Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 1 - 10: Exploring Bali

After two weeks of a less nomadic lifestyle than we've had most of the past year, we were excited to get back on the road. This time it wasn't on our bikes - we decided Bali might be best seen by car, due to both the crazy traffic and the visit of our buddy Arun who came in from Toronto for the last ten days of our stay.

Our itinerary was pretty busy, but with all the beaches packed in, busy-ness isn't too hard to handle. The island was amazing - there are so many great things to see, almost all within a short drive from each other.

Our first day we rented the car and Mike (the only one of us with an International Driver's Licence) learned how to drive on the left side of the road without hitting either the pedestrians who seemed to love walking three across on one side of the road, or the large trucks who sped head-on towards us on our side of the line (where it existed).

Our first stop was at Semarapura to visit the palace of the last Balinese kingdom to surrender to the Dutch.

For the night, we made our way to the beach town of Padang Bai and relaxed as we watched the sun set over a bay of Balinese "spider boats" (don't know if that's the actual name...) and ate fresh shark, barracuda and fresh fruit juices.

Day two was one of our most eventful. In the morning, we spent an hour snorkelling all by ourselves at the beautiful Blue Lagoon Beach in Padang Bai. We saw lots of cool coral, pretty big fish and even saw a sting ray.

Just for kicks, I'll post the picture off the internet that most resembled the stingray we saw.

That afternoon, we made our way inland to the rice paddy town of Tirta Gangga and went on an awesome hike through the rice paddies, forests and local villages. The scenery was amazing and it was fun to get off the beaten tourist track.

Our guide, Komang Gede, did an amazing job of explaining the local flora and fauna, and explain cultural points of interest we came across.

There was a huge variety of bugs and fruit trees in only a small patch of forest near the mountain tops.

A spider Komang called "not very big" and offered to let crawl up his arms when he saw how squeamish we were. (We declined)

The Balinese version of a cricket.

The forest was full of cool fruits... There were pineapples, lychee, mangosteens, coconuts, bananas, vanilla, cocoa, coffee, avocados and lots more...

Ever the coffee fan, Mike bought some beans grown and roasted right on the mountain.

The same family was also in the midst of preparing some cocoa beans.

At the top of the mountain, we visited a shared Hindu/Buddhist temple.

We asked Komang some questions about Bali's religions, and he passed on a touching anecdote from his grandfather. To quote him, "Your religion and your symbols are just your path. There's lots of paths, but we're all climbing the same mountain." (He got the point across even more clearly with the help of an impromptu chalk diagram.)

Finally, the end of the hike we slowly wandered down the hill through a couple tiny villages.

The highlight of the whole hike might have been when Komang mentioned there was a cock fight going on, and asked if we wanted to see it. We had no huge desire to see two chickens fight one another to the death, but we were curious to see the whole village gather around and watch. It turned out to be pretty cool - judging by the number of gaping stares we got, tourists likely don't venture through here too often.

Some type of roulette game with a ball and Twister-like mat.

One of the cock owners showing off his bird.

The crowd watches the fight.

Finally, we ended the day with a walk through the local water palace, the feature attraction of the town, and unfortunately our worst meal while in Bali. (That's not saying much, the food here's great, we just picked the wrong restaurant.)

After all that hiking, we needed a lower-key day, so the next morning we took off for the coast.

Our first adventure was a scuba lesson for the boys (I decided to snorkel) and some time scuba diving & snorkelling off the coast of Tulumben where an American cargo ship sunk many years ago and is now overgrown with coral and home to lots of beautiful fish.

That morning, the town seemed to be having their local track and field meet, so we got to watch some school kids race down the main stretch of highway through town.

The rest of the day we spent watching the waves from our beachside balcony at nearby Amed. This was our favorite beach town in Bali - super relaxed, beautiful scenery and one of our best meals there... over a supper of freshly-caught baraccuda, fantastic guacamole and mango shakes, we watched the sun set, watched the kids use the fishing boats on the beach as jungle gyms and listened to our hotel owners groove on their guitar and bongo drums. Truly paradise...

Catching our supper...

The next morning we waded out about 5 feet off the beach and started snorkeling. Didn't take very far to start seeing some cool stuff. Right when we got in we swam into a Finding Nemo-like school of 200+ thin silver fish, not at all bothered by our presence there.

We also saw something Mike and I had seen in an Imax film once - there was a big purply-blue fish that had his mouth open making a big "O", letting a little fish come in and clean it out. Though the fish weren't quite as big as the ones at the wreck, this was probably our coolest snorkelling spot yet.

Later we took off on a rarely used, super narrow road that climbed up the nearest mountain/volcano towards the east with cliffs on every side that dropped into the ocean. The views were amazing (though unphotographable) and Arun and I were very grateful to Mike, who had to work hard to get us up and down the hill without falling off a cliff or running head on into oncoming trucks full of fish.

Along with the ocean/cliff panoramas, the road provided great views of daily life in the local villages, with all the boat-carving, fish-drying and such that went on at the side of the road.

The dizzying driving continued as Mike weaved inland towards Gunung Batur, a volcano in the middle of the island we planned to hike up the next day. The volcano is a double caldera, which means at one point it collapsed in on itself and the volcano is now smaller and surrounded by a donut-shaped valley full of of lava, lakes and villages that would have previously been right inside the old volcano. Eventually we arrived and tried to snap a quick shot from the outside rim, but instead turned back to the car to avoid being attacked by some very aggressive touts wanting to sell us everything from fruit to knives to t-shirts.

The night only got weirder from there. The village, normally quite touristy in the dry season, was absolutely deserted. To top it off, our guidebook warned us of a KGB-like association that has a monopoly on guided tours up the volcano. We noticed their presence right away, it almost felt like there were informants all over town making sure that if we hiked, it was with them. As a result, the tour prices were outrageous compared to activities on the rest of the island, but well worth the security of knowing that the local mob was with you, not against you! Luckily, the guy who actually guided us up the mountain was great, and the hike was amazing.

After two hours of hiking in the dark, we watched the sun rise over the rim of the outside crater and surrounding mountains, perched in the middle at the top of the new volcano.

Sunrise was followed by a breakfast of bread, eggs and bananas, the latter two cooked in a steamhole on the volcano.

The rest of the morning we spent exploring the various peaks of the volcano, some active as recently as the early 2000s. (Those ones we could only peer at from far above.)

After the volcano Mike drove our tired selves back to the beach, this time at Lovina. It was on this drive that he really came into his own, with swerves around pedestrians and both-side-of-the-road driving that rivalled any Balinese. We got a few looks of surprise every now and then when people saw it was a tourist driving.

At Lovina we spent the rest of the day chilling in the pool, invented "Bali-ball" which is sure to make it to the Olympics some year soon, and savoured the variety of great food and massage options. The next morning we headed out at sunrise on a spider-boat and eventually caught sight of some of Lovina's famous dolphins.

It was a bit of an early wake up, for the second day in a row.

The dolphins made the boys quite happy they didn't get up early for no reason.

After the successful dolphin viewing we loaded back up in the car. First we made a quick stop and Munduk to visit one of their many waterfalls...

... then a lunch stop an a tiny but awesome roadside Warung...

... and finally we arrived in Ubud, the final stop on our tour of Bali. We stayed here two nights, and enjoyed the great shopping, fantastic restaurants and nice ambiance. The whole town (and island) was getting ready for two days of Hindu festivities the next week, so there were all these cool huge puppets being constructed all over town.

We were also excited to meet up with Hera, our cycling buddy from Holland that joined us for a week or so in Thailand. We'd missed her once we split up before Malaysia, so it was great to catch up on the adventures she'd had since then. The four of us lounged the rest of our time in Ubud away with great meals, lots of swimming and shopping, and some of the best massages any of us have ever had.

Though it doesn't look like it here, our two buds got along just great and made the time in Ubud a blast... :)

We finally left Ubud on the afternoon of the 9th to drive Arun back in time for his flight that night. We were sad to see him go, and spent the next day moping a little, chilling out in Kuta waiting for our own flight. Though we were pretty sick of Kuta and glad to go when we did, the week that preceded it was more than worth it. Thanks for your company Arun, it made a great week of adventures in Bali even more fun!

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