24 November 2014

Bali backroads

Hidden beach on the Bukit peninsula
Lisa and I both have been to Bali several times. Lisa has been there twice for conferences and once for a holiday with her siblings, I have been there in January before flying to New Zealand and again a couple of times in between flights. We both loathe the overcrowded beaches around Kuta (aka Mallorca for Australians) and the overpriced resorts around Benoa and Nusa Dua. The hidden gems Bali indisputably has are tucked away from the crowds in small coves in the South and in the North and East of the island.

Bali is very different from all other parts of
Restaurant on the beach close to Bali airport
Indonesia we visited. It is also by far the most touristy island. The price level in Bali is significantly higher than in Java. Even for basic things like fried rice or a bus ticket you often pay twice to three times the amount you would in Central Java. To get around in Bali, you have four options. Public buses and minibuses are rather slow and highly unpredictable. Also, several drivers tried to rip us off. We usually got around this by asking some locals about the fare and simply paying the “usual” fare to the driver and walk away. The second option is renting your own motorbike. It's cheap, about 50-60'000 IDR (2-2.5 EUR) per day and very convenient, as you can easily reach almost every spot on the island. 

Fresh catch on the fish market
Taxis are convenient too, but in opposition to renting your own motorbike, taxis are quite expensive. Even tough bargaining won't get you the short ride from Ngura Rai airport to Nusa Dua for less than 100'000 IDR (7 EUR). While a taxi to Ahmed in the East or Lovina in the North of Bali will set you back at least 500'000 IDR (33 EUR). The last transport option is tourist buses. They are very convenient if you already know where you go, as they usually drop you right in front of your hotel or guesthouse. And they are direct connections, unlike the public buses. But, this convenience comes at a price. Most routes cost between 80'000 and 150'000 IDR (5-10 EUR).

Lovina beach
I explored Bukit peninsula thanks to our friend Lenka who was living on Bali for half a year while working on her PhD thesis. I only had three days between arriving from Java and my flight to Christchurch. But Bukit peninsula is quite small, so I had ample time to check out several of the beautiful beaches as well as to eat delicious seafood both on the beach and on the fish market directly to the south of Ngurah Rai International airport. The beaches on Bukit peninsula are stunning. White sand, usually scenically tucked in between steep cliffs. The best way to get around – from your guesthouse to the beach and from beach to beach – is by motorbike. Taxis will add up to a considerable sum. A highlight is watching the sunset from the top of the cliffs around Uluwatu temple. The temple itself is beautiful too, but quite pricey (150'000 IDR or 10 EUR).

Our house god
My dear siblings visited me (Lisa) in December, rainy season in most parts of Indonesia. Their time was limited and their expectations high, so I decided to take them to Bali because it is easy to reach and not too expensive if you don't stay in the main tourist areas. We decided to spend our time in Ahmed, as my sister got several recommendations from friends for diving there. From the airport in the south of the island we wanted to take a taxi but as soon as we saw the official taxi price (750'000 IDR / 50 EUR) we looked for an alternative. Unofficial drivers offered us only little lower prices, so we called our hotel in Ahmed to check whether they have cheaper offers. After half an hour a driver picked us up at the airport for 500'000 IDR (33 EUR).

After a nice four hour drive through rice fields, over hills and with stunning views we finally arrived in the hotel Anugerah Villas. The driver was a friend of our hotel manager, both of them were lovely and very helpful, but they also immediately tried to sell us tours across Bali, massages and many other things. The entire family offered their services, which sounds wonderful but also can cause a lot of pressure for the tourists if they cannot friendly but clearly say no. Once that was sorted out, everything went smooth and easy. The hotel was clean, spacious and the view was stunning.

Bali diving
The three of us love diving, so our first challenge was to find the best dive shop in town. We usually prefer to support local business, but every local shop we went to had no idea what nitrox is, the equipment looked semi-professional and the crew seamed too eager to sell us what ever we want (or didn't want), we did not dare to trust them with our lives. Of all the international operators Bali Reef Divers seemed to be the best for us, and we had eleven wonderful dives with them. Most operators offer dives in Ahmed and Tulamben, there are two ship wrecks and a lot of reefs, no boat necessary. The one boat dive we tried started from a local fisher boat, no ladder to get out of the water, so you climb into the boat after three dives. Quite an unpleasant experience for me with lots of bruises all over my legs as a souvenir.

Over all Ahmed seems to be a wonderful place for divers and surfers, tours across the island are also great and offered from around 550'000 IDR per day. We hiked to a waterfall, saw lots of monkeys, temples and beautiful beaches. For people who look for party or white beaches Ahmed is the wrong place though.

The far north of Bali is a completely different story compared to the busy places like Kuta, Seminyak, Benoa and so on. It's still touristy, but as I went there towards the end of the summer season (late August), it was already relaxed and much cheaper than the busy south of Bali. Arriving on Sunday afternoon with the ferry from Java was not the best decision. There wasn't much transport along the northern coast, so the bus and bemo drivers in Gilimanuk tried to rip us off. In the end, the four of us just entered a bemo after having asked locals for the “real” price of the ride to Lovina. In Lovina, a good hour down the road, we got off the bemo and gave the driver the fare. He tried to ask more from us, but as I spoke some Bahasa Indonesia we made it very clear that we wouldn't pay more. In the end, he left. We quickly found a very nice cottage for 200'000 IDR (13 EUR) in Barcelona guesthouse. 

Pulau Menjangan
Lovina itself spreads out over 8km of beaches, but unless you want to drive everywhere with your motorbike, I highly recommend you to stay in one of the streets in the center. That's where most of the cheaper guesthouses are and that's where the majority of restaurants are. We enjoyed some lazy days on the beach, beautiful sunsets and delicious Balinese food. There's plenty of restaurants with the usual western fare (pizza, pasta, burgers) and all the seafood you could wish for. But we particularly liked two little Warung/Restaurants that served some of the best Indonesian and Balinese dishes I ate in my whole nine months in Indonesia.

Around Pulau Menjangan
There are two day-trips in the North of Bali we can particularly recommend. The first one – snorkeling around Pulau Menjangan - you can book with any dive operator in Lovina or in other towns along the coast. The whole package (transport to the harbor close to Pemuteran, boat, lunch, snorkeling equipment) costs about 25€, unless you're too lazy to bargain. For the second one, you simply rent a motorbike for 50'000 IDR (3.5 EUR) follow the coast to Singharaja and then take the main road up into the mountains. After about an hour on the motorbike, you'll be in the area of Munduk. The climate up here is completely different from the coast, it's much cooler and often clouds and fog obscure your vista. But the temples and waterfalls around the area are still stunning. But beware of the monkeys: they steal everything they can get their hands on!

While Bali is never completely untouristy and even low season brings in large flocks of sun-seeking Australians and Europeans, Lisa and I still managed to find many places we like. Once you get out of the urban and overdeveloped nightmare around Kuta and Denpasar, Bali is still very much worth a visit.

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