by aengelson | February 14th, 2011
A week ago, we traded frigid Hanoi for a weeklong Tet holiday in Bali.
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Bali. The name itself is loaded with meaning. Especially in the wake of the Elizabeth Gilbert juggernaut. It’s a travel bloggers’ rule, apparently, that you can’t write fifty words about Bali without mentioning Eat Pray Love. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but millions have, and they’re flocking to the island as a result.
What you mean by “Bali” depends on your experience. To some, it means a lost-weekend drunken bacchanalia in Kuta. For others, it’s a New Age-y trip of self discovery amid yoga mats, nouvelle vegetarian cuisine and cappuccinos in Ubud. For others, it’s curling waves ripe for surfing, or scuba-friendly reefs teeming with a technicolor assortment of fish. To some, Bali means a deep and longstanding Hindu culture of elegance in every detail: whether it’s the pretty little offering baskets scattered everywhere or the stylized motions of the Legang dance.
Some people hate it and some people love it. We definitely leaned toward the latter category.
We’d had some good luck to start: the eruption of Gunung Bromo in eastern Java didn’t interfere with our flight, although the day before we left, ash from the volcano, 300 km away, caused the cancellation of a dozen flights. We hoped it would kick back into action just as we were about to leave. You could do worse than be stranded on Bali.
We arrived at about 10 pm and had our taxi driver take us straight to the town of Ubud, near the center of the island. It was a good choice (and he loved the lack of traffic). We tucked into our beds at Sama’s Cottages and then awoke to a teeming tropical garden filled with twittering birds. When breakfast and coffee arrived at our doorstep, I knew we’d made a good choice.
Ubud is touristed, no doubt. But the tourism, for the moment at least, still seems designed to support the beauty and culture of the place–rather than the other way around. But it’s a critical moment for Ubud it seems. It’s such a lovely place that it’s bound to keep getting inundated with heaps of visitors. It may reach a tipping point when it’s no longer pleasant. And for those who knew Bali decades ago, it probably already feels too far gone.
But not for us. Joanie and I visited Bali during our round-the-world trip in 2000, and it was one of the few places on our itinerary where we lengthened our stay. It felt special then, and it still does, even though there are plenty of flip-flop-clad gringos walking its streets.
What’s to like about Ubud? Well in terms of frivolous pleasures, Ubud sometimes feels like a classic example of Stuff White People Like. But heck, I guess that’s what I am, so why not embrace it? The cappuccino and carrot cake at Tutmak Cafe was just like I remember it, and it was nice to linger over the newspaper under the whirling fans. I’m not one for shopping generally, but we did find some nice Balinese wood carvings. Even thought there are plenty of touristy junk shops, there’s actually a lot of quality stuff here, if you’re into that.
Throughout the trip we ate very well. Casa Luna, not far from our hotel, served up some scrumptious Balinese food, including fish and shrimp patties skewered on lemongrass, and laway ayam, a traditional green bean salad laden with garlic and coconut. Oh, and the lime-mango meringue pie was pretty damn good too. Another night we noshed on “Balinese tapas” at Nomad and sipped caipirinhas made with Balinese gin and lots of crushed lemongrass. OK–scoff if you want. It was yuppie, but it was delicious. Elsewhere in Bali, we dined on everything from squid in black pepper sauce to the traditional Indonesian nasi campur, a rice dish accompanied by all sorts of side dishes, from curried chicken to fried tempeh. Oh, and we sampled bakso, the ubiquitous noodle soup, once at the end of the trip and we wished we’d eaten more.
But it wasn’t just about the food. Ubud is the cultural heart of Bali, and there’s a lot to see. Even a relatively minor temple such as Pura Gunung Lebah is stocked with sculptures of snarling demons, googley-eyed warriors, and pensive maidens. It’s all elegantly eroding and covered in a patina of green moss. But the temples and culture here are still vital–this isn’t some relic or museum, and the arts of sculpture, wood carving, dance, and Hindu religion all continue to be integral to Bali’s way of life. I guess that’s what’s most appealing about Bali–that amid the tourism and commercialization these traditions still hold meaning, and the arts are more a part of Balinese culture than just about any other place I can think of.
We went for a walk outside town and this is essential for appreciating the place. We hoofed up Campuan Ridge, which is as lovely as I remember it ten years ago: thick jungle in the valleys, a grassy open ridge with views to the terraced rice field in the distance. And so many shades of green. We saw and heard many birds and Fiona discovered an immense and beautiful black spider with yellow stripes. Impressive, from a distance!
One evening we took the girls to a traditional dance. Again, it’s geared for tourists, but you can see a relatively authentic and skilled rendition of dances the Balinese have been performing for hundreds of years. We took the girls to a Legong performance outside the Ubud Palace. Though they sometimes squirmed at having to sit for an hour, they were fascinated by the colorful costumes, the tales of love and battles, the elegant movements. Balinese dancers communicate more with a small flick of the eyes or a splaying of the fingers than with most dancers do with larger motions of the body. The banging xylophone concussion of the gamelan orchestra heightens the dramatic effect.
After Ubud, we took a long taxi trip on winding roads to eastern Bali and Amed. The girls were tired and queasy after the three-hour ride, and we slumped into our room at Geria Giri Shanti Bungalows, a simple but elegant place owned by Dutch expats. The black sand beaches in Amed aren’t spectacular, but it’s very quiet and peaceful in the shadow of the conical summit of Gunung Agung. After a day of relaxing, we spent the next day getting out to a beach renowned for snorkeling.
We rented motorcycles snorkel gear and and zipped out to a place known simply as “the Japanese wreck.” It was fantastic. As Fiona said after coming out of the water after her first go at snorkeling: “that wasn’t what I expected! I didn’t expect so many fish and so much coral!” The fish were simply amazing: little blue ones, yellow and black angel fish, pink and green ones, and coral in brainy twists and spiky filigrees.
Later in the afternoon, after we finished our underwater adventure, a thunderstorm arrived, and we took shelter in a hilltop place called Wawa Wiwi. We ate curried fish and french fries drank beer and Fanta and had banana pancakes for dessert, all the while watching the rain pound down. When it let up, we scooted off on our bikes. The rain stared up again and we we had a few exciting and soggy crossings where the surging brown creeks overflowed the road. But it was all part of the adventure. The girls seemed to really enjoy it.
On our final evening, we watched a traditional kechak dance at sunset at the temple of Ulu Watu, on the southern tip of Bali. It’s a stunning location, even if it’s jam-packed with tourists and aggressive monkeys (they’ll make a lunch of your glasses in no time). The performance, even though it’s for the benefit of tourists, is spectacular and the setting superb. The girls especially liked the antics of the trickster monkey hero Hanoman, who goofed with the tourists and eventually rescued the princess Sita after jumping through a ring of fire.
By the time we began to really relax and switch to “Bali time,” it was time to return home. We spent a night in Kuta, not too far from the airport. Kuta is a grotty dump of a backpacker ghetto filled with drunken Aussies stumbling about and a glut of seedy tourist shops and all-night bars, some with “all you can drink beer buffets.” The hotel we stayed was a bit removed from all that, but the rave that started at 4 a.m. still woke some of us. If the party-goers had only waited til 5, it would have been the perfect wake-up call for our early flight.
We found what we wanted in Bali. It wasn’t the same as it had been ten years ago, but it was still lush and relaxing and elegant.