Bali gets a bad rap; a den of tacky holidaymakers in a low-cost version of suspended reality somewhere between Australia and Indonesia. Clueless and disorderly, the flocks of Australians descend on the island and, between trampling the local culture and sightings of bogan-idol runner-ups the Corby sisters, compare notes on whether their urine is too dark to crack open another cold one. Yeah, they actually have these pictures in Denpasar airport;
My first experience with Bali five years ago was a brief tryst which gave me some reason to hope, but also confirmed some stereotypes. There was the really lovely coastline near Pura Tanah Lot; early morning is the best time to visit, so as to avoid the hoardes of trash that descend on the clifftop bar at sunset. When I was recently called back to Bali to attend a friend’s wedding, I wondered how near to the mark I had been in my original cautious assessment. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
It’s difficult to tell whether Bali has moved on from its reputation as a hedonistic cesspit, or whether those tales were only part of the story all along. I, for one, should know better; my own country has been judged too harshly in the international media by people who have never visited. And so it was with an open mind that I arrived on Bali at the end of 2014 to many pleasant surprises. Bali, to my delight, seems to be developing something of an alternative, boutique tourist industry alongside its traditional mass tourism market. Whether this was always happening, or whether it was a recent development, I’m not totally sure, but given its current condition, I’m assuming that it’s very much in the growth phase.
The culture is still very much alive, and what’s more, it is surprisingly respected by the majority of travellers with whom I interacted. The Balinese Hindu culture is intriguingly different from any Indian Hindu culture with which I had interacted previously. An overlord, Sanyang Widhi, presides over the universe, while Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma occupy other positions. Deities leer out of walls across the island, and some familiar faces such as Ganesha have slightly aggressive makeovers. Colourful offerings of petals, fruit and incense are placed in front of businesses, homes and temples; a riot of accents which shades the island’s daily life.
Kuta is everything you would expect, but is also home to several other things too; this is not only Indonesia’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road (a veritable SE Asian tourist zoo), but is spliced together with subtle elements of real Balinese culture that is still very alive. The beach is a bit meh, but the best way to enjoy Kuta is to sample a bit of everything; get a (quality, reputable) massage, swim in the pool, go to an American-themed restaurant (there aren’t a lot of those where I come from!), taste the local food (although this can be hit-and-miss in Kuta), grab a fresh young drinking coconut and sit by a temple for a while and people-watch; just soak it all in. Simply said, Kuta is where you can unwind and let it all wash over you – and while it’s far from authentic, if you take it for what it is, it’s certainly pleasurable.
Away from Kuta (or neighbouring suburbs Legian, Tuban and Seminiyak) is where Bali really shines. The hinterland, with its elephant rides (fun although admittedly morally questionable) and volcano views is simply gorgeous. Rice paddy terraces, roads which lead us through verdant tropical undergrowth and coffee plantations became commonplace to us by the end of the day. It’s beautifully exotic – and very easy to simply be seduced by it. We went for kilometres without seeing other tourists, and even further without seeing foreign tourists (many Indonesians travel to Bali for holidays). The monkey temple of Ubud was not really my thing (it’s a monkey thing I have), but the tranquil misty hills of central and northern Bali were bliss. A Balinese sampling plate for lunch by the picturesque rice paddies and lotus ponds brought a smile to my face – this really is the type of thing I love doing!
I never knew I could find somewhere so exotic yet accessible within five hours’ flight of Australia’s east coast (on Jetstar’s fabulous new Dreamliner – read my article here!). All my previous excursions had involved a change of planes, or much more physical effort to reach beautiful serenity. And in Bali I found it in such close proximity. I am already planning my return trip, perhaps to stay somewhere in or around Ubud and really get under the skin of this very unique, and rather misunderstood island.