After our Malaysian fairytale, the sweaty streets of Kuta, not far from Bali Airport, felt like a bit of a bathos. It’s perhaps the most touristy place on the island – endless shops selling counterfeit basketball jerseys and custom-made fridge magnets populate the main strip, and the cacophony of Balinese women offering ‘massage?’ to the swarms of Australians fills your ears as soon as you step out onto the road. I came down with a throat infection so spent most of my time in a nice hotel watching Casablanca, but Winston tells me the surfing was Kuta’s redeeming feature.
Much more enjoyable was Ubud, the serene centre of Balinese culture in the mountain uplands. Its narrow lanes and dirt paths that ribbon through the rice paddies are perfect for mopeds, and it provides plenty of opportunities for the traveller wanting to soak up some Culture Points. You can see traditional dance and music shows, observe the ancient architecture in temples and what seem to be classic Balinese houses (bungalows separated by stone walkways, trees and koi ponds), or walk through the rice terraces where locals work. It’s also not stingy on activities: my favourite thing was visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary where confident macaques wander freely, picking fleas, munching on corn cobs and swinging from the necks of startled tourists. Beware: any unzipping of a bag will be interpreted as a free-for-all on whatever is in there. Banana, phone case, tampon bag – it’s all up for grabs.
Next on the agenda was Gili Air, the quiet island off Lombok whose main attractions are the lack of motorised vehicles and the turtles that circle the snorkelling areas. After a couple of days of reading, swimming and cycling, we pushed on to Gili Trawangan, the rowdy cousin of Gili Air. Here the restaurants selling ‘amazing fucking sexy magic mushrooms’ are widespread and the hopping bars full of ravers sound strange against the nighttime calls to prayer on this Muslim island. But despite the crowds, the beaches are still beautiful and two days there were well spent.
Then it was on to Nusa Lembongan to do the PADI Open Water Dive course, which takes four days and grants you a license to dive that’s valid for life. I’d done one dive before in Greece, but Lembongan was where I fell in love with the sport. The underwater wildlife there is second to none: surrounding the island and neighbouring Nusa Penida there are dozens of reefs that boast turtles, octopus, pufferfish, sea snakes, manta rays, a wealth of angelfish in impossible colours, even the odd whale shark. I saw almost the entire cast of Finding Nemo while breathing underwater, and it was awesome.
Next stop: Singapore.