We just spent a week in Bali, Indonesia (all of our pictures are posted here). To be honest, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Now, to also be fair, I think my expectations were quite out of proportion. We were told: “Bali is paradise” and that we should make sure to visit the “hidden gem” of Ubud. So, that’s pretty much what I expected – paradise with hidden gems. Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, Bali was very nice. Part of our vacation was very relaxing (thanks Mithra!), part of our vacation was cultural, and part of our vacation was active. Generally speaking, I would say that’s a good vacation. And, if I hadn’t had any expectations of Bali, it would have been wonderful. But, it’s Bali, and you do kind of have expectations, right? I mean why are all these people flying all the way around the world from the US, Canada, Europe to go to Bali if it’s not the wondrous paradise everyone says it is? Well, I can’t really answer that question because I didn’t see it. Maybe it’s because we travel a lot, and maybe it’s because we’re living in South East Asia already, and maybe it’s because there were so many people everywhere. Who knows. All I know is don’t even consider going to Bali unless it’s a measly 3 hour flight away from where you live (and even at that I’m not sure it’s worth it).
With the negatives out of the way, here’s the lowdown on our trip. Should you go to Bali, despite my earlier warnings, perhaps you will find this information useful.
We started with a 4 day stay in Nusa Dua at the amazing Grand Hyatt (thanks to Mithra for making that whole experience affordable for us). The Grand Hyatt was beautiful. If you’re looking for a beach vacation in any-town, SE Asia, this is the spot for you. Mithra managed to get us Club Lounge rooms which ment that we had free food and drinks all day (free alcoholic drinks from 5-7 every night) and access to a special club lounge pool which was empty every single day. It was the most relaxing 4 days I’ve ever spent. No worries about eating, no crowds at the pool/beach, georgeous room with one of those “rainfall” shower head things that are so popular in the US. It really was perfect. But, in a way, it was too perfect – there was no way to tell we were in Bali (aside from the offerings outside of the shops at the hotel). Nusa Dua is very sterile, catering to wealthy western tourists. It’s basically one long strip of 5 star resorts. Of course, you can’t see them from the beach or the road, but you know they’re there because of the long driveways.
After Nusa Dua, we headed up to Ubud, the “little gem” (along with the rest of the tourists on the island). Luckily we ended up staying in a beautiful little guest house a bit outside of the town in Nyu Kuning. Our room was gorgeous, we were the only ones at the beautiful pool, we had an outdoor shower and a huge sunken tub, the huge American or Indonesian style breakfast was served on our own balcony every morning, the owners were so kind and accommodating of our every request, and we got all that for US$40/night. Not too shabby.
Now the “hidden gem” of Ubud was not so much a “hidden gem” but more of a tourist hotspot/pitstop/central hub. Not quite the same feeling, if you know what I mean. There were shops selling the same crap you see everywhere (plus the occasional sparkly sandal and silk bag, both of which I purchased) lined up along the street, taxi touts everywhere shouting “you want transport?” one right after another, the sidewalks have an interesting stepped quality which makes walking up and down the large hills of Monkey Forest Road less fun than it might sound (yes, that’s the real name of the street), oh and of course, there’s the lurking monkeys everywhere (we already know I do not like monkeys). Yes, there are wonderful, cheap, restaurants, and beautiful temples, but they’re kind of hard to focus on, what with all the other clambering for your attention and worrying about tripping on the horrendous sidewalks.
We did enjoy 3 lovely day trips from Ubud. First, we visited the beautiful rice terraces of Tegalalang (and got roped into buying a US$13 carved wooden box from the shop keeper that has the “best view” of the paddies). Then we visited all of the major temples in the Ubud area on a day tour with a private driver (arranged by the hotel). We went to the Goa Gaga caves, Gunung Kawi, Kintamani, Besakhi, the Temple of Justice Klungkung.
Goa Gaga was very interesting. The carving around the entry to the temple shows god watching over the forest (you can see the animals and plants all around his face), with his hand pushing open the doorway for us and his eyes looking twards the entrance of the temple. We had an excellent guide that told us all about the sacred beliefs of all Balinese – focusing on karma and reincarnation – and then forced us to pay him a specific US dollar amount when he was done. We liked the temples, and the cave, but not the guilt.
Gunung Kawi was amazing. You walk down 371 steps with beautiful rice paddies on either side to get to the temple. Before you enter, you must sprinkle holy water on your head. When we went, the temple was mostly deserted, ironically the only other visitors were colleagues from my Ed. Leadership certificate program over at ISKL. We also got to wander into the actual area where the Balinese pray (because we were willing to remove our shoes, obviously that’s a problem for some people). The temple area was very peaceful and reminiscent of the buddha carvings that were destroyed in Afghanistan. I also got to see some chicks. I love chicks. And a waterfall. Then came the 371 steps back up to the entrance in the sweltering sun, wearing a sarong over my pants. Of course the entire way is populated by little stalls conviently selling tourist crap and cold water. “You want cold drink Lady?” “200 steps to go!” “You look tired Lady!” If I had stopped for a cold drink I’d still be there now, unable to force myself to climb those damn steps.
Kintamani had a breathtaking view of the huge volcano and lake in the center of the island. We would have enjoyed it more if our driver hadn’t cajoled us into lunch at yet another tourist trap which ended up costing a staggering US$23 (our other lavish meals never cost more than US$10).Although, our lunch did take place overlooking the beautiful view, and was a buffet so I do honestly feel I just about got my money’s worth (I can eat a surprising amount of fried rice, especially if chili spiced soy sauce is readily available)
Besakhi is the largest temple on Bali, and therefore one of the most visited by tourists. It is also the place where I finally lost my cool and had a bit of a “hissy fit.” To drive onto the temple grounds you must buy a ticket, which states a price of Rupiah 8,000/person. Somehow we ended up paying Rupiah 20,000 for two of us. “OK, no problem” I think to myself “it’s just 20 cents.” Then, as you walk from your car to the temple, a little man in a booth calls you over. He explained to us that every single person that visits the temple must take a local guide with them. No choice. You must. Oh, and you have to pay for the guide before you go. The usual rate is US$10. Alex handled this very delicately and gave the outrageous sum of US$5 for our unwanted guide (At this point I start to get angry, I made small mention of the fact that we paid an extra Rupiah 4,000 to enter the temple in the first place, doesn’t that count as “guide money?” No, that is the “tax”).
Then, we turn to walk up the mountain (please keep in mind the hot, tired Kimbo, being extorted only moments before) and the “sarong ladies” are right there yelling at us “You go to temple? You buy sarong. Must have sarong for temple! Rupiah 10,000 for one sarong!” And, that’s when I lost it. I calmly explained (only not exactly calmly, and not really explained, more like argued) that we had already been ripped off twice at this temple alone and I would not pay anyone another cent and now (since, by this point, I am officially “worked up”) I want my 5 dollars back.” All of a sudden the sarongs are included. Not that that made me any less angry. I mean, if the sarongs weren’t included a moment ago, and it only took me complaining about it to get them included, do we really need this guide? I do not like being deceived.
Anyway, we went to the temple and looked around. Our guide told us a few stories and prevented us from walking into certain sacred areas. It was fine.
Lastly we went to the Temple of Justice in KlungKung. By now Alex and I feel as if we have been driving around Bali for a month. My sun rash has returned with a vengeance and both my arms are bright red with itchy rashiness. I haven’t had enough water because I don’t want to stop to go to the bathroom and lunch is kind of rumbling around suspiciously in my stomach. But, to our surprise, the temple is beautiful, quiet, and free from beggars. One man asked (asked! what an idea!) if we wanted a personal tour, so we were able to say no. We wandered around for a while and enjoyed the splendidly painted ceilings and then made it back to the hotel.
On our final day in Bali we had the absolute best day of the week. We took a bike tour through the countryside (all downhill!).
It was so relaxing to finally be out in the country, to see the “real” Bali (or as close as we can get) and to be doing it all with the wind whipping through my hair. We got to see lots of little villages; lots of craftsmen and women carving for the tourist shops; a plantation with vanilla, cinnamon, pineapple, coffee, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, lemongrass, jackfruit, mango, durian, papaya, banana, etc, etc; have a delicious traditional Balinese lunch; and visit a private “middle-class” Balinese home. It was truly wonderful.
Now, I realize as I write this that I sound like I’m cheap or stingy. That’s not it at all. Every day we heard lesson after lesson about karma, only to be ripped off moments later. I found it hard to focus on the wonderful culture of the Balinese because none of the people we met (with very few exceptions) exhibited it. I felt that it was just like any other tourist ridden place, like Cancun or something, not something special like everyone believes. That’s what I didn’t like. And I’m not sure how you could go to Bali and avoid it, because it was everywhere…
But, maybe you love Bali. Tell me about it!