Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bali, Indonesia, part 1 (2012)

We weighed anchor early in the morning of August 6th, and headed out of Darwin Harbor on our way to Bali, Indonesia, 965 miles away.  Our route took us west out of Darwin for 450 miles to pass between Ashmore Reef and Hibernia Reef.  This stretch of water is shallow (depths generally between 100-150 ft), and there are many shoals and oil derricks to avoid in addition to the reefs.  The winds were light near the Australian coast, which is normal for this area.  Once we rounded Ashmore Reef, we altered course to the NW toward Bali and after that, we had good E to SE winds from 12 - 20 knots for the rest of the trip.  We made great time, averaging 6-7 knots, boosted by a little current.  We approached Bali a day ahead of schedule after an uneventful passage and were excited to be on track for an early afternoon arrival on August 12th. 

As we approached the island of Lombok, just east of Bali, we started to feel the effects of the strong currents that run through the Indonesian archipelago.  The last 40 miles were a bit of an emotional roller coaster as we first thought we had plenty of time to make it by nightfall flying along at 7 knots, only to find an hour later we were only making 2 knots against the current and resigned ourselves to another night at sea.  Then a couple hours later, we would be going 7 knots again for a few hours and then back to 2 knots as the tide turned. Given the hazards around the entrance, we knew this was not a harbor to approach after dark.  Fortunately, we were able to make it into Benoa Harbor at 5:30 pm with just enough light to make it into the marina.    

The harbor felt a bit chaotic as fishing boats large and small shared the waters with power boats that were speeding around in all directions, pulling tourists on water-skis and parasails, some of them coming quite close to us.  We hailed the marina on the VHF and were relieved to hear they had room for us.  We pulled into the slip and the marina staff helped us tie off our dock lines.  We didn’t have to worry about clearing in that night as the offices were closed, so we got cleaned up and enjoyed dinner ashore.    

Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 13,000 islands stretching over roughly 3,200 miles with a population of almost 240 million people.  The island of Bali would be our only stop in the country.  If we had more time, we would like to visit more of the islands, as Bali is quite different culturally than the rest of the country.   Although Indonesia is the largest country in the world with a Muslim majority, the Balinese are mainly Hindu and the only Hindu society in all of Southeast Asia. 

The morning after we arrived, we set off to complete the clearance formalities, which are rumored to be a long and frustrating process.  Thankfully, four of the five offices are within walking distance of the marina.  Determined to be patient, we stopped first at the immigration office to get our 30-day visas.  Less than 15 minutes later, we were on our way to the quarantine office, another surprisingly short and painless stop.  After we paid our 50,000 Rupiah (roughly $5 USD) to the quarantine, the next stop was the customs office.  The customs officer arrived, signed, and stamped our crew list without any questions or fees.  So far, this was going way too smoothly.

Our next stop was the Navy office, but we were misinformed that it was located on nearby Serangen Island.  We took a cab over to Serangen Island, found the small Navy office, but they told us we needed to go to the main offices in the capital city of Denpasar.  So, we renegotiated our cab fare to include another stop in Denpasar. 

Once we found the Navy office in Denpasar, the process took only a few minutes.  With our five signed and stamped copies of the crew list, we made our way back to the harbor master to complete the process.  All in all, the clearance process was much easier than we anticipated, and by noon, we were free to explore the island.

There was a long list of places we wanted to see on Bali, and we quickly figured out that we couldn’t afford to travel by cab.  The bus system wasn’t very good on the island either, and we noticed that most of the locals got around on scooters.  We talked to the marina about renting one, and it turns out that they are fairly inexpensive, at around $4 per day.

The next day, the marina had a scooter brought over and we filled out the rental contract before the guy gave us a very brief rundown on driving in Bali.  He didn’t speak very good English, but mentioned we needed to drive on the left hand side of the road, if the police pulled us over we would be required to pay a bribe (otherwise they would keep the registration), and if we were low on fuel, then something about a vodka bottle that we couldn’t quite understand. 

The Balinese did not seem to be overly concerned with traffic laws and rules of the road.  There didn’t seem to be any age restrictions either.  People didn’t pay attention to lanes, and you could have four scooters and three cars side by side on a two lane road.  Riding the scooter turned out to be much faster than travelling by car.  As cars stacked up at traffic lights, we could weave in and out and get to the front of the line, saving lots of time.   Sidewalks were not off limits, and driving the wrong way on a one way seemed to be ok as long as you stayed off to the side. 

The only drawback, other than obvious safety concerns, was getting pulled over and having to pay a bribe.  We ended up getting pulled over three times while we were there, including once when we didn’t do anything wrong.  It was really annoying, but still an inexpensive way to get around even with the occasional $10 bribe.

Many of the locals ride these scooters, and even though most are only 125cc’s, they are real work horses.  It is hard to believe how much can be carried on such a small vehicle.  It was fairly common to see a family of five zipping around town on one, and we would frequently see cargo stacked on the back that went several feet over the drivers head.  As part of an upcoming holiday, the Balinese people decorated tall bamboo poles (40-50ft high) that were then planted in front of each house.  Most of these were brought home via scooter.  We learned quickly to stay well clear when someone was making a turn carrying one of these poles.  Once we were even passed by a couple guys on a scooter, and the passenger was carrying five very unhappy quacking ducks in each hand.    

The tourism industry is primarily focused in the south, and the hub of it is the town of Kuta.  For our first trip from the marina, we decided to check out this area.   This was probably not the best area to go into first, as it is the most congested part of the island and required the most aggressive driving.  It was bit nerve-wracking at first as Andrew maneuvered the bike through the streets while Di held on for dear life, reading the map and shouting directions forward. 

Kuta was packed with bars, nightclubs, restuarants, shops and a long stretch of beach.  Amongst the crowds of the tourists walking around, the local Balinese still went about many of their traditional customs.  It was common to see them making dailing offerings, called canang, which are banana-leaf trays that have been pinned together with bamboo splinters and filled with rice, fruit, flowers and incense.  Offerings for the gods are placed in elevated positions and those meant for demons are scattered on the ground.  It was hard to walk around without accidentally stepping on or kicking one of these offerings.  

Unfortunately, when you pick up a rented scooter, they only leave you with a tiny bit of gas, and we ran out within an hour.  We had been looking for a gas station since leaving the marina, but couldn’t seem to find one.  That is when we figured out what the guy was talking about when he mentioned the vodka bottles.  Stores all over Kuta had small stands with vodka bottles filled with gasoline.  You could buy a liter for about 5,000 Rupiah (50 cents).  We bought a couple liters, and the guy at the stand dumped them through a filter into our tank.  We were back in business a few minutes later.

Scooters are very popular around Bali.

As we planned our travel around the island, it became obvious that we would be better off spending a few nights away from the boat, as the island is a decent size (90 miles across from east to west and 70 miles across from north to south).  Going back and forth from the boat everyday was going to result in more time on the road and less at the actual sites.  According to our guide book, there were inexpensive losmen or home stays all around the island where we could stay the night.  They were mostly just a few rooms attached to someone’s house or a restaurant, and we found some decent places for only $20.  Only some of them had hot water, but they were quite clean and comfortable.  This meant that we could see a lot of the island over several days, and the shorter day hops meant we didn’t have to drive at night, which is also a bit dangerous since some of the vehicles/bicycles/animals that share the road don’t have lights.  So we packed up our backpacks and headed north from the marina for a several day trip to explore the island. 

We first headed back to Denpasar, the capital of Bali, to visit the Bali Museum.  This was an interesting introduction to the history and culture of the island.  We learned a bit about the history of the Indonesian Islands, which gained their independence from the Dutch in 1962.  We also learned a few things about the Hindu religion and the many temples that we had seen around.  Apparently each village has three temples: the temple of origin (pura puseh), the day-to-day village temple (pura desa) and the temple of the dead (pura dalem).  There are many villages around Bali, and with three temples in each village, this results in over 20,000 temples on the island.  There are also nine directional temples, which are located at strategic points across the island .  Every temple has an anniversary celebration, called odalan, which lasts three days.  Since there are so many temples, it is hard not to witness a few of these celebrations while visiting.  It was a nice museum and quite small, which was good because we usually don’t last more than an hour in museums. 

Bali Museum

A short walk away, we found the local market, Pasar Badung.  This is the largest market and is open 24 hours a day.  It was much different than the ones in the touristy areas.  Our guide book’s description of “chaotic” was spot on.  Stall owners were persistent in their sales pitch, and they would swarm around us as we shopped.  One woman followed us for three blocks.  The first floor had mainly fruits and vegetables, as well as some stacks of cooked meat.  We were in search of some hot curry powder and found some at a spice stand.  Bartering is a common practice at these markets, so we were prepared to negotiate.  We picked out a small packet of hot curry powder and chili powder, each roughly 4 ounces.  Our jaws dropped when the woman told us the price was 360,000 Rp – almost $40 USD!  We started to walk away, but she asked us what we would be willing to pay, and after a bit of back and forth, she reluctantly accepted 70,000 Rp, which was still probably way too high.

market in Denpasar
From Denpasar we headed north to Batubulan to see some traditional Balinese dancing.  What we actually ended up seeing was a Barong-Rangda dramatization.   This is a traditional Balinese play about the forces of good and evil.  Apparently the actual play is quite long, but it has been shortened for us tourists with short attention spans.  It was quite entertaining, and they had had some very elaborate costumes and masks.    

Barong-Rangda play

From Batubulan we made our way toward Ubud, with the plan to stop in some of the small towns along the way.  Many of the villages in the Ubud area specialize in a type of craft, such as wood or stone carvings or basket weaving to name a few.  We made a quick stop in Celuk, the village known for its silverwork.  After that, we went to Mas, which is well known on the island for their woodcarving.  They had rooms full of carvings in ebony, sandalwood and other hardwoods.  There were some beautiful carvings, but they were really expensive. 

Our next stop was Ubud, the area considered to be the cultural hub of the island, where we spent several hours walking around the town.  There are many temples, museums and art galleries, Balinese dance shows, various craft studios, and traditional ceremonies.   As we walked through Ubud, we passed several temples.  Tourists are not allowed in some of the temples, but we found one on the main road that allowed tourists to walk around the courtyard.  The paths leading up to the temple were framed by ponds with hundreds of lily pads.  The stone carvings and other adornments of the temple were intricate and beautifully made.

temple in Ubud

Another highlight of Ubud was the monkey forest, where we saw what our guide book described as “malevolent but photogenic long-tailed macaques.”  There are walkways throughout the park as well as a temple and about 300 of these monkeys living there.   Several stalls near the entrance sold bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys, which was a popular thing for the kids to do.  Once they knew you had food, the monkeys were quite aggressive, pulling on people’s arms and climbing on their backs to take the food.  A few of the kids probably left the park never wanting to see another monkey again.

Ubud Monkey Forest

After Ubud, our next stop was for lunch in Gianyar, which is known for babi guling (roasted suckling pig stuffed with chillies, rice, and spices).  Walking into the restaurant, we passed by the pig and the woman carving it, who was all business.  We sat down, and without ordering, they brought over two plates heaping full with various parts of the pig, as well as a side of soup with shredded pork.  Most of it was quite delicious, but there were definitely some things that we couldn’t identify.

preparation of babi guling

From Gianyar, we made our way north to see one of the most important temples.  Pura Lempuyang Luhur is one of the nine directional temples and sits on the slopes of the mountain called Gunung Lempuyang.  Hiking up to the main temple involves climbing 1,700 stairs, which sounded like a good way to get some exercise, as well as take in some of the great views.  At the gates, we both rented the mandatory sarongs and started climbing.

There are seven or so other temples along the way, but there isn’t a map and no signs to show which way to go.  Unfortunately about halfway up, we took a wrong turn and made our way back down through another valley and ended up at one of the local villages.  After a few inquiries, we realized our error, and trudged back up the stairs.   By now, we were really hot and sweaty in our rented sarongs, but we kept climbing.  After arriving at the main temple, you can walk up another hour and a half to visit one more temple at the summit.

We were amazed at the hundreds of Balinese people, young and old, in full traditional ceremonial dress that were descending as we were climbing.  Many of the women were balancing large baskets on their heads.  They were all smiles and very few passed without saying hello.  Finally, three hours after starting, we made it to the top.  The views were stunning, especially of nearby Mount Agung, which is an active volcano and the highest peak on Bali at almost 10,000 ft.  After a short rest, we made our way back down in less than an hour.  Our calves ached for a week after that.

Pura Lempuyang Luhur

After the temple, we stopped at the Taman Tirtagangga Water Palace.  It was our main reason for visiting Tirtagangga, and was where we would be staying the night.  This was constructed on the site of a holy spring, with pools and fountains and lots of stone statues.  The palace itself wasn’t very exciting, but it is surrounded by beautiful scenery, including lots of tiered rice fields.  The room that we rented for the night was actually in the middle of a rice field.   

statues in the water palace, Di in front of our room in the rice fields

The next morning, we were up early to go for a walk through the rice paddies.  There are locals that you can pay to guide you through the fields, but we thought we would try it on our own.  Our waiter the previous night told us it was ok to walk through the fields, as long as you don’t walk on the rice plants. 

After walking around for a while, we realized it wasn’t quite as simple as just walking through the rice paddies.  It involved balancing along the elevated and sometimes slippery edges of the flooded rice fields and jumping over the irrigation canals.  These fields were being worked by local families that lived in huts spread throughout the fields.  The irrigation canals were actually their source of water for bathing and laundry.  We had some awkward moments when we unexpectedly walked up on people bathing in the canal waters.  When we did come across people who were fully clothed, we asked if it was ok to be there.  They all assured us that it was fine, and we could go wherever we wished.  Several happily smiled for pictures. 

Tirtagangga rice fields

After a walk through the rice fields, we packed our backpack, got back on the scooter and headed to the north.  The further north we made it, the less important the tourism industry was and the more it felt like the authentic Bali.  Our next stop was the village of Amed on the northeast coast.   There are some nice reefs close to shore here, with lots of colorful fish and rays.  We spent the day walking around and went snorkeling in a couple of areas, including on the wreck of a Japanese freighter that was sunk in about 30 feet of water just off the beach.    

We spent the night in Amed and the next morning we packed up and headed south, this time along the coast.  Riding the scooter down this stretch of coastal road was definitely one of the highlights of our stay in Bali.  The coastline here is dotted with many beautiful bays with crystal clear water and beaches, framed by rugged cliffs.  For several miles, the road is very hilly, passing through the small fishing villages at sea level, and then climbing steeply to traverse along the cliffs for great views of the bays and beyond.  The landscape was quite different than what we had seen in other parts of the island.  Riding along, we were surprised to see hundreds of fisherman in their sailing canoes returning to the beach after early morning fishing excursions.  It was quite a sight to see all of the colorful sails dotting the horizon. 

sailing canoes on the coastline near Amed

After we made our way down the east coast, we decided to visit the west coast of Bali, primarily to see another directional temple, Pura Tanah Lot.  This is considered one of the holiest places on Bali, and is very popular with tourists.  We were shocked to find thousands of people swarming the area.  The temple complex has a distinct focus on tourism, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from t-shirts and sarongs to paintings and wood carvings.  The temple itself is on a small island, surrounded by water most of the day.  As the water recedes at low tide, a strip of sand is exposed that connects it to the main island, providing easier access.  Only worshippers are allowed to enter the temple compounds, but many tourists wade across to get a closer look.  There are several more temples along the coast, and we spent some time visiting them, as well as walking around the rice paddies above the beach.

Pura Tanah Lot and the nearby coastline

We still had many places to see, but it was time for us to head back to Saviah for a few nights to do some boat work.  Our friend Eric, from Seattle, was due to arrive soon, and we looked forward to seeing more of the island during his visit.