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Ever Evolving Primate: Travel, photography, food, cooking, and just about anything else.: Bali

Thursday, August 25, 2011


How do you even begin to describe a place like Bali? The island is one of the most verdant, vibrant, and interesting places on the planet to be sure, but words are probably not capable of describing just how amazing of a place this little island nestled between the South Pacific and Indian oceans really is. Especially not my words, because as you probably already know if you read this blog, going to Bali wasn't even the highlight of my trip to Bali. The absolute best possible moment of my life so far happened on the way to Bali. I asked Carolyn to marry me, and she (surprisingly) said yes. The island was beautiful, but I was enjoying everything as a side dish, the main dish happened to be walking beside me through the rice fields, up the mountains, or floating along the reefs holding my hand. For this reason, the first part of this blog will be about what I call, The Main Event.

A couple of months ago, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to propose on our vacation. We've been together for a couple years and I know that my life is so much more fulfilling and exciting since I met the beautiful little lady (while riding a huge RedBull buzz in a horrible little dive shop in Florida) that I was already certain that we would be spending the rest of our days together.

Carolyn already had a friend (Brittany) coming up from Busan to hang out for the weekend so I thought this would be a great time to sneak away and find a ring. I got in touch with Brittany, told her the plan, and made some noise about wanting to have a "man-day" to watch comic book movies, play video games, and so on and so forth when Brittany was in town.

When Brittany finally showed up, we had lunch downtown near the train station and I said I was going to a movie. I headed straight to what I call "Jewelry Street" and started looking at rings. The first shop I went to only had cubic zirconium, in fact, it seems like diamond rings are not all that sought after for proposals here. I went to a place called Tokyo and Pearl and thought I could a afford a very nice ring until they told me that the diamond (and what a huge diamond) was a separate price...a separate breathtaking price. I went across the street to the biggest jewelry store I could find and realized it was a cooperative of sorts, where jewelers buy booths and sell their wares. I found a really pretty sapphire ring, but Carolyn had already made it clear that sapphires weren't her thing, so I moved on to another booth. The jeweler actually spoke English really well, which was a huge help. I asked to see diamond rings and no zirconium, and he opened a suitcase and there it was. The perfect ring! The ring is white gold and looks like two pieces of metal with a twist at the top. There are three "large" diamonds and nine "small" diamonds, and the curl of the metal reminded me 100% of a tube-like wave breaking on the beach. Carolyn is totally an ocean girl, and I totally jumped on it. They had to custom make the ring because Carolyn doesn't have tiny Korean fingers, but I picked it up a couple of weeks later and it was way more beautiful than the sample I saw in the suitcase. I hid it in the top of the closet way out of her reach, one of the benefits of being a really tall guy with a really short girl.

So now the trip coverage begins. We started our vacation by waking up at about 9:00am and packing our backpacks (mine was packed the night before with the ring firmly in the bottom) and heading to Dongdaegu Station to catch the train to Seoul. We took the Mugungwha (slow) train to Seoul and arrived in Seoul station at around 5:30pm or so. We had dinner at the Mexican restaurant we found in the basement of Seoul Square, then took the Korail Airport Railway to the Incheon International Airport. 

Holy cow the airport is big. We were in the check in lobby like lost children when we finally found the check-in counters in between all of the boutique stores, and not much later we found our gate. We had a quick snack at the Lotteria near our gate and found a big, beautiful, empty lounge to hang out in. I'm a bit nervous when it comes to flying and I was afraid a little bit (yes it's ridiculous) that if I didn't propose right then the plane would crash and she would never know how much I love her, but I fought it off pretty well. Until she quoted my playlist. We were laying on this white leather couch all comfortable like when we were talking about something and I said "I love you more than anything" or something like that, and she replied "then you should put a ring on it" or something like that. Funny how one of the most important moments of my life gets so blurry. How is a man supposed to react? I decided that it was my cue. I pulled out my iPod and started "The Playlist." Literally. It's listed as "The Playlist" on my iPod. Two songs "Lucky" with Jason Mraz and Colbie Callait and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)" by Beyonce. Then I said some words that I'm not even sure came out clearly, and oh so smoothly (not, my bag was packed tight) pulled the box with the ring out of the bottom of my bag. The look on her face was priceless. I asked her to marry me. She said yes. And then we realized we only had about 15 minutes to get to our flight. We couldn't stop talking about how excited we were about getting married all night. Well, at least until we fell asleep, which was difficult because there were so many people vomiting on the flight.

We woke up aboard an Air Asia X flight to Kuala Lumpur, landed shortly thereafter, and because of our long layover time, cleared customs so we could get a shot at breakfast. Our ATM cards didn't work at the first ATM (it turns out we have savings accounts, not checking in Korea), so we changed some Dollars into Malaysian Ringgit and had a pastry breakfast at Starbucks. The first thing I noticed was how well everyone spoke English compared to Korea. It was honestly a bit distracting. I haven't had to tune out other people's conversations for six months, and I was eavesdropping on about 10 tables of people at the Starbucks. After a quick breakfast we checked back in, went through security, and settled in at our gate. With an English language magazine for Carolyn. 

The two and a half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bali was quite long. Air Asia's short haul flights are less comfortable to be sure, and we were seated next to a very loud couple from Iran. The wife was obviously petrified of making a mistake while caring for her husband's every whim and desire. On one hand they were super cute and dressed as if they had fallen out of the 1960's, on the other, I just wanted to sleep. Finally we started seeing Indonesia out of the window.

We were finally getting somewhere. A few atolls marked the blue vastness of the Indian Ocean below us, and volcanos poked their heads out of the clouds like you see above. Finally we landed in Bali, cleared customs, and found our ride to our first accommodation, The Island Hotel. The hotel was by far my favorite place we stayed in Bali. It had a beautiful garden, frangipani everywhere, and was well priced at $195 for three days. The only negative about the place is that upon checking my credit card statement I found that they actually charged me $220 on top of my 10% deposit to secure the room. I haven't tried to contact them to resolve the issue, but it wasn't as dirt cheap as I thought. They did however provide free massages for both of us, which was a totally new experience for me. I was a bit weirded out by the touching, but I felt way more relaxed than ever afterwards. So relaxed that I walked into a (very clean) glass sliding door and looked like a moron in front of a few guests. Oh well. The hotel also had a really nice Cafe that we had breakfast at every morning and a really respectable brick oven for some super tasty and cheap pizzas. Enough about where we stayed in Kuta/Legian, the real show was the beach.

Kuta is one of the most renowned surfing beaches in the world, and the sound of the big (seriously, 7' waves are pretty huge when they break on shore) surf rolling in was really, really soothing. The sand isn't white, and isn't black, and there are occasionally hawkers (one lady tried to sell us a mango, a banana, and when we said no to the fruits, a massage that we also declined) who are working it really hard to get some rupiah out of you, but overall this is one of my favorite beaches in the world. The hotels don't stick up above the tree line for the vast majority of the beach, and it's a broad enough beach to get your own space away from everyone else (except for during sunset) and just lay down and soak in the sounds and the sun. I love that dogs, domestic dogs, run wild in Bali. They run and play on the beach just like the people do, eating the offerings left for demons on the ground...and there was no shortage of them in Kuta.

We spent one full day laying on the beach, and on the days when we tried to make shopping for handicrafts or getting a massage the focus of the day, we still ended up strolling along the sands and listening to that big surf roll in while we stared off at nothing on the horizon. This might be my favorite beach ever for just relaxing and watching the world go by. After a couple of days though, it was time to head to Lovina, on the North side of the island, next to the South Pacific, for three days.

I arranged travel through MBA tours, and our trip all the way across the island was a total of about $38 US. The vehicle was a small, and very full van with no air conditioning, but the temperature wasn't too hot at all. We rode for about three hours passing people and small villages that we couldn't resist but take pictures of along the way.

Sadly, Carolyn accidentally left her camera in the little van and although MBA said over the phone that they would hold the camera for us and that the driver did indeed have it, they did not have it when we returned to Kuta on the 17th, so I went into double duty photo mode and Carolyn became VERY quickly an expert iPhone and hipstamatic photographer.

Lovina was much smaller than Kuta, which probably explained the extra-desperation on the part of the hawkers who would follow you for 30 or more yards on the beach trying to get you to go snorkeling, dolphin watching (yuck), or even aggressively question you about why you bought a shell necklace from someone else. For this reason we avoided the waterfront to a certain degree, but you couldn't possibly miss the sunset. After finding a more secluded spot on the beach we watched the sun set over the South Pacific (scratch that one off my list of things to do before I die!) and some of the locals were nice enough to go fishing in their outriggers to give the experience that extra je ne sais quoi.

The next morning we hired a driver to take us to Kintamani, a mountain village with supposedly stunning views of Gunung Batur a few hours away with stops at some temples. Our first temple stop was Pura Beji, a shrine to the patron goddess of irrigated agriculture. It was an incredible place to be, you could see the ocean across a beautiful rice field from within the compound, and since it's an ACTIVE ancient temple, you have to wear a sarong and sash to enter.

After taking about a million photos at Pura Beji we drove and drove and drove up Gunung Batur and stopped at a few overlooks to take some photos. The foliage and mountains and clouds were so perfect. This is what I always imagined one of these islands would have been like when my grandfather was here during the Pacific war years.

Carolyn is showing up this beautiful mountain scene
Finally we arrived in Kintamani, and our main stop was at Pura Batur. I'm not sure what was going on, but whatever it was was big. There were parts of the temple that were off limits to visitors because they were in use, and there was a huge ceremony going on. The sounds of the Balinese music, chants, singing, and wayang kulit puppet shows happening created a cacophony of religious mysticism that I've never before experienced. It was interesting to see people practicing their faith in a religion with which I have nearly zero familiarity, and you know what, that's SUPER cool. The temple was decorated in such a colorful manner that it's hard to describe the detail, or even remember all of the details for that matter. Luckily I took lots of pictures.

This carving is all gussied up

Wayang Kulit puppet show


keyboard orchestra

barong dancers

After lunch on the volcano's rim and the windy, windy road through the clouds (literally) back to the resort, we cashed in our evening a little bit early because we had another adventure planned for early the next morning.

We woke up at about 6:45am, had breakfast, and got in a van with (ironically) Malibu Dive Shop to go diving at Menjangan Island. It was about an 80 minute ride to the island, and we stopped along the way so that the dive crew could make an offering at a temple. It was really cool. Menjangan Island nature preserve is pretty amazing. We boarded a small wooden boat, and headed across the straits into the Java Sea and dropped in on the North side of the island. We only dove to a maximum depth of about 60' or so, but I saw some stuff that I had always wanted to see within the first few minutes of the dive. The second dive was even more amazing, on a wall on the south side of the island. Unfortunately I don't have an underwater camera system anymore, so you'll have to look at these "better than I can take underwater" free Creative Commons licensed photos I found on Flickr to illustrate this part of the blog entry.
photo by Ciamablue on

The most important thing on my list of fish to see were clownfish in real anemones. I got to see Amphiprion clarkii, Amphiprion percula, and Amphiprion peraderaion clownfish in their anemones. They're so much happier looking on the reef than in an aquarium.

photo by sharkbubbled on

The thing I totally didn't think I'd actually get a chance to see that I did see was a pygmy seahorse. This picture way more than does justice to the little critter. The one I saw was smaller than my pinky nail, and I couldn't see all of this detail.

photo by Thijs.schoemaker on

I haven't been a real avid diver in a couple of years, but this dive trip certainly helped end my Pro Dive induced hate of the activity and made me want to go see more of the world's reefs. Of course the view above of Bali from Menjangan's white sand beach while eating a sandwich next to Carolyn didn't hurt one bit. After our dives we headed back to the resort, and crashed early because in the morning we had another van to catch.

I guess I should describe where we stayed in Lovina. We stayed at Aneka Resort and Villas right on the beach. The room was pretty nice, in fact we got our own cottage. All the rooftops were thatched, and there was a decent restaurant and beautiful pool that overlooked the ocean. The staff weren't very helpful when I needed them to call the tour company, and transport and tours were nearly twice as much if you booked at the desk than if you ventured into the town to find the services on your own. I never imagined staying in such a nice resort for $60 a night. There were lots of mosquitoes.

The ride to Ubud was a challenge for my motion-sickness-prone vestibular system, but we made it in about 3 hours and checked into Nick's Homestay, our least expensive room for the trip. The location is perfect, it's very close to the monkey forest and dance venues. In a homestay you stay in a family's traditional compound. This meant that to flush the toilet we had to dump a bucket of water into the bowl, no television, and the room was a little stinky, but for the price it wasn't bad. We paid $30 per night, and stayed for 3 nights. Oh, there was no hot water either, and a rooster that crowed all night. The family was so nice and welcoming though that it certainly wasn't an issue.

Our first thing to see was the Sacred Monkey Forest. At first I thought this would be kind of a crap tourist experience, but it was absolutely outstanding. We got to the forest, bought some bananas, and headed inside. The monkeys near the gate aggressively beg for bananas, and being fearful of contracting rabies from the cute little fuckers, we gave up our loot very easily. They were so cute though. I took about a bajillion pictures of monkeys as we watched other people feed them and we visited one of the temples in the forest. This temple was even cooler because of the monkeys all over the place. 

After a shower we grabbed dinner and headed out to see a Kecak dance. The Kecak dance features all vocal music (mainly guys chanting "ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak" in varying rhythms) and tells the story of prince Rama. We enjoyed the dance to the utmost degree, and were pleasantly surprised to see the trance horse spirit dance where the dancer walked across burning coconut shells and husks. They lit it with gasoline too...nothing that "burns cool."

The next morning we set out on a hike as recommended by Lonely Planet (the apparently most-read book in Bali. EVERYONE has a copy of it everywhere you look) through the otherworldly rice paddies Bali is known for. If I could give a 2011 Beauty in Agriculture award to a place, it'd definitely go to Bali. I wish I could describe the sounds of the rice paddies. It was so quiet that even the roosters crowing seemed peaceful. Hard to explain. The hike was about 10 kilometers, and after walking its entirety in flip-flops I was sore. We did a little shopping for handicrafts and went to bed early.

We woke up the next morning, enjoyed our continental breakfast (jaffles and tea) and headed to the Agung Rai Museum of Art. The art was okay, but the architecture was better. We also bought tickets for the Legong Telek dance they were hosting at night, and walked the museum and resort grounds a bit. I really like the way that any standing body of water, birdbath, lake, etc in Bali seems to get covered in beautiful flower arrangements.

Due to a stupid hacker trying to steal our money, our KEB accounts were frozen and we couldn't access cash. A call to family got us back on track and we headed out to do a little shopping. We found a beautiful batik dress for Carolyn and wandered through downtown Ubud. The town was getting ready for a royal cremation, so there was a lot to see. Note the drippy penis on the bull sarcophogus. We also checked out the Ubud Water Palace before calling it a night.

During our last night in Ubud we stayed at the Matahari Cottages, a small bed and breakfast a bit off the beaten path. It was a nice little hotel, but it was a little run down, had no TV, no air-con, the water was hot, but a little stinky, but the decor was really kitschy and fun. We stayed in the Cinnabar Tearoom. It was cute and comfortable for our one night stay, but I'd say about $10 too expensive at $55 for the night. We took the Perama Tours bus to Kuta in the morning for 100,000 Rupiah.

When we arrived we inquired with MBA about Carolyn's camera but they acted as if they had no idea what we were talking about, so we gave up on that and did some shopping. We got a couple of paintings for the walls, a stack of DVD's, gifts for some friends in Korea, one hell of a chicken fricasse, and then laid down for a while. Our flight in the morning was going to be EARLY so we had to get some rest. We woke up and headed out for dinner, but not before watching the single most explosive, vibrant, words-can't-describe-it sunset that I've ever seen in my life. The sky turned all shades of pink, red, and orange as the sun seemed to explode around clouds until it dipped below a clear horizon. I might have even seen a green flash.

After the sun set so perfectly in the west, we had a steak dinner, a zombie and a singapore sling, and to sleep for a couple of hours before one last haggle with a cab driver on the way to the airport, flight (nearly vomit inducing) to Kuala Lumpur, magazine shopping spree outside of the terminal, flight back to Korea, missed KTX, and super late arrival at home at about 3:45am.

Bali is a magical, beautiful island with a vibrant, interesting culture that you could just get lost in. It's the kind of place that everyone should go at least once, but not many Americans actually go to...that's a big plane ticket. I hope that one day we'll get to go back.

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