A Travellerspoint blog

Kings, Princesses and Dragons

Bali and Komodo

July 26, 2008

Bali- Kuta, Leggian and Seminyak

Mention Bali to almost anyone and images of a tranquil paradise come to mind, an exotic locale of peace and quiet. That Bali exists but is not found in the coastal cities of Kuta, Leggian or Seminyak.

We chose Kuta after arriving because it was central to many beaches and small towns accessible by motorbike. It also a popular tourist destination with inexpensive hotels, eateries and watering holes.

We quickly learned it was far from ideal in Kuta. It was loud and crowded, full of twenty-something Australians escaping their winter for sun, surfing and drinking. It was the downunder equivalent of our own “Redneck Riviera” with the antics one would expect. Let’s just say we didn’t take many pictures, though the beaches around Seminyak are full of white sand and clear blue water.

Like anthropologists among the chimpanzees, we watched the practices of the Aussie snowbirds. Bali is a relatively cheap and accessible getaway for Aussies. We had to be honest with ourselves; after all it could have been us not that long ago. In fact, that probably was us back then. It certainly doesn’t suit us now. It seemed a shame though, those kids weren’t seeing Indonesia. They had merely moved the party to a cheaper, warmer place. Middle-aged and in search of different things, we moved on. This was made easier by the fact that a decent rock band was not to be found here. We got coffee at the Starbucks, checked our email at the Internet café and headed out.

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Sanur

With Kuta and surroundings too familiar and un-Indonesian, our daily routine was to rent motorbikes and explore nearby towns in search of the real Indonesia. By the way, if you are ever offered insurance, politely decline. It’s almost the cost of the bike rental and seems more of an additional tax on visitors than something you would actually make a claim on. Do get an international driver’s license though: we have been stopped now in every country we’ve visited.

Sanur was a first stop and a tranquil beach, a romantic place for couples (if we ever returned with someone special). The beach was far less busy, with hidden gardens and peaceful resorts. We were antsy to explore more of Bali and didn’t stay long in this sleepy getaway.

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We sampled numerous local foods this way, from grocers to roadside stalls with meals prepared right on the street. Never did we suffer from our culinary exploits, and in turn were rewarded with some great finds. Sweet tea was a comforting drink to be found often, called Tehbotol, and it goes well with everything from the local specialty, Babi Guling (translated as “suckling pig”), to pork skins (immediately recognizable to any Southerner from Georgia!) and our new favorite fried chicken- Indonesian style. Tehbotol even comes in the old style glass bottles reminiscent of the way Coca Cola was served many years ago. We should mention though that chickens in that part of the world—and yes, bird flu can be a reality in Indonesia—are much leaner and taller than our hormone injected and force fed birds back home. Picking that tasty fried meat off the long, skinny legs of the local birds gave us a smile every time. Oh, and beer, plenty of beer was required with the local food for good measure. Ort would be proud.

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Ubud

Imagine an ancient city in the foothills, an hour drive from the airport and hidden in the jungle. We had found Ubud, and like Athens, it was full of artists. Streets were lined with vendors selling paintings, carvings, jewelry and exceptional handmade furniture. Since we are on bikes, we kept the shopping to Balinese coffee and kretek cigarettes for the most part. It is possible to purchase one of the infamous dragon kites at the market and safely hand carry them all the way back to Athens, but it isn’t easy. The streets are tranquil and sidewalk cafes dot the streets. The fresh fruit drinks of papaya and mango taste like nothing we’ve ever had back home, and the monetary exchange rate for all of this is very much in our favor.

In no way could we have planned it better, but serendipity smiled on us the day we chose to head to Ubud. In search of the recommended “Naughty Nuri’s” we found ourselves in one of the largest public ceremonies to take place in that tucked away part of paradise— the cremation of several royalty, the highest ranking member of the town and more than sixty others preserved for the ceremony. The buzz with the journalists and other visitors was that this may be the last time, the end of a tradition. Globalization and the high cost of hosting such a soirée may mean it will not happen again. Imagine UGA game day with RVs replaced by thousands of motorbikes, people wearing sarongs and everyone staring for hours at the homecoming floats at you are almost there.

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Labuan Bajo, Flores Island

The airport on Flores Island is interesting. Labuan Bajo is a small airport and uses the three-horn system. The first horn is to clear the runway of cows and goats in preparation for aircraft. The second horn signals the time to double check that the runway is indeed clear of farm animals. The third and last horn is the cue to evacuate the vicinity of the runway, even if stray livestock remain, because the eagle is landing.

If you are ever in Flores, you must try the local moonshine, called “arak.” Just mention this to your taxi driver, shuttle bus operator or bus boy at the restaurant and they will know how to get some. It’s a special backyard concoction that is legendary in archipelago as the best. Its taste is similar to grappa, so don’t look too closely at the fact that it was given to you in a reused wine bottle with plastic wrap and a rubber band for a lid. And don’t look too closely at the mosquitoes floating near the bottom—you barely know they are there when it’s going down.

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Komodo and Rinca

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This part of the journey was the easiest and was recommended as the only way to go. Like other protected national parks and sanctuaries, access to Komodo and Rinca are controlled since boat is the only means of transport. A crew, field guides and permits are all involved. A thirty-foot sailboat called the Sojourn was to be our transport, and we soon learned this capable crew knew how to cook as well as navigate. Life aboard the sailboat for those three days was welcome relaxation: swimming, eating, drinking beer, playing guitar, snorkeling and hiking. It is almost a necessity to bring a guitar to Indonesia. Like Athens, music is a big part of the culture. We played and sang a few songs while drinking a few Bintang beers with the crew. In return, the crew played a few local folk songs in Bahasa Indonesia. Surprisingly, the song that got the most applause and participation in the sing-along was The John Denver classic Country Roads! Who would have thought that all the lyrics to that song could be recited by Indonesians living half way around the world on a remote island?

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Nothing comes close to seeing a Komodo dragon in the wild: off on a hilltop scenting the air for its mate, or possibly breakfast. Komodo dragons are some of the most unique lizards in the world. Not only are they the largest but they also have the distinction of having highly infectious and septic mouths which are laden with all kinds of nasty bacteria. They are only found on the island of Komodo and nearby Rinca where they hunt their prey by ambush and wound them. Later, the unlucky victim stumbles off to die from the bacterial infections that were injected in the wound by the festering mouth of the Komodo.

Apparently they are quite gifted in being able to detect odors for many miles and they can track their wounded prey by smell for days if needed. Every year a few unlucky locals are surprised by a dragon and bitten. Only one person has been recorded to survive a Komodo attack.

We were cautioned by our guide and translator that we may not see dragons. That was not to be the case that day, as we saw many.

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And so we returned. Matt Salleh went back to Kuala Lumpur and John back to Athens, GA. Mission accomplished- we had seen on of the rarest and the largest living lizards on Earth, the great Komodo dragon. We had eaten and drank things both familiar and different. But it wasn’t over. Far from it. For our next trip, we’re already talking about Angkor Wat lost in the forests of Cambodia and maybe the Mekong River in Vietnam!

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Posted by mattsalleh 20:44 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Namaste or Na must go?

Kathmandu - Thamel - Lukla - Namche - Tengboche : Hills, goats and goddesses

-17 °C

About 180 million years ago the Indian sub-continent broke free of Pangaea. It promptly headed north at a rate of a few centimeters per year and then 65 million years ago began to crash into the Asian main land. This caused quite a stir amongst the native stones, not to mention a great big ole uplift that would later be named the Tibetan Plateau and home to the Himalayan Mountains and the highest point on Earth- Mount Everest.

Had the Indian continent somehow known that quite a few million years later, a ‘wise human’ (Homo sapien) with a gift of bipedal locomotion and an opposable thumb would trudge up the lofty peaks full of redneck wisdom, pantheistic blasphemy and a penchant for red wine and buggery it might have turned around and headed back south. Luckily, it didn’t. So I was fortunate enough to find myself in Kathmandu sometime in the Year Of Our Lord 2007, ready to head for the hills and see what I could see.

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Kathmandu is a crossroads for all kinds of travelers. Longhaired freaky people of almost infinite variety traverse its never-ending side streets and alleyways. Some people are there to find themselves. Some people are there to lose themselves. Most people are there to experience something; even if they don’t know what it is they’re after.

You can find good food, pubs, gear shops and various and sundry items almost everywhere you turn in the Thamel area. Vegetable markets, art vendors, snake charmers and sacred cows dot the acrid landscape and make for an interesting afternoon of people gawking.

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Also, make note that if you ever find yourself in Kathmandu in need of a pair of socks have no worries. There are plenty of shops selling knock off (North Farce) gear for a fraction of the price you’d pay in a fancy shmancy gear store for the real thing. I got myself 3 pairs of fine wool socks for the trekking I was about to do for US$6 and a windbreaker for another US$8 to boot… I was happier than a pig at a Muslim wedding feast.

Our trek started in the airport. We arrived at the domestic terminal to witness a chaotic scene of Sherpas and tons of bags stacked upon bags for the numerous expeditions up into the hills. We had a bad start as one boy in our group was robbed of US$200 when he opened his wallet to tip his porter. The guy promptly grabbed the money and took off like Usain Bolt never to be seen again. Lesson learned. Never expose the contents of your wallet for the world to see.

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Yeti Airlines took us up to Lukla. The twin-engine Otter felt more like an amusement park ride than an airplane. The captain opened up the windows and several folks climbed into the cockpit to take photos. A strange feeling in our post 9/11 ultra-security-aviation world. But the jovial scene unfolded peacefully since none of us really wanted to crash into the side of the mountains.

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At 9,380 feet the military airport at Lukla is one of the highest around. It’s quite scary to land into the side of a mountain where you only have a few hundred meters of landing strip to get it right!

From there we trekked a short distance to the Namaste Lodge. We dined on vegetable dumplings and after dinner I was invited to drink raksi- a fermented rice drink that probably has some kind of curative properties that I felt obliged to take advantage of. For medicinal purposes only, mind you.

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The next morning we reluctantly rose at 7 a.m. and trudged our way to Namche Bazaar. The trek was pretty grueling, especially if you’re from a tropical climate near sea level in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The weather was perfect, sunny with a slight chill… enough for a long sleeve and pants while walking.

The trek was lined with teahouses selling San Miguel beer, snicker bars, potato chips and rooms for the night if you so desired.

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For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the national beer from the Philippines made its way to Lukla and Namche as a main item for sale in every little teahouse. It was a strange sight for me to behold.

Namche Bazaar is a crossroads for trade and has been for quite a long time. We were told that folks from Nepal, Tibet and China had been walking the paths for hundreds of years trading various wares and items on a seasonal basis. We had just missed one of the BIG markets that ended the day before. Oh well, there were still plenty of shops and street vendors to be haggled with.

By this time we were up near 11,000 feet. Not bad.

Namche was full of bakeries with warm fires, latte’s, cappuccino’s, baked chocolate goods and Internet connections. Again, I was puzzled by the diversity of goods on offer. For some reason I had expected it be a bit more local- you know, like a Nepalese village.

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But, Nepal and the Everest treks have been a huge tourist destination for quite a while and the industrious locals had figured out that offering some Western delights would capture a certain audience with money to spend. They were right. The café’s were full of trekkers from Europe, America, Japan, Korea and basically any nation with enough wealth that could afford a holiday in the Himalayas.

We spent two nights in Namche to acclimate to the elevation.

The next morning we struck out for the Tengboche Monastery at 14,000 feet, officially the highest I had ever been while trekking.

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On the way to Tengboche we spotted the Damphe- a colorful over sized chicken-like bird resembling a big purple peacock on the trail. The bird is spectacular and happens to be the national bird of Nepal. We also saw various mountain goats and raptors along the way. The scenery is indeed world class with waterfalls, mountain peaks and crusty yak poo dotting every conceivable viewpoint.

About halfway to Tengboche my group, consisting of myself and two teenage Japanese students from my school, were greeted by the goddess of the mountains. She didn’t so much walk up to us but it was more like she sprang forth from the scenery. Or somehow effortlessly arose from the stones. I offered her a sip of orange drink from my water bottle, which she took as a peace offering and a humble gesture. She guzzled down my ambrosia offering and as a return favor played a tune on her harmonica. Afterwards she gave a smile that would ease tensions between Israel and Palestine.

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The wisdom in her eyes was infinite, her Earthy aura captivating. I was in love with the goddess of the mountain. I couldn’t help it. It was a spell she cast on me. I looked at her one last time. Her irises spoke the secret language that we deities share and let me know she appreciated my admiration and then went merrily on her way. She skipped with ease up the steep slopes that only mountain goats, yaks, Pan and Himalayan goddesses call home.

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A few hours later, we rolled into Tengboche monastery weary, drained and enlightened from our encounter on the hill. The uphill treks were pretty gruesome and draining. Noses run rampant from the chilly breeze and sleeping conditions and the ever-pervasive Himalayan Hack.

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The Himalayan Hack is a cough brought on by a thousand generations of crusty yak poo trampled to dust by a gazillion longhaired freaky people trekkers, which, you obligingly suck up your nostrils and convert into a frothy veneer coating around your lungs. Once infected you have no choice but to continuously hack, especially in the small hours of the night when you are supposed to be sleeping. It becomes rather charming after a while and since everyone has it… it also leads to group bonding.

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However, this is where I would advise a mask or at least a bandana of some sort for covering your breathing apparatus. Which no one in my group had had the good sense to bring.

Once again, the shops at the monastery were selling San Miguel and snicker bars. Now that’s my kind of monastic life!

The views of Everest were growing more intense with every step and sunrise at Tengboche was one of the best we’d seen. Couple that with a morning visit to the monastery and chant by the monks and you’ve got yourself a good start to the day that James Redfield would be proud.

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After sunrise chants and a meager but warm and fulfilling breakfast of potatoes, yak cheese, flat bread, peanut butter and coffee we broke camp for a local school. Our mission was to deliver some toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks and a few board games to the students that live full time at 14,000+ feet. We also wanted to learn their school ways and show them a few tricks of our own.

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I napped shyly sprawled in the dirt right outside the school basked in warm sunlight while the students played games and exchanged bead necklaces. When I woke up it was time to head back to Tengboche. From there back to Namche and then on to Lukla. A few days later back in Kathmandu and back to Kuala Lumpur via Bangkok.

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What a trip! I think everyone should see the Himalayas and Everest at some point in their life. And I would hope that they’d be lucky enough to cavort with over sized purple chickens, mountain goats and yaks, become infected with the Himalayan Hack, digest Yak cheese and Everest Beer and be serenaded by a real life mountain goddesses to boot!

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It is a good life.. if you make it out to be.

Posted by mattsalleh 21:48 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

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