Bali and Ubud again: Was this a Rest Stop?

We flew into Bali exhausted. We had just had three weeks of 12 hours a day driving under high stress conditions. We had been sleeping rough in the wild in whatever secluded spot we could find by the roadside in the rainy season, usually getting no more than six hours between 9 pm and first light the birds and traffic at 5 am. Then on the last day in Taiwan, typhoon Matso struck and we found, instead of leaving at 17:55 pm, we had to wait till 1:40 am to catch a delayed night flight to Singapore, arriving at 6 am, then try to sleep on the floor at the airport waiting to link to our ongoing flight to Bali in the middle of the day. Nevertheless we picked up our rental Suzuki Katana 4WD from the guy waiting at the airport and managed to find a good route to Ubud, running west of Denpassar.

The driving sides have switched four times. Japan and Bali drive on the left, while Korea and Taiwan drive on the right so you have to remember which side the indicators are on, or you futilely turn on the wipers in an emergency, and please don't turn left into the wrong lane!

Driving in Bali is different from the other countries. You have to steer very precisely to avoid motorcyclists flying past you in all directions, as well as pedestrians on the road, heavy trucks and cowboy drivers overtaking without warning, let alone to get through the ever-narrowing spaces between vehicles coming at you and others on the narrow road to your left."  You have to develop a Balinese style of driving - largely patient but occasionally impetuously revving at high speed to get fast around moving obstacles, or slower traffic on narrow winding roads with high traffic densities. 

One thing that's a real plus for health and the environment is that the smoky two-stroke bikes that used to plague Denpassar have almost entirely given way to clean four stroke machines, so although there are heaps of bikes on the road, the air is still relatively clean in the city.

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The cremation ceremony with gamelans and a shaman-priest giving blessings.

Just short of Ubud, we came upon a big traditional cremation ceremony held in the open. The pyre had been burned but there were several gamelan bands playing, shaman priests casting blessings chanting with bells, and parades of women giving offerings.

Christine was pretty anxious about finding a place to stay, as we had no sleeping reservation, but Ubud which has a one-way system around Monkey Forest Road was absolutely stationary with a daily late afternoon traffic jam. Eventually I made it round to Argasoka who we knew could squeeze the jeep in the front and found they were full, but they put us onto another losmen, Dewi Ayu, just up the street, which had a bungalow room for $220,000 a night with breakfast, also in a garden setting.

I then learned another canny piece of information which has again become useless in itself like all our vast learning experiences on this trip. 

Traveling is an endless challenge which stretches your brain and makes it grow more young and adaptable. You are endlessly solving subtle social and environmental puzzles which later will never be used again, but enrich and strengthen the fabric of adaptability. I've mentioned this before but there is an area of the brain called the hippocampus essential for consolidating long-term memory which has a kind of GPS for you to navigate round your world which can be overwritten like a kind of holographic scratch pad. And it actually grows new brain cells when it is stimulated. Many of these learning experiences are about driving and navigating so they do weird things to one's hippocampus.

So back to the parking. Two weird things about Bali. Firstly, there appear to be no speed limit signs in Bali, which pretty much goes at moped speed, although there is probably hidden legislation which would enable a cop to bust you on some pretext. Secondly, in Ubud there are also almost no parking limitations. Despite overcrowding, if you can get a park in Monkey Forest Road you can keep it, as long as you leave quickly and quietly and no one who might try to come and ask you to pay catches up with you. You can also have a good degree of confidence of getting one of these eagerly contested parks if you pick a counter-cyclic time like 6-7 pm, when the number of cars leaving Ubud after tourist visits exceeds the number arriving. Problem of where to put the jeep solved in the busiest street!

So we settled in Dewi Ayu for a couple of nights, sleeping off our exhaustion, eating delicious food for a token price and enjoying the spectacle of an ornate culture meeting a river of 'beautiful people" enjoying the "dream life". The little restaurant Warung Bu Nani further down Monkey Forest Road had absolutely addictive spring rolls for 15,000 and other excellent food for around 30,000, or $3 US a plate. Bali is unique for this capacity to provide the good life for a subsistence priceand Ubud is unique as the cultural capital of Bali. Next day we did make one short journey to Gunung Kawi, the very ancient Hindu Temple cut into the rock face of a deep ravine at Tampaksiring, after being bled for a donation by a tout at Pura Puseng Jagat in Pejeng.

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The garden from the second room at Dewi Ayu and Gunung Kawi 

Then on the second night the person in the bungalow above us spent the first half of their night loudly dragging their chair over our ceiling keeping us awake and very tired again, so we decided to escape to the mountains to see one last hurrah of Bali to the East of where we had been.

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These paddies look wonderful, even in the fallow season, but watch out for desperate carving sellers willing to push you off the parapet to try to make a sale.

In the morning we took off up to Kintamani, passing the village where in 2010, men so eager to sell me carvings for a dollar nearly pushed me off the cliff into the rice paddies on my crutches and broken hip. Then we reached the rim of the volcano at Kintamani and paid the 25,000 entrance fee. I visited a couple of the temples, we drove to the top of the pass at Penulisan where you can get a sweeping view of all three big volcanoes (largely obscured by cloud in the afternoon).

Then, running somewhat low on gas we decided to descend to the crater lake in hopes of making a transition through a small back road to the coast. We immediately found we were descending a steep winding road full of heavy trucks carrying scoria which led to an atrociously out of condition road through the scoria of the last eruption past burned out villages.

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Lake Batur with fish farms and mafiosi hotel touts.

We stopped at one of those places where motor bikes fill up with gas from bottles and were told the road was cut by the wet season and we couldn't get through. I bought a couple of litres of gas for 10,000 a litre. This is still less than half the price of petrol in NZ and other countries. The usual price in Bali is even lower 6,500 or 65c US a litre! Now we can all understand why the roads in Bali are endlessly clogged with traffic. Corrupt highway maintenance and unrealistic fuel subsidies.


Morning panorama of Lake Batur from the hotel

The atmosphere around the lake is not so pleasant. There are a lot of touts who come up to you and say "where you from?" and then try to take you over. You have to be endlessly on your guard. So after a lunch in a deserted cafe we bumped our way back to the rim where there was a sign for "Kintamani Backpackers" $15 a night which proved deserted. Then I spied the Amerta Sari Hotel opposite and after being asked to pay 400,000 for a room settled a deal for 250,000 for a traditional bungalow room down a ridiculous causeway of steep steps, but with a panoramic view of the crater lake and we spent a peaceful night.

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The bungalow at Amerta Sari overlooking Gunug Batur and the lake. Gunung Agung, Bali's tallest volcano, poking shyly out of the mist in the morning.

Next day we drove to Kintamani and on up the ridge to Penulisan where there was supposed to be a view over all three highest mountains both to the east and west. I climbed a high hill at the ridge point where there is a hill top temple and was able to see the cloud covered outlines of all three.


Kintamani and a woman praying at a shrine in one of the three side-by-side temples.

Then we travelled South East through the forest towards Besakih, which we had visited in 2010.  Sure enough, just like last time, there was a woman in the forest just after we turned down into the forest road to Besakih who pounced out at you, stopped the car and covered your bonnet in offerings and tried to get a donation of 50,000 for you conceding to this blessing. This time we waved No! No! and sweved into the other side of the road.


A view over Eastern Bali

We descended and then drove through steep ravines with beautiful rice terraces, and more coastal ranges passing smaller volcanoes, stopping at Tenengan, one of the few accessible Bali Aga villages, and one which we had visited together in 1973. 

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Tenengan is laid out in a linear arrangement. Aga women wearing double ikat sarongs.

The Bali Aga are the original inhabitants who were here before the Hindu worshipping Balinese arrived and ornamented the cultural experience. They are very conservative to the point of being accused of being "backward". For example they refuse to allow anyone who marries outside the village to remain. They use an older and more primitive form of the gamelan. Have different festivals, crowned by a fighting prowess festival for the young men called Perang Pandan. The villages are strictly linear in form, Tenengan's temples were tiny and vestigal and the Agas generally do not cremate, but leave the bodies out to rot under a sweet smelling tree in an ossuary, as at Trunyan on Kintamani Lake. Another village Bayang Gede near Kintamani has a graveyard in a garden compound for the placentas of all the babies born in the village.

They also have some unique and ingenious crafts. They specialize in "double ikat" tie-dyed weaving in which both the warp and weft have to be tie-dyed in vertical and horizontal factorizations of the same geometric pattern and then carefully woven into place. These garments are made over several years (10 years to set the dyes for a start) and are used for ceremonial purposes. 


Candidasa heaven except for the missing sand

We then returned to Bali along the coast full of beaches including Candidasa which did have a beach until mining for cement caused sea erosion, which all but ruined the sandy coastline, leaving only a trace on a beach of hard stony pebbles.

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Another stranger ceremony.

On the way we stopped at another ceremony that seemed to be a memorial for eight or ten men with a row of shrines with people giving offerings, loud lamenting singing on the microphone, and coffin-like strange polystyrene things lined up beside what looked like half dug graves.

We returned to Ubud to the same Losmen, this time peacefully in an upper apartment for our last two nights free of all responsibilities, managing to score a park without trouble at the right time.

Next day we tried to do a little shopping at the market. Christine bought a batik sarong for 80,000, bargained down from 200,000. Then in conversation, we mentioned we had been in Ubud and stayed at Tjanderi's guest house in 1973 and it turned out the woman had grown up and lived next to Tjanderi's, so it was a bit of a reunion! 

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Christine outside Tjanderi's in 1973 wearing single ikat from Sumatra. The Ubud markets.
Christine with the woman who lived next to Tjanderi's buying a sarong in 2014.

Then I made one last journey to the surrounding areas of Ubud out to the bridge of the Campuan ravine to the west which had a really nice stream-side temple with high spindly pagodas, out into the art and nature area of Penestanan out on the rice paddies and to Sangingan a little to the north.

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The temple in Campuan ravine.

On the last morning we got up at seven for a check in at 12:45. Bearing in mind it's only about 40 kms from Ubud to the airport, you would think that would be fine. But then entropy set in. There had been a lot of rain in the night and the jeep wouldn't start and its battery went flat trying. So I had to do something pretty dangerous. I put it in reverse and struggled by myself to push it back downhill into the sloping road. Then a Balinese guy helped me to push it in reverse into a gap in the strings of oncoming one-way traffic coming up the hill and after a wild descent towards disaster, with it coughing fitfully, it finally burst into life.


Warung Bu Nani the best food in Ubud!

We then cunningly drove by back roads I had become familiar with, successfully zooming south through the countryside in light traffic and around Denpassar, leaving two hours to go, until I made one fatal error, turning right into Legian, becoming caught in an absolutely stationary traffic jam in Jl. Legian for 45 minutes. Then we broke free and instead of the clogged turning for the airport I headed for Sanur and then followed a couple of taxis round a back street and at last, with half-an hour to spare we found ourselves at the airport gates, and turned back for a Nasi Goreng in the street, before discharging the jeep on time without scratches.

We then caught a new Jetstar Dreamliner, the new Boeing planes that are made of carbon fibre rather than aluminum, which purred at nearly 950 kms/hr to Melbourne at 43,000 feet, and here we are in Auckland recuperating after an all night flight that arrived 5.30 am that wasn't really an all night flight because Bali time it was still only 2.30 am and we got a four hour half sleep from 7 - 11.

So you tell me! Was Bali a rest and recuperation stop or what was it?