The mere mention of Bali in Indonesia brings with it notions of palm trees, pristine beaches and cheap massages. Unfortunately, the Bali that most imagine is not the reality awaiting budget-conscious travellers as they depart from the plane and head to the nearest hostel. Out of everywhere we travelled to in Indonesia, Bali was the least memorable, which is hilarious considering that’s the only island most people know of who haven’t ventured to this part of the world. My advice to people coming to Indonesia? Go to Bali, but either head inland as soon as possible or splurge on a resort for the tail-end of a trip (which we did in Nusa Dua, seen below and completely worth the $35 each per night). Most people we talked to after leaving Bali to explore the rest of the country shared our sentiments. Perhaps this island was a backpackers paradise twenty years ago, but now the only thing worse than the garbage drifting ashore is the sheer number of drunken Australians puking on the streets.
When we first arrived in Bali, we headed to Sanur, a quieter alternative to the trash and debauchery found on the western side of the island in Kuta. While the town was alright, I wouldn’t go back. The reggae bar provided great entertainment for the evening, including two German guys locking eyes from across the dance floor and proceeding to do an entire rendition of Lady Marmelade, hip thrusts and all. However, apart from a few restaurants and resorts, there just didn’t seem to be a lot happening in this neck of the woods. We spent a day at Serangan Beach, which is great for surfing, and of course features numerous Indonesian women willing to offer a ten buck massage right then and there. After two nights we headed up to Ubud, and Bali began to redeem itself.
Ubud is a quaint town North of of Kuta towards the central section of Bali. We were there during the rainy season, so the grass was greener than a sick kid on a windy road, and rice fields were plentiful. It seemed like everywhere you turned a crop was flowing gently in the wind, contributing to the serene atmosphere that Ubud exudes. Our guesthouse even had one right in the backyard, which is never a bad thing to look out on first thing in the morning.
In terms of attractions, Ubud is known for its spas and culture. We went to the same spa two days in a row, with the total bill being no more than $20 each for a massage and facial. More upscale spas are also available for those looking for the full luxury treatment (but pricing will still be nowhere near as expensive as it is in the west). Arts and culture shops are plentiful, and I would highly recommend Ubud for picking up a few gifts and souvenirs for friends and family before heading back home.
Myself, Kyle and our other Canadian friend Robin who we travelled most of Indonesia with, had the bright idea one hot and ridiculously humid afternoon to rent bikes (by bikes I mean those things you actually have to exert yourself on while riding). Our preferred method of transport on scooters had been tainted the night before, when Robin chatted to a taxi driver who said cops charge up to $50 to people who don’t have an international drivers licence. I was raring to go considering the most form of exercise I’d had over the past five months was the weight of lifting a beer glass to my mouth, so I started to take the hills in full stride when we first took off. My companions, however, were not so enthusiastic. With every bend came another hill, and with more hills came more profanities. Finally the guys yelled at me to stop, sweat pouring from their faces profusely, so we decided to turn around.
“Wow,” I said. “It’s way easier on the way back down.”
Cue glares from two Albertans who would have rather cheered for the Vancouver Canucks than spend another minute on those bikes.
After Ubud, we hopped in a taxi and headed to the base of Mount Batur, an active volcano that we intended on getting up and climbing at 4am the next morning. Before subjecting ourselves to torture, however, we needed to find a place to stay that night, which was more difficult than we thought. As a note for future visitors to this place: go to the town of Kintamani, not Toya Bungkah. Upon arriving in the general Mount Batur area, our taxi driver was greeted by a gaggle of “tour guides” who all wanted our business. One ended up leading the way on his scooter to his buddy’s place for us to stay, which lacked Internet and was a general shit hole. We wandered around for ages trying to find decent accommodation, and although we did discover a better guesthouse, we were forced to go with the tour guides offered only by them and consequently paid a higher price. Kintamani would have had way more options and given us bidding power, but instead we were stuck forking over the $50 USD and waiting restlessly for our 3:30am wake-up call.
Although my body protested, thinking no human being should ever have to wake up before 4am, I managed to suck it up this once (until we did it again for another volcano attraction later in the trip), and began the continuously uphill trek up to the top of Mount Batur. About halfway up my legs were burning more than a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day, with volcanic rock crumpling around me with each step I took. My only thought at this point was just to put one foot in front of the other, and eventually this served me well, apart from when one foot did not go in that general direction, slamming me hands-first into the ground. This is just a small price to pay for the view we eventually obtained, and after about an hour of uphill trekking, we made it to the top and watched the sun rise. It’s moments like that where the small annoyances of travelling in Asia melt away, and my “amazing life memories” list gets that little bit longer.
Breakfast was cooked through the volcanic steam arising from the ground, and after consuming the eggs and bananas, it was time to head back down. While easier, my legs still hadn’t fully recovered from their flaming victory over my body, so with a few stumbles I lurched my mind into overdrive and pushed on, thankful that I’d survived what was apparently the easiest volcano trek in Indonesia. I beg to differ.
Since we didn’t want to spend another twenty dollars on accommodation that night (a hefty price for Southeast Asia), we arrived back at our guesthouse in Toya Bungkah, packed up and headed to Padangbai in preparation for ferrying to the Gili Islands the next day. Arriving in this town was a classic case of Indonesian scamming, something that is surprisingly quite superior compared to the cons that happened previously in our trip. The minute we arrived in Padangbai a man came up to us, asking if we were going to the Gili Islands.
“You going to Gilis?” he asked forcefully. “Three hundred and fifty thousand,” he demanded, the equivalent to $35 Canadian.
“That seems a bit much,” we said, and began to walk away.
“Two-fifty, two fifty!” he yelled.
We kept walking, shaking our heads at the fact that not only do we have to bargain for taxis in this country, but also ferries too. This was something we were not familiar with coming from Thailand, where transport from one section of the country to another was quite cheap and at a fixed price. We proceeded to generally find where our hostel was located, at which point a man came up to us claiming to be associated with the place. He showed us to the lobby, then swiftly started giving us his prices for the Gili Islands before we even had the chance to check in. The most frustrating part was how easily he came down from the initial $35 to $20, which immediately made us wonder what the actual price for this hour-long ferry ride should be. In essence, this was our experience with Bali. At times we were in awe of its beauty, and soon after we were ready to drop-kick the next guy waiting to attach himself to us at the hip trying to scam us at the soonest moment possible.
Again, if you’re going to Bali, be sure to check out both Mount Batur and Ubud. Do not trust the first Indonesian man who comes up claiming to know where your hostel is and talking to you about transportation, because more often than not you will be annoyed/horribly ripped off. The real beauty in Indonesia lies in the east, but more on that later.