Monday, August 22, 2011

Bali - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sunset at Ku De Ta over Seminyak Beach
It's hard to know what to write about Bali. The beaches are gorgeous, there are temples everywhere and the prices are unbelievable!

Batuan Village Temple
Sounds too good to be true? It is. The towns are extraordinarily ugly, hawkers hassle you continuously and the beauty of the beach isn't enough to make Bali worthwhile for anyone except people on a really tight budget. At least, that's our assessment in a nutshell.

Mackenzie frolicking in the waves
Are we happy we visited? Yes. It took a couple of days to get adjusted to the chaos, but we eventually settled into a super-relaxing sun-soaked vacation. We stayed in Seminyak, two towns north of the backpacker party capital of Kuta. This is what our travel guide says about Seminyak:
The next town north of Legian, Seminyak is more upmarket with mostly luxury accommodation and fashionable high-end restaurants and bars. The atmosphere is much more sophisticated and laid-back than Kuta, and the beach in particular is quieter during the day. Seminyak is also the high end spa and boutique shopping capital of Bali. Nowhere is the upscaling of Bali in recent years more obvious than here.
Uhh ... were we staying in the same place?

Challenges in navigating the streets
I would limit it to saying that there are signs that the area is improving. There are a couple of high-end hotels (Legian, Oberoi, Samaya) scattered along the main strip. There are two small shopping plazas with stores that have more modern construction but selling surf apparel and local jewellery. Somehow there are 3 Polo Ralph Lauren stores. However, there is a narrow sidewalk (tight for two people to walk side-by-side) on only one side of the street and this is virtually unnavigable between the 18-inch sized holes that lead to the untreated sewage system that flows underneath to the countless number of scooters that use the sidewalks as parking spots or even as accessory lanes to the impossibly congested roads. 

Seminyak sidewalk with untreated sewage flowing underneath
The restaurants along the strip are older with mostly mediocre food. We did have excellent meals at Kuni's (Japanese), Breeze at the Samaya Hotel (amazing view!) and of course Ku De Ta.

Cassandra modeling her new bikini next to our private plunge pool
Our trip was saved by our accommodations at Bermimpi Villas. Our villa was Villa Ogi, along the lane way directly adjacent to the Oberoi Hotel. Beach access was past the armed guards standing at the entrance of the Ku De Ta restaurant, about 3 minutes walk from our front door. Ari and her staff were amazing! 

Villa Ogi
You are really made to feel important when on arrival there is a staff of 4 people to welcome you and the manager makes a personal visit every day to help you organize your trip. The two floor villa is immaculately decorated with plenty of modern amenities. Orchid petals were scattered across our bedspread and bedroom floor every day and the kids loved our private plunge pool. 
The villa was so comfortable that we spent most of our trip lounging in the recliners by the pool or drifting into the open living room for a nap or a snack. We might spend a morning at the beach and then spend sunny afternoons intermittently snoozing, eating, drinking and swimming. It was very 
relaxing and was almost enough to make us forget the chaos and ugliness just outside our door.
Worshipers at the Pura Taman Saraswati temple
Ari, the manager, organized an outing for us to see Ubud and some of the Hindu temples in the countryside. We set out around 8:00am and our driver (don't even consider driving here - it's insane!) picked us up and brought us through southern and central Bali. Looking at a map of our route, you would imagine that once past the capital city of Denpasar, we would travel through the Balinese countryside dotted with quaint villages. 

Rice paddies
Alas, thwarted again! The urban sprawl of Denpasar extended along our entire 7 hour itinerary and glimpses of unpopulated Balinese land were few and far between. There was one fringe benefit to being in a 7 hour traffic jam. Many of the roads are lined with the ateliers of Bali's many craftsmen. Hand-crafted furniture makers, stone masons & iron sculptors all had their products on display by the side of the road. The furniture in particular looked fantastic. If we had have thought to bring our own shipping container, we could have really cleaned up.

All decked out to go into the Batuan temple. Yes - Harrison is trying to hide.
We stopped at Batuan to check out the temple. Indonesia is the largest (by population) Muslim country in the world, but the Balinese are largely Hindu. As such, every village and every household must have a place of worship. Many of the village temples are very large, featuring at least 20 different alters. 

Pura Taman Saraswati temple
Ubud is in central Bali and has long been a hub for Balinese artists and craftsmen. Our first stop was a little out of town at the Forest Monkey Sanctuary where a huge troupe of macaques grudgingly shares the sculpted walkways and bridges with human visitors.

Ubud Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Next, it was off to the main village of Ubud. Our first priority was cooling off at the Starbucks. Along with the usual North American fare, you could pick up a Black Sesame Green Tea Frappaccino. I enjoyed all 1200 calories!

Next door to the Starbucks was the impressive Pura Taman Saraswati temple, although the mandatory sarong put off everyone but me.

Down the road, we walked around the colorful but impossibly crammed stalls of the huge marketplace Pasar Ubud. After haggling with a vendor for 20 minutes, a 10" statue of Ganesha made its way into our luggage.

Balinese woman preparing floral prayer baskets
Spice table
Bangles at the market
Finally, we roamed across the road to Puri Saren, Ubud's Royal Palace, although most of the grounds were closed for a ceremonial occasion. It seemed like someone important had died as the locals were building a giant funeral procession for the coming weeks.

Harrison taking on big waves off Bali
We spent the last few nights of our stay much the same as the first two, sleepily drifting between beach, pool, couch and fridge.

We celebrated our last night at the fabulous Ku De Ta restaurant which distinguishes itself with its ultra-chic locale overlooking Seminyak Beach, its LA-beautiful clientele and its Manhattan prices. Despite the $400 price tag for a dinner for 5, the sunset was unforgettable, the meal exceptional and the whole experience totally worth it.

Overall, we enjoyed Bali. After an exhausting 48 hours in Singapore, we relaxed big time before tackling a heavy travel schedule in Australia. However, I expected better and we were all a little disappointed. To take a bit of Kiwi vernacular, I would have been guttered if I had traveled all the way from Canada to visit Bali. There are many beach scenes which are FAR better in most every way than what we experienced in Bali.

Next up: Australia!

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