I never thought I actually would end up there on this particular island of Indonesia, Bali. If nothing else my travels up until this point taught me anything on social media is painted with a broad brush dipped in fantasy. A quick scroll through the many profiles and hashtags associated with Bali and it immediately emanates a beach paradise, with vast rice terraces, volcanic vistas to ogle at. Basically a tropical oasis of your dreams. Beautiful tall westerners in bathing shorts hoisting their equally charming counterparts over the sides of pools. This is what Bali looks like through your phone screens. But is it real?
I’ve seen this before, that broad brush dipped in fantasy during my earlier months in Asia. Take the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the train street in Hanoi, near picturesque islands in the south of Thailand. People hype it up to the point where now it becomes the to be and post up. The downside is it’s never really like that in person, a sort of not everything that glitters is gold, I found out. Was I a bit jaded by my previous experiences? Maybe.
Somehow, through all of my better judgment, I found myself walking out of Denpasar airport on Bali greeted with bayan trees. Honestly, I was kind of excited to be there. I pass judgment on the island without having ever been there so I wanted to see what the hype was all about if it lived it up to Eat Pray Love (yikes!) Just kidding on the last part, ha.
My agenda simple: spend a week on Bali and explore as much as I can. We all know in traveling nothing is ever as simple or without hiccups. The latter kicked off right away when I bartered for a somewhat reasonable airport taxi fare (curse you shitty Bali airport wifi) to my home base for the week in Ubud: UbudOne Villas. Sure I could have stayed in a hostel but I want to say that the villa for a week cost me only $178 USD! With the rush of tourism all over the world towards this island, it has made accommodations very affordable and your boy could use a nice comfortable bed!
The first two things you’ll notice immediately about the island are: there’s plenty of booze and the roads increasingly get SMALLER. For a stark contrast; Java, the capital island of Indonesia is mainly Muslim so finding alcohol there can be nearly impossible while Bali, its neighboring island is mainly Hindu, where it’s free-flowing. You’ll also notice a ton of Aussies here due to the fact it’s cheap and has booze. Bali is their Cancun, no joke.
The roads on Bali are tough. Leaving the airport it felt normal, cars on either side with scooters careening down the middle. Getting into Ubud it got smaller and smaller until eventually, you’re a sitting duck if you’re on four wheels, even two for that matter. The elevation changes quite a bit and there are numerous switchbacks that manning your horn can save your life. I felt at home on the roads for this is one of the things about Asia I grew to love.
Situated in my villa with my scooter rental at the ready I was set for my week-long stay in Bali. Let’s go!
Staying at a villa twenty minutes north of the city center was a grand idea at the time, but it made for getting anywhere longer than expected. Remember how small those roads can get? Once you get to the city center of Ubud you’ll realize why I chose to stay far away: it gets BUSY. This is Bali after all, land of rice terraces, hidden waterfalls and a ton of people.
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The first order of business was to source out something delicious to devour, I am after all a hungry traveler. Curious to see what culinary fare Ubud had on offer I sourced some recommendations from friends who traveled here before me. All in all, they said I had to try the Balinese fried duck to which delighted my belly for I am a fan of fried poultry.
Bebek Bengil Crispy Duck seemed to be the popular choice with a line of equally hungry patrons waiting for a seat. In my experience lines are good, especially when it came to food, not so much in other aspects of everyday life like the DMV. The decor was mainly of pagodas sporadically placed, while the sounds of a makeshift waterfall quietly played in the background. Not overly fancy, but just enough to question whether the five-month-old shorts I’ve worn through Asia was worthy to have a seat.
I came for the signature fried duck dish and that is exactly what I got! If the following photos don’t attest to the deliciousness of the meal then I don’t know what else will. If I could lick the plate I would’ve, on second thought I think I did.
After lunch, I made way towards the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. This Hindu temple complex set in the jungle backdrop plays host to thousands of macaque monkeys that live there. To escape the crowds it was a nice place to explore and to be among tall green foliage again. A river cuts through the jungle creating little nooks and crevices that one can venture down to explore, at their own risk of course. You can certainly spend an hour or two crisscrossing the paths and taking in the sights, but the monkeys, always the monkeys, are the draw.
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hide things you don’t want them to make off with.
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As mentioned before and I will again here they are not to be trifled with! Of course, they look cute and cuddly but turn your back on one, and surely your personal belongings will be in their clutches in no time. For example, I set my water bottle down to shoot some photos and one made a beeline for it. Granted the bottle was the SIZE OF THE MONKEY, but you didn’t see the determination in its eyes like I did. A rookie mistake I made was to show my teeth when I shouted for it to get away, a sign it took as aggression. Have you ever heard a pissed off macaque hissing back at you? I have and it’s quite bloodcurdling. Shit still keeps me up at night wondering if he would have ever made it off with my bottle.
Anyhow, the place is a nice spot with ample shades for you to hide from the heat if only for a couple of hours.
I rode to the local arts and crafts market because who DOESN’T LOVE ARTS AND CRAFTS? Though, I will not be held responsible for the authenticity of said arts and crafts, you have been warned. The Ubud Art Market lines one city block consisting of both inside and outdoor stalls with eager owners ready to part you of your rupiahs.
Much like all the markets I visited before in Asia this one is just as colorful as the rest. Did I need another tank top, bottle opener with Bali motifs, magnets of rice terraces and waterfalls? Not really, but then again you never really know! The big thing in these parts were these bamboo handbags that I would see all the tourists rocking in person or on social media. They were BIG business here. Basically, that is what you should buy.
My companion whom I was traveling with, set on acquiring a few for herself, lit off a myriad of back and forth bidding. “300K rupiahs,” one would shout to which the other replied, “no-no 200K is more than fair.” And so the dance of which I was all too familiar with was played. I stood as a bystander, basking in the haggling arts to which I have become quite adequate myself. If only Beethoven’s symphony no. 9 played in the background would’ve made it that much more magical.
By the end, both parties settled on 215K rupiahs for two of these must-have items. All in a good day’s work. I just haggled for a set of bracelets and I thought THAT was a win.
With goods in hand, we walked over to Ubud Palace and Saraswati Temple to take in some of the more popular sights, along with hundreds of others. A lush courtyard at both locations saw to put on shows of local dances and traditions. It would have been a good time had a traditional dance troupe was to perform that night but alas time was never on my side. In any case, the iconic structure is worth dropping by if you’re in town working off all the duck you just consumed. The main street is BUSY so be careful if you are riding through.
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Before our departure from the city center, I did mention stopping by Saraswati Temple. It boasts a cafe in the courtyard and a very lush lily pond. Navigate your way through the photo shoots and admire the centuries-old temple.
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With day one or rather a 0.5 in the books, I made my way back to my humble lodgings. My thoughts on Bali during that scoot ride: it wasn’t entirely bad. Hopefully, this uptick keeps on going, but boy these bugs at night are RELENTLESS.
Waking up to views of a rice terrace through sliding glass doors that have collected too much moisture from the air-con isn’t too bad. Not to mention calling to the kitchen to have a cup of coffee brought to you, Java to be exact, is wonderful. What did I do to deserve such pampering treatment? Let’s not dive too deep into answers as I got dressed, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed ready to tackle day two. Today is going to be a long day on two wheels.
I had a 60km scooter ride ahead of me and wanted to get out the door as soon as possible while the sun is low and the heat at bay. The ride to Taman Soekasada Ujung was uneventful, but filled with tons of twists and turns on tiny little back roads and even ocean views. The length of the journey took a little bit over an hour to get to the once former palace that now features pools, ponds, tiered gardens & scenic views of mountains & the sea.
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The best part of getting up early and riding over an hour to get to some far-off destination is that it can be completely empty. You can walk through the gardens, traverse up and down the stairs for intense views of the ocean and mountain ranges. There’s also a swimming pool providing a refreshing dip for only 10k rupiahs.
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This was a great start to the day. I really enjoyed my time at this location and honestly, for the hour we spent there it didn’t seem that too many people knew about it. I did get a bit carried away with the camera but hey you’re in Bali after all. Take in the mountain views though, it is that impressive.
The best part of traveling unknown places without consulting Yelp you don’t have to fight over what is good to eat. I saw the first place that looked appetizing, pulled in, and ordered. Pondak Mina was the type of mid-morning meal I only dreamt about back at home. Let us have a moment for the appreciation of Balinese fried fish, tofu curry, and vegetable stir-fry. Oh, passion fruit and watermelon juices are a must while you’re on the island.
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After we had our fill and the morning was quickly turning into high-noon we made our exit towards Taman Tirtagangga. With a loose agenda, you can find yourself adding more time than needed, especially if you got a hungry belly. Remember you’re traveling to have a great time, not make time.
Find yourself a parking lot and look for any gentleman that is rocking a fanny pack and holding out bill change. He will be moving and gesturing the scooters around. This is the guy you’re looking for. Why? Because you need to pay him to both park and look after your scooter. Now I haven’t found myself in a situation where I ever lost anything, but then again I’ve always paid the parking guy. Take your chances.
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Bypass the guy selling photo ops with bats and head straight for the gates. Pay the small fee and you’ll be able to enjoy an elegant spiritual retreat & gardens surrounded by natural springs, with swimming and picnicking.
The draw is really the pond in the center with stepping stones that are methodically placed throughout. Hundreds of koi fish live in this little pond and it makes for a great photo-op, with fewer people of course. I was neither here for the photos or the dozens of others trying to find space on the stones. The later proved to be a fun game of ‘will I fall in’. On this day being surrounded was my only option. Insider tip is you can buy fish food for 5k rupiahs from many of the vendors on-site to feed the koi fish.
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Take away the fish feeding frenzy and all the people vying for a place on the stones as if they’re in Olmec’s Steps of Knowledge it’s worth the visit. Locals come here for to swim in a pool that isn’t a pool at all, but a watering hole fixture that now has become a pool. Yea, I know that was a lot to take in.
Oh, treat yourself to some ice cream on-premise too. You’re going to need something cool for that heat.
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Ten kilometres away lay probably one of Bali’s top five attractions to the island: Penataran Lempuyang. Oh, you know the place where there is a picturesque gate where couples, or you lovely singles out there, pose to the backdrop of a volcano and their perfect reflection from what seems to be a lake. Yea, that place.
Penataran Lempuyang is a Hindu site home to the ‘Gates of Heaven,’ and it’s really fucking beautiful there. Getting there was a little bit tough when riding two-up through windy mountain roads just big enough for my Honda Fit. Tour vans are zipping up and down so watch your six, and both fingers on the brakes!
Upon our first arrival, I noticed that there are people from all walks of life and by that I meant tourists. I kid, there are locals about too as they still do prayers and worship here. Everyone who isn’t dressed properly for the temple, and yes there is temple dress etiquette, you will need to rent a sarong before entering.
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We walked up the rather steep hill a ways, past all the vendors selling snacks and juices and through a gate of a courtyard that seemed the place to be. What I saw next didn’t really surprise me one bit. First, there is a gentleman on a footstool dressed in local garments with a two-way radio and a few people surrounding him in same garb. In front of him was the Gates of Heaven where one would pose, but what I thought was a pool of water ended up being a walkway. Where’s the water? I turned my focus back to the seated gentleman to see he has a phone in one hand, mirror in the other.
Then it dawned on me: it’s all an allusion! There’s no water reflection, just a guy with your phone and a mirror! Cheeky.
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What was baffling was the number of people who formed a queue, probably 1.5-2 hours long, just to get this photo. I understand that you didn’t come all this way in a tour van and NOT LEAVE WITHOUT THE PHOTO. I bet it was quite dark for whoever ended up being last in line. I took in the sights but an exit was made in hasty fashion for I did not travel this far to stand in a line to take a photo like everyone else, but that’s not my business.
Was I jaded? Not really as I came to expect this sort of thing by now. Another reason not to take social media and what everyone portrays without a grain of salt.
The rest of the temple is an amazing place full of beauty with the said volcano as a backdrop. The day I visited there were lots of locals out doing prayers so it was nice to have some interactions with them. The people warm insanely warm and smiles were always nothing short of abundant. They all kind of realized with the popularity of the island that this would inevitably happen. Still they go about their daily life with us intruding in for a photo-op or two.
I spent the entire ride back to the villa that afternoon digesting what I had experience the last few days since my arrival. On one hand it was everything I expected it to be with a destination that suffers from over tourism. On the other it was still paradise any way you sliced it. For me the locals on my first experience were just some of the warmest people I met on my travels. You can hardly ever find one not smiling or unwilling to help you with a question irregardless of the evident language barrier.
There were mixed emotions once I entered my air-con roomed, but I had a few more days on the island to mull it over.
Oh, did I mention we’re going to hike an active volcano? Stay tuned!