Two very different sides to the same well used Indonesian coin.
18.07.2010 30 °C
Arriving back in Mataram, after a horrendous 28 hour bus and boat journey from Luaban Bajo in Flores, once again without any sleep and still recovering from four days and nights on an old wooden boat, I made the most of being back in a proper town with cheap, comfortable accommodation, convenient shopping malls, supermarkets, local restaurants as well as western fast food outlets, and spent the next 48 hours doing very little other than sleeping and eating. For the sake of ease, I decided to buy my ticket back to Bali from a tour operator, having had some success with doing so in the past few weeks, only to regret it very shortly afterwards. With only one departure time, I was forced to leave at 9.30am, later than I would have liked as it's never fun arriving at your destination late in the afternoon with only the fading light, possible rain and full hotels of Indonesian holidays to look forward to. The ferry crossing from Lombok to Bali was in stark contrast to the one I'd taken in the opposite direction, with not a single other tourist aboard (and interestingly, not a single outside seating area, such as the ones flooded with tourists on the journey over to Lombok a week ago). Although the sun was shining, the wind had picked up dramatically and the four hour crossing was spent listening to the crashing of badly secured vehicles on the car deck below, as well as clambering over sprawled locals who lay green faced across every table, chair, bench and deck, while watching the same dozen passengers hurrying back and forth to the toilets for the entire journey.
The smallest village on Earth
My annoyance at having bought a tourist ticket was soon to begin when stepping off the ferry as, despite being picked up on time, and despite the ferry departing on time, and despite the crossing taking the right amount of time, I was then forced to wait a further two hours for the connecting tourist bus (as I was told that I'd arrived earlier than usual), which didn't leave until 16.30, and angrily watched as several cheaper local buses departed in the mean time. So, after paying almost double the price of local transport (for the sake of ease!), it turned out that my expensive tourist trip not only cost me far more but also took a lot longer than if I'd arranged the travel myself. It's fair to say that my new found affinity with tourist transport, discovered during my journey to Bromo and Ijen, is well and truly over. To make matters worse, the bus ride to Ubud in Bali was shared with only one other passenger, a toothless old local man, with a leathery face made up more of contorted wrinkles than any discernible features, who attempted to talk to me in Bahasa for over 20 minutes before finally realising I wasn't Indonesian, and then trying to sell me a carved wooden box which apparently took him over 15 days to make yet looked as though it would only take a further 10 to fall apart. He then proceeded to show me a bamboo flute, which would have actually made quite a nice souvenir, had he not lifted it to his cracked lips and coated the entire thing with a fine mist of spit as he tried unsuccessfully to play a tune. I quickly declined as he casually wiped the mouthpiece of his abundant saliva before offering it to me. The rest of the journey was spent feigning sleep until he finally lost interest and fell asleep himself.
Ubud is an interesting city, awash with traditional examples of Indonesian culture, history and religion (a far cry from much of the rest of Bali), while at the same time being host to an unbelievable amount of tourists. While I tend to dislike and avoid mass tourism, I must remind myself that I am in Bali, one of the tourism capitals of the world, and quickly put the picture back in perspective. Despite the number of tourists, Ubud still remains for Bali, much like Chiang Mai is for Thailand (a place I feel I judged a little too harshly and naively back in January), an important cultural centre full of temples, arts, culture and tradition. With a million art and woodwork galleries, souvenir shops, handicraft stalls, temples, upmarket cafes and restaurants, the visitors tend to be a more diverse and mature crowd (although also a fair amount of families) than many of the places I've visited so far. Unfortunately, due to the large number of tourists, many of the facilities such as bars, cafes, restaurants and internet centres seem to have a tourist premium added to their prices - although I guess that's only to be expected.
In addition to the sights within the city, a short walk in almost any direction will lead you to outstanding natural landscapes, including rice fields, valleys, gorges and rivers. Many walking trails lead out from the town centre and within 15 minutes bring you directly to the natural beauty of Bali.
Rice fields - an easy 10 minute walk from the town passing through lush green picturesque rice terraces, where the only signs of civilization are the occasional workers tending to the fields or the tiny worker's huts dotted amongst the endless green landscape.
Campuan Ridge - just 20 minutes from the city centre, leading you past a forest temple and onto a long winding trail along the top of a narrow grassy ridge, with the steep river valleys falling away to either side.
Bedulu - 5km from Ubud, once again through lush rice terraces, and leading to Goa Gaja (Elephant Cave), with it's impressive stone temples and forest setting, as well as Yeh Pulu, a long line of stone carvings in the side of the rock face amongst the rice paddies.
Monkey Forest - within the town centre, where the hundreds of monkeys clamber over every surface (and tourist), seemingly guarding the temples which are once again found in stunning forest surroundings.
(Incidentally, the monkey on my shoulder wasn't placed there as a tourist attraction, it simply clambered on while I wasn't looking and took a very long time to encourage back down, much to the amusement of the onlooking crowd)
In addition to the day to day traditions of Ubud, such as the placing of small offerings (tiny baskets containing flowers and rice) on doorsteps, outside temples and on shrines, as well as constant dance and arts performances shown around town, I was also lucky enough to be present during a traditional cremation ceremony (I say lucky, although probably not so for the poor soul in the coffin!). With a large, elaborately decorated platform, to carry the coffin from the town to the cemetery, and a bull built of bamboo and covered in velvet to serve as a funeral pyre on arrival, the entire population descended on the streets to follow the procession through town. As well as the hundreds of locals and tourists, there were also deafening bands following the procession, banging on drums and cymbals with ever increasing intensity, while also chanting the entire way, and a large number of local men enlisted to carry the heavy platforms through the streets.
On arrival at the cemetery, the bull is placed on a special platform where it then becomes host to the wrapped body of the deceased. The coffin is carried around the platform several times and then, once the body is placed inside the bull, it is sprinkled with holy water and surrounded by colourful offerings from the local women. Once the rituals are complete, the entire structure is set alight until just a charred frame remains and the body is lowered (or as in this case, simply falls through the bottom of the structure) to a covered area where the cremation continues.
After just a few days, and a healthy case of cultural overdose, it was on to the small island of Nusa Lembongan, just off the coast of Bali, for a couple of days rest and relaxation before facing the prospect of entering the wild, party filled heart of Bali that is the infamous beach resort of Kuta. Shortly after arrival in Lembongan however, I discovered an unsettling side effect of long term travel and the price that accompanies visiting so many incredible destinations. In the same way that I am now unable to visit any historic temple without the first unbidden impression being "well it's nice...but it's not exactly Angkor Wat," I also now find it hard to arrive at any tropical island or seemingly perfect beach without comparing it to others I've seen along the way. So, while Nusa Lembongan has a decent stretch of white sand (although a few too many boats and fishermen for my liking), and is a great getaway from the drunken madness of Kuta, I still couldn't help thinking "well it's nice...but it's not exactly the picture perfect white sand bays of Thailand or the isolated tropical islands of the Philippines."
Ferry to Lembongan (feet wet, heavy backpack balanced above the water)
I also find it strange that despite having travelled non-stop for over two months, without a single day of rest, I finally arrive at a destination capable of allowing me a couple of days doing absolutely nothing, and yet within a couple of hours sitting on the beach I'm already bored and restless and find myself longing for adventure or simply the opportunity to explore. So, leaving everyone else boringly sunbathing on the beach, seemingly happy to sit idly by as another day goes past, I headed off around the island to see what else there was to offer (not much I might add). Walking past mangrove forests, through scrub-land and following countless narrow trails across the island, I was once again struck with the notion "well it's nice...but it's not exactly trekking the jungles of Borneo!" Despite that however, I still came across many friendly locals, mainly seaweed fishermen working the days haul, a few local temples, a couple of picturesque viewpoints and some good beaches. I did however keep checking every time a rustling in the bushes caught my attention, somehow thinking it would be monkeys, monitor lizards, Komodo dragons, or something vaguely exciting, only to discover yet another chicken! I think too much time in the jungle may have raised my expectations unnaturally high.
Famous Bali sunset
Two days rest and relaxation was more than enough and, after having explored almost every inch of the tiny island, I headed back to the mainland, to the tourist mecca of Kuta. I have to admit that my first impressions were not great as, after being described in the Lonely Planet as "budget accommodation capital of Indonesia," I was surprised to find out that, while 60,000Rp had afforded me a suitably clean and comfortable room in every other Indonesian town so far, in Kuta I was faced with the musty odour of damp and rot, with the off white colour of accumulated grime covering the walls (not to mention the complimentary bed bugs, blood splattered sheets and rowdy guitar playing Frenchmen next door), all for the supposedly bargain price of 85,000Rp per night. I quickly made my excuses and fled, finding many of the other hostels and hotels already full despite it only being 10.30 in the morning, before finally settling for an average, yet overpriced, 100,000Rp per night room. So much for the "hundreds of cheapies" quoted in my guide book!
Billboards, tacky souvenirs and countless overpriced hotels
The beach, unfortunately, also left me slightly underwhelmed, with expectations of the purest, finest white sand, dotted with overhanging palms and perfect bays, the clearest, cleanest crystal blue waters, and an endless stretch of both quiet and busy beach to cater to all needs. As it was, the sand was no purer, finer or whiter than any found on many European beaches and the sun lounger feel in many parts could have come straight out of the pages for a Costa del Sol holiday brochure.
Bali or Benidorm?
Kuta is however a surfers paradise, which is fortunate due to the over abundance of Australian "surfer dudes", all cloned from the same mould in matching Havaianas flip flops and brightly coloured surfer gear, as though regurgitated by a factory outlet for Billabong or Quicksilver, strutting through town with prerequisite surf board under one arm, looking like a host of rejects from the open auditions at the set of Home and Away or Neighbours. In fact, it seems as though Kuta is the equivalent to the Australians as Ibiza is to the British, with crowds of them speeding the streets on mopeds by day and drunkenly filling the bars by night. It is also, no surprise, filled with British, tirelessly seeking out the cheapest bars, the wildest parties, and suffering the ill effects by rising to a midday full English fried breakfast, followed by crashing out on the beach to do nothing all day, to start all over again as soon as the world stops spinning and people start coming back into focus.
Pizza Hut and McDonalds (and incidentally KFC was just behind me)
Only surfers allowed, sorry!
Despite these issues, I still feel that Kuta (and the nearby beaches of Legian and Seminyak which seem to flow into one another along an 8km stretch of coast) would make a great holiday resort for the two week package tourist looking for a fortnight of fun and sun, or even a romantic honeymoon destination for those willing to splash out on a lavish beach front hotel, with private stretch of sand, quiet and relaxing infinity pool overlooking the ocean, and comfortable waiter-tended sun loungers facing the stunning Bali sunsets. For a 6 month budget traveller trying to make the most of foreign lands, cultures and people, it tends to hit you full in the face as streets lined with tacky souvenir stalls, sunglasses and countless fake brands compete for your attention with the hundreds of locals trying to offer you transport, tours, drugs or promotional bar offers.
Bali bombing memorial
A faint vestige of tradition still remains - Hindu offerings placed on doorsteps
Having said all that, I can't deny that I still had a good time and enjoyed the couple of nights out, thanks in no small part to a large helping of the local Bintang beer, and were I to recommend a place to stay for partying and socialising then Kuta would no doubt feature highly on the list.