It had been a while since I was last in South East Asia - 2006 in fact - but upon stepping out of Denpasar airport in Bali it all came flooding back: of course... the chaotic traffic, the tiny roads, the mopeds, the deadly holes in the pavements, the thousands of identical shops all same same, but different. For some reason I had assumed that Bali would be quite plush and modern, given its long-endured status as the number one overseas destination for Australians, and there are indeed many top-end hotels, bars and clubs; but the whole place is still knitted together with the original village street plan and dysfunctional infrastructure, and the majority of locals are clearly still very poor. I had originally planned to just avoid the Kuta-Legian-Semanyak area altogether, since this was not the Indonesia I was looking for, but I was arriving very late at night and had checked myself into an upmarket hostel in Legian, called the Island Hotel. I ended up enjoying it so much that I didn´t leave the place until seven days later.
I was really lucky when I arrived as there was a bunch of really cool backpackers staying there at the time, and we all got on very well. We hardly left the hostel to begin with, since it had a pool, a rooftop bar, great food and free internet, plus the dorm rooms were unlike any I had seen before - funky, spotless and gleaming white, with all white furniture, white cotton drapes to section off the bunks, and super comfy mattresses and bedding. There were 1001 places to get a massage on our doorstep for about five bucks a pop (I had one nearly every day), and very good restaurants serving up fantastic seafood and local dishes at ridiculous prices. We did venture into Kuta one night, and to be fair it was not as horrendous as I expected. It was hectic, in the same way as, say, Tenerife or Ibiza are, but it wasn´t really as trashy. The superclub we went to was pretty good, even though I did have the overwhelming feeling of being stuck in the vortex of a number one terrorist target. It didn´t help especially when the taxi driver asked us where we would like to be dropped off, and said something like ´where the bomb went off?´... yep, that´s it; that´s the spot for us thanks. There is a poignant memorial garden there now, which is a little chilling to see, but very appropriate.
We spent a few nights at the beach in Seminyak too, where there is a bunch of excellent bars with massive beanbags lying about on the sand, which made perfect venues for chilling out with friends, enjoying a Bintang, or sampling certain local delicacies of the fungal variety... apologies to any family members reading this, but I won´t lie that it was extremely good fun and that we laughed our frickin´ arses off... so many stories from those nights!
After a week in Legian, Charlotte arrived from Sydney and we headed straight out to the Gili Islands, but more on that in the separate blog. When I returned from Gili though I spent a few more days in Bali and headed up to the other major tourist centre of Ubud. Again, I had not planned to go there either as I was really trying to go to Flores (an island in the East of the Nusa Tenggara archipelago) to do more snorkelling and see the giant Komodo dragons; but, unfortunately, it was not an option to sail there and it was just too damn expensive to fly there and back and over to Java... plus, my carbon footprint is a disgrace at the moment - I´m supposed to be a professional environmentalist and am hardly setting a good example! Reluctantly I decided to just make my way overland to Jakarta in Java, from where I would depart Indonesia two weeks later, and make the most of the adventure en route.
Ubud was delightful. I arrived and immediately found a very cheap but beautiful bungalow to stay in, complete with queen-size bed, a veranda overlooking a huge garden, and an extremely hospitable host. I then walked ten metres up the road and parked myself in the Laughing Buddha bar, which just happened to have happy hour cocktails, and just happened to have one of the best live bands I´ve ever had the pleasure to watch at such close range: a group of locals and a Hungarian violinist-vocalist chick who had created their own fusion of Eastern European Gipsy music, with Cuban piano riffs and Jazz percussion. In fact, there were many bars in Ubud with great live music, and the quality of the food everywhere was amazing. I had planned to do at least one touristy thing there, and thought I would have at least visited the Monkey Forest and the numerous ancient Hindu temples, but alas, I had a lot of catching up to do with work and the like, and I ended up just having a massage and a quick wander around the markets selling the artwork and textiles that Ubud is famous for. My time was running out and I left after just two nights to head to Java.
Bali was different from how I expected. People were certainly very friendly, as promised, and the uniqueness of Balinese culture was certainly very evident, in their food, their Hinduism, and in their cute offerings of flowers and incense in little reed baskets left on the pavements, painstakingly prepared every morning only to be trodden on or run over by mopeds by lunchtime. But, the main drag around Kuta-Legian-Seminyak was a real pain to walk about, with shop owners aggressively hassling you all the time (reminiscent of Turkey or India), and I think Bali has probably suffered greatly from mass tourism. It is a real shame I suppose.