Best of Bali – The Things We Love About Indonesia’s Beguiling Island
We’re back in Bangkok, we’ve just spent six months in Vietnam, and we’re still sharing stories from Australia with you, so why on earth are we posting about the best of Bali you’re probably asking. Well, knowing we loved the Bali we experienced when we stayed in a villa for a couple of weeks, our friends at Fathom asked us to write about our Best Day Ever in Ubud for their readers.
The lovely folks at Fathom, with whom we share a similar travel philosophy, are running a contest in which the winner gets to ‘live and shop like a local in Bali’. Unfortunately the contest is only open to US residents, however, it’s such a fab prize we couldn’t resist telling our American readers about it (details here) and reminiscing about Bali in the process. Here’s what we loved about the Indonesian island…
The Balinese People
“Hello! Hello!” I remember two skinny little kids calling out to us from behind a dilapidated brick wall, a short distance down the lane where we stayed. “Hello!!!” we shouted back and they smiled shyly. Opposite, at the entrance to another home, a young woman looked up from sweeping her courtyard to smile generously. Chickens sprinted across the yard behind her where an elderly man, dressed handsomely in a batik sarong and headband, placed an offering at a shrine, before waving to us. Moments later, an old lady twinkled her eyes and gave us a toothless grin. By the time we reached the end of the lane, we had been greeted by a handful of people and we would be welcomed by two dozen more by the end of our stroll a couple of hours later. Bali must be home to some of the world’s friendliest people. Read more about our local encounters here and meet one of those friendly people, Kiki, our local knowledge expert here.
Bali has always been a mythical destination for surfers around the world, Terence included, and that was one of the reasons why we finally went to Bali. Some surfers settle into Bali for months on end, knowing that during the time between April and September when the trade winds blow offshore, the swell is as persistent as a sarong seller on Kuta Beach. The famous surfing spots of Uluwatu and Padang Padang on the Bukit Peninsula are legendary and even the tamer surf spots of Kuta Beach and Canggu, near where we stayed, turn on classic surf for much of the winter. That combined with the beauty of the beaches make it a surfer’s paradise and the surf is one reason Terence is keen to return again one day. See more of his pictures of that magical surf here.
Bali’s landscapes are bucolic, so make an effort to get out into the countryside for a drive. The island’s narrow country roads are lined with towering palm trees heaving with coconuts, banana plants bearing bunches of the sugary fruit, and as far as the eye can see, lush terraces of rice paddies. In the rice fields, workers shake mechanical contraptions that stretch convolutedly above the green paddies, making a pretty tinkling sound intended, along with the ubiquitous scarecrows, to frighten the birds away from the crops. In the late afternoons and on weekends, children fly kites high in the sky. From sunrise to sunset, workers tend their farms, helped out by their neighbours.
Bali’s diminutive villages are worlds away from the sprawling tourist towns of Kuta and Seminyak, as you’ll discover if you go for a drive, stop the car in some out-of-the-way village, and take a wander. Villages are dotted with warungs, simple wooden stalls selling snacks and shacks boasting little more than basic groceries, a fridge of cold drinks, and a table with a few stools that serve as a meeting place for locals. In between the warungs are temples decorated with stone carvings and flowers growing out of the cracks between bricks. Walled family compounds house moss-dappled pavilions, their yards hosting a motley collection of animals. Everywhere there are people, whizzing by on motorbikes and scooters, doubling two and three family members or friends, or riding bicycles laden with sacks bursting with just harvested crops that spill onto the bitumen as they trundle past.
Ceremonies and Festivals
There is a ceremony or festival on somewhere on Bali every day and Terence was able to photograph a Royal Cremation Ceremony during our stay. Hanging on the wall of our villa kitchen and almost every home in Bali are Balinese calendars, consulted by locals on a daily basis. No Balinese person would hold a ceremony – or do pretty much anything – without first studying the calendar to select an auspicious date. While Balinese make offerings and perform temple-cleansing rites on significant dates such as the Sasih New Year, there are many local ceremonies where dates are chosen from the calendar due to their auspiciousness. There are times when it is best to meditate or socialise, marry or divorce, bury or cremate. Ask a local and they will consult their calendar to tell you the best date to visit a temple so you just might happen upon a ceremony or festival.
Rituals and Offerings
Life on Bali is imbued with rituals – religious, spiritual and social, complicated and simple – from the events marked on the Balinese calendar to the daily offerings made at Hindu temples. Every day Balinese people make offerings at shrines, where they place colourful baskets of fruit, flowers and incense. The offering or banten is the only demonstration of Balinese spirituality that most visitors will witness and it’s wonderful to be given the privilege to watch – from the respectful placement of the offerings on a shrine to the lighting of the incense sticks and wafting of the fragrant smoke.
Balinese food is not only unique within Asia it’s different to the cuisine of Indonesia’s other islands, distinguished by distinctive dishes traditionally eaten for feasts, such as bebek betutu (marinated duck wrapped in banana leaf) and babi guling (suckling pig), which you’ll see at roadside stands. Another dish that is unique is Bali’s version of satay, ayam betutu, consisting of mince pounded together with basa gede, the same sauce used to marinate the meat, and shaped around ‘skewers’ of lemongrass or bamboo. Our villa chef, with whom Terence traded cooking lessons, provided us with a wonderful introduction to Balinese cuisine and the delicious recipes.
The artistic and cultural heart of Bali for centuries, Ubud‘s streets are lined with galleries, cafés and craft shops. There’s no denying the town is commercial and it does get crowded with tourists, but amongst all the shops selling tacky souvenirs, there are beautiful stores specializing in traditional textiles, crafts and original art. Art lovers should also visit Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA), Museum Puri Lukisan and Neka Art Museum. A major centre of learning, the place is perfect for experiential travellers. You can learn almost anything, from Balinese painting and woodcarving to dance and drama, and ARMA has a popular program of cultural and artistic workshops. I learnt to make offerings while Terence had a lesson in playing the gamelan.
Monkeys are sacred to Balinese culture and meandering Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary to see the cheeky Balinese long-tail macaques tops most travellers’ to do lists. Visit any Balinese temple or museum and you’ll notice that the monkey features prominently in the architecture, sculpture and performances. The sanctuary is home to about 300 macaques and if you stroll through with food, you’ll quickly be befriended by a monkey or five. They’re adorable as long as they’re not stealing your handbag.
Arts and Crafts
Bali has long been a centre for traditional arts and crafts and almost every visitor returns from a stay on the island with a suitcase crammed with carvings, masks and vibrant textiles. Every town boasts a market and Ubud Markets is one of the island’s best. For the finest quality mementoes, however, visit fair trade shop Threads of Life for authentic, exquisite Balinese textiles, handicrafts and prints. The traditional weavers that Threads of Life works with live in villages too remote to benefit from tourism, so you can leave knowing they’ve benefited from your purchases, as well as having a bag full of beautiful souvenirs.
To get more of a taste of our tranquil stay in Bali, take a minute to watch this little video we made.