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Monday, July 27, 2015

Bali on a Backpackers Budget

It recently occurred to me that every time Brandon and I are in a new destination, we look through our guide book, read through a few blogs, but never get the information we are looking for- how to independently and CHEAPLY get around from place to place as well as see all the highlights without a guide. It has proven to be an extremely difficult task and it is now that I write to my fellow backpackers - How to really see Bali on a backpackers budget.
(Exchange rate- about 13.4k to 1 us dollar or 100k = $7.50) - Thats right you are always a millionaire in Bali.

Areas around Bali:

Denpasar is the only airport on bali making it and Kuta crawling with tourists. In many people's mind a stop in Kuta is obligatory when doing a trip to Bali. We ended up staying here for 2 nights, but would leave it out if we were to do it all over again.

When I think of Bali, I separate it in to 4 different sections: Kuta/ Denpasar and South Bali or the Buckit, The Eastern coast, The northern coast, and The Inner mountain area. Depending on how much time you have you will have to choose what is the most important to you. I will briefly break down these areas for you with the highlights, as well as tell you how to get from place to place.

Travel around Bali via motorbike is extremely easy, and if you are crunched on time, or even if you plan on seeing alot of Bali, I recommend renting a motorbike as soon as you get off the plane.

The Bukit: The peninsula that sticks out on the Southern point of Bali is called the Bukit. This area is known for its surfing, and laid back atmosphere compared to Kuta. There is not much night life, except for a few low key bars, but after a full day of surfing a Bintang on your patio will be calling your name as opposed to a bar.

In order to get here you most certainly need to rent a motorbike (as noted above). These are widely available upon arriving in Kuta and depending on the length of your rental they will cost anywhere from 30-50k per day (equivalent of about $2.25- $4.50) don't pay more than 50k, that price is standard everywhere. If you choose not to rent a motor bike your alternative option is to take a cab that will run you around 250k one way and you'll still need transportation to get to other sites and beaches in the area.

Things to do on the Bukit:
length of stay recommended: 2-3 nights

There are a number of nice beaches to visit on the bukit, some argue the best Bali has to offer. Padang Padang is a great beach right off the road crowded with surfers of all levels and splattered with sun bathers. The great thing about this beach is if you walk past the sunbathers and make your way across a few rocks and under some large boulders you will be completely alone. It seems as though everyone stops the moment they step down the stairs and see beach, but the beach on the other side of the boulders is quiet, beautiful and a nice spot to swim. There are also a few cabanas along this beach some being as cheap as 200k.

Once you're ready to hit the surf you can head back to the crowds, rent a board and try your hand at the constant stream of waves that grace this area, or if your looking for a bit more direction, you can also get a lesson for an hour. Make sure you haggle here, as we were first quoted 100k for two boards for an hour and were able to haggle down to 50k total for an hour. Lessons will cost around 250k.

Green Bowl, beach cave

Another notable beach on the bukit is Green Bowl located on the south central region (cost 5k for parking). Hidden away you will find yourself climbing down over 300 stairs before arriving at this little gem. Pack a lunch and some water, and of course your sorong for lounging and you will have a perfect morning watching the few surfers that made the journey, or maybe even get a massage as there are ladies that offer them up (you can haggle these down to 50k).

After you've soaked up enough sun you are only minutes away from Uluwatu Temple (20k entrance fee). There are beautiful views of the dramatic coast line where the waves below violently crash into the cliff. Bring your camera to get some great shots, but watch your belongings as monkeys are sometimes the worst thieves.

Eastern Bali
length of stay recommended: 3+ nights

If you like snorkeling and/or diving Eastern Bali is the place for you. The area is made up of six main towns, Tuluamben, Amed, Jemeluk, Lipah, Selang, and Aas, and you will have endless amounts of exploring to do here. Full of beaches for easy snorkeling, and some beautiful ship wrecks to dive the trait that makes this a great stop is the shear accessibility to everything.

If you have your own transportation, getting to the main area of Amed is easy. If not there is local transportation that comes here, but of course local transport is slow. From Kuta take a local bus to the Batubulan bus terminal (3K). You will have to ask a local how to find this bus. Your other option is to flag down a bemo (small local bus) to get to the bus station which should only cost you around 10k per person. From there take the local bus to Amlapura, (30k and around 1 1/2 - 2 hours) and transfer to another bemo to the town of Culik (15 minute ride, around 20k) which is 3 km south of Amed. There is no local transport as of yet that will take you all the way to Amed, and unfortunately there are no motorbike rentals either; you have two options at this point, walk the 3 km to Amed, or flag down a local to take you there. Once you arrive in Amed you will definitely want a Motorbike as getting around from town to town is virtually impossible without transportation, and each town is worth a look.

Where to Stay

Good Karma bungalows
=> Good Karma bungalows

Now that you've got your own set of wheels you have the freedom to stay where ever you'd like. There are ample options in the area, and most people stop as soon as they get to Amed. If you're looking to get off the beaten path, I recommend staying at a little resort called Good Karma in Lipah. For 250k (a splurge for us) you will have a beautiful cabana right on the beach with a large outdoor stone bathroom. There are two lounging chairs with comfortable mattresses and a pillow as well as a hammock on your private patio. You will have a delivery of hot water every morning with your choice of coffee or tea, and once you are ready to leave your room oasis, you can head to the attached restaurant where you will be given a large breakfast of juice, pancakes, porridge, eggs, or whatever you fancy (also included in the price). The beach just outside has excellent snorkeling, but make sure you ask about currents, the further out you get they can get pretty strong. At night take a stroll along the beach where you will be able to see the natural phenomena of glowing plankton (pick it up and spread on your face... see what happens!) and beautiful constellations directly above. To top it off this area is quiet and has only a few rooms, so it feels as though you have found a hidden treasure.
Glowing Plankton
Tuluamben is the site of a famous US Liberty wreck. It is located a short 30 meters off shore which makes it easy to snorkel or dive. Keep in mind that if you snorkel, you will only be able to see the top of the wreck. If you are a diver, you should be able to find a company to take you on a dive for anywhere from $20-40 US.

Other snorkeling areas include Jemeluk, Japanese wreck and coral garden, all beautiful with very nice sea life and no currents. Ask a local how to get there and use your own transportation. A tour to these areas are not necessary.

Northern Bali
Pemuteran 3+ nights
Lovina 2+ nights

The northern part of Bali has a few worthy destinations: Pemuteran, Lovina, and Munduk. For starters, Pemuteran is way off the beaten path, and unless you're coming from Java or have your own transportation, it's a long ways from anything. However, if you do find yourself lucky enough to get here you will be rewarded with some of the best snorkeling and diving Bali has to offer. When coming into town, look for the homestay of Mango Moon on the southern part of the main street just across from Yos Marine Adventures dive shop. The guesthouse is tucked away in an alley about 100m off the road, and only 200k per night with breakfast included (see post "Ode to Bali" for more on Pemuteran). From here you are a 5 minute walk to the beach. Alternatively, walk the other direction where you can begin hiking up some of the many bluffs that overlook the water, including a hike to a local temple.

Lovina is the biggest tourist destination in the north and well worth a visit. Known for it's famous dolphin tours, I would recommend skipping this tourist trap unless your interested in getting loaded into one of the 50+ boats leaving at sunrise to frantically chase dolphins around.

The town itself is nothing exciting and the snorkeling is just okay, but head south towards Munduk and you will be rewarded with beautiful vistas, tons of waterfalls, and delicious Bali coffee along the way. If you don't have a motorbike at this point, rent one for the day, get a map and ask where the waterfalls are. The shop owner will map out directions for you to more than 10 different falls most of them just have a small parking fee of 2k. Make sure you head out early or later in the day so you avoid tours.

Munduk Falls
Keep your eyes peeled along the way and you may even see a traditional Balinese "cock fight." Very disturbing to watch, but interesting to see the men crowded in a circle shouting loudly and shaking money out in front of them to place their bets.

Once you arrive in Munduk take a coffee break, mosey around the shops, and if you haven't already, try their famous Bakso - a broth based soup with noodles, green vegetables, meatballs, and spices (10k) - so delicious!!

The Inner Mountain Area
3+ nights

Ubud Ceremony

The inner mountain area has so much to offer from trekking to visiting coffee plantations, to seeing old Bali culture. Ubud is a good place to set up as a central location in order to do day trips to the surrounding areas including the infamous Mount Batur (see trekking Mount Batur without a Guide") Kintamani, and everything in between.

Ubud is a little town to get away from the beach where you can see traditional Balinese dance. It has some nice store fronts to window shop, but the town itself is pretty expensive. On the outskirts of town there are loads beautiful treks through rice patties. Drive to the Blanco Renaissance Museum, park your bike and walk down to the river, there will be signs pointing you towards the rice patties. Continue along the path for two kilometers and you will come to a small town (deserted in the evening) with more beautiful sights of the rice patties. Bring along a thermos of hot water (and cups) and make yourself a Bali Kopi on the way down for sunset.

On your way up to Mount Batur take the road towards Tegalalang. Just before the town you will see a large billboard for Coffee Luwak. Stop here for a free sampling of teas and coffees made on site. You will be given a free tour of how they make Luwak coffee as well as some of the spices that are used in the teas. There is no pressure to buy anything and the staff is wonderful. At the end of the tour they will give you a sample of 14 different teas and coffees, and if you want to try the Luwak, you can order a cup for 50k.

Luwak coffee, donned "the most expensive coffee in the world" is produced by the civet cat which eats the cherry coating fruit around the coffee bean. It digests the fruit as normal, however cannot digest the bean that is inside. This in turn comes out in the animals feces as a white bean. The beans are collected, cleaned numerous times, and then dried, de-shelled and dried again, where they are then roasted by hand over a fire.

If your really in the coffee mood there are numerous plantations on the road to Batur, including many fruit farms as well. Even if you don't plan on hiking Batur the drive itself is beautiful and the vistas from the road in Penelokan all the way up to Penulisan are worth the trip. If its a clear day you can see three of Bali's main volcanoes.

Reference Map

Eating around Bali

Food can make or break your budget. While traveling one of the best experiences is trying new foods and eating like a local does. In Indonesia, true local food comes from a warung. This is typically a small shop on the side of the street selling a variety of Indonesian dishes. Look for Mei goreng (fried noodles) Nasi goreng (fried rice) or nasi campur which is a mix of veggies, rice and either chicken or fish. Most of the time these dishes should cost around 10k, but you will usually be quoted around 20k first. Make sure you haggle down to get the local price. Warungs are found everywhere, but are not usually on the main tourist streets. Locals will be happy to tell you where one is. Typically a bit harder to find but your budget will thank you as food in a restaurant is usually 3 or 4 times the price.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ode To Bali

6 July, 2015
Guesthouse: Mango Moon- 3 nights


  • Diving
  • Morning breakfast with Bali coffee and banana pancakes
  • Quiet Guesthouse owned by local family

Dear Bali,

Before I met you I wasn't sure if we'd get along. There were rumors going around that you were "the place to be" for 20 somethings looking to party, that you were expensive, and a crowded little island that can be skipped on a trip to Indonesia. We flew to Indonesia by way of you and had no other choice but to give you a try. Now that I've met you I have to apologize and say that I misjudged. You're dramatic coast lines, black sand beaches, and sea life is unbeatable, and the Balinese culture is simply magical. We've been welcomed here with open arms, invited for dinners, and been shown hospitality in ways we never had back in America. We've seen your natural waterfalls hidden away and climbed some of your beautiful volcanoes. Your coffee is unbeatable, and don't even get me started on your night sky; you have some of the most beautiful stars I've ever seen in my life.

Let me tell you a little bit of what we've been up to so far:

After leaving the island of Java via ferry, Brandon and I made our way back to the west coast of Bali. We didn't do any research, and had quite a bit of time before our friend was to arrive on the southern part of the island. Much to my dismay, we spoke with some touts for advise. One recommended we try a little town called Pemuteran, about an hour drive from the ferry terminal, along the northern coast. Since it was already getting late we didn't have many options so we decided to give it a try.

Our eyes were opened when we were greeted with the most beautiful homestay we could imagine. Hidden away from the beach in a grove of flowers and colorful tropical plants, a little oasis, with a large tiled patio, and a simple bench and table where our breakfast would be delivered every morning. The owner lived on site with his family and the wife picked up our room each day while we were away at the beach. There was even a small open air cabana just across from our room that was used as a common area with pillows and blankets, and books to share or exchange.

Pemutran is a quiet little town that has not yet been discovered by tourists and has little information about it online. Located directly on the beach it is an ideal spot for snorkeling, diving, or swimming the day away. The coral beneath the water is vibrant and alive and the sea life is vast. Brandon and I arrived late in the evening with just enough time to unpack our bags and enjoy our favorite Indonesian dish, mee goreng (fried noodles) prepared by our host family. We sat under the stars with a perfect view of the southern cross and had our first taste of Bali Koppe, a finely ground unfiltered coffee that is ten steps up from the instant NesCafe and holds its own when compared to American coffee- think Java/ Sumatra, Indonesian coffee is some of the best in the world.

We tried out the snorkeling as we do everywhere we go, and it was a perfect teaser to lure us into a dive. The sea floor was spackled with bright blue star fish and pink sea anemones where colorful clown fish would make an appearance when they weren't feeling too shy. Vibrant red sea fans were swaying in the water, attached to structures that had been sunk to promote coral growth. While the water was a bit cooler here than in Thailand, we were so distracted it didn't matter.

The next day went on our first dive trip in Indonesia. The shop, which was locally run, loaded up the small fishing boat, and we took off on our private excursion to a near by reef. Brandon and I were the only ones on the boat, and in fact the only divers in the water. Our first dive we were hit with sensory overload, gazing at the startling greens, blues, and reds that painted the ocean's bottom. The tropical fish assaulted by colors and patterns swimming in every direction as if we weren't even there, and the water so clear you almost forget you're in the ocean. It was unquestionably the most colorful place we had ever seen in the world. We quietly floated through the water perfecting our buoyancy, and pointing out creatures we had never seen before.

The dive was over all too quickly and we jump back on the boat to enjoy a hot lunch, rehydrate, and warm up before we do it all over again.

To give you a sample of sea life in Pemutran we saw an elusive scorpion stone fish that camouflages itself to look exactly like the coral, lion fish, nudibranches, triggerfish, batfish, angelfish, blue spotted rays and so many more. Unfortunately we still don't have a camera good enough to capture the colors underneath the water so you'll just have to experience it for yourself.

We debated long and hard about whether to stay in Pemutran a few more days, but the unknown was calling us again and we decided to continue moving after a three short days. Our next destinations, Lovina, Tulemben, Amed, and the east coast of Bali.

I want to add a side note here as well. I was asked the other day what type of accommodations we were staying in. Before we left my answer would have been hostels/ or whatever is the cheapest, however we've found that a few extra dollars can bring your guesthouse from barely livable to complete bliss. We typically stay in a guest house or homestay with traditional architecture and simple furnishings. Breakfast is almost always included and prepared by the owners, usually consisting of coffee, fruit juice, and banana pancakes, and we almost always find a place on or near the water. Sometimes the rooms have air-conditioning, however I've found that a fan is all we need as the nights are cool in Indonesia, and we end up not using it. And regardless of the town we're staying in, we usually pick a location that is outside the center as we've found it is usually quieter. We don't have many "must haves" when looking for a room, but we always look at 4-5 places before settling on the one that is best for us, finding the right balance between cost, location, and comfort.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

100 Days in a Backpack

3nd July, 2015
100 DAYS!!

Today marks a big mile stone for Brandon and me. We have officially spent 100 days living out of our backpack and life couldn't be better. I have gotten really good at packing/ unpacking and knowing exactly where everything is stored. I'm excellent at haggling and sometimes find myself trying to haggling even when I don't want something, only to realize I can get that hour long massage for 3 US dollars and end up giving in.

Nearly everything in southeast Asia is up for negotiation and after being in the area for over 3 months now, we know what things cost, and we stand our grounds. Unfortunately the dreaded "tourist tax" can't always be avoided. Previously called white man's tax, (enter politically correct term tourist tax) is when locals see your fresh white Westernized skin and automatically double maybe even triple the price. The local will size you up, ask where your from, and only then determine what your cost will be by how you answer. I can tell you one thing, America is the WRONG answer! Either way I guess this comes with the territory, and any Westerner, even a budget backpacker has more money than most locals dream of.

We've been in Indonesia for almost two weeks now and we're starting to learn the language, understand the culture and know what to order for food. It's definitely cheaper than anywhere we've been (full dinner plate .60 cents at a Warung), and the beaches are lovely and quiet. We started off by flying to the island of Bali by way of Borneo, an island that is half Malaysian, half Indonesian (more on that later), and we headed up to the island of Java to see the natural phenomena of blue fire from Mount Ijen. There are only two spots in the world where this can be seen and the most magnificent was here in Indonesia.

From Denpasar, Bali, we took a 4 hour bus, one hour ferry, and a 30 minute taxi ride before getting to a town about one hour from Mount Ijen. We were immediately surrounded by touts selling us packages and transportation to the mountain and different guest houses to stay in. We kindly refuse the first 10 minutes of their hounding before finally exclaiming "WE DON"T NEED HELP!" and briskly walk away. Indonesia is not only known for its beaches but also its relentless "touts." These are locals claiming they are guides or just "there to give you information," but they swarm you like bugs on a hot summer day. Trying my best not to get drawn into the usual "come have a look please, look is free, cheap price, morning price, how much you want, where you come from, where you stay, who you come with, first time Indonesia?" blah blah blah... I put my head down and continue forward. It's an endless battle, but an experience nonetheless. Some of them being extremely helpful, but the majority just plain awful following you sometimes for blocks. I still have yet to figure out how to deter them from me, maybe I'm too kind, politely saying "no thank you" and flashing a pitty smile. Either way if there was a tout repellent I'd be the first in line.

Once we finally shook the touts we still needed a way to get to the mountain and so far everything we had read said we either needed to choose a tour company or hire a car to take us to the trailhead. With luck on our side we made friends with the guest house owners son who called nearly every motorbike rental in town, only to find out everything was booked. We asked him what other options we had as we were budget backpackers and didn't want to pay for a tour or private car. Unfortunately, he didn't have any more options. After a few hours of chatting I threw out a great idea... Why don't we take YOUR moterbike.. (please please please say yes!) He thought about it for a moment, made a call to his wife and then accepted our offer. Relieved that we had a plan and were saving ourselves a chunk of money we hopped in to bed, and took a 2 hour rest before the midnight departure.

Up the windy steep road we drove, taking multiple breaks along the way to let the powerless moterbike cool off. A hour and a half later we miraculously made the daunting drive to the top using our head lamp for a light as the motorbike was ill equipped, and with time to spare before the tours started rolling in. We climbed the steep 3 kilometers to the crater rim using the full moon to guide our way. The blue flames burning 4 meters high in the distance and we carefully make our way down to the inside of the crater to get a better look. Closer and closer we get as thick sulfur fumes engulf us with poison. We arrive next to the flames and quickly slip on our surgical masks to avoid as much of the gasses as possible. Every direction change of the wind brings the sulfur fumes back in to our faces and we cough even with masks on. We try our best to dodge the smoke and watch a combination of the beautiful flames glowing before us and the hardest workers in the world slowly chip away at the mountain full of sulfur.

Mount Ijen is one of the largest sulfur producing sites in the world, where miners (usually starting their first of two journeys at 11 pm to avoid the scorching sun) break the cooled material into large pieces and carry it away in bamboo baskets. Getting paid by the kilogram men carry anywhere from 165-200 pounds on their backs up to the crater rim (nearly 1000 feet in elevation) and then back down to the bottom of the mountain for another 2 miles. They may be the hardest workers in the world enduring fumes daily and a daunting hike only to make 5-7 US dollars a day. Talk about a reality check.

To sum up our 100 days we have explored 20 meters below the sea, trekked over the highest pass in the world, gotten through sicknesses, made new friends, and created thousands of memories that are invaluable. This has been the greatest journey of our lives, and I can only imagine what the next few months has to bring.

We have conquered:
1 Natural Disaster
2 Sicknesses
4 things crossed off our ever growing bucketlist
5 Countries
11 Islands
15 flights
41 guesthouses
hundreds of different foods
and countless cities

We're not sure how long our adventure will last, but for the time being we are enjoying every moment of our freedom and exploring as much as we can. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A Break from the Heat

Cameron Highlands
22 June 2015

Guesthouse: KRS Pines 2 nights


  • Jungle Hike
  • Tea Plantations
  • Ramadan Night Market 

After sweating through the lowlands of Thailand and Malaysia for weeks now, we were pleasantly surprised to find a retreat from the sticky weather in the Cameron Highlands. The Highlands, located at 1500 meters is surrounded by lush green tea plantations in every direction, and hiking trails through the jungle that are well maintained compared to many other jungle areas in Southeast Asia.

We arrived via a 4 hour mini bus ride from Penang, and were driven from guest house to guest house before deciding on KRS Pines, an underwhelming place to stay but the great location, and lovely owner makes up for it. We were given a quick overview of all the wonderful things the area has to offer before heading out to explore. The first day we arrive in any new city is usually spent first at the local market trying copious amounts of food and then finding a small cafe or bar to do some research to plan out our stay. It is now the beginning of Ramadan, a muslim holy month marked by daily fasting from dawn to sunset. Because of this there is a market every evening (in almost every city) selling the most delicious Indian and Malay foods for the ones ready to break their fast.

The Cameron Highlands are made up up three towns that are all within a long walk from each other. Sights are located predominantly in the northern town called Brinchang, but its recommended that travelers sleep in Tanah Rata, the area where most accommodation is. The non reliable bus system in the cameron highlands offers rides between the towns however, the alternative option that was recommended by our guesthouse owner is to hitchhike, something that is common among travelers here. Being a little leery of this, Brandon and I headed to the bus station, waited for a bus that never showed up and finally settled on walking the 4 km to the tea plantation.

The next few days were spent exploring the jungles of the highlands and visiting different tea plantations. While we didn't spend too much time here, it was a nice break from the humidity and we had plenty of time to see everything we wanted.