Elephant’s Leg


BALI HAIS AND LOWS – 5 DAYS IN INDONESIA’S TOURIST HAVEN
Balinese Hindu architecture

Balinese Hindu architecture

Last month I travelled to Bali, Indonesia, in what was primarily a social visit, as I have a friend who lives and works there. It hadn’t really occurred to me to visit Bali before, being that is an uber-touristy destination, but I figured that I would see more than beaches and bars with the combination of a local friend and my own inquisitive style of travelling. And so it was. As expected, the main tourist area of Kuta didn’t hold my attention, but some other parts of the island – unfortunately time constraints limited me to the south – were charming.

My thoughts on what I saw of Bali are as follows. It is not a chronological travelogue; more like a scrapbook of impressions and recommendations.

PLACES

Kuta Beach is the best-known, biggest, busiest and therefore worst place on the island. After landing, my friend Gavin met me at the airport and we went straight to Kuta, as his office is there. He wasn’t working so we dropped my luggage at his office and went for lunch and a walk around town.

My immediate impression was that I would never again complain about Bangkok’s pavements. Yes, Bangkok’s pavements are uneven and cluttered with vendors and the occasional motorbike, but at least we actually have them here! Parts of Kuta look like pedestrian thoroughfares, and are only wide enough to be that, but they serve as shortcuts for motorbikes drivers and to walk along these alleyways means you must be constantly vigilant for the possibility of getting your elbows smashed by a passing motorcyclist. And, of course, this likelihood does not mean anyone moderates their speed!

The beach reminded me of Patong in Phuket – not because it physically resembled it, but because it was a nice enough beach in its own right without quite being world class, and overrun by hawkers. Gavin and I strolled along the beach for a while in one direction, and then looped back along the beach road.

We hung around town, got a couple of beers, had a massage and dinner, and then went home to Gavin’s place. Having woken up at 3am for the early-morning flight from Bangkok, I wasn’t really able to face a night out, and slept through until almost noon the next day.

Renon is where Gavin lives. It is a suburb of Denpasar, the island capital, and a residential area. As such, there are no tourist attractions here, but after spending the day and evening in commercial, unauthentic Bali, it was nice just to see a normal neighbourhood.

Pura Jagatnatha temple

Pura Jagatnatha temple

Denpasar, the aforementioned island capital, was our desination for the second day, albeit with a late start thanks to my sleep-in. We rode up there on rented motorbikes and hoped to see the Bali Museum, which unfortunately was closed for the Kuningan Day weekend. Instead, we dropped in on the Pura Jagatnatha temple, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Sanghyang Widi. It was compact but a nice taster of Balinese Hindu heritage. However, it could have done without the aggressive in-house artist who made admittedly lovely paintings but lost a potential buy from me with the usual tourist-sales pitch of setting the opening price outrageously high and then dropping the price but being aggressive with it. This is not how a genuinely religious person should behave, and whether in a religious site or elsewhere, my mantra remains the same – greedy people get nothing from me.

After the temple, we walked over to Pasar Badung fresh market. It was colourful and vibrant but a little on the small side and offered nothing that I hadn’t seen in Thailand.

With Denpasar, again I drew a parallel with Phuket, this time with Muang Phuket, also the island capital. Given that it is inland and most tourists flock to both Bali and Phuket for the beaches, you don’t see as many foreigners there. There is not a lot to see and do in Denpasar but it is a good place to see Balinese people going about their daily lives, and despite being the administrative capital, it is a lot more relaxed than the commercial capital, Kuta.

Rice fields en route to Ubud

Rice fields en route to Ubud

Ubud provided a nice overnight excursion on Saturday-Sunday. It was said to be about an hour’s drive by motorbike from Kuta “if you know the way”. As Bali’s roads are quite poorly marked and signposted, it took us a little over two hours, but it was well worth the trip. The ride there cut through traditional Balinese neighbourhoods, lush green vistas with rice fields at the fore and mountains in the background.

The town was, in a word, lovely. Central Ubud is basically laid out in a loop which you can walk around in an hour or so, with a rice field inside the loop and quirky sidestreets offering trendy cafes and shops. Ubud is marketed as the “real Bali”, and while it is certainly more authentic than Kuta, the reality is that it is more like a tourist attraction with the “real Bali” theme – in other words, if you’re looking for something more ethnic than Kuta, but with a good tourist infrastructure, Ubud is the place to be. Consequently, it is more of a backpacker crowd here than the package-tourists at the beaches, but nowhere is Asia is actually “the real” representation of a country or culture when it is swarming with white people.

A contemplative character at the Monkey Forest Sanctuary

A contemplative character at the Monkey Forest Sanctuary

After arrival, we parked our bikes, had lunch and then walked south to the excellent Sacred Monkey Forest. It is a patch of rainforest with a defined paved route through. The jungle scenes are sometimes dramatic and always pleasant, although the atmosphere is inevitably very humid. You will encounter many dozens of tame macaques along the way and for the most part they are well behaved. While some visitors ignore the warnings not to touch or tease them, most of the animals are much less mischievous than their relatives in Thailand’s tourist areas. There was also what looked like a very nice temple in the midst of the complex, but this, too, was closed for Kuningan.

We continued the walk around the connecting loop of Monkey Forest Road, Ubud Main Road and Jalan Hanoman, stopping for a coffee at a delightful  cafe overlooking the rice fields, before Gavin made his way back to Renon (he couldn’t stay overnight). I booked into a very nice budget guesthouse called Deva Sari (no website, but it’s on Jalan Hanoman), which also offered rice field vistas from the rooms. From the outside, I thought it looked too expensive, but the rooms themselves were much simpler than their setting and facade. They were perfectly acceptable, though, and a steal at 200,000 rupiah (600 baht/£13) for a double room with hot water, powerful ceiling fan and breakfast.

Balinese dance show at Ubud Palace

Balinese dance show at Ubud Palace

I had a night out, but Ubud was pretty quiet, even on a Saturday. I started off with an excellent Balinese dance show at Ubud Palace. Aside from one masked man (representing a demon), the dancers were all heavily costumed and made-up women. The narrative was entirely non-vocal, and on top of that no expression was ever made with the performers’ mouths. They kept resolutely tight-lipped, and told the story with exaggerated eye movements, hand gestures and dance moves. Combined with the stirring live musical score, it was absolutely captivating.

This was followed with dinner and then a few beers on Monkey Forest Road. Napa Orti was an upstairs bar with an organic feel and good music, while the Laughing Buddha was a hospitable joint for a nightcap on the way back.

Statue inside Ubud Palace grounds

Statue inside Ubud Palace grounds

Before heading back to Renon, I took in the Ubud sights I hadn’t had time for the previous day. First stop was the Pura Taman Suraswati water temple, a delightfully tranquil and picturesque spot. Again, the religious weekend meant I couldn’t enter the temple (I’d obviously picked the wrong time to be in Bali!) but the grounds were worth seeing in their own right.

Ubud Palace was neither as big nor as grand as you’d expect from a palace, although perhaps that’s because it is still resided in and the public is only granted access to a part of it, but it is authentically Balinese so plenty of photo opportunities of the ornate architecture. I was also treated to an impromptu dragon dance performance by local children celebrating Kuningan.

Finally, I wandered around Pasar Seni market. It is a tourist magnet, complete with vastly over-priced opening quotes on goods (the idea being that you bargain down) ranging from fresh food to textiles to paintings to souvenir tat. Whether in Thailand or elsewhere, I rarely buy anything in places like this, but it’s a good place to just look around.

Sanur was my final Bali destination. It’s a short ride from the aforementioned Renon, and offers a bigger, cleaner, quieter and better-looking beach than Kuta. It still has touts and hawkers, but a fraction of the number at Kuta, and they are less persistent, too. The beach is backed mostly by large, swish resorts and posh restaurants, and there did not appear to be a great deal of nightlife options (although we were there in the day), suggesting that Sanur is the beach destination of the discerning package tourist.

PEOPLE

Indonesian people looked much like southern Thais to me. The women were very good looking but dressed more conservatively than Thai ladies. Bali is predominantly Hindu rather than Muslim, so there weren’t many in Islamic garb, but there was very little evidence of the short-shorts that you see so often around Bangkok!

Balinese people in Denpasar's Pasar Badung market

Balinese people in Denpasar’s Pasar Badung market

For the most part, the Balinese were friendly and good-natured, but if there were exceptions, they were invariably in Kuta, where you are more likely to be pestered to buy things, and sometimes your refusal would not be taken in good humour.

While understanding that the majority of tourists visiting Bali are Australian, it started to grow annoying to be regularly greeted with “G’day, mate!” by shop touts. To counter this assumption that all white people must be Aussies, I started replying with “Sawasdee khrap!”, but my attempt at irony was lost on them.

The average Indonesian speaks better English than the average Thai. Of course in tourist areas there will be a greater incidence of English speakers, just as a Phuket Thai is likely to be competent with the language, but I would say even allowing for that they have a greater command of the language and a wider vocabulary. Perhaps this is because Bahasa Indonesia uses the Roman alphabet?

Traffic is fairly bad, as is the case in most of urban developing Asia, but at least Indonesians have grasped two important concepts lost on Thais – don’t undertake on the left, and wear helmets when riding motorbikes!

FOOD AND DRINK

Indonesian/Balinese food is well made, fresh, creative and tasty, but not spicy. Thai food lovers may be disappointed in this regard. I’m not like a Thai in the sense that I don’t need every meal to be spicy, but I do like a kick more often than not.

Look for the bright orange sign, go inside, and order the chilli chicken

Look for the bright orange sign, go inside, and order the chilli chicken

Given that I was only in Bali for five days, I wanted to eat primarily local food, so didn’t head for the nearest Thai eatery. But while walking around Ubud a sign caught my attention – “Extra spicy!” it proclaimed, in advertising a dish called chilli chicken. Yes, it was Indonesian food, so I had to give it a try. The restaurant was a simple, small affair called Warung Ijo on Ubud Main Road. Turning left at the top of Hanoman Road, it is opposite the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) office. The chilli chicken dish was delicious, fiery and satisfying, especially with the red rice I chose over the standard white. It was not piquant-spicy like Thai food, but if you find yourself craving culinary heat while in Ubud, this is definitely the place to go.

In Kuta, the selection is more international, as you might expect, and on Gavin’s recommendation I eschewed local far a couple of times to take advantage of two excellent buffet deals. First, the Brazilian Aussie BBQ offered all-you-can-eat for 100,000 rupiah (£6.75/300 baht), a great deal for carnivores as staff bring swords of cooked meats directly to your table, carving slices of beef, lamb and pork on to your plate, alongside chicken wings, sausages and more. Drinks cost extra, but it’s still well worth it.

Even better is the Sky Garden sunset deal. Opening at 5pm, you have up to two hours with which to gorge yourself on good quality international buffet food, including premium items such as steaks and seafood kebabs. Best of all, draught Bintang beer is free until 6pm! Unlimited food for two hours and unlimited beer for one hour sets you back a mere 50,000 rupiah (£3.35/150 baht). On top of this, it is set on the rooftop of a nightlife complex, offering city views and the possibility of a sunset.

The ubiquitous Bintang

The ubiquitous Bintang

Gavin will tell you that Bintang is the best beer in Bali, and while it’s by no means a bad drop, calling something the best when the selection is so poor is not the greatest of compliments! Probably 90% of all bars and restaurants serve only Bintang, and you can consider yourself spoiled if you find a rare establishment that also sells Bali Hai, which I preferred. There are a few more brands available in the shops, bringing the local beer selection up to about five, making Thailand’s meagre range look positively extensive!

But if Bintang is your thing (by choice or necessity), the Flora Hotel bar in Kuta is a must-visit. A small bottle costs just 13,000 rupiah (85 pence/40 baht) and a large one a mere 20,000 rupiah). As far as I could tell, it was the cheapest beer in Bali – even less than you’d pay in the shops.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

good you’re still getting around mate, using your eyes and letting us know about it

Comment by Joe Taylor

Bintang is like Kingfisher in India… Just about the only beer you can get!
An interesting write up on your trip. Bali is not a place I ever thought to visit…and probably never ill

Comment by Mum

Was thinking of going at Songkran just to escape from Pattaya, but never made it, now probably never will.

Comment by Mark Bowman

[…] I checked in on my pal Gavin Mitchell in Bali first. He had moved there a few months prior, and would leave soon after, a job placement having gone awry, so it was well timed on my behalf. For a full account of my trip, click here. […]

Pingback by ANOTHER YEAR IN PARADISE | Elephant's Leg




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