Back in February I booked a flight to Denpasar, knowing I wanted to see Indonesia but not sure which parts. By September I had decided to split up my time between Bali, Gili Trawangan to the east and Java to the west, and because all three islands had a very different vibe, I’ve broken down my experiences in this amazing country into three separate posts.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know much about Bali, other than the fact that it belongs to Indonesia and suffered two devastating terror attacks in the last decade. I also found the movie Eat Pray Love to be a bit ridiculous (and never read the book) so I wasn’t among the countless 30-something females flocking to the island hoping to find their inner peace while being swept up into the arms of a Javier Bardem-type. To be honest, the main reason I was attracted to Bali could be traced back to the visions in my head of world-class scuba diving and postcard-worthy beaches.
As it turns out, the diving off of Bali was, well, underwhelming (not to be confused with the diving in Gili, coming up…), and the beaches were far from perfect. I don’t want to complain – it’s still an island ideally situated in the warm Indian Ocean. In fact, I found this to be a complex place still struggling to maintain its identity more than three decades after an influx of tourism began to erode its charm, and I came away wondering if I wanted to be entirely honest about how much I loved it nonetheless, for fear of adding to this problem. With a growing trend in global travel, a number of spots have morphed from cultural destinations into mass tourism destinations, and unfortunately Bali is a leader in this trend. It leaves me extremely hesitant about propping it up as one of my favorite spots this year, but as of now, not too many people see my blog other than those related to me, so what the hell: I loved Bali. Go. Enjoy. But if you do, know beforehand what the drawbacks are, make an attempt to appreciate and respect the culture, and be aware of the impact your presence might have.
A meet-up for drinks in Singapore with Tim, my cousin’s stepbrother, a few days before my flight proved helpful. I had researched accommodation online and found the area of Kuta to be the cheapest. I nearly took the bait, but as Tim put it – rather diplomatically – Kuta is not a place you can spend more than maybe half an hour before losing it. I now know it to be a place where one might begin to predict the downfall of society and very rapidly get a doomsday sense of all that is wrong with the world (my words, not Tim’s). Kuta is to Australia what Cancun is to Americans or Ibiza to Brits – a place whose charm and personality have been overrun by spoiled, black-out drunk westerners insisting on all the comforts of home, but with cheaper booze, easier hookups and a plethora of locals too polite and unassuming (and possibly too dependent on tourist dollars) to object.
The implications are far-reaching – Kuta’s and neighboring Legian’s beaches are covered in garbage. In some places, the smell of sewage seeps out into the water, making you wonder how the thousands of people lounging and swimming in the area can stand it. Much of the land has been scooped up from locals to make way for hotels, McDonalds, KFCs, 7-Elevens and beach-wear shops. Taxi drivers will, in every instance, rip you off purely because they know instantaneously that you’re a tourist, meaning you’re automatically assumed to be rich, naive and probably drunk. And with more than 3 million visitors a year adding to the already strained infrastructure of this tiny island the size of Delaware, population 4 million, you’ll often find yourself walking – sometimes even several miles – because it’s faster than sitting in the island’s insanely frustrating traffic. That’s not usually a big problem, except that in Bali being a pedestrian entails running the gauntlet of mopeds grazing you as they take over the sidewalk, rapid dogs looking to take a chunk out of your leg, and monkeys eyeing anything you might have in your hands or pockets.
Yet if you’re willing to put up with these setbacks and have enough sense to venture outside the overcrowded Kuta area, you might end up peeling back a few of the many layers on what is one of the more intriguing and charming places I’ve ever been.
For one thing, going inland and away from the rush of foreigners will pay off. I was lucky enough to find a peaceful, boutique-style hotel just outside of Seminyak, about ten minutes from the beach (albeit more than an hour when the aforementioned traffic flares up). The staff were some of the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve come across all year, the place itself was absolutely stunning and relaxing, and I got a massive bungalow for about $45 a night. Chris didn’t quite believe me when I wrote to him raving about the place, until he showed up a few days later to see for himself.
Which brings me to my favorite aspect of this tiny island: Bali’s charm lies in the décor of its interior spaces. It seemed as though the Balinese pride themselves on embracing the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim influences of their island when it comes to designing a guesthouse, restaurant or shop. And of course, there are the temples.
Walking into pretty much all of these buildings requires stepping around a Canang Sari, the daily offerings to the Hindu gods in the form of colorful palm-leaf baskets filled with anything from flower petals and various fruits, rice or other foods to incense and tobacco.
Everywhere you turn you find peaceful Buddha statues coexisting alongside intriguing and even terrifying Hindu carvings that leave you stopping every few feet to observe your surroundings. When you do stop to take a closer look, you discover some very random artwork:
The colors of Bali fill your senses like no other place on the planet, all against the backdrop of stunning red sunsets and, farther inland, bright green rice fields.
After a trip to the Gili islands (more on that in my next post), Chris and I returned to Bali to explore a bit of Ubud, made famous by Julia Roberts and her praying. Or was it loving? I don’t remember. In any case, if you come to Ubud not with Hollywood-induced expectations of your life being transformed and all your petty problems dissolving into thin air, but rather to soak in the simple pleasures of wandering the streets, chatting with the people and risking your life to the potentially rabies-infected primates of the Monkey Forest, you might leave with a sense of appreciation for the place. I can’t speak for Chris, but one of my favorite memories from Ubud was our hike through the searing heat of the city into the cool hills above. We left the crowds behind to discover green rice fields, a recommendation from our guesthouse owner. We engaged in some small-talk with a friendly local happy to sell us a coconut and eager to know what we think of his beautiful island. We took some time to shop for artwork from a painter to adorn my walls once I return home from this trip, and lost track of time, nearly missing our ride back to Seminyak. We were exhausted, wiping sweat from our skin as we climbed uphill, then frantic rushing back downhill, and I loved every minute of it.
In short, my advice for the general public is to go ahead and join the ranks of millions visiting Bali every year, but be aware of the mass tourism trends that are contributing to an unsustainable situation for this tiny island. I recommend staying at small, locally owned hotels and guesthouses, getting outside the Kuta/Legian area, keeping the drinking to a minimum (and I shouldn’t have to tell you to refrain from drug use/possession, which could get you the death penalty in Indonesia), trying a new activity like yoga or a cooking class, and consciously conducting yourself in a way that acknowledges that you’re on someone else’s turf. Finally, work a bit of time into your schedule to see other parts of this massive, complex country.