Our time in Bali was simply perfect. Hard to put it any other way. We had heard mixed reviews from other traveling families – too touristy, too dirty etc etc. Others claiming it is their most favored destination of all. From the moment we set foot on the island, we could feel the peace and the peacefulness exhuding from anyone we met – from our taxi drivers to restaurant owners and guides… We fell in love right then and there.
It took us a long day to get from Port Douglas via Sydney to Denpasar. By the time we arrived, found our driver and set foot into our house in Ubud, it was well past midnight. The kids were falling over; little ghostly zombies. No matter how often we tell them to think ahead, and catch a nap on the plane “because it’s a long trip today”, and “you’ll be so tired later”, and “remember the immigration lines are usually a long wait”, and “tomorrow will be a lost day”… they don’t sleep on the plane. And we have given up trying to make them fall asleep – there is no point. Ah well, one day, they’ll get it. Maybe by the time they are 20 .
We stayed a mere 20 minutes walk outside of Ubud center, and felt like royalty! Our little house (ahum villa) had a private courtyard with beautiful flowers and a pool, 3 bedrooms, and a kitchen/dining area, open to the yard. Kadek, our amazing host/cook/driver/cleaner, would come and cook breakfast for us every morning. And that for about 100$/night. The first day we walked into the city center, but I did not feel safe at all with 3 kids on the narrow road. Scooters and cars zipping by in all directions. No sidewalk. Puddles and holes, and water drainage to step over. Like a mother-hen, I was constantly looking over my shoulder and ahead of me, puttering “single file guys! Single file!!”. Yeah, we did that once. From then one, we took a taxi. About 3$ for every trip to/from the town bought me peace of mind.
In Ubud, we immediately felt at home. There must be something in the water! The atmosphere is chaotic yet calm. The energy is electric yet so zen. We fell in love with the architecture, the intricate woodwork, the Balinese smile, the rice fields, the temples, the food. We had read that Bali requires proof of onward travel upon arrival, so we had our plane tickets to Bangkok booked. Such a shame. I would have stayed the full 30 days the visa allows. Regardless, we spent the 12 days we were there well!
The first 2 days we mainly walked around. Found Ubud Palace, the Pura Taman Saraswati temple (with a starbucks at the entrance …), and walked the Campuhan ridge right outside of Ubud. High above the river, passing through a little artist village, next to ricefields and onto an amazing hotel for dinner (Jungle Fish). Steven had not bought a single souvenir yet – never felt the urge – but here, chatting with the artists who make such intricate artwork he could not resist. The drawings are first sketched in pencil, then traced with Chinese Ink, and finally colored with watered down acrylic paint. Works of patience!
The kids spent an afternoon in the pool while Steven explored and I read a book. Not often have we stayed at places with a pool, and it’s always a treat when we do.
The following day we set out for a day trip with our driver. Kadek had been extremely helpful from the moment we arrived. He recommended the top places to see and arranged guides/drivers.
First stop was the Monkey Forest, not even 30 minutes outside of Ubud. The name says it all. You walk through a forested area, with a couple of ancient temples and lots of cheeky monkeys. These are Balinese longtail monkeys, and if I am not mistaken, there are 3 groups of monkeys on the grounds. Lots of them had babies, which the kids were fascinated by. And some were making more babies, which made for an impromptu biology lesson! They are reasonably well-behaved, except if you have any food in your bag or pockets. The guards keep the monkeys at bay, unless you want to create a little riot, and then they happily give you a banana. The grounds are nice to visit, and since this was our first exposure to ancient Balinese/Indonesian culture, there were plenty oohs and aahs and look heres as we took in the intricate stonework. While the driver did a reasonably OK job to talk about the current culture on the island, I regret we didn’t hire a good guide who could give us far more insights into the history and meaning of it all. When we took a pause, just sitting around and admiring the forest, a monkey crawled onto Vincent’s shoulder. V had hoped that would happen but was too scared and nervous to give a banana. So he just sat, and oh wonder, a monkey came to sit by him, grabbed his finger and then climbed onto his shoulder. Calm and relaxed. Another one came to check if I really didn’t have pant pockets. Lifting my shirt and trying to figure out where those darn pockets were. It was a great morning.
We then headed over to the waterfall Tegenungan. Although we all love waterfalls and swimming holes in the wild, we really don’t like “exploited” waterfalls. A trillion stalls with souvenirs and other gift-shop-quality nick nacks, and restaurants offering a view of the waterfall. Nothing more, nothing less. But, the good ice-coffee, and fresh fruit popsicles were a welcome treat as it was hot-hot.
The Tirta Empul temple, a water temple, was our next stop. The temple was built around a holy fresh water spring in 962A.D. I had read that you can not not feel the spirituality of the place. Mmm, I thought, as we walked in – I certainly was not feeling it. A lot of tourists, a lot going on (an early morning visit is likely better). But then, you gradually get pulled in. You put on a sarong (included in the entrance fee). You watch the prayers that are ongoing behind the gates. (Good thing the prayers are fenced of, or tourists would pile in there too). Immaculate white clothing, beautiful gongs, colorful offerings, the smell of incense. We had noticed that most temple doors had no “roof”, just 2 standing sides, seemingly pointed to the sky. Our guide explained that the doors are a symbol to remind ourselves to split our minds in two when we enter. To leave negativity behind, and to enter the temple pure, with your positive mind only.
Central to the temple, are a series of fountains, under which you can bathe in the holy water, and purify your soul. You pass through several fountains, each of them symbolizing a different virtue. We payed a small fee, undressed and changed into a different sarong. We stepped into the water. And that’s were magic happened. We took a moment as a family, holding hands, and briefly prayed – gratitude, compassion, connection, and unity with all there is. We bathed, and at each fountain, brought the water to our lips 3 times. It was as if time stood still. As if everyone else around us disappeared. Silent, and deeply impressed we changed out of our wet sarongs… …. ….. To be taken to the exit, through a long snake of tourist stalls. What a disappointment and anti-climax! I understand and respect that all these people need to make a living. But this was a bit much. In the mean time, it had started raining, which quickly turned into the typical rain-season downpour. Our driver took us to a restaurant nearby, overlooking the rice-fields. It poured down so hard, we were shivering and could barely see anything around us. We decided to skip the final temple (the one with x-hundred steps) and head home. We passed by rice fields, through the woodworker’s community and through the coffee community (with coffee from the civet cat, aka kopi luwak). Our driver encouraging us to get out (and shop), but we were done for the day.
(As I write this, I googled the Tirta Empul temple. Turns out Wikipedia advises not to bathe, due to potential of E.coli contamination, as the water quality in recent years has significantly deteriorated. What?!? All of a sudden, I find that subtle belly gurgle of mine worrisome …)
(I read somewhere that the wooden penis-shaped key chains are the number one selling item on the island. It must be true, as they are for sale by the thousands, everywhere. You can have them custom engraved. Why on earth would anyone … oh well, I digress.)
On our fourth and final day in Ubud, the boys took a woodworking class. They left 8.45am in the morning, and I had expected them back around noon, 1pm the latest maybe. But it was well past 3pm by the time they got back. I had expected that V and M would want to head home early, bored. But no. The teacher complimented them on how engaged they were, how easy to teach, and how patient they were. These craftsmen understand their trade :). My jaw dropped when I saw what the boys made. They sizzled, carved and sanded. Masterpieces!
While the boys were hard a work, the girls got a little spa treatment. E and I had those little fishies nibble the dead skin from our feet and toes. E couldn’t get enough! By the hundreds they swim up and go to work. We got our nails painted, artwork and all. Tired from all that hard work, we settled down at Seniman Coffee Studio for coffee and lunch. Not a coffee shop, but a coffee lab! And off course, finish with ice cream. By then, it started to drizzle, and we headed home. I shopped a little more later that day, and got couple things to fit in with the local tourist community. That evening, we had dinner at a fantastic warung downtown, Mywarung. Great décor and atmosphere, and excellent food. (Oh, and did I mention Celts & Spells, the crêperie where we had lunch the day before? Vegan pancakes, with a trillion toppings – V was in heaven. Ubud is full of vegan, raw and vegetarian options.) We finished the day with a Balinese dance performance. Our kids were nodding of as we watched. To our ears, Balinese music sounds quite… eclectic?! The costumes and dancers are so graceful; hands, fingers, eyes, neck, shoulders, hips, feet all move, seemingly uncoordinatedly coordinated. Impressive, but we snuck out halfway through the performance. After all, we would get picked up at 7am to head over to Gili Air.
We weren’t sure if we would go to the Gili’s, but everyone who went kept saying it was paradise. Initially we did not want to spend the travel time to get there and back, knowing we only had those 12 days in Bali. Untill we learned that March 17th was Nyepi, Silent Day. A day were Bali literally shuts down. The airport closes. All restaurant, stores, banks close. No-one works. No-one can go outside. No-one can turn on electricity or use wifi. It’s a day of silence. To meditate on the year past, and the year ahead. A beautifull tradition really. Tourists are expected to spend the day on the grounds of their hotel. Although I truly admire the tradition (should be introduced worldwide!), we decided that rather than sitting by our pool all day, we would make the trip to the Gili’s. Going there was a breeze. Pick up at 7am, boat shortly after 9. This felt like our first true “backpackers” experience. A trillion people in that tiny harbor (well, one dock really). No-one knowing what boat to go on, how to know “your” boat arrives, a small child begging (breaks my heart), vendors shuffling around with sunglasses, watches, fresh coconuts and everything in between. We had good fun buying bracelets for everyone. This lady was a pro!
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the whole boat procedure. It looked like a tiny boat, and a lot, a lot of people getting on. We got a spot by the front door, and that made me relax. Should anything happen, we’d be the first ones of the boat (although the life vests where on the other side of the boat…). We survived. It was smooth-sailing and a calm sea, and by 1pm we were lazing by the pool of our hotel on Gili Air. Gili Air is an island off Lombok, and largely muslim, so silent day is not observed there. The island is small; 4.7km circumference (I ran around the island to be sure). There is no motorized traffic – all is done by cidomos (horse and cart), bike or on foot. We tried to haggle the price of the ride to our hotel, but failed miserably. It’s a monopoly of about 20 cidomos anyways. I get so tired from the negotiating, and trying to figure where and when to haggle vs. not!
(There’s a lot to read about the treatment of these horses. I admit it looks terrible – those horses standing waiting in the burning sun for tourists to load. Literally every single item – groceries, refrigerators, sand for cement – is loaded and transported using horse and cart. A quick internet search points to an ngo – horsesofgili.com, striving to help provide the best living conditions and standards of care possible while still understanding that the locals rely on the horses for income, and that they are a tradition handed down through generations.)
About in the center of the island is a solar panel field. We did not get plastic straws anywhere, and everyone is encouraged not to buy individual small plastic bottles, but rather to re-fill from the larger bidons. Garbage is gathered and shipped off the island early every morning (question is whereto!). Life is slow here. The coast line all along the island is dotted with hotels, and even more diving centers it felt like. This is diving mecca. And precisely the reason we came here. Steven had wanted to learn to scuba dive for years. He finally got his PADI license here and can tick that off his bucket list. On his first open water dive he spotted 5 turtles (jealous!)!! He’s a different man.
The kids and I in the mean time got schoolwork in, relaxed and had a cooking lesson with owner Hero at Warung Sunny. He was fantastic! It’s not easy to get 3 kids our ages focused on cooking. I could tell he had a whole spiel ready about the veggies, the sauces, the spices and the roots used in Indonesian cooking. But he quickly pivoted as he noticed the kids just wanted to cook. I could tell he thoroughly enjoyed the kid’s enthusiasm and creativity. Above us towered a mango tree, and several mango’s dropped down right as we were cooking. The kids wanted to add mango to their peanut sauce and Hero simply laughed and said “why not?!”. We made 3 or 4 different sauces (white, yellow, red and peanut), marinated chicken for satay, and put it all together in a nasi goreng and a mie goreng dish. It was delicioso, as Elyse would say. Dad arrived just in time to help eat it all!
That night, there was live music at our hotel, and a fire dance performance. It was idyllic, as we sipped our cocktails, feet in sand, with the live band playing cheesy ballads karaoke style. The fire dancers impressed the boys (whoa! wow!), but made Elyse cry (scary!!). I took Elyse to the room, as a small firework display set off in the background.
Another afternoon, the boys rented bikes and set off to explore the island on their own. Anywhere else this trip I would have not felt comfortable with that at all, but here it felt completely safe. What could possibly go wrong? They couldn’t go very far . Gave them a couple dollars, and they beamed with pride as they set off and came home with rattling stories of their adventure.
Finally, I also got to practice a yoga class with Mary, my new Canadian friend. There’s a little yoga oasis called “H2O” with daily classes. It was so so wonderfull to breathe, twist and turn (this particular class covered the basics, was very slow, and focused on spine twists). Boy, am I stiff!
Our little hotel was paradise, despite the building going on next door. The government has ordered that all buildings on the beach need to move back, and will supposedly make a sort of ring road around the island (where there is nothing but a sand path now). So diving schools, restaurants, hotels are all needing to tear down and rebuild a couple meters back from the beach. Building is a slow process here. Concrete gets hauled up bucket by bucket, and steel frames are woven on location, by hand.
This was the first time that I did not have to keep my eyes on the kids at all. The hotel staff interacted with them, other hotel guests engaged with them, there was a pool table. It was fantasticly relaxing for all of us. This is also the first time I can remember the kids did not even ask for screen-time. At all. As I stared out over of the ocean, I felt overwhelmed by gratitude.
In the meantime, we booked our stay in Belgium, where we plan to arrive on June 15. That gives us a couple weeks at “home”, and then a couple weeks to settle into our “new home” (where-ever that will be) before the kids go back to school. That is barely 2.5 months away… I must admit that tears welled up as I realized, full force, that time truly does not stand still. Slowly, the finish line of this adventure comes into view. Please, let the world slow to a crawl, and let these months last forever. At the same time, it will have been good, this year. And ‘enough’. It is completely OK that we will all roll back into our ‘normal’ lives.
Our time on Gili Air came to an end. The road back to Bali was looong. We left the hotel at 10am-ish, on the carriages to the harbor, to our boat that would leave at 11am. I swear Steven went to check that our boat would return to Benoa, a different harbor, closer to our next hotel. But off course when we got there, the boat could only take us back to Padang Bai. Also, our boat was over 3 hours delayed. So we hung there, seeing backpacker after backpacker getting into other boats. And then, our boat arrived. I gasped. This one was quite a bit more run-down than the one we came with.
The boat was crammed, every seat in the house taken. Airco not working. Honestly, I had to breathe to refrain from panicking. I felt like we should have not gotten on that boat. Irresponsible. But there were a couple of other families on, which I somehow found reassuring (surely, if they do this, we are not that reckless?). Still. Steven didn’t worry, but I couldn’t keep the paragraph I read in the Lonely Planet out of my mind: If it’s too full, don’t get on (How do you know it’s too full before you are packed like sardines??) Only use reputable companies (how do we know which one is reputable?! If they have an office??). Etc etc. I worried for nothing. The airco switched on once we were on route, and it was smooth sailing as half the backpacker crowd got up onto the boat’s roof. Once off the boat the haggling circus began … drivers left and right approached us:
– Ha Madam, where are you going? Kuta? Ha! 3 hour drive. Shuttle bus. Many people. Many stops.
– No, no, no. I paid for private van to Kuta. Same as we came from Ubud.
– Ah no, Madam. Is extra. See, stamp on your ticket says “shuttle”.
(we got that stamp seconds before getting on the boat. We did not pay attention).
– Well, I don’t understand your ticketing system. I paid for private van.
– Ah sorry madam. Private van is 450.000 IRP.
– What?? The drive from Airport to Ubud was only 300.000IRP!
(I make a bit of a scene it feels like. Maybe other passengers are picking up on this?)
– Ah madam. Yes, go to office. Madam, go to office.
(In the mean time, left and right, multiple drivers … sir, sir, where you go? I give you good price!)
(Allrighty, all 5 of us, plus luggage, haul ourselves to the office. What else do you do? You need to get to Kuta. The kids are hungry. And tired.)
– OK then. To Kuta. Pay no more than 250.000 IRP.
– 250.000?!? No sir, 350.000.
– No, no 350.000 is way too much. Airport-Ubud was 300.000! 250.000
– Ok, ok, sir. Best price 320.000
(can’t exactly walk away, as well all know we are at the mercy of these couple drivers who all work together).
– Oh well. 300.000 and it’s a deal.
– 300.000. OK.
– OK. But we don’t have cash. All ATM on Gili out of order.
– Oh, no problem! You pay with card.
– Great. Thank you. Suksma.
– Yes, yes – is 3% extra.
On the plus side, we had the nicest, most courteous driver. On the down side, the 4 of us were cramped in the backrow for a nearly 3 hour drive to Kuta. We arrived exhausted, close to 7pm. What a day. This is one of those that we had Kadek arrange, with a simple whatsapp back and forth. Yes, Mrs. An, you pay 450.000 IRP per person for transport and boat back and forth. Lesson learned. We need to ask more questions! (I should have known when I asked our driver who took us from Ubud to Padang Bai, how he would arrange for our pick-up a couple days later. Suddenly things were lost in translation … Never a good sign).
We had picked a hotel in Kuta, actually bordering Legian, close to the Waterbom park. The kids had seen advertising for the park, and we read it is truly a great waterpark. All over Australia, we had seen waterslide parks, and the kids would drool over them, but we never felt it was worth it. So now, we had asked them if they wanted to spend our last day in Bali up north, going to see wild dolphins. Or down south, at the Waterbom park. In all fairness, they all hesitated for just a second. But then jumped up and down: waterpark! Waterpark!
It was a fan-tas-tic day for all of us. The park is set in the most lush gardens, and has something for kids of all ages. The kids took me on some crazy rides. I do believe I yelled ‘I hate you Vincent!!!’ when we plunged nearly vertical into a tube, backwards. He just giggled. We floated down the lazy river, hiccup laughter as kids appeared into tubes, disappeared, popped-up inside our own tube etc And in all that craziness, I got to sit and read another thriller, and enjoy the best ice-cappuccino I had in weeks.
We walked home from the Waterbom park, to catch the magical sunset over Kuta beach. Glowing red, a truly amazing goodbye. We sat, in awe.
Life is good. Bali, we’ll be back.
As always, adding in a list of where we stayed, ate and played. Adding those we loved, and leaving out those we didn’t :).
Where we stayed:
- Bali – Ubud: Villa Suci Sari – nicely appointed homes. Ours had 3 bedrooms and an open kitchen (open to the outdoors). Lounge area around the pool with chairs. The big plus of Suci Sari is the host, Kadek, who was extremely courteous and helpful.
- Gili Air: Hotel Grand Sunset– nice little hotel, like there are many on Gili Air. This one sits on the westside, with great sunset views. The pool does not immediately overlook the ocean, but there are beach and lounge chairs right on the beach. Now, there was construction going on right next to the pool, which was annoying – not only for the noise, but certainly for the fumes of the generator. That said, the rooms were spacious enough, with an open outdoor bathroom.
- Bali – bordering Kuta and Legian areas: Alam Kulkul. This is a boutique hotel, and it shows. The garden and pool area are fantastic, and the villas set around it seemed very nice (although we did not get a peak inside). We stayed in a family room, in an older building at the very end of the resort. That’s what made it affordable for us :)!
Where we wish we stayed: when we walked from Ubud across the ridge, we had dinner at the Jungle Fish restaurant. This is the restaurant of the Chapung Se Bali Resort & Spa. The resort is spectacular, set amid the jungle, right on the hill side. The pool is incredible. If you can afford it, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
Where we ate:
- Bali – Ubud: Mywarung – fantastic décor, music, staff and food. Great place to eat.
- Bali – Ubud: Warung Titi – this warung was right across the street from our “villa”. By far the best meal we had during all of our stay in Bali. The owner was so incredibly nice, the food organic, the setting simple but fun. The owner is Balinese, but spent years in the restaurant and hotel business in Japan. Attention to detail, flavor, presentation. Perfect. And very, very affordable.
- Bali – Ubud: Jungle Fish – we ate simple bar food, but sat poolside. So take your bathing suit – that’s what makes this place so fun!
- Bali – Ubud: Seniman Coffee – imagine you know what you are doing is their credo. Coffee to perfection. Including a little bit of a show :).
- Bali – Ubud: The Spell Creperie – both sweet and harty pancakes (and more), with a trillion toppings, and vegan too. This was heaven for our egg-allergic boy. The menu is Celt (and Spells) themed, which adds a fun twist.
- Gili Air: Boogils Sunset Lounge – run by Italians, with an authentic woodfired pizza oven. The pizzas were so good. There’s a sign outside though that says “If you want fast, go to McDonalds”. They are self-aware! Make sure you have time when you go.
- Gili Air: the restaurant of our hotel. check name of bar/resto??
- Gili Air: Coffee and Thyme – Right across from the harbor is a charming coffee bar with super nice outdoor lounging.
- Gili Air: Breadelicious – one of the things I miss while travelling is good bread … and we found it here. Yummie sandwiches!
- Gili Air: Warung Sunny– this is were we had our cooking lesson. This place is packed for lunch and dinner. Best to make reservations – not for a table – but for a piece of the freshest fish! While we were cooking, someone stopped by and did exactly that … “fish tomorrow, for dinner, party of 6?”
- Bali – Kuta: Papa’s Limoncello. This restaurant was out front of our hotel in Kuta. After a horrendous long day, we decided to eat here and did not expect too much. But the food was good in fact, and the service fast. We ate here the next night too :).
Where we played:
- Bali – Tirta Empul
- Bali – Monkey forest
- Bali – Waterbom park
- Gili Air – Cooking class at Warung Sunny with Hero
- Gili Air – Woodcarving in the woodcarving community of Gianyar. I can’t find a link to the specific place we went, as Kadek arranged it for us. But if you go to Gianyar, you can’t miss the place. There is a hughe, hughe white statue outside.
- Gili Air – 7 seas diving on Gili Air. Steven got his PADI here – he did quite a bit of research on the different diving schools on Gili Air, and based on reviews picked 7 seas. He was very happy with his instructor, and the overall professionalism of the team.
- Bali – Ubud – Fish spa – downtown ubud, if I remember correctly almost across from the Palace. You can’t miss it!