Some thoughts in Bali

It’s a long time since my last post: I was busy in exploring several beaches (Gili Trawangan, Gili Air), chilling out (Ubud), snorkeling/diving (Tulamben), smartphone gaming (Plague Inc: being a virus and destroying humanity has never been so much fun), doing nothing (“il dolce far niente” to keep the real expression, in Italian), but finally I’m inspired again to fulfill my goal to blog something during my sabbatical trip in Southeast Asia…

Here I am, still in Bali and not by coincidence: it’s the island of the Gods! So of course I had to stay longer here.

I didn’t hike any mountain or volcano, but I’ve seen plenty of things (mostly temples, island, beaches and last but not least the treasures hidden in the ocean, underwater) and enjoyed my time, even with simple things.

Snorkeling and diving was the best I could enjoy here and I’m so happy to get rid of my fear of the water, finally!

I remember that in 2011, before saying “yes” to the diving offer I got in Ko Phangan and doing the open water course in Ko Tao, I was not used to go in the water and not even used to stay to the beach. I was the kind of guy “naaa, I prefer mountains than sea”. In reality I was afraid of the water and that way just a lame excuse to stay away from it.

I’m so happy to have begun a journey to fight a fear and transform it into a pleasure. It took 2 years, but the result is amazing. Now, not only I can dive and do snorkeling without a life west (before this trip I could do snorkeling only with a life west): I can even swim in the sea without fins and without mask (having sensitive eyes I still prefer to wear a mask, but also without it’s ok). I’m really proud of it.

Still I’m not a good swimmer (probably it’s a good idea to put in my to-do list to improve my technique and my skills) and I have my respect for the water. But one thing is sure: after beginning to dive a new world opened up to me.

Photo of me diving with my girlfriend

Diving is -for me- like being an astronaut and at the same time living inside of a dream -an aquarium in the space- but it’s real and all laws about physics apply. Typically, scary fishes like sharks become, once you are a diver, trophies you are looking for. Diving let you change perspective and learn new things about the world and about yourself.

And the dive talks. I was thinking it’s just for diving aficionados, but I finally heard the first diving story from a dive master in Tulamben, about an accident. I heard that story just after witnessing a dive accident with my own eyes. It happened in my group, during a night dive: a guy –who already had a bit of flu- lost consciousness for a second. Worried, he ascended. Instead of stopping diving, he descended again. He got some problems equalizing, so he ascended again, to be rescued, all of this after a series of “unlimited dives” for several days. He got a narcosis (too much nitrogen). Nothing too critical, but it was painful and he had to get oxygen and stop diving for a day. Scary, but interesting at the same time.

Still, diving is fun and I’m looking forward for my next 2 dives tomorrow, in Menjangan. And watching the dolphins in the ocean (I’m in Lovina mainly for this purpose).

Renting a scooter in Sanur, Bali

Today I decided to rent a scooter.

Before going into the details I can only say one thing: driving rules here are quite flexible but to sum up, there is only one rule: survive! It’s like a jungle… I had my eyes open but I understood why there are so many accidents, the driving is quite aggressive here.

About legal: be sure to have your international driving license and your original driving license with you. Wear an helmet and drive safely. In case a cop will stop you and find some irregularity to the vehicle I was told that it’s possible to find an unofficial way out: pay 50k.

Scooter costs

Yesterday a guy from the street offered me 80k/day.

A tourist I crossed before told me he got a scooter for 2 months, for 25k/day.

I found a guy near my hostel, he wanted 100k/day, I tried to bargain to 70k, he said 90k. I said another guy offered me 80k so in the end he accepted…

I got a nice black scooter. The guy told me to put Premium Fuel and explained where to find a petrol station 1km away.

At the petrol station, however, the premium fuel was finished. They guys didn’t really speak English, they asked me if I wanted the normal fuel. I said no, so then I went on and on on the same road, and finally decided to just buy some gasoline from the bottle, like in Thailand.

1 bottle (1 liter) costed 7k. I found another petrol station and bought 1.5 liters of premium for 10k. I have the feeling that premium is better.

What else, this was just the beginning. The real adventure begins tomorrow, during the day. Driving in the night was just to warm up… Stay tuned.

Bali tour from Senur

Yesterday I received a voucher for a free island tour in exchange of my time spent at Club Bali’s timeshare presentation (should have been 90 minutes, it was more than 180 minutes!). Pickup time was today at 10:00.

The driver arrived at around 10:10. Very friendly person and very good first impression.

Heading to Bedugul, I asked the driver to stop for a photo:

At Bedugul, we stopped for another photo and we bought some bananas:

We proceeded to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, quite a beautiful attraction (admission fee: 30k rp/person):

We had lunch in the nearby, in one of the little street warung after the curve, 500m/1km before the market (actually the market would have been a better place with more choices). We just had a soup with noodles and chicken. It was ok. I added some chilli and ketchup, as the driver told me that the locals usually eat it like that. My mouth was burning but it was worth trying it :-)

After lunch, we were brought to a coffee/cacao/tea plantation, a lady showed us the different plants, the procedure to make coffee and finally to a degustation of several coffees and teas, most of them containing already sugar. I loved it! We also tried a cup of the special Bali coffee luwak. The degustation was free, but a cup of Kopi Luwak costed 50k RP (5 USD)! It was like a turkish coffee, meaning you should not mix it with the spoon, but you need to wait that the coffee powder goes down. I didn’t add sugar and tasted it pure, as the lady suggested. It had really a unique flavour, compared to the standard Bali coffee (I tried also that one). After the degustation, we went to the shop and bought a pack of coffee ginseng, lemon grass tea, red rice tea, saffron tea and another one. In total we spent 250k + 50k RP = 300k RP. I think it was really worth it!

We went to our final destination: Tanah Lot. The entrance fee was 65k RP for 2 (including parking). I think it was not so special compared to Uluwatu temple. It was full of tourists and if you go there for the sunset, make sure that there aren’t too many clouds… for us it was cloudy. Anyway, there are lot of shopping places there and the prices are better than in the city. So if you happen there, buy something to maximize the investment for the entrance fee. We bought some shorts and a souvenir.

The driver answered all our questions, showing great knowledge of Bali. He suggested to stay a few days in Ubud for a difference -less touristy- experience. We will probably follow his suggestion.

It was a great day! I’m happy I was a yes man and accepted to participate to a boring presentation in exchange of this tour for free (which would have costed, only for the driver, something around 400k – 600k RP I estimate). Life is good!

90 minutes presentation and you get a free voucher for an activity

This is my story, victim of a tourist trap. I’m not telling it’s a scam, but the selling techniques (to sign a contract for 20 years) are very annoying and similar to brainwashing. Read on to get more details.

Yesterday I was approached by a travel agent when walking near Danau Tamblingan Street No. 80, Sanur, Denpasar (Bali). He checked me and my girlfriend and told us we could fit for a special promotion for a new hotel. He said we would just have to attend a 90 minutes presentation about the new hotel and that if we liked it we could eventually be guest at that hotel next time in Bali. So we would not be required to buy anything and, after the presentation, we would get a free voucher for an activity such as jet ski, river rafting, tour in Bali etc. (see picture).

I though “ok, what do we have to loose? Let’s go, 90 minutes of my time is not that much!”. The guy was very polite, he put emphasis on the fact that we would get an activity for free and even a free massage when they would show us around the hotel, and even stay there for dinner if we wanted, and a driver would bring us back when we want, also in the evening.

So, we agreed to be picked up at 09:00 at our home stay, the same travel agent picked us up and he was even so polite to bring our bags to a new home stay in the nearby, as our was fully booked and had to check out.

We arrived at Club Bali around 09:40, were brought upstairs in the presentation room, and were welcomed with a coffee and some pastisery.

A nice lady just begun the presentation first with some classic small talk at 09:50, she asked were we stay, were we went etc. so far everything ok. We could tell our story, just to relax, you know.

The small talk went on and on, so I begun to wonder “what’s up here”? Finally we were introduced to the concept of timeshare, something I’ve never heard of before (and it was not even presented as “timeshare”, I just found it by googling around).

As I understood it, the system works like that: I -obviously- pay a yearly fee (wait, she would explain how much only later…) and get some points (2640/year) I could exchange for a nice room in a 3-5 star hotel part of the club. A room for 1 week would cost 1320 points/week. So far, quite cool, isn’t it? Wait, besides the point I would still need to pay an administrative fee of 315 USD/week for hotels in the RCI system, besides the points. So, if I would go to vacation for 2 weeks, I would need to pay 630 USD. But, as I would be member from Bali, I would pay only 45 USD/week for a hotel part of BCWW (Bali Club World Wide). This, just for the accomodation. No food, no breakfast included.

If I would not use the points one year, I could accumulate them for maximum 3 years. Then I would lose them or be able to spend them only at the “mother” hotel, which in this case it would be Jayakarta Bali. A room would cost always the same price (in points), “that’s one of the advantages, you know, for the inflation…” I was shown a nice graph, that a hotel room that now costs 130 USD would cost 1’300 USD in 10 years, because of the inflation… really? Bullshit. I’m pretty sure that the prices go up, but not that much!

I was told I could even sell my stay, for example for an apartment with 2 rooms I could subrent one room to a friend, or even send a friend to vacation with my points. There are thousands of “happy members” of the system, worldwide.

At this point, if I remember well (maybe before) my girlfriend and I were brought to Jayakarta hotel, to see a nice apartment with kitchen and 2 rooms, jacuzzi and nice view. She told us we could expect such a standard from the club. Then she brought us downstairs to see the facilities: fantastic swimming pool with luxury restaurants, and this just a few meters from the beach. Wow, so cool, never seen something like this! (Just kidding of course…). We were both exhausted and the heat during the walk near the beach almost killed us. Thank God we didn’t drink any alcoholic beverages (we were even offered to drink a beer if we wanted).

Anyway, while listening to the presentation I had some quality toilet time, where I could check some reviews about the system and more precisely about RCI, as BCWW is relatively “new”. Check some reviews about RCI:

So, after scrolling these 2 pages for a couple of seconds I understood that I would for sure need to check more about this, before signing for anything (also many reviewers suggest NOT to sign anything).

At around 12:30 I was almost convinced that the system is actually quite cool, till I was “promised” that the yearly “fee” (wait, the senior guy -yes, the lady needed some support for my “interesting questions”- corrected me and said it’s “maintenance costs”) of 630 USD would not be increased too much… say -with the inflation- the maintenance costs would not increase more than 5%. Really? You tell me that the advantage is that the cost is always the same now and also in 10 years (to fight the inflation) but you increase the yearly fee during the years? Are you kidding me?

Additionally, I asked if it’s written somewhere in the contract that the maintenance costs would NOT increase more than 5% (per year). He said me “no, but I promise you it would not happen”.

Sorry, but a serious company writes every single details in the contract, no verbal promise, everything must be written.

In the end I said I would not sign anything, but read the contract carefully, in my room, and sleep over it before deciding for anything.

I was told I could not get the contract with me (rules by club bali) but I could stay there and read it more if I needed (and ask all the questions I wanted).

I was already pissed off enough, and quite tired of the time and brain consuming -brainwashing- presentation and didn’t want to start any argument or start accusing them of anything, as I already knew they would try to change my mind or giving me the answers to every accusation (they are trained for this).

So, I clearly said I would not sign for anything and I would eventually come back another day, if interested.

I was told that if we would go back we would not have the same benefits as during this presentation (to make more drama, the senior even went in the backstage to ask his boss…). I said “ok, I take the risk”. Lol, really you want to play that card with me? No, no and again no!

At around 13:10 I could get my freedom back. Nice shake of hands, no hard feelings and I could get my voucher for a free activity validated. Wait, I asked about the free massage. They told “which free massage?”. The one the travel agent mentioned me… apparently, if I wanted that I had to ask it during the visit of Jayakarta hotel… really cool, isn’s it?

Conclusion: 90 minutes my ass, the presentation (brainwashing) lasted 3 hours, almost 3 hours and a half, which is more than the double. This, without including the driving time from the hotel to Club Bali. A private driver costs around 600’000 RP, which is about 50 USD. My time is not an issue as I’m taking it really easy, but if 5 hours of your time have more value than 50 USD, do not attend this presentation. Pay for an activity and save yourself from this kind of brainwashing.

Tomorrow: pick up time for “Bali tour” at 10:00. Hopefully they won’t try to brainwash me again during the tour… keep the fingers crossed ;-)

If you don’t read anything anymore, in 2 days, begin to worry…

Langkawi memories

Langkawi -compared to Koh Lanta- is more developed, roads are better, the main difference is marked by the religion: I could see mosques everywhere, as well as kebab places. Note, kebab is not as we know it in Europe…

I booked a place (the cheapest I could find: Kuala Melaka Inn, a twin room) near the airport. I read that Cenang Beach is located South West, as the airport. In my research I didn’t see that Cenang Beach is only 2km long and located much Souther (about 10 minutes driving) than the hotel. So the location we got is quite bad, actually. No problem, I rented a scooter from a hotel 1 km away North, in a village with not many facilities. Interesting -comparing to Thailand- I had to fill no form. The staff at the hotel asked just my international driving license -which they copied- and I paid 40 RM cash. No receed. After a phone call, a guy arrived within 5 minutes on the scooter, followed by a fellow. He gave me the keys, 2 helmets and his visit card. He told me to call him if I needed to extend, he would make a better price than the one from the hotel: 40 RM. I told him that that’s the price I got from the hotel, so we agreed on 30 RM. Always bargain! :)

As we had a room in the middle of nowhere, I was forced to find options in order to have some fun (walking 1 hour to the beach, on car roads without pavement is not fun). We already scouted the entire island by scooter. I have the impression that there is not that much to see, besides a few attractions, but it was quite fun to ride a bike again. I like the metallic noise of the engine. Old but good scooter, 125 cc.

Attractions:

  • Oriental Village, cable car to the panorama view
  • Seven Wells (water falls and to the top, after the so called 600 steps, where the water falls are generated. Nice to have a bath there)
  • Night markets to enjoy some street and food

Cenang Beach:

  • good for shopping
  • good food, in particular we found an Indian hawker stall/restaurant at the beginning, North Cenang Beach. I love roti canai and tandoori chicken!

Phuket memories

Bus in Patong with some scooters escorting it. Instagram @firepol

Arrival in Phuket: everything fine till we had to organize the transport. The minivan we got was a typical tourist “trap”. It stopped before the destination, to a travel agent. We were about 9 people and 2 were interested in a tour or in a booking. We all had to wait before going on to Phuket. This resulted in arriving late at the guesthouse, the owner was not there and I had to call, with roaming costs (that’s why, buy a local sim card when you arrive in a new country).

I was impressed by the traffic just before and while in Patong. Many vehicles. Too many. I was also impressed by the disgusting smell of sewer in different occasions when walking the main road.

Anyway, some positive things about Patong:

  • many places to find street food / hawker stalls
  • good shopping places (cheaper than anywhere else in Thailand, e.g. some Billabong shorts for 150 baht, elsewhere -Khao Lak, Koh Tao etc.- I saw the same for 450 baht and could not bargain down to 150)
  • many dive centers (but they are more expensive than in Koh Tao)
  • interesting night life: if you like to party, this is the place to be
  • many motorbike rentals (a must to explore the island at a cheap price): be careful and take photos of the vehicle before renting it, some cheasters try to charge tourists for scratches that were already there

Negative points (for me):

  • if you don’t like to party, this place will get on your nerves soon
  • the traffic sucks in general in Phuket, not only in Patong
  • noisy party animals in the hostels / guesthouses. If you are looking for sleep quality, try a hotel!

We stayed in Patong for 6 nights. We escaped from Phuket after (highlight) doing some diving.

Phuket temples. Flickr set @firepol

 

Phuket views. Flickr set @firepol

Good memories:

  • Open Water Diver certification for Nastya (congratulations!)
  • 2 diving daytrips for me
  • Good and cheap street food
  • Nice island tour with a private driver (very expensive -1800 baht- compared to renting a motorbike for about 250 baht/day…)

Escaping Bangkok, heading to Phuket

Bangkok, police block (seen during shuttle transfer to Don Muang airport). Instagram @firepol

During Christmas Eve I saw some news about the protests in Bangkok and thought “oh shit”. Yes, because I initially planned to stay 5 nights in the big city, as the flight I booked was for Bangkok. Luckily, the hotel booking I did was via hrs.de, which often offers a cancelation of the booking with full refund. The deadline to cancel was the end of the year (3 days before arrival). I canceled a few days before, and booked a flight to Phuket. I thought, let’s go to the beaches and nice water instead of staying in the smog and risk some slowdowns because of protests…

…of course, reading the news after my decision, I saw that I missed something. I missed Bangkok. Well, I was there already, with one of my best friends. It was fun. I think I’ll head to Bangkok in the future, if the situation will become stable. For now I keep my itinerary quite flexible.

What to say about Bangkok, not that much besides the fact I did a mistake by not buying a sim card directly at the airport (it would have saved me time and money later during the same day when I arrived at the guest house in Patong and nobody was there for the checkin…).

Besides that, everything worked smoothly, the free shuttle transfer from the main airport to Don Muang was punctual and worked perfectly.

Paolo and Nastya’s adventure in Southeast Asia

I started this blog thinking that I would post some news about my journey with my lovely girlfriend Anastasija (Nastya).

I was partially wrong… the trip started on January 2nd (and will finish on March 26th, 2014) and the only news I posted so far are the “serious” ones. With serious I mean the post about withdrawing money without banking fees abroad, and the post about getting a prepaid sim card with plenty of Internet data in Thailand.

It’s never too late to post some news. So here I am. I will try not to write too much, first because I think that nobody cares to read long posts, second because I have no time to write long essays ;)

So here I am, sitting on a couch in the lobby of Kuala Melaka Inn, Langkawi island, Malaysia, writing my first personal post.

I will write the past news about our trip in Thailand later on.

Mood: relaxed (there is not that much to do, that’s why I am motivated to blog a bit).

Thai Happy Tourist prepaid Sim card

When you land at the airport, I recommend buying directly the dTac Happy Tourist SIM card for 299 Baht. You will get 100 Baht credit for phone calls and sms and 1gb of data at 42 Mbps for 7 days.

I’m using Google maps and when I arrived at the hostel in the night, the lady was not there for the checkin and I had to call with my swiss number and pay a high roaming just for a 1 minute conversation.

Wish I had the dTac sim card already… So if you need connectivity, go for it.
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Important: to activate Internet follow these instructions (you must download the settings and install them in your phone, if asked, the code is 1800 as you may have seen in the messages)

Withdraw money at the airport

When you land in Bangkok, just after the passport control you will be able to withdraw money with your VISA credit card (see my post about the DB credit card: I just got 20’000 Baht and no DKB fees. Only 150 Baht for the ATM).

Don’t lose time as I did, looking for an international bank to avoid the 150 Baht fee. I asked and a guy at the airport told me that there is no ATM without fees, at the airport. In the city you may find the AEON bank or other international banks, but not at the airport.

So, if you need money, just go to the first ATM you find and withdraw 15’000 Baht or 20’000 or entering your custom amount and that’s it.

Update: I kept all the reseeds for all the withdrawals (I took a picture with the phone) and at the end of the trip I sent an e-mail to DKB. DKB refunded me all the ATM fees. The DKB-Cash Visa credit card is just awesome!