26th May 2012
Bali - adventures with Shirley and some corrupt coppers
Having travelled pretty much non-stop through Malaysia and Java, we were quite happy to be spending a few days in one place – Kuta, in Bali. Granted, Kuta is THE tourist hub of the island packed with boozy bars, surf shops, a lot of traffic and Australians but we had chosen it as a base from which we could explore the expanse of the island itself and hopefully see more than the average beer-drinking, surfing tourist.
And we had found a lovely little hostel, back off the busy main strip of Kuta, set in some beautiful gardens complete with a local temple. It was lovely, peaceful and the staff were so helpful plus our room included a very good breakfast – brilliant.
So our first day, having arrived very late the previous night, was spent exploring the bustling town itself and we were not surprised to see how western it was. It reminded us of a tamer Bangkok at times but a lot cleaner and slightly less sleazy (only slightly!). We wandered around the small lanes lined with local stalls selling the usual knock-off DVDs and jewellery, and past the main strip filled with surf shops, cool but expensive bars, coffee shops and posh spas! It was busy but we liked the change and finally made it to the long stretch of white sandy beach – it was beautiful. And packed with locals trying to sell you everything, even surf lessons! So with nothing much planned that afternoon, Chris decided to take one friendly chap up on his offer of a one hour surf lesson and 2 hours board rental.
His name was Tio and he was great! His English was fantastic and he was very impressed when Chris stood up on the board first time! He is a natural it seems and loved every minute of it. Except when he took out a French lady and apparently broke her board! Oops! But apart from that minor incident, he was riding the waves pretty much each time. And the great thing about Kuta is the waves are very consistent and a good size – not too big, although a few of them were whoppers! Tio and his friend kept trying to persuade me to give it a go saying I looked young and healthy, but I assured them that I am too unfit and accident-prone to give that a try. I have decided that body-boarding is perhaps more my thing!
So with a fantastic day 1 in Bali enjoying the tourist spot of Kuta, we decided to get out and about for the next 3 days exploring more of this interesting and varied island. And this time, we opted against a scooter and went for a jeep! A Suzuki Jimny and her name was Shirley, so-called because of her similarities with the pikey Eastenders character – rough-looking, unpleasant, difficult and generally an absolute b*tch. Perhaps listing her features will help to explain…
• A speedometer that didn’t work
• 4 tyres (yay!) but all bald (not so good!)
• No tracking (to drive straight, you had to turn the wheel 90⁰ to the right)
• Very bad at hill starts…in fact, it’s best to avoid these as she will inevitably stall and roll backwards as we discovered during our mountain drive on day 1
• Dents, scratches and rust…everywhere
• Seatbelts that were quite useless
• Wiper blades that could actually make visibility through the windscreen worse (and yes, we did have some rain during our adventure)
• Dirty, dirty, dirty interior – her seats had seen a lot of bums
• Doors that you had to SLAM shut but when you did, the manual locking would unlock – best feature ever!
But deep down she was a dreamboat – only £7 a day (yes, including insurance) and she could take on anything, even some of the huge potholes that Bali threw at her.
So having picked up our car from an honest man who told us that police bribes should cost 50,000IDR and who drew us a very helpful map (except for the street which was in fact one way, we soon discovered that little error!), we headed out of Kuta and on the road. And what busy and chaotic roads they are! Imagine driving in London, in rush hour but there are no rules, you ignore traffic lights and most of the road signs are useless or hidden behind trees. Not the best start but we soon came across a very friendly local man called Agu, riding his moped through the traffic. He stopped to chat to us at some traffic lights (yes, we stopped at this set!) and directed us down the best route to a town called Ubud – our first destination and apparently, the cultural centre of Bali. He was very helpful until we realised he was directing us to his mates jewellery shop but we diverted at this point and got back on the road to Ubud.
It was lovely seeing the country outside of Kuta, and it was beautiful – so green and hilly, with huge mountains overlooking the busy streets. And life seemed to slow down as you left the chaos of the major city and drove deeper into the heart of the country, passing literally hundreds of local temples and quiet villages. We continued on, slowly getting used to the lack of signs and highway code, and soon arrived in the quaint town of Ubud complete with a forest housing lots of naughty monkeys and row upon row of craft shops – paintings, masks, carvings and all so beautiful. We stopped here and enjoyed a drink, while deciding where to go next…the mountains.
We continued heading north aiming for Gunung Batur, a volcano reaching up to 1,717m complete with a spectacular lake and views to the nearby Gunung Agung. The road was a little challenging for Shirley at times, but she made it in the end although not before a run-in with some bent coppers!
Now, to drive in Bali you technically need an International Driving Licence which you have to apply for at the local police station and pay quite a high price for. Please note, you don’t have to take a test to obtain the licence, you are just given it once you have gone through the application process so it really is just a bit of paper and in no way prepares you for the nail biting experience of driving on the road here. But when we hired the car, we asked if this was needed and explained that we only had our UK licences to which the guy said – ‘don’t worry, you not need International really but if you do get stopped just let police talk at you and then pay, 50,000IDR is the normal but don’t try to haggle’.
So, here we are the first police check-point and sure enough the cop asks for our driving licence and we explain that the hire company told us an International one wasn’t needed. The policeman looks puzzled but obviously gets this all the time and talks at you, explaining he is going to have the car impounded and we will be taken to court and fined 1,000,000IDR (£75) or more – all scare tactics and part of his power trip but we listened and nodded. Then the bribe comes along…we explain that we are only here for 3 days so there would be no time for court so the copper just says ‘well, if you give me 150,000IDR now I can let you drive off but make sure you drive slow and careful’. SLOW AND CAREFUL!?! – he really should be saying that to the locals who drive like maniacs, but we hand over the cash and away we go. Our first, but unfortunately not our last, bent copper experience. Of course, we don’t want to go to court and in a way we’re very glad that the police system is so corrupt out here but perhaps you may think that we should have just applied for the International licence in the first place. The truth is, even if you do have one and you show that to an officer, they will STILL find some fault in the paperwork or even the car (and let’s not get started on the state of Shirley!) so bribery will happen somewhere along the line – it’s just how things are done out here. And it was annoying for us – the money we ended up spending in bribes given to working men who are probably on a half-decent salary in the first place, meant we couldn’t spend as much as we wanted visiting the local attractions which give the poorer people a living.
Anywho, that excitement over and we carried on to the mountain passing some fantastic rice terraces on the way – they were spectacular, carved into the hills and so steep! The view from the village was incredible and we stopped to get a few shots – lovely.
Carrying on, we eventually arrived at a very small village packed with tour buses and people trying to look out across the landscape…and what a view! The volcano was beautiful, and you could see the old lava flows at its base snaking down the hillside and towards the bright blue, shimmering lake. We stopped again for a few photos and then decided to make our way down the very steep hill to the lake itself and attempt to follow a ‘road’ around it – we had Shirley so what could go wrong…
The road down was busy but we soon turned off and began the journey down very small, very bumpy local streets around the lake and through the villages that depend on it. It was lovely to see life working with nature – the men spear-fishing from small boats, the ladies washing on the shore and the small fish farms dotted around the edge. Life must be so simple for them. After a while, the road became very narrow and we were soon stopped by a local ‘security guard’ on a moped. We explained that we wanted to go round the lake as far as we could and we were expecting some money to have to change hands but instead he just offered to escort us. And we were soon glad that he had! Being on a moped, he could go ahead and check for oncoming cars and in some cases, helped us out of a few tight spots as we came up against a few vehicles. We continued on, up and down, over some huge potholes until we got to a small village which marked the end of the road. The local guy offered us a boat ride at this point but we declined and headed back, admiring the gorgeous and tranquil scenery en-route while keeping our fingers crossed that Shirley had enough oomph for the endless hills!
So with the dramatic volcano and stunning lake range behind us, we headed back to Kuta driving along the coast for some of the way – although, we did get a little lost at times! I blame the lack of road signs and the strange logic of them! At one point, signs were posted for a town on the other side of the island, in the wrong direction and bearing no relevance to where you are at that time! It’s like being in Canterbury, and seeing a sign for Glasgow! But after a few petty-arguments in the car, we made it back in time for happy hour and a very good burger!
So day 2, we were packing in lots more of Bali but first heading to a small town on the North coast called Tulamben where the wreck of a WW2 US cargo ship sits just a few metres off shore – The Liberty. Friends had told us it was the perfect wreck to dive because you can enter off the beach and see so much life on the vessel itself. But being budget-conscious and wasting our money on bent-bobbies, we decided to just snorkel the area – the beauty being that the wreck starts at a depth of just 3m and at its deepest goes down to 28m so you can see the majority of it from the surface if there’s good visibility. And there was! Getting in to the sea itself was quite interesting – the wreck sits in a bay but isn’t very sheltered from the wind, so there were some pretty big waves crashing in on the rocks but after a couple of attempts, I made it and we swam out to the start. It was stunning but quite eerie to see the old guns and stern sticking up out of the black, volcanic sand. We swam along the main section which was covered in coral and alive with fish – angel fish, triggerfish, damsel fish and so many more. It was amazing to think that something so military, grey and stark is now colourful and vibrant – beautiful. We snorkelled for a good hour, and Chris free dived down to swim through parts of the open wreck while I bobbed on the surface – it was great fun and so amazing to see such an intact wreck so closely.
From here, we headed back South and along the coast, stopping off at a few beach towns on the way. One of which had a gorgeous lake in the centre which looked out across the foaming sea. Stunning! But we didn’t stop long, as we were keen to get to the furthest southern tip of the island for sunset at Uluwatu and its important water temple perched high up on a cliff overlooking the crashing sea, and out to sunset. We were not disappointed although much of the temple itself was off limits because it is still used today for worship, but the views out to the open ocean were fantastic and it was incredible just to watch the huge swell of the sea climb up into big waves which pounded the cliff face below us. Unlike some of the other temples, this Hindu structure included a tall, staggered, thatched tower which created a dramatic silhouette against the sunset sky. Plus, it came with its own population of lethal monkeys who have taken a liking to hats, sunglasses and jewellery, literally ripping them off of innocent passers-by. I spotted one cheeky boy make a beeline for Chris’ head, eyeing up his expensive sunglasses but luckily I put one arm out to push the monkey away although not before his sharp claws took a chunk out of Chris’ nose. Still, better that the sunnys!
So having seen enough of the temple and with the gorgeous sun now set, we headed to a small village nearby known as a bit of a surfer hangout for some dinner. And it was lovely – set on the side of a hill looking out to the sea. You could tell the surf here was pretty fierce but with the tide out, the sea just looked like glass. It was beautiful and the satay-chicken skewers were pretty dam good as well!
Our final day with Shirley – she had behaved herself so far, got through 2 police grilling’s but we had a lot more planned for her last shift with us! We were heading back to the centre of the island, to try and find one of the most impressive sites of Bali – the temple of Gunung Kawi. We had missed it on day 1 but in my role as navigator, I felt a little more clued up on the mysteries of Balinese road signs so had good hopes for today. And we made it! Yay! No wrong turns and no police stops!
Gunung Kawi is another water-based temple, made up of a group of stone shrines cut into cliffs on either side of the plunging Pakrisan River valley. At 8m high, each shrine is dramatically carved into sheltered niches in the rock face helping to give them some protection and meaning that they are quite well preserved. It really did have an Indiana Jones-type feeling to it, especially set against the gushing sound of the raging river, and with the smell of incense burning from local stalls which line the steep steps down to the valley. And the landscape itself is gorgeous – surrounded by vibrant green rice paddies, tall palm trees and wooden shacks. It was so peaceful and calm too, with the only sound being of water as it drops through canals from the temple into the main river.
From here, we made our way to the west coast and to another watery temple – Tanah Lot, which was built on a jagged piece of rock which sticks out into the sea meaning that at high tide, the temple looks to be floating on the surface of the water. Unfortunately, our timing couldn’t have been worse – we arrived at low tide which meant hordes of tourists were there too, trying to clamber over the rocks to see the temple at sunset. It was packed and not the serene experience we thought it would be! But the temple was still very beautiful and the coastline itself was stunning so we watched the waves roll in and the sun set, before making our way back to Kuta for some dinner.
Day 5 in Bali and it was time to say goodbye to Shirley. For all her faults, she had done us proud! Her only real problem was the lack of hill starts which meant that on some roads we had to do some clever manoeuvring to avoid stopping but it was all part of the adventure. So we said our farewells and decided to spend our last day looking around Kuta again and doing some chores. Plus we tortured ourselves by looking in all the surf shops at the clothes we couldn’t afford to buy!
Bali was a fantastic island and a lot more than we thought it was going to be. From the start, we thought Bali would be all about the beaches but having seen a lot of those in Thailand and throughout Malaysia, it was lovely to get to know more of the island and it is certainly full of surprises – amazing scenery, friendly locals (apart from the coppers!), stunning temples and history, delicious food and fantastic sites. Beautiful!
Next on the list – the island of Nusa Lembongan, off the coast of Bali and apparently the Bali that a lot of people dream of.