Amed, a first encounter to the Balinese serenity

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I wanted to escape the freezing, dark January-colored landscapes in Finland and headed to the Indonesian island Bali. It was my first time in Indonesia. I had heard and read a lot about the island before my trip and I wanted to experience as much as possible during my 10-day vacation. For this reason I decided to skip the tourist traps in Sanur, hoping to avoid the littered beaches and noisy nightclubs. Instead I started my stay in peaceful Amed in eastern Bali. January seemed to be a good time to travel to Bali, at least the eastern parts, because at times it felt like we were the only tourists on the island. Granted, it’s rain season. And sure enough it rained almost every day, but mostly it was just heavy showers that passed so you could wait them out. A few days we had more rain, but I can’t say it bothered us at any time. Mostly the rain brought a welcome breeze of fresh air. The landscape was so luscious and green, I wouldn’t trade that for endless dry sunshine. The temperature was around 33° during day and 28° during night, the water temperature in the ocean about 27°. Not too shabby!

Upon arrival in Denpasar, our driver greeted us in what seemed to be a budget version of an already cheapish Toyota, decorated with animal-print plush for an extra classy look. Amed is located about 70 kms from the airport in Denpasar, and to my surprise our driver told us this would mean a 3-hour drive. Luckily, we pulled up to our hotel after a bumpy two-ish-hour drive, including a quick stop to fill up. (I must admit, never before has a rooster walked up to me at a gas station.) It was raining hard and the narrow, winding roads made the trip feel even longer. Arriving at the hotel around 9.30 pm we were hungry and tired, so we didn’t have the energy to do more than eat a late supper and go right to sleep.

The following morning I woke up well-rested to the sound of crowing roosters in our pleasantly cool room. When I opened up the typical Balinese double doors to our porch, a wonderful view of Torajan architecture, palm trees and turquoise sea opened up and stepping out I was greeted by a wall of hot, humid air. To my delight, the hotel staff had brought a tray with hot coffee (in a thermos) to the porch of our Tongkonan (traditional ancestral house with a distinguishing boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof). It’s hard to put that feeling into words; the landscapes, the temperature, the rising sun, the sounds of nature waking up, no obligations, no schedule, no musts.

Amed is a small town with limited activities, but nevertheless it offered me just what I sought at the time: sun, pool, gorgeous snorkeling, massages and other treatments and quality-time with my hubby. Granted, I am not the lay-in-the-sun-for-days-with-no-agenda kind of gal, and the bigger city Ubud was a welcome urban breeze at the end of our vacation. However, after months of cold, wet darkness, Amed seemed like paradise. But don’t expect a lively nightlife with a lot of bars and restaurants, relaxation and well-being are key in Amed.

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There are a lot of different hotel options for everyone in Amed. We stayed at Santai Bali, which is by no means a five-star resort, but a great budget option for modest needs. The staff was extremely friendly and their english was okay. Santai is indonesian for “relax”, and relaxation is exactly what the hotel offers. With just 10 bungalows, it’s a small hotel. At the beginning of our stay, we were the only guests and could enjoy the facilities all by ourselves. This was of course nice, but when other guests eventually arrived, it was hard to share the rainforest-like garden and refreshing pool with others. What I found a bit peculiar were the toilets. There was a roof, but it didn’t go all the way. So one day in the shower, I had a curious lizard watching me clean away the sand and saltwater from all the snorkeling. Creepy. There was a separate spa section where we enjoyed several treatments, among others a couple’s massage. I also tried a pedicure, facial and hair/scalp treatment. The massage was great, but frankly the other treatments left some to be desired.

Most nights and days we ate at the hotel, mostly because we were too lazy to search other options. There were some restaurants nearby, mainly other hotels, but it was convenient to just pull a dress over the bathing suit and go for lunch. The food at Santai Bali was ok, nice but nothing out of the ordinary. They offer a selection of indonesian dishes but also burgers and pizza. My favorite was the nasi goreng (fried rice) with seafood. At no point did we have any problems food-wise during our vacation in Indonesia, our bowels handled the trip just fine (I was a bit nervous at first). We tried the best ranked restaurant in Amed according to Tripadvisor, Galanga, and I loved it. It’s a sort of Indonesian-western fusion solution. Fresh flavors and kind, fast service. The hyped artisan coconut ice cream really is all that. Don’t miss it if you go to Amed! As for drinks, beer is fairly cheap even at hotels, around 2,5 euros for 0,5 liters. But wine-lovers beware, wine is expensive and to my experience not that good, at least not the house wines. There is a good selection of cocktails and of course mocktails and smoothies that are really worth a try.

As I mentioned, there’s is not much to do in Amed and a party destination it is not. For many, the main reason to travel here are the numerous shipwrecks haunting the seabed, which make Amed an interesting destination for snorkeling and diving. Located right by the ocean, the beautiful coral reef is literally just a stone’s throw away from Santai Bali. And I must say, wow! Snorkeling here was like swimming in an aquarium. All the exotic fish and mesmerizing colors… it’s no wonder Cousteau dreamed of underwater colonization. The beach in itself is dark and stony, so don’t expect long, white, sandy beaches. Swimming shoes are a must. But allegedly black sand makes for better snorkeling conditions, as it’s heavier and sets faster.  If you go a bit further down to the village there are great snorkeling and diving possibilities. The Japanese shipwreck site (a sunken wreck of a Japanese patrol ship sunk during the world war II) is at walking distance or a short drive from the hotel. Close by also lies the remains of the USS Liberty, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II. You can rent snorkeling equipment literally everywhere and there are a lot of diving courses in various languages.

You could rent scooters to get around, but we decided to walk and get a car+driver, because boy the traffic was, well, exciting at times! We went for a eastern Bali roundtrip through some authentic parts of the island, to a water palace and a local supermarket. Some of the houses that the people actually lived in wouldn’t even classify as sheds back home. But they seemed content, taking care of their daily chores. The roads through the local “jungle” were narrow and full of different obstacles. There were roosters and hens everywhere. At some places the road was almost cut off by a waterfall of some sort and next to the road in the water people would wash their motorbikes or cows and what not. I also met a cow on the beach once, just outside the hotel. It was standing in line to the washing point, waiting for its sibling to finish washing up. Anyways, our driver Jimbo (who also happened to be the brother to an employee at our hotel) skillfully weaved his budget Toyota with malfunctioning AC through the lush greenery and serpentine rocky roads.

After hours of zigzagging through the nature we arrived at what seemed to be a city of some sort. We visited a local market and I almost felt my stomach turn just by looking at the different fruits, vegetables, foods and produce that were sold, most of which I couldn’t even identify. I felt a bit awkward, not only did I not know what they were selling, I was also white-skinned and at least 30 cm taller than everybody. So we wriggled our way to Jimbos Toyota that quickly took us to the local supermarket. It was a normal supermarket with a lot of known global brands, but still so different to what we are used to here in Europe. For example, I wanted to buy some facial cream or body lotion and headed to the large shelf of Nivea and Dove products. But it was a wasted effort, because I didn’t want to cover  my skin in whitening cream, after having waited so long for at least a slight tan. With a new pair of slippers, some peanuts and a bottle of cold water we jumped into Jimbos un-airconditioned Toyota and continued our journey to – well we didn’t know to where at that time. Jimbo asked if he could make a quick stop at a garage and so we pulled up to what seemed to be a decayed old building. Jimbo stopped the car by the road, opened the hood and a few moments later: salvation! Ice cold air poured into the car and I could feel the sweat dripping down my forehead slowly dry. We started our trip back to the hotel. Before we plunged into the refreshing water in the hotel pool, Jimbo stopped at a restaurant where we had lunch and I got the feeling it was a place where a lot of drivers drop off tourists to eat…

On the subject of tourist scams, I got kind of a bad feeling at one place. On our way from Amed to Ubud, we asked Jimbo to make a few stops so we could see more during the trip. We wanted to see coffee plantations and on the way there he took us to this “traditional village”. You were asked to give a 100 000 IDR donation to enter the village where one of the locals guided you. At first I was like “aw, this is really cute”, but slowly my cynical side started taking over. Finally, when our guide explained to us about traditional balinese weaving and took us to a woman preforming said tradition, even the last thread of hope of this actually being authentic disappeared. Her alleged work space was filled with beautiful, exclusive scarfs. The exact same scarfs that I bought at a shady stand in Rome for 5 euros. The exact same scarfs that I saw at the souks in Dubai. The exact same scarfs being paddled in Paris, Istanbul, New York – everywhere I’ve been. I mean, I get it. Tourism is a business. But it still felt bad. And it wasn’t just this village, you saw it a lot on Bali.

On the whole, eastern Bali and Amed is a relaxing get-away for couples seeking some romantic we-time far away from anyone and anything. It’s also ideal for people interested in snorkeling or scuba diving and/or experiencing how the locals really live in the middle of the mountainous nature. However, I don’t think I’d go back there, at least not in the foreseeable future, but it was nice to have experienced it. To be frank, I got a bit bored there (which is why we went for a little excursion to Gili, but I’ll write about that in my next post). I missed the nightlife, and I don’t mean the umts-umts-umts-baby-party-party-yeah, but some nice bars and restaurants where you can snuggle with your beloved and enjoy some good food and drinks. The foodie-part of me was not really satisfied. January was a good time to travel despite the rain season, considering the very few other tourists. The rain didn’t bother me that much and I can imagine that it gets a great deal busier and even more tourist scammy during the peaks.

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Qatar airways and layover in Doha

 

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Taking off from Hamad International Airport, Doha’s skyline in the background.

In November 2016 Qatar airways started a new route between Doha and Helsinki, which opened up a completely new gateway from Finland to the East. This coincided with my plans of an exotic vacation around the end of the year. In addition, the prices were very competitive in comparison to other alternatives. So I booked a trip to Bali, Indonesia with a layover in Doha, Qatar. Qatar Airways has been voted best airline in the world several years and usually ranks among the top 3, so naturally I had high expectations. However, high expectations can be deceitful. You tend to expect too much and then be disappointed on the wrong grounds… I’ll sum up my experience in a pros and cons list as usual.

Checking in at Helsinki airport was so-so. There were no check-in machines, which meant that although you complete the check-in process online, you still have to wait for the check-in counter to open to drop your luggage off. Since there is only one Qatar Airways flight per day departing from Helsinki, the ground services are more limited than e.g. Finnair’s. Not living in the Helsinki area, we arrived at the airport in time just in case, thinking we could kill the extra time in an airport lounge. Instead we ended up waiting in the departures hall to get our bags checked in.

The plane between Helsinki and Doha was your standard Airbus 320-100 with rows of 3+3 seats. I was a bit disappointed that there was a bus transportation from the terminal to the aircraft, instead of gate departure. Same thing in Doha. The aircraft between Doha and Denpasar was bigger, a Boeing 777-300 with rows of 3+4+3 seats. We had the aisle and middle seats on the latter flight and window + middle on the former. Both aircrafts were modern with onboard entertainment systems with touch screen in each seat and wifi onboard. The return flight to Doha was operated by an Airbus 330-300 with less leg room, no wifi, and a remote control-operated entertainment system.

The service on board was friendly and efficient, and the selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages was excellent. For example you could choose from two different brands of beer (Fosters and Heineken), both complimentary. Snacks and hot meals were served regularly and you could choose between three different hot meals; white meat, red meat or vegetarian. On other airlines you usually you just get two choices, tops. With every meal the flight attendant also asked you to lift your seat as a courtesy to the person sitting behind you, even if you were sleeping. I think this is a nice gesture, it is crammed enough as it is, even without the eating part. I can’t say the food was good, but it was eatable, even for me (have I mentioned I’m squeamish about food?). The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and patiently repeated the meal choices when I had a hard time understanding through the accent in my blurry post-nap state. (Oh, and a little protip: I like to cut the bun in half and then heat it up on the lid of the steaming hot meal before removing the lid to improve the experience a bit.)

The onboard entertainment was somewhat slow at occasions, in particular on the aircraft that hadn’t been updated to touch screens. The selection was okay, it could have been better but I was sufficiently entertained during my 2x (7+9) hour flights. You could choose between new releases and old classics, and even audiobooks which I liked (although the the selection audiobooks was a bit narrow). You could even read/listen to the Koran if you felt the urge and naturally there was a wide selection of Middle-East productions. At first I was royally annoyed by the “visit Qatar” commercials that you had to watch through every time you changed movie/series. Seriously, more or less five minutes of commercials – every time. I was a bit less annoyed when I discovered the possibility to fast forward through them, but still not pleased.

There was a USB-outlet for recharging your electronic devices in the back of the seat in front of you. Super! On 3/4 flights there was also wifi onboard. The first 15 minutes was complimentary and if you wanted to surf more you paid 5 dollars per hour or 20 dollars for the entire flight. It worked okay for onboard-wifi, no complaints.

As Icelandair’s safety video that I commended earlier, the Qatar airways safety video starring FC Barcelona also differed from what you’re normally used to seeing. It was fun and creative. I like that airlines are clearly thinking about how to make this, let’s face it, rather boring part of every flight, more attractive. Another thing that I, as a western agnostic, found peculiar was that in addition to showing the direction we were going, the interactive maps also indicated in which direction Mecca was located at all times. And the flight attendant reminded that it is advisable to keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, also when praying.

A big part of the layover experience is the airport. I found Hamad International airport to be modern, clean and logical, making the transit as painless as possible. Everything worked smoothly, the announcements were clear, the toilets clean (however, somewhat crowded) and the gates easy to find. It’s an impressive airport with a lot of interesting aspects. It is allegedly one of the most instagrammed airports in the world; everyone wants to photograph the enormous (in my opinion rather creepy) 6.8 million dollar, 7-metre, 16.000-kg teddy bear in the middle of the departures hall, with a lamp penetrating its head and back (come on, it’s a bit creepy, right?). In general, the spaces were creatively decorated by innovative artwork, some turned into practical solutions, which really was a nice addition to the otherwise sterile airport atmosphere. For example, there was a giant two-storey bronze sculpture that serves as a huge playground for kids. Another pleasant surprise were the outlets integrated in the seats (not all but enough), available for anyone. At no point of the whole layover experience did I have to worry about my phone battery dying, neither onboard the plane or on the ground. The airport also provides iMacs that anyone can use. The atmosphere was surprisingly quiet, relaxing and non-hectic for an airport. A great plus were the “quite rooms”, separate rooms for men and women of course, where you could lay down and doze off between flights.

If I needed to criticize something at the airport, and I’m really reaching now, it would be that when we arrived in the morning the toilet lines were quite long and the prices mainly being indicated in the local currency. I wanted to buy some snacks for the connecting flight and ended up buying a fancy bag of dates, without the slightest idea of how much they would set me back. Yes, I could have used the airport’s complimentary wifi to check the currency rate, but quite frankly, after traveling for x hours I really didn’t care. It turned out the airport rather pricy and the dates set me back more than I would have wanted, but they were good dates.

The flight times were actually quite ideal and the flights took off on time. Our flight departed around 5 pm local time from Helsinki and we landed in Doha around midnight. We had three hours to kill at Hamad International airport before the nine-hour trip to hot and humid Denpasar. We caught some z’s during the flight but we were still quite tired and weary when we started our descent to Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport around 6 pm local time. After a late dinner and a good night’s sleep, we woke up to the crowing roosters at dawn without any jet-lag to speak of.

So my overall experience? Well I can’t disagree, it’s a top class airline. It’s just got that “something extra”, like three hot meal choices – also for breakfast. Great onboard services, functional ground services, excellent onboard entertainment system and generous selection of drinks. And you’re allowed 30 kg checked in luggage. Just don’t fool yourself and expect business class service if you’re flying economy class. If you want an individual seat with business class perks, you’ll need to buy a business class ticket. Hamad International Airport is a modern hub in the Middle-East offering comfortable access to the East from Europe. The airport will exceed your expectations and your layover will be smooth, even though you’d have to spend several hours at the airport between flights. I definitely give the airport two thumbs up!

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Here are some pros and cons based on my experience:

Qatar Airways:

+ onboard services – limited ground services at HEL
+ modern fleet
+ food and drink selection
+ 30 kg luggage allowance
+ flight times
+ affordable tickets
+ modern entertainment system
+ attentive and friendly staff

Hamad International Airport:

+ well-arranged airport – um, crowded toilets?
+ innovative airport solutions
+ relaxing, non-hectic atmosphere
+ quiet rooms
+ complimentay use of iMacs
+ easily accessible power outlets
+ complimentary high-speed wifi

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