Our dry season Bali sojourn kicked off with a torrential downpour at Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Like everywhere these days, climate change is a sorry norm in South-east Asia (a region also doing little to curb it), so we splashed ashore, hurrying through the customs and duty-free gauntlet to find our driver.
We were headed for the Bali Agung Village at Seminyak, which had kindly sent a chap out to collect us.
We spotted our man in the terminal, being buffeted about in a groaning assemblage of gesturing drivers and guides, all waving placards bearing misspelled names from every corner of the world.
Then it was 90 minutes of slug-like travel through the deluge and astonishing traffic congestion to reach our digs, 10 kms distant.
Sitting at a standstill, our disillusioned helmsman piped up: “Bali traffic big, big problem now. Government gave out loans during Corona to help struggling people, but they all bought new cars. Now cars everywhere; not good; horrible slow driving for you and me.”
An understatement indeed. At least, pre-Covid, with a few zillion scooters buzzing about, the flow was adequate; but now, the quest by locals for stylish motoring status has brought instant gridlock to the Isle of the Gods. There were hire purchase SUVs and minivans as far as the eye could see. Not ideal for the most densely populated patch of land on the planet.
Bali Ugung Village is a charming old-fashioned, quiet compound oasis set in the frenetic heart of modern Seminyak.
Our comfy self-contained villa, surrounded by immaculate lush tropical gardens, was a little bit of bliss while staying on the frenzied coast.
Despite regular rain squalls, we frolicked in the pool, enjoyed tasty Indonesian breakfasts in the open-air foyer, dined out at old faves like Biku and took several strolls along the grubby but enticing beach.
One such seaside perambulation found us accosted by a lady sarong pedlar, and we started haggling over her extortionate opening offers.
Voice quavering with woe, she related how she wove and stitched all night long while fending off her weary, undernourished nurslings, so she could churn out bespoke one-off sarongs for discerning beachgoers.
Negotiations lasted longer than a Free Trade Agreement, but she eventually accepted an offer five times less than her starting price.
We sauntered away gratified to have acquired such fetching apparel, only to spend the rest of trip spotting the same garment hanging in markets everywhere, at half the price, mass-produced in Shanghai.
The next day we set off in a cab for the foothills of Ubud, little suspecting it’d have been quicker to go via Goose Bay, Labrador.
Still, things started well, despite the traffic and rain. It is always pleasant heading up to Ubud from the teeming southern towns.
The tradition of individual villages specializing in specific arts and crafts is alive and well. These include stone and wood carving, traditional weaving, painting, jewellery, ceramics, and all things Bali aesthetic. A stop along the way is a reminder of the pervasive artistic talent inherent in the Balinese.
We stopped and looked at some impressive stone carving, but were wary about buying, as some volcanic rock pieces tend to disintegrate in your garden after the first hosing – a sloppy mound of pyroclastic sludge courtesy of Mount Agung and crooked Balinese Berninis.
While Bali clearly suffered economically through the pandemic, we noted robust signs that things are making a fighting comeback. At a crossroad we spied a snazzy van ahead of us with the words ‘Pet Taxi’ scrawled across it. Pet taxi! Such extravagance is to be expected among the mad matriarchs of Monte Carlo, Palm Beach, and Milano- but outside Denpasar, quite a revelation. One would presume it is the trophy Pomeranians and Shih Tzus who get the caviar and chauffeurs. Alas the handsome but lowly Bali Dog (what’s left of that noble race) still gets the bum’s rush – or maybe they’re driving the Pet Taxis.
Another distraction out the cab window is the ubiquitous kite flying by competitive youngsters. While kids elsewhere in the world are glued to an iPhone or PlayStation, Balinese nippers still reach for the sky with their large and impressive flying machines.
This usually occurs after school, but not exclusively: There are truant kites aloft throughout the day. The chief object of the exercise is clearly to get the kites as high as possible, mere specks in the blue void, while trying to avoid commercial flight paths. I’ve seen Balinese kites disappear into low scudding cloud and heard the cries of delight and accomplishment from the young ground crew. That’s a lot of fishing line.
A few clicks out of Ubud, we ran into a police road block.
We lowered a window and enquired as to the problem. “Go back,” said a sopping traffic cop. “Rain make landslide on road and no Ubud this way.”
These tidings instantaneously bamboozled our driver, a man of the lowlands with absolutely no knowledge of the upland byways or alternate routes.
He embraced the bravado of the clueless, zoomed higher into the rain-sodden jungle hills, and became hopelessly lost.
Frustrated, his irrationality grew, as did his disorientation and temper. He hurtled down roads and mud tracks that led nowhere, accosted roadside farmers, women with seventy-five kilos of rice on their heads, and men loafing in roadside gazebos, but couldn’t understand their directions, and became even more flummoxed.
Eons seemed to pass, but finally, miraculously, our errant chariot puttered up to the front door of the Kastara Resort and Spa.
We leapt out with glee and the driver left in a huff. Heaven knows if they are still expecting him back in Seminyak.
Kastara is a showy affair perched precipitously on the eastern slope of the Campuhan Ridge. Our room, replete with mini horizon pool, had wonderful views across the lush river valley. We would watch mist drifting by of a morn and listen to the jungle sing with insects and birds at sunset.
It was comfy and stylish, albeit rather too ‘open plan’ in the ablution division. The luxurious commode sat like a Faberge egg in a glass compartment in full view of the gentle rain drop shower grotto, causing a regular emergency aversion of gaze by occupants of both. This design was no doubt suitable for earthy supermodels or punters with a predilection for observing intimate toilette, but a tad daring for those with a belief in the saving grace of walls.
Southeast Asia has some of the quirkiest hotels on Earth. The Kastara architect appeared to have been influenced by an intriguing Flintstones aesthetic, as the entry gate to each suite on our level was dominated by a giant boulder – creating a cave-dweller meets Asian mod-luxe effect.
Up by the pool and restaurant, where we would have a coffee each morning, there is a rather incongruous boat-shaped verandah projecting out over the ravine. It can only be presumed that this was an attempt to generate the cheesy delights of an ocean cruise married with a tropical mountain getaway for landlubbers. One almost expected Noah or Leonardo DiCaprio to appear on the prow looking terribly confused.
Late one night we were awoken by the rambunctious arrival of new guests but thought nothing of it in this epoch of the self-consumed. The next morning staff were busy creating a blazing artwork with petals on the surface of the next-door horizon pool. Then we spotted L’il Butt (the moniker she supplied us).
Like a minor Hindu deity shimmering into the scenery, the amiable lady was in a sequin bikini precariously perched in on the pool wall, voguing for birthday Insta pictures. The petals spelled out Happy Birthday. Fresh in from Norfolk, Virginia, she, and a few pals had chosen far-flung Bali to celebrate the great day.
If you are seeking an exquisite potpourri of humanity in one place, look no further than modern Bali. Eat Pray Love still reverberates down the decades for many dreamers.
The Campuhan Ridge walk trail is a favourite in Ubud. It is tranquil, semi-rural and has so far escaped the churning hustle and bustle of the town’s main drags.
It is also known as a naughty sanctuary for young lovers looking to canoodle away from the prying eyes of reproving compound elders. You sometimes see them springing hand-in-hand into the shrubbery boarding the walk trail.
During our Kastara stay, we would go walking each day along the well-paved track checking out the galleries and cafes.
Our Bali visits (we attend the Ubud Writers Festival most years) are never complete without an obligatory visit to the wooden egg painters here. This specialised little clique has been daubing local creatures and scenes on wooden googs for many years, and we have always brought a few home. They take pride of place on the Easter table.
I had been keen to find an egg depicting the now highly threatened Bali Starling, a magnificent snow-white bird that, due to human impact and the international caged bird industry, is now only found in the wild in reserves on the adjacent island of Nusa Penida. Walking into our regular egg gallery I was delighted to find one almost immediately, adding to our bulging ‘nest’.
We are also fans of the ridge frog paintings. These are playful scenes with hundreds of frogs doing pretty much every Balinese activity under the sun – dancing, marching in ceremonies, painting, playing gamelan, making offerings, cooking satay, farming, charming, you name it.
We understood there to be only one ridge frog painter but were surprised to go into another gallery where the artist/owner claimed that he was the real frog king, and to forget the imposter down the trail. Who to believe? A common dilemma when it comes to saleable items in those parts..
Unfortunately, the latter was charging like a wounded water buffalo for his remarkably similar amphibian creations (and everything else for that matter), so we left in a hail of better offers. On our next visit we will determine once and for all who is the true Frog Man of Campuhan.
The food in Bali can be fantastic or average. Even the classics churned out in the better warungs can leave a bit to be desired, but ravenous pie and peas Australian bogans and Russian borscht escapees wolf it down with a Bintang chaser and consider it Michelin fare.
Still, on this trip we discovered arguably the best Nasi Campur on the island. It is served up with a smile by the fine folk at the Rare Angon Warung on the Campuhan Ridge. We pretty much went back daily for our fill – at about $5 a serve. Highly recommended.
We also had an excellent meal at the Bamboo Kitchen in the middle of the rice paddy adjacent to the Kastara. It is such simple rural gems that make Bali the unique and charming place it is.
Then, of course, there was the massages. We would toddle off down the trail to nearby Karsa Spa, choose our essential oils and let the experts do the rest. Foot and full body sessions were just what the doctor ordered.
Relaxed and gazing out over the gardens, lotus pond and paddies, drifting off in massage Nirvana, it was here the Bali effect truly stated to take effect. There was much more to come.
In our next edition, we move into central Ubud and are unexpectedly swept into a swirl world of yoga, ritual, and ceremony.