After much discussion over the summer, Randy and I decided to take a tropical beach vacation for the upcoming National Holiday in October. At the time that we’d booked, we really didn’t realize that this was to be a HUGE event in China … the 60th anniversary of the current regime. But even after we found out, we didn’t have second thoughts. All the activity was to be in Beijing and we’d heard that it would rival and surpass the Olympics in scope and grandeur. No matter, we were on our way to Bali which had come highly recommended as “paradise on earth.”
Now getting to Bali ain’t easy. When we were researching the flights, the choices were not pretty (nor cheap). There was nothing direct from Shanghai to Denpasar, our destination. But even the layovers were rather bizarre. Most searches routed us through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with some ghastly layovers. Well, OK, we were undeterred. We selected a flight with a 16 hour layover for the flight to Bali via Malaysia Airlines (trust me, this was one of the more desirable flight options we found) and opted to spend one night in a KL on the way to Bali. The return was even MORE bizarre. The flight out of Bali was 4:00 in the afternoon which was fine but we didn’t leave KL until 1:40 AM the next morning …. talk about a “red eye.” Well, we were excited about the trip and decided that we’d manage. Our arrival back in Shanghai was early Sunday morning so we’d have all day to recuperate.
We were surprised when we found, to our delight, that we’d gotten a free upgrade to First Class (the ever cynical Randy was sure that it was because this was our first flight as Malaysia Airline customers but I was pretty sure it was because we were not Asian …. seemed as though all the First Class upgrades were Westerners). The flight from Shanghai to KL is about 5 hours. I have to say that we were treated like royalty on this flight ….. excellent food and service. And the female flight attendants wear the most beautiful batik skirts and tunics. We already felt like we were on a tropical island. The only disturbing thing about this flight was during out decent for landing in KL, we hit a down draft or something and dropped like a rock for a full 2 or 3 seconds. The flight attendants hit their knees and there were more than a few very audible gasps heard in the cabin (my own included). I don’t think it will matter how often I fly, I’m not crazy about it, and I HATE turbulence.
Coming into Kuala Lumpur was quite interesting. Malaysia is made up of Malay, Chinese, and Indian (or a mixture thereof), and the main religion is Muslim. The vast majority of women wear headscarves, and we even saw quite a number of female travelers in full burka which was a first for us. I’d forgotten that in some of the Middle Eastern countries, men can have more than one wife, and we saw numerous groups comprised of men in tunics and caps (or turbans) along with a handful of wives, and all of their children. Each wife seemed to have two or three children in tow and I wondered how much it must cost to take your entire family on a trip (if indeed it WAS the entire family …. I think I’ve heard that Osama Bin Laden is one of 17 children), then continued to wonder if they use birth control in those countries. Probably not.
It took Randy and me quite a while to find our hotel. We finally figured out that it required a bit of a bus trip but we did indeed arrive in time to settle into our room, do a bit of exploring before dark, and had a nice meal of Malaysian satay (BBQ meat on a stick) and noodles before retiring to bed.
Upon arrival back to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) the next morning, we were dismayed to discover that our flight to Denpasar, Bali had been canceled. We were rescheduled to a late afternoon flight, and while we were a bit disappointed to not be arriving in Bali in the daylight, were still looking forward to our arrival in paradise.
We actually landed in Denpasar at just about dusk. Indonesia is quite serious about their immigration process and, as such, it was quite dark by the time we purchased our “entrance fee” ($25 US per), got our Visa stamped into our passports, and found a taxi to take us to the Bali Mandira Resort. Our taxi driver was friendly and informative. The streets of Denpasar which seemed to flow straight into Kuta where we were staying at the Mandira, were alive with activity. There was strange and exotic music filling the air and the narrow streets were teeming with people carrying various baskets and containers filled with flowers, incense, and various edible offerings for the moon gods. Our driver explained to us that we'd had the good fortune to arrive in the evening of a full moon. Indonesia is primarily Hindu and, as such, the full moon celebration every month is a very important ritual.
When we arrived at the gate of the resort, our driver asked if we remembered a terrorist attack of Bali in 2003 which apparently was just down the block from our resort. He said that over 200 people were killed and as a result, security was extremely rigorous in Bali. Indeed, our vehicle was searched thoroughly and our bags inspected on our way in. And this was the case anytime we came into the resort as well as any large public establishment.
The people of Indonesia (well, at least Bali) are very friendly, smiling, and accommodating. English is not the first language of these people but it does seem they all have a strong command of it so we had no problem communicating. Everyone is helpful and kind, very quick with a smile or suggestion. As we arrived in this mysterious, exotic place, we felt like wide-eyed children trying to take it all in. There was a demonstration of Balinese dancing in one of the open air restaurants where we would be having our breakfasts during the week. The air was thick with the aroma of flowers, sea mist, and BBQ which was being enjoyed at the other restaurant nearest the beach. The moon was full and all the lighting on the resort property was either candlelight or gas lanterns …. indeed quite the romantic atmosphere. We unpacked our bags and quickly found our way to the pool bar where we reclined on outdoor, overstuffed sofas for a couple of fruity tropical drinks and some of the best open fire pizza I’ve ever tasted (or maybe it just tasted so good due to WHERE we were eating it).
The next few days were purposefully (and luxuriously) lazy. Our first morning in Bali found the skies thick with grey clouds, and as such, we didn't bother with the sunscreen. We found lounge chairs at the properties edge which was a bit raised and lined with shrubs and lanterns as a border to the pedestrian street on just the other side. One could enjoy the view of the beach activity very easily from the Mandira property without getting any sand on the toes. And if you did, there was a cleaver large urn with a spigot and a ladle made out of a coconut shell for rinsing the sand off your feet. We alternately lounged, worked puzzles, read, and walked the beach for a few hours the first day.
We realized our mistake later in the day when we came back to our room to get cleaned up for dinner. Both of us were beet red with painful sunburn. So stupid to have thought that just because it was cloudy, we would not get burned. We were at the equator, after all ….. DUH!!!
The subsequent two days were spent completely slathered in sunscreen (or later in aloe Vera lotions) trying to undo that which was already done. Finding a spot in the shade became the priority every day. The Mandira had several of these large, raised beds with thatched roofs and thick cushions for reclining like royalty along the far edge of the property where there was not only a lovely view of the Mandira property (including both pools and lounging grounds) but the beach and the pedestrian road (which included many motor scooters, the main mode of transportation in Bali) as well. So Tuesday and Wednesday, we arose early to place our hats and towels on one of the beds to be enjoyed the entire day under the shade of the thatched roof. Again, we read books, worked puzzles, drank tropical drinks, enjoyed sandwiches or wood fire pizza in the bliss of paradise.
The beach upon which the Mandira is located is called Legian. Bali, in general, is considered a prime spot for surfing, and we thoroughly enjoyed hours of watching surfers of all competencies catching waves while we were in Bali. The beach is well marked to keep surfers in surfing areas while leaving some open areas for swimmers to prevent accidents (although I had to laugh about seeing a clinic on the street called “Clinic for swimming and surfing accident.”). Walking on Legian beach was always an interesting activity. Of course, there is the constant surfing on what might be the biggest waves I’ve personally seen. Here and there, we noticed a few topless women as the beaches of Bali are “clothing optional” although I wouldn’t say that nudity was the norm. Bikinis ARE the dress of the day though. The vast majority of the visitors are from Australia, and most of the remainder are European (although quite a number of Japanese as well), so the skimpy swimwear seemed to be the costume of preference. I had long ago decided that my body was beyond “bikini appropriate” but I have to say that almost every woman (regardless of shape or size) wore a bikini. I felt a bit overdressed in my tankini swimsuits.
The other thing interesting about the beach is the enterprise of “cottage” industry being plied there. If you could purchase a dozen chaise lounges, a handful of umbrellas, and a cooler for drinks, you yourself can have a business on a beach in Bali. For a few rupiahs, the visitor can rent a piece of the beach all to himself for a day under the shade of a large, colorful umbrella. The beach is constantly roamed by pairs of Balinese women offering to give body massages utilizing your favorite sunscreen, and many beach goers seemed to avail themselves to this service (although we did not). There was one “beach bar” just outside the gate of our resort called Billy’s Bar which always seemed to have a lively happy hour around sunset. The patrons would enjoy loud rock, reggae, or blues music while sipping cold beer and watching what are surely some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. And "Billy's" business overhead consisted of a few stacks of PVC chairs, a couple of huge beach umbrellas, and a large, well-stocked cooler full of iced beverages. We were impressed with the resourcefulness and imagination of the Balinese, able to make a successful business out of such a small investment simply by being willing to share their little piece of heaven to the happy tourists of Bali.
I believe it was on Tuesday evening that we decided we’d take a walk down the pedestrian street toward Kuta to see what kind of nightlife we could discover. We’d walked a fair distance when we came upon the Hard Rock Café. I suppose we are the only people in the world that have NOT been to a Hard Rock Café … OK, I take that back. Randall had been once in Chicago when he was taking his daughter, Carrie, there to investigate colleges. But I had never been. So we went inside for a drink and to peruse the dinner menu. It was cleverly decorated with rock concert and celebrity posters and memorabilia. The drinks were very expensive, it was smoky and loud. We decided that a drink would be all we’d consume there. Apparently, we were still enjoying the lethargy of our beach coma to the point that we didn’t want that badly to be awakened from it.
We started strolling back towards the direction from whence we'd come and, surprisingly, a little Chinese restaurant caught our eye. The menu boasted a sort of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Balinese sort of fusion and maybe we just needed something familiar (no Koegel hot dogs to be had here) so we grabbed a table and, if memory serves me right, had plates of lovely Asian noodles for dinner that evening.
After dinner, Randy suggested that we take a pony carriage back to the Mandira instead of walking the crowded streets. We’d noticed the carriages which could carry a couple of good sized riders (or maybe four really small riders). I’m sure Randy thought this would be a romantic gesture, and that would have been the case on Mackinaw Island (where no motorized vehicles are allowed). I have to say that I feared for our lives and the life of the pony for the entire ride (possibly 10 or 15 minutes). Our driver was cute and kept trying to reassure me .. “Just relax. No worries, lady!!” Randy tried to engage him in conversation which was a BIT irritating to me because I felt it was of vital importance that he keep his eye on the street which was teeming with scooters careening around us from every angle. At one point, Randy asked the driver why such small animals were used for pulling the carts. He replied, “Because front of cart would be up in the air if use large horse!!” Well, all righty then. Like the Chinese, the simplest answer is usually the correct one.
On Wednesday, we located a nearby tavern with free Wi-Fi where we sent a quick email to friends and family to alert them to the fact that we’d arrived safely and were enjoying ourselves immensely. While we were outside the hotel grounds, we arranged a driver to take us to a remote part of town where there was a beautiful beach for watching the sunset (although our beach was also terrific for that) and we strolled to a nice restaurant about which we’d read some good reviews. As it was a bit early for dinner, we walked the area near the beach and restaurant taking in all the shrines and temple areas which are constantly adorned with offerings of incense, flowers, and food items resting upon woven banana leaves. These offerings seem to be replenished daily, even numerous times daily, and eventually we realized that one could even find offering stands inside most businesses as well. These are truly a devout people which may account for their friendliness and general gratitude for life (of course, who wouldn’t be grateful about living in such a paradise as Bali … I could surely tolerate it!!). And it was SO vividly colorful!! Everywhere we looked, shrines were draped in colorful hand-dyed batik or plaid cloths, sometimes shaded by a bright, fringed umbrella. One could not open the eyes without seeing some brightly colored vista …. flowers, baskets, wood or stone carving, or some other kind of craftwork complimenting beautiful scenery of seaside and mountains. Quite a visual feast we were enjoying!
The restaurant that evening was again candlelit and mysterious with fountains and statues of various gods adorning the open air building but the food was not exceptional. The luckiest part of our evening was the taxi ride back to the Mandira as this is how we met Wayan, the taxi driver. Wayan owned his own vehicle and, as a lifelong resident of Bali, and a 17 year taxi driver, was quite informative about the area and a pleasant tour guide. He asked us if we had plans for any tours, and as luck would have it, we had thought about seeing some sights. After all, we couldn’t lie on our backsides the entire week, could we? Well, OK, we could, but Wayan seemed a pleasant fellow to show us the sights so we arranged a day trip with him for the next day.
We met with Wayan after breakfast and embarked on our journey. Wayan had mapped out a lovely tour to include some of the area that had been recommended to us by other Shanghai expats that had previously visited Bali. We visited an interesting area where silver craftsmen honed their craft, and I purchased a moonstone ring (to commemorate our arrival into Bali during full moon) and a pair of earrings. We stopped at an art gallery and looked at works of local Balinese painters. We drove through the amazing mountains of terraced rice paddies and stopped to stare in wonder at the beauty that was Bali’s farmlands, again adorned with shrines here and there to ensure a plentiful harvest. We saw bananas, coffee, and jackfruit growing wild, and marveled at the ingenuity of an irrigation system that is not only effective but requires no electricity, only the willingness of each farmer to share the water with the next. This is again, a testament to the grace and generosity of the people of Bali. I don’t believe that I have ever been to an area where people seem to care so much for one another, and are so happy to share that even with strangers.
Eventually, after a nice lunch in a roadside café recommended by Wayan, we came to the town of Ubud. Ubud is known for its large markets and shopping areas, as well as being remarkable for plying the arts and crafts trade. Our friends and yoga partners, Maria and Juan (Chile) in Shanghai had simply raved about Ubud. They liked Ubud so well that they changed their plans upon arrival and decided to spend most of their vacation there.
We quickly discovered the huge outdoor market and began shopping. Everywhere you looked were the wares of Bali displayed in glorious color … baskets, batiks, dresses, shirts, silver crafts, wood carved items of every kind. It was crowded and raucous but not unpleasant. Bargaining is a relaxed, enjoyable affair, less aggressive than the vendors of Shanghai. We were told to expect to pay around 10% of the asking price of any item and we quickly fell into the easy banter of bargaining with the locals of Ubud. We purchased batiks, carved wooden items, and a few other souvenirs. Soon though, we were succumbing to the heat of the day, and decided it was time to head back to the resort where we enjoyed a lovely BBQ overlooking the beach.
We’d decided to spend Friday on the beach and procured a couple of the above mentioned lounge chairs under a large umbrella not far from our resort where we could watch the surfers, the kite salesmen, and the masseuses roaming the beach. We even did a bit of swimming in the clean and clear blue Indian Ocean where the waves could knock you off of your feet in a heart beat. The sand, while not white exactly (more of a dove grey due to lava ash … Bali has three volcanoes) is soft on the feet and the ocean bottom is firm with few shells to bother the barefoot swimmer or beach stroller.
Later on Friday afternoon, we had made a plan to meet with Wayan for another excursion, this time to Uluwatu, a temple built on a large cliff in the southern most region of Bali. Uluwatu is considered by many to be the foremost site for viewing the most exquisite sunsets in the world. On the way to Uluwatu, Wayan had planned a bit of a side trip so he could show us a beautiful new resort being built near there. It included condos, a hotel, a golf course, and looked to be a truly upscale resort in the making. It was called Dreamland … and it was obvious why it was so named. We teased Wayan about his business going so well that he’d be a new resident in Dreamland before long.
We continued on to Uluwatu, and along the way, Wayan explained what we would see there and had some instructions for us. Many of the temples in Bali are considered so sacred that everyone must dress appropriately in order to enter them (and even then not all areas are accessible to us common folk). Even Randall had to wear a sarong over his shorts in order to be admitted. The temple of Uluwatu is overrun with the monkeys that are indigenous to the area, and Wayan warned us to remove any earrings, necklaces, scarves, and take off sunglasses as the monkeys are quite mischievous and will grab and steal anything they can from the visitors to the temple area. I followed his instructions, left behind my purse, and removed my sunglasses, bracelets, and earrings.
Randy purchased the tickets for the temple, and we were wrapped in our sarongs. Then Randy handed me the two snack bags of banana pieces that were meant for feeding the monkeys. We hadn’t walked ten steps when I had a monkey at my feet starting to crawl up my legs. I have to admit that I panicked a bit and dropped the bags imagining I was to be the next “monkey feast” while being attacked by a throng of primates. Well, as soon as I dropped the bag, it was ripped open by little hands that were obviously skilled with the process, and I was safe.
We did enjoy watching the monkeys as we hiked along the mountain path leading to the temple area. The vistas were amazing and the monkeys were a riot to watch. They were not in least afraid of people, and yes, I saw monkeys holding glasses and barrettes stolen off the heads of visitors, proud of their ill-gotten booty. Looking down the cliffs, the beaches were amazing while the waves, here devoid of surfers in this more dangerous area, crashed into the massive rocks below. The temple was very old and sort of covered with moss and vines but still quite beautiful. It was quite the exotic scene with the monkeys running all over and the sacred temple areas covered with tropical foliage.
Eventually, we came to an amphitheater where there is a daily performance of Balinese dancing called the White Monkey Dance which is a very popular ritual in Bali. The amphitheater is just beyond the temple and faces west where the dance is performed exactly at sunset every afternoon. The dance was just about to begin so we quickly purchased our tickets and found seats where we had not only a great view of the dancing, but of the most beautiful sunset we’d surely ever witnessed.
The White Monkey Dance is actually a play that is danced to the accompaniment of the kacek chanters, a group of 70 Balinese men all chanting various sounds and parts. The sounds made by these men was amazing and intoxicating … puts one almost into a trance (which I believe is the point). The dance was performed by brilliantly costumed dancers of women and men with amazing head adornments. The women especially made the most exquisite movements with their hands and fingers which reminded me a little bit of Hawaiian hula dancers. This went on for an hour with various scenes and stagings culminating with a ring of fire from which the White Monkey must escape (and of course, he does). It may have been the highlight of our trip …. the gorgeous sunset, the monkeys, the dancing and chanting, the ring of fire. An amazing ritual that we felt honored to have witnessed.
On the way back to the resort, Wayan, took us to an area of Bali called Jimbaran which is known for fresh seafood restaurants that are set up right on the beach. The patrons of the restaurants can pick from a vast assortment of live seafood which is grilled just behind the tables at which drinks and beautiful beach views are enjoyed. We found a nice table very near the water’s edge and listened to a “mariachi-type” group playing for the diners’ pleasure. Randy picked out a nice snapper which was prepared brilliantly. Unfortunately, either Randy’s cold or his sunburn (or a combination of the two) had worsened to the point that he felt quite ill and wanted to go back to the resort. I managed a few bites of fish and we asked Wayan to return us to the resort.
Saturday was departure day but we didn’t need to leave the hotel until 1:00. So one last walk on the beach was enjoyed after we’d gotten ourselves packed up for the return trip. Once we arrived at the airport, we realized that we needn’t have hurried … our flight to Kuala Lumpur was canceled. It was more a nuisance than anything as we had quite a long layover in KL anyway. But the airport in Denpasar didn’t have much in the way of diversion for a several hours wait … quite a bit of shopping but after a while, we were seeing the same items over and over. Otherwise, our travel back to Shanghai was fairly inconsequential.
Upon reflection, Randy and I both agree that our trip to Bali may have been the best vacation either of us has ever experienced. The tropical beach and resort, the music, flowers, and food, the smells and aromas, and most of all, the people who were absolutely the most gracious folks we’d ever had the pleasure of meeting made for an unforgettable experience that we’d recommend to anyone. While getting to and from Bali might be a bit of a trial, it’s well worth the hassle to spend some time in this, a true tropical paradise.