Thoughts and Practical Tips on Bali: Food & Water

These are my thoughts from 2 months in Bali (January – March 2017). Please note that prices are either in US dollars ($) or Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). At that time 10,000 IDR was about $0.75.

Food

Food scooter
Who needs a food truck when you have a food scooter?

We were excited to try a new ethnic cuisine that was cheap ($1-4/dish). However, after a week we were pretty tired of the cheap local food.

Lots of MSG and spicy (pedas). I eat and like spicy food, especially some of the sambals (chili sauces – many places make their own), but not the kids. Fried noodles (mie goreng) was mostly fried ramen noodles. Fried rice (nasi goreng), special fried rice (nasi campur) was okay, depending on the place. Fried chicken (ayam goreng) was usually dry.

Notice a lot of fried foods.

Soups (soto) were okay, again usually having MSG or meatballs (bakso) that I didn’t love. We were probably biased towards Indonesian cuisine, having eaten good Chinese food for most of our lives.

Ikan Bakar
Ikan bakar (grilled fish), ayam bakar (grilled chicken), and pelecing kangkung (water spinach)

We did however find some inexpensive gems while there. Fish is pretty fresh, although I’m worried about some of the reef fish they catch and serve (i.e. parrotfish, jack, etc), mostly because of concerns about ciguaterra. Grilled fish (ikan bakar) is very yummy. We did find a great grilled fish and chicken place in Tabanan called Ikan Bakar Jimbaran, which is the style they cook in the more expensive Jimbaran beach area. There were a couple gems in Ubud with fried chicken in chili tomato sauce (ayam goreng) and one place with all dishes cooked in coconut oil and no MSG. Water spinach (pelecing kangkung) is a vegetable we liked a lot. And you can’t go wrong with chicken satay (sate ayam). Our little inside joke was: “We brake for smoke!”

sate ayam
Mmm, smoky chicken satay (notice the use of bathroom exhaust fan; and how many legs are on that scooter)

Fruits
Morning fruit plate of papaya, watermelon, pineapple, and rambutan

Fresh fruit in Bali was great: dragonfruit, mangosteen, salak (aka snakefruit), guava, papaya, pineapple, rambutan, etc. It was hard to go wrong there. Although at one of the local markets, I tried buying bananas (pisang), but I kept getting plaintains. Turns out bananas are pisang manis. Oh well.

One time we bought locally grown strawberries–did you know Bali has a strawberry growing region? I had a conundrum on how to clean/wash them. I decided it was best to give them a quick rinse in the pool (chlorine water) and then rinse with bottled water. BTW the strawberries back home taste way better than the ones in Bali. Stick to the tropical fruit.

Anytime we had juices, we made sure it did not have ice in it, because of the questionable water source.

market
Fruit market in Denpasar.

There are plenty of restaurants that cater to westerners, but they are priced accordingly ($6-$15+/dish), so we rarely ate at those establishments. If you stick to more to local warungs, it tends to be cheaper to eat out than to buy food at a grocery store and cook. That’s because most Indonesians will shop at the local morning markets where prices are much cheaper than the grocery store.

Ice cream on a hippo
Kiddos eating dragonfruit ice cream

We definitely tried to have some kind of cold snack everyday. In Ubud, it’s easy to find boutique ice cream shops with fancy flavors and premium popsicles ($2-6). But most of the time, we frequented the local mini-mart and bought some flavored ice or popsicle. Some of our favorites included Trico (watermelon, soursop, and lime?), mango, and watermelon which cost 15 to 40 cents each. We did have ice cream, but dairy products are pricier, so we stuck mostly with flavored ices.

Ices
Kids having a cold snack on different days, even though their shirts are the same.

Obviously we like trying the local snacks. At the store, things that caught my attention that I had to try were: green tea flavored Kitkats, seaweed-flavored Pringles, wasabi-flavored potato chips and dried salak. I even found a chocolate-covered dried salak (at a fancy store), mmmm.

Indonesian junk food
I don’t care what diet you are on, how can you not try these?

I have to mention kopi lewak. This is the famous coffee bean that is eaten by the cat-like civet, then pooped out, harvested and roasted into coffee. You see signs for it everywhere there are tourists. We didn’t try any because it seemed too gimmicky and we could not verify the treatment or mistreatment of these animals.

Water

UV treatment

No, I don’t travel with a portable lava lamp. That light is a fancy UV treatment system for my water bottle. It’s a well known fact that Bali does not have clean drinking water; not even the locals drink it. The UV filter kills 99% of the pathogens, but it doesn’t filter out contaminants or heavy metals. We decided it was best to stick to bottled water. We bought one-gallon jugs and/or 5-gallon jugs. Tip: if you stay at a large western branded hotel (like the Hilton Garden Inn), there is usually bottled water available in the fitness room; usually a large 5 gallon water dispenser where you can fill up your water bottles.

Bali Belly

All of us went down with a bout of “Bali Belly” to varying degrees. I even had to take antibiotics for two weeks to treat a potentially lethal parasite. Water is the main transmission route. If you eat street food, be careful of plates that are not completely dry. A good tip we learned towards the end of our stay was to get food to go (takeaway), so that way food is in brand new (uncontaminated) containers. But this has the unfortunate side effect of creating a lot of waste. And obviously be careful of raw/uncooked foods like salads. We only ate cooked vegetables unless it was from a good reputable source.

hotel breakfast
I confess, we did eat at this western establishment a lot.

Overall it was a good experience and we were able to find foods we liked at cheap prices. However with the contrast of food from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysian) and Taiwan (Chinese) on this trip, Bali’s cuisine paled in comparison. Sorry Bali.

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Thoughts and Practical Tips on Bali: Transportation, Accomodations, Communications & more

These are my thoughts from 2 months in Bali (January – March 2017). Please note that prices are either in US dollars ($) or Indonesian Rupiah (IDR). At that time 10,000 IDR was about $0.75. Yeah, it’s weird taking out 2 million rupiah from the ATM.

road through banyan tree
No problem if there’s a tree in the middle of the road

Infrastructure and Transportation

On our first stint in Bali, we rented a car and saw a good chunk of the island. An automatic transmission rental car cost us around 200,000 IDR/day. The interior of Bali contains mountains and tropical forests while the outer rim is scattered with beaches and cliffs.

We mostly stayed on the coast, but did venture up and through the mountains once (we tried coming back a different route through the mountains, but was stymied by weather and road conditions).

Bali MapTopographic map of Bali and our route

The bulk of the island is built around tourism. Infrastructure, with some exceptions, is pretty poor (i.e. clean drinking water and trash management). Roads conditions were inconsistent, often with lots of potholes. We visited during rainy season which meant there was often rain every other day. Storms were generally fast moving and many times early morning rains were followed by sunshine in the afternoon. One time, we had a few days of nonstop rain and mountain passes would flood with debris and trees limbs, blocking the roads.

Beaches in touristy places are good (Kuta, Seminyak, Lovina, Nusa Dua) because they get cleaned. Once off the main track many beaches can get filthy from trash–some of it from land, the rest from the ocean itself. Storms often wash land-trash down to the ocean, but the surge brings the trash right back past the tide line.

Local beach in Banjar near LovinaLocal beach in Banjar near Lovina

Snorkeling was good but limited. We did manage to get to West Bali National Park and stay at the only hotel there. We did not get to Menjangen Island (although we could have swam there) and the best snorkeling was under the dock at the hotel. We are a little spoiled by the quiet beaches, crystal clear waters and great snorkeling while sailing through the Bahamas last winter.

Driving around Bali

Driving is on the left side of the road, and the median line is just a suggestion. There are lots of scooters. Might is right, watch out for the huge tourist buses coming to/from Java. Road rage does not exist in Bali, so don’t take anything personally. Large traffic circles work the way you think they do. For small traffic circles, you usually take the straightest path, even if it seems counter-intuitive. If you don’t know what to do, just slow down a little and follow the locals. Often times there is traffic. And then you will see scooters getting creative (i.e. driving on sidewalk, etc). Indonesians are extremely resourceful with what they can fit onto a scooter; you will be amazed.

Bali temple traffic
Traffic for a local ceremonial procession

You have to pay for parking almost everywhere (on a car or scooter). It’s usually only 20 cents or less (2,000 IDR), but it can get annoying. Sometimes people collect right when you park, other times they collect as you are leaving. Go figure.

Technically you will need an international driving permit to drive a car or scooter in Indonesia. I picked one up at local AAA office for $20. None of the people I rented from asked for it, though. One place required a deposit. Driving a scooter is relatively easy and costs less than $5/day. I did pay a little more (60,000 IDR/day) to get scooter rental with small helmets that would fit the kids. If you want to blend in more, wear long pants and/or long sleeve shirt/jacket while driving the scooter. Even in 80+ degree Fahrenheit weather, most of the locals are quite covered up on their scooters. The guys in shorts are almost always tourists. I’m not quite sure how insurance (if any) works. Best to drive slow and carefully.

kids with helmets

Ride Hailing

I’m a fan of economic transparency and I do like the Uber business model (not so much the management and culture). As touched upon earlier, ride hailing is frowned upon in most places in Bali, Denpasar being the notable exception. However, it appeared that many people in Bali and Indonesia routinely skirt the local taxi drivers and still use ride hailing.

Grab Scooter

The three main ride-hailing services in Bali (and Indonesia) are Uber, Grab, and Go-Jek. Uber is based in the USA and offers rides in cars or scooters/motorbikes and even has full-day hires (5-hour minimum for 60,000 IDR or about $5 USD/hour). Go-Jek is an Indonesian-based company that offers rides and delivery service via scooter/motorcycles. I tried using the app, but had a hard time with translating things and getting it set up properly. Grab is based in Singapore and offers rides in cars, motorbikes and full-day hires for about the same price as Uber. One main difference between Uber and Grab: Grab drivers know your destination before they accept your ride; Uber drivers don’t get that information until they pick you up. Also Grab gives you the exact price and Uber gives you a price range.

In the beginning I used Uber because I had the app. I eventually used Grab toward the end and liked it better (the promo codes helped). Grab also does deliveries like Go-Jek. I was very tempted once to deliver a stool sample to the doctor’s office via Go-Jek (not as a prank, but because I had a parasite). Rides on the scooter were 50 cents to $1. You typically don’t want to travel too far on a scooter, for comfort and safety reasons. A 30 – 60 minute taxi ride from Tuban/Kuta to Denpasar cost around $4 – $5. Bluebird taxi (the reputable taxi group) has an app and their price estimate was almost double Uber’s. In the end it’s really not that expensive.

What we’ve found is that Uber/Grab drivers are just trying to make a living like the local taxi drivers. And they all offer full-day hires as well. The going rate was 60,000-100,000 IDR per hour of driving. It seemed to us that Uber/Grab was a way for drivers to meet tourists so they can get a driver-for-hire gig next time. I received about half a dozen business cards from Uber/Grab drivers. And I did end up using a couple of them again for some of our longer one-way trips (2-4 hours). If you’re looking for a driver in Bali, I can recommend two, both of whom have young families:

Budi: +62 813-3701-6782 (WhatsApp) – His childhood village is in Banjar (near Lovina) so he knows routes to/from northern Bali through the mountain roads.

Nyoman: +62 857-3821-9123 (WhatsApp) – He worked on a cruise ship so his English is very good.

Communications

This trip, I’ve been grateful for smartphones, in particular my android phone. I used Google’s Project Fi cell phone service. It is a practically seamless international cell phone plan. Upon landing and my phone acquiring a cell signal, the screen displayed this message:

Welcome to Indonesia

Data is the same rate, text messages are free, wi-fi calling is only $0.03-$0.10/minute to Indonesian numbers (and still free to US numbers). It’s pretty awesome. If you want to try it, I have a referral code to get $20 off. (Disclosure: I get $20 off and you get $20 off). I do think it’s a great deal for the price of $20/month + data. What makes it even more awesome are the free extra sim cards for data-only. The data is on a pay-what-you-use basis. However, the data-only sim card did not work in Indonesia for us probably because our phone did not have the proper radio frequency for the local cell carrier. In Malaysia and Taiwan, Serena used a data-only card and we messaged each other through WhatsApp. We used less than 0.5 GB/month while traveling for 2.5 months.

Here are some of my most used apps in Bali:

Google Maps – Duh! I downloaded offline maps for Bali before the trip, saving data while driving. GPS directions worked great. I even plugged in a headset and had my phone in my pocket while driving the scooter and getting audio directions from Google.

Google Translate – Also, downloaded offline language packs to translate without data. You do need data for Google to speak the word aloud.

Uber / Grab – ride-hailing apps

WhatsApp – the social messaging network all Indonesians use

Agoda / Booking – hotel booking app

HiltonHonors – hotel app for Hilton branded properties

Accommodations

We stayed at local hotels, an airBnB rental, an Indonesian resort, a facebook acquaintance’s place, and 12 nights at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Pano Nusa Bay Menjangan room
Pano from our bungalow at Nusa Bay Menjangan resort

Booking.com and Agoda.com are great hotel search engines for Asia. I tried both apps, but I ended up liking Agoda better. Although I used the apps to search for rooms, I only used them once to book the Nusa Bay Menjangan resort. Why? It was slow season and all the hotels had vacancies. I would check prices with the app, then go to the hotel and ask if they could give me a better price than online. And all but one place I asked did. So no middle man. The price range of hotel room was $20 – $60 (for 3BR villa) with the exception of the Nusa Bay resort ($100+). And they all had awesome pools. I actually filter properties to see if they had a pool with the Agoda app (kids need to swim).

On a side note, we stayed once at a villa with no air conditioning; it had bug netting and fans. It looked beautiful and rustic and we thought it would be no problem for us. Unfortunately, hotel bug netting does not keep out all the tiny no-see-ums. O and I had many bug bites. At first I suspected bed bugs, but after stripping the beds and finding no evidence I concluded no-see-ums. Argh. Bugs are a part of life in any tropical paradise. Mosquitos, ants, spiders, spiders that look like ants, etc. We brought bug spray, bug bands, and even laced a set of clothes with permethrin. But the bugs will find a way. Lesson learned, we then searched for rooms with air conditioning.

pool at Bali Hilton Garden Inn
Did I mention how all the places we stayed at have awesome pools?

Nusa Bay Menjangan is the only hotel inside West Bali National Park and you need to take a boat to get there. That means there’s no other place to eat than at their expensive restaurant for breakfast (thankfully included), lunch and dinner. We stayed two nights and loved the nature and solitude; there was one other couple first night and we were only ones there on second night.

In Ubud, our two-bedroom AirBnB apartment with pool was about $40/day. And of course, the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport in Tuban/Kuta was free after using hotel loyalty points. Although the location is not central Kuta, it is close to the airport. The hotel offers free rides to/from airport and even offers free ride to Kuta beach (twice a day). And renting a scooter for less than $5/day is an easy way to get around.

Travel hacking

Okay, I admit to have done some travel hacking. Here’s what I did for this trip and some tips if you’re new to it:

Our 12 nights at the Hilton Garden Inn for me cost around 65,000 points. Most of the time it costs 5,000 points/night, which by all accounts is a bargain. (Note: you can get 12 nights at this property for as low as 50k points).

I accumulated Hilton Honors points by opening two American Express cards last fall. One was the no-fee Hilton Amex card which gave me 50k points after minimum spend. The second was the $75/year Hilton Amex Surpass which gave me 75k points after minimum spend and automatic Gold status at Hilton. Hilton Gold status is probably the best mid-tier hotel status level at any of the large hotel brands. That $75 annual credit card fee gave us free breakfast buffet at our Hilton stays–which was amazing–and free room upgrades.

Quick plug: those sign up bonuses from Amex have increased to 75k and 100k respectively (referral link, we get extra points but it doesn’t cost you anything) and Amex only gives those bonuses once per person per card, so now is a good time to get them. But if you’re new to travel hacking, you should do a little research to see if those are the best cards to get for you. Credit card sign-up bonuses are the easiest way to get started in travel hacking.

You might also consider a Chase Sapphire Preferred card to start. If you open more than five cards within a 24-month period they will not approve you, so you might want to consider getting that one earlier.

And if you want free Hilton Gold status along with other nice benefits (at least for one year), you could open Ameriprise Amex Platinum because the first-year annual fee of $450-$550 is waived.

Of course, I’m only sharing my personal experiences. Nothing shared in this post and on this site should be taken as financial advice or guidance.

Whew! I’m done geeking out about travel hacking.

Next up… FOOD.

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Ubud, Part 2

The first time we were in Ubud, we only stayed a couple of days to scope it out. The second time around, we spent a week and dove right in.

Ubud_Temple

We rented a small two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb for a week. The place was far back from the main stretch, amongst the rice fields. It came with a small kitchen and a pool. The owner also rented us a scooter. Like many places in Bali Ubud has many narrow streets. Driving a car is not convenient, and parking is very limited. We were too far from Ubud center for walking, so…when in Bali…

Ubud_pertamina

These mini-gas stations tickle me.

Ubud is family friendly place. There’s a wide variety of eateries, plenty of shopping if you’re into that. There are temples, dances and activities for kids to participate in. Here are some of the things we did:

Goa Gajah (elephant caves)

Goa Gajah is an archaeological site that dates back to the 9th century. The rock wall carvings, bathing pools and fountains took us back to another time and place (similar to our experience in Macchu Picchu).

Goa_Gajah

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Goa_Gajah2

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Hawkers outside Goa Gajah pushed us to buy sarongs, but as long as your legs are covered , purchasing a sarong isn’t necessary. (The covering of the legs rule seems to apply mostly to men and women, our kids were allowed in as they were). The temple also has a basket of sarongs at the entrance which you can borrow. I’ll confess, as amazing as the stone carvings were, my kids were most excited about the lizards and geckos in the temple area.

Big Tree Chocolate Factory Tour

We found the Big Tree chocolate factory tour while searching for things to do with kids in Bali. The factory is located 25 minutes south of Ubud so we hired a driver to get us to and from. You have to make a reservation with Big Tree ahead of time in order to take the tour.

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I liked that their tour began with a chocolate drink, coco mojo and, after a short presentation, some sampling of chocolate! I also liked that their products are organic and fair trade.

Bali_ChocFactory1

The building itself is made of bamboo, with some concrete and rebar reinforcement. Bamboo, we learned, is a renewable building material. It’s fast growing and flexible enough to withstand shocks like earthquakes. Plus it’s beautiful to look at. The tour lasted around 45 minutes, and we took a taxi back to Ubud.

Paradiso Ubud

If you’re looking for some entertainment, our lovely host Rony recommended Paradiso Ubud to us when we were in Lovina. Paradiso boasts itself as the world’s first vegetarian and vegan cinema. We’re neither, but we had a good time anyways.

Ubud_ParadisoCine

Ubud_ParadisoCine2

For about $15, our family got to see a sweet old kids’ movie (Babe, 1995). In true Bali style, we took our shoes off before entering the theatre. Our tickets gave us vouchers for food (vegan and organic). We paid a little extra for taxes and service. Food was brought to our table while we enjoyed the movie. It was a fun night, so glad we did it!

Geo-caching

When we got tired of doing touristy stuff, we turned to geo-caching. It’s a great way to get everyone outdoors and moving. Tig used C:Geo geocaching app for Android.
Ubud_GeoCache1

Ubud_Geocache2

Kids will climb up and down hundreds of steps in order to write their name on a little piece of paper, and exchange a little trinket. We’ve learned long ago not to call it a “hike”…they seem allergic to that word.

Ubud_Geocache3

Ubud_Geocache4

Nope, we’re not on a hike, we’re geo-caching.

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Ubud_Waterfall

Ubud_Waterfall2

Exploring through eating

Food in Bali is fairly inexpensive, so we enjoyed eating out much of the time.

Garasi_Scooter
At warung Garasi, one of our favorites. Their ayam goreng (fried chicken with chili sauce) is a hit with our family.

WarungPuspas

We also like warung Puspa’s, because, no MSG and only coconut oil, yo.

Ubud_Moksa

Moksa Ubud is a plant-based restaurant. The food was surprisingly good, and I was interested in their permaculture garden.

Ubud_Moksa2

Ubud_Moksa3

These bamboo seedling starter trays. It made me wistful for my garden back home.

Aside from exploring and eating, I managed to squeeze in two classes at the Ubud Yoga Centre. V took a silver jewelry-making class and made a necklace pendant. Our week felt very full.

I know that for many digital nomads and vagabonds, Bali is their paradise. The large expat population in Ubud is a testament to the magic here. And though I enjoyed visiting, my heart is still in our little community in Maine. Deep down inside, I prefer wide open spaces, sparsely populated areas, walkable towns, plenty of nature, a solid infrastructure for trash management, and clean drinking water. Bali is beautiful and complex, but after almost two months, we were looking forward to our next destination.

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Ubud, Part 1

We visited Ubud the first time we were in Bali, prior to our visa run, to see if we’d like it.
Ubud_RiceFields
Ubud is a series of adjectives and nouns:

Artsy, cultural, hip (we’re not).

Yet traditional.

It’s coffee shops, juice bars, raw vegan cafes, yoga centers, penis bottle openers, sarongs, and monkeys.

Taxi drivers on every corner. Scooters barreling down small alleys.

Rice fields, batik, yoga clothes.

Ubud is a fascinating blend of old and new.

We don’t quite have the words to describe it. Instead, here are a few pictures from our first stay in Ubud.

Ubud_KecakDance1
We went to a Kecak dance in the evening. Every evening, there are different styles of dances at various locations in the area.

Ubud_KecakDance4

Ubud_KecakDance5
These two girls danced in unison with their eyes closed the whole time.

Ubud_KecakDance7
Fire dance.

Ubud_MonkeyCrossing1
Ubud monkey forest. I don’t have many pictures from there, we spent most of the time being personal body guard for the kids.
Ubud_MonkeyForest

Ubud_MonkeyForest2

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Lovina

After our visa run to Kuala Lumpur, we were back in Bali again for two weeks. We spent several days near Lovina, on the north coast of the island.

Lovina_FishingBoat

For this trip, Tig kindly hired a driver to take us from Kuta. We stayed with a family that we met through the World School House Swap / Sit Facebook Group. We’re so grateful to Rony for opening her home to us and showing us ropes around here.

Lovina_Scooter

Tig’s rented scooter.

Lovina_HotSpring

We went to the holy hot springs, or Air Panas, in Banjar. The warm sulfur water poured out of the carved dragons’ heads.

Lovina_HotSpring2

The springs are situated in a tropical forest setting, but the entrance was well-lined with vendors.

Rony also took us on a hike to the waterfalls at Singsing. After the hot springs, the water here was refreshingly cool and lovely.

Lovina_Waterfall

Lovina_DuckChasing1

What do you do when a flock of ducks waddle by?

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You run after them, of course!

Lovina_DuckChasing3

This area of Bali was eye opening for us. Every day the local fishing boat went out with at least half a dozen men, but they would come back with one a few fish, hardly enough. We saw tons of garbage on the beach. There were several trash fires burning daily, sending toxic fumes out. There didn’t seem to be coherent system or process for dealing with garbage in this area–whether generated locally, or washed ashore from the ocean. It was pretty convicting to look out at the trash and wonder if some of it was mine, generated during my lifetime. When we get home, I’d like to double down and point our compass towards more of a zero-waste lifestyle. Even if we don’t get there, at least we will have tried our best.

Bali_Playground

After spending a few days there, we said goodbye to Rony and family. With a handful of recommendations from them on places to check out and eat at, we headed south toward Ubud.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

When I think of Kuala Lumpur, this picture comes to mind. A beautiful, multi-faceted city with the twin towers as its crown jewel.

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Malaysia was our visa run. We originally came to Indonesia with a free 30-day tourist visa. Due to a slight miscalculation, we realized that it would be more expensive to extend it to 60 days than if we were to fly to Kuala Lumpur and come back into Bali with a new free 30-day visa. Plus, it was an opportunity to visit another southeast asian country.

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The “muddy confluence”

Once we stepped out of the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), the difference was night and day from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport. It was eerily tranquil, with just a sprinkle of people and a few taxis. (And in Malaysian style, a shopping mall adjoining the airport) Our Uber driver was able to pull right into the pick up area. The drive to our hotel consisted of wide multi-laned highways.

Due to some judicious travel hacking, our stay in KL was surprisingly affordable. Tig financed our hotel stays with Hilton points, so accommodations were taken care of.

As for food, that was also quite affordable. As Hilton Honor Gold members, we had access to the breakfast buffet every morning. It was an amazing spread with Chinese, Western, and Indian foods (I’m under the impression that many of the western hotels in Southeast Asia provide substantial breakfast spreads for free for certain level members). As a family, we tried to fill up our daily calories from there. The kids loved the steamed buns with various fillings like red bean paste and lotus seed paste. Tig and I went for the noodle soups loaded with veggies and rice noodles. There were indian flatbreads and curries to taste, as well as omelettes made to order, waffles, hash browns, pastries, juices, almost anything you can think of… There was a suspicious absence of pork because of a majority Muslim country (although they tried to make up for it with beef brisket, beef bacon, Chinese steamed BBQ chicken buns, etc).

With the big meal of the day out of the way, we were able to explore and eat out for lunch. With three bouts of Bali belly under our belt, we opted for clean-but-cheap mall fare. And it’s not your usual mall fare in the U.S., the food is really good! You can get a pan-Asian menu of items for 15-30 ringgits (RM)…40RM for more spendy foods. At the time, one US dollar was about 4.45RM. There were Malaysian laksas, Korean bento boxes, Chinese dim sum, tofu pots, noodle soups, sushi, and sizzling plates.

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I love seeing the different asian cultures represented in this food court. Here, we are not the minority, we’re all Asian!

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Tig saw people walking around with sizzling platters and yellow caution “tape” and he had to try it. It was every bit as tasty as we thought it would be. One time when we were out, Tig texted me, “I found Chinese food heaven!” It was the basement of another mall, filled with stalls of roast pork, roast duck, dim sum, etc. and even a wing for sushi and Japanese food. Yes, we ate well in Kuala Lumpur.

After a morning of exploring, we would come back to our hotel in the late afternoon with another trick up our sleeve. At check-in Tig always asked nicely for an upgrade to the Executive Lounge. From what I understand, upgrade is granted at the discretion of each locale. At any rate, we were able to go upstairs to the lounge for appetizers and drinks, which gave us a light snack. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we could supplement for dinner. Tig, ever the engineer, is always looking at travel-hacking from a best value standpoint, instead of fancy luxuries like suite upgrades.

Petronas Twin Towers

A trip to Kuala Lumpur wouldn’t be complete without going up to the Petronas Twin Towers. Even after 20 years, these iconic buildings still look contemporary, if not futuristic.

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Getting tickets was fairly easy. In the morning we went down to the ticket counter in the basement and purchased tickets for the next available tour. First stop was the skybridge.

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Looking down at the KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center) Park.

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Next stop, the observation deck.

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We also went up the KL tower and had afternoon tea at the Atmosphere 360 revolving restaurant and lounge.

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The tea was a buffet, with a choice of hot or cold drink. It was a decent value, but we later learned that you can get Groupon tickets, now Fave in Malaysia, for cheaper.

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The restaurant completes a revolution once every hour and a half.

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Afternoon tea desserts, carefully arranged by Tig.

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We also visited the National Textiles Museum and Chinatown.

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All-in-all, KL is an efficient and Westerner-friendly city. Luckily, a few words translated well from Bahasa Indonesian to Bahasa Malaysian like selamat pagi, jalan, and makan. Many people speak some sort of English. There are free bus lines and a very efficient subway system. Uber and Grab are plentiful (and not plagued by “local mafia” like in Bali). There is also a high-speed train that goes to the airport, which was nice (Of course O wanted to ride it).

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Subway tokens look like funny money.

For our last night in KL, Tig booked another Hilton, just for this:

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It was a short week, too short. We really enjoyed Kuala Lumpur, it’s multiculturalism, it’s acceptance of different religions, the delicious food and efficient public transportation. We hope to come back someday.

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Jakarta, the Capitol

Well we survived a two-week rental car in Bali. We started in Kuta and made a cut up the middle of the island, then circled around the west side, to Ubud, then back to Kuta. I hesitated to put it out there until we made it through alive and well. The experience of driving in Bali is too involved, it will need its own post someday.

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After our car tour, we hopped on a plane to visit my dear friends Jona and Matthew in Jakarta.

Leaving on a jet plane

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At the Bali airport. This was around the time of the Lunar New Year.

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The experience of arriving in Jakarta’s Soekarno airport was unreal.  As much as we have a foot each in two different cultures, most of our lives has been lived in the U.S. We’re not used to hoards of people pushing and shoving and shouting at each other in a different language. But first we had to find our Uber driver amongst the chaos.

As we exited the airport, we headed for the parking lot where Uber drivers pick up (I was given this tip by an Indonesian acquaintance who lives in Jakarta). The kids and I thought Tig was joking when he announced that the license plate we were looking for was AB 1234 TIG (I made up the first handful of digits). But it really was serendipity that the last three digits really were TIG.

Once we arrived at our friends’ apartment, we began to experience expat life. A lot of it revolved around malls. (Outdoor green spaces and playgrounds are limited, and even if they existed, traffic and road conditions made it difficult for kids to get there.) I jokingly called it leaving the Districts and playing around in the Capitol.

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One of the places we visited was KidZania, a fictional world where kids get to perform jobs mimicking the “real world” and earn fictional money. You get there by going to the ticket counter, which resembles an airline ticketing station.

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First stop is at the bank to get some money. Then you’re dropped into a miniature city. It was certainly an interesting if not deafening experience. It would have been more enjoyable if there wasn’t loud music, honking cars and a marching band all going at it simultaneously.

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The kids got to fly an airplane, participate in secret agent training, and work at a car shop…

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and climb buildings–is that a rescue mission?

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There’s Houbii, the urban adventure park with a ninja-warrior-esque course.

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Some of the indoor spaces were a bit absurd, such as this garden installation in the mall. But, as it was explained to me, outdoor green spaces are rare in the city.

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Because our main goal was to spend time with friends–and one of us was down a good portion of time with Bali belly– we didn’t get to explore Kota Tua (Old City) Jakarta. We simply had a different agenda for this leg of the trip. Our kids had a great time socializing with the kids: Spoony, Dot and Kiwi (not their real names). We experienced a slice of what it was like to have a cook, driver and nanny. It’s a far cry from our simple existence in Maine, but I didn’t mind sampling the well-staffed life once.

First day of school

On a side note, since we arrived, Dot had been campaigning to have V and O come to school with her. Ever the little munchkin mayor, she even cleared it with her principal (and was confirmed by her dad). While we are happy with our homeschooling, both Tig and I wanted the kids to have an opportunity to try different things. Dot attended a very sweet and small Montessori school, so we gently encouraged them to give it a try. Both agreed, however, O developed a slight fever the night before, so only V ended up attending.

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V and Dot, ready for the day.

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First day of school.

I asked V what she thought of school later. She shrugged and said it was okay, but there was a lot of sitting and she preferred homeschooling.

The last 10%

As for me, I got to spend some quality time with my old college friend J. We went to a spa for a massage, shopped for batik fabric, ate yummy food, and just talked and talked. Given that we’ve long graduated college and live on the opposite sides of the earth now, I’m deeply cognizant that this is probably the last 10% of our time together, which makes it all that much more precious.

 

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West Bali National Park

West Bali National Park (Taman Nasional Bali Barat) is a ferry ride away from Labuan Lalang. We left our rental car there at the mercy of the long-tailed macaques, and boarded the boat.

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We stayed at the Nusa Bay resort within the National Park. It was quite spendy for us, but we really wanted to see some of the wildlife there. The first night, there was only one other guest. The second night, we were the only ones there (except the staff). It felt like our own private jungle. The staff were very friendly, they were hoping that we would sign up for “activities.” But we just wanted to snorkel and walk around.

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Unfortunately, our hiking range was limited. Still, we got to see the wild deer (javan rusa in Indonesian or menjangan in Balinese), some long-tailed macaques, and the ebony langur.

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Budding nature photographer

During this whole trip, V has been diligently clicking away with her own camera (an old Nikon Coolpix we got a a garage sale a few years ago). We thought this would be a great time to show off some of her pics.

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See the bird on the deer’s head?

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Ebony langur troop.

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Just hanging out.

Thank you to V for sharing her pictures. We enjoyed our two nights, then it was time to go.

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But what about socialization? (Sarcasm ahead)

It’s clear that these homeschooled kids don’t know how to relate to other children.

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Especially children from other cultures. How are they going to make it in this global world?

Where are they going to learn inter-personal skills?

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And how are they going to learn mature behavior if they’re not hanging out with kids of their own exact age?

Alright, done with the snarkiness; back to our regular programming…

I told V today, “Some people think that kids can only learn how to make friends in school.” She gave me this look as if I had sprouted two heads and told me that was ridiculous. I don’t want to give the wrong impression that our children are super outgoing social butterflies. The truth is, they are a bit shy. And yes, they are a little quirky (most of us are). But they are open to forming friendships with other children, which leads us to…

So we met this other traveling family

In Pemuteran one morning, Tig and O went for a walk to get a few things. When they came back, Tig reported that he had seen a girl doing homework at a cafe in the homestay across the street from us. “I think they might be long-term travelers,” he said. Later, we decided to walk over and introduce ourselves.

It turns out, this family is from Europe (I won’t disclose where to protect their privacy). They have three children, a teen, and two pre-teens. They’ve been semi-nomads for over a decade–they spend half a year in their home country and half a year traveling.

We invited their two younger kids over to our homestay for a swim in the pool. It was a lot of fun for our kids and they got along well. So we did what ex-cruisers do, we offered to take them to the turtle rehabilitation center down the road. Amazingly enough, their mom agreed! At that point, we felt like we had met kindred spirits.

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The kids got a chance to feed the turtles, and learn about the project.

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Later we had dinner together. The kiddos got their own table, and the adults got a chance to have a conversation. We learned about their Amazon FBA business and how they make it work as digital nomads. For a moment, we felt like cruisers again.

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And the kids got to socialize.

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Homeschooling while traveling

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I was talking to a Taiwanese-Australian mom at the pool recently. When she heard how long we were in Bali, she asked what we did for school. The topic of homeschooling is far too weighty a topic to discuss casually—and I find it even more challenging to address the issues around being an Asian-American family that homeschools (try Googling it, the interwebs is very thin in that department). I’ll save that for another day.

Every family is different

When we’re traveling, homeschooling looks like ~80% life learning and ~20% structured learning. I know some families do more, and some others do less. After talking to many homeschool families, reading homeschool blogs and books, this is what I know:

  • There is no “right” way to homeschool
  • Every family need to figure out what works best for their children
  • It’s important part that both partners are on the same page (in families where there are two caregivers)

The Epic Education Podcast is a wealth of resources, including interviews with many different families on how they deal with education while traveling, whether by boat, RV or backpacking. Behan Gifford at Sailing Totem recently put together a blogroll of cruisers and their boatschooling perspectives.

The 80/20

V and O are 8 and 6 respectively; that translates to Grades 2 and Kindergarten. At home we have a bit more structured homeschooling, but when we travel, it’s mostly about the school of life. In fact, since we’ve had kids, Tig has had an unstoppable desire to show them the world. He is the driving force behind our travels and a big proponent of life learning.

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Map work

Our 80% consists of learning about Bali geography, speaking a little bit of Bahasa Indonesian, tasting new foods, seeing animals and wildlife (monkeys, geckos, chickens, frogs, toads). We brought field guides for Southeast Asian birds and animals. We visit temples, learn about the culture, clothing, and offerings. They swim an awful lot. They watch us bargain. They study the currency and do some basic math adding things up. We look for geocaches. Together, we learn how to make decisions together as a family and try to meet each other’s needs.

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Watching woodcarvers.

Okay, so what do we do?

For the 20% structured learning, we use an eclectic, secular Charlotte-Mason inspired approach. Tig is allergic to labels, but that’s the best way I would describe it. Here are some of the things we do:

Reading practice. V did a ton of work on reading before she left, so this trip, we’ve downloaded a bunch of e-books to our Kindle and let her choose when and where to read. V sometimes reads to O at bedtime.

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A few math problems to keep their muscles warmed up. We use a math workbook that sv Serenade gave us in the Bahamas. It’s called SchoolZone Addition and Subtraction Grades 1-2.  Prior to leaving for our trip, we (V and I) had worked through Life of Fred elementary books Apples, Butterflies, and Cats. For O we read through Level 1 of the MathStart picture books and half of the Level 2 books–mostly to introduce mathematical concepts. So we’re mostly in maintenance mode for math.

We have a Sodoku app that the kids like, mostly to keep them playing with numbers. They also like to play chess on the iPad, and we have a set of tanagrams.

Story of the World Volume 1 Audio (Ancient History). I chose this resource because V is really interested in history and Jim Weiss does a wonderful job of storytelling. I supplement SOTW with Jim Weiss’ audio stories like Egyptian Treasures and Greek Myths. I often ask the kids to narrate back what they’ve heard, which is a Charlotte Mason Method.

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Read-alouds classics. I love children’s literature, and homeschooling has given me the opportunity to re-visit old classics that I loved as a kid, and explore new ones I never got to read. We (I) usually read aloud during breakfast or at bedtime. So far we’ve read through the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. We’re now finishing up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We also have many audio stories on the iPad for long car rides and flights.

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Copy work to work on writing skills, punctuation, and spelling. I usually pick a sentence from our read-alouds, something that delights her. V has expressed interest in learning cursive writing, so we’ll be working on that, too.

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O doesn’t really do much, he’s only six, and we’re firmly against the earlier! faster! more! tiger-mom-approach. I did bring some easy math worksheets from The BrainQuest Grade 1 workbook to keep him busy while V’s working. He listens to the same audio and read-alouds and joins in the narration.

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Doodling

That’s it. If our trip were longer, I’d plan some more things to do. For now, I think the minimum effective dose works great for younger ages. As they grow older, we will probably add more to their structured learning. V so far enjoys her work, she’s interested and engaged. That’s all I could ask for.

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