Teach Me How to Bali

Bali. The name conjures up images of swimsuit relaxation, jungle yoga, some kind of Cancun-like party scene (enough to provoke a nightclub bombing), and also Elizabeth Gilbert/Julia Roberts in some mixture of jungle yoga and beach party in Eat, Pray, Love. I had no intention of going there–I figured if I went to Indonesia I’d go somewhere less touristy than Bali–but I ended up going to line up with one of my best friends who would be there a few days. Plus, it was on my way home to Melbourne. Unlike during the rest of my trip, where I spent an average of 2.5 days in each locale, I chilled out in Bali for a whole ten days. The perfect slow end to my run-around tour of Southeast Asia.

Bali is at once everything you expect, everything you’ve heard it is, and also full of surprises. The streets of infamous Kuta are indeed full of partying backpackers and a trashier sampling of Australians, but it’s no grungy backpacker beach town; it’s full of luxe open-air malls with Quiksilver stores and Japanese restaurants, resembling Waikiki. Balancing out the partying youth are Muslim families treating themselves to ice cream, and local Balinese kids hanging out in the shorebreak while their families at sunset. Even in this heavily touristy, party section of Bali you will find daily offerings out for the gods outside the Quiksilver stores and beautiful Balinese temples on every other corner (though women are barred from entering sans sarong, or while menstruating). At one point wandering Kuta we even came across a local parade of men in sarongs and cloth around their heads, hoisting a couple VIPs in elaborate palaquins, swarming in patterns deliberate and traditional.

Random parade near Kuta

Kids playing at sunset, Kuta Beach

Offerings for the gods

Seminyak is as trendy as you’ve heard, full of beautiful people in expensive swimsuits (here you will find the better-looking and better-mannered Aussies), a sort of Coachella-esque scene. They gather in cute Aussie cafes and hipster taco joints. You can buy stylish backpacks and perfect wooden dinner tables for several grand at the fashion boutiques and design stores around Seminyak.

Along most of the famous southern beaches, the sand is gray and covered in trash, and also touts and various men hollering at you. It costs 50,000 rupiah to rent a cabana, and the water is better for surfing than swimming. I had a decent time at Balangan which had gelato and families gathering at seaside restaurants, but I never made it to an amazing beach in Bali. I hear they exist, as the island is full of micro-climates (my sister recommends Bingin Beach for its cliffside setting), but I never got to one.

If you want to relax, as everyone knows, you go to Ubud, which features heavily in Eat, Pray, Love. This featuring has driven a high number of visits by single thirty-something women who come to Bali to do yoga, find themselves, harass people from the book, etc. These EPL women are everywhere throughout Bali, sitting in cafes alone, or with young local boys preying on them at bars in a somewhat amusing manner. I only got to visit Ubud a couple times rather than stay there, but enjoyed the pleasant gelato shops and juice bars among the blocky but graceful temples, and was even more surprised by the many amazing boutiques on Jln Hanoman and Jln Monkey Forest. I got a wood and mother-of-pearl serving tray and some lovely ceramics for pretty low prices. I didn’t expect to be shopping in Bali at all but I’d recommend leaving room in your suitcase if you go!

I also did not expect to be so enthralled by the Monkey Forest, but was glad I got a chance to interact with the residents. The huge group of macaques here included bullish alpha males, mamas with tiny babies at their teats and playful youth. Monkeys scurrying through the trees! Monkeys playing down on the bricks of the park! Monkeys hanging out all over statues and temples! One was clutching an empty aluminum can as if it were a piece of treasure. When I sat down at the monkey park’s grassy amphitheatre the young ones would climb all over me, turn my pockets inside out and try to reach inside my bag–they hope to take your valuables and trade them back for food.

Friends at the Monkey Forest

I could tell why Don Antonio Blanco, the Dali-esque painter, came to Bali and ended up staying forever, marrying a Balinese dancer and setting up a studio-mansion in Ubud. There’s something enchanting, and very creative, in the air there. Thus, it’s not the beach but Ubud where I’d recommend coming to get lost in Bali. But maybe that would be too full-on Eat, Pray, Love, so maybe not.

Nobody seems to think of Sanur anymore, which seemed to be the popular resort town in about 1975 and now has a sleepy retirement community vibe. But even this has-been place was delightful due to its lovely seaside. Whereas the southern beaches have a beach covered in trash and a crowded walkway behind a wall that obstructs one’s view of the sea, Sanur boasts a few miles of new stone path, right between the sand and the restaurants and hotels.

I strolled Sanur beach in the late afternoon for three miles. Just after a rain, it was almost devoid of people. Dragonflies were buzzing around, the light was reflecting on the water beautifully. Boats with brightly colored accents were parked all over the sand and water in the southern end. They looked like giant cartoon water striders and I thought about all the boats I had seen during my Southeast Asia trip–Vietnam’s pastel fishing boats, Cambodia’s awful heavy wooden ones in forest green, Thailand’s long-tail boats and now Bali’s cartoon striders. I noted promising-looking warungs and beach clubs, and the deserted Hyatt which had been closed for renovations. The sun lounges at the Hyatt were still active for rent but everything on the grounds looked askew, and the large concrete modern hotel block was now covered in overgrown greenery. Delightfully post-apocalyptic.

View from Sanur beach at dusk

The deserted Hyatt in Sanur

I came another night with another friend, who I had convinced to join me in Bali for a few days. We first grabbed some of the best chicken satay I’ve ever had–mmm, so coconuty!–and then sipped Bintang pilsner beers while on lounge chairs facing a small cove and let relaxation take over. The sky was quite different than the rain-washed one I had experienced a couple days earlier. Storm clouds darkened one part of the sky, the clouds were lit intermittently by flashes of stunning sheet lightning. Meanwhile, the tide was falling to insanely low levels, and in the quiet and shallow cove the water was nearly still. As night fell we noticed figures walking through the shallow water with LEDs afixed to their heads. They were peering, hunting for something in the shallow waters (I joked, “Maybe he just lost his keys.”). Apparently they were scouring the shore for prawns. I always like a single light in the darkness.

Bali is a big island with a lot to see (I only saw a small fraction of it over ten days), so we found a driver named Ketut-tuk to drive us around for a few days, which I highly recommend doing, because Bali is huge, uncomfortably humid and inscrutable in its road plan. Ketut-tuk grew up in the north of Bali, not far from the blacksand beaches of Lovina, and had been driving people around for over twenty years. He had a wife who balanced books for a hotel and a teenage son. He told us a bit about Bali customs, for instance that a family’s youngest son must take care of his parents and that all families go every day to the local family temple (the ones I’d been seeing on every block) with breakfast offerings for the gods, except for when a family member dies in which case they do not go out of mourning.

Most Bali adventures with a car involve a stop to a “coffee plantation” as you climb in elevation, going from sea level to an environment of jungled hills. You are led through a small sparse maze of coffee and fruit plants, shown the mongoose-like creature that eats and shits out luwak coffee, and then the roasting of the beans and the grinding of the coffee into the instant “Bali Coffee” which is ubiqutious on the island. You are  poured small tastings of drinks made from various colorful powders, including coconut coffee, vanilla coffee, lemongrass tea, ginger tea, mangosteen tea, etc., and ushered into a buying room. It’s more fun than high-pressure, so drink your samples graciously.

Bali coffee and tea tasting

We drove all the way up to Bedugul, known for its lakeside temple and also its incessant pouring rain, especially in January. Due to rain and fog, we could not get the full effect of this tiered pagoda, which looks like a cross between something Chinese and a Balinese temple, but the place did look sort of cool and special shrouded in fog.

Bedugul in the fog

So, we decided to drive over to Jatiluwih on recommendation from Ketut-tuk. After a drive through some small narrow streets, mainly surrounded by dense forest and a healthy helping of traditional houses behind walls, we entered the controlled, UNESCO World Heritage section. Entering Jatiluwih, with its spectacular vistas of rice terraces cut into the hills as far as the eye can see, with a backdrop of even taller mountains, felt like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Here you are, this tiny being entering this huge otherworld of a life and people completely removed from your home. Of course, I had been in massive rice terraces in Guangxi before, but something about the mountain climate of Jatiluwih made it still unique. Of course, in this weather the higher mountains and big background volcanoes were still shrouded in fog, but this only added to the effect.

We shot some pictures among the bucolic expanse, and chowed down on nasi goreng for lunch. Wandering a bit, a guy in an SUV who seemed to be running a bike tour told us we could walk down a paved path into the terraces for a stretch. We started into what had been mere scenery before, now immersed in the green rice terraces, as if cradled gently in the hands of Mother Nature herself. The local ladies smiled and waved at us as they bent over the paddies hard at work, others with small children said hello as they zoomed by on their motorbikes. We came upon a small shed. We had seen a few of these scattered throughout the paddies and found that each housed a single white ox. After the disappointment of Bedugul, this Jatiluwih visit certainly seemed like the figurative silver lining to that literal rain cloud.

Jatiluwih rice terraces

The only more managed adventure I went on was a biking trip with Bali Bintang Bike Tours, which we shared with an elderly Danish couple who had been married for 48 years but acted like newlyweds in a way that warmed my heart. This trip enabled me to see a lot of Bali quite removed from the beachside warung or the Westerner cafe.

We started out with a view of the grand volcano Mount Batur and its next-door buddy Lake Batur. Soon enough we picked up bikes and were speeding downhill by green coffee farms where ladies were working, and other fruit plantations and bits of rice paddies. Then through local villages, with their traditional pitched-roof houses, family temples and small convenience stores. The houses were nicer than the wooden stilt houses in Cambodia and Thailand, sturdier with clay tiled roofs. Dogs and chickens roamed everywhere on the whole ride. After the easy downhill village scenes, we also rode through some busier commercial streets lined with artisanal and industrial workshops, riding along with trucks towing groups of men, and even through some pockets of genuine rainforest.

We saw so many people–mothers and children on motorbikes, ladies on the farms, children walking home from school, old grandmas in discarded Western t-shirts with a sarong, their hair tied back and balancing huge containers on their heads. These villagers were simply the friendliest I had ever encountered in all of my travels. Except for the grandmas who tended to be a bit cranky and weary of having their photo taken, everyone else would smile, say “hello” and wave. Kids would stop and wave and pose for pictures.

Workin’ hard

Boy at his puppy at the family compound we visited

Our guide, a 25-year-old second son and now a father, grew up in one of the villages. He brought us to a traditional family compound, which consisted of a few rooms for dwelling, a family temple, a little closed shed on stilts for storing rice and areas for the animals. More chickens were roaming, and more dogs, including puppies and a three-legged dog hobbling around, and cats too. A pig lived in its own quarters. This was fascinating but I suppose augmented by the friendliness of the family there. The old lady came out to greet us with tiny bananas. The little boy said hello and played with his puppy.

After a few hours of biking, we also were treated to coffee, banana pancakes and an awesome lunch of soup, fresh fruits, ayam goreng, nasi goreng, mee goreng and fish. I felt so enchanted by the variety of gorgeous and special scenes, the graceful architecture and dense tropical plants and dramatic mountains, and most of all charmed by the friendly villagers.

What an island. There’s a lot hiding within its many different pockets.

A lot of magic, a lot of smiles.