Bali: Face to face

By Donna McIntyre

Donna McIntyre gets intrepid and takes two teenage boys on a holiday to Bali.

A Balinese monster at Ubud. Photo / Thinkstock
A Balinese monster at Ubud. Photo / Thinkstock

Just 24 hours ago we were in the heart of inland Bali, walking through bush tracks in coffee, chocolate and vanilla plantations where workers climb handmade bamboo ladders to harvest crops.

Now we're in the exclusive Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa, for a bonus extra day's stay after our flight is delayed while a fuel line is repaired.

Our two teenagers are delighted. A day off school, three-course meals on the airline's tab, a gym, a choice of swimming pools and cable TV in their bedroom. It's such a contrast to the Intrepid Journeys trip we've just completed...

Our boys' introduction to Intrepid comes only minutes after we check into Artini Cottages 2 in Ubud, the starting point for our nine-day Beautiful Bali journey.

"Mum, there's no TV in the room!" Ah, yes, that's right, get used to it.

"Where am I going to watch the Tour de France, mutters my husband?" (Answer: at the surprising number of sports bars he finds even in remote areas of this beautiful island of a thousand temples.)

With no TV in the rooms to mesmerise us, we go sightseeing. Even stepping out on to the street of Ubud is an assault on the senses as we negotiate the irregular terrain of the footpath and our ears acclimatise to a cacophony of noises generated by scooters and vans constantly tooting and the locals touting "taxi" every few steps.

A visit to the Monkey Forest has us cracking up as the monkeys clamber on to our sons' shoulders and check their hair for nits.

Ubud has a more cultural atmosphere than the seaside resorts of southern Bali so popular with surfers and other Antipodeans taking their mid-winter beach break.

This mountain town, already a popular tourist destination made even more famous by Julia Roberts' Eat, Pray, Love, has an abundance of appealing craft shops and art galleries. It's easy to hike or cycle to the rice growing areas of Gianyar, visit village compounds and marvel at the intricate carving on temples.

At night a must-do is watching the Kecak dances after dining on a tasty Indonesian meal.

We meet Andy Sawchyn, our Australian tour guide for the nine-day trip. Andy hails from Victoria but has spent the past decade and more leading groups through Asia. This is where the Intrepid Tours come into their own.

With Andy's knowledge of both Western and Indonesian ways, we experience far more of the Balinese culture than we could manage on our own. For instance, on our first evening we visit Pasar Senggol market, a few minutes' drive out of Ubud, away from the hordes of tourists, and mingle among the locals as we sample nasi goreng (10,000 rupiah or NZ$1.30), meatball soup or 10 pieces of satay for 5000 rupiah, and an assortment of exotic fruits for loose change.

Here the prices are fixed, unlike the inflated prices in the markets close to the main tourist drag where you have to barter hard. At Pasar Senggol, stallholders happily hold out a note showing the price they expect you to pay.

Our trip is a circuit from Ubud to Sideman, Mt Batur, Lovina on the coast and across to Menjangan Island, then Bedugul before returning to Ubud.

After we leave Ubud, the tour ventures into smaller villages such as inland Sideman where we visit songet (using gold and silver threads) and ikat (where thread is tie dyed before weaving) weavers, walk through terraced paddy fields and dine alfresco beside a river on one of the most memorable meals we eat in Bali - noodles, veges, rice, tofu and tempeh served in a banana leaf and made by the wife of one of our Balinese van drivers.

Our boys' jaws drop as our Sideman guide Nyoman talks about Indonesian wages; a family is lucky if it earns the equivalent of a couple of hundred dollars a month. But while the people are on the brink of poverty when viewed through Western eyes, we also witness how happy most Balinese are with their way of life and the strong family bonds they share. They also seem more content than many Westerners, who constantly want more rather than appreciating what they already have.

It's hard to single out only one highlight of the tour. Every day we have new experiences, meet new people and find out more about our fellow travellers who range in age from Jamie's 13 years through to retirement, and hail from New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada and the US.

Lingering memories are of hiking up Mt Batur by torchlight (that definitely pushes me out of my comfort zone) and snorkelling above the coral and colourful fish of Menjangan in the far northwest.

We rise at dawn to go dolphin watching away from the shores of Lovina and then watch incredulously as it seems there are more motorised outriggers than dolphins and zealous tourists egg on the boatmen to noisily chase the dolphin pods.

Jamie rates a treetops adventure park near Lake Bratan as his tour highlight. Aubin, 16, nominates the home-cooked Balinese banquet at Lovina as the best meal of the trip and the snorkelling and climbing Mt Batur as his high points. And he enjoys working out at a gym at Lovina with weightlifting Balinese.

We are privy to cremations, eat food fit for a king in a Balinese villager's modest home, soak in hot springs and the boys still chant like the men did in the traditional Kecak dance we watched in Ubud.

We deviate from the tour group to watch a very non-PC cockfight - something Intrepid doesn't condone because of the cruelty aspect. But even this is an insight into the Indonesian way, with the men primping their cockerels for the fight, a knife attached to the cock's leg, and then the cockerels quickly tiring of the fight and a victor being announced solely because its opponent turns "chicken" and runs away.

We learn a few basic words which rewards us with many a smile. The Balinese don't seem as stressed as we are in our everyday lives and they enjoy a bit of banter with their barter. And we learn they see anger as a sign of weakness. (Fortunately not through first-hand experience!)

Though it's kind of cool to have a million rupiah in your wallet, (1,000,000 rupiah is roughly NZ$130) I never quite get to grips with all those zeros, and constantly pull out a piece of paper with a list of converted rates when I'm shopping. Not like the boys who quickly suss out the exchange rate.

Our sons also save their mum from being short-changed a 5000 rupiah note instead of 50,000 by a taxi driver. No big deal but a cheap reminder to keep our wits about us.

It is also interesting immersing our family into a group travelling environment. The boys click well especially with the younger travellers and enjoy talking to people from other countries and learning about their jobs.

And there are only a couple of times we have to play "bad cops" as parents when our boys' teenage humour and bored banter on the longer van rides becomes rather risque. Mind you, considering half the group has their noses in the racy Shades of Grey trilogy, the boys' language probably seems mild in comparison.

I also doubt that you could do a similar trip much more cheaply if you planned it yourself. You would spend a lot of time researching, planning and bartering tour prices, plus having an Indonesian-speaking guide opens up opportunities not readily available to tourists.

Andy knows where to eat and shop and where to get a quality massage (we learned our lesson when we ignored his advice in Lovina and struck a dud). And we do appreciate Intrepid choosing hotels with pools at most of the stops along the route - just what you need after a day of activities.

Would we do a trip like this again? Yes, without hesitation.

Would we recommend Bali and Intrepid to other families? Absolutely. It is a sizeable investment when you add up the airfares, tour cost and spending money but we will treasure our memories of Bali for a long time.

The boys asked us where we're going next year. That's a hard one. We'd happily return to Bali but there's a whole world out there waiting to be discovered.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Bali twice weekly. Air New Zealand operated this seasonal service for the first time throughout winter 2012 (last flight departs 14 October 2012) and is considering options for winter 2013.

Further information: Intrepid Beautiful Bali trips start from $1055 per person. Bookings can be made by phoning 0800 600 610, by visiting the Intrepid My Adventure Store in Newmarket or through a range of other travel agencies.

Donna McIntyre travelled to and around Bali with assistance from Intrepid Travel and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 21 Aug 2014 13:51:53 Processing Time: 56ms