Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 15, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

I was feeling good this morning. The tree frog had migrated to another location, so I had been able to slide into the bliss of REM-sleep oblivion for a full eight hours.

At breakfast Ann and I discussed the day's itinerary. I had already hired a van and driver to take us to Denpasar to visit the 13th-century Javanese temple (now an archaeological preservation site) of Pura Maosphit. Ann mentioned that she'd been reading her guide book and thought that making a stop at Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave) might prove photographically fruitful. And since Pura Maosphit was closed to the public (according to my guide book, the architecture was visible only from the outside), the Elephant Cave was added to make sure we'd come away with a few shots for today's expenditures.

Twenty minutes driving southeast down a winding, two-lane road and we arrived at the Goa Gajah. Judging by the size of the parking lot, the complex is a very popular stop on the tourist circuit. Dating from the 11th century, the cave is situated in a large depression, 50 feet below road level. The tourist authority has built a very nice stairway leading down to ground-level were a group of shrines and sunken pools huddled in front of the cave entrance. The exuberant carved face that surrounds Goa Gajah (almost Dali-esque) is a little too much for my aesthetic sensibilities but it draws major foot traffic. The cave's T-shaped interior is dim and airless, with a couple of mediocre statues trying to embellish the cave's presence.

South of the cave entrance, past the shrines dedicated to the god Hariti, and the buxom water maids in the sunken pools, is another staircase that leads down to the springs. This part of the complex was excavated in 1954 and really needs to be kept up a bit more to bring back the ambience of the past. I grabbed a few shots but was frustrated by the lack of landscaping that would have enhanced the overall visual appeal.

I got bored, and while Ann continued to document the complex, I photographed the Buxom Water Maidens and returned to road-level and the shops that surrounded the parking area. I got a couple of nice portraits of embarrassed vendors opening their refreshment stands, and a very nice wall detail.

Back on the road heading to Denpasar, where we encountered a major traffic snarl. A major temple was beginning preparations for tonight's festival. This must be one of the stops on the tourist express, because there were lots of large tour buses parked everywhere. Ann is totally enamored with the Hindu/Buddhist priest experience and she couldn't pass up an opportunity to document a close encounter. So another stop was added to the itinerary. First, we had to get in line to rent the required sarongs and belts. Once we were properly outfitted, the crossing guard directed us to the temple entrance. The place was so crowded that it was almost impossible to frame a shot without a white face in it. The locals were working in groups stringing garlands, preparing food offerings and having a good time. Lots of laughter and joking among the female members of the community, their good humor was infectious. I left the temple smiling. While Ann continued to stalk priests, I walked the streets surrounding the temple looking for something unusual to shoot. Down at the corner intersection there was a 30-foot-tall statue of a demon that had stolen a young girl and the hero fighting to free her.

Pura Maospahit is hard to find, and it's even harder to find a place to park. Finally, on our third go-around a space opened up on the north side. Dewa grabbed it and told us to be careful crossing the road. There was an alleyway on the east side that looked like a promising location to grab a couple of shots. Half a block down we came to a side door that was slightly ajar. There weren't any signs forbidding entry so I pushed and it opened. Dewa arrived just then and and made peace with the two female nuns (caretakers). We made our donations and they provided the sarongs and belts. The sun was high, so the light was harsh, and the sky was terribly bright. The place is really sort of small, so it didn't take us more than fifteen minutes to tour and shoot the temples. I've gotten what I can, but the whites are going to burn out and the shadows are going to be very dense but shooting on the fly like this, you get what you can. Like most of the world's archaeological sites, Pura Maospahit is rather bare and lacking anything spectacular enough to be more than a curiosity.

Lunchtime: We'd passed a McDonald's just a few blocks away, so that made deciding easy. The parking was a bit weird; we had to pull into an underground parking structure, be inspected, and then drive through the garage and out to park in front of the Mickey D's. Dewa said we were in a section of Denpasar that didn't get many tourists and that photographing people eating wasn't a great idea, so the Canon stayed in the van and we went into one of the largest fast-food stores I'd ever seen. There was space enough for at least a hundred diners, and because Indonesia is an Islamic nation, McDonald's has placed a large wash basin right in the dining room to use before eating; this way, you don't have to foul yourself by going into the bathroom. This is a great idea. Restaurants in the U.S. should adopt this value-added experience. Ordering was a bit awkward, but in the end I got my order. Ann, who was in a different line, had better luck with her double hamburgers. We found one of the few empty tables and sat down to enjoy a taste of home.

The Eyewitness Guide said that the garment district along Jalan Sulawesi was a fantastic experience. It's a three-block area where the Balinese come to buy their temple cloth and every other kind of fabric good you can think of. We double-double parked, leaving only a single lane of one-way traffic. On one side of the street the shops had what looked like giant sails covering their entrances to mute the intense rays of the sun. I was disappointed that I had left my camera in the van, but Dewa advised us that this area had a high crime rate for Bali. Pickpockets abounded, preying on the overweight and over-rich tourists who come to take in the scene.

I was looking for a male sarong, the black and white checked version. The Balinese believe that the black and white motif is a visual representation of the struggle between good and evil. Like all of life's dualities, it's something I'm fascinated by.

Ann was also looking for a pair of black thongs. She found a pair, but they were an inch short. The shop owner kept trying to convince her that they'd stretch out, but Ann was firm about needing a larger size. No problem, the sales person said they had extra stock at another location and was sure they'd have ones that would fit.

After Dewa warning's we followed warily and I kept my old maze rule in mind (Maze Rule: No more than four rapid turns in an unfamiliar place, before stopping and taking stock). We were on our fifth turn when I spun around, waved good bye to the clerk, and retraced our path out to the street.

Halfway back to the van we found a shop that sold what I was looking for. The men's sarong is a hoop of cloth that you step into and wrap around yourself. It doesn't fall open and embarrass you like all the rental stuff at the temples. They didn't have exactly the black and white style I wanted, but it was close enough and the cloth was of the highest quality. Now comes the hard part: bargaining. It isn't that I can't afford the asking price, but you don't want to end up feeling like a sucker. And since bargaining is expected, we spent 10 minutes haggling on the fair amount to exchange. At last, six bucks U.S. was agreed upon and we left the shop smiling.

The drive back to Ubud was uneventful, and we passed several sculpture gardens that would be interesting to photograph, but not today. We had tickets to the dance show at Ubud Palace at 8 p.m. We wanted to stop in Ubud and have an early dinner, then get back to Alam Sari to wash up and relax a little so we'd be rested for the night's festivities.

We got back to the hotel at 5:30, which gave us two hours to relax, change clothes, and reload.

We got to Ubud Palace around 7:45 p.m. The last-minute rush hadn't begun yet, so we were able to grab primo seats up front. Eight o'clock rolled around and the music began. The band was made up mostly of metal xylophones called "Gamelan," which have a real cut-to-the-bone tone, shimmering on the edge of being annoying. After the overture, the beautiful dancers arrived on stage bathed in the amber glow of the stage lighting. For the first 30 minutes the monotone hammering was ok, but after that you could tell it was beginning to get on some of the audience's nerves. Ann was one of those. Restless, she got up to look for some relief. The dancers were just so-so; they were beautiful enough, but I guess I was expecting a more Siamese type of presentation, with the long metal fingernails and the severe hand and foot movements. But all in all it was an experience and I was glad I had stuck it out.

Afterwards we made our way across the street to the meeting hall to wait for the hotel van. We had 15 minutes, so we made a run to the Circle K market and loaded up on bottled water and salty snacks. Right at 9:30 the van arrived. Because it was late Dewa had gone home and the hotel manager and security guard had come to drive us back to Alam Sari. The hotel manager is a really gregarious lady from Jakarta, and we had a real enjoyable conversation on our way back.

To bed. Tomorrow is our last full day on Bali.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 14, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

I’d had a bad night. There was a tree frog loose in my room, somewhere up in the cathedral ceiling. Not only was he loud (making a parrot-like squawk), he was an expert at camouflage. Even with my trusty flashlight I couldn’t ferret him out and finally gave up trying just before dawn.

I dragged my ass out of bed at seven and into the shower, trying to revive my ancient bones. Once my toiletry was done, I set about making sure my cameras were recharged and reloaded. I had to make sure my equipment was in better shape than I was.

We had company in the dining room this morning, a couple in their late twenties from Paris. They both kept coughing and sneezing, so I stayed as far away from them as possible. (Travel Tip: My number one rule in budget travel is to stay healthy, avoid the sick, and don’t eat anything you aren’t sure of; you might feel a little bit unadventurous, but being sick on the road is no joke — it will drain your experience and your pocketbook).

Two Diet Cokes along with breakfast helped pump a little caffeine into my system. Being older, I am used to not getting much sleep, but in this latitude the humidity can exacerbate any weakness you might have, so I was fortifying myself as best I could.

While Ann finished her morning cigarette, I went over to the hotel lobby to check email and make sure the hotel shuttle was leaving on time. This was our day to explore Ubud, and we wanted to get started as early as possible.

We were the only ones using the shuttle this morning. Dewa was our driver again. He’s very conscientious about seeing that we have a good time and loves to point out attractions and historical points of interest. He dropped us off in the center of town: the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Suweta. The Ubud Palace is on the northeast corner and the town meeting hall is across the street. On the way in, he’d pointed out a path through the local villages and rice fields. What he didn't mention was that it was a long walk.

Walking west along Jalan Raya we passed a shop selling very nice wicker place mats next door to the Lotus Cafe, which is in front of Ubud's main temple complex, Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati. The sun was in the wrong place to do the temple justice, but I took some shots anyway, knowing that more than likely I would never be there in the right light.

Continuing west we intersected the road that leads up to the path Dewa had described. It was a steep uphill climb until we arrived at the trail head, which was just a narrowing of the road. We couldn’t walk abreast, so I took the lead and continued west. After a few blocks the trail seemed to dead-end into a farm house, but an Australian gentleman coming from the other direction said that we just had to walk around the house and the path would resume. We thanked him and went on our way, but I should have known from his sweat-soaked shirt that it wouldn’t be a short journey.

The fields here are flat and spread out in a large meadow-like area. The walkway was one used by the farmers to haul things in and out, so it was pretty well maintained. The area was beautiful and almost deserted except for the waving fields of grain. We took lots of shots in the beginning, but then the beauty was becoming monotonous, almost too idyllic.

One klick (kilometer) in to our trek an elderly lady walked out of the fields and asked if I would like to take her picture. Of course I would, and I did several shots and then paid her my usual dollar fee. A little way further along the path another lady who had been watching my first encounter asked if I’d like to photograph her. Not wanting to be impolite I agreed and took several more photos and paid her a dollar. She started to argue and yell that I was cheating her, but I just smiled and waved goodbye, wondering what Ann, who was a couple of hundred yards behind me, would walk into. Ten minutes later a young man in his early twenties wanted us to photograph him climbing a palm tree. I’d learned my lesson on this path and agreed upon a fee in advance, and up he went.

The path went on forever. It was after 1pm when we came across the first refreshment shed. A man even older than I was had located his stand in a grove of trees and had several large ice chests depleted of most of their ice, so the sodas and water were just lukecold. These were all guarded by his pet rooster, who was literally the Cock of the Walk.

A German couple accompanied by his mother and a guide walked up. They'd come from a different direction and the guide mentioned a shortcut back to Ubud. I was up for the shortcut and willing to take a chance that it would be shorter than another three hours in the rice paddies.

We finally got back to our starting point around 3pm. The hotel shuttle was going to be at the town hall area around 3:30 and we had to be there to let the driver know that we’d be staying until 5:30. I was starving and needed to find a place to have lunch. It seemed that most of our fellow travelers were also looking for a late lunch. We finally found a table at an outdoor restaurant and sat down with a weary plop. The spaghetti was passable but nothing to write home about and the water situation was a little disconcerting. I ordered a Diet Coke and a large water, but they had no large bottles of water, just little green bottles that were 2 bucks for 8 ounces of flat water. What a rip-off.

We cruised the main streets looking for something interesting enough to photograph and some handicrafts that would fit into our suitcases. Thank goodness we were walking; the streets were jammed with vans and motor scooters all vying to get to the other side of the city, and it looked like an exotic parking lot. Even though this section of the road was one-way, it was still very difficult to cross without being flattened.

The shops had nothing really unusual except for some beautiful carvings at one of the high-end art galleries. I loved a couple of statues but nothing I could afford.

We were dragging on our return to the meeting hall. The place as awash in tourists waiting to be picked up. It was a leisurely ride back to Alam Sari Hotel. The air was pleasant and the skies active. Ann and I talked about returning that night to the Ubud Palace to view the Balinese dancing show. But once we got back it was decided to make a quiet night of it, enjoy the hotel amenities, and put off the dance show until tomorrow night.