Wedged snugly between the handlebars; the baby lies asleep, oblivious to it all. Oblivious to the shrill drone of engines roaring, oblivious to the engulfing toxic fumes around her and perhaps gratefully, oblivious to their own frantic path through the rush hour traffic. In an instant the motorbike disappears into the sea of motorbikes as we weave our own destructive course. Mounting the pavement once again our taxi driver screams at the world around him, punching his horn repeatedly, spinning the steering wheel towards another non existent gap, all the while holding a quite rational conversation on his telephone. The relative calm of the previous eight months travel has vanished in an instant. Roosters screech from caged homes, food hawkers stoop within billowing steam, children bawl and old men sit in the shadows, eyes glazed to it all. As unbearable as it is intoxicating, the all consuming chaos is a kind of its own; it’s unrivalled and unmistakeable and it batters the senses. We were back in Asia, time to hold on tight and enjoy the ride.
Indonesia is a country I’ve never given too much thought to if I’m honest. I knew of Krakatoa and I knew it was big, but that was as far as my knowledge went. Except for Bali that is. “I’m not going there” I said, adamantly “It’s full of drunken Aussies“. It’s a well known fact, is it not, that it’s just an Australian Magaluf and a place to be avoided. So it was as a result of my well informed opinions that when it came to planning our time in Indonesia, Bali would definitely not be on the itinerary. No way, not for me, we’ll go elsewhere thank you. Well, you can guess what’s coming next, can’t you? Yep, we went to Bali. It turns out I was wrong you see (unbelievable, I know) and that there is more to Bali than mulleted men named Shane urinating in the street. A huge amount more in fact, for this is an intriguing island of ancient traditions and natural beauty that would quickly have us smitten, and there was no better example of that than Ubud.
Nestled amid a landscape drowned in rice paddies, Ubud is a town of the artisans and of culture. Immediately it was clear to see the attraction here. Gateways to traditional Balinese family compounds offered glimpses of beautifully elaborate interiors, while the ragged workshops of resident artists spill colourfully out onto the pavements. We found our way to the Sacred Monkey forest, where hundreds of boisterous Macaques scampered impishly over the temples of both men and stone, screeching with a volume only beaten by that of panicked tourists as cameras, bags and trinkets were snatched at. In need of some calm we followed unsighted and narrow alleyways, away from the crowds and out into the vast and tranquil rice paddies. Once the staple local source of income, nowadays the ever increasing need to support tourism has seen Ubud sprawl outwards at the cost of its agricultural roots.
Memories of the challenges of Asia came back within our first 24 hours. The careful negotiation of potholed pavements is key, as are the complexities of an Asian toilet. Customs and rules were to be remembered; never offer your left hand, keep your feet down and always watch out for stray dogs/scooters/flying phlegm. You’ve then got the other mainstays of Asian culture, dancing and temples. We sought out the former in the elegant surrounds of the Royal Palace, where we watched a traditional Balinese ‘Legong‘. Now I could watch these type of things for days without having a clue what was going on, but I think that’s beside the point really as does anyone actually understand them? Doll faced women performed mechanically precise movements while a half Lion half Dog creature flounced around behind them, all to the plink-plonk soundtrack of a live xylophone orchestra. It was elaborate and fascinating, and predictably bizarre.
The next day we took ourselves further afield for some temple action – starting with Goa Gojah, the Elephant Cave, where sadly there was no elephant in a cave, just some ancient statues and a local oddball outside with a snake around his neck. More temples came in the form of Tirta Empul – where worshippers come from far and wide to bathe – and then Pura Besakih, the largest temple in Bali and as impressive in size as the wealth of tricks used to try and fleece us of our money. We visited Coffee plantations and drank Luwak (Coffee made from Mongoose droppings, I’m serious), took in glorious views of Mount Agung and ate suckling pig at a local market – each as far removed from the Bali stereotypes I’d had as is possible. Our first few days in Indonesia had been a welcome shock to the system and a refreshing reminder of the what Asia could offer, it had us clamouring for more. We were heading next to a small island off the south of Bali named Nusa Lembongan, where beaches and coral reefs promised some calm, but getting there meant a new attempt at the rush hour traffic. Take a deep breath and hold on tight…