I am sitting at home, struggling to plan the evening’s lessons through a fog of dengue fatigue. The future looks bleak.
I receive a text message from coworkers saying that school has been canceled for the rest of the week (due to the craze-inducing combination of Vientiane’s 450th and the That Luang Festival). My energy levels mysteriously increase and I head straight for the AirAsia website (best friend of PiA fellows across the continent).
I am in a tuk-tuk en route to the Vientiane airport with my housemate Alex, who is also a Vientiane College teacher. Our plan? Vientiane–>Bangkok–>Bali, Indonesia. I’ve only come to the realization a few hours before that Bali is not just ONE place, as I’ve naively assumed for a long time, but an entire island large enough to have many cities, beaches, and mountains. Armed with only a Lonely Planet guide and a plane ticket to Bangkok, we set out from Vientiane, my first time actually leaving the country since I arrived two months ago. Also for the first time, I get to experience travel the “old school” way. That is, walking up to the counter in the airport and buying a ticket a couple of hours before the scheduled flight. It’s the low tourist season in Bali, so luckily the flight isn’t sold out.
Alex and I land in Denpasar (the capital city of Bali), change our money to Indonesian rupiah (which conveniently has almost the exact same exchange rate as Lao kip), and step out into the hot, humid, Bali morning (leading me to realize this is also my first trip south of the equator). Outside the airport, we are approached by numerous drivers, with the persistent chorus of “Taxi? Transport?”, which we will hear pretty much constantly anywhere we walk for the next two days. We take up one of the drivers on his offer, and ask to go to Ubud, an inland “cultural center” town about an hour from the airport. Along the way, our driver explains in very good English–I notice over the course of the trip that everyone seems to speak English quite well–that although Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, the island of Bali is an exception, with over a 90% Hindu population. He says that almost anytime a new house is built, a small temple is built alongside, which certainly seems to be true based on our observations. A large number of the houses have little walled courtyards next door, with small private temples.
The road to Ubud takes us through the large, commercial town of Kuta, where we pass a McDonald’s (with drive-thru), Pizza Hut, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts within close range (all of which thankfully don’t exist yet in Laos) and then through the country inland to Ubud. Along the road we pass countless shops selling concrete statues, and lots of roadside artist studios, the closer we get to Ubud. Most of these feature traditional Balinese motifs, although some are a bit more “unique”–one has an 8-foot painting of Beyonce’s face on the porch.
After getting dropped off on the main road in Ubud–“Monkey Forest Road”–we decide to walk around checking out guesthouses. The first one we visit looks good enough for two nights…in fact, I would be happy to stay there for the rest of the year. The porch of the small stone “bungalow” is decorated with fresh hibiscus flowers, has a table with tea and instant coffee, and looks out into the walled garden, with palm trees and more tropical flowers. Now that we’re settled, it’s time to explore Ubud.