After so many weeks on the road in a campervan, our plan for our first few days in Bali was just to stay in one place with enough space to have some time apart from each other when wanted, and to adjust to the different culture and different pace of life. We decided to start our time at Balangan beach where we found some lovely ‘bungalows’ (huts with 2 floors) around a fantastic pool, with an on-site bar, restaurant and pool table, all for about the same price as a powered campervan pitch had been in New Zealand. We arrived very late at night- although our plane landed at 9.00, it took a while to get through immigration as I hadn’t realised we would need our boarding cards to get in (i’ve never been asked for these anywhere else before), and having used mine to score a game of cards with Jago on the flight I had left it behind on the plane. After the official talking for about 10 minutes about how serious this was, he finally asked for a $10 sweetener and let me in. Welcome to Bali! We couldn’t take in much on our journey from the airport, but the roads full of stationary cars and mopeds travelling 5 abreast, often with a family of 4 astride, coupled with the fact that noone stops when joining a new road, they just drive straight on and assume whoever is there will slow down and let them in, was quite an experience! Despite Balangan only being about 20km from the airport, the journey took well over an hour due to the terrible traffic, and the driver not knowing where our accommodation was. After stopping and asking in several places it turned out that the 5km long road was numbered from both ends, and we needed no.2 at the other end from where he had brought us. We were extremely relieved to arrive at 11pm, and it was a wonderful novelty to be able to go out and have a drink and a game of pool after putting the kids to bed. It feels like a very long time since we’ve been ‘out’ by ourselves in the evening!
On Thursday and Friday we just stayed around Balangan, not venturing any further than the beach. This is meant to be one of the best surfing spots in Bali, and we had expected the place to be busy, but the effects of Mount Agung on the local tourism were immediately visible as the sea, the hotel and all the warungs (local name for a cafe or restaurant) were extremely quiet. As well as noticing how empty it was, the kids seemed shocked by the huge quantity of litter on the beach too. The sea was beautifully clear, but spoiled by all the plastic bags, old toothbrushes, flip flops and floating bottles as well as masses of dead wood and seaweed, presumably washed out from the beach where the rubbish had been organised into piles intermittently, but not removed. After the beautiful beaches in Australia and New Zealand it was so sad to see what was potentially a stunning white sand beach with crystal clear water looking so uncared for. We also had our first experience of monsoon rain, having set off to the beach whilst it was sunny, only to have the heavens open on us as we reached the beach. By the time we had finished eating lunch in a local warung where we sought shelter, the sun was back out again and we were able to carry on with our day. Although the downpours are very heavy, it remains warm, and none of us seem to mind getting wet much- especially if it lowers the overall temperature a bit! The other thing that everyone noticed early on were the offerings all over the place, comprising a square bamboo basket filled with assortments of flowers, grass and food and accompanied by incense sticks. These seem to be placed around the home and on the pavement at least 4 or 5 times a day. It was interesting to start thinking about other religions and to see how Hinduism is such a strong part of Balinese culture, incorporated so strongly into their daily living.
We decided to venture north to Kuta on Saturday, to fit in some shopping before Christmas. Having heard awful things about Kuta, we were interested to see the impact of tourism here, safe in the knowledge that we would only be here for a few hours! We successfully managed to negotiate a reasonable price for a driver for the day, and set off early with a shopping list of present requests- mostly new sunglasses, light clothing, new swimming costumes and sweets. As we neared Kuta there was little to be seen except for loads of traffic, garish bars and restaurants, large hotels and shops with no sign of any of the laid back Balinese culture that we had found in Balangan. Our driver dropped us off at one of the shopping malls where we were slightly surprised (perhaps naively) to find everything at western prices, and decided to head over to the market to see if there were any deals to be had. The kids had their first experience of people shouting out as we walked down the street, ‘taxi’, ‘come and look in my shop’, ‘look at my hats/sunglasses/shirts’ etc. None of us really like all that attention and pressure on us, and although I quite enjoy a bit of haggling I was reminded again how much I prefer the western style of shopping where you are left to your own devices, can take as long as you like, and have no pressure to buy. We managed to pick up some boardshorts for Jago and a dress for Cara before we couldn’t face it any longer! At that point we had a bit of light relief as the incessant traffic suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced with bright colours and music as a temple procession made their way down the main street. It was wonderful to watch, and was just about the only redeeming feature of Kuta. A moment of calm before all the traffic and hassle resumed again. We finished up in a department store which I found incredibly frustrating! You are given a ticket for everything you want to buy and it is taken by the staff in your particular section to their particular check out, with the result that you need to pick up your hat, children’s sunglasses, and trousers all at different tills and pay for each item separately. Shopping here was definitely a more difficult and stressful experience than at home, and by lunchtime all of us except Ben were thoroughly fed up and in need of a change of scene! After filling the kids up with cheap western rubbish food, we decided to treat ourselves to a special lunch at Jimbaran beach, famous for its seafood, before heading back to Balangan. As the wind was picking up, we couldn’t sit outdoors but once again I was slightly disappointed by the beach, professed by the guide book to be one of the most beautiful in Bali. Yet again there were large piles of rubbish, which were being raked away from the tourist restaurants up to the far end of the beach where the locals were hanging out, seemingly to put on a facade of a clean, perfect beach by the time the tourbuses arrive for sunset. We had a veritable feast of lobster, prawns, fish and calamari which was delicious but we certainly paid for it! Jimbaran felt very inauthentic and I wasn’t very comfortable with what we saw. After a walk along the beach after lunch, we decided to return along the road and it was clear that the vast majority of tourists don’t make it even 20 yards away from the restaurants and views, as the road itself comprised little more than local stalls and Bakso carts, and when we stopped to buy a bottle of water the woman running it had to check how much to charge a tourist, and then struggled to find change for a 20,000 note (about £1) despite running around a few other places, eventually solved by us buying 3 bottles instead! It was interesting to see the tourist face of Bali, but it did feel that the huge sum of money coming in to this area was all going to these well established, presumably not locally-owned restaurants, and that apart from providing local employment, very little was filtering its way even to the adjacent strip. It was difficult to see this face of tourism where visitors arrive for a ‘show’ of perfection, without venturing in to the wider community, and I was pleased to return to our quiet resort that evening for our final night in Balangan beach.
Sunday was Christmas Eve! After nearly 3 months on the road, we had booked a private villa for 3 days to celebrate in style at the cool Bingin beach, just a bit further down the coast of the Bukit peninsula. Having got a driver to take us to our new accommodation, we decided to take advantage of the ride to visit Ulu Watu temple, an important Hindu temple perched high on the edge of a sheer cliff with the waves crashing below. It was a busy site with active worship taking place inside and many people arriving in beautiful sarongs with offerings, as well as hundreds of tourists, mostly visiting from Java. It was an amazing location for a temple and I could easily appreciate how spiritual this place would feel inside on the point of the headland- however we couldn’t actually see much of the temple itself as it was only accessible for active worship. We had a nice walk around the surrounding area in borrowed sarongs, with lots of tourists asking to ‘do a selfie’ with us, particularly Cara- at times it felt like we were the main tourist attraction here. For us, most of our attention was taken up by the hoards of monkeys loitering with intent. Seriously naughty monkeys, they had snatched glasses off people’s faces which they were sitting nonchalantly chewing and breaking apart. Goodness knows what else they had grabbed from the passers by! We had removed our hats, earrings, glasses and cameras before entering the site but were still nervous of the bigger monkeys eyeing us up. Despite this, the small ones were pretty cute. I was quite relieved when we escaped the site having avoided any monkey attacks.
We arrived at our villa at lunchtime and were warmly greeted by our staff who were there to cook breakfast and lunch for us as well as keep the place clean. It was so wonderful to have a clean house with so much space, comfortable beds, hot water for unlimited tea and coffee, a swimming pool and garden. A wonderful Christmas treat! We settled in and headed down the uneven steps to Bingin beach late afternoon- much cleaner than the other beaches we have visited here with lovely soft sand but not great for playing in the sea as the powerful waves crash hard onto a rocky shore. We had fun making Christmas themed sand creations and swimming, although with all the dogs around it wasn’t long before Father Christmas was destroyed. We tried our first freshly barbequed corn on the cob which you can find everywhere you go (delicious) and had a nice dinner in one of the beach warungs before heading back to the house. Bingin beach felt really relaxed and laid back, a lovely place to hang out for Christmas. The villa had been decorated by the staff with a couple of small Christmas trees and some ‘Merry Christmas’ bunting, so we made a Christmassy corner and hung up our makeshift stockings (mosquito net bags), put out a Bintang for Father Christmas and a dragon fruit for Rudolph and watched ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ on YouTube before bed. Despite it being so different to normal, we still managed to make it feel a little bit Christmassy and the kids all went to bed very excited about what tomorrow might bring.