A lot of holiday brochures usually try to paint Bali as the idyllic travel destination, with its palm trees, azure waters, and its soft, golden sand providing holidaymakers with the ultimate location at which to retreat from the pressures of the world and enjoy secluded fun in a tropical paradise.
Those holiday brochures are lying.
While there are some very expensive hotel resorts and hideaways in Bali that do indeed provide the ultimate luxurious experience, for the rest of us on a regular wage the reality is very different to what we were promised in the photos.
Not everything about Bali is overrated. I, for one, absolutely love the religious elements of the culture, with Bali being a Hindu enclave of Indonesia, with the rest of this sprawling archipelago being predominantly Muslim. Wherever you go in Bali there are in-your-face reminders of the Hindu culture, from statues to ceremonies. One thing I always noticed were the little burning artefacts that are intended to warn off demons and negative spirits. Balinese people believe that placing these burning artefacts at strategic locations outside their homes or at work will guarantee them safety and security.
Another thing I really love when in Bali is the “traditional” gamelan music, which is omnipresent throughout most of the touristy areas of the island. Nowadays, local Balinese people do not really care much for the gamelan – it is something almost exclusively for the tourist trade, much like Singaporeans do not eat Singapore noodles, nor drink the Singapore Sling. The gamelan actually originated on nearby Java island but was introduced on Bali in the early 20th century. Its tranquil chimes provide a great backing soundtrack to the hot and humid atmosphere of this part of the world, and in Ubud particularly.
The arts and crafts are also amazing in Bali. You can walk around side-streets and markets for hours on end and never fail to be amazed at the intricacies of the art on offer. The cultural centre of Bali is Ubud and it is here more than anywhere else where you can indulge in shopping for the arts and crafts that the Balinese people are renowned. While you are in Ubud, you must check out the world-famous rice paddies. This is rural Bali at its best, and if you are very lucky you may see some farmers plying their trade with a Bali cow, which provides some great photo opportunities. No trip to Ubud is complete without a visit, guided or independent, to see one of the many rice paddies in the area.
Wherever you are on the island of Bali you can be sure that you will see monkeys. These are not escaped from a zoo, these are obviously wild monkeys. They are pests and scavengers, and get even get aggressive towards humans, so it is important to remember a few words of wisdom: Firstly, never look a monkey in the eyes, as they see that as a threat (just as dogs do), always walk past either staring downwards, or looking in the opposite direction. Secondly, never eat or drink when monkeys are around. They will try to steal the food from you and most of them have even become clever enough to open cans and bottles of drink so it is not a deterrent that you haven’t yet started drinking it yet! Thirdly, monkeys can carry Rabies, and a bite from a monkey can potentially be very serious if medical treatment is not sought immediately; even in civilised countries like Singapore, it is a well-known fact that upon being bitten by a macaque you should get to the hospital quickly for a check-up.
Alongside seafood, it’s always interesting to see what else Balinese people eat and drink. Of course, coastal areas like Jimbaran serve the greatest seafood such as crab or lobster, and this can usually be consumed on the beach while admiring the sunset. However, for something a little different it is sometimes necessary to move away from the traditional touristy areas, and head into the rural areas or backstreets. With this in mind, and after a little exploration, I found my two favourite different kinds of meal.
I was a huge fan of Bebek Bebetu, which is smoked duck, and my meal was wrapped in banana leaf and served with rice and sate, with a bottle of Bali Hai beer, of course! Babi Guling is roast suckling pig, and is very popular meal with families; in Bali, the whole family is involved in the meal, be it killing, cooking, turning, stuffing etc.. Many restaurants now serve Bali Guling and it is a firm favourite among tourists who can watch their meal being cooked as they wait.
One of the best things about Bali is the great waves that crash on the island, especially on the southern side. This creates a great tourism demand for surfing, and some of the best waves in the world are to be found around Uluwatu in particular, which attracts people from across the globe. While this pastime can be dangerous, there are almost infinite numbers of instructors who will offer their services to give you a crash course on how to surf. I tried this myself over a day or two and while I did not really get the hang of it properly, I still enjoyed myself trying to stay on the surfboard, and of course enjoyed myself watching the real experts far out at sea!
While it is true that a lot of people come to Bali for the beaches and nightlife, there are also many people come here to savour the cultural traditions and architecture. Being a Hindu island, Balinese has many religious structures and temples (the Balinese word for temple is ‘Pura’), the holiest of which is considered to be the Mother Temple Pura Besakih. However, some of these temples are not enjoyable to visit due to the problems caused by scam artists and conmen who effectively police the area with the sole intention of trying to rip you off.
Situated on the slopes of Mount Agung, Bali’s primary active volcano, Pura Besakih is a blatant tourist trap. It is under control of local mobsters who pester tourists all the while demanding “donations” to help the cause of the temple, and they pressure you to give more than you can afford. I made a donation and was told abruptly that it wasn’t enough, and that most people pay twice as much as I did. I refused to pay any more, but was aggressively followed and pestered furthermore by mobsters who totally ruined my enjoyment of the day. It has got to the stage where I would advise people to not even bother going to Pura Besakih.
Of course, not all Pura in Bali are as horrible to experience as Pura Besakih. For example, the likes of nearby Taman Ayun, Tirta Gangga (at which I had a fantastic tranquil experience), and of course the sublime Pura Tanah Lot near Nusa Dua are incredible attractions that can be enjoyed without being overly pestered by criminals looking to con you out of your money!