Bali-Bangkok diaries. Part-5

Full of beans in Bali. A visit to a coffee plantation.

Tasting ‘poop coffee’ as Morgan Freeman so irreverently put it to Jack Nicholson in the movie, ‘The Bucket List’ all the while laughing till he cried, was right at the top of my bucket list during this trip to Bali.
The most expensive coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak coffee or ‘poop coffee’ goes for $80 a cup in the States. And Bali and the other Indonesian islands produced this coffee. Not much of a coffee drinker myself, I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about. So we went to visit a coffee plantation which produces this famous coffee.

We were headed North of Ubud, an excursion into the cool, leafy hills and watching the beautiful countryside pass by we all literally fell into a state of Zen-like bliss. The area is mind-numbingly beautiful, especially the unbelievably green Tegallalang rice terraces that adorn the hill slopes. We have lots of rice terraces in the lower Himalayan slopes but these definitely were more beautiful.

We reached Santi Agroforestry as the plantations are called in Bali and were met by a drizzle. Giant bamboo hats were distributed and we excitedly donned them too but after a photo session had to reluctantly discard and opt for the much lighter and familiar umbrellas. A narrow trail led into the dense plantation. Equatorial climate allows for great biodiversity in vegetation. Mighty evergreen hardwood trees climb straight and tall to 80-100 metres easily. Epiphytes and creepers latch onto these giants while all possible spice bearing trees can grow happily in the shade. The trail was in places slippery and slushy.

Hats on

Our guide pointed out coffee, cocoa, cinnamon, ginseng, pandan, lemongrass, cloves, pepper, galungal, ginger, turmeric plants all growing with great abandon as we moved cautiously further inwards along the trail.

Walking down the trail of the plantation.

And along the path was a caged Civet. Apparently it was caged so that tourists like us could see the elusive creature. The poor nocturnal animal was curled up right at the back of the cage sleeping. But our presence woke it up and I got to take a closer look at it’s mottled grey coat and black, piercing eyes.

The collected civet poop.

The luwak coffee beans roasted.

Me trying to crush-crush

The Civets in the wild selectively eat the ripest coffee berries, digest the fruit and excrete the beans. These are then harvested by hand before being washed and processed. Researchers think the coffee’s distinctive taste comes when the digestive enzymes of the Civet changes the structure of proteins in the coffee beans, which removes some of the acidity to make a smoother cup of coffee. In a small clearing we saw this process from upclose and even took turns pounding the coffee beans, this time with a nifty hat truly marking this as a “tourist photo”.

Our host Made full of beans.

We soon came to a large clearing with wooden benches and tables nestled under a shade. The rest of the forest sloped down from here. With the magnificent view as our backdrop and urged by our host and plantation owner, Made, we took our seats to partake in the complementary tea and coffee tasting session. This tasting session is offered free of cost in all such plantations. But then it’s expected that suitably impressed, you will end up buying some of the twelve varieties of tea and coffee that you’re offered. Truth be said, some of the teas were really wonderful. And we did end up buying them. As for the actual single cup of Luwak coffee that we bought and shared between the seven of us, it failed to impress. Everyone said it was good, but nothing fantastic. I stared longingly into the steaming cup of dark brown “coffee mud” – a description that aptly sums up the colour and consistency of the beverage and truly tried to understand why Jack Nicholson loved it so, but I think one has to be a conossier. What’s interesting is the process.
I think that all of the hype and expense revolves around the fact that these beans are acquired in such an unusual and interesting way.

In conclusion I’ll say Kopi Luwak was good, much better than the Balinese coffee, but I’m with Morgan Freeman and rather not have defecated remains of coffee beans.

As an aside for those who haven’t seen The Bucket List and are thinking what I’m so fussed about, here’s a link that should be helpful.

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Bali-Bangkok diaries. Part – 4

Silverware, art and wood carvings in Bali.

Much before I reached Bali I’d been advised to definitely pick up their silver jewellery, paintings and wood carvings. I personally added a rattan handbag to that list.

Celuk is the silversmith capital of Bali. It consists of a mile-long street, lined with silver jewellery factories and shops. We stopped at Artika’s, an imposing building facing the main street with a beautiful stone archway at its entrance and intricately carved doors covered with gold foil leading to the main showroom. The sterling silver jewellery design’s are fantastic, very different from ours and one can always bargain down the price by at least 20%. Customisation is totally possible as the silversmiths are available in the shop itself, sitting in a separate room and working away their magic. All three of us women in our group picked up earings and finger rings from the shop.

The splendidly carved guilded entrance to the silver jewellery showroom is behind me.

We next visited a family-run art gallery. The Balinese are skilled painters. A traditional painting is done in several steps — first, drawing and outlining, then adding detail with pen and ink, and finishing with watercolor. I wasn’t in a position to buy original artwork, but if you are, I highly recommend taking the time to visit these art galleries. As the third generation young owner simply said, ‘We live our life with art. We do everything with art. My great-grandfather built this house. Grandfather added the gold leaf to the doors and corniches. Every generation adds their own style’. I think he summed up for me the Balinese way of life they surround themselves with art. Beyond the rooms which displayed art was the traditional courtyard, the family rooms and their own temple which is always located in the direction of the active volcano Mt Agung. There were flowing water fountains everwhere and fat golden and orange coloured fish swam happily in the fountain tanks. Completely idyllic surroundings for artistic juices to flow.

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Happy souls. The beautiful Mother with her son. They surround themselves with art. Behind them is their bedroom.

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Behind the rooms serving as the art gallery lies the family compound.
The grandfather who added the gold leaf to the carved wooden doors.

Next visit was to Sila, a wood carving factory cum showroom in Mas village. Spread over two floors, the variety in the products available was mind boggling. From singlepiece eight seater, intricately carved ebony dining tables to a life sized Jesus and Buddha statues, to horses, to small masks to literally everything. Here again after a lot of hard bargaining, our friends bought a beautiful pair of wooden carved heads of Buddha.

Carvings were often made from this type of wood called ‘crocodile wood”because of it’s knobbly bark.
A veritable treasure house of wood carvings.

My daughter in front of the store’s entrance.
Recognise the person behind the mask?

We headed north and up the hills to Kintamani village, from where we’d be able to sight the active Mt Batur volcano. But it started to rain. Bali lies 8 degrees south of the Equator and it was nearly the end of their rainy season. We experienced rains nearly every day. But luckily it didn’t hamper our sightseeing much. So we climbed into our extremely comfortable mini-van and watched the rain drenched scenic villages pass by for over an hour as we acsended in altitude.

Mt Batur.
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Mt Batur in the background.
We’re waiting for lunch.

Mt Batur was covered in low clouds. We had a typical Balinese lunch while gazing out on the volcano and hoping all the while that the clouds would disperse and we’d get a good photo-op. But it was not to be. However since it was our first sighting of an active volcano our excitement levels remained high. And we did manage to get some shots as the rains ceased.

Bali-Bangkok diaries. Part-3

Stone carvings and the Barong Keris dance.

All along the roads that we travelled from Denpasar to Ubud stone statues lined the road. Behind the displays were the workshops. Statues of every kind ranging from Hindu deities, Buddha statues, demons, giant frogs to rearing stallions lined the roadsides.
I’d also noticed throughout our road journeys in Bali, a statue of a demon placed in the front of every office, shop, restaurant and house. Our driver, Kadek, explained that since the gateway represents the division between the inner and outer worlds, these statues guard the household from evil spirits. Carved from the local and abundantly available sandstone called ‘paras’, these statues erode pretty quickly in the hot and wet equatorial climate, they also gather a layer of moss and hence require regular upkeep and replacement. And the good part of this is, there’s a regular source of work for the artisans. Batubalan has become famous as an artist village known famously for stunning stone carvings and for the Barong and Keris dance.
The first stop we made on our day long Ubud tour was at the Batubalan village to see the Barong and Keris dance.
The dance performance had an entry fee of 100,000 IDR and began at 9.30 in the morning. We took our seats in the semi open courtyard with chairs placed in the shaded viewing gallery. On our right were traditionally dressed musicians sitting cross legged on a raised platform. They played classical Balinese music, called Gamelan, with cymbals, bells, drums, bamboo xylophones, gongs, bamboo flutes and other traditional instruments.
I don’t know whether it was the hypnotic music or the fact that we were tired, but all of us had a tough time staying awake during the show. At the ticket counter we’d all been given a sheet of paper on which the dance was explained scene by scene.
According to the Balinese, Barong is a mythical lion-like creature, and is considered to be a good king. He fights and defeats the evil spirit Rangda. This fight between the good and evil is the common folklore story of the Barong dance.
The performance began with a mischievous monkey teasing the Barong in the forest. In next few scenes, popularly known as Keris dance, the evil spirit of Rangda casts a spell of black magic over the male dancers and finally, these soldiers in a trance commit suicide by stabbing themselves with the Keris, (Balinese knife). When the wrath of Rangda becomes too much to bear, the Barong appears on the scene to protect the kingdom and its citizens from the evil spirit of Rangda. In the final scene of dance, a fierce battle ensues between Barong and Rangda, resulting in the victory of good over evil. Defeated, Rangda runs away from the kingdom.
Ok the Barong gets extra photos because he is so adorably photogenic, not to mention that he is the supreme and a regular good guy and I basically like him.

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stone carvings

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I had hired Kadek Suastika after reading a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor.
He met us in the airport with a wonderful Isuzu Elf minivan and acted as our guide and driver for the entire time we were in Bali. Smiling and polite, great sense of humour and a good command on English he communicated with us through WhatsApp calls and messages.
Sharing his details here so that any of my readers can hire him.
Kadek Suastika:
email:alungsuastika@yahoo.com
Or
alungsuastika@gmail.com
+62 08174793556

Bali-Bangkok diaries. Part-2

How I pick a place to stay(without a travel agent, in a foreign land or a new city).

Bali, inspite of being a small island, has hundreds of places to visit and same number of beaches. In a span of five days it’s impossible to do all. Vilondo.com is a good site and I referred to it to decide upon the two places I wanted to cover, Ubud and Kuta. First three days in Ubud and then two days in Kuta. Seminyak and Nusa Dua beckoned but I’ve kept them for ouaar next visit.

In the heart of Ubud, is the Ubud Royal Palace, a major landmark which lies smack-dab on the main Jalan Raya Ubud road and nearby Ubud Market and I wanted to stay near there.

When I choose a hotel to stay in a new place, my most important considerations are always connectivity, availability of eating and shopping joints nearby, it’s rating on Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Agoda and last but not the least it’s budget-friendliness. On TripAdvisor I’ve seen that white people have different requirements from us. Peace and solitude is really not what I seek when abroad. My quest is to know the culture, the food, talk with the locals and unearth the story. There’s always a story. Language barriers can be overcome by gesticulating, using simple English words and of course Google translate. Since I never go through travel agents, choosing a hotel takes a lot of time and painstaking effort. I bookmark websites, make pen and paper notes, and slowly eliminate many names to fix upon one. It has to be located near roadside eateries which open early and close late. Budget hotels rarely have their own restaurants, at best they can provide a standard continental breakfast. So if one wants to have the local food one needs to be staying near a market. I personally like being in the hubbub with a nearby ATM, some shops, eateries and taxi stands. Last few trips I’d booked on Agoda but this time Booking.com threw up lower prices of the same hotel. My husband helps immensely with looking up a hotel’s exact location on Google Maps. We don’t rely completely on the website’s description and reviews of hotel but check it out on our own by reading blogs and other discussion forums.

Hence after nearly two weeks of research, Yuni’s House was chosen for our stay in Ubud and it did not disappoint. This small family-run hotel is in Ubud market which means it’s in the heart of Ubud itself.
The owner doesn’t speak a word of English and runs the place with the help of his family. Three generations live in their resplendent family home carved in wood and stone.
Skeletal staff means the service is slow and communication involves a lot of sign language and Google translate, but then when the surroundings are so beautiful, no one’s complaining.

Staghorn orchids hang from the verandahs.

The central courtard with it’s small quaint swimming pool and fountain.

Me, waiting for breakfast which is served from 7 am.

The patriarch of the house with his grandson. We communicated only through sign language.

Fruit sellers lay out their wares early in the morning.

I had hired Kadek Suastika after reading a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor.
He met us in the airport with a wonderful Isuzu Elf minivan as we were seven adults with a lot of luggage and acted as our guide and driver for the entire time we were in Bali. Smiling and polite, great sense of humour and a good command on English he communicated with us through WhatsApp calls and messages.
Sharing his details here so that any of my readers can hire him.
Kadek Suastika:
email:alungsuastika@yahoo.com
Or
alungsuastika@gmail.com
+62 08174793556

Bali-Bangkok diaries. Part-1

The part I love the most, the planning of a trip.

Our trip to Bali and Bangkok can’t be described in one post, so I’m going to do many and my readers must bear with me.

The planning started four months ago, last December to be precise. Many destinations were considered. I started with China a country I really want to visit, but after a couple of email exchanges with local travel agents, I found China to be very expensive. Reluctantly I then moved on to Vietnam and Cambodia, found that these were doable but still the flight fares were too much. Zeroed down to Bali which I’d always wanted to visit since watching Julia Roberts in Eat Pray and Love. And Bali it was, because of two reasons – it was cheap, we could have a layover and stay in Bangkok again and our friends could move on to Phuket while we came back to Delhi. We’d loved our stay in Bangkok a year back and we were really very happy to have an opportunity to visit the city again, mostly for the fabulous food and shopping.

Next on the list was checking the calendar to choose dates when everyone was free to take a week long holiday. Holi and the ensuing weekend in March became the perfect choice. Dates were fixed and tickets on Thai Airlines were bought. I’d researched flight fares on Skyscanner, Make My Trip and Google flight. On our last trip to Bangkok we’d flown by Air Asia which is very cheap but has just a 15kg luggage limit and as a result, we could hardly do any shopping in Bangkok. So this time we were determined to fly with an airline which has a 30kg luggage allowance. Thai Airlines met our requirements of both luggage allowance and layover durations in Suvarnabhumi airport, so we purchased our tickets with them.

15th March, our day of travel approached rapidly and we headed out for our Bali-Bangkok trip. Our friends from Kolkata would join us in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport where we had a layover of three hours.

Now, I have rheumatoid arthritis and it’s too painful to walk the long distances in the swanky airports inspite of the travelator. So for the last couple of trips I’ve been requesting a wheelchair. This wheelchair of mine gets total VIP access. Over the course of our journey through two international airports, I was handed over from one young and extremely sweet natured man to the other who obligingly pushed me around everywhere, whether to the washroom or to the glittering duty-free shops, where I shamelessly lathered every exposed nerve point on my body with different perfumes. The wheelchair gets complete priority and we bypass all queues. There was a lot of time to kill for our midnight flight to Bangkok, so we headed for the lounge. We’d had no dinner before leaving home and were all ravenously hungry.
As the flight time approached, for customs and immigration clearance, me in my wheelchair and my family got whisked passed queues right to the head of the line to board the flight to Bali. We’re all yawning away like crazy, this too is another five and a half hour flight and though I had an aisle seat I was quite worried about my knees. Anyway we had a peaceful flight with excellent wine and food as a result, I managed to doze off. Reaching the airport we discovered to our delight that we didn’t require any visa in Bali as we were staying less than thirty days.

Though Bali is called the ‘land of the Gods,’ to me the surroundings in Ngurah Rai International Airport felt as if I’d arrived in ‘Orchidland’. Flowers everywhere!

Our adventure had begun!

I finally went to Bhutan & loved it. Part-3

Chelela Pass & Haa valley

Leaving Paro Chu (river) and the green rice fields behind, we climbed up winding roads flanked by dense forests to Bhutan’s highest motorable pass.

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Sun-bleached prayer flags fluttered noisily in the bitterly cold wind and the harnesses of the tethered ponies jangled. Grey mists rose from the valleys below and obstructed our views. We saw some snow clad ranges in the distance but notoriously grey skies obstructed our views. At the parking area of the pass we gladly bought hot tea from a solitary van run by a father-daughter duo. Paro had been warm as it was in a valley, but temperatures at this place, 3998 metres high, were freezing.

 

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The little-known Haa Valley lies across this pass. Quiet streets with hardly a person in sight, it’s a one-road town lying along the banks of Haa Chu. PK explained that this was a sensitive location as it bordered China and Tibet. This explained the huge Indian military camps. Schools were closing and the silence was broken by the laughter and shouts of small children running happily across the bridge. Bhutanese children and babies are adorable. The young children smile shyly, are red cheeked and have excellent manners. Dressed in their national costume against the backdrop of the prayer flag-laden bridge and the gurgling Haa Chu, they were a wonderful sight.

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A cheeky little boy asked me from where I’d come. When I told him India, pat came the next question, whether I knew Salman Khan. I wondered at the rapid march of television and the internet which were hitherto unknown till 1999 in this tiny kingdom.

To be continued…

I finally went to Bhutan & loved it. Part-2

Paro

Though we didn’t fly to Paro, we gasped as we drove past it’s legendary airport. It’s a tiny strip of concrete between the two arms of a V-shaped valley. “It’s very dangerous to land here, only nine pilots in the whole world can make it,” Pasang explained. I’ve heard that passengers in the plane feel as though the wings of the aircraft are skimming the roofs of the houses that perch on these two mountains.

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Any Bhutanese city looks deserted after you’ve become used to the crowd and crush of India. As we drove through Paro, we saw smartly dressed policemen manning the traffic at the islands. There was no honking at all, and even more unbelievably – no traffic lights. We were taken aback. “Don’t accidents happen?” we wondered. “No,” Pasang said, surprised that we would even ask.

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Cars, buses, motorbikes had designated parking slots marked in white along the roads and our vehicle would slide into one of these. Our guide warned us that we were only to cross the roads at the zebra-crossings. Remember that there are no traffic lights at all, not even for pedestrians. We stepped onto any zebra crossing, and, to our amazement, saw traffic come to a halt.

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Empty streets but even children follow traffic rules crossing the road at the zebra crossing.

Free Wi-fi is almost everywhere. I noticed there were no ads or billboards, international franchises or western clothing chains to be seen anywhere. There is no McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC or Subway. All storefronts (except in Thimpu) had blue-green signboards with tiny lettering in Bhutanese and English.

The famous Taktsang Monastry or Tiger’s Nest was our next destination. This famous monstery is literally built into the face of a cliffside. Getting there is a 5-6 hour hike, but one can hire horses for part of the way. You can hire a very unique-looking pine walking stick which you are refunded part of the money for if you bring the stick back to the vendor. I have never seen such sticks anywhere – they are hand-carved out of pale wood, with red and green stripes painted on them. Returning the sticks allows the Bhutanese to recycle, and saves precious wood. With such small gestures, no wonder this is the only carbon-negative country in the world!

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Midway through the climb comes the Taktsang Cafeteria where we had nice coffee with wonderful complimentary biscuits. Hot buffet meals are also available at the café and two of our group members decided to stay there and soak in the stunning views of the monastery from distance. A little further from here the dirt trail ends and rock-cut uneven steps start down the mountain side. One has to first climb down, cross a small bridge and then make the steep climb up to the monastery. The remaining three of our group called it a day because the stairs were taxing their knees too much.

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First view of the Taktsang monastery
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Bhaskar on the trail
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Prayer flags line the path.
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The majestic Tiger’s Nest Monastery
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Taktsang Cafe.
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Souvenirs being sold at a small shop
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The cafe is a welcome pit-stop

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With my rheumatic knees I saw my friends off but didn’t attempt the hike. Pasang and I chatted with his friends at the car park and I learnt from one of them that the monastery had been destroyed by fire in 1998. As there were no drawings or documents, a call went out worldwide to people who had visited Taktshang appealing for photographs. From these, a detailed scale model was built at the base camp rather than plans (as the Bhutanese craftsmen couldn’t read plans). The materials were then winched up the cliff on a pulley system, and the full sized version constructed over the course of 5 years.

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PK and his friend, must say Bhutanese men are very handsome.

The drivers also told me that the best shopping for souvenirs was from the stalls at the car park that were run by women (across Bhutan, it is women who man shops) The women at the stalls smiled and called out to me. Language was a problem as I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. But since they smiled so easily, displaying their tambul stained teeth and appeared so cheerful, I was completely charmed. So, accompanied by unintelligible chatter, frantic gesticulation, whipping out calculators and both sides punching in numbers to haggle over the price, I ended up buying more than I’d planned to.

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She was thoroughly confused but the calculator came to her rescue.

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Bhutan’s philosophy of a Gross National Happiness Index, is a concept invented by their much-revered fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. According to an explanatory board at the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro, the philosophy attempts to harmonise economic progress with the spiritual and emotional well-being of the people. The Bhutanese take the index very seriously. It has nothing to do with tourism. I asked the owner of the hotel I’m staying in, what he thinks of gross national happiness. He thought for a while and slowly said “We should be happy with what we have and not desire for more.” My guide chips in, and said, “We should be thinking about other people and not about ourselves.” I was left quite speechless.

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No wonder the Bhutanese are so happy.

To be continued…..