Monkeys and Elephants and Sea Gypsies, Oh My! Adventures in Thailand and Bali

Back in 2003, during a sabbatical from my university, I made a circum-Pacific trip that took me to Thailand, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti for the first time. My adventures during the last three stops have been documented in separate blogs here on my website, but I thought it was time to resurrect the Thailand and Bali parts of the trip. I’ve decided to post them in the form of the travel diary I kept and which I sent to friends and family via e-mail while I was on the trip. So here were my impressions of these two amazing travel destinations.

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The Thai Coastline in Krabi Province

Sawadee Krahp!                                                                                            February 25, 2003

That’s hello in Thai if you are a male speaker. I’m bewildered by the fact that in the Thai language, men must end sentences with KRAHP and women with KA. I’m familiar with words being masculine or feminine in other languages, but it truly seems odd in face to face speech to have to say, “Hello (I am a man)”, “Thank you (I am a man)”…  Oh well, when in Thailand, speak as the Thai do…

I arrived in Phuket three days ago and I have to say, the heat is oppressive. It was close to 100 degrees today, the humidity is off the charts, and the sun is scorching. The ocean really provides only slight relief, as the water temperature must be close to 85 or 90 degrees. The best thing I did in planning this trip was choosing accommodations with air conditioning. It has truly saved my life.

Despite the heat, I’ve seen a lot in a rather a short time. On Monday I went to a Buddhist temple built inside an enormous cave. Bats sat quietly on the ceiling of the cave and monks sat cross- legged in prayer. I suspect that one of their prayers was that the bats would refrain from targeting them from above. Outside were dozens of monkeys and dozens of vendors selling “Fruit for the monkey! Peanut for the monkey!” The monkeys  brazenly come right up to you, take peanuts from your hand and gobble them up. One monkey that I met kept pawing through the peanuts in my hand and not taking any, looking at me as if to say, “Don’t you have any macadamia nuts? How about some Junior Mints?”  They are very sweet, but occasionally they appear in the trees above your head and try to snatch your cap or sunglasses if you aren’t very alert.

One of the highlights thus far was taking an elephant trek. For over an hour I rode through the jungle atop a 60 year old female elephant. The driver sat bareback on the elephant’s head and neck, while I sat in a chair on her back. It was amazingly slow going, because my elephant just stopped whenever and wherever she wanted to eat something or to explore, and quite frankly, I was in no position to argue with her! My girl seemed to enjoy straddling large boulders in order to scratch her belly on the rock. Meanwhile, I clung to my seat for dear life, being tossed violently from side to side,  laughing uncontrollably. She also tended to burp and fart a lot, which was most un-ladylike, but also pretty funny.

I have to say it was nice to be able to go riding on an animal that could carry my weight. I was traumatized at age 12 when my mother took me on our annual trek to Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island so I could go on the pony ride. When my turn came to saddle up this time, I was told, “Sorry – you’re too big to ride ponies.”  Years later my hope of riding a donkey down a trail into the Grand Canyon was dashed when I learned that I was 10 pounds over the maximum weight limit. I have even been told I am too heavy for horseback rides, leaving me to wonder how they found a horse to carry the hefty actor, Dan Blocker who played Hoss Cartwright on TV’s Bonanza. However, my dear elephant friend carried me with no complaints, so perhaps the healing of those old psychic wounds can now begin.

Another adventure was a tour of Phang Nga Bay and some amazing offshore islands via sea canoes and motorized Thai longboats. One of the highlights was a stop at a Muslim Sea Gypsy village, built entirely on stilts over the water adjacent to an amazing island. A Venice of the Pacific! Well, there was nothing quite like San Marco Square, but it was indeed interesting. The poverty there was amazing, and yet the people who live there (and everywhere in Thailand that I have seen so far, for that matter) seem so serene and content. Maybe we could all take a lesson from their example. People may literally be living in tin shacks with no windows, and yet almost every one has its ornately carved and vividly painted Buddhist Spirit House out front.

Some of you have asked about food I have had some very delicious meals. A Tom Ka Gai (chicken coconut soup) served inside a hollowed out fresh coconut was very memorable, but overall I would say the food I’ve had has been just average. It’s very cheap though; a four course meal can be easily had for $5. One of my favorite things are the fresh fruit shakes they serve here, made with fresh fruit juices blended with crushed ice and so refreshing on those 95 – 100 degree days! Prices are cheap here in general, and though I know that you are “supposed to” bargain and haggle over prices, everything seems so cheap I don’t feel like I NEED to bargain and I just pay the price asked if I want the food or service or item badly enough.

I’ve always loved seeing typos on Asian menus back in the USA, but what laughs I have had reading English language signs in Thailand! One restaurant sign proudly stated, “We serve SANDWISHES”   But the best was at a national park area where the sign at the entrance said, “If you enter, please be clean”.  Of course, they meant, “Don’t litter”, but I initially thought I should find a shower before I I attempted to visit the park.

Last night I stayed at a place called Phi Phi Island (pronounced PEE PEE), a beautiful green paradise rising from amazing turquoise waters. I stayed in a kind of bamboo hut at the far end of the beach and it was idyllic. Upon waking I went for a swim and suddenly, I  heard a strange fluttering sound. A few seconds later at least 100 flying fish swarmed past me, skimming seemingly effortlessly across the surface of the water! It was wonderful! Later I hiked to a lookout point at 9AM, but the trail was in full sun and the heat almost killed me, even at that time of the day. The view was spectacular though, with two gorgeous beaches stretched below me on opposite sides of the ridge I had climbed. Truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. (Chillingly, the very beach I’d stayed on at Phi Phi would, the following year, be one of the hardest hit targets of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I’ve seen videos of people who were staying in the same huts where I’d been, being interviewed about how they were almost swept out to sea when the waves came in. Such a contrast to the peaceful scenes I saw there.)

While at Phi Phi I treated myself to my first Thai foot massage, for which a Thai woman charged me the ridiculously low price of $6.50 for a full hour. I almost slipped her another $10 just to get her to stop, as it was at times really painful as she dug her fingers into the bottom of my feet and I was in such pain that I kept breaking out into almost hysterical, helpless laughter. The more I screamed, the more amused she became. My feet did feel better afterward, but maybe it was just the relief of the massage being over!

I will be heading to Bangkok tomorrow, and I have to say I am reluctant to leave southern Thailand and its beaches and its unbelievably kind people. I am blown away by the willingness of people to go out of their way to help. Imagine this: I had a rental car reservation with Budget. To get the car would have meant traveling to the Krabi airport 30 miles away by taxi, and then driving back and would have broken up my day so I would not have been able do much else. I called to see if there might be a closer pick-up location, but instead, the representative at Budget said he would have my car delivered directly to my hotel at whatever time I wanted it! Not one, but three employees came to the hotel and filled out all the contracts with me. They then painstakingly showed me everything about the car and how to run the radio and air conditioner. They were SO sweet, and the cost for this special treatment was nothing. Totally free. Imagine this happening in the U.S. or Europe!

My biggest disappointment about this part of Thailand has been the trash on the beaches and along the roads, which makes me truly sad. Of course the tourists contribute. I wanted to strangle a German woman who repeatedly smoked cigarettes and threw each butt into the waters of the protected mangrove we were visiting on our boat tour. Driving here was also an adevnture I won’t soon forget. The roads are rather like driving through the set-up area of a circus!  Bicycles, motorized scooters and speeding tuk tuks (small golf cart-like vehicles which serve as taxis) wander all of the roads and I had to take great care not to run into anything. Occasionally an elephant was being led down the road, a very “wide load” that was almost impossible to pass, and pedestrians simply walk in front of you without warning. All of this while driving on the left side and shifting with the left hand. It was certainly an adventure!

OK, off to enjoy my last day here before the flight to Bangkok tomorrow. Hope this finds you all well!

Bangkok, Thailand                                                                                                       February 28

I’ve been in Bangkok for the past couple of days and it has been quite an experience, and a startling contrast to the southern beaches of Thailand. On my way into the city from the airport, my cab driver tried to cheat me by offering a “fixed price” to my hotel. I’d read enough guide books to know that the price he was asking was too high and that the recommended rule is to ask the driver to use the meter in the cab. I had to insist three times that he turn on the meter before he finally, grudgingly complied. But I have to admit that I felt a little stupid later when I did a bit of math and realized that by having the taxi meter on I had saved the equivalent of about $3 over what the fixed price had been, and that certainly wasn’t worth the unpleasantness..

I stayed at a very nice place on the river in Bangkok, with a river view. The Hotel Shangri La was supposed to be a 5 star hotel and has been rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the world, so I was expecting a lot  It was very nice, but honestly, I can’t say it was truly amazing enough to make it into the top 10. However, the staff was very cordial and helpful, and it was a comfortable and rather quiet haven in a chaotic Bangkok.

Walking the streets of Bangkok is a shock to the senses and can be exhausting. People are selling anything and everything you can possible imagine. There are huge pots of boiling stews, and giant grills cooking chicken and beef satay on the sidewalks. You can find fried grasshoppers, silk scarves, shoes, jewelry, and a million and one things that I can’t even name as I am not sure what they were! People will approach you trying to sell you massages, taxi rides, time with a prostitute, and very disturbingly, some people asking me if I wanted to buy a little girl or little boy. That was horrifying to me and seems so out of whack with the gentle Thai spirit that I have seen here. There is little room to walk, as the streets are jammed with herds of people who stop constantly to look at things. The sidewalks are often uneven and broken, so I have to watch my footing carefully, and even at 1O PM it’s a humid 95 degrees!

In addition to all of this, there is the very, very dirty Chao Phraya River that is used for a lot of water bus and taxi transportation – like Venice, but Venice’s canals are a LOT cleaner. I’ve read that tourists should be careful not to breathe in any of the mist from the motor boats that ply the river, as it is possible to catch hepatitis from the water vapor. Yet I saw the banks of the river lined with hundreds of children playing in the water to cool off. I also heard stories from other travelers today of how their children suffered instant asthma attacks as soon as they got outside because of the terrible air pollution.

Despite all this, I can’t say I have disliked Bangkok. I had an absolutely amazing 5 course Vietnamese dinner, I found some very cool souvenirs, and have really enjoyed wandering through and photographing the unbelievably colorful temples and the palace. I am glad I saw the city, but two days here was enough and as I caught my cab back to the airport I was dreaming of a quiet and serene place to escape to and hoping that Bali would be that for me..

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia                                                                                   March 4, 2003

I flew from Bangkok to Bali by way of Singapore and arrived on at 9PM. Thankfully I was being met by a driver sent from my hotel that I had reserved in advance of my arrival. Walking out of baggage claim I was assaulted by dozens of desperate men wanting to carry my luggage and drive me somewhere – anywhere. The question, “Hey boss, where you want to go?” came at me from every direction.

My driver, holding a sign with my name on it, was a welcome sight, and took me on the hour long trip to my hotel. Having read a lot about Bali before I left the States, I realized that hiring a guide to visit Bali was essential and I’d already secured the guide services of someone who came highly recommended online. But my driver tried hard to persuade me that he could be a guide for me too. I felt so bad for him, and yet I had to keep telling him, “I’m sorry, but I have someone already”.

We arrived at the hotel and I was simply speechless when I saw it. The Honeymoon Guesthouse in Ubud is a large, walled compound containing its own temple and several bungalows. My room was on a second floor of one of the bungalows, with a private balcony overlooking a beautiful pool with fountains and lush gardens. Hindu statues are everywhere and the doors to my room are intricately carved wood. A king size bed, surrounded by mosquito netting and looking quite exotic, dominates the main room, and the whole place is pretty much open air. The shower is in a bathroom, but there’s no ceiling in that room – just beautiful trees and flowers arching overhead. I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. My first night I fell asleep to the sound of exotic birds and frogs outside, with a gentle, cool breeze blowing in.

In the morning the hotel staff brought my breakfast to my veranda, where a table was set for me overlooking the pool. Fresh tropical fruits, French Toast and mango-lime juice were on the menu and it was delicious. Soon afterward, my guide for the following few days, Anwar arrived to meet me and to discuss our plans. I instantly liked him, a very warm man with a good sense of humor and who speaks excellent English. He is married and has a 14 month old daughter and has been working in the travel business for ten years (he is 30 now). He is part of the 5% of Bali’s population that is Muslim; his father is Muslim and his mother, Hindu. At any rate, we spent about an hour discussing plans and things I wanted to see and he said he’d be back the next day to start our tour. I would be renting the car, but he would be the driver. This is the recommended way of doing things, because even with insurance, getting into a car accident in Indonesia can be a very scary and expensive affair and would not be high on any tourist’s list of “must do’s.

That afternoon, I decided to walk about a mile to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a temple area where dozens – if not hundreds – of monkeys roam free. Outside the entrance, women pleaded with me to buy “banana for the monkey”, which I did… for maybe 30 cents for an entire bunch. The currency here, the Indonesian Rupiah, is valued at about 9,000 per every U.S. Dollar. So you are charged admissions of 2,000 Rupiah, or have dinners that cost 35,000 Rupiah and think you have spent a fortune until you realize that 2,000 Rupiah is 25 cents, or 35,000 is $3.50!

Small gray monkeys were everywhere in the shady sanctuary, and some are very aggressive. As soon as they see your bananas, it’s all over. They swarm around you and unfortunately the little buggers are smart. Putting the bananas into your backpack does NOT fool them; they will try to jump up and grab the backpack or climb up your leg to get to the food. One big guy was very aggressive and after stomping my foot and screaming “NO!” several times, to no avail, I tried “TIDAK!”, which is Indonesian for “No”, and that seemed to do the trick. I guess this is another reason why it’s always wise to learn a few words in the language of the places you are visiting!

After the monkey forest I had a nice peaceful lunch in a small place where you eat outdoors in covered huts… and soon it started to thunder and rain very hard. I stayed as long as possible, but finally needed to leave and of course, silly me, I had not packed an umbrella! I got quite soaked, but it was a warm rain and it felt refreshing.

After a hot shower I was treated to a complimentary massage and spa treatment back at my hotel room. Believe it or not, my lovely guest room for a three night stay included breakfasts each morning, a traditional duck dinner at a local restaurant, and a full massage and spa treatment for $100 total!  At the appointed hour, a woman came to my room and set up a long cushioned place for me to lie on the floor. She proceeded to give me a wonderful massage for almost an hour; then she painted me with a thick paste that contained many herbs and spices and even rice… she let it dry on my body and then massaged again and it acted like a defoliating skin scrub… it felt great!  Then I was covered head to toe in a “yogurt polish”! Good enough to eat!  I felt like I was being prepared for a human sacrifice being offered to prevent a volcanic eruption! Finally she had me shower off and then she’d prepared my large tub with a warm bath filled with flowers of every color: bougainvillea, plumeria, hibiscus floating on the surface. It felt so decadent, and before leaving she served me a cup of herbal tea to enjoy as I soaked. What a wonderful way to finish my afternoon.

That evening I met a man named Putu, who’d served as a guide for my friend LeeAnn when she’d visited Bali. Of course I’d already hired Anwar as my guide, but I was happy to meet another local. He came and met me for a cold drink and then offered to take me on a ride through the countryside on his motorbike. I was amazed by his skill at balancing us on the small and winding roads. We saw the nightly migration of white herons who roost in the trees surrounding a small village, and then he brought me to a master woodcarving shop owned by his uncle. The carved wood masks and statues were beautiful, but a bit expensive, and there was quite a bit of pressure to buy something. Putu’s uncle showed me a carved wooden sculpture about a foot high and said that it takes him perhaps 3 months to do something of this size, while larger pieces can take 8 months!  The detail of the work was really astounding.

He also told me how difficult things had been since the terrorist bombings that hit the island last October. A nightclub at one of the popular tourist beaches was blown up, killing over 200 people, mostly Australian and American tourists and Indonesians. Since then, tourism on the island has slowed to an absolute trickle, resulting in some of the unbelievably low prices I’ve seen, and leaving the population struggling to survive with the tourist industry having come to a standstill. In fact, Anwar had told me that I was his first customer in 6 months! For an artisan like Putu’s Uncle, this is his only livelihood. He talked about how grateful the Balinese are for people like me who are still coming to visit Bali, and begged me to encourage others to come. In fact, as I walked around Ubud today, several people approached me and asked if I was an American. While I have never shied away from admitting my citizenship, in these politically charged times I was a little hesitant to say yes, but nevertheless, I admitted that I was indeed an American. The people would invariably break into warm smiles, grab my arm or hug me and say things like, “We love Americans! When the terrorists tried to hurt Americans and Australians, they hurt us too! We are together! Thank you for coming!” Some of them thanked me so emotionally it almost brought me to tears.

So, of course, I eventually gave in to Putu’s uncle, and though I did do a little bargaining, I ultimately bought a beautiful original wood carving of the Balinese Rice Goddess. Putu would take no money from me for showing me the sights, but I finally convinced him to let me take him to dinner, and he seemed to enjoy that a lot. So it was a nice evening and it was fun to have some company.

The next day I set out with Anwar early in the morning in a big, air-conditioned Toyota SUV. Before we left, the staff at the hotel did all my laundry for a mere $5 and Anwar took my only pair of long pants to get them mended for me when the stitching had come out of the zipper! People’s willingness to help is touching, and as in Thailand, I was amazed by their kindness and hospitality. We stopped at a market place where I bought myself a sarong to wear to the temples we planned to visit. Anwar said that to wear the sarong and a headband shows respect, and that many tourists do not do this, entering temples in shorts and tank tops. I got a brown and orange (of course!) sarong with a very Balinese design and a yellow headband – yellow is a sacred color to the Hindus. Anwar said I had made good choices, and today I received compliments several Balinese women throughout the day, so I guess I made a good choice.

We visited two beautiful temples and I learned a lot about Hindu beliefs. They have a trinity of three gods: Vishnu the Creator, Brahma the Protector, and Seawa the Destroyer. Many temple statues and shrines are “dressed” in black and white cloth and this is to symbolize the good and bad in everything. Yellow scarves are tied around them to indicate the sacred.  As we walked through one lakeside temple, I heard a chorus of men’s voices  coming from a nearby mosque, and Anwar commented that the Hindu and Muslim religions seem to be able to exist in harmony on Bali. If only this were true around the world.

We made many stops at local vendors. At a fruit stand a man cut open a sample of every tropical fruit they had to let me taste them: mangosteens, rambutans, you name it! They filled a bag full of the fruits and the cost was 25 cents! We also got roasted corn and peanuts, and then stopped at a wonderful coffee plantation for jaffles (bread, filled with cheese, eggs and tomatoes and pressed in a grill like a waffle). This was washed down with some freshly ground Balinese coffee, which was out of this world. The pleasant manager showed me in detail the entire process of harvesting and preparing the beans and it was quite interesting. On a short hike, we stopped to admire some flowers and the older woman who owned the property invited us into the yard and painstakingly explained each and every flower variety to me – in Indonesian, but Anwar was a great translator for me.

We visited a huge waterfall where there was barely a handful of other tourists, and we stopped many times along the way to get pictures of Bali’s beautiful rice terraces and the workers who harvest the rice and plant it. Children along the side of the road would stop and wait for us to pass, all giggling and chanting, in unison, “Hello Meeester, how are you? Welcome!”  Anwar said they love to practice English when they spot a tourist. Driving remote back roads we passed villages where women carry various things – huge bowls of food offerings, baskets of harvested rice, dirty clothes, plants – balanced perfectly atop their heads. People were taking baths in creeks beside the road, boys were carrying roosters in cages to cock fighting matches, and people sat together on steps and waved and smiled as we drive through. I feel as though I am starring in a National Geographic Channel special. It’s such an amazing experience!

Anwar talked during the day about his life and the hardships he is suffering trying to feed his family. If he can make the equivalent of $50 per month, he and his wife and baby will have food. His yearly rent is just $300 and he almost lost their place in December because he didn’t have the money to pay, since no tourists had hired him since October. Evidently the woman who’d recommended him to me as a guide actually sent him some money to help pay the rent and he got very teary-eyed and emotional talking about how she’d saved his life, and how happy his wife was when she heard that I’d hired him for my four day stay. His fee for a full day of service as driver and guide is only $6.25!

We drove to the north coast and a town called Lovina, where I planned to stay for two nights. We found a charming hotel with little individual villas, air conditioned, king sized beds, a pool, and beautiful landscaping. The usual price was $75 a night for the most deluxe villa, but their “special rate” (partly because of Anwar being my guide and partly due to their economic hardship) for me was $35 a night with breakfast. For $8 more they would take me on a two-hour long sunrise sail to see dolphins.  As cute as this hotel was, I was not impressed by Lovina itself, and the beach was a huge disappointment, with very brown seas that did not look appealing to swim in. I asked Anwar if I could change my plan. I’d spend one night at Lovina to see the dolphins, and then wanted to return to my wonderful hotel in Ubud for my last night on Bali. He worked it all out easily, and I was so grateful to him for letting me see this area before committing to spend two days there. I just loved Ubud, and wanted to spend most of my time there.

Earlier tonight in Ubud we had a spectacular thunder and lightning storm, and some heavy rain, but it has all quieted down now. I had the specially prepared complimentary dinner from my hotel, smoked duck with many interesting Indonesian dishes on the side, and that was delicious. I then walked back to the hotel and had a late night swim in the gorgeous pool and now am ready to collapse, so I will end this chapter of my journal for now. Goodnight!

Melbourne, Australia                                                                                    March 10, 2003

I am now thousands of miles from Bali, but need to finish telling the story of my time in what has to be one of the most exotic places I have ever visited.

During my last few days on Bali, first Anwar came to pick me up and we attended a traditional Balinese Barong Dance performance. The dance tells a story of good vs. evil in which the Barong or Protector god is challenged by evil, and thankfully, always wins. The music was wonderful, the costumes fantastic, and it was an enjoyable hour long event. From there we went to a place to see how batik cloth is made by hand. After an interesting demonstration of how the artisans draw designs on the cloth with various colors of hot wax, I was then ushered into the store for some hardline attempts to get me to buy stuff. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to browse and find something I really liked, but unfortunately the salespeople simply converge on you and start unrolling and unraveling dozens of garments for you to look at if you so much as look in the direction of something, and it made me just want to run screaming from the shop! I finally managed to find a batik wall hanging of the Balinese landscape that was nice, but might have bought something more substantial without the pressure..

We then drove up to the volcano, Mt. Batur, a huge caldera dozens of miles across that last erupted five years ago. Inside the caldera is another, even taller volcanic cone. It is an impressive sight. I ate lunch at a restaurant there and truly felt like a celebrity. We pulled up and the restaurant staff came out to open my door, and from all directions people swarmed around me trying to get me to buy their wares, mostly little trinkets or packages of gum or Tic-Tacs, as the restaurant staff escorted me into the quiet of the restaurant. It was really overwhelming. Anwar and I then had a nice soak in some of the volcanic hot springs in the area before heading back down the backside of Bali to the northern coast, where I spent the night at a hotel in Lovina.

The next morning I had to report to the beach at 6AM to go on a dolphin sighting trip in a small outrigger canoe with just 3 other passengers and a navigator. Seeing the sunrise from sea was a special treat, and we must have seen at least 30 dolphins during the 90 minute trip. Anwar then met me back at the hotel and took me to his village of Sawan, located in the hills above Lovina. He showed me around the village and for lunch we went to a satay stand run by Anwar’s mother, who fed me a delicious satay and rice and refused to take a dime from me. Anwar asked me please not to insist on trying to pay; this was her offering of hospitality, so I stopped my protests and was very grateful for her kindness. We went back to his home I met his father and a couple of his brothers who also worked in the travel industry until the bombing in Kuta and are now jobless. Anwar’s youngest brother, a boy of perhaps 8 years old proudly showed me a race track that his father had built for him. It was made from scraps of cardboard and plastic taped together to make an oval track and the boy pushed miniature Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars around the track manually. He was thrilled with his track and his father beamed with pride, and I had to hold myself back from crying. I wish American kids could see how people live in other parts of our world, and how the simplest things make them so happy. Neither of Anwar’s parents spoke any English, but with help from Anwar we managed to converse, mostly with smiles and my very small Indonesian vocabulary. I’ll never forget this day. It was beautiful.

On the ride back toward Ubud we visited more temples, one was a particularly gloomy place that was located in front of the entrance to a cave inhabited by hundreds of bats, while in the parking area, a group of very aggressive children tried to sell me beads and would not leave me alone for a second. We stopped at a butterfly reserve where it was possible to walk through beautiful gardens enclosed in huge nets and watch hundreds of butterflies of various colors and sizes go from one brightly colored flower to the next. We also saw many of Bali’s famous and stunningly beautiful rice paddies terracing down the hillsides. The people laboring in the fields work so hard; each rice plant must be planted by hand, one at a time, while standing in a watery paddy that may harbor deadly snakes and with the hot sun beating down on them. Others carry huge baskets of rice that’s just been harvested on their heads. Everyone smiles and seems content, and many took time to pose for pictures for me. I swear that from now on, I will never take a single grain of rice on my plate for granted now that I have seen what it takes to produce it! We also stopped at a beach in eastern Bali called Candidasa where I got to swim in a very warm Bali Sea and then we both got foot massages from a local!

We finally got back to the hotel in Ubud in the late afternoon and I took a long walk around town. I’ve never used my mosquito repellent spray. I think I have seen maybe 3 mosquitoes during the entire stay in Bali, far less than I usually have in my bedroom when I stay with my Aunt Helena and Uncle Harry in Massachusetts during the summers! I also have had absolutely no trouble with my stomach during the entire trip so far. I have been careful to drink only bottled water, but it’s easy to forget that you shouldn’t rinse your toothbrush under the faucet! I had a fantastic dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and then went for a last swim in the pool.

Everyone seemed to be in bed by 10PM, so I had the place to myself and was astounded by the noises coming from the surrounding forests and fields. Crickets by the hundreds, frogs by the dozens, and huge and loud gecko lizards (three times the size of those in Hawaii and with much deeper voices!) created a chorus that made me laugh because it was just so loud! Some sounds I couldn’t even identify, but they sounded eerily like the noises made by the cannibalistic plants in a Lost in Space episode in which Judy Robinson was nearly consumed by a giant cyclamen! (You can take the boy away from his television, but you can’t take the television out of the boy!)

My last day on Bali was slow and restful. Anwar picked me up around noon, and we visited the beach at the resort city of Kuta, where last October’s bombs went off. The bar where so many people died (Anwar had actually lost a friend from his own village) was totally demolished, as was a big building across the street, and several nearby buildings are still under repair. Kuta seemed quieter than I expected, and partly this is because people are afraid to go to Bali and hotel occupancies are about 10% of normal. It is the last place you’d ever expect something like this to happen, but then, so was New York.

We then went to a temple called Ulu Watu, a magnificent place built on cliffs overlooking the sea. It is unfortunately inhabited by a large group of monkeys who were more aggressive than any I’d encountered thus far. Anwar told me to take off my glasses and put in my contact lenses before we entered, and I thought he was being silly, but we witnessed countless incidents of monkeys coming out of nowhere, landing on people’s heads and shoulders, and fleeing with cameras, glasses, hats and jewelry! They were, as my French friend Gilles says of naughty children, “a bunch of brats” and Anwar soon began calling them “monkey brats”. At sunset we saw a dance held on the cliff top; it was called a Kecak Dance, and there were no musical instruments being played, only a group of men chanting as the dance and action of the play progressed. The story was a sort-of Romeo and Juliet tale about a couple named Rama and Sita. The stage area was swarming with enormous, colorful dragonflies, and the setting sun made for a beautiful backdrop. In the final act, a monkey spirit character is burned in a circle… and they actually create a huge ring of fire around him fueled by dry brush. Barefoot, the man playing the monkey spirit stomps out all the flames and escapes. It was quite dramatic and a wonderful way to end my stay in Bali!

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Ulu Watu Temple

Finally, before taking me to the airport for my flight to Australia, Anwar brought me to the village of Jimbaran for a seafood dinner on the beach. There was a musical group performing on the sand, and to my amazement, the last three songs they played before I had to leave to go to the airport were:  “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, “Massachusetts”, and most remarkably, “Down Under”!  What are the odds?!

It was really difficult to say farewell to Anwar, who now seems much more like a friend than my tour guide. I gave him a tip that far exceeded the total fee he charged me for his guide services, and he became tearful, saying that I had just secured the rent for his home for the rest of the year. It’s all so hard to process what life is like here. Given how different our lives are – we come from totally different worlds, are of different religions and cultures –  I was so impressed by how much we had in common. We shared common views of world events, similar dreams and aspirations, and a similar sensibility about what the most important things in life really are. I cannot imagine my stay on Bali with anyone but Anwar at my side, and will be forever grateful for getting such a warm and thorough experience of Bali thanks to him.

A final note: As of 2018, Anwar still works as a tour guide on Bali. I have sent friends to him when they visited and they had a wonderful experience with him. You can find him on Facebook via this link: Anwar Bali Freelance Tours. I can’t recommend him highly enough, and if you do seek him out, please tell him I sent you!

 

 

 

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