ONE WEEK IN BALI
A vacation that quickly turned into a stressful adventure. I immediately lost my money on my first trip alone, and managed to have a memorable experience on this beautiful island despite it all.
When the deal crossed my path, I allowed myself about 30 minutes of thought before purchasing a flight to Bali. I hadn't consulted with my job, and I knew nothing about where I'd be seven months later when the plane would take off. I looked into the weather for the October season only after booking my flight. Fortunately the forecast was favorable, so I decided to only squeeze a few tshirts in a small backpack. With an aggressive plan and an open mind, I boarded my flight.
NO SLEEP IN HONG KONG
I was so impulsive on my purchase that I only realized I had two layovers in Hong Kong days before the trip. Fortunately, the sleep I got on the plane allowed me to stay awake the 16 hours I was in Hong Kong. After a quick meal at Butao Ramen, I wandered the streets, for a while in the wrong direction, to get a feel for the city. It was a Friday night, and the city's nightlife was in full swing. Despite my lack of tiredness, I wasn't in the mood for loud music. I instead decided to head south to get a view from Victoria Peak.
This view of the HK skyline had been one that I found surreal in photos, ever since I was a child. I spent longer than I planned on here, looking over the long buildings jutting out from below, and the faint horizon of faded city lights across Victoria Harbour. The gentle breeze here was cool, sweet relief from the dense oppressiveness of the streets below.
The streets of Hong Kong seemed to be paved with a fine layer of grime built up over years of neglect. Nearly all of the buildings appeared rotting from the outside. For such a worldly city, I was surprised to see how post-apocalyptic the urban landscape was. I made my way to Kowloon Public Pier at about 4am, being more excited than I was tired. The promenade was deserted, except for a few homeless people, quiet young couples, and seemingly unsuccessful fishermen.
When sunrise finally came, for breakfast I headed to Saam Hui Yaat, a rare place that epitomized the phrase 'hole in the wall.' I had been told by a friend that it would be shuttering its doors soon. I had some of the best dim sum plates there, ordering with my best pronunciation of lor mai gai (chicken steamed in lotus leaf w/ glutinous rice), chee cheong fun (rice flour noodle rolls), and siew mai (steamed pork wrappers w/ roe). I was amused by the dirty dish cloth on my table (pictured below), which the owner just moved it aside to be in front of the customer next to me when my food came. All of it cost me less than $5 USD, and I headed to airport for Bali in high spirits.
QUIET NIGHT IN KUTA
I was struck by how friendly everyone at the airport in Bali was to me. My New Yorker instincts led me to believe that this was all geared towards selling me services. I had done my research on the cost of cab rides, SIM cards, and even the cost of electrical outlet adapters. However, at the moment, time was more precious to me than saving a few dollars so I gladly paid a premium.
My plan would be to spend just a single night in a new city before moving to a new one. Despite warnings from friends about how trashy and touristy the Kuta area was, I had booked my first night there out of curiosity and convenience. Near my hotel, I had an incredible and cheap meal at Sate Babi Gelora Tri Sakti, which was an open tent serving skewered meat in a parking lot. I planned on walking to Double Six Beach for a drink at Champlung at sunset, but hitchhiked my way there on a motor bike. I thought my negotiating skills were admirable, but I later learned I overpaid by 5x. I spent the night wandering the lesser-populated areas of Kuta and found myself at Warung Makan Nikmat. No one could communicate in English to me there, so I nodded my head to their questions until a dish was chosen for me.
Surf and Seminyak
My first surfing lesson would be today, and I was nervous. My swimming skills were decent enough to survive, but not much beyond that. After a morning coffee, I went to an ATM and forever lost my debit card. I was close to being late for my surfing lesson and assumed I would figure out a plan within the hour. My quick lunch of ribs at Hog Wild was largely unremarkable only because my mind was preoccupied: I was mentally counting my hidden emergency cash. My back-of-the-envelope calculations had me at about enough to go through the entire trip without compromising much. I had a backup American Express, but it was little more than useless here. I would soon learn that cash really is king in Bali.
For a few hours, I completely forgot about my money troubles while I was out on the water. On my first try, I stood on the board and rode a wave for at least 8 seconds. Unfortunately, every wave afterward was a pathetic attempt by my exhausted body to paddle and stand. I met some fantastic people at the class who were all staying in the same hostel doing a surf camp. I wondered if I made a mistake in planning my trip in such a way that I could never settle down with a group of friends.
I couldn't find transport, and ended up walking 6 miles back to Seminyak with my backpack. I was beat by the end of it, and desperately needed rest. I hadn't yet heard from my Airbnb host today despite my questions confirming our plan. After three hours of waiting, I gave up and booked another hotel. By now, I was frustrated at having lost an entire afternoon. I knew the only way to make up for the lost time was to take advantage of the night. While bar-hopping through Seminyak, I made friends with a solo traveler named Roosa, a young Finnish girl who was visiting to teach English to kids. Luck was on my side and I found a great bar that accepted my Amex, which meant I could spend outside of my emergency cash budget; I woke up deeply hungover the next morning.
I've never enjoyed cooking because of the shopping, prep work, and cleaning involved, but I loved cooking classes and took several in New York. My Balinese cooking class would start at 6am, starting with a tour of a local market where we would be taught how to shop for everything we were about to cook with.
The other participants were a joy to cook with at Anika. We were so comfortable chatting with each other that I forgot about how tired I was. They all found it hysterical and unusual how small my bag was, comparing it to the multiple pieces of luggage they had in their hotels. The crowd was generally older by a generation, but I happened to sit next to Henry, an American consultant from Taiwan. We got along quite well and I promised to keep in touch when I visited Taipei hopefully next year.
I was so impressed with the food that I considered keeping the recipe book and trying my hand at them back home. I decided against it, citing lack of room in my backpack, which seemed to get more challenging to fit my things into every day.
THE ROAD TO ULUWATU
My plan was to get to Pantai Pandawa, a beach located on the southern rim of Bali, accessed by driving through a steep road carved through sheer cliffs. My taxi driver was my ride in, and he was quick to tell me he wouldn't be waiting for me for the ride back out. I shrugged and told him I'd figure it out; I couldn't afford to pay him to stay even if I wanted him to.
I made some random friends on the beach who were visiting from Java. They took a special delight in my name because it meant "king." Every person I met had a similar reaction. It happened so often that I wondered if they misheard me when I didn't see a reaction. I was ready to head to Uluwatu and began walking around several huts selling cool drinks. A woman offered me a dirty massage with a grin. I turned her down, and asked if she knew where I could get a ride. She offered to take me there herself on a rate I thought was so cheap I didn't bother bargaining. Within minutes, I learned her bike had weak brakes, a broken speedometer, and went at about half the speed of everything else on the road. When I noticed she was partially using the bottom of her sandals as brakes for the steep roads, I accepted the extra helmet.
SUNSET KECAK DANCE
The host of the Airbnb in Uluwatu thought I was out of my mind for not renting a bike and walking everywhere. I later agreed with her when I was chased by two dogs in the dark on the walk home from the temple. At the moment though, I didn't have the money to spare. I still made it just in time to Uluwatu Temple for the Kecak Dance, a daily sunset performance depicting a battle from the Ramayana. It was touristy and designed for Western audiences, but I've wanted to experience the trance-like chants ever since I first heard about it. The show was fantastic. After nervously power-walking past the two angry dogs on the road with my phone's flashlight illuminating the way, I sat by the hotel pool and caught up with messages from work.
PADANG PADANG AND BALANGAN BEACH
I woke up slowly with a sore body, and for the first time I wasn't looking forward to the day. I had little room for error in my plans and I was still broke. I planned on walking to Padang Padang Beach, but I luckily found a guy who let himself be negotiated down when he realized I was perfectly serious about walking there.
The sight of Padang Padang changed my mindset about beaches. Until now, I hadn't seen a tropical beach and I was overjoyed. Although it was quite well known, Padang Padang feels secluded; the narrow staircase at the entrance is lodged between two rock walls, requiring you to walk in single file, awkwardly if you have a surfboard. I sat my bag on a nearby rock and threw myself into the water, keeping a close eye on my bag. Within minutes, I saw a monkey climbing down towards my backpack. I quickly swam back ashore and moved it to a safer location. Even still, I was in a state of bliss and wondered whether I should learn to surf and teach it here as a career.
I snapped myself out of the daydream and began planning the next beach, Balangan. The transport situation seemed hopeless, until I found a young guy offering to get me there on his motor bike for a third of what the only taxi stand in the area had offered. I later learned his name was Lan, and he offered to wait for me while I explored the beach. Balangan was a different kind of impressive, with some waves being taller than I was. I didn't hesitate in throwing myself into the water again. I rode with Lan, who I found out was a really cool person, back to the main city area so I could switch to an Uber, allowing me to pay electronically on my way to Ubud.
UBUD ON TWO WHEELS
My first stop in Ubud was Dirty Duck Diner, a beautiful restaurant that was easily the most expensive meal I've had during the trip. Not long before, I converted my emergency cash to Rupiahs and was feeling quite rich. After dropping off dirty laundry, I headed to Tegalalang, a village north of Ubud famous for its rice terraces, and also where I'd be spending the night in a cottage all to myself. I met Wayan, an 18yr old boy who would be guiding me til the next day. Despite not knowing how to operate one, I said yes to his offer of renting a motor bike. Needless to say, I drove into a ditch within 10 seconds of him being out of view. Fortunately, I felt comfortable enough to make the 20-min ride to Ubud. I treated myself to a much needed spa treatment at Jaen's, widely regarded as having the most talented staff in Ubud. Afterward, I had dinner at Warung Saya, a small restaurant run entirely by one man. I was the only customer there and he insisted on making everything fresh when I ordered the Opor Ayam (chicken curry). It took at least three times longer to make than I expected, but from the first whiff of it I could tell it would be the best curry I've ever eaten in my life.
I rode back home in the dark, careful to keep my speed at a reasonable level, and settled into bed. The chorus of frogs, crickets, and other insects in the surrounding rice terraces was both deafening and astounding. The sloping shape of the terraces amplified their sound like a natural amphitheater. As incredible as that was, I couldn't help but feel that the romance of the moment was wasted on me.
TREKKING THROUGH TEGALALANG
Wayan asked if I wanted to explore the rice terraces on a 3-hour trek that he'd lead with his friend. I happily agreed and we planned to meet at 6am. He was a bit late, but I didn't mind marveling at the view I had from just outside my door. There was a fresh coat of morning dew on virtually everything and a crisp chill in the air.
The walk through the rice terraces was fantastic. We had started before the farmers had finished their breakfast. Wayan suggested I try some cocoa he pulled off a tree; it was sweet, but nothing at all like what I expected. We laughed and joked along the way, and I learned from him what it's like for a farmer here during harvest season. My mother would later tell me that apparently my father and I owned a land just like this in Bangladesh.
I had known earlier that I could find Kopi luwak in Bali, and I was planning on skipping it entirely, given my concerns about the treatment of the animals. However, Wayan insisted that this particular farm, Bali Pulina, was fair and balanced out their profits by growing/selling crops like cinnamon, ginger, and coriander rather than force feed the civet cats. Either way, I didn't particularly like the taste of it and preferred the teas they brewed instead.
SACRED MONKEY FOREST SANCTUARY
I read enough about the monkey forest to know that I needed to avoid being bitten. In the rush leading up to the trip, I neglected to get my rabies vaccine. While having a breakfast of Bubur Ayam (rice porridge w/ chicken) at Cafe Wayan nearby, I threw everything into my backpack and even flipped my pockets inside out to show I had no bananas to hide. The monkeys were clever and dexterous enough to reach into your pocket and take wallets and phones, to be returned only in exchange for bananas. There was one toddler wearing a tshirt with drawings of yellow bananas on his tshirt. It was wild how aggressive the monkeys were in tugging at him until his mother decided it was safer for him to walk around shirtless.
At one moment, I walked into an area where I was alone with the monkeys to get a better look and immediately heard a series of piercing shrieks and displays of bare teeth from some adult monkeys. I froze and immediately backpedaled carefully, ensuring that I didn't step on a tail. Within seconds, the monkeys darted at me, but kept running past me. I turned around to see two pairs of monkeys in a full mating routine. I was too petrified to laugh until I eased further away from the party.
I made a quick trip to Goa Gajah Temple, which ended up being more trouble than it was worth in terms of transportation. I made it back to Ubud in time for lunch at a restaurant I had my eye on since before the trip started, Melting Wok. It was a fusion restaurant run by a delightful French woman. The food was an instant mood boost and the staff seemed to find excuses to yell my name out because they enjoyed it so much. Not too long after, I grabbed my laundry and a driver arrived to take me to Canggu [CHAN-goo].
From everything I had heard about the coastal village of Canggu I knew I would love it, and I was right. However, it was also where I felt the most alone because of how cliquey the social life seemed to be. I was becoming acutely aware of my budget and wanted to be careful about spending money at a bar when I wasn't certain I'd be socializing. Since it was free, I went to Echo Beach after the surfers cleared up for the afternoon to float in the water for a few hours. I hadn't realized it yet, but I got a cut across the bottom of my foot from coral, resulting in sharp, wincing pain with every step I took. The resulting limp was made worse when large grains of sand would find their way into the wound. I sat on the beach and watched the sun sink into the sky, and eventually resolved to get some first aid (which ended up being a wad of napkins soaked in vodka).
I had a moment of peace at Warung of Dandelion, an adorable restaurant that reminded me of a favorite in New York. There were rabbits roaming freely in the garden under my feet and I had fun playing with them. I had a beer at a bar on my block while waiting for my Airbnb host to respond about the broken air conditioner. The bartenders started chatting with me, and I learned about how most of them had traveled the world by working on cruise ships.
The next morning, I had breakfast at Betelnut Cafe, counting the money I had remaining. I would have less than $70 to spend over the next four days. I wasn't worried, but I knew I had little room for error. I was about to leave when a young woman approached, asking if she could sit with me. I told her I was leaving, but I quickly changed my mind and decided to stay for a half hour longer. Alisa was a German girl my age who was also traveling alone. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad I stayed. I found her outlook on life to be quite interesting. She was a yoga instructor and freelance journalist, and I liked how she rode a bicycle instead of a motor bike. She found my two iPhones to be funny, given that she was relieved that her phone broke and she wrote more in her diary instead as a result. She was in Canggu practicing how to surf. We exchanged contact info and she told me about a message she saw recently and enjoyed: "Save the planet. It's the only one with waves."
TO JAVA ISLAND
I had arranged in advance for a very expensive tour of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park in Java. The journey there from Bali would take nearly 10 hours each way, so I got to know my driver pretty well. He was quite chatty whenever he noticed I wasn't napping. He told me about his success and failures in cockfighting, as well as etiquette and how to silently place bets when viewing a cockfight. We ate sate from a small warung off the side of the road, and I was later transferred over to a boat where a very short, loud man with little English would watch over me as we crossed over to Java.
Upon arriving in Java, I was transferred over to my guide, named Miko. He advised I nap as much as possible in the car, since we'd be waking up before sunrise. I noticed my ears had terrible rashes for days now, which was a sign I had been eating something I was allergic to for a while. I dozed off taking guesses at what that could be. When we finally arrived to the hotel, I had trouble deciding whether to eat street food or order from the hotel, so naturally I did both.
BROMO TENNGER SEMERU SUNRISE
At 3am, I got heard my wakeup call to get out of bed. I rambled out of bed and noticed the cut on my foot was feeling worse. The temperature in the area plummeted while I was asleep, and it would continue to drop to 2°C soon. After renting a coat and buying winter gloves/hat on the street, I climbed into a 4x4 and was driven to the view point. By the time we got there, there was already a crowd of professional photographers armed with tripods. Admittedly, I was disappointed by the lack of clouds enveloping the volcanoes that I had come to expect from pictures. I later learned that I needed to come during the correct season for that view.
We drove down into the Tengger Sand Sea, the large caldera on which the five volcanoes sat. My spare undershirt was my facemask, which made it easier to breathe through the sand whipped up by the wind. The goal was to climb Mt Bromo and peer into the smoking, active volcano. One of the Tenggerese locals chased our 4x4 with his horse, insisting that I choose his horse over walking 45 minutes through the ankle-deep sand. I later regretted this when I realized how wild his horse was, but was glad I wasn't walking. The climb up the steps to the lip of the crater was rewarded with the heavy smell of sulfur, which I couldn't breathe in for too long.
RETURNING TO BALI
I donated my gloves/hat to Miko, who does the trek to Bromo once a week without proper gear for warmth. When the ferry returned me to the terminal in Gilimanuk, my driver suggested we eat the regional specialty of Ayam Betutu. Normally I dislike eating food that requires picking at bones with forks and knives, but it was expected that we would eat with our hands. I took comfort in this, since it was how I had grown up eating at home. I still crave this dish of heavily-spiced steamed chicken from time to time.
During the hours I was awake in the car, I got to know my driver, Made, a lot better. He had been a champion bicycle rider as a teenager, and then later was the taxi driver for the Laskar Bali gang. He told me that his son was shy, but had dreams of a tourist (from any country) falling in love with him. Made advised him that he at least needed to know English a lot better before that would happen.
On the drive to Sanur, we stopped by Tanah Lot right at sunset. While I napped, I knew Made was driving like a madman to reach the temple in time. For the rest of the drive to Sanur, I couldn't fall asleep. Made took this as an opportunity to give me unsolicited advice on houses of prostitution in Sanur, admitting he would get a commission for every client he referred. Apparently Sanur was particularly well known for this, as well as being popular among a much older crowd (i.e., 50s and 60s). When he dropped me off in Sanur, I promised I'd be in touch the next time I visited Bali.
SHORT STAY IN SANUR
I was in Sanur because it would be easy to catch a boat to Lembongan, and island off the coast of Bali. My plan in the morning was to do my first ever yoga class on the beach at sunrise. Despite my best intentions, I wasn't able to relax. My thoughts drifted to things like to my foot, which I had still been limping on, and whether I was certain I had enough money to pay for this class. At the end of the class I did feel more at ease and calm. An Australian woman in the class told me this was her fifth time in Bali, but the first time she left Kuta. I didn't know how to react to hearing that.
LEMBONGAN, AN INCREDIBLE DREAM
My last night in Bali would be in Lembongan. I woke up from my nap on the boat when we arrived and I was immediately elated at what I saw.
After an extremely difficult exchange in figuring out where exactly my Airbnb was, I was back in high spirits when I was on a motor bike and set off on my plan to circumnavigate the island, trailing along the coastline as much as possible. I did notice that no one on the island had helmets on, and I suspected it was because there were no cars at all on the island.
I had one of the best meals of my life at Warung Bambu on the northern coast of the island. While waiting for the food to be made, I jumped into the water and cooled off. I couldn't imagine myself happier on my last full day in Bali. I felt like I had survived and what remained of my budget was a testament to that.
I kept riding around the island with a silly grin on my face. I was so happy I almost laughed. I eventually found my way to the Yellow Bridge that would take me to the smaller island of Nusa Ceningan. The roads here were far more steep and many more times more poorly maintained, making it a difficult and technical ride. I came across a sign for Secret Beach, which was too dangerous to swim in. I sat for a while staring at the water and eventually made friends with another traveler, Natalia, from Argentina. She was travelling alone and I asked if she had seen the rest of the island. We made our way to Blue Lagoon, which was an absolutely breathtaking view.
ESCAPE FROM BALI
I woke up early on my last morning in Bali so I could explore Devil's Tear, an area of Lembongan where it was common to see and feel a battering of waves on the rocky cliffs. I was quite happy and was on the way to have a small breakfast with the very little money I had left. On the way there, I had a broadside collision with another motor bike, taking the full brunt of the other bike with my body.
I was thrown off my bike and noticed a huge gash on my bloody knee, as well as a lump that was distending on my right forearm. I had scars running down along my legs but was shocked to be walking an on my feet. My heart was racing with adrenaline, and I went over to see if the other guy was okay. As far as I could tell, he didn't experience any damage besides the front of his motor bike, which had a shattered headlight. I apologized profusely and asked if he was alright. By now, a large crowd had gathered. The one English speaker in the group immediately went on the offensive, which threw me off guard. In almost no time, I was asked to pay for the damages, which was estimated at $50 USD. I did my best to explain that I only had 80,000 IDR (~$6) remaining, and how I ended up in this position. As the time dragged on and the commotion of the crowd ebbed and flowed, I noticed the brake handle on my bike had snapped off, and I was less than two hours away from my boat back to Bali. Eventually, I was let go and I headed straight to returning the bike to the hotel.
The owner wasn't pleased to see the damaged bike, but he didn't lash out at me. Instead, he pulled out a first aid kit to clean me up with betadine and gauze. Afterward, he told me that the damage would cost him 500,000 IDR. I thought about how I could pay him, and then I recalled the Hong Kong Dollars I saved for my layover on the return flight. He gladly accepted the foreign currency after we looked into the conversion rate. By some miracle, I had just enough to cover the cost.
I asked if he could give me a ride to the boat terminal, and he gladly did so saying I could pay him whatever, acknowledging that he had nearly cleaned me dry of my cash. As I waited for the boat to arrive, I had some paranoia that the mob of villagers who surrounded me would find me leaving the island. For an hour I waited in a cheap warung nearby where I spent the last of my money buying Nasi Goreng for breakfast. Once the boat arrived and we set off, I felt more at ease the further I was from Lembongan and the closer I was to my flight. I found it amusing how I went from plotting how I could stay forever on Lembongan to wanting to leave without looking back in less than a day.
KOWLOON NIGHT MARKET
Within the confines of an airport, my Amex was accepted, and I felt a rush with every swipe of my card when buying gifts for family back home and even when buying lunch. When I landed back in Hong Kong for the second layover, it was quite late at night. As I stepped out into the night, I realized that every restaurant still open at midnight along my stroll through Kowloon was a hole in the wall, and my Amex didn't stand a chance of being accepted.
As I walked through the city, I felt my left foot starting to swell up. I hadn't realized that I was hurt there too from the motor bike accident earlier that day. It was the same foot I had been limping on from the cut. Before I got too hungry and thirsty, I decided to head back home and sleep, promising myself that tomorrow would be a better day.
GOOD MORNING, HONG KONG
I woke up with a clear head and a clear plan for how I'd make the most of the few hours I had before flying out. To start, I walked over to the harbor to get a daylight view of Hong Kong's skyline. It was a Monday morning, and most people were heading to work or school, so I had a lot of the space to myself. I had a few more hours so I explored Kowloon Park, an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustling city.
I finally headed over to Din Tai Fung, a dim sum restaurant that had been awarded a Michelin Star in 2010. The shop would open at 11:30am, exactly two hours before my flight would depart. I chose Din Tai Fung because I knew they took Amex, and I was certain that I could make my flight if I played my cards right. Given my lack of dinner the night before, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. The waiter strongly advised I scale back my order since he thought I wouldn't be able to finish it all. Even with the reduced order, I still had an ambitious meal. It may have been one of the most rushed meals of my life, but it was delicious from start to finish. I was out of the door in 20 minutes.
In my dash to the airport, I ran despite my swollen foot and started to feel several blisters on my feet from all the walking I had done this past week. I got to the airport to see an alert that my flight was in final boarding stages and at Gate 64, a horrifying sight to me given that I was standing at Gate 1. With my overstuffed backpack, swollen foot, and full stomach, I began a sprint promising myself that I'd be home soon if I didn't stop to catch my breath.
I wrote all this down so that I can look back at it years later and remember the things I did. Despite the challenges thrown at me (and I threw at myself), I was glad it happened. I learned a lot about myself and would certainly visit Bali again. Regarding solo travel, I certainly won't shy away from doing that again, but I learned how I could've made things a lot easier on myself. Thanks for reading!