Sunday, November 3, 2013

Eight Days in Bali

Sunset seen by horseback on a beach in West Bali National Park.

Last month I flew from Vietnam to Bali for the 10th anniversary of the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival, a five-day event attended mostly by Indonesians and Australians, but with a number of other countries (and their writers) fairly well-represented overall. (But for a SE Asian literary event, it must be said, there was not the kind of SE Asian representation I had expected; i.e., no panelists from Vietnam, Singapore, or Thailand.) Although I got food poisoning on my first day, I managed to go to events held on all five days. It was a bit disappointing on the whole, in part because I found both attendees and participants unapproachable, though there were several events I was glad to attend.

Opening ceremony.

One of the panel discussions, held at Indus Restaurant.

Left Bank Lounge, site of other literary events. I left this event shortly after one of the panelists declared that in individual 140-character tweets people were now publishing literature as powerful and moving as any poem, short story, or novel. Immediately following this, another panelist suggested we get rid of the term "literature" and use the word "storytelling" instead, because it was a more appropriate term for the digital age we live in. Like I said, some of the panel discussions were good, some not so good.  

I ended up staying at the Alaya Hotel, which turned out to be quite close to Monkey Forest but very far from the literary festival I was attending.

Alaya Hotel bedroom. Spacious, but the bathroom could be more private! 

Pool set between the hotel and rice fields. 

I wouldn’t have minded the 40-minute walk so much, but 1) I was sick, 2) it was hot and humid, and 3) the conditions of the sidewalks in Ubud were absolutely terrible. I traveled to Ubud back in 2005 before I started this blog, which explains why I didn’t travel around the island again to see the sights. Unfortunately, where once there was actual space to move around and distinguish important sites from restaurants and shops, now everything is packed together and most of the time it’s hard to know what you’re seeing. Traffic, too, was horrendous; getting around frequently proved troublesome. And this was the low season. Even so, I’ll upload some of the more interesting things I photographed.

The highlight of this trip to Ubud, at least for me, was seeing Legong dances performed live at our hotel. I found the music and the dances, which follow traditional narratives, absolutely riveting. Even though they were staged at a hotel rather than in an open space in town, the quality of the performances was high, and the performances lasted close to two hours. Even better, they didn’t cost a thing – they were simply a dinner performance.

Other highlights included Balinese dishes. And even though I fell ill – yet another country I can mark down as having gotten sick in – either from the food or the water, which I used initially to rinse with after brushing my teeth, it didn’t stop me as much as it should have from trying the local cuisine.

Nasi Campur.

Makanan Ringan for lunch: lemper (chicken and sticky rice), sambal udang (chili prawns),  pepes ikan (fish cooked in banana leaf), tumis terung (sauteed eggplant), tahu bergedel (fried tofu), and rujak (Bali-style pickled fruit).

 Ikan bakar jimbaran (grilled fish with rice, local veggies, and soup)

Pesan be pasih (traditionally spiced fish cooked in a banana leaf)

Udang base kesuna (fried prawn in a Balinese sauce)

Once the literary festival ended we took the advice of a friend and headed to a resort in West Bali National Park, which is between three and four hours from Ubud by car (though when there’s bad traffic, I’ve been told it can take twice as long). The drive isn’t particularly exciting, but if you’re content with beautiful scenery there’s a lot to see along the way.

While there are a number of hotels and resorts along the beachfront near the entrance to the park, the only accommodation within the park itself, as far as I know, is The Menjangan. We were only going to stay two days and nights, but it was so beautiful and relaxing there that we added an extra day and night almost immediately after checking in.

The tower (i.e., genius treehouse) houses the reception area, two restaurant floors, and three viewing decks. 

Beautiful outdoor seating for drinks and meals, which the presence of aggressive monkeys made off-limits during our stay. Actually, we could have eaten there, but when the waiter told me he'd stand guard and protect us – he made a bow and arrow gesture with his hands! – I said no, we'd be happy to eat inside.

We stayed all three days in a Monsoon Deluxe room, which was, if I remember correctly, .7 km from the reception area/tower restaurant/panoramic viewing area, and 2.2 km from the seaside restaurant and beach area.

Thankfully the resort offers transportation in vans fitted with seating on the rooftop, which is nice because the distances are a bit far for walking, especially considering the heat and the occasional band of monkeys hanging out at random spots. The vans weren’t always available right away, however, and our longest wait was about 40 minutes – when we were in a hurry to check out and beat the traffic to Denpasar, of course. Most of the time we had to wait between 5 and 10 minutes.

Next to the Monsoon rooms, and there are about 10 built in a horseshoe shape around a pool and Jacuzzi, are horse stables and riding areas. We ended up going horseback riding at 5 p.m., which gave us more than enough time to get to the beach to watch the sunset and then back again before it got dark.

The horses were brought from Australia 12 years ago and are kept in good shape, and the ride was definitely one of the best things we did there – though it cost around $45/person/hour. (It made me realize what a great deal I had in Uruguay – four hours of horseback riding a day for free!)

Another great thing about the national park is all the wildlife. We had numerous encounters with deer; saw three of seven extant white starlings; came across lots of monkeys around the roads of the park; saw various lizards and geckos; spotted kingfishers and many other colorful birds I never learned the names of; and also saw a lot of fish. Oh yes, and wasps! They seemed to be all over the place, in fact.

There are only seven of these starlings left in existence. It's a bird endemic to Bali and appears on, I believe, Indonesia's 2000 rupiah note.

I saw this too-large-for-my-comfort gecko clinging to a roof beam as I went to turn the lights off and go to bed. That's usually not what you want to see right at that moment...

A flying lizard. That yellow thing sticking straight up is its right wing. He was waving to me!

We also dished out a reasonable $20 for an hour in a see-through plastic rowboat, which was really fun – and not a bad workout, especially since it took a lot of effort not to spin around in circles continuously. Although we didn’t come across many fish, we did see colorful coral and starfish, mangrove trees, and beautiful natural scenery. The whole time we paddled we could hear the hypnotic voice of a muezzin calling over the surrounding hills.

The food at The Menjangan was good – my god, drop a wad of cash and try the Lychee martini – but also incredibly overpriced. If you stay here, you’re much too far away from other areas where you might eat or shop for food, so you really have no choice but to dine in either of the resort’s two restaurants. And remember, you pay 21% tax on everything here.

Even so, it was hard to leave West Bali, and I wish I’d had more time to explore beyond the resort area itself (which is extensive – covering 382 hectares, in fact). We headed to Lombok after this, and so we arranged for one of the resort’s drivers to take us to the airport – another four-hour trip with stops on a mountaintop to go to the bathroom, take photos, and marvel/wonder at a man with a giant iguana and two giant fruit bats (at least they were giant to my eyes) by the side of the road.

The Menjangan is located in the Bali Barat National Park about four hours from Denpasar International Airport and about three to four hours from Ubud.

Tel: (62) 36294700

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