Southeast Asia

AsiaDestinationsIndonesiaSoutheast Asia

In the heart of a heatwave

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He drove resolutely in the middle of 2 lanes, honked indiscriminately, taking hair-pin turns downhill with a confidence that made me envious of his incredible taxi-gymnastic skills.

The cheapest transportation option had always been my priority when I travelled and this was (obstinately) no different, despite the fact that many people grew a pair of cold feet when it came to Southeast-Asian countries and their daunting transportation systems.

A fixed price of 190,000 IDR was the eventual amount for a taxi from Ngurah-Rai Airport in Denpasar to Ubud, a marginally better sum than the USD 30 quoted by the hotel. Bali clearly thrives on the large droves of tourists and the time we visited was unfortunately the highest of the high season, evident from the horrendous traffic at 10pm around the Denpasar area. I sat in the taxi for slightly over an hour, staring in horrified fascination and admiration for the driver’s skill in negotiating tight hairpin turns on steep slopes.

The Agung-Rai Museum & Resort was difficult to find along Jln Raya Pengosekan and as TC (Travel Companion) and I soon found out, occupied a huge space within which these buildings stand adjacent to each other. A kind soul appearing out of the cafe (I’d like to think he’s our godsend at 10.50pm) led us to the hotel reception, where a compulsory and exorbitant New Year’s dinner was once again foisted upon us after we checked in.

The room was…oh, so worth it – considering the free upgrade to the villa which we didn’t pay for. Hey – a private pool, an outdoor shower that lay at the edge of a small pond. My insistence on visiting a beach waned immediately. The downside was the incredible number of bugs around (I swear I’ve never seen a large ant with wings twice its body length that conveniently decided to die near the toilet) that fanned the flames of my insect-paranoia.

ARMA is in any case, a quiet retreat along small rivers and rice fields, and home to a considerable and esteemed collection of art works (as well as wildlife!), and to a considerable programme of cultural events too. I tried my best to ignore the abundance of insects among its greenery.

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Bali is a firm favourite of Westerners and especially the Australians whose country is merely a short distance away, and very exotic to those who have had an evangelical upbringing back in the Western world. It’s a strange but remarkable place, as most of them are Hindus compared to the overwhelming Muslim majority in the rest of Indonesia. Even the Hinduism they practice is not quite the kind found in India; it’s rather a syncretic mix of Javanese mythology, Indian and Chinese foundational religious beliefs. There are dramatic and prominent signs of religion being practiced; small offerings of incense, woven leaf-baskets and floral offerings prodigiously line every doorway, and even more elaborate altars are found inside the shops. Temples are merely a couple of steps away. Complex indigenous beliefs and practices are also found within this belief system, permeating the minutest of actions governing daily life.

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TC’s suggestion that we walk from the resort to the Ubud town centre – foregoing the free resort shuttle – seemed a great idea initially. We were told that it was after all a short distance down with many interesting shops. Haggling however, was the order of the day and a peculiar sort of skill which is a combination of friendliness and a willingness to negotiate hard is needed for that, both of which I do not possess.

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The awful weather – the hot, sweltering heat and humidity – proved our downfall. I expired 10 minutes into the uphill walk, but found it was perversely fun to find solidarity in watching the red-skinned Westerners expiring as well. TC on the other hand, wilted gradually but just as surely. But that did not stop us from resolutely completing the entire distance to the main street only to unanimously decide that that going back immediately for a pool dip was a great idea.

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Except that returning to the resort proved an issue. We refused to move our feet unless absolutely necessary; we had agreed after all, that the point of this short trip wasn’t to pack the itinerary tightly as European trips normally demanded of us. The arranged shuttle was nowhere in sight, but by some miracle I managed to flag down an empty blue taxi turning out from the side of the road, and arm-twisted him in monosyllabic – and probably incomprehensible – Bahasa Melayu to take us back to the airport on the day we were scheduled to leave Bali. He assured us that his “son” would pick us up in his stead which was worrying as he looked no older than his mid-thirties.

We took it, as always, with a large pinch of salt.

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AsiaDestinationsIndonesiaSoutheast Asia

Southeast-Asia: A small start

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I did not think that I would be updating the blog any time this year as it seemed all travel plans would have come to a halt for now. Yet I’m grateful for the unexpected opportunity to do so once again, as this means that another adventure (though short it will be) awaits in barely 3 weeks.

The Travel Companion (TC) and I toyed with this idea casually some weeks past – a trip to some place in Southeast Asia for a couple of days over Christmas or over the New Year – without paying much attention to the logistics that needed to be taken care of, before promptly dismissing it as a silly, impossible idea that was too fast, too soon.

Yet TC offhandedly suggested some time last week that it would be a nice change for once, and I jumped on it as I normally do at every opportunity to travel. It was after all, an embarrassing inauguration into Southeast Asia for me, after having last visited Malaysia at least a decade and a half ago.

We were consequently, predictably engulfed in the madness of planning and the destinations that were viable to us during this mad time. Our destinations seemed to pick themselves; they narrowed down to Koh Samui, Langkawi, Bali, Bangkok or Bintan or even Batam.

Flights are notoriously hard to get during this peak season, and it seemed as though accommodation on a shoestring budget was plain impossible to book, given the fancy peak surcharges and compulsory dinners guests needed to pay for in addition to the basic room charges.

Samui sounded exotic enough, and its fabled but heavily touristed beaches seemed a mouth-watering idea, but then all flights were full for the period we looked at, and it did – after making a few painful calls to several agencies – cost a lot more than what we hope to spend.

An escape from the congested city life here to the even crazier city life of Bangkok didn’t seem to enticing either.

Bintan was unimpressionable. Batam’s reputation as a seedy haunt for happy hours of the middle-aged sort was enough to make me run in the other direction of the globe. Plans for Langkawi hit some other snag early on. So Bali it was then, with flights surprisingly easy to get after some digging around.

Then came the nightmare of securing suitable sleeping quarters, many of which were booked for the period well in advance. We first needed to narrow our place of stay down to one region out of Bali’s many main regions that consist of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, Ubud, Candidasa, Amlapura, Lovina, Singarajah. The Kuta district, famous for its clubbing and after-hours activities, was also subjected to terrorist acts in the recent years, and thus did not feel like the safest of all. Eastern Bali – Candidasa, Amed, Amlapura – was just too far from the airport and seemed, according to the reviews I read, for the extremely stressed few who wanted secluded beaches and nothing much else.

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Candidasa was our first option, until we found out that most things worked against our favour. Anything further than that was out of the question, and simply impractical for a trip that would last merely a couple of days.

Ubud thus became our next choice; we thought that its location in the mountains makes for (hopefully) cooler weather and its relative centrality meant that arranging day trips to anywhere else on the island would prove easier. Ubud’s inland jungle and its frightening insects (hilariously deemed exotic by Westerners) was however, a terse reminder of TC’s Pulau Tekong days.

Emailing the various hotels and waiting for a comprehensible reply (which more often than not, did not answer most of the questions I posed but merely rephrased the question back at me) was a most infuriating challenge that rivalled planning the accommodation for my typical 2-week sojourn across several cities in Europe in the past. Some Indonesian booking websites were suspect, and in desperation, we turned to external sites that offered more expensive deals, but with a secure option for reservation and payment.

We had the option of taking the easy, more expensive and lazier way out by letting the travel agent handle our rooms. It is however, all too often that these agents tended to have agreements with large resorts that cater to the entertainment needs of the typical family with children – the exact sort I would shy away from. Seen in this light of limited choices, securing a tranquil and more peaceful getaway meant the planning for rooms had to be done ourselves: fun, but painstaking, especially when one juggles price-considerations, location from town centre, and other transportation needs. We thus turned to the trusty web for our booking options.

For the past few years now, I’ve been making accommodation decisions based on traveller reviews on Tripadvisor that probably gives a rather wide spectrum of perspectives from all over the globe, and the reviews of hotels offered by the agents were at best, mixed.

TC sprang into action on the 11th hour, finally settling on ARMA Museum and Resort that, through Hoteltravel.com, provided instant confirmation of rooms. While it oddly seemed to ticked the correct boxes (not too far from town centre, falls within the budget, relatively good reviews), yet it somehow overshadowed by the larger and more famous resorts.

That settles our initial planning for now; perhaps some dogged research(and reservation) into spa-treatments that Bali is synonymous with should follow.

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