A few choice shots from Bali
So after not giving Ubud a raving review, we had some pretty fantastic and delicious experiences in the town. On the advice of our friends Charles and Kate (who came over from Colorado to hike with us in Nepal) as well as another couple we met in Laos (who we ran into again on the streets of Ubud – craziness!), we signed up to do a bike tour. After starting the day with breakfast overlooking one of Bali’s volcanoes and the ocean in the distance, we spent the rest of the day cruising on our bikes (downhill) through the Balinese countryside. Our guide, Wayan (what nearly every first child in Bali is named – boy or girl – so he called himself Joe) was a hilarious little man who learned to speak English from a British woman and had the most amazing British/Balinese accent. He took us into small villages where we witnessed festival preparations (the Balinese have a LOT of festivals and celebrations), and we stopped in family compounds where he introduced us to locals. He walked us through the rice planting and harvesting processes, and put some of our group members to work. He led the way on his bicycle through picturesque terraced rice fields down little paths surrounded by palm trees. And at the end of it all, we were rewarded with a fantastic buffet lunch that blew us away. After getting the feeling that Bali was crowded and that Ubud lacked character, a quick trip out into the countryside reaffirmed that the real Bali is still out there and thriving, and it’s not far outside the tourist bubble if you want to find it.
Our other memorable activity from Ubud was an evening cultural show. Sure it was pretty touristy, however, the one we saw was the work of an entire village. Everyone had a role in the show and everyone benefited from the proceeds. The men and boys had a majority of the roles as they chanted, danced and acted out a traditional story. I was impressed with the camaraderie amongst the group as I could not imagine anything comparable in our culture. The Balinese are a very tight-knit group and without the support of or role in your family unit, you’d essentially be a social outcast. The show was incredibly entertaining and stimulating. Unrelated to the story that had just been enacted, the night concluded with one gentleman performing a fire dance, walking over and kicking through hot coals. It was quite the sight to see his black, ashen feet at the end of the performance – proof of the coals’ burning temperatures. We ended our fun evening back at a Balinese tapas restaurant we discovered and loved, and left Ubud the next day feeling happy we went but ready to move on.
After a fabulous few weeks in Thailand and Laos, it was time to head south for the last leg of our journey. We had a quick overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before we arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali. Bali is truly a special place. Where Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country on the planet, the Balinese are Hindus with their own unique set of beliefs, food, and culture. I had literally just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love as we were landing and it got me excited about where we were headed. The book also does a pretty good job of explaining some cultural aspects of Bali that we would have easily missed or not noticed going on around us.
I traveled to Bali in 2001 when I was down under studying abroad in Australia and I was excited to be going back after 10 years. It was the first place we had been on our trip that I had been before (Ted’s being Thailand).
After a few weeks of very laid-back travel in northern Thailand and Laos, Bali was a bit of a slap in the face – we felt as though we were stepping into a tourist trap, with too much going on, not enough real character, and too many people haggling. It’s a busy place, not only thriving as a tourist destination, but as a pretty heavily populated island with a lot of domestic commerce. Before arriving, we imagined a serene and peaceful oasis, but what we quickly encountered was hectic traffic and bustling streets. But after a good night’s rest, it didn’t take long to realize the beauty and depth of this place – the landscapes are lush and green, and there is wonderful serenity to be found – it’s just not the norm everywhere on the island. We went right from the airport to Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural center (and where our pal in Eat, Pray, Love hung out). Ubud is not on the water, but it’s a well-known spot that draws its own tourist crowd. I don’t know how Ted talked me into staying inland when we were on a beautiful, tropical island but I’m happy he did as we had plenty of beach time in our future.
Ubud is super trendy, full of culture, very ornate and well decorated, with lots of artistic presentation, lots of delicious food, and quite a bit of up-market options. Interesting, but not exactly the vibe we were going for at this point in our journey. I liked all the cute shops and nice restaurants but the place lacked authenticity. Everyone you met was out to sell you something and I was having flashbacks to India about how regularly we had to turn down offers for transport and tour bookings (“You need a taxi? Ok, how about later? How about tomorrow? How about a massage?”). You would literally have to say ‘no, thank you’ to or ignore a dozen people on a short walk from our hotel to a restaurant – it was the first time since India that we have been haggled to the point of antagonism.
And where Thailand and Laos were filled with hundreds of other long-term travelers, the visitors to Bali and Ubud were primarily just folks on a short vacation – usually from Australia. That resulted in a non-traditional vibe that permeated the whole city and drove up prices. As a short-term visitor from the U.S. or Australia, lodging, food, and activity prices may have seemed like a good deal. However, coming from Laos to Bali, our money didn’t go nearly as far. The money we were spending was top-of-mind as we neared the end of our trip and the end of our bank accounts. The fantastic news is that we scored a pretty great room that had a sweet swimming pool on-site. Escaping the urban hustle for some quiet time by the pool each day was the perfect way to unwind and get into the Balinese vibe.
After our awesome experiences on The Loop, it was back to Tha Kaek and up to Vientiane for one more night in this wonderful little country. Ted had been to Southeast Asia in 2002 but missed out on making it to Laos – which is one of the reasons we wanted to be sure to visit this time around. Compared to it’s rather wealthy and tourism-friendly neighbors (Thailand and Vietnam, respectively), Laos is very much the little kid brother – it’s got similar natural beauty (save the beaches), amazing Asian culture and food, but people just don’t seem to come here, except for those who are a little more independent and adventurous. It’s managed to avoid some of Thailand’s pitfalls though – no sex tourism (if you want to sleep with a Lao person, you have to be married, and you could get thrown in jail or deported if you forget this rule!), no lady boys, not many drug problems, etc. It’s modern when you least expect it, yet more rural and poor than you could ever imagine. The tourism services exist but not at the level or complexity that we had experienced in most other places we visited. Though many folks speak English, many more do not. It will be interesting to see what happens to this amazingly friendly place in a few short years. It would have been fascinating for Ted to have seen it in 2002 and be able to compare it to now – I’m sure it has changed a whole lot. Though Laos is still very much under the radar compared to other Southeast Asia hotspots, it has so much going for it and it is only a matter of time until this sleepy little place finds itself in the same league as the big boys.
We were not ready to leave Thailand and we were not ready to leave Laos either, but our trip was winding down, we were running out of time, and we needed to B-line it to the beach to relax in our final days of bliss. We caught an international flight to Malaysia where we had an awkward 16 hour overnight layover. We made the best of it by spending the night in a sketchy hotel near the airport, eating some ridiculously good seafood noodle dishes, and getting a decent night’s rest. Then it was back to the international terminal for our flight to Bali!