Sunday, 25 March 2018

Bali: seeking serenity in Ubud

After a few days in chaotic yet glossy Seminyak we were ready to explore further afield. This initially took us to Canggu where we spent a fairly blissful 48 hours by the sea, relaxing in cool coffee bars and biking up to the incredible (but far less relaxing!) Tanah Lot. Craving a quieter life, we hopped in a taxi to Ubud. It's known as a hub for arts and culture and is what many will imagine when they picture Bali in their imagination - I think one reason why many are so disappointed when visiting Seminyak / Kuta! Arts and culture, it aint. Ubud, on the other hand, had a far more authentic feel to it. 

Getting there
The island of Bali is actually pretty small, and transport between Canggu and Ubud only takes around an hour or so. As I mentioned in my previous post, getting a taxi in Canggu can be pretty hard work - they are banned in the most part, and Uber didn't seem to operate at all. So we waited on the side of the road for about 10 minutes, until someone drove past offering us a lift. We haggled a price for our journey, ending on 250,000 rupiah - around £12. Considering this was a private ride, it was pretty good value for money - but a minibus would probably be cheaper. In hindsight, jumping in to the back of a random car on the side of a road in a taxi-free zone probably wasn't the safest thing we did whilst in SE Asia! In the words of our dairy "seemed a bit dodgy, but we got there fine!". Sorry, Mum. 

Where we stayed
We found accommodation in Ubud a bit of a tricky one. So much was booked up, and the nice stuff seemed to be really pricey. We settled on Ramaniya House - not cheap at £30 a night, but not bad. It was clean but basic, in a fairly good location. The breakfast was what you'd expect - banana pancakes - brought to your room. I don't think I've ever eaten as many banana pancakes as I did in that 6 months in SE Asia! Would I go back? No. But it was fine. 

What we did
Whilst Ubud is hardly a zone of complete serenity, it is a world away from the madness of south Bali. It's more green and luscious, with a real hippy vibe - yoga on every corner and wheatgrass shots a plenty. I ate a lot of tofu during my time in Ubud! Of course, there are still heaps of tourists here - it's no hidden gem - but the pace does seem a little slower, and the culture does seem to have remained more in tact than in the south of the island. 

Check out the market - luckily this was right next to our hotel, and we visited a couple of times to pick up various souvenirs and bits and pieces. I still have a gorgeous sarong I bought here back in 2011, and this time left with a beautiful patterned robe / cotton dressing gown and a few small tokens for our friends and families back home. It was the last country in our 6 month trip, so now was the time to stock up! Be prepared to haggle, then haggle some more. 

Walk the Campuhan Ridge - a beautiful walk over the top of rice terraces with gorgeous views, around 2km in each direction. It was pretty easy to find, but we followed this guide for info. We stopped for a fresh juice at Karsa Kafe; such a beautiful cafe with picturesque views over the rice terraces.

Chill at JungleFish - billed as the no beach beach club, Jungle Fish is home to a gorgeously luxe pool right in the middle of the Ubud 'jungle'. A definite treat day, but one I would have done every day if we had the money! We paid 100,000 rupiah each (only £5 each, but a luxury for us at the time!) for 'entry' to the pool - basically for your sun lounger and a towel. We arrived nice and early at 10am so we could get the most out of the day, and it was almost empty! This meant we could choose whatever sun loungers we wanted and have an hour or so of complete peace - it got busier after 11am. We ate lunch in the restaurant - a Greek wrap for me with lamb and tzatziki which was just so delicious - over looking the pool, and ordered drinks from the pool bar throughout the afternoon. Definitely a day of luxury! 

We got a taxi to JungleFish which cost 70,000 rupiah (around £3), but decided to walk back. JF is about 500m past Karsa Cafe, so definitely walkable should you not want to hire a bike / pay for taxis. The taxi queue at the end of the day was huge, which you might want to take in to consideration. We got bikes (mopeds) everywhere in SE Asia but didn't in Ubud - can't remember why! Be sure to check out Sheree's review of JungleFish here!

Where we ate / drank
Juice Ja Cafe - right near our accommodation, we ate lunch here soon after we arrived in Ubud. Good, light meals and all your health fads covered! Sorry, was that harsh? You know, wheatgrass shots, protein balls, chocolate-free-chocolate. In seriousness though, it was a nice little haunt. (TripAdvisor)

Warung Little India -  a bit of a walk from the main drag, but definitely worth it - for the interiors alone! Luckily the food was equally as appealing; the thali plates are a great way to try a bit of everything. (TripAdvisor)

Karsa Kafe - as I mentioned earlier, a great stop on the Campuhan Ridge walk. Take a book, and settle down. (TripAdvisor)

Kebun Bistro - we found local food was far nicer and plentiful in Ubud than Seminyak, but should you find yourself craving a quiche or a steak baguette, this French restaurant is for you! (TripAdvisor)

Melting Wok - super busy, for a reason! We both went for one of the daily specials and loved trying a different take on local cuisine - a great find. (TripAdvisor)


Monday, 19 March 2018

Life hack: how to read more

Reading has always held significance for me. I remember being completed consumed by the Malory Towers series as a child (God bless Enid Blyton), and before that devouring anything written by Lucy Daniels. Remember 'Kittens in the Kitchen' and 'Ponies in the Porch'? Ob.sess.ed.

Side note: I have just stumbled upon something quite shocking. Lucy Daniels - not a person! Instead, she is the genius marketing ploy of two American men. Read this article for your world to be shattered, too.

Back to the nostalgia. I still remember that moment of being given Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for my tenth birthday (thanks, Holly and Jessie) and becoming completely enraptured in an alternate reality where witches, wizards and secret cobblestoned alleys housing all your magical needs seemed entirely believable.

And, that, right there, is the joy of reading. The suspension of reality - if only for a short while - whilst your consciousness becomes completely submerged in a new world. Blissful.

Then you grow up, and life gets in the way. Right?

I have so many books in my to-read pile it's getting overwhelming! And whilst I have the best of intentions, life just gets so busy I don't seem to be able to read as much as I'd like. I still love reading and am in two bookclubs - one with friends locally, and one which I started at work. This has meant, however, that my personal reading choices often get pushed further down the priority list as I struggle to meet the demands and time restrictions of my book club reads.

On average, I read two books a month - give or take. And of course, when the summer holidays come around I can become a reading machine; all those lovely lazy afternoons spent with a good book in the garden or on holiday. For me, those days are blissful.

So I thought I would address that question that so many of us with busy lives face; how to read more?

1. Don't just follow trends

This is something I have been so guilty of in the past - reading books because they're having a moment and everyone else is banging on about them. And more often than not, they've turned out not to be for me. The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton - nah. White Teeth by Zadie Smith - I just couldn't get going with it! So my advice would be to read the blurb of said 'must-read' and see if it speaks to you - are you still desperate to read it? If not, don't waste your time. I listened an episode of The High Low recently where they referred to 'culture overload' after reading this article which really spoke to me - we can't read / watch / consume everything. You have to be selective.

2. Find your niche

Which leads on nicely from the above. What is your go-to genre? What style of book is always a winner for you? I wrote about this back in 2015 when I found out - through trial and error, often reading 'must-reads' and hating them - that I really like a pacey thriller. You know the type; Gone Girl, In To The Darkest Corner, I Let You Go. And this doesn't mean I only read thrillers - see next point! - but it does identify that I like a book with a bit of mystery, something a little fast paced and definitely something with a strong story line. I cannot get on board with books that detail the minutiae of the everyday.

3. Variety

As I say, this doesn't mean you can only ever read said genre! Last year I really got in to reading non-fiction - as I spoke about in this round-up post - and have loved having something factual to read alongside fiction. My interest in social commentary, feminism and inequality has really driven this and I've found myself drawn to the 'smart thinking' and 'biography' sections in Waterstones which I had never visited prior to my non-fiction reevaluation of 2017 (lols). Avoiding this state of literary inertia is key to galvanising your reading habit.

4. Minimise distractions

An obvious, but important one to note. In the age of the smartphone addiction epidemic (according to some, at least) it has becoming increasingly difficult to cut off distractions. But turning your phone on to flight mode, putting it in a different room or - dare I say it - turning it off, will provide that extra bit of focus so many of us need. And I get it; moving from the glossy, ever-communicative interface of your iPhone to a stripped-back paperback can be daunting. I think we often underestimate the impact our constant phone use has on us, and whilst that previous sentence may sound OTT I think for many it's true. At least subconsciously. Reflecting on this is so important; is it FOMO? Or mindless, endless scrolling? Reading can be a great vehicle for minimising phone dependency.

5. Set aside time and space 

Be it at bed time, your lunch break, or a hour after work before dinner - it may seem extravagant but this designated time can become a part of your reading routine. I try to read every night in bed for twenty minutes or so, and at the weekend I try and put aside an hour or so each day. There is nothing more relaxing than taking to the sofa in your comfiest clothes, warmest slippers (see pictured my Women's Sheepskin Boots* which make me feel as though my feet are submerged in tiny clouds) and a cuppa, and knowing there is nothing for you to be doing but reading and relaxing. The new RnR! Of course, time doesn't always allow, but when I'm sticking to it I reap the benefits. Not only in being able to read more, but in helping switch off before sleep and maintaining a healthy level of zen. Taking time out to read when I'm feeling particularly stressed or anxious is really so effective in helping me feel more in control.

What do you do to read more?

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Bali: a magical day trip to Uluwatu

Uluwatu is a destination I missed out on my previous trip to Bali, so was keen to get it ticked off the list this time round.

We weren't sure whether to spend time staying in Uluwatu itself, or just visit as a day trip. There is undoubtedly more going on in Seminyak than in Uluwatu, and upon searching we found accommodation in Uluwatu to be pretty pricey. I remember reading Rosie's post and thinking 'must stay here!!!'... only to find it charges a mere ~£500 a night. Yes, really. This made our minds up for us!

As I mentioned before, Bali is actually a fairly small island, so a day trip to Uluwatu is completely do-able. I would recommend hiring a moped and having complete freedom to see the beautiful southern tip of the island on your own terms. If you've read any of my travel posts, you will know we hired a moped in most places we visited - it usually meant more flexibility, less money and that feeling of complete freedom. The best way to get around in SE Asia for sure! By the end of our six months, however, we were feeling a bit travel-weary. Bali is utter mayhem in places, and we just couldn't be bothered to fight our way through ridiculous traffic and hordes of tourists on bikes. Here in lies the warning; driving a bike in Bali can be pretty stressful!

Anyway, we decided to go by taxi on this occasion. We found an Uber and made our way to Uluwatu temple - this cost around 100,000 IDR (around £5) and took about 45 minutes from our hotel in Legian. Uluwatu temple (or Pura Luhur Uluwatu) is just the most beautiful sight; set atop of a cliff, above crashing waves below, it really is something else. It is no surprise that the name of the temple roughly translates to "something divine at the end of the land", and although the monkeys are bloody terrifying it is well worth spending a couple of hours there!  Be sure to bring a scarf to cover your legs if you are wearing shorts, or they can lend you a sarong for modesty.

After much ooh-ing and aah-ing at the temple (and all the sweating - it was so hot), we hopped in a taxi to our next stop. Unfortunately you are a bit of a sitting duck in the taxi lot, and we were subject to what I imagine was an inflated fare; 50,000 IDR for a 5 minute drive to Suluban beach. The term beach is a bit misleading I suppose - it's a surf beach so there's no actual sand to relax on, but instead a series of cliff-front restaurants where you can grab a drink and watch those who are mad brave enough to face the waves. We went for a drink at Single Fin Beach Club; completely overpriced but lively with good atmosphere and an amazing view. We went to the bar below for a second drink which was much cheaper and nearly as good views - without that pretentious feel you get at so many of the beach bars in Bali.

We then walked up to Padang Padang beach - a 25 minute walk, which basically followed the main road making it really straightforward. Parts of Eat Pray Love were filmed on Padang Padang beach, and it is what so many picture when they think of the Balinese coastline! Looking down at the beach from the road you can see the waves are far less crazy and the water is crystal blue... but it was also jam packed. The crowds, plus 10,000 IDR entry fee (yes, it may only be 50p!...), meant we gave this one a miss and carried on walking to Mango Tree Cafe for lunch. A peaceful and good value lunch spot, we hydrated with fresh fruit smoothies and filled up on nasi goreng.

Our final taxi (80,000 IDR) took us to our sunset stop on Jimbaran beach. A friend recommended we enjoy dinner and watch the sunset on Jimbaran - and we did just that. We grabbed one of the last beach-front tables, kicked our sandals off and got the beers in! As the sun started to set we ordered fresh barracuda with steamed rice and salad, and enjoyed our meal with the sand between our toes and the sun starting to fade below the horizon. It was one of those completely blissful moments where we discussed some of our favourite moments from our travels over the past six months, and contemplated that nomadic life abroad.

'Cos why would you return to the 9-5 grind when you could have this?

Uluwatu, what a magical day.


Monday, 26 February 2018

Bali: flashpacking in Seminyak and Canggu

Let me explain the title; flashpacking in Seminyak and Canngu. Arriving in Bali from Vietnam was undoubtedly a shock to the system. Yes, Vietnam was bustling and well-versed in tourism, but nothing like Bali. After a month in Vietnam we had become accustomed to the oh-so-cheap accommodation (in particular places like Hue were we stayed for £10 a night in near on 4* comfort) and street food, and absolutely relished trying local cuisine on tiny plastic stools, sat roadside. Bali is a world away from that. The tourism is immense, and in a completely different way to that of Vietnam / Laos / Cambodia. Being so close to Australia, Bali is a well-trodden tourist path for the Aussies and I think because of that, it feels far more Westernised. The Melbourne coffee scene has definitely begun to infiltrate Bali, and the health food scene seems pretty well-defined. Bali is undoubtedly a poor country, but it has this bizarre glossy gleam - particularly around Seminyak, which feels almost resort-like in its pockets of Westernised opulence. More on that later. 

So I think arriving in Bali, we realised we were caught in the 'middle'. As I have said countless times already in this SE Asia series - yes, we had backpacks but no, we weren't backpacking. In Thailand and Vietnam our budget allowed for us to feel like ballers without spending a great deal, and we could afford gorgeous accommodation and delicious meals out - on occasion, at least. Essentially, we didn't stay in hostels, but the mid-range options were pretty lush. Arriving in Bali, we realised we might struggle. The prices in Seminyak itself were pretty extortionate; we didn't want to slum it in a hostel with sixteen-year-old Australian teenagers, but equally couldn't afford the more pleasant-looking options. We had to do some real research for accommodation, and knew that we would have to hire a moped to get in to the centre / ensure we had the freedom to explore where we wanted to. And we used Seminyak as a base for the majority our Indonesian adventure. 

It went something like this:

Seminyak - Canggu - Ubud - Lombok - Gili T - Nusa Lembongan - Seminyak (Legian) - Uluwatu - Seminyak (Legian). 

I'll do posts on the other locations soon (watch this space), but for now here is how we spent our time in Seminyak and Canggu.

Where we stayed
We stayed in three different places in South Bali; two of which were in the Seminyak area. The first was a room we found through Air BnB - at around £25 a night (July 2016) it was pretty blissful and not budget busting. It wasn't, however, super central. We hired a moped as per, and it was about a 15-20 ride to the main bit of town. The owner organised a driver to collect us from the airport, and was able to rent us a bike as soon as we arrived for 50,000 a day (around £2.50). Next time, we stayed in the Swiss Belin Hotel in Legian which was again a bit out of the main heart of Seminyak; this time about a 20 minute walk. We paid £32 a night for a fairly sterile but gorgeously clean, comfortable and relatively luxurious room! And finally, we ended our Seminyak adventure in The Fontana Hotel - similar feel to the Swiss Belin, and we paid £29 a night. About a 5 minute taxi from Seminyak, or a 25 minute walk, this one felt really out in the sticks, for some reason. That said, the pool was lovely and the cafe (Sunny 16) served good coffee! 

Seminyak itself
Having visited the same area of Bali in 2011 - just five years previously - I thought I knew what to expect. Bits of Bali are pretty grotty. Let's face it, it's a developing country and is pretty swamped with tourism from Australia  - it's basically the equivalent of Magaluf for Aussie teens. And Seminyak is no exception. There are parts that are really basic, with open sewerage and rogue dogs. But what I didn't expect is the incredibly luxe part that has been recently developed. Now I don't know when this happened, but the area around Seminyak Village almost feels like a resort, with plush boutiques, fancy restaurants... and prices to match. When we rocked up here on the first night, we genuinely were worried for our finances. We couldn't afford to eat *anywhere*. Not in the last few weeks of our 6 month travel budget, at least! 

So we hopped back on our bike and went to the area I stayed in back in 2011; Legian. We found cheaper prices, less pretentious beach-side cafes and a much more relaxed vibe. Phew!

Where we ate in Seminyak / Legian
Watercress Cafe: an Aussie-style cafe with loads of brunch options and good coffee. Not cheap but also not crazy expensive, probably because it's a little distance away from the main drag. Website.
Cafe Marzano: sorry, slightly embarrassing - we definitely ate Italian food here! But it was really good - we painstakingly hunted this one down as I remember eating carbonara here back in 2011 after a hideous boat journey back from the Gilis. Pasta comforted me, what can I say?! (Trip Advisor).
Warung Souvlaki: cough, Greek food. It was amazing. Honestly! Five months of SE Asian cuisine had clearly got to us by this stage! As an idea of prices, here moussaka cost 37,000 rupiah (£1.90) but we saw it on a menu in Seminyak centre for 100,000 rupiah (over £5!) - it is so much cheaper out of the main crazy bit. (Trip Advisor). 
Paideia cafe: good coffee in a cute, hidden spot. (Trip Advisor).
Wacko Burger: pretty decent burgers in a slightly off the beaten track location. (Trip Advisor).
Motel Mexicola: last but not least, this place is *in-sane*. Not just the retro aesthetic - which is so beaut - but the food is just incredible. Not a cheap meal, but we left this as a treat for our last night in Bali. The beef cheek taco was delicious, as were the chicken quesedillas and pork shoulder carnitas. We paid around 500,000 rupiah for food and drinks (around £25) which was pricey (relatively!) but completely worth it. Be sure to book - you can do so online. (Website).

After our first stint in Seminyak we headed slightly north-west to Canggu - pronounced chan-goo. Getting there was slightly problematic; Canggu is a 'no taxi zone' so we had to rely on our Air BnB host driving us there! Which was fine, if a little bizarre. Turns out Uber and other taxi apps are banned in Bali, with the local taxi group Blue Bird holding the monopoly. We found they run in Seminyak mostly - be sure to ask that they run on the meter. Anyway, we arrived in Canggu and immediately loved the more relaxed vibe! Weirdly I have no record of where we stayed in Canggu, but I do remember it being pretty crap - so no love lost, there. 

As ever, we hired a bike from our accommodation and hit the road - first stop, the beach. Sadly, the waves around the south west tip of Bali are so extreme, there were no swimming opportunities. Even the idea of surfing seemed terrifying, they were so huge! So we paid a few rupiah for a couple of sun loungers and chilled out - it was bliss. We'd left the madness of Seminyak behind us, and Canggu felt so much more relaxed. 

Whilst in Canggu, I must admit we did very little (and Seminyak actually... zilch!). There isn't much culture to be had, and given it was the last few weeks of our trip we wanted to chill. And chill we did! There was lots of beaching, reading, eating and drinking - all blissful. Be sure to visit Echo Beach for sunset and enjoy a couple of beers whilst watching the sun go down. For lunch we managed to get a table at Betelnut Cafe - a great spot for a relaxed healthy lunch - we ate chicken avo wraps and enjoyed fresh juices, good coffee and the buzzy atmosphere. (Trip Advisor).

Tanah Lot
The one culture-trap we did want to experience was Tanah Lot. A Hindu temple on a rock, Tanah Lot is quite something. Having visited this five years previously, I wanted to re-visit and see the stunning rock formation at sunset - and see what had changed. So we hopped on our motorbike and made tracks, the journey lasting around 40 minutes. The trip can be done with a tour, but we preferred to have the freedom to go with our own timings. It'll be no surprise to hear that tourism has boomed - the numbers back in 2011 were pretty heavy, but this time round it was something else. The crowds were huge! See below in images for an idea of quite how many people visit. None the less, we paid our entry fee (30,000 rupiah each) and got our blessing in the temple and watched the sun come down. Frantic, perhaps. But still beautiful! 


Friday, 26 January 2018

Myanmar: why Mandalay should be on your itinerary

Mandalay is one of those places that ended up being an unexpected gem; we had to go there to fly home, but didn't really have high hopes. Oh how wrong we were!
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