It is no accident that Bali, Indonesia is one of the biggest tourist draws of this part of the world. The small island has everything going for it, from the beautiful beaches to the tops of the volcanoes, and everything in between.
We arrived from our flight out of Malaysia a couple hours later than scheduled at 9pm. It took quite a while for us to break through the four layers of airport taxi drivers who charge “set prices” that are at minimum double what a metered taxi would cost, each layer like a barricade at certain distances from the airport. Finally we found a taxi driver willing to use his meter for the 2 miles to Kuta town. It was exactly a third of the price of the cheapest offer we had received from the airport taxis.
That night we found some true Balinese food, which is different from the rest of Indonesia for the simple fact that Balinese people are mostly Hindu, and the majority of Indonesians outside Bali are Muslims. Pork is the major difference. We had a soup at one vendor, followed by barbequed ribs, veggies, and rice at another. The cheapest ribs I’ve seen in my life!
We didn’t plan to spend much time in Kuta since we wanted to see the island’s natural beauty rather than thousands of shops, but we had to check out the beach if nothing else. If you never leave the beach, Kuta is fantastic! White sand extended well beyond our eyesight decorated with turquoise water, surfers and surfer-wannabes, as well as everything you could possibly need sold under the shade of beautiful palm trees.
(Entrance to beach)
With only a month to spend in this vast network of islands, we moved on quickly to Ubud. Ubud was much more our pace, not a mountain town but a bit of the same feel. Not surprisingly, a lot of expats have settled here, and so there are some great vegetarian restaurants mixed in with the local varieties. There are many communities in the area that try to keep their varying cultures alive through tribal dance performances, the tribes taking turns each night of the week with a couple per night. We chose to see a “fire dance” on our first night in town, put on by a small community of a few hundred people. It was said that nearly every adult of the community is in some way involved with the performance. WHOA! The performance blew us away. All the music and sound effects were performed by a group of barely covered men who sat in three rings on the ground around a flaming stand. Most of the characters danced out the story at the center in a style similar to the traditional dancing we saw in Cambodia and Thailand. All but the masked characters were women, even the male roles. The sound effects and narration was done in their language, but luckily we had received a pamphlet beforehand that explained the story, one of a banished prince and his princess and a lusty king who kidnapped the princess.
(Cultural fire dance)
That next day we took a walk through the Monkey Forest on the edge of town, more to see the old temple inside it than the thieving macaque monkeys. They have a reputation. It was a very beautiful walk and the structures were covered in that bright green moss of Hollywood movie sets. After the forest we did something we haven’t done for over six months: we spent time apart for five hours. I was dying to wander completely aimlessly, something you can only do solo. I also knew Bryan would enjoy doing his own thing even though he wouldn’t say so. It was a really nice afternoon for both of us. I bought a big baguette and honey, then found a tiny, secluded rice field on the edge of town where I had a picnic. After that I ventured up a road heading out of town with a few high points and nice views. I enjoyed a delicious “edemame juice”, or fresh soy milk in plain terms. Bryan made a big loop around the roads that bordered the town where he had even better views, and he tried a local soup called Bakso, with meat balls and wontons, served by an old man pushing a little cart of it (we’ve been hooked on Bakso ever since). He finished back at the room doing things I don’t understand on his laptop that he is so happy to have now.
(Looking through a broken wall onto a rice field in Ubud)
We rented a motorbike and headed toward Mt. Batur volcano and lake the next day. Riding along beautiful fruit orchards, we had to stop at a fruit stand. We bought tasty mandarin oranges, passion fruit, and some little purple things that we had never seen before that tasted similar to passion fruit. At our highest point we were at the town of the same name as the volcano, overlooking the topless mountain, lake, lava flow, and a neighboring mountain from behind a beautifully aged temple. We found a nerve rackingly steep and windy road down to the lake, mostly made dangerous by those who drive around blind curves on the wrong side of the road. There was a tiny town next to the lake cozied between fields of jagged, black lava rocks. Being that this was the closest we have been to a volcano, we were in awe. We had a picnic of leftover baguette, honey, and fresh fruit on top of a lava rock with the volcano in front of us and the lake and mountain behind us. It was refreshing!
(Mount Batur and Agung with lake Danau Batur on Bali)
On our return trip we were stopped by a police road block conveniently designed to catch tourists returning. We had to either pay a $25 fine for not having an international drivers license, or a $5 hush fee. Not feeling too good about it but having read about it online, we paid the hush fee. We soon forgot about that when we stopped for the famous Luwak Kopi (Kopi is coffee in Indonesian), the most expensive type of coffee in the world, at Manik Abian. You may have heard about it, the coffee berries are eaten by the nocturnal Civet, and then the whole beans are picked out of the Civet’s pooh. Yup, pooh coffee. Bryan had to try it (luckily I don’t drink coffee). We were surprised that we first got a tour of the garden where they grew everything they used: two types of coffee, vanilla beans, coconuts, tobacco, ginger, ginseng, cocoa, and endless types of seasonings. COCOA!?!?!? We stopped for Bryan, but I got to have my favorite thing too! We saw how the pooh beans are cleaned, hand roasted over a fire, then ground by hand with a mortar and pestle. We were brought a huge tray of sample coffees, cocoa, and teas for free and options to try other drinks for free. The Luwak Kopi, of course, was not free, but Bryan ordered a cup at the bargain price of $5 and I requested to try the Chili Cocoa. My cocoa, flavored by chilies, cinnamon, and cardamom, was a-maz-ing! Bryan liked the Luwak Kopi, but he didn’t think it tasted any different than any other good quality, bold coffee. Overall the best coffee they brought us was a mix of their regular coffee with coconut cream and vanilla. Even I liked it. Sorry, we didn’t buy any of you the Luwak Kopi, even though $800 a pound may have been a good deal!
(Luwak coffee beans before being processed)
Our next stop was the town of Sengiggi on the island of Lombok, a bus-ferry-bus ride away. We spent a couple relaxing mornings on the nice beach reading and watching distant surfers, followed by relaxing afternoons on the cute porch of our room made secluded by a beautiful garden. The town really didn’t have much to offer, either in tourist attractions or anything for locals. We only found one local place open for cheap lunch and three street vendors in the evenings, all else was western food.
(Bryan and I on the beach getting our photo taken with some Indonesian tourists)
From Sengiggi we were headed farther East only because we heard the SCUBA diving is comparable to the Galapagos Islands in South America, which is often considered the best in the world. We booked our “overland” tickets to Flores island and the town of Lubuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo island and where the Indian and Pacific oceans collide head-on. The journey lasted 36 hours and began by bus to a ferry from Lombok to Sabawa, followed by a long bus ride at night across most of Sabawa. The last hours of Sabawa got interesting. Large buses couldn’t handle the roads ahead, so about two large busloads of people smashed into one short bus at 3:00am, luggage in a jumble on top. Bryan was molded into an isle no wider than 12 inches with people leaning on him from all directions. Me? I was special. I got the seat next to the driver. Not the one you’re thinking of. A rolled up tarp was placed in the four inches between the driver seat and his door. My butt is more than four inches wide, that’s for sure. I sat at an impossible angle with one leg over the other, hands holding tight to the oh-shit-bar in case the door latch decided not to hold, and one shoulder out the window to give the driver enough maneuver space. Not long into the ride the driver decided he didn’t like the window open and I resorted to folding myself in half. Being that we had no sleep and it was 3am, I was struggling to keep my droopy eyes open while terrified of what might happen to the 50+ lives on board if I fell asleep on the driver. When my feet touched earth again, I laughed! An eight hour ferry ride was the last bit to our destination.
Lubuang Bajo is a small fishing village undergoing a complete transformation to catch up to its recent status as major tourist destination, something it definitely wasn’t seeking out. The town was nothing but construction looming over a tiny bit of old structures. To make matters worse, we happened to arrive at the beginning of Sail Komodo, an event that filled the harbor with expensive sail boats and Naval ships, and a planned visit from the president (luckily after we would be gone). After comparing every dive shop in town and every travel option for where to go next, we traded the opportunity to see the Komodo dragons for one day of three awesome dives. Everything about our time under water was beyond belief! It was more color and variety than I thought possible, with the collision of the two oceans creating conditions that attract a plethora of diverse life. The diving was the most challenging we have done because the currents were strong, whipping us past the scenery like we were on an underwater train ride – only one direction possible, the one it chooses. The things I was most impressed with are the things I don’t have names for: the soft and hard corals of every shape, texture, size, and color; the varieties of small, medium, and large creatures with patterns more intriguing than anything my imagination could design; and the way everything interacted and how obviously dependent every single thing was on everything else. On the first dive we just went straight down and held on, literally, as we watched fish fighting the current and sharks weaving throughout. The largest shark we saw was a grey reef shark, but it was hard to watch the sharks when everything was stunning. On the last dive we were driven by the current until it just stopped, and we were able to go at our own pace and find some of the coolest things we wouldn’t have seen being whipped by, like tiny Nudibranchs and a large but well camouflaged crocodile fish.
For the sake of time, we took an hour and a half flight out of Lubuang Bajo back to Bali instead of the overland journey of two days that would have only saved us $40. Bonus: we had our first experience in a twin engine prop plane. From Bali we took a bus and ferry combo to Java Island where we will work our way Northwest toward Singapore.
(Making our way back to port after a day of diving around Komodo Island)