Bali is to Australians what Mallorca is to the British and Cancun is to Americans, a cheap beach holiday destination. But one person’s popular vacation spot is another’s exotic off-the-beaten-track escape. Our Bali is altogether different again and, somewhat surprisingly, we’re besotted with it.
We must have been the only two Australians who didn’t have Indonesian stamps in their passports when we recently touched down in Denpasar. Despite Terence being a dedicated surfer in his misspent youth and Bali being a world-class surfing destination, we’d avoided Bali like the plague because of its colossal popularity with Australians.
Not that we have anything against our fellow country-people, we just didn’t want to go to a place where every accent was an Australian one, so when we first started travelling together we ventured to places like Mexico, the USA, and Cuba instead.
When Bali was suggested to us as a destination for our 2010 grand tour, we initially grimaced. But when Sarah, our project partner at HomeAway said she thought it would be good to include an off-the-beaten-track destination like Bali, we gave it some thought. If Bali was exotic to some travellers — something we’d never considered it could be — then maybe it was worth discovering. Maybe there was more to Australia’s answer to Benidorm after all.
As it turned out, Bali would be both all we’d dreaded and hoped for, and more. Kuta is our idea of hell, with its McDonalds and Pizza Huts, and Legian and Seminyak, which the guidebooks call “chic” and “upmarket” in actual fact aren’t that much better. Ubud, in the hills, is much more attractive, with its abundance of art and craft galleries and countless opportunities for experiencing Bali’s rich culture.
But the location of our latest ‘home away from home’ in Bali on the edge of a small rural village called Tumbak Bayuh, more than a 30-minute drive to Kuta, is something altogether different again. The only way our experience of living in Bali could be more local would be if we were to couchsurf on a neighbour’s sofa.
Located on a narrow lane that leads in one direction over a skinny bridge and river to a football oval and vivid green rice fields, and in the other to our laidback little village that’s surrounded by even more lush green rice paddies, our gorgeous villa feels isolated in good way.
If we were to mix a villa soundtrack it would be layered with the sounds of roosters, chickens and pigs, frogs, gekkos and cicadas, beautiful birdsong, and the occasional barking dog. This is Bali at its most bucolic. (We’ll take you on a walk through the village in another post.)
The villa itself is simply beautiful. Set in lush tropical gardens, there are ponds of crimson water lilies and Japanese koi, stone statues of Gods and trickling fountains, and an inviting green swimming pool. (The gardens are so beautiful we’ve created a photo gallery of them here.)
Inside, the living rooms (one upstairs that can sleep extra people and one down), bedrooms (there are two in the main building and a guesthouse behind the villa), and bathrooms are equally lovely, decorated with Indonesian puppets, carved wooden statues, heavy teak furniture, traditional textiles, and more stone Gods. It’s like something out of a glossy house and garden magazine.
Owned by a university professor who lives in Hong Kong but escapes here to write, there’s a handy office with computer and fax, bookshelves of fiction, non-fiction, guidebooks and maps, a DVD collection, and wireless Internet access (although it’s unfortunately a tad expensive).
And as we’ve come to expect from properties the owners also stay in, there are lots of little touches that make the place special — fresh flowers, plenty of big towels for the bathroom and pool, and homemade soaps and shampoo. The only thing missing was a hairdryer. There are even pets! A dog called Dinah who we’ve become smitten with, and two not-so-friendly cats.
In the mornings after making the beds, the housekeeper scatters fragrant frangipanis on the fresh sheets and places them in little nooks, while in the evening the night watchman comes to fix the mosquito nets, shut the windows, and light mosquito coils. You heard right. There are even staff!
The idea of staff was the only thing we were uncomfortable with, being egalitarian Aussies who like to look after ourselves. Indeed, staff won’t suit everyone, such as honeymooners after privacy and ‘romance’. But for families looking for a complete escape, the housekeeper Kuman can also babysit, and, best of all, the villa also has an excellent cook, Desak.
As food is such an important part of our Grantourismo project this year — the convenience of a kitchen and the opportunity to cook local produce being a major reason that many people choose a holiday rental over a hotel — and Terence being such a brilliant cook, we initially didn’t like the idea of having a villa chef. However, we decided to give it a shot — in the name of research of course. It turned out to be a wonderful thing.
While we felt terribly spoiled having our breakfast laid out for us each day — platters of fresh fruit and pots of hot coffee, and, if we wanted it, eggs, toast, pancakes, and so on — what we most enjoyed was trying all the different Balinese dishes. In Indonesia, like many countries, they say the best food isn’t found in the restaurants but is in the homes. Well, that’s what we got to eat every day!
Having staff also gave us access to Balinese culture in ways that wouldn’t be possible staying in a hotel. Each day, the boys — either our gardener-cum-pool cleaner or the night watchman — would come and make offerings in the garden. Staff would regularly check the Balinese calendars found in every home for ceremonies (and in Bali, it seems, there is one every day!) and tell us if there was a cremation or temple birthday on.
In the villa information book, the owner had written “please treat the staff well — they are our family”. Well, they quickly became our family too, as you’re about to find out…