Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 171 - 174: Sanur & Lembongan, Bali

The breakfast at the Ndalem Suratin guesthouse had become progressively worse over the three days, and after being presented with noodle soup on our final morning I was happily ready to leave for the airport. As it was a daytime flight, we were treated to some great views from the window as we flew to Denpasar.


After arrival, a painless taxi journey took us through Kuta to our destination of Sanur, where Paul and Fi awaited. Kuta looked like a built-up mess; we’d had no plans to visit, as everyone who had mentioned Bali had told us to avoid the place unless we were into 18 to 30-style drunkenness, surfing, or tacky tourism. We weren’t.

Sanur was also built-up but not to the same extent. The roads were wider, and consisted mainly of hotel resorts and restaurants. It’s supposed to be more of a family-oriented destination, and that seems appropriate. It’s fairly quiet, and that’s what we liked about it. We checked into the Hotel Ramayana in the early evening, and met up with Paul and Fi and their new friends Tom and Erin, all of whom were next door in the luxurious Swastika Bungalows (don't snigger). They have a mere three swimming pools on the complex, in case you needed a change of scenery for lounging around, and we could make use of all of them. We dipped a toe – the water was still warm, even at almost 7pm – but decided to wait until the next day to make full use of it; a trip to the night market for some food was on the cards.

Paul and Fi had organised some diving for us all with Atlantis Divers for the morning. We got taken from their hotel to the base on the beach in Tulamben (a good 2-3 hours away) and got kitted up. These would be our first ever shore dives; the beach itself was black sand, and the sun was as hot as normal so we were quite happy to get into the water. Our divemaster was Sunny, who was as smiley as her name suggests and we were in good hands for the entire time.

The first dive was at the Liberty wreck, our second wreck dive. Shore diving is very easy. You just walk into the water and swim down. No jumping in from boats and getting water up your nose, or landing awkwardly and having to reorient yourself. On the downside, it’s a trek from the beach to the sea wearing full equipment and in blazing heat. Underwater, we saw both the Denise seahorse and the pygmy seahorse: two miniscule seahorses which cling to weeds and mimic their colour almost exactly. We also saw a school of jack fish which we swam under, until they completely surrounded us, as well as a gobi shrimp and an ornate ghost pipefish. The wreck itself was fairly large, and there was a small swim through on which Paul and Fi both banged their heads. The bridge was also accessible and we even got to hold the wheel but not turn it; it had rusted in place.

Heading back to base, we enjoyed a complimentary lunch (mmm...burger and chips), and were soon ready for the second dive at Coral Garden. This dive was even more fun than the first. Aside from seeing a flat fish, a blue spotted ray, a blacktip reef shark, an anemone which shrank back into the ground rapidly when I brushed past it, and a school of triggerfish which were surprisingly calm about me swimming over their territory, there were a couple of special highlights. First was getting the chance to stroke a moray eel who was sat in a crevice swaying back and forth. Sunny was obviously familiar with his behaviour and indicated that he wasn’t feeding at the time, and therefore safe to stroke. It felt like running my fingers over a bowl of jelly, really bizarre. Not quite as bizarre as the second experience: getting cleaned by some shrimp. Cleaner shrimp usually hang around in “cleaning stations” where fish swim over and the shrimp remove parasites and other crud from the gills and body of the fish. The fish have irritations removed and the shrimp get a meal. Fair enough. However, they appear happy to perform the same service for humans. We stuck our hands out near the coral, and the jumped on to give us a manicure. For the braver divers, there is also the option of getting your teeth cleaned – simply take a breath, remove the regulator, stick your face in close, and smile. The shrimp leap onto your face and immediately go to work as living floss. Possibly the strangest underwater encounter I’ve ever had, with two shrimp acting as dentists; Sunny did even better, as when we glanced over she had six or seven shrimp hanging off her face. Superb.


For dinner, we were all pretty hungry after a day’s diving and fancied an Indian. Gateway of India was our destination, and was possibly my favourite Indian meal on the entire trip, absolutely fantastic.

Back at Swastika Bungalows the following day, we took time to enjoy the pool(s) with Paul, Fi, Tom and Erin and practice our diving:




We waved Erin and Tom off in the early afternoon and Paul and Fi departed in the evening, but not before we’d had a decent mid-afternoon meal at Swastika Restaurant (part of the Bungalows but further down the road). An attempt to find a place for a haircut failed miserably, so we lazed around the pool for the rest of the day. We were going to meet up with them a week later in Perth.

Not far from Sanur is an island called Nusa Lembongan (Nusa means “island”) and this is where we had chosen to spend the next couple of days, doing some more diving. We got over for about midday the next day, and found some very basic lodgings in Rama Beach Villa, which absolutely did not look like this:


These are properties for people on a non-backpacker budget. What we had was a basic room with a fan, a mosquito net with holes in (thankfully there were very few mossies around), and a toilet that smelt like bad varnish.

We got some diving booked in for the next day with Lembongan Diving Centre. We’d hoped to be able to go to Manta Point and swim with some manta rays, but that was off the agenda as the swell was a lot bigger than would be safe to dive in, and it was only going to increase throughout the week. A shame, but we still have Australia and Fiji to go and we may get lucky there. We had lunch at Podok Baruna which was average, and for dinner decided to splash out on food at The Beach Club at Sandy Bay for our 7 year anniversary. They have a huge selection of fresh meat which they BBQ after you choose it, and I went for a full rack of ribs whilst Gilly chose fish; both were excellent, as were the cocktails.




The restaurant is located right on the beachfront, so we had lovely views of the waves crashing onto the sand.


Diving took place around Nusa Penida the next day, an island a short boat ride away. We went to two sites: Crystal Bay and Toyapakah. The latter was our first drift dive, but it wasn’t a particularly strong current. Toyapakah also had some of the best coral I’ve seen on any dive, including Sipadan, which made up for the lack of big marine life to see. Having said that, we did see plenty of smaller creatures: Goat fish, mantis shrimp, thornback cow fish, leaf scorpionfish, magnificent chromodoris, ribbon eel, blue spotted pufferfish, peacock-tail anemone shrimp, pink sea cucumber, redtooth triggerfish and yellow boxfish, amongst many others. Lunch (nasi goreng) was served on the boat by the French owner and divemaster Valentin, and was pretty good.

There’s not actually much to do on Lembongan other than dive or surf. I’m not a surfer; it simply doesn’t interest me. I’m not particularly a fan of sea swimming (I dislike salt water) and sand gets everywhere so I’m not really much of a beach fan either. I don’t get on with sunbathing – I burn, then peel, and it’s deathly dull to just sleep in it (as well as being pretty dangerous with my skin – so beaches are nice to visit, but not really something that grabs my attention unlike the majority of UK holidaymakers who rush to the nearest coast as soon as the mercury gets above 20 degrees and it looks like there may be a spot of sun amongst the never-ending cloud. Give me decent weather, a nice hotel pool, and the option of shade any day. Sihanoukville's Otres Beach was perfect as you had comfortable cushions and seats right on the beachfront so you could pick your activity. On Lembongan it was either burn or be damned.

The lack of activity did give me more opportunity for reading, though.

On Rob’s Bookshelf:

Room(Emma Donaghue): This was a lot different to most fiction I’ve read. Set in a self-contained room and told from the perspective (and in the voice) of a 6 year old boy named Jack, Room is about a mother who was kidnapped and held for over 7 years, and who had a child whilst in captivity. The only world he knows about is that of Room, and all of the objects within – Table, Wardrobe, Bed, and so on. They have a TV, which his mother tells him shows him other planets but which aren’t real, they’re “TV”, they play games and do exercise, and Old Nick is the kidnapper who brings them food and the occasional “Sunday treat”. As Jack gets older though, he starts to question things more, until his mother starts to run out of answers and needs to decide how best to handle the hopeless situation they’re in... Room has an interesting voice in Jack, and the author cleverly shows how a child in captivity with a caring mother would develop a much bigger vocabulary and become far more advanced in certain areas whilst obviously lacking in other social aspects. The book goes down an interesting path around the halfway point, but it loses its focus somewhat; the conclusion is satisfying though, and would certainly warrant a read.

The Da-Da-De-Da-Da Code(Robert Rankin): One of the first comedy fantasy books I ever tried to read (even before Pratchett) was They Came And Ate Us by Robert Rankin. I was probably a little too young to get the jokes at the time, but I never forgot the title or the author. As it happens, Rankin is one of Paul’s favourite authors, so when I saw this sitting in a bookswap shelf in a Kota Kinabalu bar, I took a punt on it. The plot about a missing piece of music by a legendary musician that causes your head to explode if you listen to it, is meandering and – by the author’s own admission at various stages in the book – full of holes. This would be fine if it was funny, but it isn’t. Paul read it after me and said it was far from his best work, so I may give one of his better books a go at some stage, but I’d advise against reading this one.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(Stieg Larsson): Unless you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the Swedish author’s best-selling trilogy. It was hyped beyond belief, had three films made in Sweden, and a well-received US remake of the first book was out a few months ago, starring Daniel Craig. With all of the hyperbole surrounding it, I came into this first book with low expectations, thinking it would be just another Dan Brown flash-in-the-pan. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The book is a deftly plotted crime thriller – not a genre I’ve ever read before – about a journalist trying to solve the disappearance and murder of a young girl some decades earlier, and it had me hooked from start to finish. The main characters are well defined, and the supporting cast is given enough shape for any one of them to be a suspect; I’d changed my mind about the perpetrator at least three times and still ended up surprised by the finale. I immediately hunted down the second book in Sanur once I’d finished this. For once, the hype is well-deserved. Sadly, Larsson died after finishing the trilogy and didn’t get to see the praise and fame his books received.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven(Mitch Albom): A gentle tale about a dejected maintenance worker at a fairground who, in his twilight years, is killed by one of the rides he works on and in true Capra-esque style, is shown the value of his time on earth by five people in heaven who were touched by his life either directly or indirectly. Not the soaring, uplifting yarn you’d expect about making the most of your life, and not as spiritual as the praise-heavy blurb would have you believe, but an easy, worthwhile read nonetheless.

Use Of Weapons(Iain M. Banks). After falling in love with Consider Phlebas, I was expecting big things with Use of Weapons which is actually the third book set in the Culture universe, but which can be read as a standalone novel like the rest. I came away a little disappointed; the story simply wasn’t as interesting as the first book, whilst the author used an unnecessary gimmick throughout to flit between two different stages of the main character’s life...the second of which seems to be rendered pointless by the twist at the end which seems to undo everything that had happened before. Whilst the main narrative isn’t much cop, there are some excellent individual sections and there is less philosophising about whether the Culture is a benevolent force or not, which threatened to overpower the first book in places. Instead, there is a discussion throughout the book about whether larger powers should intervene in the struggles between two races, and if so, to what extent. An interesting thread which also suffers from the twist at the end. Paul assures me the second book is as good as, if not better than Consider Phlebas so I’ll hope for a more enjoyable read once I get my replacement Kindle in Perth.


Two nights on Lembongan were more than enough – with no good diving to be had later in the week, and not much else to do there, we cut our losses and took a boat back the next morning to the mainland, followed by a bus to Ubud: our next destination in Bali.

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