The taxi from our Probolinggo hotel pulled up at the train station and I went inside to suss out the situation to Banyuwangi, the farthest East point in Java and from where we would do what I had planned, it is also the jumping off point for Bali. But you must understand, Bali is scamsters paradise and it sort of radiates from the entire island meaning that parts of East Java are tinged with Bali-ness. Probollinggo train station is one such place. The price was written on a board and was 55,000 IDR (£3 odd) but the guy was telling me it was 125,000 IDR, he was smug, smiling and when I suggested he was ripping me off he simply shrugged and suggested we took the bus then.
The prospect of a 6 hour sweat box on wheels was enough to force me to cough up for the 11am train to Banyuwangi. Let it be noted that I still haven’t got over it, and so I opt never to mention it again.
The train is actually better than I remember and it arrived almost on time to a familiar looking coastal station in which we were immediately accosted by touts looking to shove us off to bali.
Now, the issue I had was that I had pre-booked and paid for the following five nights in Bali/Lombok, but I had since decided to slip in a slight detour to a particular place which would take around 24 hours. The idea was then to head to Bali and continue to our accommodation booked in the Gilli Islands which is off the coast of Lombok (the next island along eastwards)
Once at Banyuwangi scams were in full force and so given it was now around 5pm we decided to reschedule and head for Bali and to the Gillis. We hopped on a ferry and watched Resident Evil as we cross the 30 minute stretch of ocean that took about an hour.
Once at the port of Gillimanuk I set about looking to get us to Denpasar which is the main city in Bali. Taxi drivers wanted a million rupiah (£60) for the 70 mile journey which should have been less than half of that and so we headed to the bus station, and there, well, there we were reminded just how much of a rip off and full on hassle pelt Bali was. The bus, which is a piss take of a machine really, and nothing other than a miniature sized aluminium box whereby Guinness world records for the most people squeezed into a bus ever are achieved daily. The price should have been 25,000 IDR and in true Balinese fashion the price, for us, had doubled. The driver wanted 50k for each of us and then was looking at charging for our bags too, and given there was absolutely zilch room anyway was on about 50k a bag. He wasn’t even the driver and so we boarded the bus and I brushed him and about 15 or so other guys off. A few of them started getting a bit aggressive and lucky for them it was dark else I would have unleashed my superman ninja skills and Kapoowed them in the chin. But one particular guy, the one who had tried to screw us got really loud and really aggressive and in my face. The fact that I knew he was trying to shaft me and that he knew that really pissed him off. In the end I knew that if we didn’t leave the bus station it would get out of hand and so we went back over to the port where I reported the matter to police who laughed, joked, pointed, laughed some more and then tried selling me an overpriced taxi.
We stood on the road, it was now dark and about 8pm and I considered heading back to Java, but we had reservations in Legian that night (Bali) and then reservations in the Gilli’s so I persisted and tried to find a ride for a reasonable price. As we looked I saw a foreign couple sat on a wall and approached them to see whether they fancied sharing a taxi. They had encountered the same issue at the bus station and were heading back to Java, the guy explained they had planned just 3 days in Bali and people had warned them what it was like, but now they had seen first hand they decided to (in his words) “f*ck Bali” we continued our search and met 3 guys who too were heading back to Java because they couldn’t get out of the port. This means that that dick and his crew at the bus station turned away 9 foreigners rather than charge us the local price – Such is the arrogance and believe me, it is endemic in Bali.
We finally got a ride for 600,000 (£40) and I was pissed off the entire way. We arrived at our hotel around midnight and I headed to the local K-Mart for some water which was (I kid not) three times as expensive as in Java.
Now, the Gilli islands are three little, Robinson Crusoe style islands dotted off the north west coast of Lombok. They really do look gorgeous, and so having priced it up with the help of the hotel manager set off, knowing it should cost about 220,000 IDR (£12) to get there. Now I tried, I mean I really tried, but the absolute best price I could get worked out at about 800,000 each. The bus to the port should’ve come in at 18k but was now 80k, the boat supposedly stopped running at 1pm but was supposedly meant to run around the clock. I was met with a complete wall of defiance and within ten minutes had simply had enough. As an aside, I asked a woman how much for a banana, she said “16 thousand Rupiah” the bananas in Asia are like a third the size of UK bananas and they grow on trees everywhere. That she would try charging me a quid for a banana the size of a child’s turd should highlight just how ridiculous Bali is.
So, in true us style we stropped, and headed where things should have been cheaper, forgoing two nights in the Gillis we headed to Ubud which is cultural bali at its best.
Naturally we got completely rooted on the ride up there with the driver pissing about the whole way stopping at temples and everywhere else we didn’t want to go in some attempt to cream me. Then, when i didn’t tip him he moaned at me.
Without doubt though, Ubud is gorgeous. It really is, featured in Eat, Prey, Love it has attracted middle aged women trying to find themselves for the past few years and with them, naturally prices have risen. But, standards have remained consistent with even the stingiest of rooms being of a decent standard. Accommodation in Ubud is largely homestay based and local Balinese are proud people who work hard, and aim to please. For those with cash to burn Ubud is also home to some of the most luxurious and most beautiful hotels in Asia. Think spas, tea light candles and massages for breakfast surrounded by rice fields.
The main road in the town is aptly called Monkey Forest rd, and all the parallel roads leading from that eventually encompass a few other once independent villages. Temples dot the streets and in terms of Balinese culture it is perhaps as good as it gets.
Mainly Hindu, temples saturate the locality and offerings fill the streets. Every now and again you momentarily forget you are in Bali but have been transported to a cultural and beautifully manicured paradisiac of nature. For instance, right now I write this from the balcony of my hotel and look out over a small, but distinctly beautiful courtyard of a temple. Beyond that are banana trees and tropical foliage, it really is something special. But if I remove my headphones and head down to the street it is ruined. High priced food, £2 for a can of coke and taxi fares to make your eyes water dominate this once sleepy village. Once perfect and quiet temples are now magnets for touts looking to exploit their own religion and a tenner might get you a traditional dance.
I was frustrated to have been so dumb as to come back to Bali, we could have gone to anywhere else in SE Asia and I chose this scam fest of a nation and I felt regret. The kids sensed it too and pessimism swept over us. Though a side trip to monkey forest kind of geed things up a little where the kids messed about with monkeys and generally climbed, played, smiled…… (Never mind)
That night I planned the next day and tried to steer us from anywhere tourists might go as I knew it would just end up being an overpriced chore. And after some consideration decided we would go trekking.
Ubud and its surrounding villages sort of straddle ridges and so I figured that if we walked out on one ridge, we could probably cross onto a parallel ridge and then walk back. Turns out I’m not the first person to think of that and there is a trek known as Campuan Ridge. We donned our boots and headed out of town and it really surprised us just how close to nothing Ubid actually is. At it’s heart is restaurants, home stays and arts and craft shops. Yet within ten minutes we had passed lonely temples and were amongst tropical greenery. It was absolutely gorgeous. And as I stood admiring the view I swear a lion jumped out from a bush and munched my leg. The kids reckon it was a mosquito but believe me it was something sinister and with teeth. The walk follows a ridge (obviously) and the ravine is beautiful. Check out this picture of a typical scene:
Stepping out onto this trek was like becoming ourselves again, we instantly smiled, suddenly life was perfect and I played an awesome trick on Jack. We stood in some shade and I applied a little sun cream to his face (it was red hot) I told him I needed to get something out of the bag and so to keep his eyes closed and his face upwards. Of course we all did one and retreated some 10m back behind a tree and stared at Jack stood there, alone, eyes closed and looking up. After about 5 minutes we were in in silent stitches and I heard him say “have you got it yet dad” as he stood there waiting. I don’t know how long he would have stood there, but I felt sorry for him and we had a group hug and walked off.
As we passed scenery that would make it onto the pages of National Geographic we played games, kicked coconuts and sang songs whilst skipping through rice fields on the sly. It was perfection in a perfect place and we had finally found the side to Bali that people crave. We passed abandoned temples, walked through tiny villages and were the only foreigners in sight. Suddenly, a place we just could not love became paradise and nothing mattered. We had discovered that magic piece of something that had first drawn tourists to Bali in the seventies, that special moment and magical view that lives with you long after you have left. We found a local shop and I convinced the woman owner to make us a late lunch which cost us pence, and as we sat eating perhaps the cheapest meal on the entire island we looked out across rice fields and Jack did his gangam style dance. The kids played with a tiny dog called La la and free lollies were handed out. I realised that this was Bali, this was the Balinese and as much as I knew it was a temporary high and that we would soon head back to reality I knew this was a moment we should cherish.
The walk back was just as amazing as the walk out and we found empty temples, rice fields and a culture, warmth and welcoming that was synonymous with everything I was assured existed but hadn’t yet found.
We arrived back in Ubud late afternoon after trekking some 9 miles, the kids had loved it, I had loved it and we had finally found the real Bali and suddenly, at the top of my agenda was continuing this new found paradise and working out how we could continue to love the side of Bali we had found, whilst avoiding the masses and overwhelmingly dominant side that is hard to avoid.
Note to Terri – You were right 😉