The Indonesian island of Bali has a long and rich history dating back to prehistoric times. Apparently Dutch seafarers were the first Europeans to set foot on the island in 1597. The island has seen plenty of conflict over the years with bloody rebellions, Japanese occupation during WWII and a violent anti-communist purge in the mid-60s which saw approximately 5% of the island’s population killed. In 1963 the island’s huge volcano, Mount Agung erupted killing thousands of people and creating economic havoc.
Also in the early ’60s, the first hotels were built and following the opening of Ngurah Rai International Airport in 1970, tourism was well and truly stamped on the Bali map. Today it’s a popular destination for Australians – it’s cheap, and moderately close, taking under four hours from Perth and over six from Sydney. “It’s really touristy and you’ll probably come home with Bali-belly, but you’ll love it” came the advice. So it was with some hesitation that we booked a ten day break taking in Seminyak and Nusa Dua.
We arrived on a Monday evening. It was dark and chaotic and while our priority luggage lacked meaning, we were through customs and out into the hoard of drivers all touting for business, within a relatively short time. Our transport had been pre-arranged – Chief is good at making arrangements. Although it was late, the roads were busy with swarms of scooters and mopeds weaving through the stationary traffic. Our hotel was away from the main drag of Seminyak. We were greeted by the lovely hotel staff with cool towels and refreshing drinks. Tired from our journey we turned in for the night.
The next morning we decided to explore on foot which wasn’t as plain sailing as it would seem; the footpaths were single-file width with the occasional steep step and a missing paver. There was also the odd hole or two to watch out for.
Seminyak has a lot of shops and I mean a lot! Clothes, homewares, surf gear, swimwear, local crafts and souvenirs. Spas and Massage are big business in Bali too. We arrived at the beach; it was early and apart from a few surfers and walkers, there weren’t many people about yet. The sand was coarse and dark due to the volcanic nature of the island. There were also plenty of cigarette butts, sunbeds, bean bags and umbrellas – it made us appreciate how lucky we are with our beaches in Australia.
One of our strategies for avoiding this so-called Bali-belly was to avoid eating salads and uncooked food, so our first meal was a magnificent green papaya (paw paw) salad; shredded green papaya, cherry tomatoes, snake beans topped with fried shallots and a dressing to die for – one of the bests we’ve had. Had we just ignited the taper to our guts? Only time would tell.
Known as the cultural heart of Bali and Elizabeth Gilbert’s destination for self-discovery, Ubud is a little over an hour into the hills from our hotel. So when Chief said that he’d booked a table at a dessert restaurant, I was expecting a day of tranquillity, peace and calm. A couple of days earlier, Chief had negotiated a price with a driver who’d touted for our business. He’d produced a well-worn laminated map. On the reverse were pictures of all the tourist destinations within easy reach for a day’s excursion. Without consultation Chief pointed out that no, he didn’t want to visit the place where mongooses poop out coffee beans and no, he didn’t want to visit Monkey Forest either. “I hate monkeys” he told the man. The man pointed to the picture of a waterfall and a rice terrace. “Yes, that would be great.” The fare was agreed upon and so too the collection time.
Friday morning arrived and Katut (yes really!) was waiting for us in the hotel lobby along with his huge grin. Chief took the seat up front, so that they could talk about the World Cup and all the things they had in common, which I didn’t think would be very much. Katut’s vehicle was an Indonesian people carrier; it was clean and roadworthy. My seat belt didn’t do up so I moved along to the middle seat and then across to the right side – none of them did. I didn’t want to make a fuss; I’d already demonstrated my unease after experiencing several near-misses (in my opinion) when really it was just the Bali drivers doing what they do to travel from A to B.
Katut explained that he needed to pick up his phone charger on the way and ten minutes later we pulled over to the side of a busy road. There seemed to be about four lanes of traffic swarming with scooters and mopeds weaving through the traffic – it was chaotic. Katut’s wife appeared on a scooter on the opposite side which meant she would have to navigate her way across the traffic to reach us – I couldn’t watch and hoped my feeling of doubt wasn’t showing on my face. She made it across with ease – I’m sure it’s something she practices on a regular basis. Chief opened his window to greet her; she had a beautiful smile. We exchanged pleasantries and took possession of the charger before resuming our drive into the hills.
We do not make good tourists and prefer to sightsee in our own time and at our own pace so we were slightly uneasy to be dropped off with a million other people at the Tegenungan Waterfalls. After purchasing entry tickets we were greeted by local stall holders selling local craft and souvenirs, ice-creams, snacks and cold drinks and if we wanted to use a clean toilet it would set us back $3. I noticed a sign by a bar – ‘G’day Mate, Bloody Cold Beer’ – I was convinced a Bintang-singlet-clad male Australian had assisted the bar owner with the signage. I could only imagine the reputation the Balinese people have of us Australians. We left the huddle of stalls and cafes and made our way down a steep path. We could see the waterfall below us, surrounded by lush vegetation (and tourists). At the base of the fall was a wide shallow pool and several people were enjoying the water. It only took us a few minutes to reach the path along the riverbank which brought us to the base of the falls. There was a viewing platform and I wanted to take some photos so I made my way through the pack of tourists, who all had the same intention. I fought my way through clashing selfie-sticks in order to have a clear shot of the falls. I didn’t loiter; I could see Chief was having a dose of the fidgets so we made our way back, stopping for ice-creams before locating Katut and his car.
From the waterfalls we drove passed miles and miles of shops; local craft, furniture, artwork, and souvenir shops lining the route to our next destination, the Tegalalang Rice Terrace. We left Katut in the busy car park and strolled back down to the village. The main street was again lined with cafes and souvenir shops. We could have stayed up on high ground and admired the view along with the many bus-loads of tourists but we decided to take the track through the terraces. The entrance was via a little archway in the wall – we nearly missed it. There before us were the steep rice terraces arching round in a 180 degrees vista. They looked green, lush and tranquil. It was peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the main street.
We made our way down the steep track and began to climb up the other side. At a couple of points along the route, there were locals collecting donations. We didn’t mind, these people were only trying to make a meagre living after all. It felt good to be away from the masses at last. Chief guided us off the beaten track where we found ourselves by some workers dwellings; we kept on and soon were following signs to exit. The path down became very steep and we had to negotiate concrete steps with no handrails – I went down sideways – if there’s one person who would have gone base over apex, it was me!
We were pleased to have made this stop at the rice terraces and would recommend you do it too if you ever find yourself in the vicinity but go early or later in the day.
And so to Ubud! I was expecting a quaint and peaceful village nestled in the tranquil hills of Bali. My expectations were dashed when we hit a traffic jam on the outskirts of the town. We crawled and crawled to the point where I wanted to yell “just let us out here!” That would have been a challenge as Katut had already been given the address of the restaurant and as his English was limited and our Indonesian was non-existent, we decided to sit tight rather than trying to negotiate new plans. Even the mopeds and scooters were at a standstill; there was nowhere for them to go. Back home drivers would have been yelling profanities and leaning on their car horns but Katut didn’t seem to even emit a sigh. The scooter rider next to me pulled out his e-cigarette from his jacket pocket and took a heavy drag. The vapour fanned under his visor and his eyes disappeared for a couple of seconds – his way of keeping his cool I imagine.
I noticed an increase in the number of people with yoga mats slung over their shoulders. They were scurrying along the pavement, late for their class, probably because of the traffic no doubt, and in a hurry to downward-dog and happy baby. It took us about an hour to drive a 15 minute journey to the other side of Ubud. We had finally arrived at our destination – Room 4 Dessert.
Chief had seen this place on the Netflix series Chef’s Table – so was keen to give it a go. I headed straight to the little girls room to tidy myself up after the journey and when I came back, Chief said that he had ordered ‘Nine-Ways to Die.’ A nine course tasting menu for two which was paired with cocktails – nine of them in fact! For someone who doesn’t eat much sugar these days, this was going to take me out of my comfort zone.
We sat at the counter and were able to watch the cocktails being made and the desserts assembled. Each element of each dessert had been expertly prepared. It was a pleasure to watch the chefs assembling the dishes in front of us. Even Chef Will Goldfarb mucked in and was happy to chat with us and other customers. I was not able to finish seven cocktails I can tell you but fortunately Chief lent a hand. The desserts were light and not overly sweet. I’m not here to review the restaurant but I will say we were eating the type of desserts you find in high-end Michelin starred restaurants – they were good! If you ever find yourself in Ubud, check it out!
We were well-oiled by the time we reunited with Katut; I felt rather embarrassed that we had kept him away from his lovely wife and family well into the evening but he was doing his job after all and Chief tipped him too. I hope we didn’t smell too alcoholic in his car! I didn’t fall asleep (I think) on the journey back. We were all smiles when Katut dropped us off. Chief had arranged with him to take us on to our next hotel so we would be seeing him in a couple of days.
So that was our one day of sightseeing in Bali and a peek into our holiday. We had a relaxing time and were able to switch off from the world for a little while (well I did!) And the Bali-belly? Not so much as a grumble!