This will be my last post from the road, as I am flying back home early tomorrow morning.

The end of my Balinese sojourn

I spent the first part of the week in Ubud, with life continuing much as it had last week: breakfast at my guesthouse, cappuccino at Casa Luna, a little walking around until the heat got too much and made me retreat back to my air conditioned room.

The temperature was about 31-32C every day with between 60-80% humidity and a burning equatorial sun (Bali is very near the equator). The late afternoon often brought heavy rain which was usually over by early evening.

On Sunday I had dinner at Casa Luna where a jazz quartet was performing. I figured this would provide a good break from gamelan music. The musicians, all Indonesians, were surprisingly good for an island with no jazz tradition (as far as I know). The food was a little overpriced, but since there was no cover, that seemed fair.

I also attended a few more traditional dance and gamelan performances, taking care to arrive early in order to have a front row seat for better photos and videos. On Monday night, I met Séverine, a French woman and photographer who snatched the seat next to mine (front row of course) after I beat her to my seat by about two seconds! We ended up going for a beer and chatting afterwards. (The local beer here is called Bintang and sells for $2- $3 in restaurants.)

I also got another massage (half hour – back and shoulders only) and a great facial at a spa called Venezia near the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. (The Sanctuary is one of the main tourist attractions in Ubud, but since I hate monkeys, I gave it a pass.) I wish I had more massages and beauty treatments given how ridiculously low the prices were: $7 for a one-hour full body massage, $5 for a half-hour back/shoulder massage, and $10 for a one-hour facial. These prices are about a tenth of what these treatments would cost in Canada.

On Tuesday, I ran into Séverine again at Casa Luna (not a complete coincidence since we had been e-mailing each other) and together we went to visit the Puri Lukisan Museum, displaying Balinese paintings and sculptures from the 17th century to today. Unfortunately it wasn’t air-conditioned.

I spent Wednesday running a few errands and generally getting ready for my flight out and another change of countries: back to Thailand once again. Atypically, I woke up Thursday morning to grey skies and pouring rains. For the past 9 days, mornings had always been sunny. I was hoping this wouldn’t delay my taxi, but no, there he was right on time at 8:00 am and I was at the airport by 9:30. Not cheap at $25, but there was no other option really, as the first bus wasn’t until 9:00 am.

Bali now and then – a few impressions

Of course I couldn’t help comparing my experience this time with my memories of 19 years ago, when I fell in love with the place.

As mentioned before, Ubud now seemed busier with more traffic, more shops and restaurants, more spas, and more upscale options. This wasn’t too much of a surprise. I think what disappointed me the most was how the locals now barely acknowledged my “selamat pagi” (good morning) and “terima kasi” (thank you) and tended to just greet me and answer me in English, as if to say “why even bother with this tourist who obviously only knows a couple of words in Indonesian?”. Everybody was smiling and friendly, but I definitely felt like the outsider that I was.

I also noticed less people wearing traditional garments (outside of ceremonies) and those women carrying trays piled high with fruits on their heads while wearing their sarongs were nowhere to be seen. I did however see plenty of women dressed in T-shirts carrying stuff to sell, or even bowls of dirt on their heads. Not as charming to be sure.

I also didn’t remember guys calling out “Taxi?” every 20 meters. And being ripped off by fruit sellers seemed particularly vexing. (I tried buying fruits a second time from a different seller, and she tried ripping me off too!)

Would I still recommend Bali as a destination? Yes, I would, especially if this is your first trip, as the culture, architecture and religion (a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism) are quite unlike anything else in the world, and the lush green landscapes are lovely. Even from a purely hedonistic point of view (food, music, massage), you can get your fill here. But it definitely seems to have lost some of its earlier innocence and “purity”.

Back in Bangkok

Ever since I left Bangkok in early December I had been avoiding the city (only transiting through the Don Mueang airport) due to the continuing protests and political instability. No choice now however, as my flight home departs from here. Fortunately, my guesthouse is far from the (now few) protest sites, and I’ve been able to avoid any trouble.

I was hoping that Bangkok would be a little cooler than Bali since it’s much further north, but no such luck. If anything, it feels even hotter here! Daytime highs are 33C-35C with the humidex factor making it feel like 38C sometimes. It’s stuffy, smelly, and I feel definitely unwell if I spend too much time outdoors.

My room has A/C, and since I am back at the same guesthouse, I’ve been paying visits to my two favourite air-conditioned restaurants: Jaywalk Cafe for breakfast and The Joy Luck Club for dinner. Sure, the price of your food doubles when you eat in A/C comfort, but it’s worth it (we’re only talking $4 instead of $2 anyway).

Despite the hellish heat, I’ve managed to visit a couple of sights. Friday morning I made a heroic trip to The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok top’s attraction. I say “heroic” because most of the visit (about 2 hours) is outdoors, and none of the temples/museums have A/C. This complex of several buildings was the official residence of the King of Siam (then Thailand) from 1782 to 1925 and now houses museums, temples, and some royal offices, including a large temple that contains the Emerald Buddha, a priceless jade statue whose origins are lost in legend. The small Buddha (only about 45 cms tall) has three different outfits that rotate according to the seasons. 🙂 Unfortunately it cannot be photographed by tourists. (But you can find images online).

Finally last night I went exploring Chinatown, which fills with food stalls and fruit vendors after sunset. It was colourful, busy, and hectic, but difficult to order any food as all the signs were in Thai or Chinese, and more importantly, the prices were not visible (or perhaps written in Thai script) so that they could really ask you any price they wanted. It didn’t have the friendly vibe of the Chiang Rai night markets. Other than a couple of steamed buns, I ended up eating in a restaurant because I was frankly getting tired and hungry. The trip back on the tourist ferry was pleasant with a nice breeze and illuminations on some of the riverside temples.

Today is a writing day as I am between hotel rooms. I’m checking into a big boring hotel near the airport tonight because my flight is at 7:10 am and I don’t want to risk traffic blockage or any incident on the way. Wish me luck on my 30-hour journey back to freezing Toronto!

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