Monday, September 29, 2008

Nusa Lembongan - We had the mola mola all to ourselves!


Destination: Nusa Lembongan

Number of Days there: 7 days

Our Best of: Two mola mola sightings; chilling at the "free" pool; how incredibly chill the island was despite (or because of) the whole surfer crowd

One thing unexpected: Seeing the mola mola up close and personal with no other divers present.

Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 0; Motorcycle: 5; Boat: 4

Estimated KM walked: Around 16km

Where we stayed: Aussie owned Linda's - Rp 100,000 (US $10)

Likes: Cheap price, very clean, friendly staff, and met some great fellow travelers in Rosalie (Dutch) and Adam (English).

Dislikes: Rather bland food, which is typical of Western establishments; last hotel on the beach strip so the walk to the middle was quite far each day.

Favorite Restaurant: Mangrove Restaurant - Jacketfish - RP 50,000 ($5) & Grilled Tuna - RP 35,000 ($3.50). Quiet little restaurant about a 40 minute walk from town (10 minutes by motorbike, free pickup). We had this awesome place all to ourselves all three nights we went, other than the crazy Aussie that made this place his home while on holiday. The little shop with the nasi campur in paper bags - RP 4,000 ($.40) was not only cheap, but delicious as well!

What we did:

We arrived mid morning and made made our rounds of hotels before settling on Linda's. We are starting to get the hang of finding cheap hotels. Instead of just settling on the first one that looks nice, we set the bags down, and one of us scopes out what is available. After finding the hotel, Tracy struck out to talk to the dive shops about diving. Since World Divers was booked (the one most highly recommended) we settled on Bali Dive Academy, which also happened to be a 5 star PADI dive shop as well and was recommended by World Divers. After meeting the French instructor, Severina, we decided to go ahead and complete our PADI Advanced Open Water with four dives: Deep Dive (between 20 and 40 meters), Drift Dive (where you just ride the wave underwater, hopefully), Underwater Navigation (Break out the compass and start counting fin strokes!) and Peak Buoyancy Control (practice doing push ups using only your lungs). After getting our dives set up, we started to walk over to the beach when we passed this quite little hotel on the hill. We poked our heads in and saw paradise. The pool was deserted and the view was tremendous. We strolled up to the counter and after a few words back in forth (are you SUUUURE we can't use the pool if we buy a drink???) they reluctantly said ok. I always wondered why people would ever go to the beach and get in a pool, but that day, I saw why. We spent the rest of the day sipping on Bintang Beer, dipping in and out of the clean, clear waters of the infinity pool to cool ourselves and just relaxing the day away while enjoying the view. After returning to the hotel, Rosalie, a traveler from Holland, has told us about this amazing place called Mangrove and that we had to go and try the Jacket Fish. After just finishing our blah meal at Linda's, we told her to count us in for the next night!

The first two dives were the more technical ones, Peak Buoyancy and Underwater Navigation. The dive shop had warned us that the water was cold. We thought to ourselves, "It's the tropics, how cold could it really be?" After jumping in the water, we soon found out! Where the average water temperature of most dive sites are around 75-80 degrees, this particular dive site sat at a balmy 55-60 degrees. We later found out that the waters between Bali and the island are home to one of the deepest trenches in the world and sits directly on a fault line. The 20 degrees difference is do to the swells from down below. After practicing our hovering and push ups underwater we took a small break and were back in the water for the Navigation Course. Given that I had pretty much failed the compass part in our Open Water classes I was not looking forward to breaking them out one more time. Not only did we have to make a square using a compass underwater, but we also had to measure how many fin stokes it takes to travel a predetermined distance. Swimming back and forth, back and forth, making squares, navigating around rocks can really wear you out, not to mention make your air rapidly disappear. As Tracy was completing her "perfect" square, I looked down and realized I was sitting on 60 bars and still had to complete my square. Much to my delight, Instead of the standard 20 fin stroke square, mine was reduced to 8 fin strokes! This is one of the only times that it pays to be a heavy breather! We resurfaced without incident, and looked forward to some real diving the next day. We raced back to the hotel just in time to be picked up by motorbike to be taken to Mangrove. The ride itself was good fun, poor road combined with night made for a bumpy and slightly scary ride. We ordered a couple of Bintang's and the infamous Jacketfish along with Rosalie and Adam. As the fish arrived, I actually recognized the fish as one of the fish that are prevalent on the reefs. Thinking to myself that I had seen countless ones all over the reef, I found a little comfort in knowing they were by no means endangered, no matter how pretty they are. The texture was moist and flaky, the taste was mild and after adding a little sambal to complete the dish, it was one of the best meals we had had on the trip so far.

The following day, we started with Crystal Bay, our planned deep dive class. After swimming for about 10 minutes and descending to a depth of around 30 meters (a little over 90 feet) off in the dark depths came a huge fish, the infamous Mola Mola (Sunfish). Measuring about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide, the large fish swam effortlessly towards us as we hovered trying to stay motionless in the water. The Mola Mola lives in the deep waters around 100 meters (300 feet) and far to deep for normal scuba diving. For about three months of the year, they leave there deep home and come to the surface to be cleaned by smaller fish. As the fish came into closer view, we could see the smaller emperor fish picking away at the large fish. We sat and just admired the scenery taking it all in for most of the dive, until we were close to our no decompression limit and had to swim up. Back on the surface, our instructor was ecstatic exclaiming in her French accent "We had zee Mola Mola all to ourselvez!". Indeed, it was her first time seeing one as well, and she had been diving in the area for 3 weeks straight and had yet to see it. After all the excitement, we could not wait to do our drift dive in the afternoon. We had done a drift dive before in Cozumel and remember what a rush it is just flying through the water, letting it take you where it may. As we jumped in the water and dove, we soon realized that the site that is known for current had none! In fact, the water was so calm that we had to swim quite a bit. It was still a pleasant dive site, but we found it a bit ironic that our certification for completing a drift dive would come with no drift what-so-ever. We came back to the hotel, shared our day's excitement with Rosalie and Adam, and got ready for Mangrove, part two (when you find a restaurant you like, stick to it!)

The next day we had told Adam and Rosalie about our little hidden paradise on the hill so we decided to return once again with Adam and Rosalie tagging along. Once again, the friendly staff said ok, and we settled in once again, catching up on some rays (Tracy) and feebly attempting to catch up on this blog (Jason). They also agreed that this was one certainly a pleasant surprise. They had no guests staying at the hotel, and we were their only source of income for the day, so we felt like it was a fair deal.

We decided that the next day, we had to get in one more day of diving so we actually went to the same place as before for another chance at the Mola Mola. This time we also had "zee Mola Mola all to ourselvez!" As we sat on the side of the cliff just watching, the large fish came closer and closer. We could see its eyes look our way and then look forward. Back and forth his eyes went and closer and closer he came until he was less than three meters away from my head! There is good diving, and then there is once in a lifetime diving, I believe that this moment was one of those once in a lifetime moments. Luckily, Tracy snapped a great photo to capture the moment. As he came within 9 feet, he saw other divers descending upon our location and it made an abrupt turn and swam off to sea. In the afternoon, we did actually do a real drift dive, flying through the water like Superman passing over beautiful coral and passing our little friend, Mr. Jacketfish. Coincidently, the dive site was....The Mangrove.

Our last day, we headed over to spend the whole day at the pool only to discover that "The Boss" was bringing over people from the mainland for the day and it was not possible to use their deserted pool. Now hooked on pools at the beach and dejected, we turned to the resort pool back up the path, Coconut Bay. Sadly, they charge for use of their pool, but at least the pressure to purchase food and beverages was off so we bought our lunch for 4000 (about .40 cents!) and some water somewhere else and hung out all day, albeit far more crowded.

After finally deciding on where to head for Tracy's B-day, we boarded the boat in the morning and jumped on a bus heading back to...Ubud, The Return.

A special thanks to momma Karen for your generous gift! It made the sighting of "zee mola mola" possible!

To see more pictures of Nusa Lembongan please click here!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Snore...oops, I mean Sanur


Destination: Sanur

Number of Days there: 1

Our Best of: Sanur has a huge variety of restaurants to choose from.

Worst of: Durian Cake - it tasted almost as bad as it smelled.

One thing unexpected: Sanur has a huge grocery store with a special aisle devoted to imports! Hello peanut butter!

Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 0; Motorcycle: 0; Boat: 1

Estimated KM walked: 6-7 kilometers

Where we stayed: Watering Hole (RM 100,000 - about $11)

We liked: cheap, clean, quiet & centrally located 1 block from the beach & ferry terminal

Disliked: cold water showers (I will NEVER get used to them) & a bad restaurant

Favorite restaurant: Beach Cafe - yummy European breakfast with muesli, yogurt, fruit, real European style bread, cheese, meat, juice & Italian coffee (pricey at 75,000 RM - about $8-$9 US but big enough to split)

We negotiated a transfer from Amed to Sanur with a friendly driver named Tajus (contact info: to be posted). It was a bit expensive at 400,000 RM ($40 something US) but we were able to make a couple of stops along with way and it included pick up and drop off at our hotel. We stopped along the way at several viewpoints and at Tengagan which is occupied by the Bali Aga people (original Balinese). We toured their village and saw many of the local crafts being made (baskets, double & single ikat weavings, etc). I had the opportunity, not that shopping opportunities are unheard of, to purchase a hand made scarf and an ikat table runner. After stopping at Tengagen we stopped for lunch at a local warung Tajus recommended and tried lawar which is a chopped salad of coconut, chilies, pork & blood (we ordered ours sans blood but it still came with jerky made from pig heart and what I think was a piece of liver). We were not impressed. Anyways, onto Sanur!

Sanur has a reputation for being a quiet alternative to Kuta and it definitely lived up to that reputation. Compared to Kuta, Sanur was pleasantly deserted. lt's still very touristy but it has a slightly more upmarket feel and it's geared towards older travelers rather than the surf crowd. We checked into the hotel and relaxed at a beach cafe for the afternoon and then ended the evening with a long stroll through the beach and around town. We stocked up on snacks for our trip to Nusa Lembongan and searched for an ATM that would allow us to take out 3 million rupiahs (roughly $300 US which is the max any ATM in Bali will allow you to withdraw). There are no ATMs in Nusa Lembongan and we planned on diving so we needed cash & fast before our morning ferry! After stopping at 7-8 ATMs (ironically enough the amount got less and less with every stop) we finally found one near Dunkin Donuts of all places that allowed us to take out the right amount of money. We kind of laughed and joked about our bad luck but then we started to talk about the obvious underlying issue. It's very humbling to travel in a country where your dollar goes so far and to realize that people here survive on far less than an American ever could. To most Americans $300 in not that much money. There we were wanting to take out enough money to last us a week and we found only ATMs that would let us take out the equivalent of $50-$150 US. To people living in Bali and making roughly $100-$200 per month (and $200 is a REALLY good salary) that is a huge sum. Many survive on far less than that. While I wouldn't say Bali is poor by any means they are heavily dependent on tourism and the supply seems to far outweigh the demand so it's difficult for people to become upwardly mobile.

After finally finding an ATM we headed to dinner. Exhausted we decided to try the Watering Hole, our hotel's restaurant which was recommended by Lonely Planet. It was a definite disappointment though with very bland food. I don't know why but in many tourist establishments the food tends to be tasteless. We asked each other, why do restaurants adapt their perfectly good food to satisfy western palates? Don't we all need a little bit of spice in our lives?

Next stop, Nusa Lembongan!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Diving and swinging the days away: Amed and the east coast of Bali


Destination: Amed (Selang village to be exact) and Tulamben (site of the USST Liberty)

Number of Days there: 4

Our Best of: Sipping on tea as you watch the local fisherman bring in their days haul at 7:30am, diving the majestic USST Liberty

One thing unexpected: Riding down the road on the back of a motorcycle with no helmet in a wet suit

Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorcycle: 2

Estimated KM walked: just to the water to go snorkeling/diving

Where we stayed: Good Karma (160,000rp about $18 US) Nice place with all the Bungalows facing the water and breakfast included. Goods: quite, ocean front, hammock, friendly manager, Baba somewhat of a local celebrity. Bads: the random request for massage? or snorkeling? or transport?, location is too far from town to walk and the mysterious brown water that flowed from the shower on occasion

Favorite restaurant: Blue Moon - decent fare that took the usual Indonesian dishes and gave them a little spin - the rest of our food excursions were rather uneventful.

We arrived an Amed to really do two things: dive the USST Liberty and relax on a nice beach. The Liberty was a US cargo ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese during WWII, towed to shore to salvage the goods, and left on the shore when the island was lost to the advancing Japanese. When the nearby volcano of Agung erupted in 1963, it broke the ship in half and pushed it into the ocean where it now lies at a nice diving depth of 21 meters at the deepest point. While the ship did not disappoint, the beach was not exactly suited to swimming and sunbathing. All the beaches along this stretch are rocky and the expanse of sand under the water have been replaced with corals. Good for snorkeling, but not the pure white sand beach we were hoping for.

The first day we spent relaxing at the hotel. We arose in the morning to find that all the boats lining the shore from the day before, were gone. Around 7:30 all of them came back in carrying a basket full of fish (if they were lucky that is). Apparently all of the fishing is done between sunrise (around 4:30 - 5:00, we have yet to get up early enough to find out!) and 8:00am. The women then come out, collect all the fish, and take them to the market. We were told that the fish being caught were some variety of tuna, but a much smaller variety than what we are used to in the US. After watching the fisherman and getting breakfast, we snorkeled for a little while right in front of the hotel, which was surprisingly nice. With beautiful corals and lots of fun fish swimming around, it was a perfect way to spend a day. According to the folks staying next door there was even a blue octopus (which we could never find), a really rare find. After tiring from snorkeling, we would swing away in the hammock on our porch. We also booked our diving for the next day with White Sand Divers, the dive shop associated with our hotel. Since our hotel was to far from town to really check around properly, we just decided that they would be just fine.

The next two days we spent diving around Tulamben. Each day we were greeted by the same driver that picked up divers for the dive shop. He was quite the talkative one that chatted it up with us the surprisingly long 30 minute drive and stopped for a good picture of Agung. After arriving at the dive shop, we suited up and made our way down the driveway for a shore entry to the dive site. The wreck certainly lived up to its billing as a great place to dive. With huge schools of travally's, tons of nudibranches, and of course, the loads of coral completely covering what's left of the ship. During the afternoon dive, we swam in and out of cargo bays, enjoying the scenery as we went. Our divemaster stopped by a cleaning station and let the little cleaner shrimp clean his teeth. We are not quite that brave yet! After our two dives for the day, we decided to book three dives for the next day with one of them being our first night dive. Upon paying for our first day's dive, we thought that they were charging us a little more than what we agreed upon, but figured since we were back the next day, we could sort it out then. The friendly driver took us back to Amed, and offered to stop by one of the few Internet places in town while he waited outside. The Internet connection here is impossibly slow not to mention expensive - 500rp per minute, so don't plan on catching up on anything. He dropped us back at the hotel and we spent the rest of the night having dinner and relaxing on our porch.

The next day the same driver picked us up for the journey. After talking for a while, he turned to us and in a more serious tone said, "So Jason...Tracy..., you like cocaine?" All the while, the driver had been funny and joking, but this question had a different tone and made us feel a little uneasy. We of course replied NO, considering that even if we were into the drug scene (we're not!) getting caught with it here will land you in jail for 25 years, and having enough to traffic means the death penalty. After a bit of banter back and forth over the uncomfortable topic of drugs, he turns again and laughs saying "Haha, I only joking." We thought to ourselves yeah right, if we had said yes, we were fairly certain he could produce it. The last few minutes of the drive were in silence and we arrived at the dive shop, got out, and got ready for the dive.

The first dive of the day was at the Tulamben Dropoff, aka. the Wall. Walls prove to be a popular dive location where the edge drops into the ocean and goes on forever, farther than you can see in a wet suit and some gear strapped to your back. To get to the dive site, it's a few minutes down the road from the shop so we hopped on the back of a motorbike, dawned in wet suit and carrying our mask and fins. Luckily, the ride was short and we arrived with no problem. After a short swim down the once sandy beach (it's now, sadly, covered in trash) the wall appears jutting out of the cliff only about 40-50 feet from shore. Teeming with life, mostly of the smaller variety, there is an infinite amount of things to see. We even spotted a rare pigmy seahorse, difficult to see as they blend in so well with the fans they live on. After our dive, we clambered back onto shore over the rocks and between the boats and waited to ride the motorcycle back to the shop. While waiting, we noticed these ladies carrying not only one tank, but two, on top of their heads, gear and all! It's hard to imagine how they do it considering it's all we can do just to carry our own gear up the hill. After our surface interval, we were back in the water, this time back to the wreck. Some of the highlights of the dive included swimming through the wreckage, a huge school of Jack's, and of course, trying to dodge all the other divers - mainly the ones in groups of about 10.

After finishing our first two dives, we wandered around Tulamben for a little while. Not really much to see here, it's a small town and the only thing going here is the diving. We did come across another dive shop, Tulamben Wreck Divers that seemed a lot better and cheaper than the outfit were were with and would recommend them over the White Sand Divers we went with. After returning to the shop we went ahead and sorted out our bill. Of course, they had overcharged us from the first day. The now sketchy driver was the one we had paid the first day, and he had decided to add on a little extra for transport, which was supposed to be included, used a ridiculous exchange rate and not given our discount for multiple dives. After talking about it for a little while, we got it all sorted out and we were back in the water for our first night dive. They say that it's a different world down there at night, at it certainly is. The only places you can see is where you shine the flashlight and the colors of the corals, fish and other marine life seem to change by night. Our dive was highlighted by a huge Bumphead Parrotfish, the largest Parrotfish variety. Most Parrotfish have a couple of teeth, but the Bumphead has one large row of teeth solidly fused together. It's something special to swing your flashlight around and there right in front of you is this huge fish swimming by. The currents are also stronger at night than during the day for some reason, so you need good buoyancy control, but it's well worth it and we plan to do it again in the near future. After the dive, we were dreading the ride back with the same driver. The 30 minute ride that was full of talking and chatting it up was replaced by an awkward silence. Wether it was the refusal of cocaine, or more over, the fact he didn't suck us for extra money for the "free" transport, it could not end soon enough. Fortunately, we arrived back at the hotel without further problems, ate some dinner, and went to bed early.

After the weird exchanges with the dive shop, we decided that four days was enough in Amed and spent the last day snorkeling another little wreck just south of the hotel. The Japanese shipwreck as it is called around here, was no where near as impressive as the Liberty. All that is left of the ship is the bow that sticks up to about a meter or two from the surface. The little warung there serves up tasty light dishes and we spent a casual afternoon snorkeling around the wreck and sipping on fresh fruit juices. After snorkeling, we finally decided on where to go next and booked transport for the next day to Sanur (400,000rp with a couple of stops along the way) so we could take the ferry the next day over to Nusa Lembogan.

Next stop: The Island of Nusa Lembogan for some more diving!

To see more pictures from Amed click here!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Cultural Capital of Bali: Ubud - Part 3

Day 6: Temples on islands, lakes and waterfalls, and babi guling

We began the day with a stop at Pura Taman Ayun. With a "moat" all the way around its outer walls followed by a smaller "moat" inside the temple, it seemed more like a medieval castle than an ancient Hindu temple. With it's large, thatched roof temples, it made for a nice photo, but the origin and meaning of the temple remain a mystery to us and apparently the driver as well. The next stop was the main reason we wanted to make the trip to the lake country of Bali, the stunning temple of Ulun Danu Bratan. The Hindu/Buddist (important to both religions) was founded in the 17th century and the two temples themselves are built on two tiny islands in the lake. With the mountains in the background, it makes for a stunning view. While we were there, their was a Buddist procession complete with music and flags waving. After admiring the temple and the well landscaped surroundings, we headed further up the mountain and made our way to the waterfalls of Gitgit. Quite touristy, the short walk down to the main waterfall is lined with souvenir shops selling anything from bathing suits to sarongs (no shop is complete without sarongs ANYWHERE in Bali). Cascading off the cliff from a height of 120 feet, the single fall was nice, but we found the better falls to be the twin falls down the road. The twin falls were much shorter, only about 25-30 feet, but the water here was much more impressive and the swimming spot was a lot nicer than the other fall, albeit just as cold so we didn't swim, but Putu had a nice swim. The only unfortunate part is that you have to hire a completely useless "guide" (36,000rp) that leads you down the well signed, concrete path to the bottom. After the quick dip, we started to make our way back to Ubud with a stop at one of the markets. It was a huge, sprawling market, but quite touristy and the prices were extortionate so we bargained hard to get a few peanuts and some fruit to take on the road. After the market, we hit up a roadside warung on the way back serving up babi guling, or suckling pig. If Bali has a "national" dish, this is it. The warung only serves this one dish and with it comes a plate of rice along with greens, pork crackling (skin), both sliced and chopped pork, served with sambal (local version of chilli sauce). While it was tasty in its own right, we both agree that it doesn't hold a candle to the pork barbeque you get in North Carolina, and we sure could have used a little of Dad's sauce to spice it up. After our late lunch, we returned to Ubud, relaxed our our porch for one last night, ate at Roda's one last time, and called it an early night.

Day 7: To Amed we go, stopping by Gunung Batur and Tirta Gangga

We had one last delicious breakfast of banana pancakes and waved goodbye to the lovely people at Hibuscus and were off to Amed, the name for a group of villages on the East Coast of Bali. In route we stopped at for a wonderful view of the rice terraces, seemingly filling every hill in the lush central part of Bali. After snapping a few photos and messing with the local children selling postcards (it was a holiday from school that day) we made our way to a little roadside stand where you can sample some of the local produce. Bali has a very diverse variety of produce. In the same plot of land they grow, mangosteens, mangos, vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, palm fruit, papaya, and tons of other spices. After sampling the coffee, tea and hot chocolate we hit the road again headed for Danau Batur, the lake named after the adjacent mountain of Batur. Not more than an hours drive from the fruit stand, the soil becomes volcanic and the lush valleys and hillsides are replaced with an arid and barren landscape. The area is best known for growing vegetables like onions, chilli's, and garlic. We stopped at the lake side for a little while, but other than seeing the little fishing village, which consists of fish farms mostly, it's not really worth the time. We stopped for lunch at another warung, this time selling goat satay. I enjoyed the goat myself and would not mind it again, but Tracy didn't care for it, particularly the soup, which I must admit didn't do much for me either. After a long three hour drive leaving behind the arid volcano landscape, through dense jungles, we arrived at the Water temple of Tirta Gangga. With water effects everywhere and beautifully landscaped grounds, the water temple was quite impressive. It even has two swimming pools, and looks like they were in the process of adding a stage for traditional dances as well.

We arrived in Amed and settled on our little hotel by the sea, Good Karma. We figured with a name like that, how can you go wrong!

To see more pictures from Ubud please click here!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Cultural Capital of Bali: Ubud - Part 2

Day 4 - Vroom, Vroom, Vroom: Spinning around with a motorbike

Having never rode a motorbike, much less driven one before there was a certain degree of uncertainty in having to not only learn to drive one, but also drive on the opposite side of the road. After a few minutes of wobbling down the side street, it became a little easier and we were on our way to the Elephant Cave, Goa Gajah. Built over 900 years ago, the age and simplicity of the cave certainly shows in contrast to the intricate temples that adorn the island today. The T shaped cave consists of three basic "windows" which contain a statue of the elephant lord, Ganesh, and on either side the male and female phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva. Even in it's simplistic manner, the grounds themselves were really nice with a lush hillside leading down to a small river. The next stop on the list was the ancient temple of Gunung Kawi. It too was built at the river bottom and the steps to the bottom were quite daunting knowing that every step down meant the same step coming up. Assuming (you know what that does) that the sarong (in order to enter any temple in Bali, you must wear a sarong along with a traditional "belt") by donation stand was at the bottom, we walked all the way down only to realize that it was back at the very top off to the side. Rather than trek back to the top to rent one and then make the trip one more time, we just poked our heads in the entrance and figured that was enough. Similar statues were also on the outside of the temple so we got a good view of them. After enjoying the scenery (they plant rice just about anywhere!) we climbed up the steps and stopped at a nice little roadside warung (cafe or small restaurant that mainly cater to locals) where we enjoyed our first es buah (ice with sweetened condensed milk, fresh fruit and some type of syrup) which was surprisingly good, and our staple meals here, mie goreng (fried noodles with vegetables, chicken and an egg on top) and nasi goreng (same only with rice instead) pedas (spicy!).

Next stop on our scooter tour were the silver shops of Ciluk. After a quick little jaunt to the south we arrived in the little town and were greeted promptly by a seemingly nice man on a motorbike asking the now infamous question "Hello, where you go? (first question they ask when they want to sell you something about 75% of the time, the other 25% goes to the question "Hello, where you from?" followed by transport?, rent motorbike? where you stay?, etc.). After chatting with him while driving down the road no less, we soon realize that he works for one of the hundreds of silver shops and wants us to go to his shop of choice. Yes, even driving down the road you get a little harmless harassment. I guess everyone has to make a living somehow right? After browsing the shops for a bit, we made our way back north to Ubud before it got dark. By the end of the day, we had honed our skills on the motorbike that we even went up a one way street the wrong way (not on purpose, but I was just following the flow of traffic oddly enough - quite the accepted practice here). I would not say that driving here is easy, but you get used to the aggressive, make your own path attitude and have to join in to some degree.

After parking the scooter for the day, it was time for us to do the other half of Ubud - hit the spas. After all the walking, trekking and touring we started our relaxation that night with our first massage of the trip. Ubud is the center of Bali for spas and the choices here run the gambit from murah murah(cheap cheap) to mahal! (Expensive!). We choose one across the street from our hotel. We signed up for a one hour massage (125,000rp or about $14 us) which really ended up being about 40 minutes with 20 minutes of getting dressed afterwards and sipping on a little cup of water. Needless to say, we were not that impressed, especially since the price was quite a bit more than other places around. At least the massage itself was nice, despite the time issue.

Day 5: Need Transport? Yes we do!, bathed in flowers, and Ke-chat, ke-chat, ke-chat

The next day we went and booked two days of a driver - one day to see the temples and a waterfall that was a little too far to go on the motorbike for our comfort, and the next day transfer to Amed with a few stops along the way (more on both later!). After looking around a bit, we met a really "Nice Driver" (His sign said so so that makes it true, right?) named Putu. After chatting with him for a while about various places to go and see, we settled on a price (400,000rm $45 US for one day; 500,000rm $58 US for the second day with transfer). Now, I know that all you independent travelers out there are thinking this is a bit of cheating not to mention pricey, but we did it for a couple of reasons. One, we wanted to find out more about the culture and having the same person for two days that we could understand and ask questions in English was a huge help. Secondly, having someone explain some of the meanings of the temples is a huge help as well rather than just wondering around a sight and thinking oh this is nice, but what does it all mean? Lastly, getting around by public transport is rather expensive in itself (other than catching Bemos from small town to small town until you get your destination wasting a lot of time in the process) so for the two of us to travel around by public bus, it's virtually the same price. If we do Bali again, packing much lighter and renting a motorbike for the whole time would be the better option for getting around Bali. The Island is small and most drives are less than 3 hours apart.

After getting the next couple of days booked, we hit the spa! There was one that had just opened and was running a special price of 50% off everything. Quite the deal so we opted to do the hour and half massage and scrub followed by a soak in a tub filled with flowers followed by a manicure/pedicure. It was a nice little spa and the flower bath was quite unique. Filled with fragrant flowers like hibiscus and frangipani it was a relaxing a pleasant experience. The mani/pedi was lacking a little however, but for 25,000rm (less than $3 US) we can't complain too much! All in all, our three hour spa treatment was the same cost as the massage alone from the night before (250,000RM about $30 US for both of us).

Relaxed and muscles loosened, we decided to take in one more show before we left the Ubud area. Kecak Fire & Trance Dance uses a gamelan suara (choir of 100 men) to set the stage for dancers interpreting a piece of the story from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. At first, we must admit, the choir of a hundred men was quite humorous. All the "music" is provided by the men making noises using their mouths only. Sitting in a circle around a small statue filled with candles, the men started to make a noise like Ke-chat, ke-chat, ke-chat. For a small clip, click here. Once the story started however, it made more sense and we enjoyed the performance. After the story of Ramayana, they set the stage for the trance dance. Trance Dance: A horse rider is lulled into a trance by the gamelan suara (choir of a 100 men) and in his trance he walks on a bed of burning coconut husks responding to the rising & falling sounds of the gamelan suara. The fire was lit and as the gamelan suara changed noises, the rider (in this case a hobby horse) would kick the burning husks around and then walk across them! By the end of the dance, the rider's feet were completely black and he sat a while after the performance presumably letting his feet rest before walking on them again. We both walked away from the performance in awe and we highly recommend you don't miss this particular dance.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Cultural Capital of Bali: Ubud - Part 1

Destination: Ubud, Bali
Number of Days there: 6
Our Best of: Awesome hotel, cheeky monkeys, Kecak Fire and Trance Dance
One thing unexpected: Hawkers and touts can be anywhere, even on countryside walks and on motorbikes pulling up next to your motorbike while driving!
Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorcycle: 1
Estimated KM walked: 25 (two long hikes around the countryside of Ubud area)
Where we stayed: Hibiscus (; phone number 0361-970475) - Rp 160,000 (US $18) including a huge breakfast and coffee/tea all day long

*HIGHLY recommended, this little hotel has 5 rooms that are in the Balinese house style. For $18 per night you get a huge room with Balinese furniture & a bathtub big enough for 4 people (not that we tried), your own private terrace with unlimited coffee & tea throughout the day AND a free breakfast with a massive plate of fresh local fruit and your choice of pancakes, eggs or french toast. It's located 5 minutes walk from town in the middle of a quiet rice paddy with a nice view! It is situated next to Ala's Hibiscus in the Lonely Planet book (run by the same family). Just bring a flashlight if you're out late at night because there are no lights in the paddy.

Favorite Restaurant: Roda's Restaurant - chicken curry or mixed rice with meat - RP 15,000 (US $1.50) & Our hotel - banana pancakes, banana shakes & fresh fruit (free breakfast with room) & Warung Babi Guling - roasted suckling pig (around 10,000 RP - US $1 - located on the road on the way to lake temple - not in Ubud)

Day 1 - Lekong Dance

We took a shuttle from Kuta to Ubud (RP 55,000 per person - roughly US $6) which took about an hour. Naturally the shuttle dropped us off at the furthest point in Ubud from our hotel so we trekked through town with our packs to our hotel. After relaxing on our lovely porch with complimentary tea we went out to explore town. Ubud is located in south central Bali and is the other main tourist mecca in Bali outside of Kuta. Lining the hillside all around the town of Ubud are artisans selling their handmade goods. Silver, woodcarvings, paintings, and textile items (sarongs mostly) seem to be the most popular made goods here, but you could decorate your entire home inside and out no problem with handmade goods. The town of Ubud itself is crowded, busy, and full of the same hawkers lining the streets of Kuta (Transport? Taxi? How about tomorrow?). It's best to stay just outside of town and spend your days exploring the neighboring towns and countryside. Often times, the items sold in the stores in Ubud are made by a shop out in the hills and resold at a much higher price in town. Not only do you get a better price, but the artist gets more of the money plus you get the added bonus of seeing the items made!

After walking around town for a bit, we had dinner at the lovely Rodo's Restaurant. Located above a fair trade textile store, the restaurant shares some of the same philosophy - vegetarian mainly (many tofu and tempe options, but also had some chicken meals) with organic, fresh local items on the menu. It ended up being the place where we spent most of our dinners and the owner went out of his way to say hello with a big smile and a few friendly words. It also happened to be quite a bit cheaper than most restaurants in town. After dinner, we decided to see one of the many traditional dances that are performed on a nightly basis. The Legong Dance is actually a collection of dances based on traditional Balinese mythical stories. All of the dances are set to the beautiful music of the gamelan, a collection of drums, symbols and a xylophone style instrument hit with tiny hammers. The dancers move with the music in precise and dedicated movements. The combination is quite beautiful. For a small clip of the dance, click here (we will upload when we have a solid Internet connection). The setting for this performance is in the Royal Palace of Ubud, a collection of older temples, one of them being the private temple for the royal family. Located right in the heart of Ubud, it's hard to miss and makes a good place marker when you might get turned around a bit. After the dance we retired to our quiet little room and prepared for the next day's trek around the countryside with the first stop: The Monkey Forest.

Day 2 - Cheeky Monkeys and a stroll around the countryside

The monkey forest is known for its cheeky monkeys and cheeky they are. There are about 300 of them in this small temple complex. Although the monkeys seem to serve as a tourist attraction mainly (the signs for this place are all over south Bali) the area also serves in a religious capacity as well. In the Balinese culture, there are temples everywhere. Every family has a temple, every community within a town have a temple, and each town has at least three temples. The Monkey forest has three within it's area, with the main one being the town of Ubud's Temple of the Dead. The monkeys are sacred in their culture and are there to protect the temple from the evil spirits. Non-the-less, the monkeys are well trained to accept feeding from visitors, and the locals are happy to oblige, selling bananas at every entry point, and even some within. If you do decide to feed them, don't expect to get too far with your treats as the monkeys are keen to find them no matter what, including jumping on you if they even think you have anything for them. If you get past the first 100 meters with them, you have either run or hid them really well! After getting our fill of monkey and temple time, we made our way to the other side of the forest and began our walk through the little villages that are around the area of Ubud. The walk was about 8km total and it passed through sleepy, far less touristy towns, across rice paddies and back up the hill to Ubud. Once outside of Ubud, most of the touts for various services and goods stop. We only had one offer for a "guided" tour of some rice paddies, not quite sure if we really needed one so we declined. We did stop half way through the walk at a little nameless road side warung and had whatever she was making for only 2000rp (about 25 cents!). We have yet to actually find out what it was but it sure was tasty and consisted of peanut sauce over some kind of potato type vegetable (Cassava or tapioca we think it's called) and other mixed vegetables. On the way back to town, Tracy got in some shopping time, strolling through the various shops that line the roads. After crossing back over the river we decided to have dinner at Wary's Restaurant, a sprawling "complex" complete with a gift shop and 5 levels of dining areas, one being close to the river for an ok view (not really worth the inflated price of food in our opinion but the meal itself was pretty good and the Storm Beer, made in Bali, is actually a good beer!). Tired from walking, we went back to the room and called it an early night.

Day 3 - "I see you come and climb tree just for you! Fresh Coconut?!": The Campuan Ridge Walk

We started the next day with another walk around the area. The first walk lead to the south and this walk headed north of Ubud via a steep climb to the top of a ridge that straddles two rivers. One side of the hill is mostly undeveloped with a few rice fields and the other side looks out to the other side of the river where there are luxury hotel after luxury hotel. It was a pleasant, if not somewhat hot (no shade on top) even despite coming across a little man that yelled out as we approached "Hello! I see you coming, but you not see me! I climb to top of that tree and yell hello(he points all the way to the other side of the hill at a coconut tree at the bottom of the ravine) and cut down coconut just for you! Fresh coconut?!" We declined but you have to admire his ingenuity. He certainly has a monopoly on the fresh-coconut-in-middle-of-nowhere-after-a-hot-walk business. After another twenty minutes or so past the coconut man, you come back into the villages. After browsing the shops and catching our breath for a bit we continued our hike until we reached the main road back to Ubud. The first part of the road is a grueling, straight uphill climb. After reaching the top of the hill, there was a little Wartel (the name commonly associated to what I would call a convenience store) where we stopped and chatted with another traveler, Sterling, an expat living in Guam at the moment, while we enjoyed our rest. Continuing on the road, you pass mostly homes until you come to the decidedly more upscale area of Campuan. Filled with fine art galleries and home to supposedly one of the best restaurants in all of Asia, Mosaic (a bit expensive for our budget), it's still a nice walk checking out all the artwork on display in the shops. We stopped for lunch at Morney's Warung, certainly catering to the tourists (but then again most things around here do) with beef on the menu (Hindu's don't eat beef) in the form of burgers and ribs. The place was certainly hopping, all tourists of course, and the burger was not that great (Not sure what I was thinking ordering a beef burger in a place that does not eat beef!), but it was convenient and in Lonely Planet (the bible of travel guides) for a good burger. After lunch we continued to make our way back to Ubud where, tired and exhausted, we crashed at the room and ordered food there. Calling it a night, we decided that the next day we needed some wheels - Motorbike style!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A beautiful sunset in Kuta but not much else...


Destination: Kuta Beach, Bali
Number of Days there: 1
Our Best of: Beautiful sunset
One thing unexpected: Obnoxious hawkers: "Transport?"; "Take tour?"; "Marijuana?"
Times we took the: Bus: 0 Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 1
Estimated KM walked: not very many
Where we stayed: Simpang Inn - Rp 300,000 (US $33)
Favorite Restaurant: Aromas (nice little veggie place) - Tostadas - RP 45,000 (US $5) & Expresso Ice Cream - Rp 10,000 (US $1.10) The Kopi Pot (free WiFi) - Banana Pancakes with Lime & Honey - RP 18,000 (US $2)

We took a taxi to the airport (RM 23) and attempted to check in our bags for our Air Asia flight. We were informed that our bags were over the limit of 15 kilos so instead of paying the additional carriage fee of 100 RM (ridiculous) we stuffed the books & other heavy items from our checked luggage into our day packs. Problem solved and our bags weighed in just over 15 kilos (still way too heavy we know)! Our flight was uneventful and we landed in Bali! As American citizens we enjoyed the privilege of being able to pick up a visa on arrival at the airport (US $25/person). We arrived without a hotel reservation and luckily there was a travel agent situated before customs we we stopped by and he checked us into the Simpang Inn for a bargain price (yeah right) of Rp 300,000 (about $33). I'm sure he got quite a commission but it's high season and we arrived quite late so we were happy to pay it for 2 nights. We were skeptical but the Simpang Inn turned out to be quite nice with a pool, tv and bathtub (yay - all firsts for this trip)! We took a taxi into town (Rp 55,000 fixed price) and settled into our hotel. Tracy was coming down with a cold (probably from the communal tuak cup at the longhouse) so we opted to stay in and relax.

We spent the day in Kuta taking it easy, getting caught up on email, uploading pictures and browsing around town. We saw the Bali bomb memorial and spent a few hours at the beach. The main reason we wanted to come to Kuta was for the sunset and it proved to be very nice indeed! It seems like the whole town turns out for sunset and enjoys a beer on the beach, it was really kind of a nice community feeling! After sunset we just relaxed, had dinner and decided to stay in (again, that pesky cold).

Other than the beautiful sunset, Kuta didn't have much to offer. We are not really into the party or surfing scene, which is basically what the town is built for and the whole town is full of rich expats and tourists. Other than the hawkers lining the streets offering you everything under the sun, you won't find many locals here. One day was certainly enough and we decided to head to Ubud!

To see more pictures of Kuta click here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Roughing it at the Panggil Longhouse


Destination: Panggil Longhouse in Sarawak (Borneo)
Number of Days there: 3
Our Best of: Friendly people
One thing unexpected: The odd financial arrangement between the people setting it up and the village
Times we took the: Bus: 2, Train/Subway: 0, Taxi/Car: 2, Boat: 0
Estimated KM walked: ??? who knows how long we spent in the jungle
Where we stayed: Panggil Longhouse (package tour)
Favorite Foods: Tuak, "Iban" fries & spicy nenas (pineapple)

We decided that a trip to Sarawak wouldn't be complete without a longhouse visit. Our hotel owners for the first leg of the trip were Iban and they offered an organized tour of a longhouse for 3 days and 2 nights for 430 RM per person (about US $150). We signed up for a visit and started the trip with a 3 hour bus ride to Sri Aman. We were promptly picked up at the airport and dropped at the longhouse for lunch. First impressions:

1. Longhouse is currently being constructed.
2. Six tourists are sitting on the porch "resting". We find out that a lot of resting is involved with this tour. The Iban rest for a period of 1 hour after every meal.
3. We ask where we will stay and they say they don't know because all of the beds in the main room are taken.
4. We ask how the bathrooms were and we were treated to furtive glances (not a good sign).

Obviously our first impression wasn't a positive one but the hospitality of the people in the longhouse wore us down. It's still not an experience I'm keen to repeat but I'm glad we did it. Living in the longhouse was an eye opening experience as it was very traditional with no power and limited running water (it was piped in from the river). This meant showers using a bucket and a smaller scoop that you pour over yourself called Mandi's (icy cold river water...some would call it refreshing I guess). Did I mention that this occurs outside behind the house inside a pseudo wooden shelter with a plastic tarp for a curtain? The bathrooms, well, use your imagination. Think of an outhouse with a squat toilet and no running water. For some inexplicable reason the platform wasn't flat but tilted back so good balance was a must. In order to "flush" you had to pour a large bucket of water down the hole. Not a pleasant experience. Water consumption was cut to an all time low so usage was very minimal. For those of you wondering, yes, we had bottled water to drink. I forgot to mention where the outhouse drain was located...that would be about 50 feet from the building itself. I'm sure it's a lack of education but where did the people living there think the waste went? Hmmm...let me think, it seeps into the ground and goes back into the river. Lovely.

When we arrived at the longhouse we met everyone including our guide Kibie and his entire family. The others in the longhouse were members of his extended family which included his wife Anna, daughter Bungha & his father, the village chief. Kibie was an amazing guide and really went above and beyond to show us everything he could about the Iban way of life. Each day we trekked through the jungle looking for food (fruits, herbs & vegetables). All were collected in bamboo baskets which the women had made. At first I thought that it was for show but throughout our stay in the area we saw many people going into the forest with empty baskets and then coming out with them full of food. Back to the jungle trekking. I didn't mention that there were no paths. We made our way through the dense jungle by trekking over rocks, trees and whatever else happened to get in our way. Kibie and his friend Chlorl brought along machetes to cut our way through the jungle. The "path" included walking seemingly endless distances on logs in water, clawing our way up vines and rappelling down the mountainside using a vine for support. Jungle Jane I was not. But as they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Other memorable activities included fishing in the river (yes we kept what amounted to minnows and cooked them up), seeing the preparation for bamboo cooking (the Iban cook rice and chicken in bamboo - very nice), trying on traditional Iban wedding clothing (my favorite), watching the women prepare bamboo for weaving & enjoying tuak (rice wine) with our new friends. I should mention that this particular longhouse has only been taking in tourists for about a week so there are still some kinks to work out. The positive part of this was that the locals were just as curious about us as we were about them! The locals came out each afternoon and evening and enjoyed coffee and conversation. The children were also very excited to have us around and became quite the camera hounds. This made getting to know everyone so much easier and we left really feeling quite a bit of affection for the people there. By the end of our stay there we were almost sad to leave. Almost.

The financial arrangement of the longhouse and the people arranging it is a little concerning to us. From what we could gather, of the 430rm we paid per person, the longhouse village only got a small portion of this. All the "food" that was not collected from the jungle was purchased by the B&B and in my opinion was the cheapest food in the market. The chicken that was used in nearly every dish was basically the leftover bones and skin, and aside from the bottled water, were the only things purchased by the tour operators. Other than transportation by public bus (19rm each way) and the aforementioned food arrangement, this was the only costs incurred by the operators. The rest of our experience was handled by Kibie and his amazing wife which from what we gathered, got paid for each activity and not necessarily for each person. So for example, a walk in the jungle for 3 hours - 15rm per group, trying on traditional wedding clothes - 10rm per group, take us fishing - 15rm per group, etc. During our visit, there were up to 9 people staying there at one time which would be 3,870rm collected by the tour operator of which the longhouse will probably see about 150-200rm of that. We don't have the whole story and it so we might be missing something, and all the people involved are extremely friendly so we don't want to be too critical, but we can only help but feel that someone is being taken advantage of to some degree. Just our two cents on it.

To see more pictures of the Panggil longhouse please click here.