Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bali: Must See Stops

Last week, I mentioned a few options for our big trip this year.  Ultimately, we are looking to experience part relaxation, and part culture / sightseeing.  The past several years, I've had my fair share of beach vacations - Cabo, Hawaii, Playa del Carmen, and Costa Rica - all beautiful places, but I was more about sunning myself at the beach than exploring the culture.

In an attempt to figure out where we should go and what each vacation would look like, I've done some research, and I'm putting together a mock itinerary for each destination - first up... Bali!

I found a fabulous guide to Bali on Gadling (a Huffington Post Property).  This itinerary of top destinations and activities is fully their work, and I take zero credit for it, but it has totally made me want to pack a bag and leave!!

Bicycle around Ubud
The streets of Ubud teem with culture. A great way to see the town, surrounding artistic villages, and working rice paddies is on bicycle. Start at Monkey Forest and visit with the infamous residents -- crab-eating macaques. Mid-day, head over to Goa Gajah, one of Bali's most unique holy places. To end your day, ride to the village of Petulu. A massive nightly Heron migration is said to be the manifestation of spirits felled in a communist cleansing back in the 1960s. The birds began showing up exactly one week after an especially brutal massacre and have roosted in Petulu every night since. The scene is holy.

No trip to Bali is complete without a stay in Ubud. Some of my favorite Ubud guest-houses are Tegal Sari, Tepi Sawah, and Greenfields. Book early and get a view overlooking the rice paddies. Some great bike tour companies are Bike Baik and Banyan Tree, but setting off on your own trip of discovery is much more exhilarating.

Rice Terrace, UbudRice Terrace, Ubud
Learn to Surf in Kuta
If the heart of Bali's culture beats in Ubud, then its hard charging Bintang gripping extremities flail about in Kuta. The scene is all here: bikinis on the beach, clubs that go all night, expat bars, hip travel cognoscenti, and intoxicated Australian high fivers. Depending on the experience you expect to derive from travel, Kuta will either be a place to remember or a place to forget. Perhaps, even a place to remember forgetting. Either way, Kuta does surf lessons brilliantly. Since the Kuta wave breaks over sand rather than coral, new riders do not exit the water grasping for gauze. This provides a perfect arrangement for wide-eyed noobs to pick up the surf game. After a day spent learning your way around a barrel, quench your thirst with fresh fruit drinks and a sunset at KuDeTa.
There's a saying that God lives in the Himalayas. I have a feeling he vacations in Bali. Kuta Beach is a quick ride from the airport and full of cheap accommodations. Some great surfing schools are Odyssey and Rip Curl School of Surf, though hiring a local guide will likely be cheaper. If you possess some serious skills check out the legendary Ulu Watu break. KuDeTa is a seaside bar and restaurant that draws huge crowds. Get there early to secure a spot for sunset.

Sunset at Tanah Lot
The sea-draped temple of Tanah Lot rises out of the surf like a hazy dream along Bali's southwest coast. Beneath the waves that crash along the dark temple walls, a pride of banded sea kraits patrol the waters. The snakes guard the temple from evil spirits and harm. (Or so I've been told.) Tanah Lot is many things: magical, stunning, unlikely, romantic, and strange. It has a plucked from a dream aesthetic that allows you to believe the lore and have fun with it. A local told me about those sea kraits, and I believed him because the place looks so unreal. It seems to exist on dreamlike terms. Catching it at sunset frames the temple at its most beautiful and surreal.
On a map, Tanah Lot seems close to much of south Bali. Due to the layout of the roads, however, it takes quite a while to get there. It is best to hire a driver. Enjoy the sunset from the beach at low tide or up on the cliffs at a cafe. The nearby markets are a great place to grab some touristy trinkets and cheap art. I once bought 5 Balinese paintings for $27. If you enjoy golfing, then the nearby Nirwana Resort has the best links course in Bali.


Kecak Dance in Ulu Watu
In the 1930's, a German artist taught the Balinese a peculiar performance called the Kecak. The dance has no instruments, just vocal chords, about 100 of them. They chant generously and costumed performers dance and act out the Ramayana. While the 20th century German impetus may sound slightly inauthentic, you will hardly care about details as the sun slowly sets beyond the cliffs of Ulu Watu and you get lost in the chant. There is also lots of fire.
The show begins at 6:00pm nightly. Hire a taxi to drop you off at Ulu Watu temple. Once there, follow the crowds to the performance area. It is perched on the cliffs at the southernmost tip of Bali. Your driver will undoubtedly offer to take you to a Jimbaran seafood dinner after the show. Decline this service. It is an expensive tourist trap.


If you are headed for Uluwatu, be sure to stop by at the Monkey Forest.  It’s recommended that you enter the forest with a tour guide who will teach you how to behave with the monkeys so that they don’t become too unruly!  The monkeys love peanuts which you can buy from a stall for around 30 cents.  Be aware that the monkeys are likely to climb all over you and you need to stay calm and quiet to avoid alarming them.  It’s also worth mentioning that the monkeys can scratch and bite in their excitement.  For this reason, all monkeys are regularly injected against tetanus so although a bite would be uncomfortable it won’t give you health problems.


Snorkeling around Menjangan Island
Menjangan Island in the far west is a long trip from almost anywhere in Bali. The remote location augments the pristine experience by discouraging crowds. Much of West Bali is sparsely populated parkland, so it is a departure from the bustling south. In Menjangan, hire a boatman to take you out to the reefs for the day, and prepare to get your mind blown. Snorkeling does not get better than this. The bright reefs and strange fish will tattoo a smile upon your face. At the end of the day, shack up on the beach in nearby Pemuteran. It is wise to stay a night, or three. If you have time, then take a trip into Taman Nasional Bali Barat to view some Balinese flora and fauna.
The drive is over 3 hours from south Bali, so a day trip is way too cumbersome. A great way to experience Menjangan is too stay in nearby Pemuteran for a few nights. The Amertha in Pemuteran grazes perfection. Its secluded location framed by towering mountains and gorgeous villas with private pools is well worth the modest splurge. The amazing house reef full of critters just meters offshore will almost talk you out of visiting Menjangan. Don't let it.


Road Trip to Lake Bratan
With taxi rates substantially lower than Western standards, it is cheap and easy to hire a driver for a good old-fashioned chauffeured road trip: $50 for an entire day is about average. One of my favorite paths begins in the southern part of Bali and snakes up through the lush highlands ending at the otherworldly Lake Bratan. It takes about 2 hours. The lake is home to the unbelievably photogenic cover-girl temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. The mist hangs low, the air is much cooler, and it all feels so right. This is an enlightened place.
Arrange a driver for the day through your guest-house or hotel, or use my favorite driver, the extremely jovial Made Dana


Climbing Mount Batur
The volcanic Mount Batur and surrounding lake provide a proper setting for a gorgeous clamber to the summit. The best time to climb is the morning. Most groups begin their ascent around 4am, hitting the summit at 6 to watch the sun slowly rise over the Lombok strait. Bring a jacket and be careful at the summit. Batur is an active volcano and an unfortunate tourist fell into the cauldron in early 2010.
You can arrange a trip up the mountain with your guest-house or driver. It is not too physically demanding. If you find yourself bit by the climbing bug, check out Mt. Rinjani on nearby Lombok Island. It is beast and takes several days to summit.


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