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Trip Report A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the GTG

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Episode 1 - Escaping the Red Menace

Greetings from Bali. I originally planned this trip back in January, around a get-together that was scheduled for Ubud next week. At the time I planned out the trip, it seemed that I would have plenty of time to spend in the area, so a bit of "spec. creep" happened and I ended up adding a dive trip to North Sulawesi on to the time in Ubud. Well, as many of you now, stuff happened, and the GTG is off.

I considered changing my plans, but the North Sulawesi part came together so well I decided to stick with the arrangements. Then, of course, Bangkok turned into a Southeast Asian Sarajevo, and leaving town for at least a little while started looking like a really good idea. Not that there was any sign of trouble where I live. When I popped down to the convenience store on Saturday to get a few things, it all looked so normal, it was almost surreal, knowing what was happening a few kilometers away.

There was a bit of nail-biting Saturday night. My flight this morning was at 6;15, which
meant getting to the airport around 4:30. I wondered if, with everything going on, I would be able to get a taxi to the airport. But when I got out from my building there were two taxis waiting at the traffic light outside my place, so I was in a cab and on my way in no time. On the way to the expressway, we pass the Ratchada night clubs, where it seemed lots of people were just finishing up their night out. Again, surrealy normal.

We whizzed to the airport - after all, it was 4:00 am on a Sunday morning. We flew
through the three army checkpoints to the terminal, where there weren't many people, except at the Air Asia counter for my flight! Not much of a queue at immigration either. I had just enough time to pop into the King Power lounge and drink some water (MichaelBKK's tip for healthy flying: drink one liter of water before boarding).

This was the longest Air Asia flight I've ever taken, at four-plus hours. I bought some more water but passed on the food, although it did look good. I paid for a 'hot' seat when I booked the flight and took an aisle seat in the first row so I would be the first off the plane in Bali. I'm not sure if you saw the news, but Indonesia had decided that they would fingerprint and photograph everyone who got a Visa on Arrival, starting with Bali. Unfortunately, it seems they didn't put much thought or planning into this. It turned out they didn't have nearly enough equipment to handle the load, and it was taking as long as four hours for people to get through immigration, so the project was dropped after less than two weeks. Air Asia is one of the first international flights to arrive at mid-day, so immigration was deserted when I got there, and was through to baggage claim in just a few minutes. A driver from my local agent is waiting to take me to the hotel.

I'm just staying here in Bali one night, then catching another early morning flight to Manado tomorrow. I'm staying at the Bali Rani hotel, which in the southern part of Kuta about 15 minutes from the airport. It seems okay for the price and location, but nothing special.

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    Hi, Michael. I wondered how things have been in your part of Bangkok. Sounds like 'things as usual' to me. Enjoy your trip! Brad will be leaving tomorrow (Wed) around 4am for the airport, from Suk soi 4. Hope he has the same luck w/taxi.

    So, you won't be seeing Bob and Karen at all?

    Carol

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    I'll miss seeing you, but you seemed to have adjusted well. The flight from BKK stuff was interesting. Arrival and departure information from BKK is fascinating because the last time the problem was at the airport. Apparently a changed red shirt strategy has no leakage into past strategy.

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    Episode Deux – You Can't Get There From Here

    Today was a long day of travel – longer than yesterday's flight from Bangkok to Bali. First, it's up at 5:00 am for a 7:00 flight to Makassar. It was a beautiful morning for flying. We made a “U-turn” just after take-off and flew up the east coast of Bali. I was on the right side of the plane, with a nice view of the coast. Those on the left had a beautiful view of the Agung volcano. The flight to Makassar is just one hour – but here's where the long day really kicks in – there's a four hour layover in Makassar for my flight to Manado.

    The new terminal at Makassar is actually rather nice. It has a rather “retro” art deco feel to it. There are lots of shops and at least one foot massage spa, but it's still not a place to kill four hours, especially since there's virtually no working Internet connection available anywhere. However, I can recommend the black pepper curry puffs in the food hall.

    The four eventually passed and I boarded the flight to Manado. The weather wasn't quite as nice as the Bali departure, but it was still nice for most of the flight, until we were about to land. The pilot warned us that it was raining at the airport and the landing might be rough, although in the end he circled for about 10 minutes before landing. While it was still raining, the landing wasn't that bad.

    The driver from Two Fish was waiting for me when I got my bags, and we set out on the drive to Bitung. It takes about an hour, during which it's stopped raining. Bitung is a surprisingly large port city. You normally don't think of great dive sites being this close to a major port.

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    Episode Tiga - Lembeh Lembeh Lembeh

    Had two great days diving at Two Fish in Lembeh. The diving in Lembeh is quite different from the usual reef diving that most people do in the tropics. It's called "muck diving" - looking for little things on the sandy bottom. It doesn't sound that appealing, but it really is fantastic once you get into it. I posted a few samples of what I saw on my diver's blog:

    http://seaundersea.com/blog/2010/05/20/lembeh-highlights/

    Two Fish Lembeh is a nice place on an isolated stretch of beach on Lembeh island. Most of the dive resorts along the strait are like this - not near any towns or other services; self-contained. Two Fish is not fancy but comfortable. I would compare it to being on a live-aboard, except with a lot more space! Meals are served in a large open restaurant. The food was really good. There was also a lounge area as well as the office with a computer.

    I had a 'budget room' at Two Fish, which was a simple room with twin beds. There were four rooms opening on a large common area which was good for working. Here's a picture I uploaded to Twitpic of the resort:

    http://twitpic.com/1pdc1h

    Next I'm on to Bunaken.

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    Michael, I'll be you are glad you missed at the excitement in Bangkok. I'm glad Brad left the city when he did. One day later and he might not have gotten out!

    Our Dr friend who was with us in April (first-timer) looks forward to returning to Thailand sometime soon, and he wants to do some diving but in Thailand. Any suggestions for a first time diver in-country? He has his PADI certificate.

    Have a good time. Is the weather hot hot hot?

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    Carol - yes I was lucky that I had plans to be away. Otherwise I'm sure I would have been stuck there.

    The weather here is not that hot. Indonesia is heading into it's cool season - it's the opposite of Thailand, remember. The main "issue" is that it's still raining. It was mostly only at night in Lembeh. In Bunaken it didn't rain at all when I was there, but started really coming down when I headed back to Manado today.

    Another update on it's way.

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    Michael-it makes perfect sense that you would avoid any GTG with Bob and elect to go diving. You managed to keep from getting beer spilled on you. Plus, you didn't get stuck with the check.

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    Gpanda - exactly, but note I managed to miss the GTG without going to the extremes you have.

    Episode IV - Bunaken

    From Lembeh I went to Bunaken, where I also stayed at Two Fish Divers. They are one of only two or three resorts with operations in both locations. The advantage of staying with one operation is that you don't have to stop diving for hours before you leave so your gear gets dry enough to pack. Instead, Two Fish will stow your wet gear in one of their own duffels and transport it along with your (mostly empty) baggage.

    Two Fish's Bunaken resort is a larger version of the Lembeh property. Same cottages and other facilities, only more and bigger. The diving at Bunaken is really good, although it's similar to most reef dives around SE Asia. After the 'revelation' of Lembeh, diving Bunaken felt like "been there, seen this."

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    Episode 5 - Day Trip to Hell

    So, the diving is done and it's back to dry land for a few days touring around Manado. Home base for the next two nights is the Sintesa Peninsula Hotel, the only five-star property in Manado. It sits on a hill near the center of town. On check-in they assigned me a corner suite. There's a large living room, king-size bed and huge bathroom (where the dive gear is drying). I later learn from the agent that the upgrade is the result of a deal he did with the hotel after they played around with the rates he had negotiated. The room also has free InterneTt, which has allowed me to catch up on stuff.

    The next morning after checking in I had arranged a trip through the area around Manado. The first stop was the fresh market in Tomahon. The meat section here was definitely not for anyone with a stomach. The Minahasans eat almost anything - chickens, pigs, cows, snake, bats and dogs.

    Next it's off to the neighborhood volcano - this is Indonesia after all. Mahawu mountain is just 5 minutes out of Tomohon. It's a good 15 minutes' hike up to the rim of the crater. At the bottom of the crater are two sulphur-rimmed ponds and a few smoking vents. There should be a great view of Manado bay from the rim, but the clouds are moving in for another rainy day, so I can't see anything. The rains are nearly a month late leaving.

    From Mount Mahawu we head to a small craft village near Tomohon. This is perhaps the most unusual craft village I've ever seen. The local handicraft is houses. No, not model houses. Real houses. The kind you live in. People from all over Indonesia, and even Europe, come to the village of Woloan to buy their wooden knock-down houses (please, don't tell Ikea). There are small cottages (which I now recognize from some resorts) to big homes. My guide tells me the starting price is 50 Million Rupiah. I suspect he might have meant Billion, but then again, these places don't come with any plumbing or electricals installed.

    Lunch was at a restaurant on Tondano lake, which I suspect is another caldera lake, although it's very large. Although the restaurant was obviously a big tourist place, the food was excellent.

    Last stop was Lake Linow - yet another volcano. It's a large lake, ringed by several active vents spewing sulphur steam and bubbling hot water. There's a rather nice small cafe on the lake-side. No spa though.

    There's more to North Sulawesi than just this, including a large nature reserve, but it's not all that developed. I didn't see any other western tourists the whole day.

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    Part VI - All About Nothing

    First of all, I have to backtrack a bit. It turns out I totally misunderstood what the agent was telling me about how I got the suite at the Manado hotel, so my statement got him in a bit of trouble with the hotel (who knew they read these things?). My bad.

    Now, back to the fun. For my last full day in Manado there's nothing on the agenda. After two full days of travel followed by five active days diving and touring, "nothing" is exactly what I need. The only thing I have to do is check out of the hotel and relocate to Kima Bajo resort for my last night.

    I leave Manado about 11:00. It takes just about 30 minutes to reach Kima Bajo, but it's like being in a totally different place. The resort sits at the northern promontory of a small bay. There's a little fishing village at the base of the bay, and nothing else to be seen. The resort consists of about two dozen villas and another dozen or so 'long house' rooms spread out on steep hills rolling down to a small beach.

    The place looks a bit deserted when the car pulls up but then four or five guys show up to unload my one (albeit very large) bag. A nice young man checks me in, the front office manager introduces himself, and then I'm shown to one of the longhouse rooms. It's quite nice, with a huge bed, window seat, chairs out front and a nice bath with large shower. I snap a few pictures and then head out to explore the grounds. It's still very overcast and the place looks like there aren't any other guests in residence at the moment.

    I'm down by the pool on the beach when the reception guy comes running down to tell me very apologetically that he's put me in the wrong room. There's another guest checking in today and they've swapped the room assignments accidentally. So we go back to the room, grab my bag, and he shows me to a villa! The villas are about the same size and layout as the longhouse rooms, except they have an outdoor tub with shower in addition to the indoor shower, and there's a balcony with a small dining table, chairs and sofa. At this point, I'm no longer surprised when these things happen.

    I mostly just lazed about the room for a few hours. Then the sun came out and the dive boats came back so the place started to look a bit more lively. It looks like there's at least a dozen other guests at the place.

    The resort has a very nice looking spa as well as a fully equipped dive shop and two boats. This is, in effect, a very high end dive resort, but one where non-divers will have plenty to do while their SO is out diving. The one weak point is the restaurant. The food was okay, but the service was a little inattentive. It's rather impractical to go anywhere else for meals, There was no buffet for breakfast, but that might change when there are more guests (it's still early in the season for North Sulawesi). Instead you just ordered from the menu, which had American, continental and Asian options.

    Relaxed morning as well until my 12:30 departure for the airport. I like checking in my bags at a dive destination. They don't even blink at my 30kg dive bag, let alone charge me. Garuda changed schedules after I started my trip, but in a good way. I have only a 45 minute wait in Makassar on my way to Bali, and I arrive in Bali at 7:00 pm. I booked a car from the Blue Bird counter in baggage claim to avoid the zoo outside. It's 260,000 RP for a nice car with plenty of room for me and my huge bag.

    You'll note I've arranged it so that I arrive in Ubud in the night, of the day the Bob has left. The sun is shining. Everyone is happy.

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    Episode Ultimate - Ubud

    Time to wrap this up with an account of my time in Ubud.

    I had a bit of a time finding a place to stay that was not too expensive and handy to the center of town. I finally found a really good rate at the Tjampuhan hotel, which has been one of those places I've been interested in. What I didn't know when I booked the room was that it was a fan-only bungalow. That was a bit of a shock when I checked in Tuesday night. However, it turned out to be relatively cool in the evening, so it wasn't too much of a hardship.

    The Tjampuhan is the oldest hotel in Bali, established in 1928, and it must be the prototype for many of the Bali hotels I've visited: Beautifully appointed lobby, with newish furniture; lush, atmospheric grounds of plants and fountains all in a state of well-manicured decay; and depressingly tired rooms. The bathroom fixtures in my room may well have been original. Certainly, that shade of pink hasn't been manufactured since the '60s. The room wasn't in a terrible state - sadly, I've stayed in much worse - but it badly needed more than the occasional fresh coat of paint it has gotten. Breakfast was also quite disappointing, with just a couple of steam trays of stuff and the egg station. It's not an awful hotel, but I think you can do better for the price.

    On to touring. I had a few ideas of what I wanted to do this time around. One of them was hit the museums. Ubud is known for its art, and has a number of museums, but I'd never set foot in them. The hotel was a perfect base since three of the four main museums are a short walk from the hotel.

    First up is the Neka. This is probably the largest museum, with the best selection of paintings from the last century by both native artists as well as the important foreign influences like Bonnet and Smit. There's also a special, mind-boggling display of keris - ceremonial daggers.

    Walking back down the hill, the next target was the Blanco museum, but by this time I was in need of a sit-down, so as it was nearly lunch time I crossed the river and had lunch at Murni's Warung. I had the special Soto Ayam, which was good, if not my favorite version of the dish.

    The Blanco museum is devoted exclusively to the works of the Blanco family. Mario Blanco was born in Catalonia, and my first glimpse of the museum building reminded me a lot of another Catalonian - Salvador Dali and his museum in Figures. The Blanco museum isn't quite as over the top, but it is quite a sight, inside and out, with a blend of classic Greco-Roman architecture with Balinese touches. The walls are painted in bold colors like indigo and maroon, while the paintings are framed in large, sometimes outlandish frames. I can't say as the work itself did anything for me - if I had to pick a favorite piece, it would be the sofa facing the entrance - but the whole experience is something I wouldn't miss.

    Last up for the day is the Puri Lukisan museum. This is probably the smallest museum, but it does have a better collection (though still small) of wood carving. From here I head back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

    I saw the sign for Sari Organik on my way to Puri Lukisan, so I decide to go there for dinner. It's a pleasant walk through the padi fields at sunset. I'm almost sure I've missed the place when I spot it in the distance. It's really just a shack in the middle of the rice fields, but it's very comfortable. I decide on the marinated tempe. It's beautifully prepared and presented, but rather bland. I don't know why so many chefs seem to think that vegetarian food has to be bland. I'd definitely go back to Sari Organik but I'd try a different dish. I hear breakfast there is very good.

    Next day I take the hotel shuttle down to the monkey forest, from which it's a short walk to the Arma museum. This museum has a great collection of modern art, including a traditional Balinese garden full of brightly colored contemporary sculpture.

    After this, I have a lunch date with Rio Helmi, the Ubud-based photographer. I meet him at Ary's Warung, where he's hanging a show of his work, but we don't eat there. Instead he takes me to Warung Lada, which is a warung done up nicely for tourists. I just select things from the counter, and end up with a vegetarian selection of tempe, corn cakes and stir-fried vegetables on brown rice. It's very good.

    I relax for the remainder of the afternoon before meeting the owner of TravelFish and several other 'refugees' from Bangkok at Nuri's for dinner. There are eight of us in all, so it's quite a good party. Most people have ribs, but I'm not much for them and order the Kecap Manis Pork. It's similar to a dish I've made at home, and it's very good. After dinner I decide to try one of the cosmos. Stuart warned me they were big, and he's right. The waitress plops a frosty pint glass in front of me and begins to pour the cocktail out of the shaker. They have this weird ritual at Nuri's with the cocktails. They put more liquid in beaker that fits in the glass (whether it's a martini or a cosmo) so they fill up the glass right to the rim, and you're then expected to siphon off some of the drink so they can finish off what's in the beaker. I think this is why they go to your head so fast (that, and they are strong drinks).

    Next morning I planned to breakfast at Sari Organik and then head further into the rice fields, but the rain was coming down when I stepped out of my room, so I changed plans and hung around the hotel before heading into town to meet my old business partners for lunch. It rained off and on all day, sometimes heavily, so I ended up hanging out at Tutmak cafe for a few hours, and it's a very good place to kill time, with good coffee, bakery and food.

    Later, I had a Vietnamese chicken salad at Casa Luna, which was quite good, before heading home to pack.

    The hotel only charged 250,000 Rupiah for transport back to the airport, which was less than I paid Blue Bird. The car wasn't as nice, but he showed up on time and got me to the airport right on schedule.

    Everything in Bangkok seems perfectly normal. No problems with my place or any signs of the trouble. I did take the Skytrain past Central World and Siam on Saturday, and it is quite a sight.

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    Michael, Dr Jack also says that Bangkok is 'same old, same old' except that people seem to be somewhat afraid. He was in Germany and the USA during the army's final removal of the protesters and all of the fires and such.

    Glad your diving trip went well. One of these days I will venture past Thailand when I'm in S E Asia. There are places that are 'on my bucket list' so I should get going and see them! Your descriptions help me visualize places. Thanks for that!

    That cosmo sounds dangerous! I'll bet you only had ONE.

    Carol

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