Day 214: Enjoying Ubud

For our first two nights in Bali we stayed in Ubud at the Komaneka Rasa Sayang hotel… it was wonderful! The hotel was new, clean, modern, and the customer service was some of the best I’ve ever experienced. They gave us a welcome gift, a surprise birthday cake for me, and taught Michael how to use a motorbike (after getting us a one-day rental for just $7). And the best part was that this property is located right in the middle of Ubud town on Monkey Forest Road, walking distance to both the actual monkey forest and Ubud Palace.

They must have snooped my birthday from my passport at check-in. Surprise cake!

We spent one morning walking around the Sacred Monkey Forest taking photos. This place was chock full of monkeys! It’s home to more than 300 long-tailed macaques that belong to four distinct families. We were there for maybe 5 minutes when I felt 20 cool little monkey fingers climbing my bare leg and reaching into my purse. I shook the would-be thief off before he was able to find anything worth steeling, and got a hiss and a dirty look in exchange for my interrupting his search. This was an uneventful encounter compared to what we would see at Uluwatu two nights later.

Sleepy Momma in the trees

Baby monkey! Wishing he were riding backwards on a pig, no doubt.

The next morning was spent exploring the area around Ubud on our rented motorbike. We visited the rice terraces in Tegallalang and shopped on the street leading back to Ubud where wholesalers make their purchases. This was done mostly in the rain, but it didn’t lessen our enjoyment at all. In fact, it was pretty fun! We were soaked when we returned to the hotel so decided to take advantage of the spa facilities. After glorious couples massage we headed to south Bali for the last part of our trip.

Before our Motorbike Adventure

Bali’s beaches are nice, but its cultural heart resides in Ubud. It’s here where you’ll find the best handmade crafts, the best gamelan troupes, and the best traditional dancers. Ubud in central Bali is a part of the island not to be missed.

Rainy Rice Terraces

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Day 213: Bali Eco Cycling, More Than a Bike Tour

Since Michael and I covered a lot of ground in our quick trip to Bali, I’m going to do a series of posts instead of just one. First up is a bike tour we took with Bali Eco Cycling. Surprisingly, this was just as much a cultural tour as it was a cycling trip and we learned a great deal about local Balinese customs. The tour started with breakfast at the top of Mt. Batur, an active volcano in northeast Bali overlooking a crater lake. We weren’t able to fully appreciate the view due to the fog, but were able to catch a glimpse of the lake and the perch fisheries that dotted its shores.

Mt. Batur: More Fog

Mt. Batur: Less Fog

After breakfast our group of 10 was carted to a Kopi Luwak (civet coffee) plantation, home to one of the most expensive coffees in the world. The coffee is made by feeding ripe coffee beans to the civet cat, collecting the beans from the cat’s excrement, thoroughly washing, drying, and then lightly roasting the beans. The enzymes in the cat’s stomach supposedly do something magical to the beans that make them irresistibly delicious. So delicious, in fact, that people shell out more than $160 for a pound of them. Our guide jokingly offered us a taste of the famed “Cat-Poo-Chino” and we kindly declined.

Civet

Cassie helping roast Kopi Luwak

After several members of our group sampled the cat crap coffee, we were finally off for the cycling part of our tour. We started near the summit of Mt. Batur and made our way down through several small villages and hillside rice terraces. At each village kids would come running from their family compound for high-fives, nearly throwing this clumsy rider off-balance. We stopped at one traditional family compound for a look around. Our guide, Frodo Jo, explained the layout. A short wall surrounds the entire compound, and there’s just one entrance to the main road. About 4 feet directly behind this entrance there is another short wall, just slightly larger than the entrance. Balinese believe that evil spirits cannot turn corners, and this wall requires all who enter to immediately turn a corner, thus keeping evil spirits at bay. Inside the compound there are sleeping quarters for each family and a kitchen for each family. Up to 4 families may live in the large family compound. A temple is located in the northeast corner facing the mountains and the sunrise and is used for religious ceremonies and ancestor worship.

A few kilometers later we rode through a village that was in the midst of celebrations for a royal cremation. There was a 25-foot funeral tower in the center of the village being prepared to transport the deceased’s body throughout the town for the funeral procession. We continued on and just outside the village we rode past a decorated bull sarcophagus. Once both the funeral tower and sarcophagus reach the village temple the body would be placed inside the bull and set alight, completing the cremation. Unlike the average westerner, Balinese believe the cremation is a joyful time when the deceased’s soul is released from the body to go to heaven and eventually to be reincarnated. The celebrations were certainly more festive than any funeral I’ve ever attended.

Funeral Tower

Bull Sarcophagus

We stopped one last time before the conclusion of our tour, this time to trek through the rice terraces to a small clearing where local villagers were harvesting a mature crop of rice. It was a muddy trek along the edges of the elaborately formed terraces and bamboo irrigation tracts, but was well worth it. The women let us take turns thrashing the rice stalks against a bamboo rail to release the grains. It was amazing how much rice came out with that first whack! Similar to Sapa, the rice terraces in Bali were the most vibrant shades of green.

Rice Terraces

Cassie at Work

Michael at Work

The tour ended with a traditional Balinese feast over which our group of Dutch, French Canadian, Australian, and Wisconsinite tourists shared stories of travel in Bali and beyond. The tour may not have been as much exercise as we had anticipated since it was mostly downhill riding, but it was so much more informative than we ever could have imagined. Our guide was incredibly patient with the group’s many questions about local culture and incredibly knowledgeable about all things Bali. It’s definitely a tour we would recommend.

Photos from this trip to Bali, including the bike tour, are HERE!

Days 60-61: Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa Town

Sapa Town

Sapa is a small town in the mountains of northwest Vietnam that is known for its breathtaking views, mountainside rice terraces, and ethnic diversity. The ethnic minorities (Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, and others) arrived in Sapa hundreds of years ago, mostly from China. Sapa Town is the main trading post and the center of tourism for the Sapa region but many of the hill tribes live in villages sprinkled throughout the mountainside terraces in the surrounding area.

Breakfast at the Cat Cat

Breakfast at the Cat Cat

Zach and I arrived at the Cat Cat View Hotel in Sapa Town after a bumpy but surprisingly restful trip on the Fanxipan night train. After breakfast, the hotel helped us secure a guide for a 14km trek through the mountainside to four different hill tribe villages. Our tour guide Chi (pronounced “G”) was 19 years old, of the Black Hmong ethnic minority, and married with a young son at home. I also believe she was some sort of genius. Chi spoke very good English and was completely self-taught. She would occasionally point to an object during our trek and ask the English word for it. Later, I would hear her repeating the word under her breath, quietly committing it to memory.

Sapa Rice Terraces

Sapa Rice Terraces

The trek was challenging not so much because of the terrain but because the trail was slippery from the mist that enveloped the valley and surrounding mountainside. Every now and then I would take a break from staring at the ground 1-2 feet in front of me (I’m not as swift-footed as my mountain man brother) to take in the view. It was pretty impressive. There was a stream that ran through the valley, occasionally turning into a waterfall when confronted with a cliff. Houses sprang up in clusters, their locations first revealed by running children and water buffalo. The rice terraces were a beautiful bright green that was unexpected in the otherwise misty gray landscape.

Zach, Chi, and Cassie

Zach, Chi, and Cassie

The trek was all the more interesting because of the exchange my brother and I had with Chi. She was surprised to hear that my dog ends up on the couch at night instead of on the dinner plate. I was surprised to hear that many of the girls in her village marry at 14 years old. She was surprised that Michael’s parents didn’t have to pay my parents to allow me to join their family. I was surprised that all of her wages as a tour guide go to her husband’s parents. Chi’s people mainly make a living working in the rice fields. Since she was now a part of her husband’s family and opted to work as a tour guide, she had to give them her money so they could hire someone to replace her in the fields. Chi especially liked Zach and took no more than 15 minutes to label him a “cheeky boy”. Encouraged by her constant giggles, Zach did his best to own this new nickname for the remainder of the 6-hour trek.

One of our entourage behind some local kids

One of our entourage behind some local kids

In the past decade the area has become a popular tourist destination for Vietnamese and international tourists alike. The enterprising hill tribes have taken full advantage of the outside interest in their handmade clothing and handicrafts. Throughout the hike we had one to two of these very enterprising Black Hmong women following us at all times. At first it appeared the two women were just headed in the same direction as us, but when we stopped to take a photo and they stopped as well we knew otherwise. The two women didn’t approach us or speak to us until halfway through the trek when we arrived at a small café for lunch. At this point they came to our table and spread their goods in front of us for us to choose from. It’s hard to say “No” to someone who has just invested three hours of their time following you through the mountains. I purchased something from one of the women thinking that they’d leave but the other woman was offended that I didn’t pick something from her. Only after I bought something from both of them did they pack up their wares and leave.

Shortly after resuming our trek we had a new seller following us. She was slightly more interactive than the first two, smiling when Zach teased Chi and holding my arm at times to keep me from falling down the muddy hills. As we neared the end of our trek she brought out her handmade bags and I didn’t hesitate to buy one in thanks for her saving me from countless bruises and scrapes.

Black Hmong women waiting to sell their goods

Black Hmong women waiting to sell their goods

We weren’t the only group who had an entourage during our trek. Every single tourist group we saw had 1-2 women trailing close behind. Sellers who didn’t pick out tourists to trek with lined the streets of Sapa Town waiting outside hotels for potential customers.

Zach had been keen on renting a moto since he arrived in Asia but I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea, especially considering the lack of traffic law and order we’d witnessed up to this point in the trip. The options for our second day in Sapa were (1) more trekking, (2) mountain biking, or (3) moto-ing around the countryside. That morning I woke up and immediately felt the effects of a 14km hike up and down the mountainside. The moto was starting to sound like a good idea.

Tram Ton Pass

Tram Ton Pass

After a 5-minute lesson on how to use the scooter (‘This is the horn. VERY IMPORTANT’) we were off! We explored another small village near Sapa Town and then drove to Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam at 1,900 meters. It separates the wet, cool climate zone of Sapa with the warm, sunny climate zone of Lai Chau. The views at the top of the pass were stunning and the weather was spectacular. I wore a light jacket for the first time in months and Zach and I shared croissants and drinks that we had brought from town while looking over the valley below.

Sadly, our time in Sapa was coming to an end. We returned the moto, packed our bags, and hopped on the bus that would take us back to the train station in Lo Cai. One bottle of wine, a best of five crazy eights tournament, and many laughs later, we were asleep on Fanxipan on our way back to Hanoi.

My Picasa Sapa Album.