Although a part of Indonesia, the tiny island of Bali has an identity of its own. Lush green rice terraces, orange fields, rugged coastlines, sandy beaches and barren volcanic hillsides provide a picturesque backdrop to Bali’s colourful, deeply spiritual and unique culture. Expect thrilling water sports, enchanting temple ceremonies, mesmerising dance performances, unlimited shopping, exciting festivals and unforgettable food.
During my journey from the quaint little airport to my hotel, my driver was kind enough to tell me that 75 per cent people in Bali practise Hinduism, something that I had realised too. There were multiple Shiva, Vishnu and Garuda temples all along the way. I won’t forget the pristine white structure of Arjuna on his chariot with Krishna guiding him that stood right in the middle of the road. It was huge and well crafted. I fell in love with Bali’s traditional architecture and old charm right then.
Art—both traditional and modern—is everywhere in Bali and impossible to miss. Ubud is the artistic capital of the island with several museums and informal workshops and retail outlets. Ubud’s museums showcase the works of local and foreign artists, who either have a strong affinity to Bali or who have made the island their permanent home.
You will find a huge range of locally produced paintings, baskets, stone and wood carvings, silver and shell jewellery, ceramics, natural paper gifts and glassware. If you love craft items and have enough time on your hands, head to one of the places where they are made. You will get the satisfaction from buying an article direct from the maker and seeing the craftsman in action.
Bali is relatively small in size—you can drive around the entire coast in a single day. Being a volcanic island, there’s black sand everywhere. However, some beaches in the south of Bali have fine-grained white sand. Needless to say, they are a must visit. So I headed off to explore Kuta, a beach spot where I spent several days.
With an array of restaurants, pubs, shacks and eating joints, Kuta is a food lover’s paradise. Besides the many local shacks [which are a must try] Kuta also has all the international food chains. My suggestion would be to skip these and go straight into one of the old-world, local shacks that serve brilliant Balinese food.
Two things you absolutely mustn’t miss in Bali are Balinese food and Balinese massage—both of which you can find in Kuta. In food, grilled chicken with sliced shallots, chillies and lime, grilled chicken with red chilli and shrimp paste sauce and/or steamed chicken cooked with Balinese herbs and spices are dishes to die for.
As for the massage [available at massage parlours all over Kuta and Ubud], the Balinese Lulur body scrub with herbs and spices—traditionally performed before a wedding ceremony—is particularly popular and makes you feel like a million bucks. The regular Balinese massage is usually done with oil and involves long, Swedish-style relaxing strokes. Compared to the way they leave you feeling, the massages are surprisingly inexpensive, and offer a great value for your money. Don’t forget to include it in your itinerary.
Another thing that I loved about Kuta is its friendly people—the locals are ever ready to help. In fact, it was one of the locals who suggested that I go to Nusa Dua and try the water sports. Nusa Dua here I come…
Nusa Dua has lot of adventure—from parasailing, banana boat ride, flying saucer, snorkelling, scuba diving to glass boat rides. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t swim. But Nusa Dua had just the right thing for me—deep sea walking! I was taken to the middle of the sea by boat and then down a flight of stairs on to the sea bed.
I was wearing an oxygen mask that my instructor taught me to use. Since it’s not possible to talk underwater, I was taught signs that helped me communicate with the instructor. That done, I was eager to explore underwater world on my feet. Feeling the sea weed with my naked feet, feeding colourful fish with bread and watching colourful vibrant activity was by far the most enriching and powerful experiences of my life.
Bali offers one of the finest varieties of water sports. And not wanting to miss out on the fun, I did it all. The flying saucer was particularly exhilarating. I still remember every detail like it was just yesterday. My boat was attached to a parachute and I had to lie on the boat with my hands and feet tied.
The boat sped through the water and just as I was coming to grips with the feeling, suddenly the boat was airborne and so was I. I also went on a banana boat ride, along with four other people and an instructor. We were given life jackets and were taken by a speeding boat to the middle of the sea [at least that’s what it seemed to me] and thrown into the water. You get the scare and the thrill of your life; not recommended for the weak-hearted. You may also want to try white water rafting, which you can find in Ubud.
To simply witness the fish and marine life without getting wet, go for the glass boat ride. The boat has a glass bottom that serves as a window to the life underwater and it’s a great option if you’re with children or elders.
While in Bali, don’t miss Ramayana performances by the locals, which most hotels organise. My hotel had one too. The Balinese interpretation of Ramayana is the same as the Indian, though the performance is without dialogue and absolutely mind boggling. It takes you to another level.
Bali’s culture and history are mystifying. You cannot fail to see the temples, come across ceremonies and witness daily offerings. Those who take the time and effort to understand what is going on around them, will find their visit rewarding on an entirely different level.
When in Bali I also did a lot of sightseeing—I visited a turtle farm, temples, and a Bartic and silver factory [where they show you how jewellery is made]. I also saw a volcano, a hot spring temple and Shiva temple overlooking a cliff.
With every visit and each experience, I loved Bali more, and more. Although each place was memorable, being a coffee lover, my visit to the coffee plantation holds a special place in my heart. It was a delightful experience to see different kinds of coffee being grown. I even got the opportunity to drink one of the most unique coffees at their café by the hills. This coffee was made from the excreta of an animal that lives eating coffee beans; it was one of the strongest coffees I have had till date.
Bali is a shopper’s paradise. Here you can get everything from simple bangles, beaded necklaces, wooden rings to boutique dresses. Recommended are silver products from the silver factory, crockery items like plates and cups, cloth paintings, wooden frames, and carved statues.
Besides that Bali is famous for cut work, so like me, get a great cut work t-shirt or dress. Clothing is a real draw. Popular sportswear brands are available in Kuta and Legian for prices approximately 30 – 50 per cent lower than you would pay at home. If the mass market is not your thing, try the ever-increasing number of chic boutiques in Semiyank and support young local designers. Jalan Laksmana is a good starting point. Dried spices and coffee are popular items to take home. Most supermarkets have specially designed gift packages for tourists, or, if you are visiting Bedugul, buy at the Bukit Mungsu traditional market. Whatever you are buying, make sure you are in your best bargaining mode, as these skills will be required except in the higher-end stores that specifically state that their prices are fixed.
Beware of counterfeit goods unless that is what you’re looking for. Bali is well-known for its knock-offs and you can buy anything from fake Rolexes to fake Raybans at the local markets.
There is a such a huge range of affordable products for you to buy, that shopping can overwhelm your visit if you allow it to!
From Bali, I took home a bag full of things and a heart full of memories.
This was first published in the March 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.