I wonder where my dreams of Utopia come from? Bali has the whiff of ‘South Pacific’, a vision of a sunset behind a volcano. The actual island is kind of like a Maldives resort, but with real people instead of ‘staff’. But Bali isn’t just a destination, it’s an aspiration (and that was alliteration darlings). (no it wasn’t – Ed) Have I bigged it up enough?
But it is a stunning place with mountains, jungles, forests, temples, and the legendary hospitality of the locals. We spent a week there in Easter 2018 and left knowing that we had barely scraped the surface of what it has to offer. The difficulty lies in the sheer variation of holidays you could take there. I can review what I experienced, but a solitary week can only offer a glimpse. Inevitably, I want to go back having had a taste.
This blog is a bit lopsided as we chose not to go to Bali’s famous beach resorts because we’d be doing the bucket and spade bit on the island of Gili Air a week later. Consequently, we set up a ‘rural Bali’ option; three days in Ubud, three days in Sideman and one night in Sanur (which does have a beach).
The flight from Heathrow with Garuda Indonesia Airlines was grim, all fourteen hours of it. The food was OK, the service was poor, but at least the drinks were free; both of them. And my God, I needed a drink, or a parachute. I had a child screaming next to me for most of the journey. On the second (mercifully short) flight, the little scamp was sitting directly behind me, enabling it to kick the back of my seat repeatedly. I wasn’t angry. We had a good laugh about it. Kids! They’re great.
Our first stop was at Nandini Jungle Resort, which, ahem, was in the jungle. It was the end of the rainy season. There wasn’t much rain, however the humidity left me feeling knackered and inclined to laze about rather than go out and see stuff. Or maybe it was jetlag, or a combination of the two; or maybe I’m just lazy. Relaxing by the pool, gazing at the jungle, listening to the exotic bird song (and extraordinarily loud cicadas) was just grand. I was as happy as a sandboy with a pint of Bintang.
We went on a couple of trips into Ubud. It’s a lively place, the narrow roads are mad with traffic and there are plenty of places to eat and drink. It caters very well for its main audience; backpackers (ah… to be young again). Keep an eye on the prices. Bars that are popular on TripAdvisor can charge more, but it doesn’t mean they’re any better than the competition. In Bali food can be quite cheap (£2 – £3 a main course), beer is reasonably priced (£2 ish a pint), but wine is expensive and often poor (£25 a bottle). But there, I’ve touched on a biggie and I have to digress; Balinese food.
Bali is not famous for its cuisine, for the same reason that Libya isn’t famous for its skiing. You can get decent grub; but that’s down to the restaurant and the chef, not traditional Balinese gastronomy. It’s not bad, but there’s nothing ‘striking’ about it – or at least it didn’t excite me. The better dishes we had seemed to be influenced by Thai cooking. I had great pizzas, superb burgers, but the local food was, for me, rather limited; think bland with added chilli. Blimey, I must be a good writer; I just described Balinese food without once using the word ‘shite’.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh, however, in restaurants the legendary Balinese hospitality comes into its own. The staff are so nice, so mind bogglingly, cuddlingly nice, you’re never going to complain. The waitress comes over to your table to ask how it all was. You don’t say; ‘the rice was cold, the chicken scrawny, the vegetables insipid, my half a dozen crinkle cut oven chips were dry, and the wine tasted like homebrew at £7 a glass’. You grin and simper because they’re so NICE. Alas, the food will never improve because they’ll never get the feedback they so urgently need.
Their hospitality causes another weird problem. The Balinese (as elsewhere in the Far East) are so keen to please that they don’t like to say ‘no’. They tend to tell you what you want to hear to avoid giving offence. We asked one guide to recommend the best restaurant in the vicinity. He looked blank for a second, then pointed at the nearest one. It was obvious he didn’t have a clue. In fairness to him, it was a damn site better than the one TripAdvisor’s reviewers recommended. But I digress. Where was I? Ah…
With Ubud as your base, there’s plenty of groovy places to visit. Get a local driver for the day, agree on the price beforehand, and enjoy being chauffeured about. It’s not expensive. Their local knowledge will easily trump your hours of research, and you can give yourself a pat on the back for putting money in the local economy. Bali isn’t big, but it isn’t small (a useful observation), the narrow roads can get very busy, so it can be slow going. Take advice off the driver about what will fit into a day’s sightseeing. Give them some options but be flexible and you’ll get the most out of your time.
Or hire a scooter. They’re cheap. You will see school children as young as nine weaving through the traffic with two classmates riding pillion. You don’t need to wear a helmet and if you’re lacking a bit of confidence, a couple of pints of Bintang will give you the boost you need. If your holiday insurance doesn’t cover the cost of transporting your remains home, there are some very nice graveyards in the area. Traffic accidents, especially on scooters, are the number one cause of deaths in Bali (three a day). They drive on the left, ignore lane markings, have odd rules at junctions and no driver on the roads has ever passed a driving test. Don’t hire a scooter.
There are amazing temples and shrines to visit near Ubud alongside stunning royal palaces. I was shamefully ignorant of the local history and wish I’d done more reading before I went. The widespread religious devotion is fascinating to witness. It’s evident in buildings thousands of years old and in the daily offerings placed on every street in front of every home and business. One day during our vacation was a kind of ‘bless your form of transport’ feast day. Every car was festooned with palm decorations and flowers, whole communities got together for processions. That night live music echoed down the valleys in the countryside. One can mock the new age religiosity that copies this, but it’s genuine for the locals, and Bali is legitimately a place of spiritual pilgrimage. I found the religious devotion of the people charming. It’s a big part of why I liked Bali so much.
The Monkey Forest and temple complex are just outside Ubud town centre. It’s a great attraction, so cool, green and tranquil; it would be a grand afternoon even without the monkeys. They’re very habituated and will clamber over anybody in search of a piece of banana giving plenty of cute photo opportunities. One tried excitedly, and energetically, to rip my wife’s bra off; much to the amusement of onlookers. Less so my spouse. If your spirits aren’t uplifted by the Monkey Forest, you might want to check your pulse. I left wreathed in blissful smiles.
But you don’t have to visit ‘places’, just go for a walk in the countryside. It’s worth taking a guide, you might be pestered for some small change if you stroll on someone’s land. Our second stay was in smallish hotel called Cepik Villa in a village called Sideman (book the best rooms, they’re cheap and superb). It was our way of seeing the ‘real Bali’, away from the crowds. Sideman is well situated for trips up the volcano, Mount Agung. My niece Lauren did that very trek, setting off before dawn and arriving at the summit to watch the sunrise. She said it was a great, if knackering, experience and it’s one I aim to share as soon as they’ve fitted an escalator.
There isn’t much to see or do in Sideman, but it has a mellow, country retreat feel to it. A local chap took us on a walk through the paddy fields and farmland. He explained how, when, and where crops were planted and all that. They certainly know the secret of a long life. He looked about eighteen, but it turned out he was in his thirties, married, and with two kids. He said his grandma was 103 and growing a new set of teeth (I did not verify this claim).
We spent seven nights on Bali and in retrospect that was a mistake. You can’t do justice to a place as rich and varied this in such a brief time.
Should you go?
100% thumbs up. To save money, we visited at the end of the rainy season but what rain there was didn’t impact on our holiday too much. I found the humidity tiring, and that is less of a problem in the dry season, apparently. Accommodation is very reasonably priced, which is one reason why it is so popular with budget tourists and, for a few extra quid, you can stay in luxury hotels that would cost you four times as much in Europe. The flights from the UK can be pricey so you need to book early. We booked seven months before we went and paid £440 each for a return flight, nearer departure those same flights were £850 each.
It’s not hyperbole to describe Bali as awesome, book early, plan carefully, do some research, and it’s well worth a visit.
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