There is a certain way many Western expats travel from China. It is almost a standard circuit that we all eventually follow and includes, among others, places like Phuket, Tokyo, and Sydney. Bali, an island in Indonesia, is also a regular stop on the circuit. When you ask expats why they always include these places in their travels, the answer is usually along the lines of the following: Phuket because Thailand is almost everyone’s first trip from China, kind of like baby steps; Tokyo because it seems so Western, clean and modern, which you yearn for after many months in Shanghai; and Sydney because no one wants to do a 20 plus hour flight anywhere, so see this gem of a city while you are on this side of the earth.
Bali, however, tends to elicit a whole different response. It is more of a state of mind, or dreamscape, to many Westerners, particularly Americans. Maybe that’s because of the movie and musical “South Pacific,” with its fantasy island and dramatic song, both called “Bali Ha’i.” The first time someone told me that they had been to Bali, I was kind of stunned because it seemed so exotic and far away. At no point in my life prior to China do I recall having any desire to visit Bali. But when expats started talking about their trips to the Island, I suddenly wanted to go nowhere else. Holy crap, you mean we can actually go to Bali from here?
So we went during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. You read about places like Bali and you expect them to be lush, tropical, and beautiful, and it was all that and more. The weather was hot. The people were incredibly nice and helpful. And the culture and history of Bali was fascinating. A province of Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, Bali is about 85% Hindu, and there are religious sites throughout. It is also called the land of a thousand temples and is estimated to have over 20,000 temples on the island. Bali has a beautiful, mountainous interior, and gorgeous white and black sandy beaches on its coasts. As a regular stop on the aforementioned Chinese expat travel circuit, and because it is so diverse, you get lots of different feedback on the Bali experience.
I had heard many things about Bali, some good and some bad. The good was generally from folks who compared it to “paradise on Earth,” and could only praise its tropical lushness and exotic atmosphere. The bad was about how the Southern beaches and hotels of Bali were becoming like Fort Lauderdale, overrun by sun and booze addled vacationers. The funny thing is I usually get that criticism from my Australian friends here, complaining about their fellow countrymen. There was also some negativity surrounding the book and movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” both of which were set in Bali and have apparently become a cottage travel industry for its fans. Between the two, I admit I was somewhat concerned that Bali was going to be full of rowdy Australians and Julia Roberts groupies.
The competing claims about the state of Bali confused me until I had lunch with my friend Ann Hornick, who had been there the previous year. When I told her of my concerns she said, “Oh, Howard, just rent a villa, it’s not that expensive and it’s the only way to do Bali.” We had contemplated renting a villa during our previous Asia Pacific travels, but it always felt expensive and exotic to us, a family from Michigan. But I’ve got to tell you, Ann was right. She connected me to a company called Exotic Hideaways (exotic-hideaways.com), and a house called Villa Sundara, which was where her family had stayed. The price was hotel-reasonable and the pictures looked great. The villa was located in an area called Tanah Lot, which is also the location of a much-revered Hindu temple, away from the populous and manic south of Bali. It was also located on the grounds of the beautiful Pan Pacific hotel, which meant that, via the villa golf cart, we had access to its pool, water slides, and services.
The house was spectacular. When we first got there and did a walk-through, I thought I was going to weep. The villa consisted of two structures attached by a second floor, open-air walkway. There were two bedrooms upstairs and, across the walkway, a huge, open-air pavilion room with sweeping views of the 13th fairway of the Pan Pacific Nirwana Golf Course, and the Indian Ocean beyond. Downstairs was a master suite with a pool adjacent in one structure, and a living room, dining room, and full kitchen that also included two cooks in the other structure. After the tour of the house, Cassidy pulled Karen aside and said, “this is the best place Dad has found for us to stay on a trip ever.” Woo hoo for me (and my friend Ann).
Karen had made it very clear prior to the trip that she wanted to do absolutely nothing in Bali but chill, and we did that like crazy. We swam in our pool and in the Pan Pacific pools, banged ourselves up on their awesome water slides, and ate and drank poolside in both places (panpacific.com). Cassidy and I also did some golfing on the beautiful, oceanside Nirwana golf course, though not as much as we would have liked because it was really hot out there.
We did leave the villa one day to take a trip to the town of Ubud, which is in the foothills of the central mountains. It is about 2 hours from Tanah Lot, depending on Bali’s crazy traffic, and is regarded as the island’s cultural center. We hired a car and driver, Wayan Dediana, through Exotic Hideways and he turned out to be a great guide who knew much about Balinese culture, and is also a professional surfing guide (balisurfwaves.com). Wayan’s first stop for us was a place called Bali Bidadari Batik (23 Tohpati, Denpasar, Bali) which is a place where they practice the ancient Javanese art of Batik. It involves weaving and dyeing wax to make gorgeous designs for clothes and other textiles. Cassidy had a unique shirt made for her as she watched, and the women was able to draw her name into the design.
Ubud was cool, with lots of shops selling traditional Balinese art, clothes, and crafts, and we spent a couple of hours roaming the town. We saw monkeys on the streets who had wandered out of the nearby Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (monkeyforestubud.com). We also had to avoid penises. You heard me, apparently penis carvings are considered good luck in Balinese culture and we saw them carved as everything from key chains to bottle openers. We did all we could to keep the girls from seeing them, but once they did, as you can imagine, hilarity ensued.
The drive to Ubud was as fascinating as the city itself. We saw so much rich culture from inside the car that I spent most of the ride trying to take pictures of the scenes unfolding in front of me (mostly unsuccessfully). Stall commerce lines the roads of Bali, which are hellaciously crowded with scooters and motorcycles, and we saw people selling everything from auto parts and surf boards, to food and art. There were also people washing their clothes, kids, and cars in pretty dirty looking rivers. There were lots of small, ornate Hindu temples attached to many of the homes we saw along the way. They are called family temples and are where the homeowners and their families worship, and also serve as a place for social gatherings.
After a week in Bali, we were ready for another week in Bali. But alas, all good things must end and so did this part of the trip. The good news was that the trip wasn’t over as we still had a long weekend in Singapore ahead of us before we returned to Shanghai. This kind of travel has been our modus operandi since we moved to China. We make half the trip tropical (usually the longer half), and the other half a stay in a city. It’s a cool way to travel and makes the entire trip seem a lot longer.
Singapore proved to be everything we had heard it was: Modern, efficient, clean, fun, and very Western-oriented. We stayed at the Fullerton Hotel, a stunning looking structure built in 1928 and which, at one point, served as the General Post Office when Singapore was a British colony (fullertonhotel.com). The rooms were tremendous and incredibly comfortable, which helped make us miss the Bali villa just a little bit less. What is amazing about the Fullerton is its architecture. It has a huge interior lobby/courtyard that is a holdover from colonial days, with soaring ceilings, columns, and interior gardens. The pool outdoors has an infinity edge that overlooks the river on one side, and giant marble columns that support the building on the other.
We shopped and ate a lot, as one should do when in Singapore. We also spent part of a night at the Singapore Zoo on a Night Safari (nightsafari.com). It was really cool and the girls were fascinated as we took a 40-minute tram ride that passed by replications of seven of the world’s geographical regions. It was dimly lit, but we could see the animals in their open enclosures pretty well. We saw Indian Elephants, Malaysian Tigers, and African Giraffes, among others. After the tram ride we watched a Thumbuakar Tribal Warrior performance, which was basically an insane fire-eating show that was every pyromaniacs dream. These guys were doing things with fire into and out of their mouths that I didn’t think was even possible. Needless to say, the girls were thrilled.
There are way more things to do in Singapore than can be done in a long weekend. We were able to visit the ArtScience Museum and saw a cool exhibit called “Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb,” that basically unwrapped and identified a 3,000 year old mummy through computer and X-ray technology. The museum was on the property of something called Marina Bay Sands, self-described as an “integrated resort” that houses the worlds most expensive stand-alone casino, a mall, and a cruise ship size hotel that has a 2,500 room hotel and at which I hope never to stay. It has 3 massive buildings with the biggest, craziest looking rooftop garden/pool/viewing deck that I have ever seen, connecting the tops of all of them (marinabaysands.com). You can see all of Singapore from up there.
Before we left the city, I was able to have an excellent Octoberfest beer, as well as a hoppy IPA (I’m going to need to work out a lot after this trip), at a brewery called Brewerkz (brewerkz.com). We also had a good, Western-style lunch at the brewery, which is located in the Quays District and can be reached by water taxi, which are abundant and a great way to see the city. Singapore is laid out in a series of districts, which makes it very easy to navigate. Along with the Quays, we also hit the Colonial and Chinatown districts, but unfortunately missed the Little India District, which is supposed to have great Indian food. We won’t miss it next time, as we hope to visit again, because Singapore is spectacular.
So we are on the China expat travel circuit, but doing it our way. We all love the tropical stuff, which allows us to flop, bond as a family, and generally enjoy the paradise that is Asia Pacific. We also love the metropolis’s of this region and we all clearly thrive on the energy and culture of these cities. My kids passports make them look like they are United Nations diplomats, and soon I’m going to have to add new pages to them because our next stop on the circuit is Australia and New Zealand for Christmas and New Years. I’m enjoying this travel circuit so much that I’m beginning to hope we get to lap some of it more than once.