Monday 23 May 2011 - Saturday 11 June 2011 30 °C
The narcotic effect of Koh Phangan is highly addictive, and we seriously debated whether we should do a quick visa run over the border and extend our stay in Thailand for another month. Eventually, we decided to continue on our journey, knowing that more adventures (and beaches) lie ahead for us to discover.
We ferried from Koh Phangan to spend our last few days in Thailand on Koh Samui, a larger and more developed island, chock full of package and high-end resorts (both W and the Four Seasons have properties here). To ease the transition of stepping off the beach for the first time in weeks, we began with a little exploration to gear us up for the next phase of our travels. We rented a scooter to tour the island, starting with the hectic main town/beach resort of Chaweng. If you can imagine taking Khao San Road and infusing it with beach resort piled on top of beach resort, you would have Chaweng. The beach was stunning, but after listening to the jet skis and hawkers for all of 10 minutes, it was time to move on. It didn’t take too long to leave the noise behind and find ourselves on the empty rural roads of the southwest coast where small fishing villages are scattered along empty stretches of coastline. We spent the majority of the day exploring some of the lesser traveled areas of the island, covering approximately 100 kilometers on our little Airblade scooter. To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a glorious dinner of pasta at a restaurant run by an Italian ex-pat. Those of you who know Warren know he is particular about his spaghetti – and he gave the Bolognese (and the wine) a delicious two thumbs up.
With our time in Thailand at an end (we left on the 30th day of our 30 day visa), we flew to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (known locally as KL), where we spent a few days planning our next move. While a bit of a system shock to be in a modern, cosmopolitan city after a month on island time, it was comforting in that KL is not unlike the other Asian cities we have visited. KL is not large by Asian standards, so we were able to tour some of the main areas of interest (Chinatown, the Colonial Quarter, the Lake Gardens and the Golden Triangle) in a single day. We even managed to squeeze in a movie (“Pirates of the Caribbean 4”) while walking through one of the city’s enormous malls (retail therapy is definitely a high priority in KL). While the city is perhaps not as large or dynamic as Hong Kong or Saigon, the Petronas Towers and KL City Centre (KLCC) development is truly spectacular. Every evening, we sat with hundreds of locals in the park and watched the sunset behind the towers, listening to the Muslim call to prayers. We had grown quite accustomed to the sound in India and realized how much we had really missed listening to the beautifully haunting prayers being carried on the wind. Hearing the ancient words while looking up at the modern technological marvel of the towers was magical. As we had read, Malaysia is in fact a very conservative country with Muslims comprising the majority of the population. It was interesting to observe such a high percentage of women either in full burkas or, at minimum, with their heads covered. However, it is also a tolerant city, not only evident by the huge ethnic mix that make up the population, all working, living and laughing side-by-side, but also noted in our mistaken choice of stopping for a drink at the Rum Jungle, where there were a noticeable number of very friendly women…that were not women...looking for new gentlemen friends. To finalize our re-introduction to city life, we indulged on our last evening and went for drinks with the beautiful people at the SkyBar in Traders Hotel, enjoying a stunning view of the Petronas Towers and the city at night. So did we in fact find time to plan? We did. After a wonderful interlude in KL, we taxied the 50km back to the airport and hopped on a flight for the mystical island of Bali.
Finally – we made it to the southern hemisphere! Located 8o south of the equator, between Java and Lombok, Bali had always been on our “bucket list”. And now we were finally here! We headed first to Ubud, the cultural and artistic centre of Bali, which has been firmly planted on the tourist trail (for better or worse…actually, just worse) thanks to “Eat Pray Love”. However, much like Hoi An in Vietnam, it just takes a modicum of effort to move past the tourist traps and the Starbucks, Polo and Billabong stores and find the beauty and tranquility of Bali. We spent a few days in Ubud, trekking through the rice fields and jungle ravines, wandering through the narrow lanes between family compounds and temple grounds (so alike it was impossible to tell them apart), and just sitting on our balcony overlooking the rice paddies, watching the birds, bats and kites fill the sky at their appointed times. At night, we listened to the symphony of frogs, crickets, cicadas and lizards and were lulled to sleep by the rain and thunder. Our planned three nights led to four as we were so enjoying the quiet energy and relaxed vibe of the town (including an evening watching a Balinese blues band called the Magic Mushrooms – Janis Joplin has been reincarnated as a Balinese woman!). On our last night in Ubud, we finally spotted the Southern Cross in the crowded night sky. Much to our surprise, we could also see the Big Dipper. We realized that being so close to the equator afforded us the opportunity to enjoy the stars in both hemispheres.
We opted to continue our exploration of Bali on our own, renting a vehicle and setting off on a 10 day road trip around the island. It took less than 20 minutes for us to get lost and realize that a road trip in Bali would be much different from one at home. To start with, our vehicle was a right-hand drive with a left hand stick-shift – a new experience for Warren. The roads are very narrow and winding; the Balinese tend to drive smack in the middle of the road; and motorcycles pass on both the left and right side. Add to that the occasional vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road and people, dogs, chickens (and occasionally monkeys) all occupying the road for various reasons (including sleeping) and the “typical” North American road trip is pretty much history. For the navigator (Lee-Ann), signage is practically non-existent. When road signs do exist, they are often obscured by other signs or trees. Signs only indicate the main towns and villages, but there are usually a number of routes to reach them, so finding the small villages in between is generally a matter of luck. However, we set off on our journey with the same approach we have taken with sailing – start with a general idea of where we want to go, then adjust as weather, wind and whim dictate – and see where we end up. And as in sailing, sometimes the most unexpected, seemingly unfortunate circumstances have ended up leading us to the most wonderful experiences.
On our second day, our car broke down late in the afternoon (did we mention we’re only paying $11/day?). We set off on foot to search for accommodation, but did not find anything so we returned to the car. Warren managed to get the vehicle running (again, if you know Warren, you know that in itself is a miracle). Given the road conditions and locals’ driving habits, we did not want to be driving at night. Now racing the sun, we continued in search of a place to stay. We followed signs from the main road to a guesthouse, which was rather less than appealing. We drove to the end of the road to turn around when Lee-Ann spotted a small sign on a rather imposing 10 foot high fence. Being curious – and with no one around to ask (or say “no”) - we pushed open the gate, stepped inside and found… paradise! In a lush garden overlooking the ocean sat a beautiful Balinese-style home, complete with a guest room that would not be out of place in a 5 star hotel. What had begun as a search to simply find a place to sleep turned into a two day stay as we lounged in of the most beautiful pools we have ever seen, ate home cooked meals, chatted with our serene hostess about our shared experiences in India (she lived there for 9 years) and laid on silk covered loungers in the velvety darkness, mesmerized by more stars than we could have ever imagined.
This was only one of an ongoing parade of treasures we uncovered. Bali astounded us with its diversity and beauty. Like many parts of India, the landscape of Bali has an almost ethereal, dreamlike quality to it. Each and every day, the panoramas through which we travelled would be the most beautiful we had seen. Then the next day, the scenery would surpass the previous: lush, dense jungles; soaring volcanoes reflected in tranquil crater lakes; vivid green terraces of rice paddies stepping up mountainsides and down into steep ravines; glittering black sand beaches with furious, churning surf crashing against giant lava boulders; brilliant flowers in shades of colours you didn’t know existed, punctuating the infinite shades of green…
To make things even better, we were able to recoup each evening from this ongoing sensory explosion by stumbling upon some truly unique and captivating accommodations, including: our “Garden of Eden” sanctuary (noted above); a cozy little cottage high in the mountains (which required long pants and fleeces due to the cold temperatures) with its own little strawberry farm; a small oceanside resort constructed of reclaimed Indonesian antiques with the most amazing details (and included the best outdoor bathroom we have encountered to date); and, a little cottage in a surfer’s hangout only a stone’s throw from the waves. Each tempted us to linger for a few more days…or weeks. However, as each new day exposed us to new treasures, we were compelled to continue on to see what lay ahead – and in doing so, achieved a milestone of sorts for Warren.
Some 35 years ago, Warren first read about Bali in a surfing magazine when surfers were just discovering some of the now classic breaks. It sparked a dream that he held on to for decades; one day, somehow, someway, he was going to surf in Bali. Well, that time had finally come. Our final two stops of our Bali road trip were at two well-known breaks on the southwest coast. While not undiscovered, they have yet to yield to the pressure of “progress” and remain funky, old school surfer hangouts, with – even more important – uncrowded waves. Warren fulfilled his dream, surfing at both locations in picture perfect conditions while the volcanoes of Java stood watch in the background.
Bali has gotten under our skin. It didn’t happen immediately – the rampant tourist melee of Ubud that assaulted us when we first arrived was more than a little disarming. But as we noted earlier, once we got past the hype and started to experience a more real Bali, it opened up to us. Ultimately, we have realized that Bali’s greatest asset – what has touched us the most – is the people. Despite the positive experiences we have had in other countries - not just on this trip, but everywhere we have ever travelled – we have never encountered such sweet, friendly, happy people as the Balinese… a sentiment that many fellow travelers and expats we spoke to here have agreed with. Bright smiles and warm welcomes have greeted us everywhere, which typically also include the following:
What is your name?
Where are you from?
Where are you going?
Almost without exception, we get asked at least one, if not all three questions. We quickly learned it is not the Balinese being intrusive. It is simply their way of wanting to connect with us; to understand just a little be more about us as people beyond simply saying “hello”. And once a visitor understands what’s behind these questions, the true intent, you will begin to ingest just a little of the real soul of Bali.
We are now back in Ubud, having completed our tour of the island and feeling that we have truly tasted a good part of Bali. We’ve explored a good portion of the volcanic mountains and valleys that make up the heart of the island, as well as circumnavigated the entire coast. Well almost. We have one more section to see - the southern peninsula. But that will have to wait for a week or so because tomorrow morning, we’re heading to the white sands and turquoise waters of the Gili Islands!
With thanks to CSNY*