09.07.2014 - 25.08.2014 30 °C
Arriving in Sanur on the southeast coast feels like most resorts in Florida. Traffic jam on the main street crammed with shops and restaurants and a beachfront with a path for cyclists and pedestrians in front of hotels lined up like dominos. What? This isn't Florida? Well, you could have fooled me. The only giveaway is that the beaches are nicer... in Florida...
The most famous beaches, Kuta, Legian and Seminyak are on the southwest coast. We figure we should at least see what all the hype is about so we haggle with some drivers before hailing a metered taxi to brave an hour of intense traffic. I get the beach party allure that Kuta might have for the 20-something crowd, but here too the beach is disappointing. Swanky Seminyak next door, reminds me of the South of France in the summer. Hardly an inch of free sand or sidewalk which isn't surprising considering the local population of Bali is around 4 million and the number of tourists is 3.2 million per year.
Thinking we must have chosen the wrong area of Bali, we hire a car and driver for the day to look for the Bali we all expect. Every adult male it seems is a driver/guide. Taxi sir? Taxi madam? Ubud? Monkey Temple? Rice fields? The chorus of offers is deafening. At first you're polite, but after 50 "no thank yous", prompted by the drivers themselves, you switch to "maybe tomorrow."
We don't find the postcard beaches, but here and there we do find some nice spots including the lovely Tirta Empul Temple in Tampaksiring famous for its holy spring water. Bathers move down the line of fountainheads in a ballet of gesture and prayer.
We inch our way through Ubud in traffic that rivals some of the world's best and at first glance we wonder what the draw to this place is. We visit the requisite Monkey Temple hoping that we won't be jumped by primates with a mission, but they're smart enough to go after the tourists wielding bananas. The park is actually quite pretty and we stumble upon a ceremony.
Balinese architecture Is beautiful and no matter the size, every home has its own family temple with intricately carved columns and figures. Even the smallest guesthouses have elaborate entrances.
Every day offerings are placed on the ground in front of homes, temples, shops even hotel rooms to honor the good spirits and fend off the bad. These small, handcrafted leaf packets filled with a variety of ingredients including, flowers, rice, nuts, fish and incense are hard to avoid stepping on. Luckily, once the ritual has been performed it really doesn't matter.
The picturesque Jatiluwah rice fields in Tabanan, about 2 hours north of Denpasar, are classified by UNESCO as a Cultural Landscape for their traditional Subak irrigation system. We spend a few hours walking along paved paths admiring the ingenuity of this ancient, eco-friendly technique passed down through generations.
The coastline along the east coast is rugged. We stop at a few places like Tulamben, famous for its shipwreck which lures experienced divers prepared to battle the harsh current, and Ahmed a tiny village known for free diving and yoga, but no area particularly inspires us, so we decide to try some of the small islands just off the coast.
Everything in Bali is negotiable and choosing the boat to take you across a fairly treacherous corridor is daunting. Foreign-owned private companies dispute the boardwalk for your business asking exorbitant prices, while the locally run companies seem disorganized leaving you to wonder how closely price and safety are related. With the luxury of time, we observe several operators and ultimately decide to support the local guys, who it turns out, offer the exact same service. And no matter what price you pay, you will have to get your feet wet. The boats get right up to the beach, but you have to wade in, between breaking waves to get on. Of course the locals do this with a bit more finesse and we're thankful that they are in charge of luggage.
It's a 30 minute smooth ride to Lembongan a small island where the scooter rules. A few small trucks are authorized to shuttle tourists and baggage. We check-in to the Pondok Arsa Santhi Hotel (20 euros per night/double)
Though not on the beach, the bungalow, next to the pool, is spanking new, with a nice outdoor bathroom. We last one night: The noise of scooters and motorcycles is unbearable. We find a bungalow at Mega Cottages (22 euros per night/double) on the beach for a few days, and then snag the last available bungalow at Yogi Guest House (22 euros per night/double) where we settle into an extremely relaxed rhythm.
To visit the interior of the island and beaches farther away, still in search of fine white sand, we rent a scooter for the day. We cross the rickety bridge to Ceningan a smaller island with just a couple of hotels and numerous seaweed farming operations.
The seaweed cultivated here is intended for use in beauty products.
At the end of the day, we decide that we're happier on our beachfront even though swimming is a challenge in the extremely shallow coral-filled water.
Happy hour is particularly pretty on Lembongan with lots of nice bars and restos to enjoy sunset followed by a movie at Jungut Batu, a covered outdoor theater with comfy bean bags and good food. Every morning the owner posts the movie of the evening. The show always starts with a surfing flick.
A communal cremation will take place in a few days. Poorer Balinese families bury the deceased until they can raise enough money for the Ngaben (cremation ceremony). On this day, there are about 20 families that will participate. For one family it has taken 7 years of saving. The remains are placed in a large funeral tower made of wood and paper mâché which sits on a thick bamboo frame. With a band of musicians playing bells and beating drums, 40 - 50 men hoist the structure in the air, twirl around and parade it up and down the main street, to confuse the spirits of the deceased and allow them to move on to the next life. On either side another group of men carry 2 bulls high over their heads in a similar trance. The procession carries on for 2 hours in the grueling sun with onlookers throwing refreshing water on the men and fanning them with large sheets of woven palm.
Next a procession of the families bring offerings and possessions of their loved ones which are placed inside the tower and blessed by holy men. Two young boys holding symbolic birds are attached to either side of the tower and once again the structure is carried to a timber platform where a dozen brightly-decorated, hollow horses await. Each family recuperates the remains and carries them one final time to be placed inside the horses. A series of ceremonial gestures follows - sprinkling water, placing leaves, burning incense, and blessings - before setting the entire line of horses ablaze. Though the fire will burn for hours, the families take leave as soon as the flames ignite. Not a tear is shed. This is a time for celebration knowing that the deceased will return in a new incarnation.
Visa extension requirements take us back to Bali. This time, the sea is raging, with waves pounding the boat from the side. It's like being inside a car wash. Everyone holds their breath as we slam forward to Padang Bay. Safely ashore, we decide to try the beaches of Nusa Dua and finally discover a beach with fine sand and turquoise water. BUT... this area is behind security gates. Anyone can enter, but you'd hardly know you're in Bali. It's just one international hotel after another. If you're looking for Starbucks and a deal on Polo Ralph Lauren, you've come to the right place.
About 40 minutes away the Uluwatu temple sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It draws big crowds especially at sunset, but the highlight is the Kecak dance of the monkeys. The "music" is actually a rather impressive breathing technique performed by a choir of men.
Crossing the seas yet again, we opt for Gili Air, one of 3 small islands right off the island of Lombok, about 1.5 hours from Bali. This boat ride is more like a rave party. We are the last to board and the party is in full swing but I'm pretty certain it's our seniority that causes the attendant to usher us right into the Capitan's deck. As the door shuts behind us muffling the Ibiza soundtrack, we settle in to thick leather couches for the ride wondering how we got so lucky.
There are no cars on Gili Air, just bicycles and horse-drawn carts. The Elephant House Bungalow is a 5 minute walk from the ferry. Our bungalow is nicely equipped with a roof terrace/lounge. If it wasn't so hot and humid you could sleep outside.
It takes all of 1.5 hours to walk around the island. Here too, the beach is painful underfoot, but the water is clear. Most places have gazebo-like platforms at water's edge and the rhythm of life, which even suits the mosquitos, is even mellower than Lembongan. Our favorite place for a cappuccino is Mowie's Bar, just steps from our hotel on the beach. However, this blissful place is short-lived. Some reservation confusion but more importantly, really loud music every night, forces us to pack up once again and head back to Bali. At this point, we have a nice relationship and volume discount with the local ferry guys.
We check back into our simple yet comfortable guest house, The Little Pond in Sanur (18 euros per night/double), and head to our favorite massage place next door. 6 euros for an hour head to toe. Divine.
With just few more days to spend in Bali, we decide to return to Ubud to visit a few more sites in the north central part of the island including Ulun Danu temple which sits on Beratan Lake in Bedugul and the Taman Ayun temple in Mengwi.
Although Bali did not live up to our expectations as a beach paradise, it did whet our desire to see more and we plan to return to Indonesia in the future to visit Sulawesi island for the funeral ceremonies, Komodo for the dragon, Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, and much more...