Two wheels and an engine make for an exhilarating means of getting off the beaten track in Bali and learning more about the island and its people
Returning to Ubud by bicycle, having visited Museum Neka in the nearby hamlet of Campuhan, I was overtaken by a brash French girl called Fanny. “You know – like the English word for…” Fanny stopped to talk, and the sight of her gleaming 125cc sepeda motor made me envious. My bicycle stint that day had reduced me to bandy-legged desperation; surely a motorbike was the way to negotiate Bali’s hilly terrain?
Nonetheless, I was haunted by the rumour of 500,000 rupiah (c£120) fines for foreigners caught driving in Indonesia without international licences. Over a tasty nasi goreng at Café Ari that night, I confided my fear of authority to Fanny. She was unimpressed: “So? If you’re clever, you aren’t caught.” Hmm… was I clever enough? In the event of capture I decided to adopt an expression of imbecility coupled with overt respect for officialdom. Cleverness, I reasoned, tends to cross linguistic boundaries, whereas half-wittedness is respected the world over from a safe distance, even by the Indonesian police.
That evening I attended a traditional Balinese dance drama with a gamelan orchestra at Ubud Palace, an enactment of a story from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. An atonal cacophony attended the spasmodic movements of the Balinese monkey king Hanuman, fighting his evil foe Rawana, and in these I detected the frantic gestures of a traffic policeman I had seen earlier that day. Surely, I mused, the police are too busy to notice one more stupid tourist? Astride my steel steed I should conquer Bali, like Hanuman and his horde!
Next morning at the Frog Pond Inn, a losmen (hotel) where comfortable rooms cluster around a traditional family compound, I awoke to the sound of fish in pools outside softly breaking the water’s surface to feed amidst water lilies, and the rich, coiling scent of incense. Beyond my door stood the sun, a table bedecked with fresh jasmine tea and a banana pancake. Life couldn’t be sweeter, or more peaceful…
So after breakfast I set off up Jalan Forest Road and hired an ancient 125cc Suzuki with an engine tone akin to an angry wasp bashing itself peremptorily against a window pane and sullenly running out of energy. “No driving licence?” the owner asked forlornly. I produced my UK car licence, whilst gesturing vaguely in the direction of my losmen and promising not to crash. As it transpired, the speed of this machine was such that I was more likely to fall asleep.
With Fanny as pillion passenger, I left Ubud and headed northeast (in deference to Balinese cosmology, where south is the more impure direction), feeling, given the bike’s lack of torque, like an actor riding a hobby horse onstage – with the technicians shifting the scenery intermittently to give the illusion of progress. However, this did at least give me time to admire the countryside.
Mention of illusion and artifice befits Bali. The landscape is one huge, succulent salad bar, verdant with its stepped terraces framing rice paddies, palm plantations and morning mists stretched rakishly across the horizon like silk scarves. Such beauty seems unreal, a Technicolor paradise that persists despite the island’s small size and the tourist influx, and this point also pertains to the Balinese themselves, a beautiful people with faces as broad as their smiles: perfectly pretty in a neat, relaxed fashion.
Their laidback attitudes met our European time neuroses head-on, as we gunned the Suzuki through remote villages, stopping only to fill up with petrol sold on roadside stalls from plastic bottles for Rp 5000 (30p) per litre. That night we reached the quiet, east coast beach resort of Candidasa, which apparently derives from cilidasa, meaning ‘10 children’; somewhat ironic given the fact that at this stage of my biking career I was losing faith in my future child-siring abilities.
The next day we circled above the wreck of the US Liberty with snorkels, and made lung-busting attempts to reach the cargo ship, the stern of which is only two to three metres underwater. Returning to Candidasa, we stopped at a beachside village north of town, where Fanny decided to swim topless. I was embarrassment personified at this Gallic importunity, and indeed this offence against local Hindu sensibilities cost us a serviceable motorbike, when the locals duly effected a minor act of sabotage thereon. However, we managed to bribe a passing lorry driver into giving us a ride back to ‘Candi’, as we later dubbed it over a bottle of vodka – so sweetly did the guest house mandhi sluice away the day’s dust.
Next morning I ripped through the gears on my newly repaired bike, as the landscape of southern Bali gave way to the golden savannahs of the north. Fanny and I had parted in Candi with mutual relief, and I was east of the centre of the Balinese universe, the impressive volcanic mountain Gunung Agung. Northwards, the countryside runs away towards a coastal plain topped by Singaraja, the former Dutch colonial capital. Crumbling in places like a slightly stale cake, one can still smell the expatriate sweat, fear of (home) sickness amidst the pitiless heat, dust and flies of this working port. That said, people here are pleased to see foreign faces: “Selamat! Selamat!” yelled kids, using the Arabic-derived greeting and arrowing like the sun from side streets.
Fifteen kilometres south of Singaraja lies Jagaraga Pura Dalem, a temple complex where relief carvings in rock show Dutch soldiers in early-20th-century vehicles as varied as bicycles and biplanes attacking the Balinese. The compression of the frieze and its tensions led me to wonder at the motor malaise I was abetting, which has opened-up Bali to the world and is changing its slow pace irrevocably. On the other hand, wider appreciation of landscapes, undoubtedly, abets their preservation. Brooding thus, I drove back to Ubud, returned the bike and checked-in for an indulgent night at the Four Seasons Hotel. Did I feel motorcycle emptiness? Yes and no.
Where to stay
Frog Pond Inn, Ubud: low-key living amidst a family compound that has mysteriously fallen from favour with some guidebooks. Expect a peaceful night and a decent breakfast, and to only pay around Rp 35,000 (£2.50) for the privilege.
Four Seasons Resort Bali, Sayan: some 15 minutes east of Ubud, this is the ultimate in multinational indulgence, although the 18 suites and 42 villas suites do have a distinctly Balinese flavour.
Sekar Anggrek, Candidasa: this kooky range of hot water bungalows amidst peaceful gardens is a pleasant place to put up.
Bali Santi, Candidasa: the sky’s the limit, or perhaps infinity, with a swish pool here. Opulent air-conditioned bungalows start at Rp 350,000 (£21) – but for that special trip who’s counting costs?
Where to eat
Café Ari, Ubud: does the Indonesian essentials cheaply and very well, with mains from Rp 6,000 (£1). Friendly service.
Lamak, Ubud: a place to lighten the mood (and your wallet) with a loved one. Around Rp 250,000 (£15) buys you six extravagant courses but the whole menu – from soufflés to salads and soups – is as tasty as it is pricey.
Seasalt Restaurant (at the Alila Hotel), Candidasa: some of the best eating in Candi can be savoured here, with Balinese and international specialties prepared with fresh produce from the hotel garden. Mains start at a pretty fair dinkum Rp 60,000 (£3.50).
Vincent’s, Candidasa: refinement prevails at this live jazz venue inspired by Van Gogh, where Ella Fitzgerald and Dianna Krall are just two of the artists covered. A tasty international menu also riffs on everything from Crêpe Suzette to Balinese Black Rice Pudding.