Now if any of you have been thinking “this is all very nice Robyn, but where’s the “flash” part of your flashpacking? This just sounds like slightly more civilised backpacking to me”, then my answer to you would be two-fold. Firstly, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what flashpacking is, to be honest. And secondly: you make a good point. Let’s get a bit flashier, shall we?
Enter Malaysian Airlines. Did you know that they offer us poor cattle-class plebs the opportunity to upgrade our experience without turning up to the airport in high heels and hoping for the best? Instead, you can bid to fly business class. I originally only chose Malaysian because they were so inexpensive: just £200 to fly economy from Tokyo to Bali, a 7 + 3 hour flight with a 6-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. They’re clearly struggling in the aftermath of MH71 and MH370. This bidding gimmick is presumably their way to try and drum up some new custom, and I was happy to bite!
It’s a simple process: buy the economy ticket. Tell them how much extra you’d be willing to shell out to be bumped up to Business. 48 hours before your flight leaves, they tell you if you’ve been successful. I decided it was unlikely I’d ever have the opportunity of flying business again in the near future, so put in the lowest possible bids – £140 overall for the two legs – and I was successful! Ten hours flying in Business Class plus access to the fancy lounges for a grand total of less than £400?! Er yes please!
My plebeian status was immediately obvious when I entered the business lounge with my grubby walking boots and jaw dragging on the ground behind me.
I only wanted somewhere to sit quietly and had my fingers crossed for free wifi. What I discovered was that there are multiple lounges in every airport which I’d never even noticed before, and they are seriously swanky, my friends. Free wifi ain’t the half of it. There aren’t just places to sit, there’s a whole selection. Like what sort of seat? And how high do you want the table? And it wasn’t just a free glass of wine. There was an open bar. An open bar, people! High fives all around!!!
And then I saw the buffet. With really nice food! And people just . . . helping themselves?!? I didn’t want to admit to my total lack of experience by breathlessly asking “is it free?” so hung on the sidelines spying on everyone else and eventually took the plunge. Then I did the only natural thing: piled my plate as high as possible, filled a glass with as much red wine as I could feasibly carry, and rustled everything back to my seat in the corner where I stuffed it into my cheeks like a nervous, fraudulent hamster.
Business class is bloody brilliant.
And when it came to boarding, we got to go on first whilst the economy shmucks had to wait HAHAHAH. And then when I got to the plane I got to turn left – left!!!!! – and the seat had loads of legroom and its own hard plastic shell which meant you could raise and lower it without disturbing the person behind. And it almost lay flat so I could lie on my side to sleep! And not only was I able to choose my meal from about 20 main courses, but it came with a starter and and appetiser, and it was served on real plates!!
I was so determined not to miss out on the experience that I conveniently forgot I about the buffet I had recently demolished.
And after I’d watched a film on my significantly bigger TV, I slept. I actually slept. On a plane.
Oh I’m sure that the business class on Malaysian is probably deeply substandard compared to other international airlines and I could see most people on the plane settling in with a sense of “here we go again” (when they weren’t gazing with distaste upon the hyperactive backpacker who had inexplicably wandered into their midst). Meanwhile I looked like someone had shoved a hanger in my face. It was fantastic. The only fly in the ointment was knowing that I’d have to go back to economy next time; such a fall from grace . . .
In short: if you have the opportunity to fly Malaysian, do it, and make that bid. This is the flashpacking experience I’m talking about!
As such I arrived in Bali feeling remarkably refreshed (and did you know that if you fly business, your bags come off the conveyor belt before the others?! AMAZE). Peter had arrived the previous day and sent instructions: avoid the touts. Head for the drop-off point and find a Bluebird cab, the only Balinese taxi firm of repute.
Even with Peter’s notes, the instant attack of the touts came as a shock after a month of far-east reserve, and the heat hit me like a wall. The calm of the flight vanished pretty quickly as I took a circuitous route and still failed to lose a particularly dogged driver who only peeled off when he realised my intention and was left muttering as I headed triumphantly for a Bluebird taxi. Then I discovered that I had attached the chest clip of my rucksack onto my necklace and the driver and I stood like muppets in the middle of the road in the sweltering sun for ten minutes whilst he tried to untangle me. Welcome to Bali, the most tranquil place on earth.
Thank god, we had been warned of the hideousness of Kuta, the backpacker hotspot not too far from Denpasar Airport. I gladly took the financial hit as the taxi drove for over an hour, away from streets filled with rubbish and young tourists already drunk before midday. I was reminded of the disappointment we felt on seeing similar scenes in Ho Chi Minh City, but here was sadder. It felt like one of the less classy European resorts, but against a backdrop of Bali’s iconic, delicate Hindu temples, and once-beautiful shoreline.
Instead, I was headed for Ubud: equally touristy, but frequented by 30-something travellers rather than 20-somethings. Yeah, let’s be honest . . . It was reassuringly middle-class. Still, as we passed through Ubud’s beautiful streets – packed with temples and intricately-carved doorways – I was astonished by the number of western tourists. They far outnumbered the local people. In fact I saw more white faces during that ten minutes spent driving through Ubud than I had done in the entire previous month put together. And this was in low season, as evidenced by the almost entirely empty restaurants, and hotels and spas slashing their prices. I simply can’t imagine what Ubud’s streets must look like in high season. The place must be completely overrun!
I wasn’t really sure what to think. Bali hadn’t been a desination I was particularly desperate to visit but it had worked out well and seemed an obvious place to meet. But the sheer number of tourists was on another level. Nothing wrong with that per se, of course – and it’s notoriously easy to denounce tourists whilst being one yourself – but I’m always a bit disturbed by seeing swathes of visitors neglecting to conform to local customs. It reminded me of how shocked I’d been in Marrakech by the number of western women in strappy tops. Here, where local women clearly dressed more conservatively, female tourists wore tiny shorts and bikini tops to walk down the street and seemed to get away with it by sheer force of numbers and the overarching power of the dollar. It felt deeply uncomfortable.
In fact, the whole town was clearly beautiful but something about it felt a little off. Ubud was initially known for its art scene, flocked to by hippies in the 1970s, and given a recent PR boost by its part in the book and film of Eat, Pray, Love. But it’s weird: beauty, crumbling temples, lush foliage, carvings on every corner, yet every shopfront is a restaurant, bar, hotel, karaoke joint. It’s not been overbuilt like western resorts – everything was low-rise, undeniably pretty, and draped in greenery. The construction is so admirably in keeping with the town’s historical aesthetic that shops are often indistinguishable from temples. But the awkwardness was that it didn’t just seem geared towards tourists, it only catered to tourists. There was even an Accessorize. I simply couldn’t see a single shop or café where local people did, could afford, or would even want to spend their time. Where had they gone? How long since we’d pushed them all away?
So we did what perhaps many Bali tourists do and took refuge in our hotel.
After I’d planned the Trans-Siberian, Peter had offered to book our Bali accommodation and he couldn’t have chosen any better. Situated on the edge of town, Bliss Ubud consisted of a few bungalows and a couple of two-storied buildings hidden in a small jungle of frangipani, palm trees, and stone carvings. Hand-painted wooden signs led the way down winding paths to a small infinity pool surrounded by rice paddies.
The room itself held a four-poster bed ethereally draped with a mosquito net, and a private balcony, on which a breakfast feast was served each morning. And all for less than £35 per night!
This is why I can’t stay in British hotels without incessantly moaning about the price. £35 in London might get you a bunk in an 8-bed mixed dorm with a single shower for the entire floor. I can’t possibly go back to such an existence after this.
Ubud was for relaxing and catching up with each other’s stories from the past month spent apart. We swam in the pool and had some delicious meals down in the town for prices verging on UK standard. (We are assured that cheap food can be had in Bali but sadly we failed to find it). We indulged in a late anniversary meal (3 years!) at Lamak, a fantastic restaurant with excellent cocktails and an all-night happy hour thanks to it being low, low season.
And I went all out on a day’s ridiculously indulgent treatments at a local spa. Apparently, this is what one does in Ubud. Swims, relaxes, drinks cocktails, gets beauty treatments. I started off looking for somewhere which would do me a pedicure and ended up paying £40 (I mean, seriously) for five hours: massage, green tea scrub, facial, pedicure, manicure, hair mask, and a flower bath (literally sitting in a bath filled with flower petals. Like American Beauty, but without Kevin Spacey getting all up in my grill). For forty pounds, people.
We stayed for four nights and every evening took a taxi into the town centre. The traffic was jammed each time due – we eventually realised – to a week-long celebration taking place at the local temple. The temple itself was a stunning construction sitting majestically in a valley, lit spectacularly and all done up for the occasion. On our final night, we borrowed suitable attire from our hotel (sarongs, regardless of current legwear – even the statues are clad this way – a headscarf for Peter and a sash for me) and headed down for a peep.
We walked in with locals carrying food offerings on plates and banana leaves. All around us, people mingled with friends and family, and just inside, a large group were playing bells, small drums, gongs, chimes, and xylophones. Heavy clouds hung overhead, and the intense humidity stuck our double-layered clothes to our bodies. From the placid, slightly disappointing vibe of Ubud itself, the almost oppressively atmospheric temple was a strangely welcome relief.
The place swarmed with people greeting one another, joining queues to give their donations, and simply sitting with friends and family under the many covered sections.
Unlike in the main town, here there were just a handful of westerners, one of whom urged us to head around the corner where we saw a huge gathering of people sat gazing at the temple’s altar, surrounded by carvings and back-lit decorations.
We waited until it began to rain and then sloped off for dinner, leaving the Balinese to their celebrations. Ubud had been a good place for Peter and I to reunite, but we were ready to continue our adventure.