Oh, hello there. Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything and no, we didn’t fall off the face of Batu Ferrenghi although I have been counting down the number of days left until we leave Malaysia and move to Thailand. (It’s 94). Having now learned what we’ll need to get non-tourist visas to Thailand and making enough new contacts to get an appointment at a Thai bank, we’ve been focusing our attention on the most important event of spring. No, not Songkran; the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Understanding many readers outside North America and northern Europe might be unfamiliar with the annual eight week ritual that sees 16 teams competing for the greatest professional sports trophy in the world, let me clarify. Canadians (and a small select group of awesome Americans) love hockey more than almost anything (except maybe beer). Easily the hardest championship to win, it takes four grueling “best of seven” rounds before players earn the right hoist the 34.5 pound cup overhead and crazed fans like us get, well, nothing really, other than bragging rights to rival fans.
Thanks to the internet and a little help from the earth’s curvature, all the playoff games start for us between 7 AM and 10:30 AM making almost every morning a breakfast time ritual for the next eight weeks. Alas, even we need a break from hockey sometimes and it’s my birthday this month so we decided on a short trip to Bali during the last week of the National Hockey League’s regular season. Wishing not to spend too much money, we decided on a five night package deal at a boutique beach resort in the relatively hip but not overtly loud town of Legian. Some readers may recall the problem we ran into when we first booked the deal. Realizing most things that seem too good to be true usually are, they offered the seemingly ridiculous hotel price of $116 a night during a unique Balinese holiday called Nyepi. Celebrating Hindu New Year unlike anywhere else on the planet, it’s known as “The day of silence” which means guests are not allowed to leave the resort and all work ceases for an entire day. Unwilling to waste precious time, we rebooked the dates, paid an exorbitant sum to Air Asia for change fees and went one week later. Naturally, there was yet another religious holiday called Galungan and it fell right smack on the day we slated for island exploration.
Celebrating the victory of dharma over adharma, Galungan marks the time when the ancestral spirits visit the Earth. Like Chinese New Year, Hindu holidays ignore modern society’s economic demands and take multiple days until they finally end. The last day of the celebration is Kuningan, when the spirits return. They calculate the day according to the 210-day Balinese calendar. It’s just like Diwali, celebrated by Hindus in other parts of the world. Not quite as disruptive as Nyepi, this holiday period also presents challenges to the tourism industry as it’s marked by large processions of locals walking down the island’s two lane main roads. Believing that spirits of deceased relatives return to their former homes, current inhabitants make offerings and pray. Constructing large bamboo poles called penjors with offerings at the end all over the island, they’re placed at the side of the road. Noticing people making them everywhere the night before the holiday, they made interesting sights and we used the lengthy traffic delays as an opportunity to appreciate the unique cultural celebration.
Unlike other trips we’ve taken since our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment began, I neglected my official tour guide and researcher’s job and basically did the bare minimum needed for four days of fun. Surprisingly different from what I expected, here’s a quick primer on Bali. For seasoned Southeast Asian travelers, the first thing you’ll notice as you drive from the airport to whatever area you’ve chosen is that it looks a lot like Southern California. Lacking any real “developing nation” charm, you pass every American restaurant chain and shopping outlet from Bubba Gump’s to Prada as you meander through Kuta. The closest town to the airport, it’s party central and filed with bars, clubs, nightlife, shopping and restaurants and looks more like Santa Monica than Indonesia. Easily seeing why so many westerners love the island and unlike other Southeast Asian gems we visited like Siem Reap, Bali offers an array of neighborhoods all catering to different age groups, nationalities and vacation preferences.
After absorbing the Californication of Kuta, our taxi meandered into the next town heading north which is Legian. Unofficially classified as Little Australia, Bali is a short plane ride away from the giant island continent and this town is where many of them call their second home. Unlike Kuta, however, Legian attracts a more mature crowd and although there’s countless small bars and restaurants offering excellent live music, you’ll find artists singing acoustic versions of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and The Beatles instead of blasting whatever kind of obnoxiously loud club music the 20-something college crowd prefers these days. Perfect for people like us who consider ourselves younger at heart than our ages but well past our partying days, we stayed at Bali Niksoma Boutique Beach Resort. A four star hotel offering excellent service, relatively large and comfortable rooms and five-star dining at Hitana, their on site restaurant, it quickly became one of my favorite boutique hotels that we’ve stayed at in all of Southeast Asia. Greeting us at 8:30 PM with welcome drinks, a cool towel and a very professional staff member named Fabi, we told him our very limited suggestions about two potential day trips and he arranged transportation while we headed to our 9 PM dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant.
Had I put as much effort into this trip as our fascinating three-week jaunt through Myanmar or last year’s ten-day trip to Cambodia, I might have opted to stay further north in Seminyak. Noted for an older crowd, you’ll find families, well established workers in late career stages, retirees and artsy-fartsies. Even further north is Canggu which is where you’ll find throngs of American and French expats that prefer life among their fellow compatriots. Offering delicious burgers with real bacon excellent surfing, they call it the place for hipsters but we’ve found there’s an enormous cultural difference between Americans, Australians and English-speaking Europeans so keep that in mind when gauging your vacation neighbors.
Further inland is the quaint town of Ubud which is overflowing with art galleries, crafts shops and small businesses more suited to backpackers, cultural lovers and budget conscious travelers that like homestays (hospitality and lodging places where visitors stay in a house or apartment of a local of the city to which they are traveling.) With narrow winding roads, yoga studios galore and vegetarian food everywhere you look, it reminded me of driving through Marin County, California and as I said before, if you’re coming to Bali looking for a taste of real Southeast Asia, this isn’t it. Easily my favorite attraction near Ubud, The Monkey Forest offers one of the best controlled environments for feeding and observing long-tailed macaques anywhere in Southeast Asia. Those familiar with my blog know I spend most afternoons killing the boredom and monotony of life in Malaysia’s dumpy beach town hanging out with urban wild monkeys and I highly recommend a visit if you love monkeys as much as I do. For a small fee you can feed them bananas but be warned they sometimes get aggressive so please don’t taunt them.
Global warming notwithstanding, the weather in Bali plays an important role in your enjoyment. Generally speaking, most Southeast Asian destinations have three tourist seasons. Always avoiding large crowds, ripoff prices and busy restaurants, we never go anywhere in high season. Depending on how hot a country is, high season can be cool and dry with lots of sunshine (Cambodia, northern Thailand) or simply hot and dry (Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia). Excluding Malaysia with its strange blend of no real wet or dry times, low season is almost always rainy season and although tropical environments rarely ruin an entire day, you’re risking that once in a while five-day downpour which makes beaches and mountain trails useless. Thankfully, may areas have a “shoulder” or “mid-season” and that’s what we prefer. Typically defined by some periods of rain but often limited to late afternoon and evening, prices are usually reasonable, beaches are not crowded, resorts are 30 to 50% full and we’re not usually disappointed.
Having said that, Bali is famous for sunsets. Enjoying bar-b-q seafood feasts on the beaches of Jimbaran, a town southwest of the others featuring beautiful cliff lined shores, dinner on the beach is a must-do event even for short visits. Sadly, while the day we chose to venture out to the cliffs did feature a spectacular early afternoon, the clouds quickly came along with a thirty minute heavy downpour and then cleared into more of a cloud-set than a sunset. Having seen hundreds of sunsets from our balcony in Penang that rival postcards of Hawaii, we came for the food anyway and when you come two months before peak season you get first class service with no reservations required. Also the town with the five-star luxury resorts like Intercontinental and Four Seasons, we recommend bypassing the almost exclusively wealthy Chinese crowd and heading to the beach for a stroll and some incredibly priced delicious seafood.
Pay little attention to those ridiculous articles you see on sites like Matador and International Living touting the beauty of things that’s often a gross exaggeration. For example, I just stumbled across one of those annual “ten best retirement place” articles where once again they rank Malaysia number six. While I won’t dispute the relatively low-cost of living and abundant shopping in Kuala Lumpur, the guy who wrote the blurb put it this way:
“The food is not just first class, but world-class — and the shopping in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, where I live, is to die for.”
With all due respect, I don’t know what mirror this guy sees life through. Penang is home to one luxury mall filled with designer stuff that the average retiree can’t afford. Almost always empty sans a few rich Chinese tourists, there’s also a toned down version next door and a few other unimpressive places that locals patronize but comparing it to Tokyo, Paris or New York is a stretch at best. Food in Penang is anything but world-class and the tastiest and most famous of it is the same everywhere you go. Found mostly at hawkers stands and food courts, I’m thinking Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t consider five ringgit plates of Char Kway Teow or Chicken Rice among the world’s finest cuisine. And after seeing beach towns done western style, Penang’s main beach drag looks more like a Tanzanian coastal village with its collection of rusted out shanty looking vendor stalls on wheels peddling junk, an eroded beach that nobody goes to except working class locals on holiday weekends and a host of new million dollar high-rise condo projects designed for mainland Chinese and Singaporean investors that would never live in Batu Ferreinghi.
My point is this; there are lots of beautiful and spectacular beaches in Bali but they’re not in Kuta or Legiwan and if you head out towards Uluwatu, you’ll find secluded areas surrounded by cliffs rivaling anything in Malibu or the Australian Coast. About 10 miles from the airport, traffic was bad during the afternoon we went and I imagine in high season it’s gridlocked quite often but it’s well worth your time to stay somewhere in the heart of the shops, bars and restaurants and venture out for a day trip. We found a true gem the known as Suluban Beach on our day trip. There’s a famous temple at Uluwatu that features a famous show called Kecak Fire and Dance but when we went, we found busloads full of annoying loud mainland Chinese tourists and we avoid them at all costs so we opted for a trip to the Bali’s hippest spot to get a drink instead. Located on the grounds of the posh Ayana Resort and Spa, The Rock Bar is worth the trip and off-season is a perfect time to avoid the crowds.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one other notable fact about the beach resorts in Legiwan. Unlike beachfront property, all the hotels are on the other side of the main walking path that parallels the island’s beaches. Fronted by individually owned businesses that rent chaise lounges and sell beer, you’ll need your own towel if you want to spend free time on the beach. While great for jogging, morning strolls and watching the happiest beach dogs you’ll ever see, Bali is a sad reminder of what’s in our oceans. Especially in Southeast Asia where many residents struggle to meet every day expenses, people care little about conservation and governments spend more money building luxury properties than educating their citizens about protecting the environment. So despite what they show you in tourism brochures, below is a more realistic picture of what to expect on the more populous beaches of Bali. Washing up from the ocean daily, the miles of litter illustrate just how badly we’ve damaged our planet.
No, it’s not a pretty picture and while the beach vendors do their best to clean up the area directly in front of their chunk, this picture reminds us all why western nations have federal agencies tasked with keeping the environment clean and habitable for future generations. Sadly, the fraud known as The American president plans on slashing The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget drastically so he can build a “big, beautiful wall” and keep dark-skinned people out of the homeland. Meanwhile, all North American expats living on this side of the globe understand first hand why it’s so important not to de-fund agencies created to protect our resources. Expecting China to become the world leader in environmental regulations because America decided to spend its resources keeping out immigrants and Muslims is simply unreasonable so I’m urging any American citizen reading this to lobby your local congressperson and express outrage over Trump’s ignorant policies that will turn America into a third world nation.
Having now given my political pitch, I’ll share some more pictures from our little vacation and focus another post on the other reason westerners love Bali so much; the food. Disappointed in the small amount of local fare on most menus, Balinese food is a wonderful variation of Malay and Indonesian that you shouldn’t skip but sadly, most tourists are more interested in burgers, pasta and other familiar western food. Take some time to explore the small shops where you’ll see signs for Nasi Campur or try some Bakso (the local meatball soup that Obama tried and loved) from one of the many street vendors. Missing out on the signature Balinese dish because every restaurant told us we need to order 24 hours ahead, next time we’ll have to try Babi Guling (roast suckling pig).
And that’s a quick and very unscientific guide to enjoying a holiday in Bali. The first and last days of our trip surprised me with gray on gray stormy looking skies and no chance of sunny breaks. The rain came furiously when it arrived and sunsets were instead waiting for us back in Penang. But we did get two sunny mornings and partial sun on the two-day trips so it wasn’t a washout. Mostly we used it as a break from the daily grind of boredom that became our life in Penang. Thankfully, we’re getting excited about our move to Thailand where we expect a much more adventuresome early retirement. Recommending Malaysia for it’s MM2H visa program, it was a great way to settle into a Southeast Asian base but two years is more than enough for us and like the Tom Petty song says: “It’s time to move on; time to get going; what lies ahead I have no way of knowing”. OK, it sounds a lot better if you know the song and sing the sentences as song lyrics.
Apologizing for the agonizingly long post, thanks for reading and cheers from Malaysia.