Welcome back for the final installment of my trip: Bali, Indonesia!
Bali is one of the many islands that make up the archipelago (cluster of islands) of Indonesia. Hilary and I flew into Bali from Singapore, and our first stop here was a small beach town named Sanur. When I thought about Bali, images of beautiful beaches immediately came to mind. Upon arriving at the beach, though, I was disappointed to find that Sanur beach did not match those in my imagination. (I believe there are some beaches in Bali that are quite nice, but sadly I was not able to get to these. Plus, I think I’m spoiled by the beaches in Thailand.) The water wasn’t that clear, crystal blue color I was expecting, and the sand was not fine and white. This didn’t stop me, though, from enjoying my beach time. On the first day we were there, I rented a kayak and took it up and down Sanur Beach. Unfortunately, the water was not clear enough for me to see to the bottom but it was still nice to get out on the water. Hilary and I lounged on the beach listening to music and reading books, and also spent some time swimming in our hotel’s pool. The hotel we stayed in was very nice and had a beautiful, lush garden immediately outside our door. After a few conversations in Sanur, Hilary and I decided that we would split up for the rest of our trip. We realized that we wanted to do completely different things and it didn’t make sense to travel together. So, after spending 2 days at the beach I hired a driver to take me to Ubud, Bali. (Hiring drivers is very typical because cheap, public transportation around the island is a bit difficult to come by.)
Ubud was a wonderful place to visit and most of my fond memories of Bali come from my time spent here. Fun fact, Ubud is where Julia Roberts’ character in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book/movie Eat, Pray, Love finds love. While I did not fall in love with a man in Ubud, I did fall in love with something else: Balinese food! This leads me to my first highlight:
A Balinese cooking class: After my first few days in Bali, I realized I loved eating Balinese food, so I decided to take a cooking class to learn how to make it for myself at home. I ended up being in a small class with a couple from Holland, which was nice for all of us because it meant we got to eat more food! First, our teacher/cook took us to a local market to show us the ingredients with which we’d be cooking. I realized that Indonesia and Thailand share a lot of the same fruits and vegetables, so it was fun to find similarities between the markets in Bali with those in Thailand. After our tour, we went to the small cooking school where we made Balinese sauce (spicy peppers, onions, garlic, lemon and a few other ingredients) which we added to all of our other dishes. These included spiced rice, Pepes (chicken or fish, coated in Balinese sauce, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed and then grilled), ground chicken kebabs with peanut sauce, and Balinese pancakes (similar to crepes made with rice flour, filled with butter and palm sugar). Yum! Everything was unbelievably delicious!
A bike tour: I wanted to take a trip outside of Ubud, which is pretty touristy, to see the villages and rice paddies in Bali so I decided what better way to do this than to ride a bicycle through it! I found a tour company who picked me up at my hotel with a group of other tourists and took us about an hour away from Ubud to the countryside. The group I ended up joining was an extended family celebrating their father’s/grandfather’s 60th birthday, but they quickly welcomed me in. Our first stop was at a coffee plantation where we got to sample some Balinese coffee as well as ginger tea, lemon tea, and hot chocolate. Then, they took us to a town (via van) called Kintamani which overlooks Mount Batur, an active volcano, with a beautiful lake at the foot of it. Here we ate breakfast at a restaurant which overlooks the volcano and the lake. The views were stunning! (see pictures below) After breakfast, our bike tour began. The trail we took was a small paved road which meandered through a number of small villages. As we rode through them, many children came running out of the houses shouting hello and giving us high-fives as we biked by. We also rode through some beautiful rice paddies, many with multiple terraces. It was one of those trips where every single site I saw seemed to come straight from a calendar. After our bike tour, we had a delicious Balinese lunch at the owner of the bike company’s house.
Homestay: In Ubud, it is very common for tourists to stay in a family’s house rather than in a hotel. It is incredibly cheap (mine were $12 and $11/night) and it gives you a glimpse into what it’s like to live in Bali. I decided to try this out so I stayed in 2 different homestays, one for one night and the second for 2 nights. Both places I stayed were very nice as were the families who hosted me. For the most part, the families keep to themselves; your interactions with them are when you’re walking through their house to your room and then in the morning when they bring you a delicious breakfast of eggs and local fruit. The families I stayed with spoke little to no English but they were all very welcoming. I think the best part of the homestay was seeing where local families live/what their houses are like. Most families have a large courtyard with many small buildings built around this courtyard. The buildings house the kitchen, the bathroom, various bedrooms/living rooms for children and parents as well as the family temple, all scattered around the courtyard. Each small build essentially serves one purpose. It is very common for extended family to live together so most of these housing complexes are quite large and often have empty bedrooms if their children aren’t married yet. (When the children do marry, the males will move their wife/children into these empty bedrooms.) When Ubud became a popular tourist destination the locals started opening their houses up, allowing tourists to stay in their extra bedroom all the while providing a small income for these families/giving them a use for their empty bedrooms. Most of the buildings are made with brick and the insides often have wood floors. The courtyard is full of flowers, trees and other lush vegetation. My rooms in both of my homestays were toward the back of the courtyard and had a bedroom, bathroom and small balcony. They were clean and comfortable to stay in, although the latter was a bit nicer. I really enjoyed how I could walk through the courtyard as I was coming and going and see children running around the courtyard, people watching TV, the elders sitting outside or praying at their temple. It was a nice cultural experience! (My last 2 nights I stayed in a nice resort with a HUGE, luxurious room, an infinity pool overlooking a rice field, and exceptional service – so 2 very different lodging experiences.)
Temples, Museums and Shows: Ubud is a great place to visit if you want to learn about the culture of Bali. First, the temples there are stunning. Most Indonesians practice a form of Hinduism with traces of animism and even some magic. The temples are similar to houses in that they are all built open-air style (pura) with a wall surrounding the complex and various courtyards and compounds built within the complex. They are all built of brick (often a red color) and all of them have an intricately decorated brick gates throughout the courtyards. Most have pagoda-like tiered towers, shrines and pavilions all serving different purposes. One thing I noticed about many temples was that tourists are often not welcome inside, and if they are, they must follow a strict dress code of wearing long skirts to cover their legs and shirts that cover your shoulders. I was a bit put-off by this, but then I grew to appreciate it because it demonstrated how their religion is not a show for tourists but rather, it is something they take seriously and want to keep preserved and pristine. Another thing I enjoyed about Ubud was its art and art museums. Many artists live in Ubud and have shops where you can watch them work/purchase some of their work. Paintings, wood carvings and traditional Balinese intricate sketches of everyday life are the most common art forms. I spent almost an entire day shopping in Ubud, buying various wood carvings, paintings, jewelry and other local crafts. I also went to a Balinese art museum filled with both modern and ancient Balinese art. The one thing I noticed throughout all of the artwork was that it was themed around Hinduism or around everyday life. Balinese believe that there must be a balance between good and evil in the world (every object has a spirit, good or evil) so much of the artwork depicted the artists’ attempts to demonstrate that balance. Finally, there are many cultural shows put on by locals every evening throughout Ubud for tourists to attend at a small fee. On my first night I attended a traditional Balinese dance telling a Hindu story of various mythical creatures in a battle of good (a lion or Barong) against evil (a witch). The most striking thing about this dance was how the dancers incorporated facial and eye expressions to tell their story. Their eyes were almost a bit creepy in the sense that they were always open very wide and the dances would blink them in sync with the music. The other cultural show I saw was a shadow puppet play. A white canvas screen with a candle burning behind it illuminated the various outlines of the puppets. The puppeteer told an ancient Hindu story (of good against evil) in Balinese (the audience was given a description in English of the story) in both song or speech. This was very entertaining to watch as well as beautiful.
Rice paddy walk: Another fun thing I did was take a rice-paddy walk with a girl I met named Brittany. One morning we got up early and set off on a marked trail through some rice fields just outside of Ubud. At first we started walking on the terraces along the paddies, but soon realized, after Brittany fell into a paddy (full of water) that it would be best to stick to the dirt trail. 🙂 The views here were gorgeous: blue sky, bright green rice paddies with the sun reflecting off the water in each of the paddies. Truly breathtaking! On our walk back through the fields, we happened upon an organic, self-sustaining restaurant where Brittany ate the best meal both of us had had in months!
Tourism: Overall, I LOVED Bali. My one complaint about it, though, is that it is quickly being overrun by tourism. There are some things that are still well-preserved, such as the temples and art, but much of Bali/Ubud has been tainted by tourism and money. The minute you walk out onto the street you are literally accosted by men yelling “Taxi! Transport!” in your face. Even if you say no they follow you and say “OK, tomorrow! Taxi! Transport!” It’s hard to take in the scenery when there’s so many people yelling at you! Even when I was biking through the rural villages, most of the children seemed to expect to see foreigners biking through their neighborhood and seemed to make a game out of how many high-fives they could get. It wasn’t bad being greeted by these children but I began to feel sorry that these foreigners came parading through their villages everyday as if their town was on display. There are also a ton of foreigners who live in Ubud. Because of them there are tons of western restaurants overrunning the mom and pop shops, yoga studios on every corner and a sense that they run the town, rather than the natives. Also, the people who travel to Bali are a certain type. Most are couples or families with lots of money who stay in very comfortable accommodation. Many couples are on their honeymoon, and I often encountered groups of ladies in their 60s or so on a “Girl’s Trip to Bali” type experience. I’ll leave you with one funny story that appropriately sums up this latter group of travelers: I was in a bathroom at a restaurant washing my hands next to 2 older women from the U.S. As we all finished washing our hands, we looked around for a paper towel or something to dry our hands with. The paper towel dispenser was empty, so upon seeing this I just air-dried my hands and suggested that they do the same. The 2 women looked at each other, then back at me, and then one said, “What a cultural experience!!! They must air-dry their hands over here!!!”
Here are lots of pictures! Enjoy!