Category Archives: Indonesia

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 4


After spending the first half of the week in Ubud, we decided to spend our remaining days in Bali’s other tourist hotspot, Kuta. At first glance, I thought Kuta was great. Like Ubud, it was full of adorable little tourist boutiques and spas, this time, with a beautiful long, sandy beach. Ah, paradise, right?


Kuta is completely OBNOXIOUS. Yes, I said it, Kuta is OBNOXIOUS! I really didn’t think tourism could get more annoying than Ubud, until I found the taxi drivers and masseuses even more prevalent and aggressive in Kuta. You can’t walk more than a few feet without people harassing you, and even some of the stuff in the shops was just plain rude. Like this bumper sticker stall:

Charming bumper stickers at a shop in Kuta, Bali

In addition to its over-commercialization, I just think the whole Kuta scene wasn’t my vibe. Kuta is party central, like the Spring Break destination of Southeast Asia. I did enjoy going to the beach, but the waves and current were so strong, even just playing in the water was stressful. At the end of the day, it’s just wasn’t my cup of tea.

I will say, despite all my disappointments and stresses throughout the week, I finally got the Bali I was looking for on my last day of the trip. One of my goals in going to Bali was to take a yoga class at an “authentic” yoga place. Unfortunately, I missed my opportunity to do it in Ubud (where the main yoga spots are) and I sadly discovered there were practically no places to do yoga in Kuta (at least not well-publicized). After giving up hope on the tourist booths, I went to an Internet café and tried to find something online. Again, to my dismay, there were virtually no yoga classes to be found in Kuta online either! The only lead I found was a small resort located outside of Kuta that offered daily yoga classes starting at 8:30 a.m. The only problem was that the website was dated from 2003…

Since I already established I didn’t like Kuta, I figured I had nothing to lose, so the next morning I got up early, packed my bags, put on my yoga gear and set out to find this obscure little resort. To my not-so-surprise, the resort no longer offered Saturday yoga classes, so I was out of luck. But the setting was so charming that I actually didn’t care. Situated behind a small-town road, covered in lush greenery, bright flowers, Balinese statues and rustic chalets, it was exactly the beautiful, serene Bali I had pictured in my head before my arrival. Despite missing out on my class, I felt instantly at peace and decided to just enjoy my last day by wandering around this delightfully tourist-free area.

The Bali resort where I took my yoga class

My first stop was this charming Eastern and Western restaurant across the street for breakfast, offering high-class service and organic food for really cheap prices. As I was enjoying a delicious plate of Eggs Benedict and a cappuccino (complete with latte art!) I noticed a rack of brochures near the entrance. As I went to inspect I realized THIS is where they had been hiding all the yoga information, geez! Ideally, I had been looking for a place to try both yoga and meditation and to my luck, I found another resort nearby that was offering a three-hour brain-mind-body workshop that afternoon. Though I really had no idea what this workshop entailed, I headed out once again and delightfully found yet another, lush, serene truly “Balinese” setting. In addition to features similar to the previous resort, this place had an open-air yoga studio, situated in the back of the property, surrounded by flowers and greenery, unbothered by the rest of the world. It was perfect.

The open air yoga studio where I took class

The class itself was also amazing. The first hour our instructor talked to us about the relationship among the mind, brain and body, giving a scientific explanation on what parts of the brain reacted and why when one was meditating. The second hour was spent doing this really simple, yet fascinating breathing technique that put us all into this crazy, zoned-out mindset. Basically, you take two inhalations, first from the stomach, then from the lungs, and then exhale and repeat this over and over and over again.  As the whole group lied on the ground, doing these crazy breaths together, it eventually got trippy. I have never experienced anything like this. In what I can only describe as a sort of hyperventilation, your whole body just starts buzzing and your mind goes blank. I really don’t know how else to describe it, except that my arms, legs and head were just “buzzing.” From here, we went directly into an hour-long yoga session, which was absolutely incredible. Having just come from the mind-clearing breathing session, we were all completely calm and “aware” as we did our poses, and I found myself for the first time starting to make the mind-body connection. I also found I could hold some poses longer and further, because I was no longer fighting with my mind about the pain or tedium. It was truly an incredible experience and the perfect way to end my trip to Bali.

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 3


The rest of our time in Ubud was really nice. As Bali’s culture “capital,” Ubud is the place people go to learn about Balinese art, dance, traditions, yoga etc. (as opposed to surfing and partying). As Bali’s other tourist hotspot, it is also full of really cute boutiques and restaurants, and it seems everyone is willing to drive you somewhere or give you a massage.

Though we definitely indulged a bit in the shopping and spa treatments, we also made sure to try to explore the local culture. One of the things on my must-see list was to watch a traditional Balinese dance. The bright side of staying in a tourist area is there were plenty of options. The down side is that it’s hard to differentiate between the more authentic Balinese culture and the pre-packaged tourist garbage (we learned on day one that our hired driver had his own agenda in mind to take us to places where he’d get a commission. We had to give him very clear directions after that…). When it came to dancing, my guidebook had warned that there were a number of “B”-list dance troupes around and that authentic Balinese dance should not look like you could do it yourself…

We ended up selecting a dance hall near our homestay, and honestly, I cannot tell you which “level” of dance troupe we saw. To their credit, the setting was amazing. Located behind a lily-pad covered moat with a gold, regal-like backdrop, the open-air stage had a magical, enchanting feel to it. The dancers themselves were absolutely beautiful as well with exotic, colorful costumes and make-up.  The performance also had on-stage musicians who play these unique gong and xylophone-like instruments, which is pretty cool to see.

The dance itself, however, was, in a word, unique…  It is made up with a series of precise hand, arm, head and hip movements with a lot of bent-angle aesthetics that are often used to tell a story. What I found particularly interesting is that they actually use their eyes to dance by opening them wide and looking right to left to the music. It’s quite fun to watch, though slightly creepy…After watching the same few movements over and over and over again, however, it gets a bit redundant and I wouldn’t exactly describe much of the activity as anything that would require you to break into a sweat…Still an interesting experience though.

In addition to Balinese dancing, we also had the chance to explore some more local culture in Ubud with a half-day bike tour through the outside villages. What was great about the tour was that you get outside the tourist zones and get to cruise down the hillside (yes, all downhill!), past the rice paddies, past the women carrying baskets on their heads, and past all the local communities. We made several stops along the way to explore on foot, and I must admit, it was really cool to see what rice paddy looked like. Turns out, it looks kind of like wheat or any other grain, who knew?

Me and the Paddy Fields

One of the coolest parts of the trip, however, was our visit to the coffee plantation at the beginning. We got to check out where they grow coffee, vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa before sitting down to sample a few brews :). What was especially interesting, however, is that we got to try civet coffee, or what I prefer to call, “luwak-poo” coffee. For this delicacy, a weasel-like animal called a luwak first eats the berry surrounding the coffee bean, then poos it out. These beans are then roasted and made into a very expensive coffee. There seem to be several theories on why this coffee is so special. Some say enzymes in the luwak’s stomach changes the flavor of the coffee, while others say luwaks naturally choose the best berries, and therefore, the best beans in the wild and make the coffee roaster’s job easier. Either way, the coffee was good, strong, though I’m not enough of a coffee connoisseur to appreciate all its unique flavor :).

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 2


Despite the initial difficulty of entering the country and some frustrations of the over commercialization of the island, Bali had some truly incredible moments for me.

Me in my new sarong and sash next to a traditional stone carving at a Balinese temple

Our first day, my remaining travel buddies, Sarah and Michel, and I decided to hire a driver to see some of Ubud’s temples. I must say, compared to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, Bali’s temples are not that spectacular. Though situated in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, Bali is actually Hindu mixed with some of the traditions and customs of its native people. Unlike the vibrant, glittery Buddhist structures in Thailand, or the colorful, heavily-ritualized Indian temples in Malaysia, Bali temples are mostly made of stone and are very basic open air complexes. One interesting feature, however, is that all the temples, storefronts, homes and structures in general have elaborate stone carvings of demons, meant to scare away evil spirits. It is also interesting to note that you can only enter a temple wearing a sarong and an accompanying sash, and women are not allowed to enter at all during menstruation.

Anyway, the first truly incredible moment I had in Bali was when I met Ketut, the medicine man in “Eat, Pray, Love” who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to make her journey. I met Ketut a bit on a whim. A friend of mine had joked about trying to find him when I went to Bali, but I hadn’t seriously thought that would be a possibility. Imagine my delight when the man at the tourist counter told me that Ketut is still open for business and a mere 20-minute walk outside of Ubud! Seriously???

So the next morning, I giddily woke up, put on my new Bali sundress, and headed out to the home of Ketut Liyer: medicine man, palm reader, healer, painter, world-journey inspirer. When I arrived around 10 a.m., about an hour after he opened, there was already a sizeable line, though not as long as I would have expected.  There was really no one there to receive customers when I walked into his open-air compound, just a group of plastic number tickets nailed to a wooden post and people lazily sitting around. To my surprise, there was almost no mention of “Eat, Pray, Love” anywhere, except for one movie poster attached to the wall. (After chatting with other customers, however, I learned they had all come because of the movie, though sadly, very few had read the book :().

I took number 13 and found a spot in the shade to reread part of “Eat, Pray, Love” while I waited. Though I ended up waiting almost two hours to see him, I didn’t mind at all. There was something about being in the sunshine with a book you love that is just completely relaxing. And there was something extra special about reading a book that takes place in the exact location that you are in right now, especially when you are just feet away from one of the book’s “characters”! (I had a similar experience while reading the last Harry Potter book in London, when the characters escaped to Tottenham Court Road, the exact street I was on when reading the story!) I was completely calm and happy as a clam.

Me and Ketut, the medicine man from "Eat, Pray, Love"

When I finally got to see Ketut, my happiness soared even higher! Ketut was very flattering. To start, he told me I was “very pretty” with “sugar lips” and he could tell I was very smart.  Though I wasn’t planning on taking the palm reading too seriously, I was completely delighted to discover that I would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage, three children and be successful in whatever profession I chose, including public relations, “beauty salon”, business and journalism. (“You lucky, you lucky!”) Though I was happy enough just to meet the man, I felt pretty good about myself after I left, even after hearing the beginning of this next customer’s session which started with, “You so pretty, you have sugar lips…”

As the week progressed, I happened to run into three other customers that had been in line with me (mostly random encounters) and soon found out that they too would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage and be successful in their careers…What a coincidence! In fact, one lady who did IT told me that Ketut predicted that she would be successful in “IT, beauty salon and business,” and apparently, she had sugar lips too. Hmm…

In addition to my “fortune,” my visit to Ketut’s house brought along one other, though delightfully unexpected, positive experience: my first close encounter with a monkey! (You didn’t really think I could go to Bali and not talk about monkeys, did you?)

Me and Ketut's monkey, my first time "holding" a monkey!

So Ketut likes pets. In his compound (which now includes a homestay if you’re ever interested) he has a fairly extensive collection of exotic animals, though most of them are birds. As I was perusing, I noticed he had a pet monkey that wasn’t completely psychotic, and I got very excited! The monkey was chained to a post and seemed very eager to jump on to me, and after some reassurance from one of the compound’s staff, I let it…  IT WAS INCREDIBLE! The monkey was not violent at all, though very eager to check my hair for bugs… It kept walking around my shoulders and head picking at my hair and my sunglasses, though never scratching or biting. It was so cool! I felt very touched, because I think the monkey liked me too, because he kept trying to jump back onto me every time I shook him off. It was AWESOME! So now I am officially over my fear of touching monkeys and am proud to say that I have let wild monkeys stand on my lap and shoulders on several occasions since my experience at Ketut’s and plan to try to interact with monkeys more frequently in the future.

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 1


Before I left for Malaysia, a friend of mine lent me “Eat Pray Love,” a memoir about a woman who spent a year traveling across Italy, India and Bali in search of love and balance. The book really hit me. I won’t credit Elizabeth Gilbert with inspiring me to travel, but instead, I found an intensely familiar voice with whom I could relate. Though Elizabeth Gilbert was in her early 30s and overcoming a messy divorce, her outlook on the world, her passions and her struggles felt so close to mine, and I felt a real connection with her.

So when I decided to move to Southeast Asia, Bali quickly neared the top of my list of places to see before I returned home. Bali was what inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to take her journey in the first place, an island she described as an exotic, enchanting paradise where everyone is joyful and at peace. If Liz loves it, I’ll love it, right?

But during the six days I spent on the Indonesian island, “balanced” and “peaceful” were not the words I would have used to describe my time there. I’m still not sure why, but something about the island really threw me off. Though beautiful, Bali is EXTREMELY touristy, and often quite obnoxiously so. Hotspots Ubud and Kuta, where we spent most of our time, are completely commercialized and you can’t walk more than two feet without being harassed by someone offering you a massage or a taxi (most of the “taxis” aren’t authorized, just random locals looking to make money by driving tourists around). Every other day I was either completely hating or completely loving the place and constantly feeling like I never quite had a grip on things.

Perhaps the deportation of a fellow traveler and my own near deportation set the tone for the rest of the week.

Before making the trip, I had read in Wikitravel that you need at least two empty pages in your passport for the Indonesian visa on arrival. Though my passport is nearly full at this point, I still had the back flap and its opposing page blank, and since the Indonesian visa is relatively small, I figured I’d be ok. So as I stood at the immigration counter, bright-eyed, energetic, looking forward to “paradise,” imagine my surprise when the creepy immigration officers pulled me into the detention room to tell me they needed to send me back to Malaysia to apply for a new passport. WTF?!

They insisted that the remaining “Amendments and Endorsements” page in my American passport was not suitable for a visa (though an “Amendments and Endorsements” page had been good enough for a Vietnam visa…) and that I could simply go back to Malaysia, apply for a new passport and come back. No big deal, right?  Since I had read that section of Wikipedia, I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth or not. However, since I had also read “Eat Pray Love,” I knew they were corrupt. After all the planning and anticipation and standing on the brink of paradise, I was not about to go back. So I asked them if there was anything I could do to change their minds…

The immigration officer then asked me, “If I let you through, what will you do to show me your appreciation?”

SAY WHAT?!  I couldn’t believe I was being asked for sexual favors to get into a country!

Though completely disgusted, I asked very calmly how much it would cost for me to stay in Bali, making it very clear the only “appreciation” I would be showing him was in monetary terms. After some negotiation, I agreed to pay him $150 to let me stay.

After that little transaction, I felt kind of dirty, though partially grateful I could buy my way into a country if my passport really wasn’t valid, and I just wanted to get of there. It wasn’t until I found out my Malaysian Chinese friend Dick had also been detained, that I got really pissed off.

As a Malaysian, Dick didn’t need a visa to get into Indonesia. However, since his passport had accidentally been through the washing machine, the immigration officials said it wasn’t valid (side note: the washed up passport had been good enough to get into Singapore on a previous occasion). His options were to go back home to get a new one or pay a bribe to stay. Though Dick wanted to return on principle, I urged him to just pay the $150 to stay since we had already made plans for the week. When he went to ask to pay, they told him it would cost $300! When he asked for a lower price in Bahasa (The Malay and Indonesian languages are very similar), the official promptly responded in English, “This is not a market, sir!”

So Dick went back to Malaysia, and our week started with one man down. :(. Welcome to Indonesia.