East Bali: Cabs, shipwrecks and an elephant named Boris

Early morning in Ubud, Bali.

With cars driving on the left hand side and motorbikes weaving through the narrow streets, I was hard at work summoning up my courage. We wanted to travel from Ubud to the east coast of Bali. The plan was for me to do the driving.

Finding a vehicle was no problem. Ubud offered a range of cars for hire at great rates. However, a couple issues seemed to nag. First, insurance coverage was a little shady and unclear. Second, although I can drive standard, I wasn’t so eager to do so on my opposite side.

I started reading about renting a car in Bali online and was quickly convinced to seek an alternative. Beyond horrendous roads and driving conditions, several travellers reported troubles with police officers looking for bribes and facing tremendous difficulties with authorities and other drivers if in an accident.

Up bright and early, I went for a stroll along Monkey Forest road (photo above) and made arrangements with the first cab driver I found. In Ubud, the streets are littered with cab drivers sitting on the curb or outside the shops, smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately, as there were few tourists at this time, smoking and sitting would occupy the majority of their time. One cabbie I chatted with told me he hadn’t had a customer in two days.

We headed off to the small seaside town of Pedangbai. Our drive was uneventful. The roads were clear and in good shape. There was just one hiccup. Halfway through our trip we were briefly stopped to make way for traffic. Up ahead, a car was blocking the opposite side of the road next to a police car. As we slowly drove past, the seemingly natural inclination to look at an accident took hold. However, there was no broken glass or damages. The only thing I saw was a European couple about the same age as Sara and I. And they looked scared.

Our driver briefly chatted with the police officer and they exchanged a laugh. We drove off and I asked him what that was about. He held up his hand and rubbed his thumb against his two fingers. “Money,” he said.

I’m glad I took a cab.

Pedangbai was a lovely little place with friendly seafood restaurants and rolling waves providing a soundtrack for the evening. A short stroll over a hill led to a large coral-filled lagoon perfect for snorkling.

We spent a couple days here reading, relaxing, eating fresh fish. Wonderful.

Sara walks along a black sand beach on Bali's far east coast.

Next, we hired another cab to the far east of Bali, an area known as the Amed coast. In 1942, a Japanese torpedo hit the American transport ship the USAT Liberty in the Lombak Strait. Unable to tow the vessel any further, the U.S. navy dragged it up on the east coast of Bali in order to salvage parts and supplies. More than 20 years later, a volcano erupted knocking the ship back into the water where it sits today more than 30 metres deep.

The USAT Liberty is regarded as one of the world’s safest shipwreck divesites. It’s fairly shallow, open and offers lots of coral and aquatic life. It really was quite remarkable. So much so, that we did three dives here – two during the day and one at night.

On our drive from Amed to Ubud.

The next day we travelled back to Ubud with the brother of our diving guide. Rather than the direct route, we asked to go through the volcanoes and hills past lush jungle and small villages with temples and statues. We stopped to enjoy the scenary (just missing the rain behind us) and also at a fruit plantation where we had a sample of some of the most expensive coffee in the world, the kopi luwak. Sold at around $75 for a 200g bag, these beans are harvested from the feces of the civet, a cat-like animal that allegedly only eats the very best coffee and then adds to the flavour through digestion. In the end, the coffee tasted like shit. Kidding.

Back in Ubud, we had long talked about an elephant tour while in Asia. With our time sadly coming to an end, we found an elephant sanctuary near Ubud that apparently treated its animals well and the two of us headed off on a tour through the bush with our new friend Boris.

Less than two days later we would be in Australia.

Insulting the spirits in Bali

I don’t go out of my way to stomp on religious offerings. But sometimes it just happens.

Every day on the island of Bali small flower baskets are laid out on the street as a token of good faith to the friendly spirits that inhabit the land and a token of respect to those who could do this land harm. These small offerings are filled with brightly coloured tropical petals and swirl with smoke from burning incense.

They’re everywhere in Bali. On the ground in front of shops, at the feet of statues and inside little temples that seem to be on every block. They’re replenished each morning by women balancing a large basket on their heads filled with these small offerings. They carefully set the flowers down, close their eyes and say a small prayer.

And I stomp all over it.

Of course, I don’t intend to do this. Incurring the wrath of the Hindu gods is the last thing I want while travelling. Yet, walking along on the streets of Kuta or Ubud and chatting with Sara, I would suddenly look down and realize I stepped on one of these flower baskets. Upon realizing this, I would try to jump off, but end up just smearing the petals across the sidewalk instead.

Perhaps Bali is no place for me.

One of the big question marks of our trip was how we would actually get to Australia. Eventually, we needed to clear this up. The general plan was to travel south through Thailand to Malaysia, spend a few days in Kuala Lampur, then travel to Singapore and onwards to Cairns, Australia.

It seemed fairly easy except there’s a bit of a terrorist threat in Southern Thailand that had a nasty habit of targeting the occasional tourist. Yet, we felt fairly confident we would be fine.

It was the afternoon after the Full Moon Party, Sara was reading a book on a hammock and I was looking for travel deals online. Outside our porch it was pouring rain and we were pretty much stuck. I checked my email and noticed a small web banner ad from AirAsia advertising a flight from Phuket, Thailand to Bali for $75 per person.

Yes please.

A couple hours later, we booked two flights. The first from Thailand to Bali and the second from Bali to Cairns nine days later.

It’s a theme that’s repeated across southeast Asia. It’s on t-shirts, ads and written in chalk or spraypaint on bar walls: “Same same but different.” Indeed, every country we visited in this region was similar, but cultures and foods varied. Such was the case in Bali. Same same but different.

As mentioned, this Indonesian island is Hindu, unlike the Muslim country that surrounds it and Buddist leanings from neighbours to the north. This aspect sets Bali apart and gives it a charm that radiates from unique sculptures, carvings and statues.

People seem to flock here seeking a spiritual retreat. An embrace with a foreign spirit. Their own Julia Roberts moment from Eat, Pray, Love.

It is a very pretty place, even more so when you leave the bars full of drunk Aussies or the touristy centres selling touristy paraphernalia.

We began our trip in the beach town of Kuta. As Bali is so close to Australia, this is a major partytown for those from the land downunder. Sadly, this was also the location where more than 200 partygoers lost their lives in a terrorist attack nearly a decade ago. Bali’s tourist industry (an important economic engine for this region) is still recovering from this deadly attack.

After watching a beautiful sunset (above), we ate a dull meal (avoiding the “super happy mushroom pizza”) and retired in an incredibly mosquito filled room. Bugs had not really been a major problem on our trip, but for a night in Kuta we bathed in mozzie spray and left bug incense burning in our room as we went to sleep petrified of the malaria/dengue-laden bastards.

The next day a shuttle bus arrived 45 minutes late (“same same”) to take us to the town of Ubud. Popularized by Ms. Roberts, Sara described it best saying it was the ultimate destination for our mothers. If you’re looking to shop for art, neat little statues or other pretty things, Ubud is your place. There’s also some fancy spas and good restaurants geared towards the tourist crowd.

One of the most exciting places to visit in Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest. As the name implies, this temple sanctuary is filled with monkeys. When I say “filled,” I mean filled. These things are everywhere. It’s exciting because you’re constantly on edge thinking one of these creatures will jump on your back or stand on your head. At the same time, it’s pretty funny to watch this happen to someone else. Nevertheless, walking here I constantly think of one of these cute lil scampers lunging its jaws in my leg and humanity having to be saved by Dustin Hoffman.

The nice thing about Ubud is that you can quickly leave it and stroll through quaint rice fields and paths. And so this is what my lovely wife and I did, hiking for 14 kilometres outside the town, returning just as a rainy season downpour hit, sending us scurrying into a bar and washing the flowers on the sidewalk into the gutter.