Indonesia & Borneo trip: Part 4 – Brunei (Borneo)

After a great experience in Bali we headed home, via a long stop over on the Borneo island, in the country of Brunei.

On Sunday morning we landed at Brunei airport. We’d spent a couple of hours in the transit area on the flight over, but had a 10 hour layover this time – so we’d booked a guide for the day to show us around one of the richest countries in the world – as there’s only about 50 taxis in the whole country!

We purchased our visa on arrival at the desk for (if I recall correctly) 17 Singapore dollars each – the Singapore currency being exchangeable with Brunei dollars and us not being able to source any Brunei currency before travelling. We then met our guide Violet at arrivals.

She was lovely, and spoke excellent English. It soon transpired that she’d studied at University in our home town of Nottingham and spent several years there and one year working down in Cornwall at a pharmacist, but had decided to return home due to missing her friends in both Nottingham and Brunei and not finding work in the Midlands. Although she had lived most of her life in Brunei and made an excellent tour guide, her parents were from Malaysia, but of Chinese descent.

The day tour of Brunei is pretty standard. It’s quite a small country

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

and there’s only so much for a tourist to see. We started with a trip to the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. This huge building was very impressive, with some fascinating architecture. We took off our shoes and donned long robes, and we were able to enter the large prayer room and the wash room. No photos were allowed inside, but we were able to take a few snaps outside and in the inner forum.

Next up was the Royal Regalia museum. We would have preferred the Technology or National museums but one was closed with it
being Sunday and the other closed for renovations. This museum was interesting in a way, but being focussed solely on the Sultan and royal family, didn’t interest us so much. What interested us more was the local market opposite it. We asked Violet if she minded us taking a look and she was happy to take us over and talk with the locals to try and explain what the vast range of bizarre looking fruit and veg on offer were. We’d seen a few interesting fruits in Bali and had tried dragonfruit, the rather smelly but somewhat tasty (if you like creamy onion flavours in your fruit!) “king of fruits“, durian fruit as well as mangosteen. There were some others here we’d not seen. We bought some jackfruit and mangosteen, the “queen of fruits“, and something else I can’t recall the name of! Very enjoyable.

Brunei market - random fruit
Brunei market – random fruit

We then drove out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club. This is an impressive luxury beach side hotel overlooking the South China Sea. We admired the grand architecture and indulged in cakes and coffee before taking a stroll around the grounds and swimming pool and to the beach, Violet telling us many interesting facts about life in Brunei. It being a Muslim country, it is “dry” – no alcohol is sold. However, the border with Malaysia is only an hour or so away, and you are allowed to bring back 12 cans of beer or a bottle of spirit per person, so people would regularly drive to the border to stock up on drinks.

 Empire Hotel and Country Club, Brunei
Empire Hotel and Country Club, Brunei

She told us how there was generally no problems living there as a non-Muslim, although the Sultan was becoming more strict in his followings of the faith in his later years and some Sharia law was being adopted. Previously, during Ramadan and fasting, some restaurants and stalls were allowed to be open for tourists to be able to eat, but this was no longer the case.

Healthcare in the country is excellent; you pay a dollar to visit a doctor, but then have unlimited medicine for a year. Hospital care is free, and if they are unable to provide the required expert care needed in their country, it is paid for in another.

Every family in Brunei has a car – they are heavily subsidised by the Sultan. Houses are also provided for free!

On the drive back Violet pointed out many more interesting sights and buildings, and drove us into the country club. There was a restaurant there she’d been considering taking us to, but after the morning fruits and the lunchtime cakes, we were pretty full, so we drove around the grounds trying to spot the pet elephant that lived there, but we were only able to see a few monkeys.

It was then time for the river cruise to the water village, and then on to the mangroves, to try and see the Dutchman monkeys. These are

River boat ride in Brunei
River boat ride in Brunei

so called for their red noses; in Colonial times, the Borneo Malaysians were reminded of the Dutch by them.

Violet told us that crocodiles also lived in the river but she hadn’t seen one herself – we couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing!

We were taken to the water village, a curious mix of old and new, some dilapidated, buildings perched on legs in the river. We

Brunei water village
Brunei water village

docked and were taken to a typical locals home to try tea and some local cakes – very nice. We thought we’d feel a bit uncomfortable sitting there as tourists in a strangers home, but they had a very large living room area and bought in the cakes and drink and left us to it.

We then resumed our river cruise and after ten minutes or so had left the city and passed the back of the Sultan’s Palace, and started looking for the elusive Dutchman. We spotted many storks along the rivers edge, and saw a few eagles circling above.

We pulled into a side stream and stopped the boat and were able to

Brunei river - hunting for Dutchman monkeys
Brunei river – hunting for Dutchman monkeys

catch a glimpse of the monkeys in the distance swinging among the tree tops; their large red noses visible through the foliage.

After a steady cruise back we were starting to get hungry. Violet had been intending on taking us to another mosque but we asked her to join us for lunch and asked if she could personally recommend somewhere to try local food, but something vegetarian. She struggled to think of anywhere and asked if we liked sushi, which we heartily responded ‘yes‘ to. We enjoyed an excellent meal and then it was time to say our thanks and goodbyes and we returned to the airport.

Brunei International was currently being modernised, so the transit area was a little small and basic, but after the days heat and another 18 hours or so of travel to look forward to, we used the rather dodgy – but (just about) functional showers at the airport to freshen up before our flights.

We now had a 7 hour slog to Dubai, a short wait, and another 7 hours back to the UK.

One thing I mentioned before was that the Royal Brunei Airlines flights looked like better options than the others as there was only one stop.

I hadn’t realised that this is a bit misleading; there is actually a second, in Dubai – for refueling. You have to get off the aircraft (for safety reasons) during this time, but get back on the same one/same seats. On the flight out, there’d been a delay leaving, so we literally got off, went through a very basic security scan, had a long walk, went back through another basic security scan, and got back on again. This time round we had almost two hours off the plane.

We’d considered visiting Dubai previously, but had heard the stories about couples getting into trouble for inappropriate acts – such as kissing in public. You weren’t even supposed to hold hands. In Brunei we’d refrained. In Dubai airport we figured the rules were the same – although I accidentally kissed my girlfriend on the cheek on the escalator automatically – but nobody had seen; phew. Yet I was surprised to see several scantily clad (presumably) Russian lasses in short skirts and high heels walking around the shops amongst the heavily veiled local women.

Slightly bizarre contrast.

We then resumed our flight home.

RBA is a dry airline – no alcohol is served on board. We’d read that if you took on a few miniatures then they wouldn’t mind, but we weren’t bothered – alcohol at high altitude is a bad idea anyway and you always get dehydrated on flights. We made the most of the plentiful in flight food and water/juice/tea/coffee and enjoyed several movies.

The flights out had passed well; we’d slept a little which was fine as we had been happy being tired on arrival as the local time had been time to sleep; on the way back, we needed a good sleep as we’d arrive at a local time of 6am. Of course, we couldn’t get comfortable – not helped by a passenger who sat next to us, who, in all politeness, stank terribly – and the flight was rather exhausting. We then hit morning London rush hour traffic which we had to fight through and it took around 3 hours to get home – just in time to start work!

Fantastic experience though and Bali was a great place to visit. I just wish it were closer!!

Indonesia & Borneo trip: Part 3 – Change of plans

After spending a very enjoyable 3 days in the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud, we took a taxi down to Sanur Beach to book out boat the island of Nusa Lembongan.

Only to find that no boats were allowed to sail there that day due to a ceremony taking place and there being a ‘silent beach‘ policy in place!

What to do? We’d already booked the hotel and it was too late to cancel. And where would we stay?

The travel agent mentioned that we would still be able to sail to the Gili islands.

My girlfriends face lit up.

She had really wanted to visit the Gili islands, but had been told that they were a considerable distance away and it would take almost a day to reach – we had decided that we couldn’t quite squeeze a visit in. Lembongan island being much closer, was reachable in a fast boat in 30 mins, or even a slow one in 90 minutes.

The agent informed us that a fast boat was available that took 2 hours to get there. It was due to leave in 2 hours, but from a different port.

A quick chat with our driver, and we were heading back up the coast to an hours drive north, Pandang Bay.

That afternoon we arrived on Gili Trewangan!

The island has no motorised vehicles. ‘Taxis’ are horse and cart affairs. It looked very remote and tropical and we were excited to be there, but as it was 4pm by this point and sundown at 6pm (sunrise and sunset are more or less always at 6am and 6pm in Bali due to it’s proximity to the equator) and we hadn’t yet cancelled our existing hotel, let alone found replacement accommodation for this island, I was getting a little bit stressed.

We found the first bar with wifi, ordered a Bintang (local beer), and

Gili Trewangan (Gili T) bar - and cats
Gili Trewangan (Gili T) bar – and cats

some food, settled in with the local cats (with their strange stumpy tails) and started the hunt!

Trying to cancel the existing hotel provided tricky. We had already tried calling the hotel to cancel directly, but they told us that as it had been booked via Agoda, we needed to contact them directly. They then also expressed surprise that no-one had been in touch to tell us about the ‘silent beach‘.

I checked the details from the Agoda booking. The cancellation policy suggested that no refund would be made for the first night due to the late notice period; it wasn’t clear if we’d get anything back for the second night. Cancellation was through an online form; I filled in the details and the reason for the cancellation (the ‘silent beach’), along with a bit of a complaint as to why no one had informed us of this, and hit the submit button – only to be told that the cancellation option was not available for this booking.


So I found the ‘contact us‘ form instead and sent off a similar message.

Although the process had been somewhat frustrating at the time, I’m happy to report that Agoda got back to us very quickly and gave us a full refund, which was a pleasant surprise!

The villa I had booked on Nusa Lembongan had taken me some time to find; we had wanted to treat ourselves and literally be on the beach. Could we find something in Gili T the same?

It seemed not. Most of the nicer places appeared to be booked up. There were plenty of basic villas set back from the beach but we’d been looking forward to a bit of luxury.

Then my girlfriend struck gold with the Airbnb app and discovered the Kokita Villa.

The Kokita Villa is the only villa on Gili T that is on the beach. The reason being is that the beach road that runs around the island is in front of every other villa. It used to be in front of Kokita… but coastal erosion has led to the road having washed away, and having to be diverted around the back – only a small footpath remains in front.

But did they have any rooms?

I made a phone call, which was quickly picked up by the very pleasant Dutch hostess, Esther, who happily replied that they
had a few rooms available at a cost of 900,000 Rupiah (£45) a night – sold!

We finished our drinks and hopped in a ‘taxi’. Our driver yelled ‘time to move!’ repeatedly at the pedestrians and cyclists on the dusty beach road that somehow hadn’t heard the horses trotting nor the

A Gili T island 'taxi'
A Gili T island ‘taxi’

jingling of its bells (a surprisingly high number of suicidal people) and only warned us to hold on tight after we’d gone down a huge rut and I’d bashed my head into the roof (I still have a scab a week later when I started writing this).

Five minutes later (and rubbing my head) we arrived at the stunning beach side villa.

Esther and her three cats (Double Trouble, Sari and Happy) gave us a warm welcome and showed us our spacious room. Cold beer
could be had from the fridge, you just needed to mark a tally on the fridge. Perfect.

Kokita Villa - on the beach in Gili T
Kokita Villa – on the beach in Gili T

We spent a very relaxed couple of days on the island.

It seemed that the tourists here were mainly Australian or Dutch (I
believe due to the Dutch colonial history of the area) with a handful of French and Americans. Although Gili T is a beautiful and remote island, the constant stream of backpackers passing by and the busy, dusty and sadly, litter strewn streets of the town made it feel less paradisical than we had hoped. We avoided the centre of the main town and ate at a restaurant Esther had recommended, only a few minutes walk from the villa – Coral Beach 2, a Jamaican place playing live Reggae music. We enjoyed our food watching the band, sat on a sofa on the beach – very pleasant.

Oh, and watched the local cows walk past on the beach!

Cows on Gili T beach, Bali
Cows on Gili T beach

We tried snorkeling, but it being my girlfriends first time using a mask and snorkel, didn’t try for long. I recall my first few times using a snorkel; I had struggled to time my breathing correctly and hated the squashed nose from the mask. She actually got used to it very quickly, but not being a strong swimmer and their being a very strong rip tide, thought it best to stay shallow. Still, we saw some interesting and very colourful fish and coral, and some bizarre crab like creatures.

We decided to hire a bike for a few hours, so we could cycle to the town to use the cash machine and then cycle back and a further ten minutes or so round the corner to the west side to watch the sunset. The villa is on the north east corner of the island, so you can see excellent sunrises over Gili Meno and Lombok in the distance – if you can be bothered to get up at 6am!

This was not such a great idea.

Sure, a bike can be hired very cheaply and it sounds initially like a great way to get around. The problem though, lies both in the condition of the bikes, and the condition of the roads.

The bike chains hadn’t seen a drop of oil since they were first fitted.

The gears jumped around randomly and less than a third were available for selection.

The steering was completely out of alignment.

The suspension was worn out, and the seats in similar condition.

As for the roads… we could just about cope with the rutted track, but when the sand levels built up, it just wasn’t possible to continue – the bike started slewing around and you had to dismount. As we continued further out of the town the road got worse and then disappeared completely.

We ended up pushing the bikes more than cycling them.

Perhaps the roads are better south of the town… but if you are heading north of the town and to the west, I wouldn’t recommend hiring one, although we did see some people on bikes with massive, under inflated tyres, which looked like they were designed particularly for riding on sand, so it may be worth trying one of those if you can find them.

So the going was tough and the clock was ticking, but I was determined to get round the corner and see the sunset – at the
age of 36 (when I was there/started writing this) I’d not successfully

Bike hire on Gili T, Bali
Bike hire on Gili T

seen a decent sunset (I’m not counting UK inland ones in Nottingham!). Every-damn-time I’m late, or the weather gets the better of me, or I’ve got the position wrong and I’m facing the wrong direction!

We made it in time but it was a little cloudy, however it was still very pretty with the sun going down between the peaks of mount Batur back on Bali. We sat

Gili T sunset, Bali
Gili T sunset

on the beach a while amongst the coral, watching little hermit crabs scurrying about.

After the disappointment of a decent massage in Ubud and the unsuccessful attempt by the healer to fix my girlfriends stiff shoulder, we asked our hostess Esther if she could recommend a good massage therapist. She replied that she did but unfortunately he was currently away, but she asked around and booked us a couple of girls that had been recommended to her.

The massage cost only £7.50 each for an hour, and was very thorough. My girlfriend was very happy with hers, and her
shoulder felt much better after. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed mine – in fact, it bloody well hurt! It wasn’t the relaxing, intoxicating pleasurable massage I had in Ubud – this was a thorough hammering of my muscles. However, it was what I needed – you could feel the lumps and knots of tension in my back and shoulders (too much sitting at an office desk and too much driving) being popped out.

I felt much better afterwards.

One thing to note is that with the Gili islands being closer to Lombok than Bali, the locals are more Muslim than Hindus. This didn’t bother us at all – in fact, I enjoyed hearing the melodic muslim prayers in the background occasionally – and the islands being popular with tourists, there were no issues with alcohol. We had been a little surprised to find the massage girls to be Muslims and surprised too that there was no issue with a married Muslim woman giving an unmarried man a massage, but again, tourism overruled I guess.

The next day we left the island. The plan had been to get the 12pm boat but when we’d cycled (read: pushed our bikes) to the ticket office

Gili T, Bali
Gili T beach

the day before, but it had been fully booked, as had the 8am boat – so the 3pm boat it was. The only problem with this was that the hotel we’d booked in Kuta had a beach side balcony we had wanted to enjoy; so we’d planned to be there much earlier. We couldn’t experience it the next day as we had to be up early for our flight home.

And the trip back took even longer than expected.

For a start, the boat was about 40 minutes late leaving.

Secondly, it didn’t go directly back to Bali. It went to Gili Air (a definitely island to visit in the future, even more remote that Gili T!) first, then on further eastwards to the large island of Lombok, before heading back.

It took 3 hours and the journey was horrific – the sea was incredibly choppy, and the boat crashed down from each peak making a horrible metal smashing sound. I didn’t hear anyone being seasick, but everyone onboard (and it was packed) were incredibly silent.

When we finally arrived back onshore, the sun had set and we still had over an hour in a taxi to get to Kuta. It took more like 90 minutes, as Kuta on a Saturday night is absolutely rammed and the traffic jams were awful. When we finally arrived at The Kuta Beach Heritage Hotel, we checked in and told that our room wasn’t available but we had a ‘free upgrade’ to a better room. We made our way up to the room.

Yes, it was nice; there was actually a fancy looking bath IN the room as well as a separate large shower – but I’d specifically booked a room with a beach view balcony. This room was on the other side of the hotel, and ‘featured’ views over a busy and run down looking market street and roof tops.

However, it was late, I was hungry, and what use was a beach view when it’s pitch black and you have to get up to leave for the airport whilst it’s still dark the next day?

We remained put and connected to the wifi to check local restaurants.

We decided not to walk far; having witnessed the chaos of Kuta through the taxi window and the masses of tourists and locals alike streaming through the streets, opted for a traditional Balinese restaurant close to us on Poppy’s Lane.

Yet we couldn’t find it… we navigated the full length of the narrow lane, a dangerous task due to the many mopeds bombing down it
in both directions, and the almost continuous cry of ‘massage?’ every few seconds. We turned around at the end and walked back again, replying ‘no thanks‘ again (and again) to the seemingly endless stream of masseurs calls, and opted for a restaurant we’d
seen a quarter of the way down, Poppies Restaurant.

This was a peaceful, blissful haven in hectic central Kuta! Behind high walls, which blocked out the street sounds, we found an enchanted garden restaurant. The staff were very formal in their behaviour and the way the table was laid; yet wore very casual t-shirts. I didn’t have a problem with that; it just seemed a little at odds. They performed other very formal serving yet made a mess of pouring the wine.

The food was nothing amazing; very average (there seems to be some very mixed reviews on Tripadvisor). We’d enjoyed the escape from the busy streets though, and I had a rather nicely presented cocktail!

Cocktail in Kuta, Bali
Cocktail in Kuta, Bali

Next day we were up early and headed towards the airport.

We were happy to leave Kuta but sad to leave Bali.

Indonesia & Borneo trip: Part 2 – Ubud

After surviving the chaotic taxi journey, we’d finally reached the cultural centre of Bali: Ubud.

I had expected the jungle climate to be more humid than the coast, but it was actually much nicer and the heat (about 29 degrees celsius) was lovely yet comfortable.

We spent three days in Ubud, relaxing by the pool and enjoying the rice fields view, exploring the town and seeing the sights. Three days wasn’t enough really – we would have happily spent a much longer time there.

Having read about the monkey forest in Ubud and the fact that the monkeys could be a little aggressive and hearing that several people had been bitten, we were reluctant to visit. However, we walked to

Monkey forest
Monkey forest – lounging around

the entrance and watched several monkeys lounging around the tourists. They seemed fine. What I’d read was that you shouldn’t take any food in with you, as they would smell it and literally steal it from you.


We had no food on us, and deciding to adopt common sense and caution, went in.

Within the first five minutes we saw a monkey leap up a Japanese tourist and swipe his tin of Pringles away.

Tourists fault.

Monkey forest
Monkey forest – temple

Otherwise, the monkeys seemed pretty chilled and we could quite peace-fully observe them and the various temples dott-ed around the forest.



We walked around Ubud and admired the various shops full of local

Puri Sariswati, Ubud
Puri Sariswati, Ubud

art. Although we weren’t overly impressed with the paintings, the handiwork of the woodscraft was something to behold. The same went for some of the architecture and details in the temples. We went for a coffee at Cafe Lotus that overlooks the Puri Sariswati temple and went for a walk around it afterwards.

Massages are advertised everywhere, with prices in villas/hotels around £10 to £20 an hour, whereas the back streets you could find one for more like £7 (we later saw one in Kuta for £3.50 but it looked very dodgy and dirty!). We tried a couple of different massages at the hotel; my Balinese massage was very pleasant and the aromatherapy one had me moaning in pleasure throughout! However, the girls seemed to be only able to follow a set pattern/routine. Both my girlfriend and I were suffering from stiff necks/shoulders and when we asked for them to concentrate on those areas they couldn’t really cope; they spent a few more minutes on those areas then lapsed back into their set routine.

It had taken about 40 minutes to walk into the town from the villa. In many places there were no pavements, and the roads being rather chaotic and full of lorries and mopeds, we decided to use the villa’s driver to go back to the town for our evening meal. The cost was 50,000 Rupiah (about £2.50) each way. The local taxi drivers normally asked for around 70, 80 K.

The next day, we hired a driver (a friend of the villa’s driver as he wasn’t available that day) to take us to the volcano at Mount Batur and to see all the sites on route, in particular, some of the many temples (pura) of the region.

First up was the temple Goa Gajah – AKA the “Elephant Cave”. We

Goa Gajah - AKA the "Elephant Cave"
Goa Gajah – AKA the “Elephant Cave”

wondered where the elephants were; however, it takes it’s name from the nearby Elephant River (also lacking in elephants!). This was a pretty interesting temple with some nice buildings, set in pleasant surroundings, but it was a bit ‘tatty’ and there was a lot of litter around, which was a shame.

Pura Gunung Kawi, Ubud
Pura Gunung Kawi, Ubud

The next temple, Pura Gunung Kawi, was much more interesting, with fantastic views of rice terraces as we walked down the 200
or so steps to get to them. The area is known as Bali’s “Valley of the Kings“. The cliffs opposite the river have shrines carved into the stone walls of the river; quite impressive.


The walk down the steps to get

Pura Gunung Kawi, Ubud
Pura Gunung Kawi, Ubud – fresh coconuts

there in the heat is hard work but worth it for the temples at the bottom and the jungle and ride paddie views going down; we stopped for some coconut water on the way down to refresh us.


The third and final temple we visited was Tirta Empul. Here you can

Tirta Empul, Ubud
Tirta Empul, Ubud

take a dip in the holy water (after making an offering, of course) to bring good health and fortune.

What really struck us here though was the local music that was being played by the priests – it was hauntingly beautiful. One particularly ‘song’ immobilised my girlfriend and literally bought tears to my eyes. We wanted to stay longer to see if they would play more, but it seemed they were having a break and our driver was waiting, so we moved on.

Walking around the temples, we had been offered various wares and goods from stalls positioned strategically to ‘trap’ tourists. However, we hadn’t felt much pressure, aside from the few ladies insisting on us purchasing sarongs (to wear in the temples) despite it being obvious we already had some. It certainly wasn’t anything as pressuring as walking along the streets of, for example, Egypt, or a busy nightlife strip in a popular resort. We were able to politely say ‘no thanks‘ and move on. However, something we did succumb to, was buying green (or young) coconuts. In the blistering heat, the cool coconut water – deliciously fresh and sweet from the younger, green coconuts – was exceptionally refreshing.

However, a word of advice – don’t drink too much! Coconut water can have a certain ‘flushing’ effect on your digestion!

The volcano itself wasn’t actually that interesting. Our driver had taken us to the place tourists typically viewed the volcano from, a restaurant. However, we weren’t hungry at this point, and we’d also

Mount Batur (volcano), Ubud
Mount Batur (volcano), Ubud

heard that the restaurant wasn’t particularly good – a typical tourist trap. Strolling down the hill slightly, we found a smaller, more local looking cafe with even better views. We ordered another coconut water and took a few snaps. Sure, it was a pretty, mountain view, but nothing so impressive as to indicate it even being a live volcano. We’d found the jungle and rice field scenery more spectacular.

On the drive back we visited a coffee plantation. The main attraction at these plantations is the novel Lawak coffee, or Civit coffee.

The idea here is that the civet mammals will eat a coffee bean, selecting only the best. The remains at the ‘other end’, shall we say, are only semi digested, and once cleaned, make a supposedly beautifully smooth coffee.

In nature, this is fine. However, its seems that farmers have realised the money they could make out of this and now “civet farms” have emerged. The poor animals are locked up in small cages and literally force fed coffee beans, whether they like it or not. The result is them living short and painful deaths from a poor diet.

There’s an interesting article by the man who started it all in the UK and a petition for Harrods to ban its sale there – which I believe has now been achieved – more info here.

As an interesting aside, the Indonesian people are generally very kind to animals. We noticed many, many cats on our travels there and they were all well fed and looked after, and extremely tame and friendly on approach.

We decided to not drink the Lawak coffee, even though the guide at the plantation assured us that their coffee was made from naturally sourced civet dung.

We didn’t believe them.

Coffee plantation, Ubud
Coffee plantation, Ubud

However, it was interesting to see the rest of the plantation, and their complementary array of 12 different coffees and teas was duly sampled. There were some beautiful flavours and we ended up buying several boxes of coffees and teas from them.

However, we later realised that these were far inferior dried versions – I wouldn’t recommend them.

Finally we had a quick stop to see some of the famous Balinese rice terraces.

Balinese rice terrace
Balinese rice terrace

In between each place of interest, we chatted to our driver, Sandhu, who spoke reasonably good English. We asked him about crime, as we heard it was low on the island. He explained that most people in Bali were Hindus, and therefore believed in karma. Their genuine belief in that doing good will bring good and doing wrong will bring wrong unto them seems to result in these low crime rates.

He told us about a ceremony that takes place each year in the villages. They make a model (from paper – possibly paper mache?) of the evil and ugly god. They then parade this through the village. The bad spirits are attracted to the ugly god, and go inside it. They then burn it, thus getting rid of the bad spirits.

We asked him what the cloths at the bottom of trees we’d noticed were for. He pointed out that they were normally black and white checks – an equal amount of white (good) and black (evil) to balance out the spirits in the tree!

We got talking more about karma and spirituality, and we mentioned the massages we’d had and the fact that they hadn’t
helped my partners shoulder issues. She asked if Sandhu could recommend someone. He couldn’t think of anyone in Ubud who
would be able to help but started talking about the village ‘Healer’. Apparently he had a good reputation for being able to help people by removing ‘the demons’ that were causing the problem. He then started talking about the Julia Roberts movie Eat, Pray, Love set in Ubud but said that the problem with that particular healer was that he was getting too old, and was losing his powers.

He recommended his particular healer and suggested that he may also be able to help with her skin rash (this appears to have been down to a food allergy).

Ever the sceptic, I wasn’t convinced that a ‘village healer’ was going to able to help – especially when Sandhu started recalling seeing him at work and describing how people would yell as their evil spirits were extracted, and him reenacting the scene, playing the part of a demon crying ‘arggh, arrghh, I’m coming out, I’m going, I’m going!!‘.

No BAFTA award for this taxi driver-come-actor.

Still – we thought it might be an interesting experience, and as the cost (an offering to the gods) was only around £10, we thought we would give it a go.

We drove to Sandhu’s village and parked at his house, then walked a very short distance to his neighbour, the healer. He was a old, rotund and jovial looking fellow with several missing teeth wearing a stained vest with several holes in it. Sandhu did the translation, and he beckoned us into his yard.

Chickens scratched around in the dust as we were led to a bench. The property looked rather run down but we passed the healers temple – which was absolutely magnificent. Obviously the ‘offerings’ were spent well and genuinely on the temple.

My girlfriend was asked to sit on the bench whilst the healer sat behind her and attempted to find her demons. Sandhu had of
course already explained about the shoulder issue and the skin problem was visibly obvious. The healer ran his hands over her back and shoulders and mumbled to himself. He nodded and mumbled in a self satisfied way as if he had found the problem, and Sandhu translated, confirming the case. The healer then took a small, pointed stick/dagger like object and poked it gentle into the area, and spoke what sounded like an incarnation. He then made several stabbing motions (apparently it didn’t hurt) and exclaimed contentedly that the demons had been extracted.


He then attempted to find the cause of the skin issue. He located the root cause of this in the base of the neck, and performed a similar ‘exorcism’. Sandhu translated that the demon was leaving without too much difficulty, and was actually saying ‘ok, I’m leaving‘ rather than in the other examples he’d given in the taxi where the demon was forcibly removed.

Soooo… was that it?

No. The healer then took some (rather filthy looking) coconut hair and proceeded to brush where my girlfriend has the skin rash. He did this for a good 15 mins or so, which was apparently very soothing to the itchy skin.

He then proceeded to check for any other issues, and after some poking around, found a issue – in my girlfriends womb!

Sandhu translated.

Apparently there was a problem with the womb, which would restrict her from becoming pregnant. The healer then proceeded to
use his ‘demon exorcising’ tool (read: poke with a stick) to extract this particular demon.

Again, success: and the information given that she could now get pregnant; and that it would be a boy.

Erm… great.

Of course, my girlfriend’s shoulder still hurt the next day, and her skin rash persisted. We since discovered that it would appear to be the peanuts in many of the Indonesian sauces that was the culprit; on coming home, and eating other foods, her skin quickly cleared up. A day later she ate some peanuts (not something she regularly eats – cashews or pistachios being our usual nibbles, but we had a packet to use up) and her skin immediately started itching and the old rash flared up again.

However, our visit to the healer had been worth it for the experience.

Not that we’d be back in a hurry.

We continued chatting with our driver about local culture, in particular the music, and the beautifully haunting local music at the temple of Tirta Empul and wanted to experience more. He mentioned that there was a dance with music being performed
that evening at Ubud Palace. It wasn’t exactly the same type of music as we’d heard but would be similar instruments, so we
thought we’d try it – tickets were 80,000 Rupiah each (£4).

He drove us to back to the villa where he waited whilst we freshened up, then drove us back to the centre and to a
restaurant where we ate quickly before the performance.

We’d agreed a price with him of 350,000 Rupiah previously, which is around $35USD or £18 – not bad for a whole day. However, we’d intended to end around 4pm and had ended up using him until about 7pm and he had taken us to several more places, so it went up to 500,000 Rupiah – still only around £25 which was quite reasonable.

Although we’d tried lots of different local food over the past few days and had mostly enjoyed it, we had struggled a little to find suitable vegetarian options for my girlfriend, and had heard excellent reports about a more international restaurant called Locavore, so though we would give it a try.

Unfortunately, it was fully booked, but walking down the road (Jl. Dewisita) we had seen plenty of nice looking options, including a place called Batan Waru. We decided to try it,  and were glad we did – the food was excellent. My girlfriend had opted for something
with peanut sauce (before she had realised this was causing the skin irritation, obviously!) and it was so good that she asked for the manager to thank him – and also ask for the recipe, which was duly supplied!

Going back to the local food options – most Indonesian food is somewhere between Chinese and Indian food. Lots of rice, noodles, spicy or nutty options. Nasi Goreng or Mia Goreng are rice or noodles stir fried in a tasty sauce with a few vegetables, with a fried egg on top – quite often offered as a breakfast choice (alongside the usual egg/omelette options and banana pancakes, seemingly a local favourite). Gado gado is a popular dish consisting of tofu and tempe (a nutty/bready concoction made from fermented soya) with vegetables and a delicious peanut sauce.

They were the only vegetarian options really though; everything else was seafood or meat based. Even the vegetarian red curry we ordered once apparently had prawn paste in the sauce.

Food in Bali is quite cheap; the above ‘basic’ meals were normally served as small to medium size dishes for around 45,000 Rupiah (£2.25) and larger main courses were normally at 60,000 Rupiah (£3) with meat dishes starting around 100,000 Rupiah (£5).

Alcohol however was relatively expensive. A small bottle of Bintang (the local Indonesian beer) would cost around 35,000 Rupiah (£1.75) and a large bottle 50,000 Rupiah (£2.50). Wine was even more expensive, with a bottle costing 400,000 Rupiah (£20). However, some places did a house wine, usually Plaga or Hattens, which a glass could be had for 60,000 Rupiah (£3). I wasn’t so keen on the Plaga white (quite sweet Chardonnay) but the white Hattens was pretty nice, like a dry Sauvignon Blanc. Both reds were acceptable.

Supermarket wine prices were similar; however, we found a 2 litre carton box of the Hattens white for only 240,000 Rupiah (£12) which was excellent value.

After our food, we headed over to Ubud Palace. The performance was put on right in front of a floodlit temple, which made it very impressive. The play/dance consisted of several girls dancing in a

Ubud Palace
Ubud Palace

traditional manner to expressive music, displaying even more expressive facial expressions, to convey the meaning. Monsters and demons and other characters joined the dance. It was very interesting to watch, although I can’t say I followed the meaning of it all. The music was enjoyable but not as good as we had heard at the temple earlier in the day.

We then headed back down to the Cafe Havana Club which had been just up the road from the restaurant. We’d heard some
excellent music coming from their earlier so decided to continue the musical evening. Of course though, this wasn’t local music. True, the band consisted of local musicians, but they were playing Latin music. Still, it was very enjoyable, especially with an accompanying coconut water based cocktail served in coconut shell.

Our three days in Ubud were up too soon. We booked a driver the next morning and headed down to Sanur Beach to book our boat
over to Nusa Lembongan, where we’d booked a hotel for a couple of nights on the island.

Indonesia & Borneo trip: Part 1 – Bali coast

In October 2014 we decided to travel a little further afield than our usual holidays. Normally we choose 4 or 5 day long breaks away to destinations in Europe to escape to the sun or explore new places, searching for the cheapest deals with the best flight times to fit in a quick break into our busy lives (see my previous article, The Art Of Cheap Holidays).

This time though, we fancied doing something a bit different, and travelling somewhere more exotic, to discover new cultures, food, and climate. We knew that we’d both have a relatively quiet October work wise but then we’d struggle to go away for a reasonable number of days until after Feb next year, so we decided to squeeze a long haul destination into our available 10/11 days slot.

We considered visiting the USA mainland or the Bahamas – but due to the rather last minute nature of the trip, realised that obtaining the necessary Visa’s in time could be tricky. It was also hurricane season. We looked at India, African destinations, and exotic Indian Ocean destinations such as Mauritius and the Maldives.

Scouring and the various package deal websites for several hours each evening we ruled out destinations due to the expense and complications involved with indirect flights.

My partner was set on visiting the Indonesian island of Bali. She knew several people that had been and she’d also been involved in a business idea that would have operated in Bali that hadn’t quite materialised, but could potentially re-evolve in the future – so she could excuse the trip as a necessary business trip!

However, there are no direct flights to Bali from the UK. You have to fly via either Dubai, Brunei (Borneo), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur etc – there may be more options, but these were the ones primarily coming up.

Did we have enough time in 10 days for such a long haul flight that didn’t have direct flights so involved even longer flight times and the additional complication of transfers?

I was also concerned about the weather. The peak holiday season for Bali ended in September. October/November was the start
of the rainy season. There had also been a typhoon in the ‘nearby’ area of Vietnam and Hong Kong.

However, the more research I did on Bali, the more I wanted to go. The place simply looked stunning. I found a few tripadvisor and Loney Planet blogs/forum posts and it seemed that early October weather was normally good, with temperatures around 29 degrees and the occasional shower, but generally dry.

We decided to risk it.

We found some excellent flights with Royal Brunei Airlines. Other flights we had found meant loosing additional days of work (as a contractor I don’t get paid for days off) or exceptionally long journeys involving not one but two stopover/transfers. We thought we’d found an excellent option with Malaysia Airlines; on the way out, we’d have 6 hours in Kuala Lumpur, enough time to get out and explore another country before flying onwards to Bali, and on the way back, only a very quick transfer. However, Skyscanner, as useful as it can be, had got it wrong this time – the outbound flight simply didn’t exist. The ‘real’ flight wasn’t at such a good time, and the prices had shot through the roof.

The RBA flights were correct, and showed only a 3 hour stopover in Brunei on the way in, with a total journey time of 20 hours. We figured we’d get a few hours sleep on the first leg, but still be quite tired, so that when we arrived at midnight, we’d still be ready to sleep – despite our body clocks still thinking it was 5pm (due to the 7 hour time difference).

One the way home, it would take 30 hours, due to a 10 hour stopover in Brunei. We’d actually arrive there after only a 2.5
hour flight from Bali at 10am so it was perfect to have a whole day there and explore a new country, before heading home that evening. We’d then be back at 6.25am UK time. We’d have a 14 hour flight to get as much sleep as we could so that I could actually work that day when we got back and not loose a days pay – ideal.

The Royal Brunei flights were also considerably cheaper (at £581 each for a return) than anything else, which helped matters!

We needed to hurry up and book as the flights were just over two weeks away and we still hadn’t arranged our vaccinations, which needed to be done at least two weeks before. I’d already made an appointment with the nurse but she was somewhat irritated as I’d not been able to confirm our destination yet and therefore which injections we’d need!

We booked and duly visited the nurse for the combined Diphtheria, Tetanus & Polio (DTP) and combined Typhoid and Hep A

They didn’t really hurt at the time, but my arm ached a lot for two days after from the Typhoid and Hep A vaccination; the nurse said this was due to the large volume of liquid required for that particular injection.

(Update: I recently had the Hep A booster – man that hurt, for about 5 mins – then nothing!).

The next few weeks were rather chaotic. We were in the process of planning a kitchen refit, involving knocking through a wall from the original small kitchen into the dining room. Our builder revealed that he was available whilst we were away so we decided that to avoid the noise and mess it would be ideal for him to proceed whilst we were away. We hadn’t made many important decisions though yet so had a frantic few days visiting kitchen places and DIY shops and trying to organise everything.

We hadn’t had time to plan our trip or book any hotels!

With a few days to go, and some squeezed research on lunch breaks, we managed to plan an itinerary and book the necessary hotels in the evenings.

We decided that as we were arriving at midnight and would be potentially jetlagged, to stay in the same hotel for at least two nights, in order to get a decent sleep and be able to recover. We chose Nusa Dua due to it’s approximately to the airport but relative luxury and peace, compared to the popular Kuta area, and booked a hotel via (through TopCashBack) at the The Wangsa Benoa.

Wangsa Benoa
The Wangsa Benoa villa in Nusa Dua

Our plan to only get a few hours sleep on the plane and be able to sleep at the local midnight time (UK time 5pm) worked, and we slept until about 10am.



Unfortunately, we still felt like crap.

My partner had the worst of it, suffering from a splitting headache for most of the first day. I just felt extremely groggy and somewhat braindead. We took it easy and chilled by the pool, and wandered down to the beach for an explore.

The humidity, rather than the heat, was what hit us. Being close to the sea and it being around 30 degrees, the humidity was very high, and walking any distance was quite tiring. Fortunately we’d found a Tripadvisor recommended restaurant at a hotel almost opposite us so didn’t had too far to walk.

Our first impressions of Bali were good, although with Nusa Dua being more for luxury resorts (we’d picked a mid class apartment in a complex of villas with private pools; we had the shared pool but as there was no-one there had it to ourselves anyway!) I was surprised that the streets were so dirty and dusty, with lots of run down looking buildings and missing pavements. The beach also wasn’t very nice, with lots of rubbish strewn around. It may have been because we were quite far south of the main part of Nusa Dua.

However, the people were friendly and the weather good and asides from suffering from jet lag, we passed a first day reasonably well. We were shattered in the evening so just got some snacks in our room and had an early night.

Day two we felt a little better and after a quick dip in the pool and packing up, arranged a taxi to Ubud.

This is when we really experienced Bali.

Ubud is the cultural centre of Bali. The town is located in the jungle and rice paddy fields and is the central hub for art, food, writing, spiritualism and traditional music and dances.

Getting there was an experience.

Indonesia driving is an art in itself.

Drivers make their own rules, and “lane discipline” is a concept unheard of.

Driving through the busy outskirts of the capital and through Benoa and Sanur, we experienced driving techniques that would leave even a East European driver gob smacked.

And I’ve driven in Bulgaria!

Mopeds & motorbikes weaved in between traffic like fish between seaweed. Undertaking and overtaking were continuous, often into the face of oncoming traffic. How we didn’t witness several deaths I don’t know. Mopeds would swerve into whatever gaps they could, whether they were on their side of the road or not. At busy junctions, to avoid the queues, mopeds would go into the oncoming traffic’s lane to get by the slower/queued traffic.

Traffic lights? Mostly ignored.

Lanes for left and right turners only? Used by everyone.

I even saw riders/drivers using right hand turn only lanes to get
past stationary traffic and then swing in front of them to turn left!

We asked our driver why several drivers often had their hazard lights on. He told us that he personally would only use them for when there was a problem, but he figured that people used them when they didn’t want to go left or right, but straight on. Even he agreed that this was flawed, as anyone approaching from the side could only see the one light and assume that the driver was turning one way.

Not that anyone took any notice of indicators.

The horn system seemed to work well. The locals honk their horns – lightly, and not aggressively and loudly like in the UK – to mean many different things, such as “I’m coming through”, “watch out”, “I’m undertaking you”, “I’ve acknowledged you undertaking me”, “move please”, “I’m coming round a tight blind corner”, “I’m overtaking on a blind corner” etc etc.

There’s a continuous rhythm of honks and pips.

After almost two hours, we finally reached Ubud. The narrow streets being so full of traffic in Bali means that getting a relatively short distance can take a considerable amount of time.

After a little back tracking, our driver finally found our villa, off a dusty side road. Thankfully – Ubud itself was far too loud with the main road running through it and all the moped and vehicle noise and horns.

The villa was beautiful (Lodtunduh Sari Retreat – booked through Agoda as recommended by a colleague and via TopCashBack) –
set in the ride paddies with great views. The staff were very friendly and helpful. Our room was simple but comfortable, with a mosquito net around the bed. Our bathroom was open to the sky.

Lodtunduh Sari Retreat, Ubud
Lodtunduh Sari Retreat, Ubud


We finally felt like we were actually in Bali.