My first week in Bali!

Good morning, Indonesia!!

I woke up on the other side of the world and couldn’t believe I had an entire month ahead of me to explore this island.

At this point I had only planned the first two weeks: I would spend the first two days in the trendy/touristy area of Seminyak, then four days further south on Balangan Beach. The second week I had booked my first ever yoga retreat in the rice fields near Ubud.

A continental breakfast was included at the Aswana Seminyak hotel, which I thought would be the easiest way to start the first morning of my vacation. It was picture perfect and was served to me with a cup of hot tea in the quiet lobby of the hotel with a view of the pool.

We had wind and a little rain on those first couple of days which kept it a bit cooler, but I was still very aware that the moisturizer I brought was completely superfluous and any sunscreen I put on my face would inevitably melt off as the day went on.

Oh the humidity!

Just a beautiful stone carving in between restaurants…

People watching on the beach…

It wasn’t weather for swimming, and in fact the beach had red flags up all along the shoreline, some with skull and crossbones on them, and ‘swimming is prohibited’ in English and Indonesian.

This of course meant it was ideal weather for surfers, and many folks took to the waves to practice. I was thisclose to trying it out myself…

Instead, I bought my first young coconut and sat at a coffee shop on the beach watching the waves.

In addition to January being the off-season, the stormy weather made for quieter waterfront restaurants, although they looked like they were ready for throngs of tourists at any moment.

Walking down the streets I saw many small and large temples and small offerings on ledges, shelves, or even just on the sidewalk, and it was clear how much the Hindu faith is part of the culture here. Colourful flowers, food, an incense were the most common offerings I could see.

Shops and spas and restaurants lined the streets and you couldn’t go halfway down a block without coming upon Balinese women saying “massage, Miss? Spa treatment, yes?”

Well, twist my rubber arm.

When a one-hour reflexology massage is $10, you are tempted to get one daily.

And maybe because the day before I walked 17,000 steps in Seoul, I went deluxe and tried out the fish tank foot treatment first…

😳

I wish there had been a camera on me when I first put my feet in the water and the tiny fish started nibbling. I squealed like a little kid. It’s the strangest thing ever. Not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience.

The pool at my hotel was gorgeous and no one used it while I was there except me. It felt like I had booked it for my private use. I did not hate this.

My hotel was a 20 minute walk to the beach and I saw a good sample of what sort of souvenirs and crafts I could get here. From handwoven dreamcatchers and lantern covers to carved wooden statues to candles and jewelry and beautiful fabrics, I realized that it may be a very good thing I can check two bags on the way home…

The beach here felt like it was definitely more of a touristy/party area and it reminded me of the resort spots in Mexico or the Bahamas. I even walked past a sports bar with a huge pool in the middle.

This restaurant had coconut trees on top and a ladder set up and ready to go to collect them!

I enjoyed my first Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a mango lassi at this beautiful little hotel and restaurant. With its own little waterfall.

A mango lime lassi! Delicious!!

It was while I was in Seminyak that Anna, a childhood friend (that I had not seen in, oh, 25 years), messaged me on Facebook. She has been living in Germany for the last seven years, happened to be in Bali on her honeymoon, and suggested we meet up! We planned to get together later in the week.

In the meantime I enjoyed some excellent meals, massages, and window shopping in Seminyak.

Amazing salmon poke

Before I knew it I was heading to my second location on Balangan Beach, a surf hotspot on the south peninsula of Bali, and I was hoping to get in some surf lessons while I was there.

My driver had trouble finding the resort and ended up dropping me off on what looked like a rocky cliff face, where I was instructed to hike my gear down the pathway to my hotel.

As I waved goodbye to my driver and carefully stepped my flip-flop wearing feet down the rocky hill, I thought “Well this place sure is remote!”

I got to my hotel at the bottom, and the girl in the lobby/restaurant/poolside area basically took me at my word that I had a reservation, and ‘checked me in’ by writing my first name (“Serrah”) and “Room 2” in an ancient looking ledger.

“Retro!” I thought.

And then she took me to my room.

We walked behind the main building to a long thatched-roof building. The doors were woven palm leaves and looked very old. I felt a twinge of concern as she unhooked a very rusty padlock from the door and opened it into my room.

I may have let out a slight gasp.

Now the kindest word I could give this place was RUSTIC.

Like, shockingly rustic.

I feel I should have been more prepared for the rusticness I came upon.

In fact this may be the place where the word ‘rustic’ originated… 😂

All (somewhat true/panicked) jokes aside, this place first made me think of Belize and their small villages and typical rural homes (see: huts). Just add one light switch and running water.

The walls/roof of my room were rattan/palm leaves. There were places I could see right through them.

My shower was a bamboo pole with a switch halfway up that opened and closed the hose that lets water pour out the top.

There was a large knothole in my floor that I could see the jungle below through.

The way I ‘locked’ my door from the inside was by jamming a piece of bamboo in a notch. I locked it from the outside with the rusty padlock and a key that look older than me.

The one tiny and dim lightbulb hanging crookedly from the ceiling, the grey mosquito nets, and the ancient dusty floor fan in the corner were the most humorous juxtaposition to the ‘welcome to your honeymoon suite’ look of two ridiculous towels folded into kissing swans that had been so delicately placed at the foot of my bed.

I honestly had to take several deep breaths and tell myself I’d be fine.

My first thought was: This is the place I got all those vaccines for.

#jokingnotjoking

I tried to put myself in the mindset that maybe this is more like what I should expect in Bali. Maybe my hotel in Seminyak was an overly fancy and rare example of what places are like here.

Either way the photos of this hotel that I saw online did not tell the whole story and did not meet my expectations. (Buyer beware.)

To get my mind off what I had gotten myself into I took off for a walk down the beach to the north end where the water and waves were stunning, and many people were making using of the photo opportunities with that view.

Along the way I saw several people learning to surf and particularly enjoyed watching one guy triumphantly punch his fists into the air as he succeeded at his first surf in to shore. I hoped I would enjoy it as much as that!

I couldn’t believe the number of stray dogs here. They almost outnumbered the people. They would lie in the shade of people’s beach umbrellas, tussle in the sand with each other, and hang out next to the restaurants likely hoping for scraps.

Just a pooch chilling by the pool.

And then I got to the end of the beach and the wedding photographers almost outnumbered the stray dogs!

I counted 9 or 10 couples taking either wedding photos or engagement photos; on the sand, in the water, and up along the cliff overlooking the water.

I got some Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg) at one of the restaurants on the beach and booked a surf lesson for the next morning.

That night was …interesting. The mosquito netting was an absolute must-have as this place was SO buggy. That and probably full of other creatures I didn’t want to think about. A foot-long gecko occasionally creeped in and out of my bathroom and I just hoped he would be hungry enough to eat all the scary bugs. The hole in the floor made me wonder what sort of things regularly crawled through so I put my flip flops over it so I wouldn’t be reminded of it. Plus it was a dusty, stale oven in that room; I was so hot that the ancient floor fan was just effective enough to keep me from dragging my pillow down to the beach and hoping for the best.

Needless to say, I was delighted when morning came and I could get some fresh air and breakfast. And my first banana pancake of the trip.

This beach is definitely a hotspot for surfers and folks learning how to surf. The waves aren’t very big this time of year, but they are constant so it’s a good place to try out your skills as a newbie at high tide.

Armed with a surf shirt and surfer booties (neoprene slippers) we found some shade on the sand to do some intro lessons on how to lie on a board, paddle, and stand up and balance.

The best part was when we went out to the ‘white water’; broken foamy waves. My instructor Jack would hold my board ready and then give me a push when a wave came along and yell “up!” when it was time for me to stand up on my board.

I was absolutely overjoyed when I first succeeded, getting up to standing and riding my longboard into shore, jumping off before reaching the spot where the coral reef broke through the sand. I turned around and raised my arms in triumph and Jack cheered from the waves!

I was able to get to a decent balanced standing position about seven or eight times during our 60 minute lesson. It was amazing!!

I booked a second lesson with Jack for the next morning and went in to get some shade.

A large bottle of water, and a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch, followed by a swim in the hotel pool, brought me to the early afternoon. I had been thinking of finding a new hotel as I didn’t quite feel like I could do the dark, grass-walls, hot room for another two nights. Plus, my friend Anna invited me to their resort in Nusa Dua on the Saturday and I thought maybe I should just find a room in that area.

I was sitting by the pool (where I could access the wifi) and started looking up hotels when I wondered if I’d had a bit too much sun. I needed to lie down so the hotel search was paused.

At about 4:30, I still couldn’t pull myself out of bed and felt awful. I ended up staying in bed through the night and what turned out to be food poisoning made me fully sick at about 10pm. It was after that that I dragged myself to the lobby to send off an email to my friend and travel agent that basically said “I cannot stay here another night, please book me something with real walls and air conditioning in Nusa Dua.”

I texted my driver Purna and asked him to pick me up the next morning and take me to Nusa Dua. I apologized to Jack and cancelled my 2nd surf lesson.

We got to Mercure Nusa Dua and I was relieved to find a cool and quiet room in this 5 star resort. I’d got a good deal on the room but I would have given them all my money to have a good night’s sleep at that point! I was happy to drop off my gear and know I was coming back here that night.

When I arrived at Anna’s resort and was brought to the Villa lobby, I knew that I was upgrading my day exponentially.

Anna came to get me and bring me down to the beach to the reserved chairs she and her wife had booked for the three of us that day. She also had surf board rentals organized, and ordered us all fresh coconuts to drink when I arrived. Deluxe!

How does one start catching up on 25 years? The last time Anna and I saw each other we were in elementary school!

We had a great time chatting and sharing stories of our lives and clearly Anna and Samantha were having a fabulous honeymoon with one week in Nusa Dua, and then heading up north to do some “glamping” for their second week.

We went back to their villa and went swimming in the unbelievably gorgeous lagoon that runs all along the back of the villas there. (Sorry, no photos of the lagoon!)

Their private pool

The secret lagoon is through that gate. Best discovery ever!

Anna and Samantha were doing a day trip to Ubud the next day and offered to take me to my yoga retreat if I wanted to share a driver.

We were picked up at 8am by their driver Ketut, and we proceeded to have an adventure-filled day.

A driver costs about $60-70 (CAD) for the day (10 hours max), and we got more than our money’s worth with Ketut!

Ketut was like a driver and tour guide in one, telling us all sort of fascinating aspects about the sights along our way and the Balinese people. In addition to all the temple offerings we were seeing in the streets and in buildings, there were also tall decorative bamboo poles lining all the streets and Ketut explained that these penjor are for a festival that happens in Bali every six months. People put these up to celebrate and they stay up for weeks at a time. The last festival was Dec 25.

We stopped at the Tegenungan Waterfall and got in some good photos and a little refreshing mist to our faces on a beautiful, sunny day.

Please note the smaller sign.

We were elated when we discovered we were able to order cold coconuts after climbing the 115 tall stone stairs back to the top of the hill afterwards.

We went for lunch on the edge of beautiful rice fields outside Ubud, and had delicious crispy duck, and chicken saté that came steaming hot on a tabletop clay oven.

Out next stop was the Monkey Forest in Ubud, which I had heard was a must-see spot.

As we pulled up, Ketut said we could borrow his umbrellas in case it rained while we were in the forest. It was still really hot and not very cloudy so we declined, not wanting to have anything extraneous the monkeys could grab, as we had been warned they will try to steal anything from purses to cell phones to the glasses right off your face.

Do not panic. The first rule of the monkey forest.

The amazing sign at the front gate.

Right away we were delighted to see monkeys all over the place, many filling their faces with papaya and sweet potato and corn.

I never felt like they were going to grab something off me (or even were interested in me at all). Apparently you used to be able to buy bananas to give to the monkeys but they got too agressive… so that’s no longer a thing.

One particular monkey showed a little agression at Samantha only after she stood near him for a picture for a little too long. He hissed and bared his teeth at her and she quickly moved out of his reach. He then proceeded to not only stay sitting there, but he leaned back and crossed his legs like he was just relaxing!

It was only about 15 minutes after we walked through the front gate when the skies opened up and there was a huge downpour.

We were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to the car and we sheepishly told Ketut that the next time he offers us umbrellas, we are taking them.

It was about time for my to check in at my retreat, and then we were going to go back into town and grab dinner.

So now, the story of Finding the Firefly Hotel.

To say I was a little gun shy after the sketchy beachside literal-hole-in-the-floor hotel is an understatement.

So when Ketut used google maps to find the gps location of my yoga retreat and we drove further and further away from anything that looked like civilization, Anna and Samantha’s voiced concerns about my next accommodation were completely valid and I was a little worried.

When we had to drive down this steep tiny road to the bottom of a hill with what looked like an abandoned outdoor community centre, I was thinking ‘oh noooo’.

When we arrived at the bottom, and turned right along a grassy path to arrive at a dead end next to a house and a hill, I thought, “I have been scammed, this place isn’t real. I look like an idiot.”

The gps looked like we should have driven directly into the massive grassy hill to our left.

Ketut got out and walked up this sidewalk along the side of a tall building (that was definitely a private residence) to ask someone for directions.

He came back with another man who said he could carry my bag up the hill to the resort.

We were still skeptical, but at least this man claimed to know that the resort existed.

We walked up this ‘road’. (The only “road” to the hotel, by the way)

And at the top, saw this:

My first view of The Firefly Resort

It turns out, the man who came for my bag is the owner. His name is Ariel, he is from Israel, he is an astrophysicist (because of course he is), and built this place himself.

He checked me in, handed me my welcome package and our week’s itinerary, and then picked some wild passion fruit that was growing in front of the office building for all of us to try before taking me to my room.

Anna and Samantha still wanted to make sure the actual buildings were safe and came with me to see where I was staying.

That’s when Samantha saw the infinity pool and decided “this place is probably okay” and then joked she wanted to stay here too.

With that we went back into town to do some shopping and exploring, and stopped into a Starbucks that just happens to look out over a gorgeous lotus pond and temple. No big deal.

Yes, this Starbucks has a gong.

Pura Seraswati

Samantha found a restaurant called Hujan Locale she wanted to try for dinner and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Bali. Soft-shell crab, locally-caught tuna ceviche with watemellon, and fancy cocktails. Even the menu was perfect with very conversational descriptions of each dish.

The description for “Sate Buntel” is my favourite.

A perfect way to end this reunion/meeting/weekend with friends!!

So clearly, one of my next trips needs to be to Munich, Germany, to visit these two!!

One fantastic week down, 3 incredibly eventful weeks to go!

A 40-hour journey to Indonesia with a day in South Korea

Five hours after my first plane took off from Calgary and this crazy adventure began, I found myself on a plane much larger than I usually take. I walked past the First Class and Business Class sections, and then past one full section of Economy to get to my seat, which was moved forward in the aircraft 10 rows from my original location. And there were two aisles; 9 seats across in Economy.

It was all becoming very real that I was heading to the other side of the world.

Dear Korean Air, You had me at “Here are three seats to yourself on this almost-full 13 hour flight”.

Love, Sara

This girl was feeling very lucky on this New Year’s Eve’s Eve!!!

Not only that, but there were piles of things on every seat to make our flight more enjoyable: a pillow, a blanket, some headphones, a bottle of water, a pair of slippers, and a mini toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.

This would be the longest flight I have ever been on, the longest travel ‘day’ I have ever taken, and will be the furthest trip I have ever made from home.

I was headed to Bali, Indonesia for the first time ever, for one entire month on another solo adventure.

And a bonus to the extremely long journey there: I was stopping in Seoul, South Korea for a 12-hour layover.

Remembering how much I loved my 5 hour layover in Belgium a few years ago, I knew it was the perfect excuse to speed-explore another new-to-me city on the other side of the world!

There were screens on the back of every seat with attached remotes. You could watch tv or movies or news, play games, or watch the flight path (including the live video of the on-board camera as we landed!)

They served us dinner as soon as we were up in the air. It started with distribution of warm hand towels, and then they gave us the option of two American dishes or Bibimbap!!

I have heard all about bibimbap from friends who lived in Korea and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. Steamed sticky rice with sautéed vegetables like oyster mushrooms and shallots, along with sesame oil and some spicy chilli sauce. It was delicious, and possibly the best airline food I have ever had.

Who gets giddy over airline food? This girl, apparently.

After dinner, for the first time ever: I took a sleeping pill on a plane. We were leaving at midnight and the flight was going to be plenty long enough to sleep and still have hours to be awake on the flight.

Side note, this airline has the best dressed flight attendants I have ever seen. i wish I had thought to snag a photo.

Having three seats to myself made me feel like I hit the economy ticket jackpot. I sat in the window seat and leaned against the window, and my feet could stretch without even sticking out in the aisle. Armed with a neck pillow, three pillows (from the three seats!) and my Korean Air blanket, I put in my earbuds and played a white-noise type app that sounded like rain on a tarp, and I was out to the world for about 8 hours.

When I woke up I decided to watch a movie and Crazy Rich Asians was one of the options. I had been wanting to see it for a while and it did not disappoint!

And before I knew it, breakfast was served – after warm hand towels again (an omelet, hash browns, and sausage with fruit and orange juice on the side).

We arrived at 6:30am in Seoul and I was off to the city centre for my walking tour with Ben. It turned out to be a private tour as no one else signed up, which was actually amazing.

Ben first took me up to a viewing deck in the governement building next to the Changdeokgung Palace. Because it was a Tuesday, he told me that the main/primary palace that was promised on the tour would be closed.

We could see many world embassies in the downtown core surrounding this ‘secondary’ palace. The juxtaposition of the modern buildings, Korean style traditional building, Russian influence, and mountain backdrop was amazing.

Symmetry is extremely important to Koreans and the four directions of the city of Seoul were repeated in many ways. There are four gates into the city; North, South, East, and West. And Ben told me that Seoul has a wall surrounding it, which I had not known before.

After giving me a fascinating and thorough history of Seoul and Korea, we went back down and through the main gate to explore the grounds.

The heatch is an imaginary animal- created out of the strongest parts of other animals, like the lion, the pig, the dragon, etc. It is the symbolic animal of Korea that sits on either side of the gates of all the palaces as well as in front of the government buildings.

The Korean architecture is designed after nature, so roofs are curved like the mountains, and even the colour of tile and building material is considered.

Ben emphasized that the number three is considered to be perfect in the eyes of Koreans. Like a triangle, there is balance and stability to the number 3.

Balance + blending + harmony are the three most important concepts to Korean design. Even the flag is white with three colours: black, red, blue.

Black and white/red and blue represent yin and yang, light and dark, fire and water. The solid lines in the flag represent yang and the broken lines, yin.

Odd numbers like 5 and 7 are very powerful too, and in the main palace Ben pointed out that the dragons on the ceiling had seven prongs to their tails so they were the most powerful dragons ever.

As we headed to the village, then realized that the primary palace gates were actually open. It turns out, they open them especially for the holiday. So Ben told me that I got “a bonus palace”.

The grounds of the Geongbokgung Palace were exceptionally larger than the other palace and we explored every corner.

I couldn’t get over the lines in the roofs, the detail to the building and bricks and tiles.

Balance of the materials is important too. Stone, brick, and wood/paper.

Ben told me how Koreans were the first to design a heated (stone) floor, where the chimneys are outside the home and tunnels run throughout the home, and the fire burns so long and so cleanly, there is almost no smoke whatsoever.

Paper screens kept out cold air but were also breathable so people didn’t feel like they were suffocating inside.

Some of the chimneys were incredibly ornate. This main chimney to the Queen’s quarters is actually the 810th national treasure of Korea.

(The first one is the South Gate.)

I also learned that the King and Queen has separate living quarters. The Queen’s residence was closer to the mountain and the earth was brought in and built up around the back side of her buildings to connect her to the mountains’ energy.

After exploring practically every square foot of the grounds we went to look at the  architecture of traditional Korean homes.

It was a good thing I ended up bringing my winter jacket and toque and scarf and mittens and boots to Seoul. It was cold!

Ben suggested we end the tour with lunch, and brought me to a Michelin-star-awarded restaurant for noodle soup.

The line up outside was long but it moved quickly. We were seated on the floor in a traditional room and served two kinds of kimchee and two steaming bowls of delicious soup with hand cut noodles, mushrooms, veggies, and beef.

It was the perfect way to warm up. And I couldn’t resist ordering some handmade jumbo dumplings to go- to have as my dinner when I got to the airport before my last flight of the journey!

Ben went above and beyond and brought me to a traditional Korean Sauna by the Seoul Station where I would head back to the airport. This was recommended to me by my friend Heidi, and it was the perfect way to relax and warm up on this chilly winter afternoon before another two hours at an airport and a 7 hour flight.

First of all, this place has a restaurant in it, a games room, bathing pools, sauna rooms, a nail salon, hair salon, and even sleeping rooms. Entire families must spend the day there!

I was given a clean pair of shorts and T-shirt to wear in all the common areas. Women wore orange shirts and maroon shorts and men had grey shirts and brown shorts. (Signs informed me that the (women-only) showers and bathing pools are garment free.)

Each floor had different offerings (and there were 6 floors, including the basement pool.) Strangely, every floor has a smoking room. This must still be a very common habit in Korea…

I had just enough time to try four of the sauna rooms for about 15 minutes each, which was just a sampler amount of time. I started in the salt room, where you could lie on/in and bury yourself in chunks of rock salt. It was a medium heat sauna room.

Next I tried a red clay room, which had balls of red clay that felt like rough marbles cascading over your toes as you stepped into the space. Again, people were mostly lying on their backs or sides, piling the balls over their legs and arms. These were hot!

After that I went into a charcoal room which was another medium temperature sauna room. There were mats on the floor and the sloped ceiling and walls were black with sheets of applied charcoal. There was a man next to me in there completely asleep and snoring.

It was in the charcoal room that I noticed people on their cell phones, which I would not have thought to bring into a sauna with me…

Lastly I went into an oxygen sauna that was cool extra-oxygenated air. After all the heated rooms it was quite refreshing, and I stayed there a few minutes extra.

Before I left I had to check out the 5th floor, as it was labelled “clay caves, and sleeping and snoring rooms”.

There I found a long room with all these almost tunnel-like bunks made out of red clay, and people were under blankets inside these dark low caves. There were also a couple of large rooms with mats on the floor and dim lighting where people were sound asleep. The snoring room was at the end and had a door to keep the sound inside, I guess!! On this floor there were locker charging stations for cell phones so you could boost your phone’s battery while you napped and re-charged yourself!

This place was unlike anywhere I have ever been, and I’m tempted to come back on my way home and spend a bit more time here!

Back to the airport in time to get a Starbucks (they have toasted chestnut lattes and toasted rice lattes in South Korea!), and catch a jazz band perform near this beautiful indoor garden still decorated for the holidays. Have you ever seen a jazz xylophone player? Well neither had I, until this day!

See you in one month, Seoul…

Bibimbap breakfast snack!!!

A seven hour flight, one meal, and half a sleeping pill later, I arrived in the much anticipated Bali!! I walked past the dozens of taxi drivers holding up name cards or calling out “miss! Taxi? Ride? Miss, you need a taxi?” … to find my driver Purna, with my name neatly printed on a card.

40 hours (almost to the minute) after I walked into the airport at home in Calgary, I arrived at my hotel in Seminyak.

I couldn’t have had better timing getting to my room just before 2am, folding myself into bed, and waking up at 9am the next morning. No jet lag for this girl. 😎

Another win for the Indonesia trip 2019!!