Generally, when people think of Bali, Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love1 comes to mind, followed by images of sun-kissed beaches, tranquil turquoise waters, rice paddies, and on the more negative side, the terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005. However, after a wonderful week absorbing local culture, cuisine and other curiosities, I discovered that Bali is so much more than a destination based on a recent film location. It is an island rich in history, culture and religion that deserves a place on everyone’s must-see list.
It is an island rich in history, culture and religion that deserves a place on everyone’s must-see list.
Geographically, Bali forms part of an archipelago of islands in Indonesia spanning across the Indian and Pacific Oceans from Malaysia to Australia. Due to its proximity to the equator, the annual temperature hovers around 30 degrees Celsius, making it a great place to visit almost any time of the year.
The first thing you notice about Bali upon leaving the airport are the swaying palm trees, lining roads that are choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic consisting of cars, trucks, taxis and scooters. Scooters seem to offer transportation for most of the Balinese population, with drivers and up to 3 other passengers, shopping bags, and even the family dog balancing precariously on the back of the bike.
Balinese taxi drivers are mostly friendly, helpful and a wealth of information when it comes to Balinese history, culture and politics. They also prove to be proficient at making reservations on your behalf, suggesting restaurants and planning tourist itineries. Unlike so many of their persistent Thai and Malaysian counterparts, you won’t feel like you’re being pulled and tugged in different directions by locals punting their relatives shops, restaurants or fishing boats as has been the experience of many tourists in Oriental countries. However, make no mistake; commission is the name of the game, so you have to remain firm about how you want to spend your day with some of the drivers who may suggest unplanned stops at various curio, carving and jewellery shops along the way. Taxis are generally well-priced, especially for South Africans struggling with a weak Rand, but do need to be booked through hotel staff to ensure safe, licensed drivers and a fixed hourly rate.
Shopping in Bali proves to be quite an experience. The market in Ubud, which is located in the central part of the island, is packed full of tourists and locals who peddle wares ranging from shoes, clothes and sarongs to wooden carvings and exquisite lanterns. The gift of the gab is a necessity as bargaining is regarded as a challenge and game of sorts, which the locals enjoy immensely. They usually end up surrendering their goods at a much lower price than was originally asked for, but both parties tend to part ways feeling victorious. Like most places in the East, belongings must be carefully watched over in crowded public places, and money and valuables should be left in the hotel safe or kept out of sight of prowling pickpockets.
If thronging through the busy crowds at the market doesn’t grab you, there are a host of activities both indoors and outdoors to keep you busy. Because Bali is a treasure trove of rivers, mountains, volcanoes, forests and beaches, there is no shortage of adrenalin pumping outdoor options. Cycling through rice paddies, hiking, diving, sailing and a multitude of motorized water sports will keep even the most seasoned adventurer entertained. Snorkelling and a trip to Turtle Island from Nusa Dua in the southern part of the island is a great way to observe some of the exotic marine life, and see turtles in various stages of their development. Watch out for the giant Fruit Bat that hangs from a tree on the island, and also the enormous python which is thankfully kept in a cage.
Bali is a treasure trove of rivers, mountains, volcanoes, forests and beaches, there is no shortage of adrenalin pumping outdoor options.
Spending an afternoon rafting down the Ayung River proved to be loads of fun, a good way to work off the previous night’s dinner, and was also a cool reprieve from the heat and humidity. Our afternoon’s adventure finished off with a traditional Balinese meal prepared by local women, complete with a Bintang2 beer. Thank you to Heineken, who manufacture it! My partner, Clint, declared it the best beer he’s ever had, which comes from a man who as devoted to the practice of beer drinking as he is, is surely the highest praise.
The local cuisine in Bali is a sumptuous treat for taste buds accustomed to koeksusters and boerewors. Most restaurants offer the option of a local menu and a Western menu, but to choose the latter means you’ll miss out on dishes spiced with chilli, garlic and ginger, a rice dish called Nasi Goreng which is simply delicious, ‘sosaties’ dripping with a thick peanut sauce called satay, fresh seafood in abundance and desserts to die for. Jimbaran Bay, on the south-west side of the island, is renowned for its multitude of seafood restaurants that line the beachfront. If you are able to book ahead, you might be lucky enough to reserve a table on the beach itself…picture sipping cocktails under the stars with the water almost lapping at your toes, while your freshly caught fish is being grilled somewhere nearby en route to your plate. Heaven! Unfortunately, no dining experience in Bali seems to be complete without musical accompaniment, of what suspiciously sounds like karaoke provided by locals enthusiastically belting out hits by Eric Clapton, Aerosmith and The Eagles, which can be a bit of an ambiance killer. A request was made for Lady Gaga, but surprisingly, the band was unacquainted with her work.
On the topic of the more cultural aspects of Balinese life, religious activities form an important part of daily life in Bali, where the Hindu-Dharma religion is the predominantly practised religion. The Balinese people believe that the gods live at nearby Mount Agnung, which peaks at 3,142m and forms part of a chain of volcanoes to the north of the island. The gods seem to be a rather petulant and fearful lot, as the Balinese people devote much of their daily routine to appeasing, pleasing and adoring them. You’ll notice pedestrians and others wandering the streets eyes cast downward, not due to religious prescription or to keep the gods happy, but rather to avoid stepping on the variety of offerings left outside shops, restaurants and hotels. Pavements are lined with incense sticks, colourful hibiscus flowers, and sometimes even leftover food. One morning, a shop keeper was slicing up boiled eggs in an attempt to curry favour with the gods, which in that heat, hmmm, let’s face it, was rather a less than fortunate offering, and probably did more to keep prospective shoppers at bay.
Balinese temples are not to be missed, as they tend to occupy very dramatic locations, set on cliff banks or floating in the sea.
Balinese temples are not to be missed, as they tend to occupy very dramatic locations, set on cliff banks or floating in the sea. Uluwatu Temple boasts a spectacular sunset, and daily fire and Kecak dancing which attracts a large number of tourists, as well as monkeys, who attempt to rob unsuspecting tourists of their cameras, hats and sunglasses as they pose against the fantastic backdrop. Being a streetwise South African helps, as we managed to leave with a few great photographs, and our camera.
Tanah Lot Temple proved to be the highlight of our travels, despite the hordes of tourists who descend upon it daily, and the threat of black holy snakes that inhabit various nooks and crannies nearby. Tanah Lot is translated to mean small floating island on the sea, which describes it perfectly. It cannot be reached on foot, but is rather admired from the beach, from rocks jutting out into the ocean, or nearby pathways which provide picturesque views of this breath taking temple. This panoramic view is completed by another beautiful sunset, and I found the entire experience to be simply moving.
For those who are really just looking for a relaxing getaway, Bali is filled with beautiful beaches, resorts and spas. Try a Balinese massage or balancing Thai massage, get a henna tattoo, or work your way through an impressively long list of island cocktails at the beach bar. I did, and all I can say is ‘Make mine a Balinese, please!’
TOP 10 BALI
- Sip a Bintang on the beach
- Gasp at the views of Jatiluwih3Rice Terraces
- Spend a day snorkelling and visiting Turtle Island
- Watch the sun set behind Uluwatu Temple
- Spend an afternoon rafting down the Ayung River
- Try a ‘Tropical Itch’ cocktail, on this tropical island
- Take a drive up north to see the volcano at Kintamani
- Haggle at Ubud market for a local carving
- Pick your fish from a bucket to eat on the beach at Jimbaran Bay
- Tanah Lot- Check out the floating island at sunset
- The big-screen adaptation of the beloved best-seller Eat Pray Love treats viewers to a visual feast that includes the cafes and countrysides of Italy, the colour and chaos of India and the lush warmth of Indonesia. [↩]
- Bintang Beer is the best selling brand of beer in Indonesia and is produced by Multi Bintang, an Indonesian subsidiary of Heineken [↩]
- The name of Jatiluwih comes from 2 Balinese words jati + luwih. Jati means real, and luwih means beautiful or excellent. This name is given to the vast stretch of rice field dug in terraces on the slope of mount Batukaru. The rice terrace forms beautiful sight at all seasons, during the watering, or before planting the rice looks like a tremendous construction big glass with irregular size of frames. When the rice almost reaches harvest time, often the color varied between green, and dark yellow. This mixture of color forms a breathtaking views on such as wide view over the terraces which border is very far away down there. Road that cut the rice terrace near the top border is a good place to enjoy this man made natural scenery, and at one of the high place has been built a hall by the villagers where local people can open small restaurant or selling snacks to the visitors. [↩]