Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bali narrative, 2 weeks late.

once again I found myself starting the narrative of my last trip (to Bali, Indonesia) as I travelled to my next destination (Kuching, Sarawak…in Malaysian Borneo…see below “Special K” entry), however I now find myself completing this entry on the eve of heading to Cambodia (Siem Reap, to see the temples of Angkor Wat).

but this entry is all about Bali, beautiful Bali.

just days after my mom left, we realized we needed to begin plotting out our remaining weekends in Asia. we were lucky to find a last minute fare to Bali, leaving Friday night, and returning Monday morning (allowing me to work on the flight, and return to the office in the afternoon). so after rushing out of work, we raced through the traffic to the airport to make our flight, tapping our feet impatiently through far too many lines. the flight to Indonesia was about 2.5 hours, during which I wrote up much of the previous weekend’s Malaysia adventure, as Kat slept. while I was recovering from what must have been a flu bug (brought on by the sheer exhaustion of work, travel, work, and no breaks), Kathryn was starting to succumb to her illness. we landed at Denpassar airport in the evening, shuffled our way through immigration and customs, paying our $10 USD for our visa on arrival, and made our way to the cab stand to find our way to our hotel.

rather than the more popular west coast beaches and scene of Kuta, we chose to spend our first night on the quieter, east coast beach of Sanur (often called “snore”). we checked into our villa late, but were impressed with the dark mysterious forest it felt we were in. our room was modestly ornate, and fresh fruit was waiting for us on arrival. after a brief scare of locking ourselves out of our room safe (after having put all of our important docs in it…we eventually got it opened :), we made our way to the beach.

as there were no city lights to sully the sky, it seemed as if a black sheet lay over the dome dome above with only the stars poking through as bright tears in the fabric. we sat and watched the sky for a bit, and the water pushing an pulling over the rocks below. in the distance, the waves stretched out as white bars white expanding, which was an odd site to see. we later learned it was the crest of the waves crashing down on the breakers further out. after awhile talking about life back home, we walked the shoreline, disappointed to find the sand littered with debris. we turned in, making sure to untie the mosquito net around our bed.


while we probably should have gotten up earlier, we were weary from the week before, so decided to sleep in. after all, this was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. by 10 we donned our bathing suits and headed out to see what the beach looked like by daylight. leaving my glasses behind, I donned my newly acquired prescription goggles, and made my way to the sand, looking like a bug. the water, clear and blue, stretched out in front of us, but the beach was small and unaccommodating. in the distance we could see the mountains of Bali’s neighbor island, which had covered much of the stars in the horizon just hours before. the debris from the night before that had littered the sand, turned out to be a mix of washed up seaweed and mini shrines/offerings made on leaves folded into little boxes.

disappointed with our beach, we came close to going in and finding our way to the other side of the island to begin our afternoon explorations early. we somehow decided to take a quick walk down the beachside sidewalk away from our villa to see what else there was, we passed quite a few small seaside shops and restaurants, small personal sailboats and skiffs. passing a pier and around the bend, the real beaches of Sanur stretched out before us. a vast expanse of white sand going on for some miles, and wide open water, with very few people around. we had arrived.

we walked across the wide plain of sand towards the sharp slope towards the water. we dropped our towels and walked to the water, our feet instantly sinking into the gravelly sand that met the gentle waves. the water was clear and shallow, and the waves were light. once we were further into the water, it felt like there was nothing else around us but the mountains, sand and sky. we relaxed in the water a bit, I perfected my dead man’s float. it became quickly apparent that this was too good to be true, as we realized we had less than an hour to head back to the room and check out. if only we hadn’t slept in!

back at the hotel, we quickly changed, packed our day bags, and checked out. we planned to explore the beaches and town of Kuta, on the other side of the island for the day, leaving our bags checked at the hotel, only to return to pick them up later in the evening to head our next destination on the island. the shuttle to Kuta would not leave for another hour, so we decided to head back to the nearby Jamaican beachside restaurant and get a small lunch snack, and so I could quickly recapture the morning beaches of Sanur with my camera. we ordered, as I left Kat the restaurant, running back to our beach, framing as many photos as I could to remember the morning. the sad thing about our newfound attachment to cameras (especially of the digital kind) is just that, you rely on the seemingly unlimited supply of potential pictures to hold onto an experience rather than the experience itself. I snapped as many as I could, some of the mornings beach patrons still relaxing for the day (of the more pale-skinned variety, which I found amusing giving the sun that was beginning to beat down.

the shuttle bus snaked through traffic across the island, and we were dropped of on the Kuta streets. not 5 minutes after getting on the street, we were flagged down by a peristant man on the street. he insisted that he talk to us, so we decided to entertain him. he claimed to be with another hotel/resort, and they were celebrating their anniversary with random drawings and prizes. of course we instantly smelled scam, but had nothing better to do, so entertained him. all we had to do was see what prizes our scratch and win cards might yield. we took them, said thank you and walked away. yet he persisted that we scratch off. I only won the second prize – a tshirt, while lucky Kathryn won the grand prize – her choice of a video camera, $500 USD, or a stay at their resort. we theorized that the chances of such a win were one in two. since claiming the prize involved us hopping in a “free taxi” with them. we finally made an excuse and ran into a nearby resort, as the man yelled after us to claim our grand prize.

[NOTE: Blogger is kind of sucking right now, so i can't upload pics, so will add the pics to the story later, in the meantime, click on the links below each days to see the full albums - i'll embed the pics at a later date...]

we snaked our way through the resort and towards the beach, as the wind kicked up quite a bit of sand. while I was recovering from the earlier week’s sickness, Kathryn was already starting to feel tired. we walked along the beach for awhile, where the sand was much more crowded, and the waves were much stronger – ideal for surfing, not swimming. we walked along for awhile people-watching, and getting our feet wet in the surf. but the sun was beating down strongly, so we decided to head back inland through the Kuta streets.

we stopped for a quick sandwich and Thai iced tea at the local Dunkin Donuts, and then made our way along Poppies Gang 1 (Gang = “alley”), which was a narrow winding street full of shops and spa/resort entrances. we surveyed some of the wares: local “art” (though there is really no such thing as local art in Bali, everything they do is art, and what they sell is just made up stuff to appeal to the tourist populace), popular trinkets, bootleg clothing, and quite a few pirated DVDs (sold in large “official shops” with quite the selection – quite unlike the sheet-tables on the streets of Malaysia). motorcycles and scooters rushed down the narrow street, causing us to constantly sidestep along with the many other Australian and European tourists in their flp-flops (clearly there for a longer time given their bare demeanor). the occasional car carefully barreled down the narrow alley not meant for them, making us retreat into the shops, much to the store-owners delight.

we were finally deposited on the street, which was even busier than the alley. walked in and out of crafts shops, both junky and posh, surveying the similar, but different (“same same, but different”) wares offered. there were post cards, Spider-frogs (no pigs, unfortunately), Balinese lace, surfer gear, and the frequently-seen phallic bottle openers.

as we continued down the street, we finally came across the site of the 2002 Bali bombing – the Sari night club. the lot that once held the popular Sari club was now fenced off, empty, and overrun with grass. across the street was a shrine and fountain with the names of all the deceased, organized by country. the five year anniversary of this just passed several weeks earlier (while we were in Japan), and i remember watching on CNN the many Australians, Europeans, and others who had returned in memory of their loved ones passing.

by now, the heat was bearing down hard upon us, and my traveling partner was much more worse for the wear, so we escaped into a local coffee boutique (I think the locals called it “Starbucks”) for a brief respite of coffee and coke. there we witnessed quite possibly the most annoying Australian tourist, who spoke at the top of her lungs, in the most polite/condescending tone to the quite local staff. those Australian.tourists, they think they’re such hot shi…stuff (no offense Mark, Kshitij, Ben and Bron). in all honesty, I think it was just one bad apple. but a subtle, solid lesson on how not to behave when in a foreign country, no matter how much of a vacation it is.

we decided to head back to the beach, down Poppies Gang II. we snaked through the streets like experienced pros, dodging the cars and scooters, and darting in and out of stores before we could get harassed by the shop-keepers (“you like? very cheap!”). we finally emerged on the beach, where the sun had begun it’s slow descent back into the horizon. we walked for a bit in search of a particular beachside restaurant to enjoy the sunset and dinner from, but as we went, the sun continued to drain us, so we paused for a bit for water, iced green tea, and Pringles (thanks 7-11!). upon finding out the restaurant we sought (one of the few on this stretch of beach), had long since closed (sarcastic thanks Lonely Planet!), we opted to sit and simply enjoy the beach.

there were professional sand castle makers, and many beach soccer games in play by the local youth. mothers and their kids waded in the calming, but still strong waves. as the sun began to sink further, kat rested in the sand, as I wandered into the water for some pictures of the sunset, making a few friends along the way...

after the sun set, Kathryn and I walked along the street back in search of dinner. we settled on a nice Italian place just off the street, run by a European chef. an interesting thing about Bali, is that many westerners try to find a way to stay there. after the original Dutch explorers arrived in the 1700s (or was it 1800s?), many of the crew opted to stay behind rather than return home. a similar phenoman continued to the modern day, as many Europeans chose to setup shop (and bring their expertise, like our chef) to the locals and/or tourists. another interesting thing was how friendly everyone was there. our waiter (and many others on the trip) would often ask us where we were from (Kathryn + I like to think we’re a bit of a conundrum to them, and we often just say we’re from Singapore), what we’ve done in Bali, how long were staying, etc. not quite the terrorist haven the US State Department would have you believe. we sat by the pool (to later discover the restaurant was part of the nearby resort), and enjoyed a nice pasta and salmon pizza.

after dinner, we caught a taxi back to our original villa in Sanur, unchecked our bags, and arranged for the hotel car to take us some 30km up the island to our next destination, Ubud. as we walked to the van with our driver, he asked if we could wait a few minute so he could grab dinner. he darted into a nearby inn adjacent to our villa, and we followed to find the local innkeepers had served him a dish of rice and meat. as he shoveled the food down, Kat + I explored the common area, flipping through the local books (and myself pilfering an extra bottled water for our trouble). our driver quickly finished his meal, and we were soon off. it took almost 40 minutes, up dark windy roads into the middle of nowhere

after some confusion, we arrived late to our new villa, which was dark and ominous. trees overhanging, and the nighttime music of crickets chirping and frogs croaking in the distance. we were ushered to the outdoor reception desk, seated and presented with fruity welcome drinks and cold, damp face towels as we went through far too many official motions of checking in. we were finally escorted down through what felt like a tropical garden towards our upstairs villa. we sat out on our balcony, overlooking the dark, mysterious rice paddy field adjacent us.

before calling it a night, we decided to explore the rest of the complex. we made our way further down the pathway, passed some cows, and soon found the common area. there was a covered, outdoor dining area overlooking the pool, and a outdoor bed/bench in the corner far end of the pool. far and away one of the nicest, coziest resorts I’d been in. throughout the complex were a number of intimidating statues, dressed with sashes and flowers. after a few requisite pictures we turned in, exhausted.

woke up earlier than we’d like (and later than we should have) just in time to make breakfast, and a glimpse of our surroundings by day. the rice paddy field was wide, with large houses dotting the opposite end. we grabbed the resort shuttle into the Ubud town center, winding through the streets and up the main avenue. upon getting out, we found the information center, grabbed a map, and planned our day out.

first was the royal palace (of Ubud?), where some of the family still lived. it was basically big open courtyards attached by narrow corridors, with ornately designed Balinese/Hindu sculptures – far more authentic than the many we had been seeing throughout our many resorts.

from there we popped into a nearby local market of trinkets and crafts (mostly wooden and fabric), which extended behind the street. as we turned every corner, it seemed to go back, further and further. there were quite a few things that struck my interest, but I held back from any purchases, since I didn’t feel like carrying it around for the rest of the day.

we continued down the main road (literally, as it was quite a steep hill), aptly named “Monkey Forest Rd,” given where it led. popping in and out of stores, exhibits, and even peeking into a few resorts/villas. while everything was interesting, we found ourselves falling into the phenomenon of the same stuff running together (especially as I write this some 2 weeks later). our goal was to get to the bottom of the hill, into the famed Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

once inside, we wound down the streets, and were immediately greeted by our long-tailed friends, wandering about. some were picking fleas off eachother, others were snacking on the occasional banana. some even were playing/fighting amongst eachother. as with all things monkeys, it was quite entertaining, and was the subject of many a photograph.

deeper into the monkey forest, we came across an outdoor Indiana Jones-esque temple, for which we had to both don the appropriate attire of sarong and sash to enter. at first it was just the two of us, but another young European couple soon followed. the guy of their pair, well he got all the luck. not but a few minutes inside the temple, did a monkey immediately hop on his shoulder and begin scratching the man’s head. I was extremely jealous.

from the temple, we relinquished our sarongs (I thought to pull another Bangkok, but opted not to tempt the fates of the Balinese-Hindu spirits). found our way to some more monkeys, and then exited the forest through a pretty scary cemetery, with somewhat recent graves.

we headed back up Monkey Forest Rd, and stopped for some Balinese cuisine for lunch – for me, a basic spicy chicken and rice, and for Kat some noodles. we continued up the road, stopping in and out of more stores and exhibits, but the sun was beating down hard on us, and Kathryn was becoming more worse for the wear. we decided to stop in and try a local massage (at a local price - $7 USD for an hour), which was a nice experience – they even served us cookies and water afterwards (though to this day, Kat still blames a few odd pains here and there to the massage in Bali)!

after our massage, we walked further up the road, back to our starting point of the information center, and purchased tickets for a local evening show – a fire dance. with a couple of hours to kill, we stopped in a restaurant for more rest and peppermint tea, and saw a parade of locals in procession down the street with loud instruments and chanting. we weren’t sure how authentic this was, as the cynic in us questioned if it was just a daily show for the tourists (the more teen-aged patrons in the back of the procession looked like they were just going through the motions).

in search of dinner, we walked back down the road to an interesting recommendation from our book – the Deli Cat, an interesting French Bistro of wines, cheeses and a few drunk Europeans. we had a quick soup, some bread and cheese, chuckled at the regulars, and raced off to our evening show.

a few blocks off the main road, we found ourselves in a chair-filled lot in front of a temple, for the Kecak Fire & Trance dance. a priest came out and lit a fire in the center of the lot, and soon almost 100 men came out in nothing but small sashes, chanting and clapping, setting a certain beat. there rhythm and song would be the music for the entire evening, which was broken up into 3 separate acts. the first was a retelling a story from the Hindu Ramayan – of the Prince Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Laksaman, fighting against the evil lord Ravana (Sita is captured, Hanuman comes the rescue, and Rama takes down Ravana). the second act was an old man, riding a stick horse fighting with the fire. the final dance was 2 young children, entranced, performing a dance to the fire with their eyes closed. all of them to the rhythms and clapping of the all male choir. it was definitely interesting and captivating.

after the show, we walked back to the main intersection, only to find most of the original shops and market had closed – so no trinkets for me. we called the shuttle from our villa, and made our way back home, where we made arrangements to check out and get to the airport the next morning at stupid-o-clock. we packed our bags, let the mosquito nets down, and turned in early

we were up at 5.30, and on the road for the airport by 6am. the ride, while nice, was a bumpy one, not helping Kathryn’s deteriorating sickness (she had been a trooper all weekend). it took almost an hour to make it to the airport, and as the local villa-type music filled the cabin, we watched the locals go about the start of their week. mothers putting their daily leaf-folded shrine outside their doors. children in school uniforms riding to work. men riding their motorcycles through the packed traffic. it was a very surreal experience. that, and we were tired.

from the airport, we checked in, checked our bags, and wandered about, having gotten their too early. we stopped for tea and a doughnut, admired some statues, and eventually boarded. Kathryn caught up on sleep, as I made it a point to knock out some work docs (working on a plane with a set task VS in a chaotic office is quite effective…I’d do it more were it not for the large personal cost of sleep and capital :). just another weekend trip through South Asia.

more to come.

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