Thanks to the constraints of the great Australian Immigration system, 3 months after arriving in Perth, I found myself facing the dilemma of spending several hundred dollars on trying to extend my tourist visa….or hopping over to Bali for a few days. After much deliberation, and a 3 and a half hour flight (bear in mind it takes over 5 hours to fly to Sydney!), here I am soaking up the sunshine by the pool of my surprisingly nice boutique hotel, just outside of Kuta.
I had surpassed myself by bagging a bargain on the net, at £25 a night including full breakfast (served in my room, until 11am – now that’s civilised), Balinese coffee on tap and complimentary wifi. For the price, it was certainly a step up from a Travelodge and a whole set of extendable ladders up from some of the hostels I’ve stayed in. In fact it is significantly cheaper than living in Perth, I get to lie in whenever I want, watch the BBC to my heart’s content and someone else makes the bed. And….I probably don’t need a visa.
The fact that it’s actually an hour by taxi or a very long and dangerous walk to the nearest beach, is a minor inconvenience in my books. I’d made my mind up after my first afternoon here, that I’d seen quite enough of the Kuta/Legian area anyway and decided that there must be more Australians here than in bloody Australia! I’d had some pre-conceptions of Bali, being the closest and by far the cheapest holiday destination from WA and pictured a kind of Ozzie version of Benidorm. The streets would be filled with gangs of drunken Antipodeans staggering along in their Aussie Rules vests, far-too-short shorts and “kiss me down under” hats, clutching their tinnies in one hand and their Sheila (or scantily dressed Balinese bint) in the other, looking for the cheapest place offering “Tucker Like Ma Used To Make”. This wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone I mentioned my trip to, immediately advised me “don’t buy any drugs”, as if that was the only reason anyone ever went there. In fact, I was offered everything from kites to condoms (????) whilst walking down the street, but thankfully no cocaine.
My first impressions as I walked along the intermittent pavement and played “chicken” with about a million scooters as I tried to cross the main intersection on the way to the beach, was that it reminded me a bit of Vietnam or Cambodia. The walk to the beach would have probably only taken the 20 mins it boasted on the hotel’s website, if you didn’t have to keep jumping over open drain holes or dodging speeding scooters riding towards you along the bits of pavement that did exist. The profusion of bars and cheap souvenir shops selling T-shirts with a variety of slogans that were obviously hilarious to Australians, told me that getting to the beach in one piece was becoming an ever- increasing probability.
After visiting some of the most beautiful beaches in the world on my trip, to say that Legian beach was a disappointment was like saying that Australia is the cultural centre of the world. Full of hawkers and sun worshippers bored of trying to get a melanoma on home turf, a 15 minute stroll and a quick stubbie (OMG…I’m turning Ozzie) was a enough for my first day. By now my new “thongs” were chaffing (now, you know what I mean) and the walk back was out of the question so I jumped into the back of a taxi to return to the hotel. And that’s where I sat for the next 30 minutes until I came to the conclusion that there were better and cheaper places I could watch the world go by whilst having a sauna. My blisters had sisters by the time I returned to my little haven of peace, vowing not to venture out of the hotel again until my flight back to Perth. I’ve come to the conclusion that the road system around Kuta must have been designed by a drunken, dyslexic snail, being very windey and one-way for about 10 miles parallel to the beach with absolutely no side roads to escape down.
My spirits were rallied by a message from my friend Lydia (who I worked with in London and who now worked out of Hong Kong) and who just happened to be visiting Bali with some girlfriends. Her invite of cocktails at a trendy club on the beachfront at the much more upmarket resort of Seminyak, was just what the therapist ordered, so I put on my glad rags and gave the Balinese taxi service one more chance.
The strangely named “Potatohead” was certainly in a stunning location, set amongst lush green lawns and palm trees and with huge double loungers to pass out on, was certainly like no other club I’d been too (other than in my fantasies of being a Bond girl, but we won’t go into that). After an hour sitting at the bar hoping soaking up the atmosphere, Lydia arrived and we had a great re-union. A couple of beers and a natter later (I couldn’t afford a cocktail), I left the young ‘uns to it.
Mark had treated me to a day’s diving as a belated birthday present (I’m not quite sure if this had anything to do with the fact that he insisted I add him to my will before I went), so I had an early start the next morning. The best dive site on the island was apparently the USS Liberty, a former US munitions ship that had been torpedoed by the Japs. After being dumped on the beach on the east coast of Bali, it was scuppered once again by the 1963 volcanic eruption and found itself flung a few hundred yards off shore and has since became the home of millions of tropical fish and a whole heap of coral. So after a bumpy, but scenic 2 hour drive me and my fellow subterraneans (including a girl from Bishops Stortford, would you believe!) togged up for a fantastic day’s diving. The corals and sea life were amazing – almost as good as the Red Sea. We saw barracuda, white-tipped sharks and garden eels…and even found Nemo (he’d been working undercover for the “prawn” squad).
All the exertion had piqued my appetite and that evening I dodged the traffic to visit the Indian Restaurant I had noticed when I arrived. Sadly it didn’t do much to change my impression that it’s hard to find a decent curry south of Brighton. The following day I had planned to meet up again with Lydia and also Lisa (another ex-colleague, who had made her home in Bali and worked remotely from there). After a great girly gathering and chin wag, I decided to hit the shops. Everyone had told me how cheap Bali was and I was hoping to pick up a few fake designer togs. I think the Fashion Police had been to town, but I did manage to find a nice bikini and spent several million rupiahs on a “designer” watch for Mark (to make up for having survived the diving expedition).
After a quick dip in the lovely pool back at the hotel, I nipped out for a quick pizza. I should have known better, after all I was in Bali, not Bari and sadly it lived up to my low expectations, and the pizza was almost as greasy as the manager, who tried to chat me up with promises of free garlic bread. I beat a hasty retreat back to my lovely air-conned room for an early night in preparation for my final day.
Whilst researching dive operators, I’d come across a company offering eco cycling tours in the interior of the island. Attracted by the fact that the 25km tour was totally downhill and miles away from the busy, traffic ridden resorts, with lunch as a reward at the end, I’d saved this as my final day treat. We were taken for breakfast overlooking an active volcano, Mt. Batur and its crater lake, enjoying the most stunning views in Bali. We then set off towards Ubud, stopping first to take photos of the spectacular rice terraces and had a coffee tasting at a typical Balinese Plantation. Starbucks eat your heart out – I never realized that there were so many different types of coffee and tea – and not a skinny latte in sight. Here it was explained that one of the rarest and most expensive varieties of coffee was “Luwak” – why so expensive, I hear you ask. It’s made from the beans of coffee berries that have been eaten and then poo-ed out by a small marsupial called a Luwak or civet. At upwards of $150 a pound I imagined hoards of farm workers manically running around the countryside, pooper-scoopers in hand trying to find the elusive *****. But sadly there are very few “free-range” luwaks around, and most are now kept in large cages – there’s progress for you. Bet that’s put you off your cappuccino!
On a caffeine high, we continued around the gardens, sampling spices and tropical fruits, and in my case almost walking into a gigantic spider’s web, along with it’s striking black and white (but thankfully not man-eating) inhabitant. I nearly invented a new brand of coffee!
Onwards and upwards through stunning countryside, until we reached the Ubud area, regarded as the cultural centre of Bali. This is where I’d come back to on a return visit to Bali (and if possible blag a few free nights at one of the stunning exclusive luxury resorts I used to sell here). We soon saddled up and were off on our bikes through lush forests and plantations, stopping at small traditional homesteads and being waved at by sweet little school kids (well I think they were waving). Almost every day is a festival in the Balinese calendar, so we witnessed a couple of small processions and events being held at temples as we passed through (we did get a few stares – perhaps they thought we were “meals on wheels”?). We even got to help out with the harvesting in a paddy field – and I finally found out how rice is produced – fascinating (if only they could make decent curry to go with it).
After an extremely pleasant few hours sailing through the Balinese countryside, we finally reached the end of the road (or the bottom of the hill) and were offered the option of a few kms of uphill cycling for those still feeling energetic. The effects of the coffee must have worn off as they didn’t have any volunteers, so we continued on to our final destination to have a delicious Indonesian lunch (with lots of veggie options for me). And all this for around £25 – must be one of the best value and most enjoyable tours I’ve ever been on.
Headed back to the hotel in time for a final beer by the pool before braving the traffic on the way to the airport for my flight to Perth, and my turn to get Mark out of bed at 4am. So all in all, a brief but interesting few days, and certainly somewhere I’d like to see more off – along with the surrounding islands of Lombok and the Gilis. And bought myself another 3 months hard labour (applying for my visa certainly feels like it) in Australia at the same time.