BALI was our first port of call. I had wanted so desperately to like it after reading all the rave reviews from my friends. I really do.
But my first trip to Bali, in 2007, had left me quite unimpressed.
I mean, sure, the Hindu island had its fair share of soul-stirring sights like Tanah Lot and Tegalalang…
…but Kuta was a shithole and traffic and pollution levels were over the top ridiculous.
So here we were, returning after nine years and on a cruise ship with our two children, hoping (against hope) that Bali had changed. But it was exactly the way I recalled it: dusty, grimy, unbearable.
Our first stop was one of Bali’s many “mind-blowingly good markets”, according to Conde Nast. The first thing to greet us was the disturbing sight of a multi-storeyed cage crammed with neon-colored baby chicks. Some were dead, no doubt from the lack of food and water and the heat.
My three-year-old looked like he just saw Santa getting mauled by one of his reindeers. So we dove headlong into Pasar Umum Sukawati, determined on uncovering its many merits.
The market in Bali, however, was no more special than markets in other third world countries. This every day scene — of gap-toothed old ladies reclined behind rows of spices, grains, fruits and the day’s freshest kill — were over-romanticized by magazine writers and giddy Australians.
What I saw were flies. And mountains of rubbish. Right next to your food. BAM.
This place was mind-blowing, alright. It was mind-blowing how the locals can shop and eat here without contracting cholera or salmonella. Props to them.
The boys, who were obviously city nerds and unused to such scenes, were getting more and more distressed by the second.
Time to leave.
We had good memories about eating babi guling (suckling pig) in a small roadside warung, but ever since I became a mother, my conscience — yes, I have one apparently — wouldn’t allow it. So we were brought to a scenic restaurant by the paddy fields along with hundreds of other sun-scorched tourists…
…where they ripped us a big one in return for some over incinerated bebek (duck).
But we couldn’t linger for long because the temples were waiting. These dusky granite structures, coupled with the country’s ancient rituals and beliefs, was what made Bali so unique.
We headed to the Ubud Monkey Forest, because it had something to please everyone — mischief-making macaques (for the kids), forest of banyan trees (for le hubby) and moss-covered Hindu temples (for me).
We were not dumb however — we’ve heard of many terrifying tales of tourists getting attacked and robbed — so we kept the kids on a tight leash and tried to follow every rule in the How To Avoid Getting Played By A Monkey handbook.
But the cardinal rule here was to NEVER look these creatures in the eye, no matter how adorable they look or how much they resemble Ron Perlman.
It turned out to be a considerable challenge, but I’m proud to say that we all did it, and we emerged unscathed and pretty relieved, having seen a few tourists getting aggressively harassed before us.
We also went to the Elephant Cave Temple, or Goa Gajah, a UNESCO World Heritage site from the 9th century.
While the mouth of the cave was absolutely stunning, with age-old reliefs of Hindu Gods, the inside was empty except for a lingam, or a phallus, which is an abstract representation of the God Shiva.
Yeah, they worship erect penises. So do I. #gotaproblem?
Next up, KOMODO ISLAND.
This rugged island of copper-colored volcanic hills and scrublands and its 4,000 wild inhabitants were the main reason why I had booked this cruise in the first place. I have always wanted to come here but not enough to haul my ass onto a decrepit Indonesian-operated aircraft with pilots high on LSD and fatalistic beliefs.
But first things first: Kids below 6 were not allowed to set foot on the island so we left them with nana. Women who were menstruating had to speak to their guides before going on a tour. The whole adventure sounded groovy to le hubby and I already.
Because of the imminent danger, you need to visit the island with a qualified weapon-wielding guide. We took a tour from the ship.
After some chaos and confusion that comes with dividing a thousand-odd visitors into the right groups, we were finally introduced to a park ranger and a guide, both of whom came from a neighboring village. They were both armed with a two-pronged stick in case a Komodo decided one of us looked yummy.
After a brief introduction to the park and a rundown on the many rules one had to adhere to, we shuffled in a straight file towards the woods, where the elusive dragons — whose bites were allegedly poisonous — lay silently in wait.
It is said that the Komodos have developed a taste for human flesh. They could run up to 20 km / hour in short bursts and climb trees. I felt like a helpless prey at this point. Then the guide told me the best way to outwit them was to run in a zig-zag, but my confidence levels were flagging and I was jumping at every little sound.
I wish I could start cranking up the excitement levels at this point, but the most exciting thing happened half an hour into our walk when a plus-sized lady collapsed halfway through from a combination of too much time spent at the buffet table and heatstroke, and she was brought out on a stretcher carried by 8 panting men, prompting snide remarks from a group member. “Look, a dragon.”
We continued on our way, up a hill then down, and although I was secretly relieved that my limbs were still intact, I was also getting hot and bothered. Where were these damned creatures? Do I not look appetizing enough?
To break the monotony of our walk, our guide regaled us with stories of people — especially of Baron Rudolf von Reding Biberegg, a Swiss tourist like us — getting eaten alive. Local lore has it that only his hand was found.
I was about to announce my resignation as a courageous Komodo hunter when we came upon an empty nest. It will be used during mating season but for now, it is abandoned, just like my dreams of ever catching sight of a Dragon.
“Don’t worryyyyy,” said my guide. “You will see them.”
And then he brought us to the manmade watering hole, where the Komodos were lounging all along! There were about half a dozen of them several feet away, all looking harmless and satiated and eyeing us like get the eff out of our faces, hombres.
The walk was just a ploy then, to build anticipation and fear. You’d have to be really daft to be bitten like the Singaporean man.
After spending all the time in the stifling heat, I was glad to be able to unwind on Pink Beach, which is set on the other side of the island and a short boat ride away.
At first, le hubby was all like, “What?? You know I don’t like spending my holiday by the beach!” (yeah, he’s weird that way) but it turned out to be a great decision on my part.
The sand gets its rosy tint from tiny fragments of corals that wash up ashore daily. It’s so purdy up close it was easy to forget there are probably Komodos hiding in the bushes nearby.
The water isn’t exactly crystal clear but it was still good for a swim and snorkel. And that’s what we did for several hours without the children, until evening descended, unbroken except of the hum of the occasional tourist boat.
And that was it. The high point of our entire vacation.
We were almost tempted to stay there forever. But after some quiet deliberation, we agreed that none of us wanted to be stranded on an island full of Dragons.