(Continued from Sydney: In a Class of Its Own)
If you are just joining in, this is part of a series of blog entries about a trip I took in March. The trip was a challenge I gave myself to cover as many miles that I could and visit as many places that I could in a two week time frame while still being able to see beautiful places and landmarks and gaining an appreciation of those places. So far I have covered my stays on the South Island of New Zealand and Sydney, Australia.
When I started planning this trip last year I started researching ways I could get the most bang for my buck in seeing as many different places I could. I consider myself an air travel guru and pretty knowledgeable about airline routings and ticketing procedures. When I was in college I worked for an airline and was able to do a lot of traveling for free. Of course, this was space-available travel and sometimes I had to be really creative on how I got from A to B. All my experience played a part in arranging my itinerary.
To make a long story short, I discovered I was able to combine a trip to both Oceania (Australia & New Zealand) and parts of Asia in one itinerary and keep things relatively inexpensive, but only if I included a day in Bali. By doing so, I was able to include all the destinations for the same airfare as visiting just Sydney alone. Why so? Airline ticketing is a very complicated subject I could go on for several hours and still leave you confused. Even I am confused at the randomness of prices sometimes. Bottom line, having a little knowledge and background in airline routes and ticketing procedures can go a long way in saving serious cash and allowing complicated trips like this to happen. Had I not included the stopover in Bali, the cost for my itinerary would have been over two thousand dollars more.
The flight from Sydney to Bali was six hours. Much of that time was spent flying over the barren Australian outback. Comparatively, Australia is about the same geographical size as the lower 48 states in the US. But it is dry, relatively flat, and very rural with little sources of water. Over 90% of Australia’s population lives along or a close distance from a coastline. In the country’s interior, only one city has a population over 20,000, Alice Springs. Australia is the least densely populated continent after Antarctica and the third least densely populated country in the world. After passing over the wetter northwest coast and flying over the Timor Sea, you reach Bali.
Knowing my visit would be very short, I wondered how much could I realistically see in a day. I used TripAdvisor a lot to help me find possible activities or sites of interest. Pictures I saw of Bali were beautiful. It has beautiful beaches, steep ocean-side cliffs, and very green vegetation and fields. The north side of the island is very mountainous and is home to several active volcanoes, including Mount Agung at over 10,000 feet high which last erupted in 1963 and killed over 1,100 people. In a somewhat sad irony, the volcanic activity is a major factor in why the soil on the island is so fertile, leading to the agriculture the island relies so heavily on.
A Brief History
Indonesia is a tropical archipelago nation consisting of over 18,000 islands. Not even half of the islands have names and less than a third are inhabited. The country does however have the fourth highest population in the world, just after the United States.
Bali is very distinctive from the rest of Indonesia. While the vast majority of the country practices Islam, Bali is predominantly Hindu. The island has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Era. At times, geological and sea level changes periodically connected Bali to the neighboring island of Java, which today is only a mile and a half from Bali’s westernmost point. The ancient people of Bali and neighboring islands would later be among the first humans to settle parts of Melanesia and Polynesian islands and played an influence on their various cultures.
Balinese and Javanese cultures remained mostly undisturbed until the spice trade brought foreigners, many from the Middle East. Those who didn’t convert to Islam sought refuge on Bali where the agricultural mainstay was rice and was little worth to the spice industry to be given much attention.
European empires began colonizing the area in the 16th century, seeking a stake in the spice trade with the Portuguese and Dutch making claims, the latter successfully ruling much of what became the Dutch East Indies, known today as Indonesia. While most other islands saw changes, Bali was able to hold onto its identity for hundreds of years as it was seen as having little value to the spice trade. The island’s kings, of which there were nine, each simultaneously running a separate kingdom on the island, also appeased the Dutch with an active slave and opium trade. These reasons likely gave Bali more autonomy than the other islands.
Bali’s remaining liberties would begin to come to an end starting in 1848 as the kingdoms were overthrown one by one starting in the north, leading to widespread destruction and killing of those who resisted. Finally in 1906, the last remaining kingdom in the Sanur region on the south end of the island was destroyed. The Netherlands was widely criticized by western powers for the harshness inflicted on the islanders. Feeling the condemnation, the Dutch soon changed its foreign policy and sought to find ways to restore the Balinese culture, eventually opening the island to tourism just as the First World War began, of which the Netherlands remained neutral to.
After being occupied by the Japanese in World War II, the Dutch successfully fought to again reclaim its territory after an attempt to form an independent nation of Indonesia failed. After strong resistance from citizenry and pressure from foreign powers, the Netherlands finally granted independence to Indonesia in 1949.
In recent decades, Bali has been able to hold onto its customs while also transforming into a major tourist destination. It is widely popular among tourists from Australia. The airport in Denpasar, Bali’s capital and largest city, had recently been renovated with a new terminal, replacing a dilapidated and overcrowded one. During research leading up to my trip, I read many stories which concerned me as tourists felt somewhat taken advantage of by local authorities and overzealous vendors at the airport. In the last few years, efforts were made to curtail corruption among customs officials and aggressive greeters at the airport were forced to wait well outside the baggage claim area.
I am happy to report for the most part, the efforts seemed to help. The customs officers I dealt with were professional and there was little wait. The airport also seemed to have nice modern features and did not feel crowded. However, that is where my compliments for this airport stop. Overall, the airport in Denpasar is very frustrating, especially to first time visitors. Had I not done research and known what to expect upon arrival, I would have struggled to get anything done and would have been taken advantage of by the countless drivers and porters who still hang outside the arrivals hall. The airport also charges taxes upon you when you arrive and depart and won’t transfer checked luggage to ongoing international flights. It would be an unpleasant airport to visit if you were just changing planes. I would connect through a different airport instead. Luckily I knew I saved a lot of money by flying through there so I knew the effort would be worth it.
In advance, I came up with different game plans for attractions within an hour drive of the airport that I could see depending on what time I made it out of customs. Luckily, my flight had landed early and I ended up with more time than I thought, but still only a half day. I would need to be back by 11:00 that night to make my flight. Transportation on the island, like most everything in Bali, is quite affordable to most tourists. The value you get in Bali is one of the reason it attracts people, with many luxury hotels within reach of more people’s budgets.
I determined the most efficient way to see as much as I could would be to hire a driver for the day. After seeking and reading tips from people on TripAdvisor, I felt I understood enough how I needed to do this. It will be necessary to haggle with drivers to negotiate a fair price as they will overcharge you otherwise. TripAdvisor also listed some fair prices for a number of different places around the island so I knew how much Rupiah (Indonesian currency) I should be paying.
Like every country I visited on this trip, when I needed cash in local currency, I always used reputable ATM’s to withdraw from my checking account. This will almost always ensure you get the best exchange rate and you can get as little or as much cash as you need. Never use an ATM in a random store or other private vendor as these could be hacked to steal your information. Use an ATM at an actual bank or another more official establishment. Some restaurants, hotels, and other tourist-oriented establishments also take major credit cards like Visa. I recommend using one with no foreign transaction fees and feature an embedded microchip as this is the norm pretty much everywhere outside the US.
I knew in advance I would have to be very stern with all the drivers who, while attempting to be courteous to arriving passengers, end up making it very hard to tell them to leave you alone. After declining several invitations by many aggressive drivers I finally met up with a much more understanding, calmer, and professional driver named Bagus (pronounced Bag-oos), who offered his services in a much gentler way. Still somewhat hesitant, I was impressed with his knowledge, his English, and recommendations he had. Like many drivers on the island, they can also be personal tour guides. If you get a good one, you can really accomplish a lot here.
Bali is not far from the equator and the weather, while pleasant, was hot and humid. We were soon off in Bagus’ van, enough to hold 6-8 passenges if need be. We drove first through Denpasar. The city is very crowded and traffic is crazy. If I thought imagining myself driving in Sydney would be challenging, driving here would almost seem like a death sentence. The motorbikes here dominated other vehicles. While drivers mostly adhered to at least staying on the correct side of the road (like Australia and New Zealand, they also drive on the left side here), it seemed like drivers could pretty much do whatever they wanted. Bikes would weave in and out of traffic, along shoulders (how did they fit through that opening and not get smushed?), and without a second thought, do some crazy maneuver which assuredly would have killed me if I attempted such a feat. Sometimes bikes intended to carry one person would have two, three, sometimes an entire family riding on it with mom at the back holding a baby in her arms. I wasn’t sure what to think of my first impressions of Bali. It sure wasn’t what I recalled seeing in pictures with lush green fields and mountains, beautiful resorts, and people riding elephants.
But rest assured, once you are away from the city, the beauty and charm is really there. After discussing my itinerary with Bagus, we settled on driving around the south end of the island and seeing some sites there. Had I spent more time here, I would have headed northward towards the mountains, away from the urbanized areas and among the rice paddies and other agriculture near Ubud. Further north you can hike the volcanic mountain region, see gardens, temples, and taken part in many activities for an adrenaline fix. Realistically, one would need to spend at least a week on the island to really get a good feel for it. But I had to settle for a half day, so I made the most of it.
After a driving forty five minutes on the windy, narrow roads and leaving the urban area, we came to a small but beautiful beach called Padang-Padang. Bagus pointed out to me that the beach was used in filming a scene in the movie Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts. Getting to the beach can be somewhat treacherous. One must navigate a dark and narrow “stairway” through a crevasse to access it. Along the way, you will likely see wild monkeys, which are numerous on the island. I had already been warned by Bagus to leave the monkeys alone as they are not very friendly. So I kept my distance while still getting some pictures. The beach is surrounded by beautiful cliffs and the clear, warm water of the Indian Ocean. It was borderline overcrowded but still had a nice atmosphere. Not wanting to waste too much time relaxing, Bagus and I made our way to our next stop not far away.
One of the things I wanted to see in my short visit was an ancient Balinese temple. Uluwatu Temple, or Pura Luhur Uluwatu, is situated on limestone cliff sides overlooking the ocean. It is one of the more prominent temples in Bali. Built over 1,000 years ago, it is still sacred to the people who live here. Bagus walked me through the grounds and the procedures for visiting this place. It was necessary to adorn a sarong around my waist which was tied with a sash.
I wanted to ensure I was able to have a good vantage point for sunset and I was told this would be a good place. It seemed thievery was a common problem here. But humans were not the culprits, it was the monkeys. I was again reminded to keep my distance as the monkeys at Uluwatu are particularly naughty and will take anything that isn’t secured to you or bolted down. There are plentiful opportunities for photos here and my only sunset on the island was very memorable.
As it got dark, we made our way back to the van and Bagus asked me where I wanted to eat dinner. He chose somewhere special he tailored special to my interests. By this time I felt very comfortable and trusted Bagus. I was able to talk to him more in depth about him personally and learn about his family and life. I learned he is a very outgoing person, a loving father and husband, and almost too accommodating. By this time I was quite a mess after running around for several hours in the heat and humidity. After saying something to that effect, Bagus, without hesitation, offered me the use of his own home to change and shower before my next flight. I thanked him but respectfully declined his offer.
We went to Jimbaran Beach, a much larger stretch of sand than Padang-Padang south of Denpasar. Many five star resorts are located on this beach as are many restaurants and shops. It is very tourist-oriented. The seafood restaurant I went to was very authentic Balinese. The hospitality was incredible and seating was right on the sand looking at the ocean. To order food, you would literally pick the fish you wanted cooked for you. I settled on fresh snapper which was cooked to perfection and was delicious.
After dinner, I spent more time along Jimbaran watching different Balinese dances, listening to music, and just walking around and trying to relax for a bit. In the distance I could see the airport where I would head back to soon. I was tired but grateful to fit in a fulfilling day and see some sites on the island. I felt the effort was worth it. I was very grateful I met Bagus, who made it all possible for me. Really, he is a wonderful human being and by the end of my day with him I felt he became a friend. I would highly recommend his services to anyone visiting the island and would be happy to share his contact information to anyone interested (send me an e-mail). Hiring a driver is very affordable in Bali. And if you find a good one like Bagus, they are more than just a driver.
At the airport, I said my final goodbye to Bagus, exchanged contact information, tipped him generously, and checked in for my 1:00 am departing flight. Leaving the airport wasn’t nearly as stressful as arriving, but still there is so much the airport could do to be more user friendly.
Bali is a very different place. It is not anything like Hawaii, the Caribbean, or other tropical islands I have been to before. It is rich in culture and beauty. I can see why so many people return time and time again. I would like to come back again one day and spend much more time exploring the rural parts of the island and actually relax. Once you step away from the initial unpleasantness of the airport, it really is a great place and full of some of the most hospitable and friendly people anywhere.