Bali Travel Refugees

Much like our surprise week in Perth, we didn’t expect to go to Bali, or Indonesia at all, on this trip. What we experienced we loved, even if it ended up too brief and far too stressful.

Before I get into chronicling our short stay on this beautiful island, it may be worth a quick summary of the things that led us here and a little math. While at Halls Gap in the Grampians, considering what was beginning to emerge in southeast Asia we decided we’d extend our stay in Australia. We’d go to Perth and see what else we could do for a couple weeks in place of our planned time backpacking through Malaysia and Thailand.

While in Perth we decided Bali was the safest bet due to its proximity to Australia and lack of any measurable COVID-19 case count. This meant changing a number of plans, with some associated costs. We needed to cancel two nights we’d booked in Singapore, four nights in Bangkok and two nights in Seoul before our eventual flight home. We also needed to book a week’s stay in Perth. We had to change our Melbourne-Singapore flight destination to Perth, and we had to rebook our Bangkok-Seoul-Vancouver flight home to Brisbane-Vancouver. While we also had to book a new sidetrip to Bali, including accommodations and return flights, this partly replaced costs we would have borne while in Asia, so they are harder to quantify as being totally additional in nature.

Additional Costs So Far

  • We got all our Bangkok, Seoul and Singapore hotel money back, except for one night booked at nonrefundable rates. Our nightly price was more expensive than our Perth hotel, so the swap ended up being a wash or possibly a little cheaper.
  • “Uprgading” our seven plus hour international flights to Signapore to four plus hour domestic flights to Perth totaled about $600.
  • Rebooking our flights home from Bangkok to Brisbane was about $1200, and that’s after coming home earlier to save money.
  • I have no idea what we would have spent backpacking for three plus weeks in Malaysia and Thailand, but it probably wouldn’t have been as much as a ten night Bali trip with nice accommodations, which clocked in around $3300.

So, to start this leg, we’re out about $5100 in unanticipated costs already knowing we wouldn’t have as long, nor as interesting, a trip as we planned, and it would end up costing us more money. Anyway, first world problems and all that … We were still safe and we were getting a little taste of Asian culture on an island paradise. Things could be a lot worse. In fact, they’d get a lot worse yet.

Still smiling as we flew to Denpasar from Perth

The flight to Denpasar from Perth was uneventful and, given what I’d read about Jetstar, exceeded my expectations. The Bali package we put together included airport and resort transfers. I’d initially thought just hiring a cab or driver might be better, but being met at the airport and taken straight to our first accommodations in Ubud couldn’t have been simpler. It made travel much less stressful.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Bali is almost 100% dependent on the tourist industry and, even by mid-March, it was dead. The vast majority of Bali tourism comes from China and Australia, and all mainland China flights had been banned since the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. For our brief time on Bali, we only encountered a few other tourists and almost all were Australian.

Ubud

We booked three nights at the Sthala in Ubud and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations. Ubud is in the interior of the island, surrounded by lush forest and jungle. We arrived pretty late at night, and were treated like royalty by the staff. While we found the people on Bali unfailingly polite – beautiful really – we were also nearly the only people at this resort and staff were tripping over themselves to do something, anything for us.

Sthala Ubud

Sthala is what you might call a boutique jungle resort and you’d never even know it was there driving by on the road. Once you get past the gate, you’re greeted by simple manicured grounds with a terraced design leading down to the river that runs past the back of the resort. We’d have to wait until the next morning to actually see things, but the entire surrounds were lovely and peaceful.

Day one and both of us were falling in love with this place. Between genuinely beautiful people, humid air for my sinuses, serene surroundings and feeling like we might get some culture and relaxation before heading home, we were feeling good. We hoped to see some temples, a working rice paddy and the Monkey Forest at minimum during our three day stay. So, after breakfast on our first full day we were off to the town centre of Padangtegal to see some primates.

Monkey Forest & Pedangtegal

Little did we know that our one day in town would be the only real relaxing we’d do in Ubud, or Bali for that matter, but more on that a little later. We were shuttled to town from the resort, and even just driving on small Indonesian roads is quite the adventure. Crowded, hot, with lots of mopeds and small vehicles.

The Ubud Monkey Forest was a beautiful experience. From their website:

The mission of The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Monkey Forest Ubud) is conserving the area based on the concept of Tri Hita Karana.
Tri Hita Karana is ones of philosophy in Hinduism. Tri Hita Karana is derived from the word of “Tri” meaning three, “Hita” which means happiness, and “Karana” which means the cause or manner. Thus, Tri Hita Karana means “Three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being”.

 

Monkeys

I was most proud of the photos I got of the monkeys here. It’s largely a byproduct of being able to walk amongst them, but there was also an undeniable connection. Family units, grooming, hanging around and just generally being very much like us.

Not sure I’ve ever rolled a banana on the pavement, though …

A Post-monkey Walkabout

After lunch, we had a great stroll around town. I got a couple pics of streets, the market and some temples, but didn’t worry because I’d have the next day or two to get more, right?

A Perfect End to a Perfect Day

Back at Sthala, we hung by the pool for a beer and once we cleaned up and ate, we had more rooftop bar drinks and watched a Gecko breathe as the sun set.

Get Home … Before You Can’t

Storm clouds on the horizon?

That, as they say, was a wrap for sightseeing in Ubud, jungle excursions, or dreams of rice paddies and temples. We woke up on Sunday March 15th to a rapidly shifting world. While COVID-19 had been largely a Chinese thing where travel was involved, restrictions were spreading quickly. Suddenly, as more and more cases had begun to emerge all over the world, most Asian travel was impossible, the US was a growing problem and Europe was questionable. Honestly, the last part of our brief time in Ubud was a bit of a blur. All I know is, from this point forward we ceased to be tourists and almost felt like travel refugees.

Shit Hit the Proverbial Fan

Flights were starting to get cancelled, travel was becoming difficult and a viral outbreak was quickly turning into a global pandemic. We were more than a little concerned that another eight days on Bali and two more in Brisbane before flying home might put us at risk for being able to return home at all. So, I began researching earlier flights home from Australia and got in touch with our Perth travel agent just to look at options for returning earlier. Keep in mind we’d already rebooked flights, cancelled hotels and spent about $5100 we didn’t expect.

Of particular interest to us was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement for people to get home as quickly as possible while commercial means were still available, and to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. With the ominous nature of the messaging, we took this seriously.

I found a Brisbane-Vancouver flight on March 20th (a mere five days away) and decided to book it as insurance, while asking our travel agent if there was a way to cut our Bali trip short without losing our shirts within the next 24 hours (the timeframe for cancelling a flight without penalty). No sooner – seriously, I was still at my laptop – did I finish booking the insurance flight home, than Australia dropped a new mandatory 14 day quarantine restriction on all overseas travellers. Since we’d be coming to Brisbane from Indonesia, we’d be subject to this. As such, we could no longer take either of our flights home to Vancouver and wouldn’t be able to do so until sometime well into May if we went back to Australia at all.

Bye Bye Australia

So much for a side trip to Bali before coming home from Brisbane. With zero notice, we were suddenly left with the unenviable task of returning home more directly from Bali. I say unenviable because while options were becoming fewer by the hour for normal people, I cannot travel through the US. Aside from logistics, this didn’t really bother me because several of the large US airports were becoming clogged with huge lineups of travellers trying to get home, and cancelled flights left, right and centre.

Once the Australian mandatory quarantine dropped, I cancelled the insurance flight and was refunded by Air Canada pretty much immediately. Then we got back in touch with our Perth travel agent to find us a new way home from Bali, that wouldn’t have us go through US customs. The flights to Vancouver from Denpasar invariably route you through either a major US hub like Los Angeles or Seattle, or a major Asian hub like Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo. He had his work cut out for him.

While our Perth travel agent looked for a new way home for us from Bali, we then got in touch with our Vancouver travel agent to cancel our March 25th Brisbane flight to Vancouver, and this was already a stupidly expensive flight. While the original airfare for two of $1700 for Bangkok-Seoul-Vancouver was a pretty good deal, the added $1200 to rebook it to Brisbane meant we had to cancel a $2900 flight. When we first booked our Australasian adventure, it wasn’t very far in the future at the time and, as such, we opted to not buy flight insurance. Additionally, at this point the cancellation was purely our choice, since it wasn’t forced by government edict or airline decision. While the travel agent tried to get us something, ultimately we’d lose all that money. So, you can add $1700 for the initial flights to the existing $5100 for a new total of $6800 in unexpected COVID costs/losses.

Success, of a Sort

Amid the panic travel agents were dealing with at this time, canceling trips, rebooking flights and working very long hours, somehow our Perth guy really came through. He was able to book us on a flight from Denpasar to Vancouver through Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific in three days’ time. Of course this now meant that he also had to do some additional work to see if we could get a refund on our return flight to Brisbane from Denpasar, and five unused nights at The Westin Nusa Dua, where we were going to be doing our serious beach hang for a week. And, while it didn’t end up impacting us, no sooner did we have the flights through Hong Kong booked, but they dropped their own quarantine rule for all arriving air passengers. Not only were we arriving the evening it was to go into effect at midnight, but it turned out it didn’t affect those transiting through, like us.

We knew we would now also have to quarantine for two weeks upon return to Vancouver. We already had the month of April booked while we waited for our no longer happening trip to Europe, and we’d land in Vancouver almost exactly two weeks earlier than planned, so I booked a small townhouse up on Burnaby Mountain for our quarantine. It was about 1000 sf, pretty remote and took the dog. However, it was also another unexpected expense, so you can add $1700 to our $6800 tab of unexpected expenses, for a running total of $8500.

Since we booked very cheap flights through the Qantas budget carrier Jetstar, the best we got was a discount voucher for a new flight, to be used in a year. Our agent also managed to get agreement in principle for a partial refund at The Westin, but we’d still end up discussing that with staff when we got there. While this was already spent money, not getting to use half of our Bali getaway and getting very little of it back was really just an extra punch in the gut.

Our second full day in Ubud was completely consumed with trying to get home and cancel all our booked plans, so our final evening was just about eating and trying to get some sleep. With check-out, a mid-day hour-long transfer drive to Nusa Dua, and negotiations with resort staff about a possible refund, our next day was pretty much a write-off too. If we’d still had six days of beach time, no problem. As it was, we’d get pretty scant time to enjoy ourselves at all.

Nusa Dua

I purposely haven’t mentioned much about Nusa Dua, but part of the package our Perth travel agent put together for us was a really good deal on a week at The Westin Nusa Dua. I’m not too much for big ostentatious resorts, but when we decided to just get some down time in the sun for the final week of our COVID-shortened trip, pampering ourselves sounded ideal. Plus, the rates were significantly below normal for high season, so we decided to take the plunge. We were not disappointed.

Where Ubud is inland and a somewhat more real experience of Indonesian island life, Nusa Dua is a designed, gated beach community. There are security checks going in and out by car, a byproduct of the Bali terrorist bombing of 2002 that killed over 200 people. I won’t go into our refund discussions, but as you can imagine there was some discrepancy between what our agent was told via his supplier and how much a very hurting resort wanted to refund money. At the end of the day, we got a small refund, were put in a beautiful 1BR king suite (double the price of ours) and given afternoon tea and beach dream bed vouchers.

You can see by the map above (click to enlarge) Nusa Dua at the bottom right on the Kuta Selatan peninsula and Ubud north and inland a bit. In fact, our trip was restricted to the bottom portion of the island. If I can ever travel there again, minus the global health pandemic, I’d really love to see more of it and for longer than five stressed out days.

And, while fewer than 50 of their 433 rooms were booked, the skeletal staff they had were still bored and literally tripping over themselves to attend to our every need. There were so few people here when it should have been absolutely packed, it wasn’t only a bit spooky but truly sad. We had our own challenges, of course, but really tipped well. In the conversations we had with staff and transfer drivers, we could tell that they’d never experienced anything like COVID-induced job and income losses. I can only imagine what it’s been like as things have worsened in the past 15 weeks.

The Westin

The Westin from the front door

I’d have given anything to have the full week we’d booked at The Westin, but after an afternoon spent transferring and negotiating, our first night was basically food, a stroll and more stressful semi-sleep. It would only be another 36 hours or so before heading to the airport to go home, so we tried to make the best of it with one day relaxing / not relaxing at the beach. Regardless, I’ve never stayed anywhere close to this high end, nor this big. With seven restaurants and 433 rooms on five floors, it’s massive and beautifully appointed.

As this post has been plenty long already, with its tale of COVID-induced woe, and we were really only at The Westin for 48 hours, I’m not going to write any more about it. Just a few pics to provide a little flavour, and to help you see why we liked it so much. Again, looking at the photos, bear in mind how utterly devoid they are of people. On Bali. At the peak of high season.

The Lobby & Common Areas

To say this was the largest hotel lobby I’ve been in would be an understatement. I didn’t even include the huge check-in desk area.

Our Room

This suite was insanely beautiful, with a partial ocean view to boot.

The Grounds

There are tons of little green spaces throughout the grounds, with huge pool and play areas as a centrepiece.

Beach

We didn’t get to explore like we expected, but it was lovely and you could stroll through several resorts along one path on a massive stretch of beach, with beautiful calm water.

That would be all the Bali holidaying we’d do; a grand total of five days, three of which were utterly filled with anxiety about getting home. With our apetite whetted though, Connie and I both would truly love to return to Indonesia some day.

Going Home

I didn’t take many photos en route home and, in truth, for such a long trip it was reasonably uneventful, if just long. With what was going on in the world, until we left Hong Kong for Vancouver, we were still worried about cancellations or possibly even failing a temperature test somewhere and not being able to travel. Thankfully, none of that came to pass. However, what I can tell you is that I never really thought much about the risk of catching COVID-19 while traveling for six weeks, but obsessed about it constantly in the roughly 20 hours it took to get from Bali to Vancouver.

The beginning of ‘mask living’

We were at Ngurah Rai airport in Denpasar a little earlier than necessary, but we were anxious and didn’t have any idea how long it would take us to get through any checks we’d need to pass. We started with a temperature check entering the airport. As it wasn’t a digital process, we probably waited for another 90 minutes or more for baggage check to open and to get our boarding passes. While we were allowed to carry on everything, it was a lengthy petri dish of a line just to get to that point. Interestingly, Denpasar was the beginning of the mask living that we’re still doing now.

Next, we got past the security and passport check gates, with yet another temperature check. After a pretty unsatisfying bite of dinner, waiting for the flight with so many other people trying to get the hell home, it was time for boarding gate petri dish number two. By early evening we were in the air and we arrived in Hong Kong around 11:30pm after roughly a five hour flight on flying petri dish number three. Adding to the adventure, someone in the cabin was coughing a fair bit and when we landed in Hong Kong, we were delayed from leaving the plane while a medical team came aboard to do a fairly significant exam and questioning of the cougher. I guess they were able to determine low risk and, after about twenty minutes we disembarked.

We had a layover of a couple hours in Hong Kong, and I only took the photo below because we were amazed at how dead it was. Being one of the largest hub airports in the world, activity there is 24/7, but we were bearing witness to the beginning of the end of travel as we know it – at least for 2020. Oddly enough, a couple hours here was the safest I felt, COVID-wise, on the entire trip home.

Huge departures area in HK, virtually deserted

Our flight to Vancouver left around 1:30am and it was utterly – happily – without incident. At 11-12 hours in flying petri dish number four, it was the second longest flight of our entire trip, after our flight to Sydney clocked in at nearly 15 hours.

With a time difference of 15 hours, we landed in Vancouver the same day we left Hong Kong. Arriving back in Vancouver, there was COVID-19 signage and questioning, but no temperature checks or any really signinficant measures at that time. However, the lineup to get through customs was long enough that it qualified as petri dish number five in just the past twenty hours. My son and his girlfriend brought our car to the airport for us and, understandably after our travels, lobbed the keys at us from about ten feet away.

In Closing

First and foremost, in spite of how our Bali leg and return to Vancouver ended, our six weeks or so away was wonderful. Whether Australia or Bali, the people were wonderful and we finally started to see some long overdue bucket list places, that we hope to continue seeing once current circumstances abate.

While we were very relieved to get home reasonably unscathed, if somewhat poorer, I was also flooded with severe melancholy which hasn’t fully subsided three and a half months after the fact. Four weeks in Australia and nearly as long backpacking in southeast Asia had been cut short, but it was ostensibly the start of something much larger we had planned for 2020.

Connie left her job of two plus decades after being offered an early retirement package (though she’ll be returning to work somewhere for a while at some point) and we moved back to Vancouver. We put our stuff in storage, while planning to do at least three big trips this year. I left my job in Victoria and extended my leave on my Vancouver job through the rest of this year. The primary nine week trip to Europe in May and June (which we’d just be ending now in Paris) was toast, as was anything else we may have done in the late summer or early fall. Luckily, with a little work and some travel insurance, we’ve got almost everything back from the initial Europe flights and Ireland plans we had booked.

We’re now spending some of the money we had earmarked for travel waiting out the pandemic in Vancouver. The uncharacteristically big tax refunds we got, which would have been awesome for our travels, are basically now just covering our unplanned COVID rent.

Can we just reboot 2020 and start again? Please?

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