There is no shortage of activities or cultural experiences in Ubud, Bali.
Balinese culture abounds and it seems that everywhere you look you'll find yoga, spas, dance performances. live music at bars, and an eclectic mix of restaurants.
The mix of travelers is also eclectic, from the young and rowdy to older couples on holiday. There are backpackers and luxury travelers. and there’s a spa for all their budgets.
We rented motorbikes and rode around like locals (obligatory when in Bali/Indo). We found time to squeeze in a few massages. We did a 6 am yoga class, complete with group chanting, meditation and extended periods of shaking. (If I had looked at Jenna or Mike, I would have burst out laughing.)
We trekked about eight miles through rice paddy fields and farms, looking across deep verdant valleys at the palm trees poking their heads out over the top of the forest canopy.
And I have to mention the Monkey Forest... oh boy. You hold a banana in there and heads will roll. Considering that we saw people swarmed, attacked and even bitten, we got out unscathed.
The four of us found a local cooking school and took a class run by a very sassy woman. We laughed throughout learning all about balinese food.
Mike, Chris and Jenna left at 3 a.m. (yes, 3 a.m.!) to go hike up Mt. Batur, the second tallest volcano on the island, and saw sunrise from the summit.
And, on our last night, we partook in some vodkajoss and got a little crazy. It's all part of the experience.
We were sad to leave Ubud - one could spend a lot more time there - and to say goodbye to Jenna and Chris. We’d really gotten into our groove as a foursome and Mike and I can’t wait to reunite with them in the U.S. later this summer.
Only one more stop in Indonesia: we're heading back to the Bukit!
Few things in life are worth a 1 a.m. wake-up call followed by a few hours of hiking in the pitch black dark of night, but watching the sun rise atop Bali's Mt. Batur is one of them.
(Sadly, Grace was still recovering from a hike earlier in the week, so she had to sit - er, sleep - this one out.)
We arrived on the “party island” of Gili Trawangan (which everyone just calls "Gili T") with three nights to burn before Mike’s younger brother, Chris and his girlfriend, Jenna joined us for eight days.
From basic research before arriving, we learned that one of the non-party things to do on the island is to freedive. Gili T is home to one of the most recognized free diving centers in the world. We took the two day Level I certification course, which included some yoga, relaxation, and, of course, breath holding techniques, before practicing dives in open water. Mike was a rockstar (this probably surprises no one) and got down to 20m (that’s 66ft!), the limit for a level I freediver. Let’s just say Grace is sticking to scuba diving.
Because we kept hearing it was a "party island," we weren't sure what to expect, but were delighted to discover that Gili T is all good vibes, no matter what you're into. It’s touristy, sure, but since it’s so small, it feels like everyone on the island is on the same page.
Very few people live on Gili T, which is the most populated and built up of the three Gili Islands. Even the people who work on the island arrive by boat from the main island of Lombok each morning.
Unique characteristics of the island, such as the lack of police (someone told us that police need to give notice at least one week before they set foot on the island) make it even more interesting. Anyone could guess that the fact that there are no cops on Gili T is the main reason why it became an "it" destination for young Americans and Australians looking to party.
You hear about drugs on Gili T, mainly from people offering to sell mushrooms, which is very different from the rest of the country, where drug use is prohibited and strictly enforced.
There are also no cars or motorbikes on the island. We rented bicycles and rode around the entire thing in a few hours, including occasional stops for Bintangs. Some of the smallest ponies you’ve ever seen pull colorfully painted wooden carts carrying people or supplies through the dusty dirt streets.
Finally, after a few days getting our mammalian reflex on in the water, Chris and Jenna arrived. It was time to get the party started! They checked in and dove in, literally - we all went scuba diving right away. Jenna was a champ. She’d never done it before but got resort certified so she could see what we were raving about. And lucky for us, she loved it!
When we weren’t underwater, we were lounging on the sand or chilling out in a small cafe eating some variety of Indonesian fusion. We took a SUP (stand up paddleboard) yoga class on two different mornings because it was so much fun. (Yes, falling in a lot is part of the fun!) For a bit of calm, we rented sea kayaks and went over to Gili Meno.
All of us couldn’t get enough of the beautiful corals and sea life right off Gili T's beach. Even five dives wasn’t enough and we added some snorkeling sessions to see more brightly colored fish and friendly green sea turtles.
We love having company, especially family, join us on the road. The four of us had a wonderful time catching up over great dinners, a few hookahs, and many Bintangs. Each night on Gili T, we went to bed smiling, with full bellies and ever-so-slightly burnt skin.
Surfing brought us to Kuta*, on Lombok's southern coast, where once again the warm spirit of the local Indonesians made us feel at home.
Kuta is much more rural than other Bali areas we’d seen so far. The streets, mostly narrow, dirt roads, are rockier and strewn with stray dogs, goats and roosters.
It's also hillier, and the beaches are more spread out, so a motorbike is a must. As we rode around exploring, we passed by dozens of warungs with fresh, hot, and cheap (the winning combination) Indonesian food.
When we weren't riding around, we were attempting to adopt the relaxed island mindset.
We found a yoga studio with a gorgeous indoor-outdoor practice room overlooking the ocean below. It was a beautiful center, perched on top of a small mountain, among a lush forest. We could hear monkeys chattering and playing in the trees next to us as we sweat through a series of sun salutations. (The instructor was one of the smallest, and definitely the bendiest man I’ve ever seen. He's basically a human pretzel.)
In addition to our new daily yoga routine, we started drinking fresh juices and eating salads. I know, I know, whats happening to us? ;)
Possibly because Kuta is a smaller, more remote town, we found the dependency on tourism more apparent. One part of the daily life that we didn’t like was being surrounded by children selling trinkets (mostly bracelets) on the street and in restaurants. As much as we hated saying no to their sweet little faces, we didn’t want to reinforce the practice. You never know who's keeping their sales profits. Of course, we understand that it's all part of life there. What was once a fishing community now caters to tourists, hoping to sell them whatever they can before they move on to their next destination in Indonesia.
Oh yeah, the surfing: all of the best breaks are out a few hundred meters, so to reach them you hire a small boat to bring you out and wait a few hours while you surf. It's good because there are less surfers in the water, but meant that any non-surfers were stuck on the boat, baking in the sun for a few hours, so I stayed behind while Mike went out a few times.
Feeling like professional motorbike riders at this point, we ventured further away from our home base - an Airbnb above a local surf shop - and found a few secluded beaches with hardly anyone on the sand or in the water.
There were less surfers in the water for another reason: Ramadan. Because our visit overlapped with the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, an annual observance of fasting for Muslims, most locals were not going in the water at all.
The predominant religion in Indonesia is Islam, although the island of Bali, where the majority of people are Hindu, is an exception. It was very interesting to be in a Muslim community during Ramadan (a first for both of us). Right away, we noticed that the mosques were more active, making announcements and playing music over their speakers throughout the day.
We knew that the holiday meant that people were fasting, but until talking to Lombok natives in Kuta, we didn’t realize that any water entering the body (such as ocean water getting in your mouth or ears while surfing) goes against the fasting practice.
*Kuta on Lombok is not to be confused with Kuta on Bali, the latter of which is a beach near the airport that is extremely popular with tourists, especially Australians, who come for long weekends, on hen parties, or even just to get a tattoo for far cheaper than they could back home. Kuta on Lombok shares the same name but is on a different island.
Komodo National Park is both a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site comprising 29 islands (the largest, most notable three are Komodo, Rinca, and Padar), with a total surface area (land and sea) of 1,817km. But it’s best known for two things: the Komodo dragon and some of the best scuba diving in the world.
The park is smack-dab in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, between the Flores Sea, Savu Sea and Indian Ocean, a channel prone to very strong currents. (Some of the currents also result from upwellings smashing into the continental divide.)
Although currents can make diving difficult or even potentially dangerous, they also bring tons of nutrient-rich water to the area, which results in abundant sea life, from the smallest nudibranchs to the biggest sea turtles and mantas you’ve ever seen.
It was, without a doubt, among the top diving we’ve ever done. We stayed in a room at the dive shop in Labuan Bajo (on the adjacent Flores Island) and went out on the boat every day. On our first day, after two morning dives, we stopped by Rinca to trek a bit and see the dragons to “get it out of the way.” Because they don’t move around much, the dragons don't require tons of time. Plus, despite knowing they're the largest lizards in the world, they were bigger than we'd anticipated and, despite the rangers with their long, pronged-at-the-end sticks, I nervously worried that one might lunge at any moment.
(Side note: I asked one ranger, "Have any of the lizards ever attacked before?" expecting reassurance. What I got was a nonchalant, "oh, yes, all the time. But no one has ever been bitten." The reason you don't want a Komodo to bite you? Their bite is venomous and their saliva contains more than a few strains of bacteria, which can be quite the lethal combination. Lovely.)
Back to the main event, the diving. Not trying to make anyone jealous, but it was really, really, really, really good. We got lucky with weather and the water had near-perfect, 30+ m visibility every day. (Look at those photos! You'd think it was a swimming pool, not open water!) But the main reason it was oh, so good is that we saw everything.
Unlike other diving destinations, Komodo isn't only known for this or that. On one dive, you can see it all, such as:
Hard corals, soft corals, green sea turtles, hawksbill turtles, black- and white-tip reef sharks, giant mantas (you know how much we love those), mantis shrimp, gobi fish, bat fish, file fish, napoleon fish, frog fish, scorpion fish, stone fish, alligator fish… I could go on and on like Bubba in Forest Gump talking about shrimpin'.
Long story short, we love us some diving. And if you do too, take our advice, Komodo National Park is the place to be.
In addition to the diving, we met some cool people, ate some yummy food (Made in Italy is some of the best Italian food in one of the last places you'd expect to find it!) and had fun at night learning about the island from dive guides born and raised there, as well as adding a few more items to our “to do in Indo” list. Finally, we couldn't leave (they literally wouldn't let us) before popping our “vodka joss” cherry. (It's an Indo thing. Thanks again for that, Vero and Rachel!)
Shout out to the best dive guide with the best hair, the awesome Stefanus, and to our new friend Rachel for giving us photos and videos from her GoPro so we had some with us in them for a change! A few of the shots in this gallery (probably the better ones...) are hers.
Life is GOOD in the Bukit.
We stayed in a fantastic homestay, which was recommended by friends we met while traveling who had stayed there a few weeks prior. The comfortable home base was centrally located in the village of Pecatu so we could drive everywhere within minutes, riding on a motorbike that the homestay owner, Wayan, rented us for $4/day.
We loved the homestay atmosphere and enjoyed getting to know the lovely family, led by our hosts Wayan and Ketut. They are such generous and welcoming people. Wayan picked us up at the airport and helped us whenever we had a question, quizzing me on simple Indonesian phrases after I told him I wanted to learn the basics of the language. On the day we left, Ketut gave me a beautiful bracelet she'd made using local shells and orange beads. They made us feel like part of the family.
But we are far from homebodies and we spent most of our time out exploring. We'd wake up, throw on our bathing suits and head out, riding around on our motorbike, which already had an awesome surfboard rack built on the side.
In the Bukit, petrol stations are carts with recycled one liter liquor bottles full of neon yellow fuel the color of Red Bull, which they hastily slosh into your motorbike tank via a dirty old funnel.
The peninsula is home to some amazing restaurants. We were thrilled to discover that for about $3-8, depending on what you’re having, you can eat like a king. (We did not miss anything about the food in Australia!) I'm going to blog about all the wonderful food we've been eating in Indonesia. (I really am. I swear.)
The main reason to visit to Bukit is to surf, or watch surfing, or hook up with a surfer. Surfing is the main draw. However, there's one other attraction that brings people staying in other parts of the island down to the Bukit: the Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple.
Most popular at sunset, Pura Luhur Uluwatu offers a picturesque photo op, and a lot more to see. There's the view of the water and waves crashing below, the silhouette of the temple out on the edge of the cliff, there's a traditional Kecak dance ritual performed nightly, and, of course, there are the monkeys.
Those monkeys are c-r-a-z-y! And kind of scary. They are evil little honey badgers, taking what they want, offering no apologies. We watched one snatch a pink croc shoe right off a little girl's foot!
There are guys who work at the temple and try to keep the monkeys in line. They walk around with slingshots and fanny packs full of eggs to try to intimidate and distract the monkeys, but we saw that little can be done to persuade those little hooligans. People who fought back against their little human-like thief hands were met with barred teeth and a hiss.
In addition to the dozens of psycho monkeys, there were also large crowds of people. One night of that was enough for us.
My favorite environment that Bukit offers, outside of the beach, is the area around the homestay. Only a few blocks off the main strip, which is still relatively quiet, is lush goodness. The earthy, heady scent of dense foliage, wet leaves, the salty ocean air and tropical flowers fills your lungs. I felt happy, on a natural high, and like I was living in The Jungle Book with my very own Mowgli.
There are always palms sprouting from the ground and overhead, a verdant canopy to protect you from sun or rain. Flowers seem to grow everywhere, off vines and out of cracks in pavement. The flamboyant bursts - magenta, orange, red and shades of purple - beg for attention and admiration.
And then there are plenty of complimentary cool colors. The greens and the blues of the ocean seem to be at the end of every road. The many overlooks are typically accessible by a walk down a steep path or staircase (or both).
More than anything else, there are surfers, and surf shops, which is perfect for us. Mike loves to surf and I love to shop. (Even Mike loves shopping sometimes, as long as we're in a surf shop.) ;)
Overall in Bali so far, we've been struck by the beauty, vibrancy, color and nature infused everywhere. The Indonesian people are gracious and lighthearted, with big smiles and a playful sense of humor that transcends any language barrier. Flowers seem to bloom everywhere and the air is alive with the sound of birds singing, calling, chirping. Even in public bathrooms, there are often potted plants and freshly picked flowers arranged in shallow bowls.
Like I said, it's beautiful. And life is very, very good.
The Aussies say “Buh-lang-ann." Locals pronounce it “Baah-lah-gahn.” But we found that no matter which way we said it, we’d have to repeat ourselves a second time and always got corrected.
Balangan tied with Uluwatu as Mike’s fave surf spot in Bukit, and was probably my favorite as far as a beach with all the necessary fixings for chilling out all day.
For the week we were staying in Uluwatu, there was consistently good swell at Balangan, including one massive, double overhead day.
Like all of the beaches in the area, there are shacks built on the sand, supported by a more-sturdy-than-it-looks combination of wood, bamboo and concrete.
This beach was the best match for both of us because you could rent two chairs and an umbrella for only $2.50 USD for as long as you wanted to hang out. Mike was in and out of the water all day, while I read books, took photos of the waves and surfers, and drank coconuts.
Like Uluwatu, there are local guys who sit all day with a tripod and huuuuuge lens on their DSLR, taking photos of anyone who catches a good wave. Then, when the surfers get out of the water, they call them over and show them the photos.
No one can resist a killer photo of them crushing it. At first, I felt a bit competitive. That feeling quickly morphed into relief, because it’s really hard trying to catch every wave on camera while also enjoying my beach time.
So, long story short, most of these photos were taken by me but some of the credit has to go to the friendly, business-savvy guys running the photo sales operation on the beach. Between the few of us, we captured Mike, tanner than ever and looking like a pro on a few killer waves.
Bingin Beach doesn’t have much of a beach. Depending on the tide, the thin strip of sand at Bingin is either underwater or almost entirely shaded by the beachfront huts perched on wooden stilts. Even though there's little to no sand to hang on, there are tons of fun bars and cafes in those huts right on the shore.
You can sit in the blisteringly hot sun or under shade from an umbrella while you sip your ice cold Bintang and watch the surfers in the water. The break is right offshore, so unlike spots like Uluwatu, you’re close enough to see the action in detail.
Mike went into the water to play around on a rented board (his had been dented somewhere between leaving Perth and arriving in Bali, so it was at the shop for the day). While he was out there, I observed the scene, people watching and basking in the carefree, happy atmosphere.
What's not to be happy about? It's an easy life. You watch surfers while you enjoy a fresh pressed juice, a tropical fruit smoothie or a grilled wrap sandwich. And of course a young coconut with a straw and a spoon is always a great option.
I looked to my right and into the hut next to us to see a man repairing surfboards. He smoothed epoxy over the dings and dents, then sanded the dried, uneven bits away to create a perfectly smooth surface, ready to carve through water once again.
I also took the time to further hone my photography skills - surf photography and otherwise - spoiled by some world-class subject matter.
We really only had one good day at Bingin, when we were there for a few hours, enjoying the sun, some lunch and the waves. On another day, we went and checked the waves, then left, opting for better surf at another spot, Balangan.
Uluwatu is a world famous surf spot, off the most western tip of the Bukit Peninsula, which hangs off the bottom of the island of Bali like a bunch of ripe bananas.
To get there, you ride in on your motorbike, pay the $2,000 IDR* parking fee, walk along the path, down a few steps, and then you see the waves.
There are almost always perfect sets rolling in.
Uluwatu offers great vantage points for watching the surf (and surfers) thanks to the steep cliffs that meet the coast. You can easily see the entire point break from Single Fin's multi-tiered balconies as well as from nearly every oceanfront bar, restaurant, surf store and ding repair shop, all built on top of each other into the side of the rocky earth.
To get down to the small channel of water from which you can paddle out, you walk down steep steps and through random alleyways lined with tourist stores hawking sarongs and small restaurants to get to a slighly ominous staircase leading into a cave. Then you walk down and through, popping out onto the thin strip of sand. With steep rock walls on both sides, you wade in to your waist and then, when you think you've got the timing right for an opening between sets, jump on your board and start paddling.
If the current is strong, which it usually is, you paddle in the opposite direction of where you want to go, since you’ll probably end up getting dragged past it anyway. On one day, I watched Mike get sucked out sideways (not the direction you’re trying to go at Uluwatu, unless you’re on a wave) about 300m before he could paddle out.
"Looks rough out there today," I thought to myself as I sipped a cold glass of pineapple juice.
On small to normal days, there are around a hundred surfers in the water, all competing for the best waves.
On big days, like the 9 ft swell on the day we left Uluwatu, that number shrinks to about 12.
You’re far away, so you can’t really tell how massive the swell is, until you see a full grown man drop in and realize he looks like an ant crawling down over the tip of a tennis shoe. Or a piece of lint being swept off over the side of a bed. (You get where I’m going, right? The man looks teeny tiny, because the wave is easily double overhead, sometimes triple, ready to crush anything in its path without even feeling it.)
In addition to the views and surfing action, I liked Uluwatu for the cheap goods - I got a replacement baseball cap after seven months without one - and cheap beer. All of the restaurants will gladly let you hang out for as long as you want after you've ordered something.
The energy at Uluwatu can't be beat. Surfers walk by all day long. Wet surfers, slightly winded, walk up, heading for the bar or parking lot. Dry surfers, with a pep in their step, walk - almost float - down to the water's edge.
The better the waves, the better the vibe. It buzzes in the air. When someone catches an epic wave or gets crushed in a massive break, the crowd cheers out accordingly.
Our last day in town was a super big day - double to triple overhead. The mood was subdued, both in the water and at the various viewing stations. It was also a Monday, so that might have contributed to the drop. Believe it or not, because it's so close to Australia and flights are so cheap, there's a weekend crowd that comes in from Oz and leaves Sunday night, in time to make it back for work on Monday.
We loved Uluwatu so much that we're planning to go back again before leaving Indonesia in a few weeks.
*IDR is the currency code for the Indonesian rupiah. For anyone interested, 1 Indonesian Rupiah = 0.000075 US Dollar. Yet another reason we love it here!