We flew back to KL on Wednesday afternoon, arriving back at my place around 5 p.m. The very next morning, we got up and once again made the hour-long trek to the airport and caught an 11 a.m. flight to Bali. This was, almost unbelievably, my eighth trip to Bali (and tenth to Indonesia), but I still felt a little rush of excitement as the plane made its final approach and I caught glimpses of the crescent of Kuta and Legian Beaches on one side of the plane, and Jimbaran Bay and the sheer cliffs of Ulu Watu on the other side. The most immediately noticeable difference between Ao Nang and Bali in the month of July? The crowds. The high season in Ao Nang is around March and April. In July and August, however, Australia has its school holidays, and they inevitably swarm Bali… in all my trips there, I had never seen it so overrun with people. We checked into my usual hotel and I rented a motorbike and headed for the Carrefour store to stock up on some things I can’t find in KL. This time, however, Mom flatly refused to get on the motorbike. I can’t really blame her: The traffic in and around Kuta was just beyond belief. I got misdirected on the way back and, even on a motorbike, it took a long time to get back to the hotel. I say “even” because in Bali (and to a lesser extent, even in KL), motorbikes just go wherever they want… between cars, around trees, up on the sidewalk, you name it. There was a crush of traffic (the photo you see doesn’t remotely convey the reality of it), but it was all barely moving, so being on two wheels was an advantage. One thing I had told Mom was that the Balinese had learned to cook Italian food quite well, so I took her to a nearby restaurant that evening for some good wood-fired oven-baked pizza, and it was delicious… the polar opposite of our pizza debacle in Thailand. The oven was hot, the crust was nice and crisp, there was plenty of pork pepperoni, and not a scrap of green pepper in sight. A couple of cold Bintang beers rounded off the meal and it was wonderful. To be frank, though, apart from that meal and the relative calm of our hotel, there wasn’t much to love in Kuta this time around. It was simply too crowded. So the next day, we checked out, I rented a Jeep Wrangler-like car, and we headed north to Ubud.
One of the things I have always loved about this small island is that you can honestly have any holiday you want there… you can do the “fly and flop” thing and bake on the beach at a five-star resort in Nusa Dua, you can live it up in the hedonistic clubs in Seminyak, you can shop in Kuta, you can have an adventure holiday whitewater rafting or parasailing, you can hike to the top of a volcano, you can scuba dive off the east coast, you can have a culturally educational vacation in Ubud or the villages surrounding it, or you can go further afield, leaving the tourist centers of the island behind you and really delve into the real day-to-day life and culture of Bali. It’s all available and accessible. My trips to Bali from the U.S. were typically one to two weeks long, so I’d combine some time in the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak conurbation with a stay in Ubud or one of its nearby villages and effectively have two holidays in one. If I’m being honest, though, on this particular trip, heading up to Ubud was more like a desperate escape from the chaos of Kuta.
We stayed at a bed and breakfast near the heart of Ubud that’s run by a Balinese man named Ketut and his wife Wayan. I had stayed there three times before, and it’s a lovely place – a compound of various rooms and pavilions built on the side of a riverside cliff, descending seven levels. For the deluxe rooms, which is what we had, each room is on its own level, so there’s a real sense of privacy. The rooms are exceptionally spacious and there is an outdoor area for dining or relaxing with a book as well. This was much more appealing to Mom, and after the crowds and general pandemonium of Kuta, understandably so. After we got settled in, I took her to my favorite spa, the Milano Salon, where she had an hour-long facial and a pedicure, and I had the two-hour mandi lulur, a Balinese massage combined with a body scrub using crushed nut shells and Javanese spices. That’s followed up by a cucumber and yogurt body mask, so it’s quite a lengthy and relaxing experience. We both enjoyed our time there. When we were walking back to the car, a young Balinese boy was selling tickets to that night’s performance of the kecak (KEH-chock) dance, and it was beginning in about half an hour, so we bought tickets from him (about $5 each) and drove to the temple where the dance was being performed. Though the kecak dance has its roots as a Balinese trance ritual, its modern incarnation was primarily created in the 1930s by the German-born painter and musician, Walter Spies, and is now the only Balinese dance that is performed exclusively for tourists. The performance tells a story from the Hindu epic called the Ramayana. In it, a battle is depicted where an evil king kidnaps the Princess, Sita, and is fought by Prince Rama to effect the rescue of the Princess.
No musical instruments are used, but rather the accompaniment is provided by a chorus of over 100 men and boys, each clad in a black-and-white checked sarong, wearing a single red hibiscus flower behind their ear. The chorus makes a distinctive “chaka-chaka-chak” vocal sound, perfectly synchronized and syncopated. It’s quite difficult to describe in words, so I’ve included a short video. The performance was about an hour long, but the video is only slightly over one minute, so you’re seeing just a fraction of the story as a whole. At the end of the kecak dance, a large pile of coconut husks is set ablaze and a man, who has been put into a trance, runs through the flames and embers, then firewalks on the superheated husks, sending sparks and embers everywhere. I’ve seen a number of kecak performances, and this was probably the most dramatic and impressive of the trance dance/firewalks that I’ve seen.
Ubud is not only the cultural heart of Bali, it’s probably its gastronomic heart as well. The range of cuisine is broad, from simple food stalls called warung to what is arguably some of the finest dining to be found anywhere in Indonesia at a gourmet restaurant called Mozaic. We had three excellent meals while we were in Ubud… at Bebek Bengil (the “Dirty Duck Diner”), Kafe Batan Waru, and Nomad. I would enthusiastically suggest these restaurants to anyone visiting Ubud. As our trip to Bali was quite short, so too, was our time in Ubud. We spent one night there and a fair part of the next day, visiting the huge central market and taking a midday trek along the always-stunning Camphuan Ridge trail. After lunch, we proceeded to drive back down to Kuta, getting embroiled in a spectacular traffic jam which really tested the patience of both of us. It was awful… it took us well over an hour to go barely a mile. We finally got to where we were going, completely frazzled. I returned the rental car, and we walked (with our luggage) a short distance to a charming restaurant off the incredibly jam-packed Jalan Legian (Legian Street), and like most places in and around Kuta, once you get back off the main road, even a short distance, the transformation is almost magical. We ate a light dinner at this poolside café complete with a large waterfall and lush landscaping and were able to totally decompress. Our waiter was delightful, as was our taxi driver who returned us to Ngurah Rai airport, so it was a nice way to end the trip.
As an aside, the most remarkable thing happened while we were at the café. A day and a half earlier, I had dropped in to a moneychanger shop to exchange some Malaysian ringgit for Indonesian rupiah, and the SIM card from my phone had, unnoticed by me at the time, fallen out of my wallet. This was my KL SIM card, basically the key to my communicative existence in Malaysia. I had removed it from my phone upon arrival in Bali and replaced it with a local (Indonesian) carrier’s SIM card in order to have phone service there. I had very carefully put my regular SIM card in the flap with my driver’s license inside my wallet. However, when I was changing my money, I flipped up said flap to extricate a RM100 note that was tucked underneath, and that’s when the SIM card fell out. I noticed it late that night when Mom and I were eating at Nomad in Ubud. I was aghast at my carelessness, but pretty much knew that’s where I had to have lost the SIM card, because it was the only time I’d ever flipped up that driver’s license flap. So, on a lark, while we were at the café during those final moments in Bali, I walked across the street to the moneychanger, and before I could even ask if anyone had found a SIM card, immediately saw it on the floor. It had slid about 90% under the edge of the front counter, and just a tiny sliver of it was poking out. It’s bright red on one side, and that side was facing up, so it was quite easy to see. I seized it ecstatically, gushing like a fool to the poor woman behind the counter, who actually understood my happiness and relief, I think. Almost everyone in Bali is on a similar prepaid SIM card plan, and losing your SIM card can be disastrous. For me, it wouldn’t have been a complete nightmare, because all my contacts are store in my phone’s memory, not on the SIM, and I think I could have gotten another card with the same phone number (not sure on that one), but it would have been a hassle, and probably sort of expensive; my understanding is there’s a RM50 fee for replacing a lost SIM card, plus the cost of the new SIM itself (about RM9), plus the loss of the RM30 I had recently topped up the card with. However, finding the card I had lost and not having to deal with any of that, was, to quote MasterCard, priceless. I couldn’t believe my great fortune that a lost SIM card—and you know how tiny those things are—was right where I had lost it, a full day and a half earlier at an extremely busy moneychanger on what is easily the busiest street in Kuta, at the busiest time of the tourist season. It was truly amazing.
We boarded a night flight back to KL, and three hours later, arrived at the airport and hopped a bus back to the city after enduring an epic wait in immigration queues. Owing to that and the airport’s sheer distance from KL itself, we didn’t actually get back to my condo until about 3 a.m., so I give my mother props for being a good sport and enduring such a whirlwind week of travel.