A Downer on Sundowns • Lookin’ Classy in Uluwatu Temple • The Great Ape Heist • A Rant About Taxis • Kicking Sand In Faces On Padang-Padang • Another Celestial Let-down • The Codfather • Now That’s A Fucking Sunset • Some More Shameless Gluttony
One thing you quickly tire of in Bali is sunsets.
Well, not the actual sunset, per se – there’s not much you can do about the Earth’s orbit of the sun.
It’s the pressure that gets attached to ‘watching the sunset’ in every travel guide ever. If you’re visiting Bali, you get the impression that you can basically sleep for the remaining 23 hours a day. It really isn’t worth doing anything if it doesn’t come with moody dusk lighting attached. As I mentioned in my last post, ‘watching the sunset’ is an entire industry in Bali. It’s the business model of places like the Rock Bar.
Now, I like a good sunset as much as anyone. But after the underwhelming (read: rock-obscured) sunset at the Rock Bar, I’d grown a little tired of them. I had a whole day to kill in Jimbaran and its surrounding areas, and I didn’t want to spend it twiddling my thumbs waiting for the world to rotate in a sufficiently Instagram-pleasing fashion.
I was heading for the Bukit Peninsula – it’s the bulbous hunk of land that takes up Bali’s southernmost point, connected to the rest of the island by a thin strip of land like the stem of an apple. My destinations were two places widely considered ‘must-see’ sunset locations by the likes of Lonely Planet – namely, the temple at Uluwatu, and the nearby Padang-Padang Beach. And, being the rebel I am, I was going to visit them long before the sunset. To hell with the Lonely Planet.
Getting out there was easy enough. We’d downloaded the MyBluebird app, a Grab-style application for booking taxis from the local Bluebird company. Bluebird, it should be pointed out here, are far and away the best taxi firm on Bali. All their drivers are unfailingly polite and helpful, their meters are straight-down-the-line and reasonably priced, and if you can actually manage to hire one the drivers are so helpful and attentive that I’m pretty sure they’d drive you over a cliff Thelma and Louise-style if you hinted you’d quite fancy trying it. Alas, however, that’s a big ‘if’ – about which more later.
Anyway, our Bluebird driver dropped us off at the entrance to Uluwatu, and after paying the reasonable entrance fee I donned a garish purple sarong (not as some bold new fashion statement – temple rules) and set out exploring.
The Uluwatu temple complex is located right on the cusp of the island, at the head of some impressively sheer limestone cliffs looking out across the Indian Ocean. As a temple, there’s not all that much to it – much of it is closed off to non-believers, and what isn’t is fairly small and underwhelming as far as Balinese temples go (a few courtyards, the odd statue).
But then you don’t really go to Uluwatu for the temple – you go there for the stunning views. And they certainly are stunning. Sheer limestone cliffs draped in trailing vines, rolling hills of dense, beer bottle-green jungle, and of course the magnificently blue Indian Ocean stretching off to the horizon, waves a hundred foot long lolling gently against the shores below. I can totally see how it would look pretty impressive at sunset. But it looked spectacular enough mid-afternoon.
We followed the trail along the clifftops, sometimes snaking back on ourselves through alternate pathways in the jungle. Pleasingly, despite the enormous hordes of (mostly Chinese) tourists at the site, few people seemed to bother venturing beyond the main temple complex itself, so we had plenty of the stunning scenery to ourselves.
As an added bonus attraction, the whole area around the Uluwatu Temple is positively swarming with monkeys. Most of the hairy little guys were content to hang around doing what monkeys do (climbing on things, eating, masturbating), but now and again one would go rogue and decide to mug some poor unsuspecting tourist of their water bottle or hat.
One particularly daring monkey pounced on a young lady while she was busy taking photos and successfully stole one of her sandals before running off to some dense thicket, waving his prize over his head and leaving the hapless tourist hopping around on one foot, screaming hysterically. Which was worth the price of the ticket alone. Thankfully for the tourist (but less so for the monkeys), there are a number of temple workers patrolling the vicinity wielding slingshots, sticks and carrying food to lure the stolen items off the simian menaces, and in this case the sandal was successfully retrieved and returned to the grateful – if slightly shaken – young lady.
There’s not much else to do at Uluwatu besides wander round and take a few snapshots, so after an hour or so we decided to head for the beach.
Now, unsurprisingly there’s no wifi available at the temple, and I’d foolishly forgotten to buy an Indonesian SIM card after we’d landed, so booking a Bluebird was out of the question. The temple itself is set quite a ways back from the road – itself, a quiet rural lane – and it would be a long walk to get to anywhere where we could hope to flag down a taxi. In short, we were buggered. Not to fear, though – a motley crew of good old boys were lounging around in the car park beneath a hand-written sign reading ‘TAXI SERVICE’, and they’d be delighted to take any customers stupid enough to come to Uluwatu with no other means of leaving anywhere they’d like to go for prices that would be obscenely overinflated even in London.
This is something that happens surprisingly frequently – and I suspect deliberately – in Bali. There are places – usually heavily-touristed places – where the good men and women of Bluebird dare not tread, presumably because they’d get a good working-over with a tyre iron. Taxi cartels are common across SE Asia, of course, but they seemed to take it to another level here in Bali, both in terms of their territoriality and the prices they expect gullible (or merely stranded) tourists to pay.
I mean, I get it – Indonesia’s a poor country. An Indonesian’s average wage is somewhere in the region of US$280 a month. Note that that’s an average wage, and no doubt exceeds what many of the poorest and least-skilled (i.e those who end up driving a taxi for a living) can hope to make. And you have thousands upon thousands of foreigners arriving on your shores, the poorest of whom make four or five times what you make, who have already anticipated having to spend a bit of cash because they’re ‘on holiday’, and who generally don’t have a good grasp on how things work or how much things are. Economically it makes sense.
I’m not totally devoid of sympathy for these people – but then again, I’m not totally falling for it, either. It gets harder to swallow the ‘we’re just trying to make ends meet’ excuse when you’re muscling legitimate drivers off your turf and demanding prices that would be high even in many developed countries from an essentially captive audience. I’m sure there’s some happy medium between these guys getting paid a fair wage and exploitation-by-cartel.
One of these aforementioned touts at Uluwatu initially asked for IDR250,000 to take us to Padang Padang – roughly US$18. Not an enormous amount of money, maybe. But had we paid similar amounts for all of our taxis that day, we’d have spent almost fifty dollars solely on getting around. A similar sum of money could have fed me well in Bali for three or four days. These weren’t particularly long trips – Uluwatu to Padang Padang probably took us about fifteen minutes tops. Not to mention that it’s over twice what an average Indonesian worker can expect to make in a whole day. Again, it doesn’t sound like much – until you imagine a taxi driver in the UK demanding over a hundred pounds to take you on a fifteen minute trip, because you don’t have any other choices and he’ll clobber all the legitimate taxi drivers with a crowbar if they try to provide one. So yeah, fuck those guys. Hire a motorbike.
Anyway, after I laughed in his face over the initial IDR250,000 fee, we eventually (and begrudgingly) managed to haggle him down to a still-too-high IDR150,000 and we were off. During the journey, the driver attempted to make small talk with us, of the ‘Ah, you from UK? Manchester United’ variety, and hilariously attempted to convince us that he could give us a ‘good price’ on a trip back to Jimbaran (maybe a kidney?). I answered in monosyllables, and made it clear that the end of this journey would be the end of our otherwise beautiful relationship, and so we arrived at Padang Padang Beach.
Once again, we had to pay a small fee to ‘keep the beach clean’, which set alarm bells ringing. However, my fears were unfounded. Padang Padang was – for the most part – perfectly clean, so that money was clearly going somewhere. This was why, I assume, every single person in Indonesia was visiting it that day.
No, really – it was heaving. This was probably the single biggest concentration of people I’d seen so far in Bali. We had to tiptoe gingerly over thighs and arms as we desperately sought a few square centimetres on to which we could lay down our towels, constantly muttering apologies as we kicked puffs of sand into the faces of sunbathers. It wasn’t our fault – there was nowhere else for the sand to go.
We finally managed to squeeze out a space a ways back from the beach, deep in the shade, near a gang of Australian youths playing Midnight Oil over their phones (because of course they were). This wasn’t that big a deal, as Padang Padang is tiny. Even tucked away right at the back, you’re still only a few hops from the sea. Which was where, after quickly slipping off my shorts and shirt, I was headed now. After trailing through the seaweed that clogs up the shore, I pushed out into the open ocean and assessed my surroundings.
Padang Padang certainly looks dramatic. It’s sandwiched between two rugged limestone cliffs, forming a rough triangle of sand. To get to the beach itself, you have to walk down through a narrow cave, which gives it a pleasingly isolated feel. The water here is a lot gentler than it is further up the coast in places like Seminyak, and while not quite as clean as some of the islands off Thailand and Cambodia, it’s perfectly fine for swimming, and you can even make out shoals of silvery fish flitting away in the water as you wade further out.
It wasn’t the best beach I’ve ever visited, but I liked it enough – even with the crowds. I spent a pleasant few hours alternately swimming, reading and drinking a couple of Bintang beers (kids – don’t try this at home!). The vendors were very insistent about beachgoers returning their rubbish for disposal when they were done, which I liked a lot – presumably they were getting a cut of that ‘keep the beach clean’ cheddar. Or maybe they were just good people, I don’t know.
And then, before I knew it, the shadows grew longer, the sky took on that familiar milky hue, and the day-trippers began to clear out and we had some space to move our legs. There was a pleasant hour or so between the day-trippers leaving and the inevitable sunset-viewers (Lonely Planets sticking out of their backpacks) arriving in which we and a handful of others had the beach almost entirely to ourselves and a few monkeys. I finished off my beers and we wandered out to take a few photos of this much-vaunted sunset.
I was expecting to be struck by some profound existential realisation, but while the golden hue the setting sun gave everything was certainly pretty, I wasn’t really seeing what the big deal was. I don’t think Padang Padang really is all that great a place to see the sunset. It’s too narrow, too tucked away. You don’t get some big dramatic light-show – the light merely bleeds out the sky and suddenly it’s dark. It’s like watching a sunset through the corner of a curtain.
It wouldn’t be until the end of my Bali trip that I finally understood what this whole Bali-sunset thing was all about.
We’d booked a room in Seminyak for one night before heading to the airport the next day. Seminyak is a suburb of the dreaded Kuta, albeit one that is widely considered a little more high-class and family friendly than that den of iniquity. It was only one night – I figured I at least owed the place a quick looking over, and it was in reasonable proximity to the airport.
I have to say, I felt a little worried pulling into our hotel. We’d booked a room in the Seminyak Square Hotel, a nice-if-basic place on the second floor of a shopping mall. There was a British-themed restaurant immediately outside. Their fish-and-chips dish was called ‘The Codfather’. These are not promising signs in a South-East Asian beach resort.
We decided to walk down to Seminyak Beach, for want of anything better to do. I figured we’d wander up and down it a few times before settling for some mediocre shopping mall food at anywhere that didn’t serve ‘The Codfather’ fish and chips, and then call it a night.
The first thing I noticed, as we approached the entrance to the beach, were the hordes of local people flocking to the shore – families on motorbikes, groups of young guys with footballs, couples holding hands. I’d been so used to places like Padang Padang that seemed like play-pens for foreign tourists that it was kind of surprising to see so many ordinary local folks heading out to the beach. It was nice, and not what I was expecting at all.
Well, Seminyak Beach was full of people, of course. But it was so enormously vast that you could escape the hordes pretty quickly. The sands stretched for what seemed like miles in all directions. Somewhere out on the horizon you could make out the ocean – huge, seven-foot waves rearing up and smashing into the surf with a colossal roar. There were very visible ‘NO SWIMMING’ flags everywhere, and the local lifeguards were enforcing it vigorously – we witnessed one drag a few foolhardy foreigners away before they could run into the death-waves.
The tides were utterly unpredictable – sometimes they’d be some distant, imperceptible line on the horizon, then suddenly and without warning they’d rush half a mile inland and you’d be wading through water up to your shins before it suddenly slunk back out. This ocean didn’t fuck around.
And all above and around us was the biggest, most seemingly endless sky I’d ever seen. It was like being inside a snow-globe. Standing there on an empty patch of sand with only those roaring waves and that big, endless sky in front of you was impressive enough.
But then, as we walked, something even more amazing happened. The sun began to set.
This time, I saw all of it. No rocks or cliffs or ugly concrete hotel blocks obscuring it. The sun blazed gold then fiery red and then as it sunk behind the waves the whole sky took on a creamy-blue hue, streaked with black clouds, and everything on the beach – surfers wading back on to shore, dog-walkers splashing through the surf, a couple of girls playing the ukulele on the sand – was cast in silhouette. I wandered a little further out until there was nothing separating me from the sea and the sky, and I watched as the last rays of sunlight lit the tips of the black surf a golden fiery red.
Now that, I thought, is a fucking sunset.
And this would be as good a place as any to finish this blog, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent meal we had that finished off our little Bali adventure.
It was at a place called Sea Circus, a short walk away from the beach. Touristy and hipster-y, sure – but the food was excellent. We ordered the crispy calamari with a ginger soy dipping sauce, a ‘Nourish Bowl’ (basically a mixed salad of kale, spinach, quinoa and some other odds and ends, with a lemon dressing), the fish and chips (alas, not prepared by The Codfather), and a couple of fresh coconut juices, and it was all thoroughly delicious. For dessert, we ordered a sorbet and the ridiculously delicious Snickers cheesecake. No, it wasn’t authentic Balinese, and the prices were certainly not cheap, but it was our last night – we felt entitled to a little indulgence.
And so, bellies cheerfully distended and in a pleasant frame of mind, we wandered back to the hotel.
I felt like I was only really just beginning to get to grips with Bali. That’s the problem with only visiting somewhere for a week – as soon as you feel you’re in a position to start really exploring, as soon as you figure out where the good (and cheap) places to eat are and you’ve got your bearings a little – it’s time to go home. There was so much more I wanted to see and do – there were volcanoes, and obscure little villages, and distant little islands. And beyond that was the rest of Indonesia – still vast, still seemingly unknowable. I wandered if I’d ever find a sunset to top the sunset on Seminyak – almost certainly, I figured.
I felt like I’d barely finished my appetiser, and was hungry for more – but the main course would have to wait for another time.
Till next time, Indonesia.