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Road Tripping Eastern Bali

We were part of the lot of semi crazy tourists who rent a car without a driver and negotiate the roads of Bali in naivity.  Think: {Americans} driving on the left-hand side of the road, with a left-handed clutch, down streets that were LITERALLY only wide enough to fit two cars side by side, in the middle of mayhem.  Needless to say, I didn’t make it past the Hyatt parking lot – I left the driving to my left-handed, quick-reflexed husband.  I can handle two, maybe three of those obstacles, but put them all together and it’s too much for me to handle.  AND it was my birthday, so there.  Of course, having a car gave us the flexibility to go wherever we chose and at whatever pace we needed.  Because the roads were quite chaotic, buzzing with cars and motorbikes, driving was not a completely stress free task, so we didn’t do quite as much as I had originally intended.  We did, however, take two pretty epic road trips to the central and northeast parts of the island.

The first brought us to a Hindu temple, Pura Goa Lawah, that is built at the site of an enormous cave housing in the high hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of bats.  Having gone to Deer Cave in Mulu National Park on Borneo, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be dazzled with its contents (Deer Cave is the largest volume cave on the planet and is home to over 3 million bats).  After nearly being scammed into buying sarongs by hawkers near the entrance (they are required when entering a Hindu temple), we paid our entrance fee and were dressed in returnable sarongs and sashes by our tour guide.  A quick tour of the temple brought us to the mouth of the cave, where another temple is found 50 meters in (but only Hindu people are allowed to enter on religious holidays).  And well, I was cool with that because buzzing not far above our heads were thousands of bats – in almost pure daylight.  There are so many inhabitants in the cave that the last ones in at night get the short end of the stick and are forced to hunker down in an area that is largely exposed to light.  Unlike Deer Cave, in the cave at Goa Lawah, the bats were only 20-50 feet above our heads, so we were able to clearly see them.  The best (and saddest) part of the bat cave was a baby bat that had fallen from its mama during their nightly dining jaunt and been put back on a low lying rock by temple employees – 4 year old, animal-obsessed Safari immediately fell in love.  Upon seeing the below photo she told me, “please don’t show me that photo again, it’s TOO cute.”

From there we headed northeast towards a walk I had read about between two villages, Tenganan and Tirtaganga.  One of the VERY best parts of tropical travel are fresh young coconuts.  VERY best.  Coconuts might just be my favorite thing to grow on a tree.  There isn’t much you can’t do with them and isn’t much they don’t provide for you in terms of vitamins and minerals.   And so, it didn’t take us long to find a road side stall selling the buggers.

As we ascended up into the mountains of Eastern Bali, we became slightly nervous about the state of our POS rental car, not to mention the fact that the road looked like it was made for motorbikes.  But onward we drove into fairly unknown territory; the roads of Bali are largely unmarked and even where they are marked, getting your bearing on where you are is nearly impossible because most villages aren’t clearly identified, so putting yourself in the context of a map is a difficult task.  That and the best “road map” I could find didn’t even call out the names of the roads anyway.  We were basically flying blind.  Because of this, we pretty much ended up taking turns based on our sense of direction, which didn’t bring us to our intended destination, but did bring us through some pretty epic countryside and endless rice terraced hills.  We had hoped to get some good views of Gunung Agung, a centerpiece of Balinese life and a nearly 10,oooft high volcano, but the day was hazy and we could barely make out its sillouette.

We made our descent out of the mountains through Bangli, one of Bali’s oldest villages, through Iseh and its lush terraced hills and coconut groves, then eventually through Klungkung and back to our beach abode in Sanur – bleary eyed and ready for a sunset infused pina colada.

We woke up the next morning ready for another island adventure – and, it happened to be my birthday, so I was especially bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed. Our plan was to head to the north end of the island and do a little trek about Gunung (Volcano) Batur, then end our day in Ubud.  And we managed to do just that (and then some), thanks to a little help from Google Maps and crazy international roaming charges.  Driving north to the volcano brought us through Gianyar and it felt like for MILES and MILES, we drove past temple after temple after temple.  Much of the architecture in Bali, to my untrained eye, looks temple-like, but in this particular area, we’re talking legit temples.

I have mixed reviews about our drive around Gunung Batur.  We chose it over Gunung Agung because it’s currently more active and we had hoped to see it puffing smoke (which we didn’t see).  The initial view as you begin the descent down to it is stunning.  It’s Bali’s most active volcano and a large lava field surrounds much of its southern face.  Because it was a hot day and we have two young kids who follow us around, getting out and hiking wasn’t really an option.  Due to this, the 2+ hour drive around the volcano, although rollercoastery and through visually interesting lava-land, wasn’t quite worth it (especially when you factor in the major truck jam created ascending back up into the mountains).  Nonetheless, driving through small villages that had been rebuilt on top of devastating lava-flows and watching 8 year old children driving their own scooters still made for a nice drive.

Upon our descent down the mountains into Ubud and after a serious toddler poo incident (think: the side of the road with too little wiping material and an accidental step in said poo), we surprisingly came upon the rice terraces of Tegalalang, which provided a perfect stopover for our road weary children.  After another fresh young coconut, a few Bintang’s, and some local cuisine, we set back on the road toward Ubud and against my better judgement, the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal.  At the heart of the Monkey Forest project is the desire to conserve and educate people about the Macaque monkey populations on Bali that are threatened by deforestation.  But what you get are tourists who view the animals as objects of affection, objects to be used for ones own enjoyment.  Much like a zoo (with the HUGE exception that the monkeys inhabit a very large forested area and are free to roam as they please), the monkeys are on display and used by tourists as entertainment.  Needless to say, our kids would have gladly moved in to the temple there.  Bananas are sold at both entrances to the forest and monkeys will literally climb on a persons shoulder to be rewarded with a banana.  What results are occasional monkey attacks – they ARE wild animals – on unsuspecting, but no doubt arrogant, tourists.  I had hoped that our kids first monkey encounter would come at the end of a search, with excited anticipation, but all in all, they DID get to see wild monkeys – even if the circumstances were less-than-wild.

After leaving the Monkey Forest, we promptly spent FAR too much time in the car, in complete Balinese gridlock.  The biggest downside of Bali is the shear amount of cars and motorbikes all navigating the world’s most narrow streets.  Though you would definitely fare better on a motorbike, the traffic issues are a bummer – and we were there during the low-season.  The upside of this is that you get to make friends with families riding in the bed of the truck in front of you.

Ubud has long been known as the art center of Bali – which is saying a lot, because to me, “art” is found everywhere you look on Bali.  But because of this, it’s attracted foreigners since the 1930’s; it feels very much like an expat enclave and exhibits everything that is hip about Balinese culture.  With yoga studios, natural foods stores, art galleries, an abundance of vegetarian restaurants and cool bars, Ubud is basically a backpackers haven.  I can’t say that we didn’t romance about living in the countryside around Ubud at some point in life – it has all the comforts of alternative western culture with a rich Indonesian flare AND all the fresh young coconuts you could ever want – who wouldn’t want to move there?  We spent our evening gazing at a dazzling sunset over a rice paddy, while the kids searched for geckos and we sipped on cocktails made of local Balinese rice liquor – arak.





Everywhere I Look, There Is ART

We’ve now vowed that should the need ever arise to furnish and/or remodel a home, we’ll most definitely head back to Bali and fill up a shipping container with Balinese interior (and exterior) handicrafts.  You quite literally can’t drive more than a kilometer without seeing either an artist studio where things are being made, a store selling the things that are being made, or an installation of the things that are being made.  From furniture to textiles, the range of goods produced in Bali by artisans is astounding.  A major downside, for me, is the use of virgin wood in most products and subsequent issues of deforestation, but there seems to be an emergence of reclaimed materials being used which is quite encouraging.  The island may have more temples per capita than coconuts.  They are EVERYWHERE.  And if it’s not an actual temple, much of architecture is so ornate and beautiful that it could easily be mistaken as one.  Point in case is the guest house found below.

Beyond products being made and sold on the island, the island itself is a humongous work of art.  Traffic circles are adorned with giant sculptures, guesthouses look like temples, and random pathways are intricately paved with flower designs.  Even bathroom doors in rinky-dink restaurants are beautiful.  The difference, for me, between the architecture of Bali and other Southeast Asian countries (say, Thailand) is that it’s so classic and tasteful.  Temples are ornate, but not over the top.  Sculptures are large, but not in your face.  And the woodwork.  Oh, the woodwork.

Bali Beautiful and the Resort Life

There is a reason Bali has become such a primary Indonesian destination for Western travelers – it’s beautiful from head to toe, inside and out.  Because of its on-the-beaten-path image, I think many seasoned travelers are off put by its alleged charm – I know that I was.  As with many of our short holiday hops, we chose Bali because we were able to fly there on United miles and stay at a Hyatt Resort – for FREE.  And so it goes, and so it goes.  HOWEVER, Bali more than exceeded my expectations.  Sure, it’s super touristy and much of the economy is clearly powered with foreign dollars, BUT, there is most definitely MORE genuine culture to be experienced than cliche western charm.

I’ve had a love affair with Indonesia for quite some time and while Bali wasn’t my primary destination, it has blossomed my affair into a full fledged relationship.  The problem is that now I need to see the rest of Indonesia – DAMMIT, more places to go.  Why?  Because, the people.  And the land.  And the art.

After going to Malaysia for the first time last May, it was determined that East Malaysian people (we were on Borneo – I can’t vouch for Malaysia proper) were the kindest on earth.  Always greeted with a smile, genuine intrigue without aggression for our children, and a general kindness that is quite hard to find in Western cultures (with possibly the exception of Irish people, go Ireland!).  It just seemed to ooze out of them.  You felt it when you locked eyes with someone, you saw it in polite interactions with every random person you passed – you just couldn’t miss it.  Balinese people were this and then some.  When the first cab driver I interacted with greeted me with a smile, I was baffled.  After our first day there, I was hooked.

If I was doubtful about Bali, I was MORE than doubtful about the Bali Hyatt Resort we were going to stay at (so much that I got cold feet and even researched cheaper rentals out of the city).  But god forbid, I may now be a resort convert.  Hello peaceful.  Hello tranquility.  Hello true relaxation.  Hello two-for-one fresh Happy Hour pina coladas, drunk (the drink, not me) on the beach while watching the kids collect sea snails.

Even though it’s an older property (think dinosaur televisions and OMG, NO rain showers!  Gasp.), the rooms are still lovely and the gardens set amongst the 150 acre resort (most of which isn’t developed) have been cultivated since the 70’s and are AMAZING.  We were greeted with a variety of Balinese style cookies and brought a new culinary delight to our room each evening.

It’s set on the southern end of Sanur Beach (which pretty much runs the length of Sanur).  There is a sandbar about 100 meters from the shore, which means that the snorkeling isn’t all that impressive, but in terms of a great kids beach, it’s on par with the best.  At high tide, the waves are still very small and the water is calm enough for small children to float and practice their doggy paddles.  But the best comes at low tide, where the water levels get so low that there is only a few inches of water in some areas and the greatest little pools are formed amongst the seaweed forests, where the kids can safely swim AND scamper about finding sea creatures.  We spent most of our evenings at the beach collecting sea snails and building drip castles.

If you’re not so into salt water and are more of a resort pool-dweller, the Bali Hyatt’s two pools surely won’t disappoint.  The two days that we spent just chilling around the resort, we saw multiple families and couples posted up in the same spots – ALL DAY.  And I couldn’t blame them, the ambience demanded as much.

My last tidbit is about the Regency Club – the evening cocktail food was some of the worst we’ve experienced (breakfast was good), but set inside the most peaceful garden, with men playing the metallophone while our kids searched for water monitors, made it hands down the best Regency Club ambience we’ve encountered yet.

Oh, and in the lawn area between the hotel and the beach, you can find dozens (probably hundreds) of frogs when the sun goes down – so if you have animal lusting children like we do, this makes for an eventful evening stroll.

I can’t say that I wouldn’t opt to stay at the Bali Hyatt again (double negatives much?).  It was lovely.  It just was.  Other than the Regency Club cocktail hour food, I really have no other complaints.  And to be honest, I actually appreciated that the food wasn’t good because it motivated us to get out for dinner and test out the local Balinese cuisine.  So there you have it, NO complaints.  But we did stay for free, so I’d just be an ass if I whined about it.