Friday, January 27, 2017

New Year's in Bali

As I look back on living 4+ years in East Asia as an expat, I realize that I have been incredibly fortunate to travel to so many places on this side of the world. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” wrote Dr. Seuss. For me, this has included China (three times) & Taiwan (twice), Japan (six times), Hong Kong (twice), Singapore (three times), India (twice), Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand (three times), Malaysia, Australia (twice), New Zealand, and of course… 15 trips to Vietnam! Knowing that my remaining time living in this part of the world may be short, a bit of FOMO is setting in — but I realize that most of the places on my Asia bucket list have been checked. One of the few that remained unchecked was Bali, Indonesia, described by many as an idyllic paradise. I wanted to see for myself!

The memorials cut into the rock at Pura Gunung Kawi were tall and impressive
Once my wife and I decided not to visit my parents in the US for Christmas this year, I was on the lookout for places I could take a winter vacation using my frequent flyer miles. Turns out that Korean Air has a great loyalty program with lots of rewards flights available to Bali — I booked two and got a great deal on some expensive holiday tickets! The flight to Bali from Seoul is long — 7 hours — surprising to some until you realize that Bali is south of the equator, making Seoul to Bali about the same distance as New York to Peru. There is a small detail I left out: late December is the rainy season in Bali. However, that didn’t bother us greatly… even though every day contained a rain shower or two there was still enough abundant sunshine for my wife to receive an unwanted sunburn.
After arriving on a late flight and spending a short evening near Ngurah Rai Airport, my wife was able to negotiate with a Grab driver to take us on the 2-hour journey to Ubud for less than $15! In Bali the local taxi cartel is more rent-seeking than in most places (as evidenced by our $6 taxi ride to drive 2km from the airport) which makes the new competition from Grab and Uber quite welcome for consumers. Realizing this the taxi cartels have placed signs all over tourist areas demanding people not to use Grab or Uber, though I imagine the effect of this has been rather limited. We arrived in Ubud tired after a long bumper-to-bumper car journey — the tiny roads in Bali are packed with cars — and were delighted to have a welcome sign placed up for us at the boutique hotel we were checking into. We stayed next to a rice field but could also walk easily to restaurants and cafes — a nice balance. My Vietnamese wife was also delighted by the warm weather as the bone-chilling winter in Seoul was starting to wear on her!

Tanah Lot had a nice ocean breeze and wasn't too crowded at midday
Ubud is a well-traveled tourist town for the “alternative” Bali experience — up in the hills there are a lot of boutique jungle resorts and yoga retreats. The town is rather small and walkable but congested with cars … fortunately we could walk to Ubud Palace and the nearby Monkey Forest — many friendly monkeys here! The forest is a nice and relatively quiet outdoor walk. We hiked a bit from the center of town to a warung (Indonesian restaurant) for dinner … nasi goreng (fried rice) and chicken skewers seems like a standard meal in Bali … and the warung prices are great!

The next day, New Year’s Eve, my wife hired a local driver — available for about $50/day all-inclusive, if you bargain — to take us on a tour of Hindu temples on the island (Bali is primarily Hindu, not Muslim like most of Indonesia). We started at the “Elephant Cave” (Goa Gajah), which actually didn’t have any elephants but did have a cave famed for its ancient stone carvings of Hindu gods. It was a nice morning walk also with a jungle canyon area to explore. Next we visited the Pura Gunung Kawi temple — at the bottom of a lush green river valley lie 8-meter-tall memorials cut out of the rock face of a cliff. It’s a long climb to get down and up but well worth it! If you’re not soaked in sweat you can hike back up for some nice views … we felt too hot! Next was the Pura Tirta Empul temple, a water temple with many locals wading in the holy waters. For lunch our driver escorted us to a tourist restaurant with a lovely view over Batur Lake, until the pouring rain started — we were lucky to be indoors with the buffet! Sadly our view of the lake was short-lived once we were fogged in by the rain cloud. The rain turned into a downpour once we reached Pura Besakih, the “Mother Temple” — though my wife excited for the views we gave this a pass and retreated back into our car. By the time we reached the empty Pura Kehen the rain had stopped and we were alone in this green, wonderful, peaceful place. Temples are great when they are not full of tourists! Finally on the way back to town we glanced at the Tegalalang Rice Terrace — a little late and soggy for us to hike in. Besides, though the view was nice this place has nothing on Sapa, Vietnam!

Uluwatu Temple was on a majestic cliff edge overlooking the water ... but, whew, HOT!!
For the evening we ate a simple warung dinner and found a coffee shop which was open to 11pm. The amateur fireworks started at sundown and continued to almost 1am, but Ubud had no big public fireworks show — from the television it looked like there was a big show at the Kuta Beach.

Gitgit Waterfall... the only site worth seeing in North Bali
On New Year’s Day my wife and I woke up a little groggy from the late night before and started an early day with the driver again. This time we made the long 2-hour drive north to Pura Ulun Danu Beratan temple. The temple is on the shore of a nice lake but was packed with local tourists … not worth the long trip, in my opinion. Being on a flat seashore rather than a jungle hillside also took away some of the mystique for me. From here we traveled further north to the Gitgit Waterfall, an impressive waterfall 35 meters tall surrounded by tropical trees. It was hard to get a good picture here because of the water spray. We drove down to the road along the northern coast but were disappointed as you cannot actually see the sea from the road as the whole coastline is blocked by resorts. Also the traffic jam here was horrible on a holiday weekend day. My wife wanted to swim at the Banjar Hot Spring but by the time we reached here it was already 4:30pm and crammed with bathing locals. I knew we only had the driver for 10 hours and we had a long drive ahead back to Kuta. Nearly 4 hours later we were in Kuta, a raging concrete jungle packed with loud bars and tattoo parlors and rowdy young Australians. We spent too much time on New Year’s Day in the car — besides Gitgit Waterfall there was nothing worthwhile on the northern part of Bali. Though the distances are relatively small the tiny roads and bumper-to-bumper traffic make any car journey in Bali quite taxing on one’s patience. A massage and yoga day in Ubud would have been much better!

Fortunately once we reached Kuta we were no longer planning any long temple trips by car. The next morning we checked out of uncomfortable Kuta hotel and my wife drove a motorbike to Tanah Lot, a rock formation in the water about an hour’s drive northwest. This place I’m told would have been packed at sunset, but in the middle of the day was manageably crowded and we were able to get some nice photos. That afternoon we moved to the Nusa Dua enclave, a fenced-in resort area on the southern peninsula full of resorts along the beach. We chose the Westin, which had a good deal with Starwood Points. It was a very different Bali experience in the resort — the cocoon has everything you could want without leaving but spending 3x what you would be spending outside for a meal felt like robbery. I have mixed feelings about resort vacations… certainly they are easy but you lose touch with the authenticity of the location you are visiting. They are great for kids though. The water was a little cold but the beach had some nice covered chairs we could lie down on. I was happy to lounge with my wife and take a break from sightseeing. And there was a great pizza restaurant nearby — my wife and I had tired of eating nasi goreng with chicken skewers!

The next day was quite lazy. My wife and I had a long walk along the beach to the Water Blow in Nusa Dua. We watched large waves from the Indian Ocean crash against a jagged limestone cliff. We took time to play ping-pong, go to the resort gym, and eat sushi. Busy day, I know!

Nice to watch the waves crash into the Nusa Dua Water Blow
On our final day in Bali we went to the Uluwatu Temple, a 1-hour motorbike drive away from Nusa Dua on the other side of the peninsula. Fortunately there is not too much traffic and this was a pretty peaceful ride. Like Tanah Lot, this place is popular for sunset views, but we tackled this head-on under the midday sun … boy was it hot! You must be very careful of the monkeys if you visit here — unlike the Ubud Monkey Forest these monkeys have been trained to steal from tourists. I watched a monkey steal the prescription eyeglasses off one tourist and another monkey hissed threateningly at my wife. That said, with a little care Uluwatu is worth the visit for the splendid views over a steep cliff into the ocean. These are probably 10 times better at sunset, but we had an evening flight to catch back to Seoul.

It was difficult to leave paradise to return to the middle of winter in Seoul. Bali has it all — where you stay and what you do depends on the type of vacation you are looking for … beach resort, nightlife, culture, escape into the mountains. I wouldn’t recommend to my American friends to make the very long trip here but for anyone living in Asia I think Bali is a place to visit. I’m glad I checked this off my Asia bucket list.

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