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Published: January 16th 2012
As I write this blog from the ‘comforts’ of a Bangkok cafe, awaiting our Myanmar visa which should arrive in the next few hours, I’m struck by the delicate tightrope of fortune that we often walk whilst travelling. On the day we left Indonesia, a large earthquake struck the western shores of Sumatra, just off the coast of Banda Aceh, the place where a 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed a quarter of a million people and the place where we had been a few weeks earlier. Thus far, we have yet to hear of any injuries or deaths and obviously we hope that is how it remains. A vast percentage of the time when travelling, we never know or are never aware of how close to danger we could be. We take necessary precautions to avoid everyday dangers such as violent crime but in some places this would seem almost superfluous in comparison to natural dangers, particularly in precariously positioned countries such as Indonesia, where it is unsettlingly out of our control.
With our time in Indonesia drawing to a close, we decided to spend our final few days on the island of Bali. However, like the travel snobs
we have become, we determined the closest we would come to Kuta beach was in the two hundred or so yards between the airport arrival lounge and our taxi. Indonesia is a truly wonderful country to experience, offering abundant culture and diversity like no other country in South East Asia, but it is also absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically (and this is after five days on a virtually deserted island!). Therefore, we wanted no part of the hustle and bustle of Kuta and its surrounding areas. Instead, we hopped into our taxi and instructed the driver to head for Ubud.
Arriving in the night, we hopped out of our transport on ‘Monkey Forrest Road’ and began to search for sleeping options. Immediately we saw that the town was quite busy and for a moment we worried about the availability of budget sleeping options, thinking we would be forced into one of the more expensive places in town. However, after searching around for a little while, we happened across the beautiful old street of Jl Karna, filled with character and, thankfully, home stays. Wandering further up this street, we came across Gandra House, our home for the next four nights
and a place where we found terrific value, a comfortable bed and a very decent breakfast, all within the confines of this traditional Balinese house.
In the morning, we awoke to delicious honey and coconut pancakes served with mixed fruit and hot tea on our veranda, where we overlooked the well-kept gardens of this beautiful home. Traditional Balinese houses form around a central courtyard, which is then filled with plants, trees and various religious idols. My anticipation for Ubud had been growing for a few days to that point, imagining it as some leafy retreat sandwiched between rice fields and mountains; the type of place one comes for serenity and tranquillity. After all, its historical renown is basically the home of Balinese arts and crafts, where people would come to meditate, learn or refine their skills or simply arrive for a bit of peace and quiet. Enjoying our breakfast, these preconceptions were starting to materialise.
In terms of location, it is exactly that; bordered on all sides by acres of beautifully crafted rice fields, menacing shadows cast by ominous Gunung Agung (3142m) and Gunung Batukaru (2276m) amongst others volcanic peaks to the North. However, what we found in
the town of Ubud itself was a little disappointing. Streets teeming with overpriced and pretentious bistros and bars, where the prospect of getting a decent value meal are as slim as my waistline became by the time we left the town (pretentious sized meals are common throughout, and when you’re dealing with someone who was shunned away from an all-you-can-eat buffet not three weeks prior, it left me hungry on numerous nights and it was vindicating that even Amy was left wanting!). The eateries are supplemented with nondescript craft shops, each touting the exact same trinkets as the next, the same type of thing which can be found on the streets of Bangkok, Hanoi or any other such city or town in South East Asia, on a less expensive scale.
What a disappointment it was turning out to be. Granted, there are areas of the small town where culture can be found and found in abundance, such as the beautifully constructed Hindu structures found in the tiny courtyard at Pasar Seni (central market), where women would come throughout the day offering fruit and flower offerings on small bamboo plates, after which a small flower would be placed between their
supplicated hands in a beautifully understated prayer offering. Indeed, sandwiched between designer shops are temples, ancient houses and schools still teaching various skills to this day and at night, offering traditional dance performances. However, rather than the visual, the town just did not ‘feel’ quite how I had imagined, and rather, exists now as perhaps a shadow of its former peaceful self, preferring now to pitch itself to the wealthy tourist.
Perhaps some readers will think me foolish for imagining such a place still existed in a place as well trodden as Bali. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t imagine some deserted mountain village, I imagined plenty of tourists and travellers alike but in place of pretention, I had pictured a more bohemian atmosphere. I am also aware that perhaps the effect of the town may be less on us in part because we’ve been on the road for so long now – I had remarked to Amy that in some ways the town was similar to Kyoto in Japan, a place we both loved at the time, but also a place where culture and history is found in pockets around expensive restaurants and hotels. Had we visited
Ubud earlier in our travels, it may have left a similarly lasting impression.
Due to the weather, most of our days in Ubud were spent ambling between our veranda, the nearby cafes and the central market. We came to Indonesia during the monsoon season but, remarkably, had been treated to fantastic weather for four weeks. However, all changed in Ubud – we arrived in the rain, departed in the rain and in between, spent our time hurriedly (and unsuccessfully) attempting to evade the downpour. With such bad weather, it prevented us from doing many of the things we had originally planned to do whilst in this town – hiring a motorbike to explore the surrounding mountains and crater lakes, trekking through the bordering rice fields and generally experiencing the natural side of Bali.
Indeed, on our final day, I had grown so impatient with the weather, I stubbornly packed a small rucksack, put on my waterproofs and headed out to Pejang and Bedulu to the east of Ubud in search of what I had hoped to find here, whilst Amy wisely wanted no part of it, what with the downpour. In hindsight, she had a look of sympathy
on her face as I left, expectant of my soggy return a few hours later, but knowing there was no point in talking me out of it! As it turned out, it was somewhat enjoyable struggling through trails in the rice fields, occasionally stopping in small shelters set up by rice farmers to shield them from conditions not unlike the ones I was stupidly traipsing through (at one point I even shared a shelter with a cow, who graciously permitted my short stay). Although my boots are still drying even now, the short trek was a welcome break from the village itself.
That night, we finally found some good value Mexican food at ‘Mojo’s Flying Burritos’ towards the eastern end of Jl Raya Ubud. Sitting there, devouring our burritos and nachos, we happily discussed and reminisced as to just how fulfilling travelling around Indonesia has been, despite the shortcomings of Ubud. From astonishingly beautiful beaches to the amazing variety of wildlife in Bukit Lawang; from the awesome setting of Danau Toba to the brutal display of tradition in Tana Toraja and significantly, from the very highest and happiest moments of travel to the very depths of doubt, Indonesia has
been a journey in the truest sense of the word. Culture, variety and perhaps the friendliest people we have met along our way, it was definitively decided that this would not be our final visit to this wonderful country, where amongst other unbeaten tracks, we have yet to venture onto Maluku’s distant shores or trek through Papua’s dense and mysterious jungle. For now though, we are content to let Indonesia exist as both a beautiful memory and future aspiration, what with Myanmar on our immediate horizon...
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