Although Bali is a perennial favourite with most Australians, I’ll admit I never really saw the point. Asia exoticism? Meh. Stuff I grew up with. Hot weather? Sydney summers are as warm, minus the humidity. Win. Beaches? Live near one. Yawn, yawn and more yawn.
That is, until I went there.
There’s a warmth and beauty about Bali that goes further than the beaches, the rice paddies and the temples. Bali’s bliss is, without a doubt, in its people and a tangible spirituality that infuses the entire place.
Landing at Nguh Rai, the Denpasar airport, we join the raucous, ballooning lines for a visa voucher for J. USD$25 and a voucher later, we join another line to get through immigration. The visa on arrival option is for Australian, UK, EU, Canadian and American passport holders and are valid for a 30-day stay. It’s best to have US dollars in cash ready to pay the fee.
After getting through immigration, we grab our bags from the carousel, and follow the “Keluar” signs to the exit. A row of moneychangers is the last obstacle to navigate – having done our research and with an approximate idea of fair exchange rates, J approaches the first counter (they all offer the same rate) to change some Australian dollars into Indonesian rupiah.
Outside, it’s chaos. There are people holding up signs, people shouting out names. The heat and the humidity are overwhelming, even at the late night hour we’ve landed in. I spot our names written on a piece of paper – our driver is there and waiting for us, as agreed on.
His name is Gung De, and over the next few days he’ll be our lifeline, taking us to popular sights, and recommending places to eat. Gung De speaks no English, lives near Seminyak, and has three young children. His nephew works with him as a driver, and he leases three cars to use in the business. He whisks us away from the heat, the humidity, the crowds and the airport, bundling us into his little green car, towards our hotel.
We had been told to avoid Kuta – awful, Western tourists everywhere, peddlars, beggars, touts – and advised to head for upmarket Seminyak, where there are private villas, cool restaurants and edgy bars. Disregarding the naysayers, we book two nights in Kuta, with plans to head to Ubud for the majority of our stay in Bali, and a daytrip diving to Tulamben later. There are plenty of hotels and resorts in Kuta, whether you are looking for luxurious 5 star rooms or a dorm bed for the night.
We chose a nondescript, midrange hotel on the southern end of Kuta Beach. There are no toiletries, and the building is big, concrete and a little depressing, but the saving grace are pink frangipani trees that border a blue, cool pool. After breakfast the next morning, we take a walk to the beach. It’s still relatively early, and there are few tourists out and about. We pass yawning drivers, bleary eyed and waiting for their first assignments, families on motorcycles visiting their local candi, or shrine, with offerings, and fortress-like resorts with guards and boom gates.
Since the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, most hotels in Kuta have tightened security. Guards at the gate check every vehicle that comes through, and drivers are only allowed through if they have the name of the guest they are picking up. This gave Kuta a little bit of an apprehensive vibe, but we were walking around dark, badly pot-holed roads of Kuta at almost midnight looking for an open warung on our first night, and we didn’t feel unsafe.
Kuta Beach is renown as a surfer’s hotspot, and the big, regular rollers attest to its popularity. With a vague sort of idea to rent a board and hit the surf, we start walking up the beach. There is rubbish underfoot, vendors hawking beach umbrellas, beach chairs, a massage or a beer – it’s 10 o’clock in the morning. One particularly persistent tout follows us for about 300 metres, offering surfboards, deck chairs, beach towels, coconut juice, a manicure, until, finally thwarted by our equally persistent and polite “No, thank you”s, he left us, looking puzzled that he couldn’t find anything to sell us.
We stop by Warung Made for lunch, buy a beach dress (IDR90,000) and two beach sarongs (IDR150,000), then head back to our hotel’s deck and poolside drink service to chill away the fierce afternoon heat.
Gung De is waiting for us at the appointed hour, and we head off to Pura Luhur at Uluwatu. An 11th century directional temple, Pura Luhur sits on top of some dramatic cliffs overlooking the sea. The best time to be there is sunset – but that also means you’ll have to jostle with the crowds who all come for the same reason. While waiting for the sunset, we are entertained by the antics of the local monkeys.
“Mereka ganas!” says Gung De (“They’re violent!”).
He gives us the once over as we enter the temple grounds – we have covered knees and the requisite ceremonial sash, then warn us to keep a close watch on our sunglasses and waterbottles as the monkeys have worked out that if they steal stuff from the hapless tourists, they get food in return. We pick our way through the temple, stumbling across a wedding ceremony in the temple’s holiest sanctuary. As the light leaves, I hear a voice calling my name. It’s Gung De, waiting for us with tickets (IDR70,000) to the nightly kecak dance at Uluwatu.
He rushes us into the arena. All the seats are taken and to the west, there is a spectacular sunset. We find a spot on the hot cement, and sit cross legged. The performers file in and form concentric circles around a flickering torch. The kecak’s defining trait is the all-male chorus. They are orchestra, background, props, and music. The performance at Uluwatu is engaging, showing scenes from the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic. The setting, despite the hard ground underneath us, is magical. The performance culminates with Hanuman, the monkey god’s, fire dance, and I suddenly realise it’s not a great idea to be sitting at eye level with the performers as live kindling and hot ashes fly around in the circle.
We end our night with a seafood dinner on the sands of Jimbaran beach. Despite asking for a local spot, Gung De drops us off at what is clearly a tourist-oriented establishment. Go to Travelfish for better places to indulge in a seafood beachside dinner – from post-trip research, Menega Cafe has been recommended by word-of-mouth.
There are set menus, but the prices are the same or slightly cheaper than Sydney prices. Undeterred, we order lobster, crayfish, prawns and some Bintang. The food is decidedly mediocre, especially compared to the quality we are used to in Australia, but the setting is divine. Candlelight flickers, a roving band plays live music, while the sound of the surf roars on in the background. The night is clear, cool and there is fine, white sand between my toes. Later on, as we dine, fireworks light up the sky.