Back to Bali… onward to Java

22 05 2008

street art in Kuta's narrow concrete maze
street art in Kuta’s narrow concrete maze

After Borneo, I headed back to Bali where I had previously been only for a few short days. This is the epicenter of Indonesian tourism, and it’s filled to the brim with things to do. I wanted to spend some more time exploring the island, sampling the bargain gourmet cuisine in Ubud, and try out surfing for the first time ever.

I took surf lessons in Kuta – a place that really grows old after a while. However I could not resist the draw of Kuta Beach at sunset. Kuta Beach’s fine, dense sand and gentle slope yields this magical property of oozing seawater from the sand all through low tide, resulting in a near-perfect mirror from most angles. You’ve seen this in my previous posts about Bali, and if you look in the photos you’ll see more than you probably care to browse.

The Ground Zero memorial, site of the 2002 bombing that killed 202 people.

I figure this might cause some parents’ hearts to skip a few beats. The kids were having lots of fun, and the moms were just a few meters away. Still it illustrates a bit about different attitudes toward child-rearing here – no one even batted an eyelash at this scene.

magic sand

Dogs – indifferent to the surfers and sellers passing by – rule the narrow concrete maze of Kuta.

There’s a toothless helmet law in Bali – you must wear a helmet on a motorbike, but the law does not specify any standard of protection. So the locals ride with anything from a real motorcycle crash helmet (too hot and expensive for most) to thin, unpadded plastic jobs that wouldn’t even go over at a construction site. These mostly cosmetic, fun ones are for the tourists.

Waiting for the next set

Sweet mayonnaise corn, now with raisin! from the comments on smugmug: “Yep, I just threw up a little in my mouth.”

Hope this waxing crescent moon shows at this size…

Let’s face it – clowns are just scary, even if they’re peddling hamburgers and surfing plastic waves

You know you play a lot of chess when: A) you’ve worn the black paint off your chessboard

Kuta Beach swarms with an entire merchant class. Massage ladies like this one, pineapple sellers, drink vendors, surfboards rentals, bamboo mats, sarongs, jewelry, tattoo artists showing sample books, and more bizarre items like bow and arrow sets and blowguns.

Almost every shop in Kuta has the same crap for sale. Surf clothes, snarky t-shirts, rude bumper stickers, cheap wooden sculpture, bootleg DVDs. An unbroken line of identical shops selling the exact same merchandise, haggling over pennies. So a shop with its own identity really grabs your attention. This is more of the “sell one thing and do it well” model.

Similar idea… the sandal shop, this one in Ubud.

Speaking of Ubud… after surfing it was back inland to Ubud, cultural center of Bali. Saw a great deal of dancing and gamelan. Gamelan is a little difficult to comprehend from descriptions, and I won’t bore you with stuff cribbed from wikipedia (link above) or guidebooks. I recorded quite a bit of very dramatic sound, but currently lack a good way to share that with you.

One of the intricate bronze xylophones in the gamelan orchestra

More fearsome carvings on xylophones

Bronze gong

Traditional dancing

The Kecak, or monkey dance.

The Fire Dance

The famous Monkey Forest… I’ve seen plenty of macaques on this trip, but only here in Bali have I met such malevolent, greedy monkeys – trained by banana-toting tourists to steal everything they can.

But baby monkeys: still cute

From the art markets in Ubud:


Wood sculptures

This one’s for Anita

Eggshells on cactus spikes – I don’t know why

Fearsome dragon kite, 20 feet across

The evil witch-queen Rangda, engaging in her favorite activity – eating children

Rice harvest. Cut with scythe, bash into basket to shake the rice grains loose.

Well, those little things are what all the fuss is about. Feeds half the world.

And also the Balinese Hindu gods, when made into cakes and ritually wafted up into heaven by holy incense…

Which brings the blessings of the gods to events, homes, crops, even motorbikes.

Oh right, and the surfing:

There you go.

From Bali I took a quick flight to Java – an island the size of Pennsylvania, with a population of 130 million. In other words, dense. Home to about half of Indonesia’s population in hot sprawling metropolises like Jakarta and Yogyakarta, this is quite a different experience than the little islands and remote corners where I’ve spent most of my time this trip. Actually I never really intended to spend much time here, and after melting in the humid sun for a few days that feeling was quite reinforced.

I came to see the Waisak festival, billed as the world’s largest celebration of the Buddhist New Year (alternatively, Buddha’s birthday, or date of Buddha’s Nirvana, or some other variations. Also known as Vesak in much of the world. Things get kinda muddy over the course of 2550 years). I’m not so sure this is the biggest in the world. It’s certainly the biggest in Indonesia, a country with only a tiny population (1%) of practicing Buddhists. And it takes place at at Borobudur, again billed as the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Though this might be a bit misleading – while certainly stupendously large, it’s a very singular temple, immediately surrounded by a giant parking lot for smoke-belching tour buses, row upon row of souvenir stalls and noodle shops, and herds of very persistent junk sellers and beggars. The central temple at Angkor Wat, for instance, may be smaller but it’s surrounded by miles and miles of related temple complexes, the center of what was at one time the mightiest city in the world.

Back to Waisak – I wasn’t quite expecting something sponsored by cigarette and sports-drink companies, with t-shirts and commemorative gift bags:

And as for the world’s biggest Buddhist festival – maybe so. I’ve been to 4th of July fireworks shows with more people, and certainly it’s nothing like the Superbowl or something on that order. However this was a major event, and the scrum of photographers from all the world’s major press agencies were doing the same as me – trying to make the small gaggle of a few dozen monks look bigger than they really were, and framing them in front of Borobudur to seem more connected to the temple, rather than being in a field off to one side of it.

So perhaps I was expecting something a little more exotic. Conclusion: if you want to see Buddhism in action, stick to Thailand, Burma, and Tibet. However Borobudur on a quiet day is something else entirely and not to be missed:

Inside each of the stupas is a statue of Buddha

And everyone has pretty much the same idea.

One last random thing:

Melon-flavored carbonated cultured milk drink. A little hard to describe the flavor, but totally delicious.

So what’s next? Currently I’m still mulling that around. Someplace cool and near water to spend some of the final two weeks before coming home June 4th.


6 05 2008

Most lists seem to put Pulau Sipadan in the top five dive sites in the world. I haven’t dived anywhere near enough to know if that’s right, but I can tell you that this place is basically one giant exotic aquarium. I’ll skip the superlatives and just tell you about the place.

Access is from the nearby mainland town of Sempurna. This is a rather ordinary seaside town, nothing really worth writing about – except the lizard in the sewer. Most places here have an open sewer system: a concrete ditch along one or both sides of the road, covered by flat concrete blocks (an alarming fraction of these are broken and caved in, so I avoid walking on them when possible), welded metal grates, or often nothing at all. Inside the ditch resides all manner of garbage, sewage, animals, or other disgusting material. In Sempurna I saw a very angry five-foot long monitor lizard in the ditch wading through sewage up to his neck, luckily under a metal grate that prevented him from giving me a fatally-septic lash with his tail. Couldn’t get the camera out before he dashed under the safety of the concrete sidewalk, though.

Approaching the guesthouse where I stayed, built out over the water

Meredith captioned this “I see your two fish and raise you three”

There used to be guesthouses on Sipadan. Bear in mind that there is nothing else in this region of Sabah that can compare to the economic draw of one of the world’s top five dive sites. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have fought a protracted legal battle over control of the island, including terrorist kidnappings of tourists and tons of illegal development deals.  All the guesthouses were evicted from the island, nominally to protect the reef from dumping of sewage and garbage, and a permit system was put in place.  The guesthouses are now occupied by a substantial Malay military garrison, and the government collects the permit fees where previously they got only tax revenue.  The permits are theoretically limited to 120 per day (400 per day was common before the permits), but the dive guides report that corruption and bribes are rampant.  So draw your own conclusions.  At any rate, the reef seems to be well protected and certainly teems with life.  At times it’s an underwater coral fantasy straight from a Jacques Cousteau film.

The guesthouses all moved to the nearby island of Mabul.  The existing inhabitants were already occupying most of the very limited real estate there, so all the new development went onto makeshift pilings out into the ocean.  There are two vast five-star resort complexes here built far out over the water, one complete with a helipad ($300+ per night). 

I stayed instead in a flimsy backpackers longhouse ($15 per night), where the occasional nighttime storm blew straight through the ill-fitting windows and left me sleeping in wet bedclothes.  Five days of diving, three dives a day (around $100 US per day) left me a little exhausted, but the tranquility of the island and its inhabitants was a welcome relief.

Lots of people here spend their time building and repairing ships, in a uniquely gaudy style

The finished product

The barbed wire seperating the village from the resort is an excellent place to hang your laundry

But enough about the village, here are some critters I met underwater:

Nudibranch (a psychedelic, Dr. Seuss sort of sea slug)

Cuttlefish, a sort of big hyperintelligent cthulhu-like squid. They communicate with each other via rapid flashing, fluttering color changes all over their body. When you approach, they start a kaleidescopic display of whirling colors as if to ask “you speak flashing cuttlefish language?” Upon receiving no reply, they fade back into camoflage with the background and go back to sleep.

Speaking of camoflage… (crocodilefish)

Here’s a funny story. A resort developer wanted to buy some unused land on Mabul that was controlled by the neighboring resort, which of course refused. So the developer goes to the neighboring petrosultanate of Brunei, buys a surplus shallow-water drilling rig, tows it to Mabul, and plunks it down right in front of the landowning resort, ruining the view of the sunset. He then develops it as a dive resort, converting the helipad into a sundeck, building luxury bunks in shipping containers, and painting it the gaudiest colors imaginable. Revenge is sweet…

Poisonous lionfishes

Frogfish, possibly the ugliest thing in the sea

When you’re looking at the clouds from 20m deep, you know the visibility is excellent…

All green sea turtles, abundant here.

Scorpionfish (poisonous), garden eel, and eyeball of unidentified creature

Fantastical coral gardens

The tornado of a school of barracuda, one of the most famous sights here.

Colossal bumphead parrotfish, each 3-4 feet long

angry moray eel

Shark, turtle, fish…

Nemo! These guys are endlessly fascinating. They hide in the tentacles of the anenome, then seem overcome by anxiety and swim around frantically. Wiggle your fingers and curiousity takes over for a moment, and they’ll emerge to look at the weird fingerfish before dashing back into safety.

Plenty more photos to see in the smugmug folder if you haven’t had enough. I’m back in Bali now. One thing I’ll say for Borneo, it may be overpriced, overhyped, and trampled, but no one hassles you on the street for t-shirts and motorbike rides.