After two hours of delay for our flight from Malang, we finally arrived in Bali. We have been up since midnight. That's 18 hours straight with substantial physical activities including a hike up a volcano. Landing in Bali already gave us a different taste of Indonesia. From the tarmac, we could notice the large road signs advertising some of the most beautiful sights on this very touristy island. Pictures of impressive resorts with swimming pools offering a stunning view on the Indian Ocean made us understand very quickly that our time on the so-called "Paradise Island" was meant to be very different from what we have experienced so far in Indonesia.
Cath and I had agreed to visit Ubud as our first stop on Bali Island. With my phone out of battery, it was not looking good as to reaching our booked accomodation while benefitting from the fair prices the Grab app got us used to. This meant we had bite the bullet and brave the sea of taxi drivers waiting for tourists to walk out of the terminal like vaultures wait for preys to die under their watch. And so began the auction with the pack of drivers surrounding us. Earlier that day, I had just enough time to look up the price for a ride between the airport and Ubud on the Grab app before my phone shut down. We expected the price to be around 140 000 IDR but among the drivers in the crowd, not a single one was willing to lower their price under the 300 000 IDR bar. It was almost like they talked to each other and settled for a standardized boosted price. There was our first redflag to a tourist trap destination as we were used to paying a fraction of that price for the same distance while on Java Island. It was getting late and all we wanted was to take a hot shower and sleep after our very long volcano excursion in East Java. After 45 minutes driving under a rain that kept amplifying as we got further away from the coast, we finally found the street where our hotel was located. Only, to access the main door we had to walk through an unfinished and unlighted alley filled with mudd puddles. Over fifty meters we must have crossed paths with at least five of what we assumed were frogs. To be honest, they might have been rats too... who knows! Despite the bell at the main entrance, a simple push on the door was required to access the hotel’s inner garden. Just a few steps in and the hotel owner greeted us in a way that reminded me of Babu Bhatt from the famous TV show Seinfeld. Honestly, I did not recall any of the pictures from the listing looking like anything before our very eyes on that rainy evening. Although, the host was courteously attempting to compensate for the poor facilities as he showcased his pond-like swimming pool and a breakfast area that was nothing more than a pile of dirty plates over gnawned woodplanks screwed to a wall. We tried forgetting about the poor facilities for one night as it was getting very late and we were seriously exhausted. If you remember, we had woken up around midnight that day and were still standing on our feet almost twenty hours later. We still gave the host the benefit of the doubt as we were silently debating whether we should switch right now to a better accomodation. Once we finally entered our room, not only a rusty fan was falsy advertised as air conditioning but a heafty cockroach strolled on the wall facing the bed. That single unadvertised feature was enough to make us leave the site in seek for a better hotel. Luckily, the over-amplified media coverage around Mount Agung made most tourists leave in fear of an erruption. Therefore, the circumstantial low season made it easy for us to find a clean and comfortable accomodation at affordable price. All's well ends well, we found a nice hotel that was practically empty with spacious and comfortable rooms and, of course, equipe with air conditionning - a non negotiable must-have feature for my dear caucasian friend Cath.
The next day, we booked a day trip with a private driver to bring us to the main sights around Ubud. That included the Tegenungan Waterfall, a coffee plantation, the Tirta Empul Water Temple, and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. We left at 9:00am and headed directly to the waterfall. Honestly speaking, we could have done without. Of course, the way from the parking lot to the actual sight was strategically passing through stores in order to stimulate the local economy - one of the widely-spread shenanigans around Bali. Once we got to the actual sight, the waterfall was not only not as pretty as the Rainbow Waterfall we have seen in East Java the day before, but also did not look anything like the Google images. Again, never trust a picture on the Internet! The driver asked us if we were keen on going for a dip in the lake. A very dry Alex-like "No!" was our answer as the doctor's advice to avoid tropical diseases came back to mind. Needless to say, we haven't spent much time there and headed back to the car.
Ubud Coffee Farm
Next stop was the coffee plantation which was probably the most interesting stop of all. No surprises here, I'm a true geek! Therefore, I love to learn and understand how things work. I'm a true Discovery Channel's "How It's Made?" kind of guy, a.k.a.: "How the hell do we make coffee?" This coffee farm walked us through the whole process of making coffee from tree planting all the way to the serving this delicious rocket fuel. We even had a tasting session that included different types of coffees, assorted teas, chocolate and the mighty Kopi Luwak - the most expensive coffee in the world. The process to make this luxury product is very particular as a small animal called Luwak selects the highest quality of coffee beans to eat and digest. Then, the coffee farmer picks up the digested beans, cleans them from the excrements, roasts them and makes coffee out of them. And, that's how we make Kopi Luwak. So basically, we learned that Kopi Luwak is crap juice and it's absolutely phenomenal! I know a lot of people are reluctant to trying this type of coffee but if you can somehow get passed the psychological barrier, you will find a premium taste which has no comparative whatsoever with regular coffee. Of course, when came the time to select the gifts to send back to my family, I passed on the Kopi Luwak. I just knew they wouldn't dare to try such a product. I guess that's where I get the "black sheep" reputation in my family. Although the whole tour and tasting was free, we had no obligation to purchase any product. It was actually nice for once not to feel pressured to buy something, which actually motivated us to buy something... it’s reversed psychology... Well played, coffee farm! Well played!
Tirta Empul Water Temple
Next stop on the list was the Tirta Empul Water Temple. Despite its astounding beauty, what really amplified our experience was the fact that we visited the temple the day of a full moon. This meant that hinduist ceremonies took place throughout the day. To enter the temple, we covered our legs with a sarong tied around our waist and off we went to join the festivities. Right at the entrance, a group of hinduist pilgrims waited in line to get into a pond for water-shoots over their heads to cleanse their soul. A little further, a group of male worshippers played different instruments while females took turns to offer fruit baskets to their gods. We walked around the temple for about two hours until all worshippers dressed in all kinds of bright colors paraded from the temple to the peak of a nearby hill. We then left and drove to our final stop at the Tegallalang Rice Terrace.
Tegallalang Rice Terrace
Our driver suggested we stopped at a segment of the terrace that was less crowded and less touristy. Time was running out and our driver didn’t seem to be willing to extend his work schedule through overtime. We indeed accepted to follow the suggestion and with reason. The sight was completely empty! We were able to enjoy an astonishing view over the terrace while sipping on a fresh cup of balinese coffee between photoshoots. Cath and I thought we’d make our stop very short so we could still convince our driver to bring us to the main sight. I guess we were afraid to miss out on a major landmark. The driver unwillingly accepted our request and brought us there. As soon as we arrived, we could already understand the efforts from our driver to keep us away from what we can indoubtedly qualify of a tourist scam. Just out of the parking lot, a man was waiting to direct us to a ticket office. We proceeded with paying our entrance fee to the UNESCO-protected landmark and walked immediately to the sight itself. Only, we never found the entrance for ticket holders. In fact, we found a booth asking us to pay our entrance fee (again). When we showed him our ticket, the man’s answer was that our ticket was not valid for this entrance and that we had to pay (again) in order to access the terrace. Of course, we refused and kept going. The man didn’t seem too bothered by us refusing to pay. I assume he knew he’d make enough money through other tourists anyway. As we walked through the field, what we thought would be an enjoyable walk in nature turned out to be a checkpoint race where we were asked to pay what they dared to call a “small donation” every 10 meters. At some point, we were even asked to pay a fee for maintaining the small bridge we had just crossed. When we refused, the woman blocked the path before us in a Robin Hood vs Little John confrontation type of way. The woman became more and more aggressive so we decided to leave. Who would have thought that all it took to make a living in Bali was to place yourself in the middle of a trail and start claiming passage fees to all hikers willing to pass through. We got fed up with this irritating attitude and decided to leave. Just before getting into our car, my pride and ego decided to break the myth to other tourists by telling them the truth about this sight: “The ticket office is a scam! You can access the rice terrace for free!” Of course, locals did not appreciate that I broke their secret open and started accusing me of illegal activity. It only took them 10 seconds to escalate to a new level of anger, menacing to call the police on me and openly yelling “Fuck you!”. I don’t know about you but I don’t like to be ripped off. I’m all for encouraging the local economy but when the practice turns into dishonesty, I’m out!
Getting to Lovina
When we made up our mind about leaving Ubud to Lovina, our reflex was to call a Grab for our commute. We indeed found a driver for a fair amount. Just a few seconds after booking the trip, the driver sent me a message through the app asking me to pay double the price to account for the fact he would come back from Lovina empty. What? This guy couldn't possibly be serious! On top of that, when I refused the ride I started getting messages on my Whatsapp app with offers from other drivers. The Grab driver had shared my phone number with his friends. When I also refused their offer, more messages came with offers for other services like the daytrip we had done the day before. That’s where I gave my blessings to the senders and blocked all them from my phone. Cath remembered seeing a booth selling tickets for a minibus leaving at 10:00am. Of course, when we got to the booth, we were told the bus was full but a second one would leave at 11:00am. However, the price was (conviniently) 30% higher. Those are the moments we need to rationalize and understand the premium paid is only worth a few Euros. We drove through the mountains and took our share of sharp turns at high speed for three hours. How credulous was I to think we could catch up on our sleep while on that bus. Just a few hundred meters away from the final destination and a French couple insisted to hop off earlier. The driver was not keen on that idea but had no choice but to grant the insistant couple’s wishes. We later understood why the driver didn’t want to let them go when we finally reached the final destination. We arrived at a hotel in Lovina where we were greeted by an over-smiling man claiming to be the manager of the transportation company:
Transportation Company Manager: "Hello everybody! Welcome to Lovina! I am the transportation company manager. We would like to greet you with a welcome drink... FOR FREE!"
To the sound of these two magic words, the half dozen travellers cheered thinking this was a legitimate offer. Of course, it was all part of an elaborate scheme to squeeze as much money as possible out of the tourists’ wallets. Each traveller was seated at an office desk waiting for their free drink while a salesman was presenting the wide range of services including accomodation, day trips and other tourist products. Cath and I saw clear in their little scheme and asked to leave right away. In light of this decision, our free drink of course never came but they still tried retaining us through different manners.
We finally made it out of the hotel and hitchhiked to our booked accomodation that was only a few hundred meters away. We paid the driver the amount we settled for before picking us up and he left. Just out of the truck, I noticed through the corner of my eye a man observing us for far too long. Of course, I anticipated this man would follow us and offer a range of products at his turn. As suspected, the man followed us as we were walking toward our hotel and offered us all kinds of tours and services we never ask for. He had no intention of quitting unless we accepted one of his offers. He didn’t know what kind of travellers we were as we kept answering “No!” to anything he said until he finally understood his time would be better invested with other tourists. We noticed this behavior quite often as locals improvised themselves as brokers for any possible service available on the island. Despite the annoying attitude of locals constantly insisting on making a buck or two, we were very happy to be in Lovina as two of Cath’s friends - Sophie and Joanie - were joining us there to continue the trip with us to Gili Trawangan.
The only interesting activity in Lovina is Dolphin Spotting. For this, you must book a tour a day before with one of the boat captains chilling all day by the beach. There was not much difference between offers as they all settled for the same rate and owned similar types of boats. We picked the one who had four open spots and dealt breakfast and coffee in exchange for booking the whole craft. The next day, the captain picked us up from our hotel at 4:45am and the race behind the dolphins began around 5:30am. As mentioned, dolphin spotting is pretty much the only activity worth doing in the area and tourists pertinently know it. On that morning, there must have been at least 30 boats around us on the Bali Sea. The captain explained that the phosphorescent blue dots we see in the water are planktons. The very reason for which dolphins come to surface is to eat those little organisms. Our captain, with his trained eye, spotted planktons from far and led us to the dolphins before any other boats at every time. A true champ! This was the first time I saw dolphins in their natural environment and I must admit it was quite impressive.
Later that day, we left for Padangbai where we would cross the sea to one of Lombok’s Gili Islands - Gili Trawangan. This time, we didn’t drive through the mountains like on our way to Lovina. Instead, we drove along the northeastern coast around the mighty Mount Agung that was supposed to errupt imminently. The road was still open for circulation but inhabitants of the nearby villages were nowhere to be seen in a 15 kilometer radius. The drive went well. We even stopped a few minutes to take a group picture with the volcano in the background.
Padangbai is not exactly the tourist spot. It’s more of a tiny village that lives from the tourists passing by for just a few hours while waiting for their ferry. Consequently, locals approach passersby in a complete state of stillness without fearing to be rejected as they would never cross their path again. Of course, they had nothing interesting to offer other than the usual shenanigans - getting a middleman’s cut for services we can find ourselves for cheaper just a few steps further. The typical example was to being intercepted at the beginning of the street and charge us 200 000 IDR for a boat transfer from Padangbai to Gili Trawangan while we could walk three steps further and find the official booth offering the same service at 150 000 IDR. The hotel we found for one night only had two rooms reserved for the four of us. Once again, some basic requirements were falsly advertised on their booking website. Therefore, we decided to merge into one single room that was equipped with two double beds anyway, which was plenty of space for four people. At the checkout on the next day, we were very surprised to be asked to pay for the two rooms rather than the only one we used. What happened was that we came to a agreement with the hotel manager the day before based on the room conditions that did not fill our requirements. Only, this agreement was overruled by the hotel owner. In the end, we still left on the original agreement in exchange for a few insults in bonus. From there, we headed to the port where we dealt four seats on a comfortable speedboat with a man that looks exactly like the Indonesian version of Forrest Whitaker.
This first (out of two) experience in Bali brought me to the conclusion that it is indeed a beautiful island, but its paradise vibe has been stolen. Forget about 'Eat, Pray, Love'. The Bali we have come to know resembled much more to something like 'Pay, Pay, Pay'. The same story repeated itself everywhere on the island. I must admit I was very surprised to acknowledge such a behavior on an Hindu island that is widely advertised as being so peaceful and relaxing. We finally left a few hours later on a boat that was very stable on a calm sea. A friend warned me that the boat transfer she booked was the worst experience of her life. At the time, I had no idea of what she was referring to as our ride went very smoothly. This sentiment was proved to be wrong on our way back from Gili Trawangan, but that’s for another post.