Don’t listen to the trend of Bali bashers, the tedious tales of uninspired travel experiences, the airy fairy yawnings of so called experienced travelers. Fact is Bali is and always will be one of the most magical and awe inspiring destinations this world has to offer. If your plan is to bum around on beaches and talk loudly in generic backpacker bars then the surrounding Lombok or Gili islands maybe the better option. For a truly unique island experience, rich in culture, mysticism, wildlife and ceremony, then it is hard to look further than Bali. An intoxicating, therapeutic and hypnotic mix of everything you can ask from an island destination. The only reason Bali gets bad rap is because of its popularity where shunning the well known has almost become prerogative to the seasoned traveller. Arrive with preconceptions and leave with enough information to back them up… “Bali is far too touristy”. As with any multifaceted destination Bali does bring the ugly aspects of tourism, as the beach resorts are beach resorts, and tourist attractions are touristy. But instead of turning up, to point out the obvious, get out of the tourist spots and discover the real reasons that Bali has captivated such worldwide recognition. You honestly don’t need to go far and the best route is north to escape the tourism in surroundings of Ubud the cultural capital of Bali.
Ok stop screaming… I know Ubud is touristy but it is also a great starting point when exploring the island. To be specific I am talking about Ubud district rather than the central town. The reason I love this area is its accessibility to local and rural life. This is where my fascination with Bali begins. Get a driver and explore the island (around $45 / 10 hours). Vivid colours from one street to the next, extravagant architecture, scents of incense and sounds of gamelan, celebrations seemingly endless, Gods peering from every canopy, even the rice cultivation is fascinating.
The first temple celebration I witnesses was 7 years ago and I was speechless. Completely out of this world and not a tourist in site. It was the Odalan (Birthday) of Batur Temple (Pura Ulun Danu Batur). Hindu devotees make offerings to appease Dewi Danu (the Water Goddess). On my recent return to Bali (April 2013) we manage to stumble upon something similar just outside Ubud. An offering ceremony at Tirta Empul Temple (Holy Water Temple). To find temple or local ceremonies in Bali ask hotel staff, drivers or locals if there are any on the island. Then go. Getting there often follows the same scenario; “Want to see wood carving?”, “No”. “Painting?”, “No”, “Coffee Plantation?”, “No”, “Rice Terraces”, “…If it’s on the way…”.
The depth of Religion and mythology in Bali is mind-boggling. I wouldn’t know where to begin and to try would make me look embarrassingly clueless. In short Bali is a haven for Hinduism within Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country). It adheres to Balinese Hinduism a combination of local beliefs, myths and Hindu influences from outside. It’s rich cultural identity is celebrated and showcased on a daily basis celebrating Gods, Goddesses and Demigods, hence Bali dubbed “Land of the Gods”.
A convenient location for exploration is the Ubud district surrounding Ubud town. Landscaped rice paddies, tropical wildlife and an enchanting local life. Our recent visit takes in three boutique resorts ranging from $40 / night Spas to $300 / night pool villas. All idyllic settings with their own individual qualities. Bliss Spa Ubud Hotel ($40) with balcony views of neighbouring rice fields. My personal favourite Alila Ubud Hotel ($150) an impressive Indonesian brand where in the space of 24 hours we enjoy breakfast with monkeys, have a visit from a draco flying lizard and at night are held up by a (harmless) snake. How is that not amazing? The third resort, a local Balinese brand, Komaneka at Tanggayuda ($300) where we hide away in a beautiful local hardwood and batik Balinese styled villa with private pool. There is just a lot of options, and the top 7 Best Value Hotels to Relax in Bali is worth checking out on the HotelsCombined blog, for more tranquil stays in Bali. And pretty much every hotel offers free shuttle to Ubud Town.
Ubud Town is the better known ‘touristy’ area. Monkey forest, a central market for tourist trinkets, streets littered with art. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea but for me it serves an important purpose. Food. There is some great food to be found in Ubud Town; Babi Guling Suckling Pig at Ibu Oka Warung or Bebek Betutu Slow-Cooked Duck at Bebek Bengil. A personal favourite is Cafe Lotus with top notch food and free viewing of the evening performances at Taman Saraswati Temple.