Four years ago I’d never been to Bali, and now I’ve been there three times. It has become something of a habit – either as a destination in itself or a stepping stone into Asia and beyond. At only six hours from Sydney, the flight is just short enough to feel smooth and easy. So short in fact, that I ran out of time to enjoy the various entertainments I brought along to pass the time. That’s a good thing, I suppose.
This was the rainiest holiday I’ve ever had. We knew it was the wet season and had both brought collapsible umbrellas, but this was the rainiest rainy season I’ve ever encountered. Rather than the regulation afternoon downpour, which did characterise the first few days, towards the second half of the week it rained pretty hard most of the time. Fortunately, I love rain, and only once did it prove to be a real nuisance – when we found ourselves without a hotel in Candikuning. The rest of the time, it was wonderfully atmospheric; drumming on roofs, bonnets and brollies, slicking the abundant lush foliage, and pleasantly cooling the air with fresh scents.
I don’t intend to go through this holiday in step by step detail, but rather cover the basics and toss in a few anecdotes. We flew into Denpasar as per usual and were picked up by a driver to take us up into the hills around Munduk, where we spent the first two nights.
On the second night in Munduk, we stayed in the very same place my brother and I had stayed in four and a half years ago, which was surprisingly nostalgic (actually, not surprising considering I’m the most hopelessly nostalgic person I know).
From there we took a drive north west to Pemuteran, a coastal strip along black, volcanic beaches, where we assiduously avoided requests to partake in “activities.” Pemuteran offered up an interesting palette, with emerald green escarpments interrupted by patches of black volcanic cliff; black sand soft as soil on a beach strewn with orange and peach-coloured flowers not unlike hibiscus.
A green onion-domed mosque, young, immaculate cows amidst the blue and green outriggers beached along the bay, conical Javanese volcanoes on the horizon, all from the safe oasis of another beautiful, luxurious, indecently cheap resort, redolent with that curious blend of homeliness, perfection and transient soullessness.
From Pemuteran, we drove to the Jatiluwih ricefields – a heritage protected area of rice terraces which have been in constant production for hundreds of years. The rain eased off to a mere sprinkle for the hour or so we spent walking around this beautiful place. It was especially attractive under the stormy skies, with filtered sunlight adding luminescence to the red rice crops.
From hereon the rain set in with real fury. We drove on through the downpour to Candikuning, where, at the height of the storm, we found out the hard way that the hotels we had in mind were all full. We bid our driver farewell, not wishing to inconvenience him further, and plunged into the rain and rivulet streets to see two awful musty hotels, whose abject cheapness was never going to be a good enough sell. This business, sloshing through a magnificently derelict road, shin-deep in water, brought us into contact with a most insufferable tout who at first seemed just irritatingly cheerful and assertive. He showed us to a dirty, musty room and so assumed we were going to take it upon showing it to us, that he was quite thrown when we indicated otherwise. We told him very politely, somewhat bemused, that we didn’t need his help, but he followed us all the same, hurling out offers. At first it was almost funny, but soon became rather tiresome. People in Bali, with the exception of some heavily touristed areas, are not usually so persistent, so it seemed out of place in this dead town. He also wearing a Soeharto tee-shirt, which didn’t exactly enamour me towards him. For some reason, I suspected he was from Java.
We got away and wandered into the market, where we downed umbrellas and sat in the local warung. We thought we were in the clear until our pursuer appeared again and sat at our table uninvited! Here he persisted in hurling constant, annoying questions about where we were from, what we were doing, which services we needed and the like, which we chose increasingly to ignore. Indeed, he only left when the owners, who clearly couldn’t stand him either – no doubt he had a reputation for acting like a big shot – asked him if he intended to order something, and when we began, quite simply to ignore him completely and pretend not to hear his words. A message for all touts out there – if you have no empathy with potential customers and don’t know when you’ve pissed people off to the point that they can’t stand you and are forced to pretend you’re not actually there, you should not be in the business of customer relations. The food in the warung, incidentally, was bloody amazing.
We organised a driver with some far more congenial and amusing locals, who had a much better idea of how touting can be done in an amusing and entertaining way. They were trying to sell me watches, but were good humoured enough to make fun of how “genuine” their watches were, and laughingly told me they would last a hundred years. He even used the term “100% pure plastic”, which warmed my heart.
We had said at the start of the trip that we would try to avoid going to Ubud and see other parts of the island instead, but stuck in Candikuning without a hotel and unsure where to go next, we figured Ubud, which we do rather like, would be a pretty nice lay-up in the rainy weather. So, two hours south with a couple of local stoners in the front, brought us to the Honeymoon Guesthouse. Like almost all hotels in Ubud, and indeed, Bali, this place was astonishingly beautiful. We chose the most expensive room, which was a mere sixty dollars, and was, like so many rooms in Bali, actually a suite with a huge terrace balcony and epic bathroom. The local architectural style, so old-world Asia, all stone and carved wood, bamboo blinds, four-poster mosquito net king sized bed, polished flagstone floors, high, pointed roof of wood and thatch, no ceiling, surrounded by lush gardens, dripping with rain. I went onto the balcony and spent the next five minutes in reverie, for this was my long yearned-for favourite melancholy mood made real.
Ever since I was a child, all I’ve wanted is to be inside, looking out upon rain falling on plants, ideally in a jade green, evocative and beautiful place, with nothing to do at all, free to indulge a mood of nostalgia or fantastical escapism. Fed fatly on the fantasy genre, be it through role-playing games or literature, I longed for these worlds, which, somehow, I always imagined to be rainy. There’s something so compelling about rain – how it quietens sound with its pleasant rush and drum, how it smells so fresh and refreshing, how, in the often dull light it causes everything to wetly glisten. On that balcony, with its high outlook into trees and flowering shrubs, and views of the other hotel buildings – imposing, yet homely stone, elaborate wooden features, hanging screens – I felt such intense repose that I wanted to curl up on the divan and never say another word for the rest of my life. Someone had bottled the heart-wrenching sadness of Crouching Tiger’s lush and dreamy aesthetic.
Then, however, there were the frogs. The block adjacent to our room was vacant and overgrown – banana trees entirely covered with creeper, just a few propeller-blade leaves poked from the clambering carpet – and it was full of loudly belching frogs.
The man who showed us to our room initially laughed them off. “Ha, the frogs,” he said. “Because of the rain.” We rather figured they would stop croaking at some point – surely they couldn’t go all night? Yet when we returned from dinner later (a smashing meal at Casa Luna, the Honeymoon’s celebrity-chef restaurant a few hundred metres walk away), the frogs were going harder than ever.
Now, it might seem ridiculous that frogs could be so loud as to drive you from your room, but there were so many of them and they must have had some real mother air-sacks in their throats, because the sound they produced, even with the doors and windows shut, was like having a group of men in the room, cupping their hands and clapping as loudly and resonantly as possible. Or, for that matter, a gang of drunken young men burping into megaphones. In ten minutes, I had a headache and couldn’t hear myself think. Sleep in that room was out of the question, so we had to toddle off down to reception and, after looking at three other rooms, move house, so to speak. I felt very sad to leave our perfect room, yet we moved into the very one I’d been looking across the balcony to, and it, though not as absolutely perfect as the first, was still, let’s face it, borderline perfect.
From no plans to visit Ubud, we spent three nights there. Partly because we didn’t feel like doing another journey after a bunch of longish drives over the last few days, but ultimately because I got sick. For the first time, I was struck with Bali belly, as it’s called, and spent a couple of days feeling weak and on the toilet. This wasn’t so bad in the end, because I didn’t really want to leave my amazing hotel room which also had a huge terrace “balcony” with divans on which to lie. I went to the local book store, bought a copy of The Life of Pi, hurried home before I pooed my pants, and spent the rest of the day lying on the divan reading. I’ve written elsewhere of how, when I had a similar stomach problem in India, I spent two days reading in a gorgeous room in Pushkar, and this was an equally lovely experience.
When we finally left Ubud, the rain had set in permanently. We took a car all the way down to the Bukit Peninsula, where we had to wait three hours for our room to be ready, despite their assurances that arriving early was no problem, got jacked off, told them to forget it, walked down treacherous stairs to Bingin beach, sat a while under shelter from the rain watching the cranky surf, then went and found another hotel, checked in, found the bed to be too musty, checked out, grabbed a car and told the driver to take us to Balangan beach, totally on spec. Through bucketing, piss-down rain, past the basket-wrapped corpse of a lorry driver from Flores, who had tragically fallen foul of the treacherous weather, our driver took us to a bloody splendid place – another “perfect” resort, La Joya, with gorgeous “bungalows”. The inverted commas are appropriate here, because traditionally bungalows don’t have epic sliding walls of rounded glass, nor a “lovers corner” of plumped cushions tucked behind curtains, just to the side of the requisite four-poster…
This again offered a sweet, melancholic reading retreat. It rained almost the whole time, and when we went to the beach, it was wonderfully apocalyptic. Indeed, I’ve never seen a beach so covered in drift-wood and detritus, fronted by stilted shacks beneath whose raised floors, the relentless, stormy ocean had eaten away most of the sand, and dangerously exposed the foundations. Driftwood, erosion, shambling shacks. It was like the aftermath off a tsunami, only the buildings were still standing. The churning water was full of soil washing down in the river that cut between the shacks. It roiled in the surf; brown water and soiled waves beneath the alienating sky; an uncomfortable colour, a sickly pallor, the decay of the end of days.
We took our fourth massage the following morning – the most hardcore of them all, which left me somewhat sore, and that was rather that. Paid an extra half-day at the hotel, chilled and swam and read all day, then took an early evening car to the airport for a late flight to arrive home Christmas morning.
All in all, a good break – a last minute, unambitious holiday where, for the first time ever, I had absolutely no goals, no targets, nothing. Indeed, the motivation was simply that it seemed crazy to have time off work and not go overseas. Equally unambitious were my photographic efforts. Point and shoot, stab and click, but not much attention to detail. Well, the results show this – some nice atmospherics, but nothing striking, and really, I’m okay with that.
Next time, the sniper is back in charge.