Thursday, January 4, 2018

Return from vacation - Denpasar to Chennai - 26 December 2017

Breakfast in The Artini Resort was a combination of continental and asian. I normally take the selection of fruits and a couple of eggs with croissants. This day I chose the sticky rice and it's accompaniments. It was not easy to have rice that early. The fresh juices were another treat.  The restaurant has water running almost around it. And the place is so green, particularly with the rain. Orchids are everywhere. The tropical plants have huge leaves and a very healthy shade of green.

Yudha was there before time and by the time I had completed  the checkout process he had already made friends with a few visitors from the US and struck a deal to drive them around for the next day! Amazing man this Yudha is, with families in America, Australia and Indonesia, yet single now. He had worked in Australia for 15 years and owns property there. An excellent conversationalist and extremely fun loving Yudha is an outstanding guide for those visiting Bali. I had found him fortuitously with Danu, who had taken me around on 23rd, taking ill. Yudha took me on a short tour of Denpasar town, pointing out landmarks as we passed them, before we reached the airport. Transit through the city was painfully slow. In between, Danu called up and apologized for not being with me the past couple  of days. He said that he had too much to drink an shad fallen ill. He kept addressing  me as 'brother'. He said that he would be there when I visited Bali next time. I was indeed touched.

The check-in was smooth and immigration smoother. After looking around the duty free shops to spend the small change I had left on me I took rest in the premium lounge awaiting the time to board. In the couple of hours I spent in the lounge I had another meal, so that I could avoid the in flight meal.

The flight to Kuala Lumpur was operated by Malindo Air and hence, even though the baggage was booked through to Chennai, I had only the boarding pass for the Denpasar Kuala Lumpur leg. I was supposed to get that at the transit desk in Kuala Lumpur. I slept through the entire duration of the flight and the landing thud woke me up. The transit desk gave me the onward boarding pass and I had to take an intra terminal train to the set of gates from where the Chennai flight, operated by Batik Air, would take off from. I spent over three hours in the premium lounge eating and reading!

The holiday had indeed been a god-given one. A fantastic time to unwind, meet new people and experience new places. Added to this the trip was cheap, with lower than normal hotel rates and trouble free sightseeing. To me, Bali will ever remain the land of the smiling people.

Discovering Bali - 25 December 2017

It was Christmas day. It was rain, rain and more rain all through the Christmas eve night and Christmas morning. Thanks to the research on weather forecast I had packed for the rain. And today was a brilliant opportunity to relive the younger days, when I never spared the rain and mother never admonished us when we got wet, unlike parents of today. The past was about enjoying the seasons. The monsoons were a relief from the heat and were to be enjoyed. Growing up has its downside; staying away from the rain being one. This day I decided to walk in the rain, once again. Not be afraid of the impending thundershowers. I told myself to enjoy the now, the rain, and not be dampened by the weather forecast. Dressed in a red t-shirt, green windcheater, blue raincoat bottom and orange crocs look-alike (euphemism for copy), I spent the entire morning walking in the rain. People squatting in their shops hoping for a let up in the rain merely looked up, smiled and said 'good morning. Just the friendliness and hospitality of the Balinese make this a great holiday destination.

Ubud Palace was a bit of a disappointment as I had expected to see a 'proper' palace. It's bang in the centre of the busy city street. From there the walk to the Sacred Monkey Forest was a short one past the many shops and food stalls. The huge forest within the city helps maintain the ecosystem. I walked a fair distance away from the city in search of a ceramic art shop. I didn't find it and was a wee bit tired to walk back to the hotel. I was offered a ride back by a youngster, an example of typical Balinese hospitality. Lunch at the Mama Mia restaurant was so huge that I just drank water the rest of the day. Christmas is a season of joy. The smiles and affection of the local people make Christmas a all-year affair.

The day had started interestingly. I met an amazing Chinese family at breakfast. At the buffet counter I was amazed to hear a couple of them speak flawless Hindi. And my curiosity was aroused. In a while I heard one of the seated persons mention that old age is a curse. I had heard those exact same words from my mother a few years before. I could not resist going up to the gentleman and make a few wisecracks about age. The large family seated there didn't mind the unsolicited stranger. In fact, they welcomed the 'intrusion'. I learnt that many of them had lived in various parts of India before migrating to Canada. They corrected me to say that they were speaking Urdu and not Hindi! One of them even now lives in Karachi, Pakistan. Over 60 of them had aggregated in Bali for the 'destination wedding' of one of their younger relatives. An elderly lady told me, "We Chinese don't grow old. We grow older!" Amazing people.

I had to seek directions many times on the walk to Ubud palace, and every time the directions followed smiles and waves of the hand. In pouring rain I reached the Royal Palace. It is right in the midst of the busiest part of Ubud, the focal apart of the city. The Palace was built in the first quarter of the 19th century and successive heirs have maintained the Palace. There were a few tourists around despite the rain. I had expected a majestic building. It was nothing like that. After looking around for a while I walked to the Sacred Monkey Forest. The shops that should have been doing brisk business were challenged because of the rain and the travel advisory that kept tourists away from the island.

The Monkey forest is one of the most popular attractions of Ubud. In fact, all resorts and hotels advertised it's distance from the forest. The massive natural sanctuary is home to the grey long-tailed macaques. The entire community seems to have adopted the simians and they are seldom a threat to visitors and a long list of do's and don'ts are worth going over before embarking on the exhilarating walk through the lovely forest.

The monkeys have their own socio-political system. In this their natural habitat one can see them swinging playfully through canopies, feeding on bananas, lazing around, nursing the young, some fighting and raising a huge cacophony of angry sounds, but never threatening the visitors. The forest offers paved walkways for a cool walk through the leafy nutmeg forest. There are a few well preserved temples with statues that guard them, covered in moss. There are volunteers everywhere guiding visitors and ensuring that monkeys are not fed what they shouldn't be. Bananas can be bought from vendors inside the forest to feed the monkeys who playfully vie with each other to get the maximum they can get hold of. And some even pose for photographs. They seem to accept the transgression into their surrounding!

One thing I observed during the short stay in Bali is that propitiation of gods is an important part of the Balinese daily life. Yudha told me that offerings are made three times a day and it does cost a fair bit. Offerings include rice, flower, coconut, agarbathis, etc. All houses have their own temples. The bigger the house the larger the temple. Some family  temples are open for outsiders to worship and make offerings. Some are works of art. Every shop and establishment has its own place to make the offerings three times a day. Ganesha is the most popular deity, I found. A true Hindu can be found here. It is their constant surrender to the Almighty that make the Balinese so peaceful and hospitable people, was my observation. I was soon to  experience a slice of it very soon.

While entering Ubud a couple of days back i had noticed a ceramic art store, which I thought was not very far from the place where i stayed. Since the rain had abated i decided to explore a bit more of the area on foot.  I walked past local artisans shops, vending paintings, furniture and handicrafts. Shops were not busy. I also appreciated how disciplined road users were. Drivers were careful not to splash passersby with rainwater that had accumulated in puddles almost everywhere. In a while I had walked a fair bit with little sightseeing of the shop I had set out in search of. My feet had started hurting too. I tried to hitch a ride back to the hotel, with little luck. That's when I noticed three youngsters trying a reverse a car back into their house. I asked the older one how I can get some assistance to return to my hotel in the city. Without any hesitation he said that his sister would drop me  back on her bike! I was stunned. Here I was, a complete stranger, drenched in rain and sweat, and yet worthy of hospitality. Goodwill, most certainly, knows no boundaries. When I  mentioned that I would not like his young sister to be inconvenienced the younger brother offered to drop me off. And he did. What a wonderful advertisement for the lovely island and it's people!

Having walked over 6 Kms that morning I was ravenously hungry. The Mama Mia restaurant is just round the corner from The Artini Resort. I was the only one in the small eatery which served Italian delicacies. After settling down I ordered a banana juice and Polppetone, a meatloaf with generous amounts of cheese. While waiting for the Polppetone I espied a fat, jovial man given directions to those who looked liked cooks at the restaurant. I asked him if he was the owner, which he confirmed and told me that he was experimenting something for a special Christmas delight later that day. He invited me to try out his experiment later when it was baked and ready. The banana juice was excellent, with no added sugar. The Polppetone took a good half hour to polish off. It was heavy and I didn't have the stomach for the Mama Mia Christmas special. I had to politely refuse the portion that was offered. The rest of the day I had to rest my digestive tract, only providing it water to aid the digestive process.


Wistfully I spent the rest of the evening packing. I had to leave the next day. I had no doubt that I had chosen just the right place to spend the Christmas vacation; happy amongst a very peace loving people. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Discovering Bali - 24 December 2017


I could hear the pitter patter of rain through the night. When I woke up on Christmas Eve morning it was raining quite heavily. I made myself a strong cup of coffee and wondered if the rains would put paid to my plans for the day. In a while the rain abated and was down to a trickle. That's when I decided to venture out for breakfast. Consistent rains over the past week had made the paved walk slippery and tricky. From my balcony I saw a person slip and fall, hurting his back on the steps. It took me a very gingerly walk to reach the restaurant, which was set amidst green, landscaped grounds with sound of running water. I took a huge helping of fruits, including the exotic snake fruit. Excellent orange juice and Balinese coffee accompanied a masala omelette and muffins. I spend quite some time there taking in the jungle like resort features. It was like a tropical forest, cleared in places to accommodate the hotel and swimming pools. I was lucky to get a room in the hotel for less than USD 100 for three nights when the normal tariff is upwards of USD 75 per night for single occupancy.

Danu had agreed to come by 9 am so that I could start the day watching a performance of the traditional Barong and Keris dance, which started at 9.30. I was mildly surprised to be met by Yudha, instead of Danu, at the reception of the hotel. Yudha spoke better English and he told me that Danu had taken ill - later Yudha told me that he had had a bit too much of arrack! Yudha services guests from USA and Australia and hence, had music playing in the car to entertain that clientele. Yudha turned out to be a fun loving man with a heart for humour and the gift of the gab. Even Yudha was surprised by the turnout when we reached the centre where the performance was meant to be. The terraced auditorium was nearly filled to capacity with inter-island tourists. The Barong and Keris dance symbolises the eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, laced with raunchy humor. Barong, a lion like creature, represents good and Rangda, the demon, represents evil. The one hour show is priced at INR 500 and is split into four acts, interspersed with melodious music.

Kintamani, the town that affords the best views of Mt Batur lies a fair distance away from Ubud. However, the lower tourist footfalls meant faster transit. Mt Agung is the bigger of the two volcanic mountains in the region. Due to its eruptions - there was one reported this morning too - it remained out of bounds for visitors and residents alike. Light rain had fallen during our drive from Ubud to Kintamani. That and the ash spewed by the eruptions gave a less than perfect view of Mt Batur from the Batur Sari restaurant view point. I walked along the deck of the restaurant to take pictures of the mountain from different angles. Dining tables and seats have been placed on the deck in such a way as to afford unhindered views of the volcanic mountain and Lake Batur. Once I had selected a corner hoping for the views to clear up a bit more I was approached by one of the waitresses asking if I was ready to order. A full-fledged buffet and a-la-carte were available. The former was preferred by most, especially those who were part of organised tour groups. I was not particularly hungry after the wholesome breakfast. To continue sitting there I ordered Nasi Campur, which is something of a buffet in a dish with satay, rice, noodles, fried chicken, wafers, veggies and coffee. The food by itself is not expensive, however, the tax at 21 percent is quite steep.

Mt Batur, at about 1700 metres above MSL, is considerably smaller that it’s northwestern sister volcano, Mt Agung, which is over 3100 above MSL. However, it is said that over 25,000 years ago Mt Batur was higher than Mt Agung. A series of gigantic explosions caused its mouth to collapse and thus formed the magnificent caldera with a diameter of over 13 kms; one of the most impressive in the word. From the deck of the restaurant one can appreciate the massive eruption of Mt Batur in 1968 which had left a massive lava field. The most recent eruption of the volcano was in 2000. Lake Batur is a lake within the Batur caldera. The crescent shaped lake is the largest in Bali and its waters are cooler than anywhere in the island because of its elevation.

As I was taking photographs and enjoying the beauty of the surrounding I met Bala Shetty from Mumbai who follows ‘Record Drive’. He was in Bali on his honeymoon. He is an ardent travel buff and told me of his plans to explore Bali on a rented motorcycle with his wife. That, certainly, is the best and cheapest way to get round in the island. Most tourists who come here for long stays invariably rent bikes and stay in hostels to make the experience economical. As I got out of the restaurant I was cornered by the most persistent vendors I have come across in Bali. T-shirts, wood carvings, souvenirs and much more were pretty much thrust under my nose. I sought the assistance of Yudha. He was non-committal. He later told me that, being a local, it would not be correct on his part to bargain for me. Finally, I refused all and got into the car.

When we were on the way to Tegalalang Yudha told me the absolutely fascinating story of the Bali Aga people, who live in Trunyan on the eastern shore of Lake Batur. They are considered to be the earliest settlers of the island. Their traditions and rituals predate those of Hinduism. For example, these people even now do not bury or cremate the dead. The bodies are left on the ground, covered by a cloth and a bamboo cage, to decompose. An ancient banyan tree near the burial ground is said to emit a scent that neutralizes the smell of putrefying flesh. Strange that this tradition continues to this day. The village is reached only by boat and it is said that the villagers, at times, do not take kindly to the presence of visitors.
  
Tegalalang is a small village almost midway between Kintamani and Ubud. The terraced rice fields of the village have gained international attention and is today one of the most popular images of Bali. Many shops and restaurants have viewing balcony that gives lovely views of the magnificent sight. I saw a couple of artists working on their canvas capturing the beauty of the terraced cultivation. Shops selling local handicrafts and clothing line either side of this busy tourist attraction. I succumbed to a few temptations after a driving a hard bargain. A sharp shower hastened my departure from this picturesque village.

The next item in the itinerary was the Tegenungan waterfall. The ground was slushy and Yudha cautioned me that the steps leading to the waterfall would be slippery. He suggested that I view the falls from a distance rather than walk to the base of it. During non-monsoon times people bathe in the falls. With recent rains the water had turned muddy and the currents were swift. Warning boards were put up at regular intervals beseeching tourists to stay off the water. I bought the entrance ticket and decided to cautiously venture as far as I could. Descending more than 300 steps was not too much of a problem. But, when I saw many struggling on their way up I knew that I too would. The walk was worth it for the lovey views of the cascade framed by thick green foliage. Many tourists had ventured to the top of the waterfall despite volunteers cautioning such adventurism. As expected, I struggled on my way up the steep steps. A few long breaks gave me the extra required to complete the climb.

The last stop for the day was Goa Gajah. The name gives it a feeling that the place is an abode of elephants. Far from it. The Elephant Cave dates back to the 11 century and has a central courtyard filled with relics of the bygone era. The foreground of the cave is a large pool featuring Hindu angels holding vases that act as waterspouts. A couple of tourists had gone down the steps of the pool to be blessed by a priest using the water that came out of the vase. The cave has niches where three lingams and Ganesha are worshiped. Incense is burned regularly inside the cave due to which soot has been deposited on the walls of the cave. The complex has many shops and food stalls. As they were in the process of closing for the day bargains were to be had.

Being Christmas Eve I was keen to go to a church. I had located one on Google and Yudha took me there after a slight search. It turned out to be a new generation church, but the lady who was there as an usher told Yudha how to reach the Catholic Church. It was quite far away from where we were and in a totally different direction. The idea of going to church was given up when Yudha reminded me that God resides in everyone of us. Prayer and offerings are important in Balinese life, he said, but he believed in a different way of meditational prayer at 3 am in the morning. Yudha said that the Balinese have no time for politics and they refuse t discuss that topic. It is just commerce and only that; they don't fight and waste energy.

Yudha had passed on a lot of positivity to me. He lived every today, the tomorrows to be dealt with only when they became today. In fact, that is the attitude of most people in South East Asia, I found. Accumulation of material wealth is not a habit with them. However, gradual encroachment of western values on the age-old Asian values, like in dress habits, songs, etc. are making inroads. One only hopes that the influence remains just there. When I travel to countries like Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia I ask myself this question time and again – what is development? Is it just the accumulation of personal material wealth? Is it the development of ‘world class’ infrastructure? Or, is it the adoption of technology? I feel that the definition of development does not factor in human indices like happiness, family, integrity, hospitality, community living, etc. These are far more important for the development and progress of a society.
The massage last evening had given me a lot of relief and, therefore, after freshening up in the room I went out with the intention of going to the same centre. Light rain had started to fall and I found the centre closed. I was told that the centre is run by Christians and hence, they would be closed till Boxing Day. Nevertheless, I walked a bit further and found another centre. The massage was really very invigorating. Moreover, the massages don’t cost very much. A typical one hour session costs about INR 500 and sometimes even less. Once the session was done I told the lady that I would be back the next day, almost at the same time. She said that she would be available from noon onwards. It was reassuring to know that the centre would not be closed on Christmas day.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Discovering Bali - 23 December 2017


The small room had been comfortable and I slept quite well. However, the time zone change robbed me of two and half  more hours of it. As the taxi would arrive at 8 am I was at breakfast just after the restaurant opened for it at 7. It wasn't a buffet. There was a set menu with options to choose from. Opening the order was strong Balinese coffee and a combination of breads with butter and jam. Next to grace the table were poached eggs on muffin with steak. That was a huge helping. The breakfast feast was completed with cut fruits and guava juice. All this was accompanied by exemplary service and smiling hospitality. It was a knockout. I was fortified for more than half the day.

I had a call from reception to announce that the taxi had arrived, well in time. At the checkout I wrote out an appreciation of the hospitality and personally thanked the people who had made the stay comfortable. The room with breakfast had cost me just INR 1500. Danu was the name of the driver who had contracted to take me around. He already had the itinerary I had suggested. As I settled into the car he apologized for being deficient in the English language. However, I put him at ease saying that I was not looking for oratory but simple communication. In a short while he became a good friend who gave me nuggets about the Balinese way of life and some numbers of how much it costs to live in Bali. His name is the Balinese word for lake. He said that Hinduism is practised by over 85 percent of the island people. Moreover, Bali is safe as no other place in Indonesia as the people are very trusting and God fearing.

First on the list for the day was the Ulawatu temple, which was in the southern corner  of the island. Once we left the busy Denpasar roads it was countryside, simple and beautiful. Speed limit on the roads was 60 kmph and road use was extremely disciplined. I had not expected  this because there are innumerable posts warning of haphazard driving in Indonesia. Maybe, it happens in the other islands of the country. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, cycles and carts coexisted peacefully on the roads without honking and other signs of annoyance. Traffic was never paralyzed even where there was congestion because  people had the patience to await their  turn. The 'me-first' mentality  was thankfully absent. 

When we reached the parking lot of the temple Danu told me to take my specs off and keep them in the car. He said that the monkeys there were particularly aggressive and some of his earlier fares had their specs broken by them. I was apprehensive about the arrangement because my sight is substantially impaired without specs. Anyway it was not  worth inviting the wrath of the monkeys. After taking the entrance ticket I was asked to tie a silky sash around my waist, apparently a mark of respect while visiting the temple. The complex is neatly maintained with ladies working hard to sweep up the leaves that fall through the day and other debris that the strong winds deposit. The entire area is paved and has adequate amenities for sightseers.


The Uluwatu temple is one of the key spiritual pillars of Bali, located as it is on steep cliffs 70 metres above sea level. The amazing location of the temple and the rivetting views of the Indian Ocean, with waves breaking against the cliff, are sights to die for. If I hadn't so many things on my plate for the day I would have stayed there the whole day. A favourite with visitors is the sunset with the temple in the background. There were many worshippers about in traditional clothing and large offerings. The Balinese believe that the Trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva become one here. After walking almost a kilometre from one end to the other of the complex I got back to where I met up with Danu. I had not encountered any aggressive monkeys, maybe it was too early for them. I had only met more smiling and affectionate people who seemed to respect Indians. Almost always the remark was, " Aahhh from India", when I told them I was from that country. Indian movies and songs have tremendous influence there.

Luwak coffee is famed all over the world and is the costliest coffee. Danu suggested a short break in one of the centres that showcased how the coffee was made. There we met Yani Widiarti, a personable young man who showed me the Civet Cats that did the job for that centre. In traditional coffee plantations the Civet Cats feed on coffee beans and after the digestive process excrete them. In centres such as the one I visited coffee beans are fed to the cats along with its daily meals. The excreta of the cats is collected and processed to make the famous and precious Luwak coffee! The centre has an outlet that sells all types of coffee. I was told that I could have more than a dozen varieties of them free of charge to taste and a cup of Luwak coffee for nearly INR 250. I opted for a cup of refreshing ginseng coffee and took leave of Yani.


Danu suggested changes to the day's schedule. He said that I may like to visit the Pandawa beach instead of Kuta, which would be overrun by visitors. I went by his advice and opted to go to the Pandawa beach and i didn't regret that decision. On the approach to the beach massive construction is underway to take advantage of the commercial opportunities that were opening up  with the recent 'discovery' of the 'Secret Beach'. The beach was opened officially only in 2012. First glimpse of the beach from the road cut through limestone  cliffs is magnificent. Local visitors far outnumbered the international tourists here. Vantage points had been set up for photography, jaw dropping views and fun. Rain had begun to fall when I was ambling along on the beach and I sought quick refuge in the taxi. Along the limestone cliffs niches had been carved out to house statues of Kunti and her five sons, which gave the beach it's name. 



On the way to the Tanah Lot temple Danu suggested a short detour to the Turtle Island. I had visited some place similar in Thailand and hence, decided to give that place a skip. The Tanah Lot temple is another magnificent pilgrim site abutting the Indian Ocean. Legend has it that sage Niratha travelled to Bali from Java in the late 15th century to spread Hinduism and set up the site honouring the sea god. His teachings angered the village chief who sought to commit him harm. The sage is said to have moved his meditational centre, situated on a rock, out to the sea using his unusual powers. The sashes he wore were transformed into sea snakes that guarded the site, where a temple was set up later. The chastened village chief became the sage's follower. The complex has well arranged shops and eateries.

Most of the local handicrafts are exquisite and works of delicate craftsmanship. The magnificence of the complex has to be experienced. Mere words are insufficient. Even with milling crowds I did not feel hemmed in or jostled around. At a few places I found pythons coiled up and waiting to be handled by interested visitors, of course for a small fee. In one of the food stalls I settled to have lunch of Nasi Campur with a drink of coconut milk and pudding. 

After lunch Danu suggested that visit to Monkey Forest and Goa Gajah be postponed to the next day. Instead he suggested a visit to the Taman Ayun temple, built in the first half of the 17th century as the chief place of worship in the Mengwi kingdom. The large complex has magnificent traditional courtyards, landscaped gardens, fish ponds and architecturally important structures inspired by contemporary Chinese design. The pristine surroundings of the temple complex add to the elaborate four tiered division of the temple  complex. I took a leisurely stroll around the complex to admire the symmetry of construction and complex sculptures that abounded there. One thing with tourist sites in Bali is that most of them charge an entrance fee ranging from INR 100 to 300, are clean and neat, public toilets and garbage bins are provided, and most importantly, people don't litter.

I had walked a fair bit the whole day and my legs were beginning to cramp up. Danu suggested a massage once I got to my hotel in Ubud. He said that traditional Balinese massage would ease the aches and soothe the muscles. On the way to the hotel he took me to a centre that showcased wood carvings. The guide explained the type of wood the artisans worked on like crocodile wood - so called because of the texture of its bark - mahogany, teak, ebony, etc. The works were undoubtedly superb but was pricey too.

The last stop of the day was at Semar Kuning 1 where local artists exhibited their paintings. It is also possible to watch the artists at work. I was told that some of them are even commissioned by hotel chains and museums. The works are intricate and most of them depict mythological themes and events from daily Balinese life. The cheapest painting was about USD 120 and some of them were priced over 5000 USD.

The Artini Resort and Spa was bang in the centre of Ubud, a spitting distance away from the Monkey Forest. I was surprised by the superb hotel I had sourced through booking.com. It had been cheap thanks to the travel advisory. Once I took leave of Danu, promising to meet up next day morning, and checking in to the hotel I walked about a bit noticing the Bebek Bengil, the famed dirty duck diner close to the hotel. After checking out a few places I settled for a massage centre close to the hotel and spent more than an hour relaxing over a foot massage and a body rub. Back in the hotel in settled for a Nasi Goreng, the local delicacy, for dinner. That was a wonderful end to a lovely day.

Return from vacation - Denpasar to Chennai - 26 December 2017

Breakfast in The Artini Resort was a combination of continental and asian. I normally take the selection of fruits and a couple of eggs...