No place has only three sides to it - usually nowhere is close to that few - but our time on and near this tropical paradise can be boiled down into a triumvirate of experiences - the Hell of Kuta, the Heaven of Gili Air, and the Reality of Ubud.
Arriving in Kuta just after the sun had set, our taxi ride to our hotel was a portent of our time in this tourist debacle. After an hour-plus in bumper to bumper traffic, we arrived to the wrong hotel. Then drove to another wrong one. Finally we got to near the right one and we just got out and walked - something we should have done much earlier, but hadn't since we'd paid the flat fee for a taxi at the airport. Our hotel - Tanaya Bed and Breakfast - was on the border between Kuta and Legian right on Jalan Legian, right in the action. Our first impression of the area was soured by incessant horns, touts trying to sell us drugs, and five drunk, scantily-clad tourists for every local.
Our subsequent days were no better as we struggled to find any peace and quiet in the area. Having foolishly booked four nights in advance, we did our best to ride out the constant calls of "buy something" and overpriced food, searching wide for fair-priced warungs. We visited the beach and found it sorely lacking. That's an understatement - it was covered in trash with water so dirty we would never swim in it. We walked around Legian and Seminyak and were not impressed by the many souvenir, clothing, and convenience stores. Our hotel was the highlight of our time here, with friendly staff constantly greeting us upon return and asking us how our day went. The included breakfast was simple and served on the hotel verandah...which would have been nice if it wasn't overlooking the busy street below.
Yes, a lot of complaining, but the high hopes Singapore gave us for Asia were scattered upon arrival in Kuta. Thankfully, that wasn't our only stop.
After much trepidation thanks to horrible online reviews, we booked a speedboat ride to Gili Air. Our voyage was thankfully uneventful and we arrived on the small island ready to relax. Kuta had given us both head colds and we needed somewhere quiet for some R&R. Si Pitung Village fit the bill. Located in the middle of the island, it was secluded from the noise (what little there was) from the ocean road and other resorts. With a pool and included breakfast, we thought it was a great deal at 250,000 IDR a night. We sent our mornings lounging by the pool after breakfast, followed usually by delicious nasi campur from Warung Muslim - an institution on the island and one of the best meals and cheapest we had in Bali. Afternoon followed a similar routine by pool or by beach and dinner was usually had at a seaside resort, sampling delicious fresh seafood or gorging on gado gado and colorful curries.
It was very much a paradise, especially compared to Kuta. Missing were any aggressive touts, any motor transportation at all, or swarms of tourists. Everyone was here to relax and enjoy the island life. It was the antithesis of what we had just experienced and the four very short days we spent here remain a highlight of our trip so far.
When the shuttle dropped us off on the main road of Ubud near the side street our guesthouse was on, we were afraid a repeat of Kuta was in store. Where were the rice fields we expected to be staying amongst? All we saw were tourist buses and convenience stores. We hitched up our packs and started up the side street searching for our temporary home. Passing multiple guest houses, meeting halls, and chickens stored in cages on the back of a pickup in a garage, we finally found a sign for our places and followed it through a small passageway. Stepping onto a stone pathway that traced amongst verdant paddies, a huge sigh of relief passed through us as we arrived at Kamol House. Run by a young couple who have spent time in the US, the hospitality is amazing and the property fantastic. We had a humongous room with AC, private bathroom, and delicious breakfast for 250,000 IDR a night.
As it worked out, staying at Kamol was very fortunate as it gave us an oasis to which we could retreat to from hot, touristy Ubud. Again we were fighting off touts, vendors, and pricey restaurants, but unlike in Kuta, we were able to have some really amazing experiences as well. We spent one morning with Bali Eco Cycling, exploring the middle of Bali by bike. Starting with a buffet breakfast overlooking Mount Batur, the tour wound its way through villages and rice fields and included a stop at an agrotourism joint where we had the famous catpoo-ccino as our guide was fond of calling it. Kopi luwak to most, the beans harvested from the feces of the civet cat, we found it a bit disappointing in terms of taste, although it was certainly smoother and less bitter than most arabica.
The Monkey Forest received a visit from us as well. The lowlight of Ubud attractions, neither of us really felt comfortable around the monkeys as they wreaked havoc, jumping on people with bananas and getting into screeching battles and physical fights. I suppose it was an interesting sight, but any enjoyment on our part was lost amongst the tourists. Thankfully, we balanced out this negative experience with positive ones the next day, visiting the Puri Lukisan museum, focused on Balinese art, and the Semara Ratih Spirit of Bali cultural performance. While neither offering completely blew our socks off, both provided a deeper appreciation for the unique artistic styles that have developed on the island.
Another morning was spent with the wonderful crew at Paon Bali Cooking School learning how to make some of the signature dishes from a cuisine which both of us consistently rate in our top three. Ingredient prep was followed by satay grilling which yielded to sauce-making, finally concluding with meal preparation. Although you don't make each dish yourself, instead switching off with your partner, we still both felt like we learned how to cook each dish. Of course, the end was a massive meal of everything we had cooked and it was perhaps our best meal on Bali. Although the class size was too big to get to know your classmates, the setting was somehow still intimate on the family compound and it was a great way to get out of Ubud for the day.
Peaking highs, sinking lows, and everywhere in between, Bali produced the spectrum of experiences for us. We fell hard for the food, met many incredible locals, became fascinated by the caste system and its modern application, and were awed by the bountiful natural beauty. At the same time, we were appalled by how overrun the Kuta area was by tourists and trash, annoyed at being constantly harangued by touts, and had a hard time getting to know the local life. And while we hope never to return to Kuta, cannot wait to return to Gili Air, and have fond memories of Ubud, our overall time in Bali was greater than the sum of its parts. As often happens, Heaven and Reality overcame Hell and we had a wonderful two weeks.
In Kuta, we stayed at Tanaya Bed and Breakfast. At around $28 a night, it was of decent value. We could have gone cheaper, and probably should have, but with how little we enjoyed the area, it was nice to have a private room with A/C, WiFi, and a small breakfast included. The shower and toilet were also separate and the shower had great pressure.
On Gili Air, we stayed at Si Pitung Village. Located in the middle of the island, it's not the place to go if you want to be right on the beach/main road. But, that's also a positive side to it as it is a very quiet location, great for R&R. 250,000 IDR/$22 a night was good for a fan ensuite room and a good breakfast each day. The staff were very smiley and as helpful as they could be. There is also a pool on the grounds which is great for a dip.
Kamol House was our home in Ubud and was a true oasis in the rice fields north of town. A bit of a walk - about 1.5 KMs - that was oh-so-worth it to us. We loved our massive corner room that had great A/C, a good bathroom with a separate shower, a balcony, free drinking water, and a hearty breakfast each morning. The owner, a musician, is great to talk to about Ubud and what to do. Plus, on the last morning when our arranged airport taxi driver called and bailed on us, the owner drove us all the way to the airport for the same price as the taxi, throwing his own day into chaos. That's damn good service.
Editor's Note: We realize Gili Air is not a part of Bali and is just a short boat ride from Lombok. In our minds, Gili Air was a vacation from Bali so we are including as such. Also, Tyler couldn't come up with a better title for the post. Editor out.