roughing it! Luckily I have a few dollars handy, as the visa costs $25, something I wasn't expecting. And another full page gone in the passport, nasty! I know China and India will both be full page visas, plus some have said Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar) too, and I'm a fair way through the passport.

Out and there's the usual thronging crowd of touts, which I battle through and rush round to the departures area, which of course is nice and peaceful - I want to change my flight times for my later RTW ticket flights. Cathay office is shut (well, two girls are sitting there behind the desk but they've flipped the closed sign - then one comes out to me and spends more time writing down the Cathay contact phone number than it would have taken to change my flight - bad marks for Cathay). It's Saturday and most offices are apparently only open in the morning. Never mind, no hurry. I ask the girl how much a taxi should cost to Ubud, useful ammo for later. Out again, it's damn hot, over 30C, and very very humid, even though it's overcast. I don't enjoy carrying all my gear in this sort of heat.

So, time to get a cab. [Sigh of resignation]. Just then, a foreign couple get dropped off at departures, the driver looks friendly so I ask him if he'll take me. He will, get in quickly, he asks as he waves his hand from my luggage to his boot, as he's not supposed to pick up people here. How much, I ask? Get in first, we'll discuss on the way, quickly now! Haha, I like it, I've missed this sort of banter, none of this in Japan!! No way do I get in without a price, how much? I propose 10UKP. No way, he says, he says no less than sixteen, and get in quick, he's going to get into trouble. Twelve, I say, then I'll get in. We settle on 12UKP (200,000 rupias - N.B. what a great exchange rate I will suffer for the next three weeks - 1 UK Pound to circa 17,500 Indonesian Rupias!). It's a 45 - 60 minute drive or so north and inland to Ubud (pronounced Oooboood), which is the part of Bali I've chosen to visit first.

Just to explain the geography slightly - Bali is a small island just to the east of Java, which is the island with Jakarta, the capital, which itself is east of the bigger Sumatra - the one that was hit so badly by the tsunami. Bali's relatively small - one could drive around the coast of the whole island in one long day, with a landmass of about 5600sq km, and population of three million people. Denpasar is the airport, in the south, and very close by are the famous bits of Bali, the hedonistic beach resorts of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Sanur. I've missed these out completely, and headed north to Ubud, which is the artistic and cultural capital of the island.

The place feels much like Malaysia, especially say, the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia: the language is similar, food the same (though without the Chinese and Indian influences), people whizzing round on motorbikes, everything fairly chaotic and dirty but working nonetheless. There are some pretty exclusive resorts and expensive places, but one can also save lots of money by going with the locals, staying in guest houses and eating at "warungs", the small roadside cafés that most Indonesians eat at. In fact café is perhaps overstating it - many are just a person crouching over a small stove. In general though I'm always slightly wary of anywhere producing food without running water available.

The taxi driver, Anush, is a Hindu, and explains that most Balinese are too, unlike Java or Sumatra where it's more Muslim. Interestingly they blend Hinduism with animism, and although they have the cast system, they don't have an "untouchable" cast, and 90% of people belong to the common Sudra cast - the main significance of this only really being in religious ceremonies and festivals.

An oasis of calm, Sayong House

So my plan, being made up on the fly, is to stay at Sayong House, which has 7 "bungalows", and is tucked away at the end of (as LP puts it) the "deliciously quiet" Jalan Maruti (Jalan means road, though this one is being dug up at the moment and is little more than a dirt track). I'm paying 90,000r (about 5UKP) per night for a room with a queen and a king bed, an en-suite bathroom with hot water (in this heat, cold showers are not so much of a problem), and a little table with chairs outside on a small terrace area.

My little terrace area

Across the lane is the very private swimming pool, which is a real bonus. They guys running the place, Karma and Made, seem really friendly, and the guestbook is full of people making comments about repeat visits, or extending stays. I can imagine myself doing the same.

Cool and refreshing

Incidentally, for those of you who have never really been to Asia, the idea of a cold shower may seem mad. This is because you're imagining water of the temperature that comes out of the cold tap in England. Picture more the water that comes out of a garden hosepipe that has been lying in the sun for a bit, and using that to rinse down on a baking hot day. That's more what a cold shower in Asia is like, it's really not too bad, nay, oft appreciated!

First stop out is the warung in the same lane, Sen Sun, for some food from the fat woman who runs it.

No nonsense

I'm hungry having foregone the (only business class) food on the plane for sleep! Here I ask for Nasi Campur, a meal of rice topped with all sorts of things.

She doesn't do this, so I go for Mee Goreng Special instead - fried noodles with an egg on top.

Avoid the salad. Avoid the salad.

It's delicious, but I complain it's not spicy enough. So she brings out a small chopped chilli. She warns me to be careful, but I pour the lot on top. My goodness. I finish my meal perspiring profusely, head back to the hotel, have a swim, but still feel like I'm burning up! I think I was rather dehydrated, which probably wasn't helping. Mental note: Easy on the chillis.

Walking around town, there is a little hassle - people asking you if you want transport (the most frequent), or if you want tickets to one of the Balinese dance performances, or to come into their shop etc, but it's not persistent, like you get in Morocco or India, and is all done in a friendly manner. People don't follow you about, for example. Everywhere one can see on the ground small trays with flowers, rice and other bits and bobs in. By the way, apparently Ubud is one of the few places in Bali where one is at (low) risk of Malaria. Marvellous!

Spiritual offerings

These are apparently offerings to the spirits, to pay homage to good ones or placate bad ones. People seem to put them out more than once a day, such that by the end of the day in a busy shopping area there can be large piles of the things left over, or swept to the corner. Very strange. I don't know what the implication of stepping on one is, but it surely can't be good, so I tread carefully.

Pottering about town, I spot many of the cafes and places mentioned in the LP. I walk round to the Jazz Café which is a bit away from the centre, but despite a couple of beers, I still feel so hot it's uncomfortable, so I move on, and loop round in a large circle before coming back to near Sayong. I pop into Tutmak Café for some hummous and other Middle Eastern food, washed down with a vanilla lassi (made with fresh vanilla). I guess vanilla plants are fairly common here - in my guest house they are drying vanilla pods. And lots of water!

Back home and it's early to bed, as is the way in Ubud - I need to recharge before going to the mayhem of Kuta beach! But first I'll spend a few days here in Ubud - it's a laid back, peaceful place, which I'm sure I will enjoy. Tellingly, the LP section with suggested itineraries in Ubud says for 1 day, do lots of things, 3 days, do the rest, and 7 days - take some naps in between doing things. Sit in a café, sleep for a while, etc. It's that sort of place :)

First full day in Indonesia
Next morning I'm awake very early. No need for an alarm clock here, what with roosters, children, and general hubbub that seems to be played out next to my window from 5 or 6am. Breakfast is a large plate of chopped fruit - bananas, pineapple and papaya, a "jaffle", which seems to be a toasted sandwich (I've seen some suggestions that this may be an Australian thing?), coffee and banana juice. I bring out my Korean chilli paste that Jina gave me, which seems to work well with an egg jaffle. The coffee here is obviously local, and is good - Java being the adjacent island to here. It's thick, and towards the end of the cup you can enjoy a chewy mouthful of sludge.

Out, along the little lane that my hotel is hidden on, past the Sen Sun woman, who becomes an irritation as I can't walk past her without being entreated to eat at her warung.

Plats du jour
Just a regular door in Bali

Up, through the market, which if one were souvenir shopping would be very nice, (more and more over the next few days I decide that my mother would love it here!) to the main junction, where the imaginatively named Main Road meets Monkey Sanctuary Road. I pop inside the palace here, which still has local royalty in residence. It's wonderful, a chaotic place with lots of little nooks and crannies, all beautifully ornate. It's filled with little gates, rampant flora, little ornate ceremonial buildings, and wooden statues.

A dressed warrier. Spot the offering sitting at his feet

Packed with ornaments

Beautiful vase

Curios piled up

Stone piper

I head round the outside to examine what is supposed to be the best gate. It's good.

One of the gates to Ubud Palace

It's very easy not to notice stonework when it is everywhere

Sitting across from the palace

Quite right too, don't want women making a mess, perhaps hotels should do the same!

And on to the Campuan Ridge walk, a trail suggested in LP and in the guestbook of my hotel.

Buildings line the lush steep valley walls

Campuan (or Kampung) means rural village in Malay or Indonesian, and "Kampung life" is held up as simple and honest.

Natural goal-posts?

The walk heads down a steep hill, past a temple, along, then up and on to a ridge between two steep river gullies. I pass a few other foreigners all heading the other way. Well, perhaps I should have started a bit earlier to avoid the mid-day heat.

Looks cloudy, but it's toasting hot…

The ridge heads up to Sunrise Hill. On one side there are expensive hotels cut into the hillside, looking this way, and over, to the other side, where there are beautiful paddy fields sitting above a densely forested hillside.

Water-filled paddies everywhere. Mosquito heaven.

It's very pretty, but I prefer when the path hits a village, Bangkiang Sidem, where there is life, some small construction work, and kids who wave and say Hello Mister! This village eventually has a pathed road, and I notice that in Indonesia they drive on the left! Given that Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world, I am beginning to think that more may drive on the left! Hurrah! It all depends on India. Come on lads!

Palm trees abound
Dried field, perhaps almost ready for harvest

Eventually there is a turn which will take me back, but first it drops into the river valley to pass over a bridge, then up a horribly steep path - in this heat all I can do is take small steps and frequent swigs from my now-warm bottle of water!

The way to carry things here

Looping round I come to the Neka Art Gallery, set up by Suteja Neka and his wife, which exhibits mostly Balinese art (by locals, or inspired by Bali) in a variety of styles. I buy postcards here as there are some very nice ones. Here is a selection of the paintings I liked:

Mid-way through the gallery, which is split over several buildings, I had to walk out of a doorway where two geese were standing. I'm embarrassed to say that I was really quite scared of this chap in the doorway, he was very aggressive! Every time I tried to walk out of the door, he would hiss, extend his neck towards me, and start walking quickly towards me! What if he nips my leg hairs or something?! Might hurt! I considered throwing water at him, but, well, he's a duck! So I waited meekly till he got bored of showing off in front of his girlfriend (behind) and waddled off.


Mr Neka himself with his wife

Then continue the walk back into town. Stopping at Deli Cat café (it really is a deli, with all sorts of cheeses etc) for a German sausage with mash and good mustard.

A scene to make any German's heart warm

Then back to my hotel. The plan is to head out for a traditional Balinese dance show after a quick snooze… Just a quick… snooze..

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