Bali is exactly what happens when a rich cultural heritage meets a lot of tourists. It takes some very deep cultural roots to survive as an island dominated by one religion in a country populated by another. Indonesia is a fast developing country going through all the challenges that come with it – an over-crowded capital, pollution, and overpopulation leading to overutilization of resources. Jakarta is sinking and the country is already planning a move of its capital. Bali seems to be untouched by a lot of the development, except on the tourism side of things. You can still find some amazing cultural experiences, beautiful sunsets behind temples, and delicious local food, only if you can get away from the crowds.
Bali itself has 4 different sides to it, each unique in its flavor and experience. The popular Seminyak and Kuta are the tourist hubs – full of bars, clubs, shopping streets, and loads of tourists. Nusa Dua is the Southern tip lined with 5-star resorts, clean beaches, and some fantastic watersports. Ubud is the cultural center of Bali with small stores selling local stuff, beautiful paddy fields, and many hikes and trails. This is also the base for a trip to the famous volcano and a hike to its rim. The crowds here have worsened over time. Then there is the rest of Bali, especially the Northwestern parts of the island. The tourism infrastructure here is thin and most people you will find are locals but the Airbnb culture is slowly changing that. You will find fewer major attractions but a lot more local flavor here.
My trip was planned in a very different life-stage and hence focused on things exactly opposite to what I would have done today. I spent 3 nights in Kuta and another 3 in Nusa Dua. If I ever went back, it would be 4 nights in Ubud and maybe 2 or 3 on a beach facing AirBnB in the North. Having said that, the Conrad in Nusa Dua was amazingly luxurious and the boutique hotel Kuta Playa was quite good too. I got a chance to explore the culture and the food but missed the snorkeling and scuba, as well as the hike to the volcano.
The first thing noticeable about Bali back in 2013 was how inexpensive everything was. One Indian Rupee was equivalent to 200 Indonesian Rupiah, so I bought a lot of things worth a few hundred thousand Rupiah but it was all quite reasonable. A good cocktail could cost as little at 50 INR in a good bar, about 20% of what it would cost in India. I started my trip with a local cocktail with some Nasi Goreng and fell in love with the food there. I had to be a little cautious of lemongrass, a spice I don’t like at all, but it was easy enough to find options. It was however not always easy to make a server understand that I didn’t want lemongrass.
While in Kuta, I explored the beach, the nightlife of the party district, some shopping in Symanyek, the fancy restaurants in the area, made a full day trip to Ubud, and an evening trip to Tanah Lot. That was a lot for three days and gave me only a little time to relax in the hotel pool and enjoy the view of the beach.
The beach is good to look at but was terribly dirty at the time. There were plastic packets, weed, ropes, and a lot of trash on the beach. I rented a surfboard and tried to remember the lessons I had taken in Hawaii. I did manage to stand once or twice, but nothing more than that.
Exploring the nightlife is not my cup of tea anyway, but I did spend a night walking around the party district with flashy lights and clubs playing loud music. Some of the clubs were quite impressive with multiple floors, each playing a different genre of music. Even when the music is good, that volume does not work for me and I quickly found myself at a shop serving magic mushrooms – these were the last few months they were legal. The guys blended a small bunch with cherry coke and I chugged it like a shot. Not much happened for 45 minutes but then I was seeing a parade in front of me. That was all I remember of the night.
The drive to Ubud was a pain!!! There is no other way to describe a situation when you get stuck in a traffic jam at a vacation destination. What should take a little less than an hour took well over two hours. There are a lot of single lane roads all over and at every traffic junction, there is usually a massive backup. That aside, the journey was stunningly beautiful with lush greenery and some small towns and stores in the middle. There were a lot of locally made products and they became denser as we approached the city. The main street of Ubud was lined with some souvenir shops and others selling local art and other utility goods. I have always enjoyed buying paintings from South East Asia and I quickly added to my collection. Silver jewelry, imitation clothing, home decoration objects, and many knick-knacks were tempting to buy. There were also these objects shaped like male genitalia with ornate decorations – apparently, they are a symbol of good luck.
It was a good day spent in Ubud, including a fantastic lunch. I can’t say if it makes up for all the time we spent in traffic, but being there was fun. There are some beautiful rice paddy fields to walk around if you wanted to avoid the markets. There were also shopping options on the way – most of them are typical tourist traps. There were stores selling jewelry with a couple of artists sitting right there making some demo items – the most obvious red flag. Some of the temples on the way were beautiful. This trip, though, wasn’t the last time I was stuck in traffic. Just the next day, the drive to Tanah Lot was also very slow.
Tanah Lot is on the Western coast of Bali and this makes sunset the best time to visit. I wasn’t the only one who thought so – there was a jam to get there and a jam to get back. I barely managed to get there in time for the Sunset. A lovely street market greets you at the entrance and as you walk across toward the beach, navigating the crowds you find out that the temple itself is on an island and not accessible at all tidal levels. The view, however, was wonderful. As was the food in the street market. Highly recommended place to watch a usually glorious sunset and get the market experience. If you are religious, you can also pay to perform ceremonies… I avoided that. The temple itself is a little bit into the sea and is only reachable by walking at low tide.
A few good restaurants and some shopping later, I was in a cab driving South towards the Conrad in Nusa Dua.