The longer I travel, the more I realize just how many variations of backpacker there can really be. There are backpackers who are out to check off the cultural hotspots of each country and quickly move on. There are those who won’t go near a place or activity unless they can be reasonably sure they’ll be the first caucasian to have experienced it. There are backpackers whose sole motivation for travel seems to be a desire to party and vomit their way around the world. And then there are backpackers who take their time, showing up in towns and regions with chilled-out reputations and contenting themselves with prolonged periods of just hanging out. Based on what kind of backpacker you are – or, I suppose, on what kind of backpacker you’re feeling like on any given day – you can pick and choose destinations to suit your style.
There are the Lonely Planet must-sees for the check-list types; the Indonesian islands and remote Borneo villages you’ve probably never heard of for the nitty-gritties; the international party towns where every bar offers wet t-shirt contests and backpacker drink specials for the young of heart and liver. And then, for that last kind of traveler, there are the Padangbais of the world.
Hayley and I decided to go to Padangbai one night in Ubud after a conversation that went approximately like this:
Me: “I’ve heard the Gili Islands are really beautiful.”
Hayley: “All right, let’s go.”
Me (suddenly remembering to pull out my Kindle-edition guidebook for about the third time since purchasing it it): “It says here that you get to the Gilis by ferry from a town called Padangbai. And that the ferry is… 400,000 rupiah. Each way.”
Hayley: “Well that seems a bit much.”
Me (continuing to swipe through my guidebook with the fervor of someone who’s just realized books can actually help you plan things): “But wait! Listen to this: they describe Padangbai as a ‘funky backpacker town’ with ‘laid-back accommodation.’ Is it just me, or does that sound like a nice way of saying ‘cheap’?”
(Did I mention that final backpacker gene that just about each of us has? The “I’ve just spent far too much money in XXX country and need to lay low for a while” element?)
Hayley: “I saw a sign at reception saying you can book a shuttle to Padangbai for 65,000 rupiah.”
Our plan was to head to Padangbai for one night, set out for the Gilis from there if we were feeling up to it (read: if we were feeling fiscally irresponsible), and stay in Padangbai if we weren’t. We booked a hostel that cost us USD $8 per night, crossed our fingers, and hopped into a clown car of a shuttle bus with suitcases pressed up against our ears for the winding drive to Padangbai.
Once we arrived in the little fishing village, I practically tumbled out of the tiny car, thankful to be alive and vowing never again to take transportation smaller than a Bluebird schoolbus. I hefted our backpack onto my shoulders and we trudged around the village in circles, the sun beating down, unable to find our hostel and met with blank stares each time we mentioned its name to the locals.
We eventually found the hostel, of course, hidden down a walled-in residential alleyway full of schoolchildren and stray kittens, up a flight of 70 stairs, tucked above the palm trees like some sort of Balinese Montmartre.
The hostel, in a stroke of incredible, un-earned good luck on our part, turned out to be absolutely stunning, with a breezy terrace, a housekeeper who remembered how I like my coffee in the mornings, and two friendly Brit ex-pat owners. All the place needed, I knew, was a good beach, and I’d be sold.
If you’ll recall, we’d been hoping to see the perfect Bali beach since arriving a few days before, sweaty and dumbfounded, at the beach in Sanur – which looked like this:
Oh, that’s right. I can’t show you what it looked like, because I didn’t bother to take a picture. Suffice to say, the ocean looked a bit like a water-colorist’s brush-rinsing glass, the oil tankers loomed large on the horizon, and every square centimeter of beachfront was filled with luxury-resort sunbathers on hotel-owned deck chairs. So imagine our thrill when, after hiking over a huge hill of rubble and refuse our first day in Padangbai, we finally spied this:
There were waves of different colors. There were sunbathing spots in the sun and cool sandy patches shaded by spindly palm trees. And there were tiny little beach-front warung where we spent about US $2.50 on young coconuts, hacked open and full of juice; vegetable fried noodles dusted with hot chili; and fresh pineapple, sitting on sandy benches as the waves advanced and lapped at our bare toes.
We never did make it to the Gilis. Instead, we stayed three nights in Padangbai, like so many other travelers who are happy to sometimes park it at the gateway to something else. I’ve been told by others since that the Gilis are stunning, tranquil, picturesque and unmissable. And perhaps they are. Perhaps I’ll have to head back to Bali one day and see them. But you know what? I’ll bet the Gilis’ beaches don’t have just as many local kids playing in their tide-pools as they do tourists lounging in the sand. I’ll bet the owners of Gili bars don’t remember you by name, spend their evenings talking to you about everything from Manu Chao to Metallica, and introduce you to the joys and regrets of a local coconut-masquerading-as-ethanol spirit called arak. I’d wager the locals in the Gilis don’t show up at the same pubs as travelers at night – or cheer them on as they jump up to play the bongos with the in-house band. (What?). The Gilis may be worth going back for, sure – but Padangbai was worth staying for.
In fact, we probably could have stayed much longer, but decided in the end to spend our final night in Bali in a town called Kuta. Kuta’s not far from the airport and is an incredibly popular destination, but we’d been trying to avoid it at all costs while in Bali. It wouldn’t be off-base to say Kuta was the opposite of Padangbai: We’d heard it was a destination of choice for that most foreign of traveler, the backpacker with seemingly unlimited funds, energy, and tolerance for liquor. Kuta’s the kind of town where empty bars still turn the bass up to teeth-clattering levels, where convenience store cashiers offer to open your bottles of beer for you so that you can drink them as you walk down the street. We’d heard all of this before going, of course, but needed to be close enough to the airport on our last night to make our 6:30 a.m. flight to Kuala Lumpur the next day. We showed up in Kuta prepared, in all honesty, to find a sort of Cancun-south. What we found instead was a pleasant surprise.
Yes, Kuta is packed with people who look as if they may have attended a high school prom in the not-so-distant past. Sure, its restaurants are overpriced and its bars oversolicitous. OK, there are still 20-year-olds stumbling down the streets with half-empty Bin Tangs at 4:00 in the morning. But there are also chilled-out cafes, clunky old motorbikes with surfboard racks attached to their sides, and a few truly vibrant stretches of beach.
I’d been vaguely interested in Kuta’s beach, actually, since reading that it was a good place for beginning surfers. As you may recall, the few times I’d previously been surfing I’d done a lot of… well, I believe the industry term is “wiping out.” I’d been hoping to improve my meager skills with another lesson in Australia or Bali, but hadn’t managed to nail down the right combination of enough time and enough waves in one place. My online search for surf schools in Kuta had proven pretty fruitless in the days leading up to our arrival, and I’d been ready to call it quits by the time Hayley and I finally got ourselves down to the beach.
But here’s the thing about Bali: at any time, you can pretty much find anyone to sell you just about anything. Manicures on the beach, taxis to the mountains, fake Ray-Bans — all you have to do is walk down the street and someone will offer up whatever it is you haven’t yet realized is even available. As it turns out, this even applies to surf lessons.
As Hayley and I walked down Kuta’s main beach Tuesday afternoon, I was already searching for a good place to lay out my sarong and relax. But then a Sumatran guy next to a group of boards lashed to a palm tree called out to me, “Surf lesson?” and, before I knew it, I was haggling over the price, Velcro-ing a leash to my ankle, and marching out towards the ocean.
Poor Barry – poor, patient Barry – led me out into the waves and taught me how to stand up properly. He grabbed my board and yanked me towards the good waves when my exhausted arms, which haven’t seen a gym in months, wouldn’t take me any further. He did his best not to laugh when I quickly proved incapable of keeping sea water from shooting up my nose. He kept an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going pink in the sun. And he heroically kept me out on the ocean until I started looking less like newborn Bambi on the board and more like this:
Hayley and I celebrated my modest victory with a little Western luxury (OK, McFlurries) and, yes, Bin Tangs walking down the street. Sometimes I guess you’ve just got to embrace the spirit of the place – even if you still end up in bed at 9 pm.