After I first visited Bali (Indonesia) in February of 1995, I was so taken by it that I wrote an article entitled “I left my heart in Bali” and submitted it to a small solo travel newsletter called Connecting. In it I waxed lyricals about Bali’s lush green landscapes, its intricate architecture, its exotic gamelan music, and its beautiful men (huh, I mean people). This was my first published piece.

I vowed that I would return soon, and for several years it haunted me like a lost love. I would even say that the way I felt about Bali then was one of the factors that made me decide to put travel ahead of climbing the career ladder, and forever changed my outlook on life.

Well, life happened and I never went back. That is until this week! It wasn’t even a sentimental decision. I had 10 days to spare between Perth and Bangkok, and Bali happened to be on the way. Yet, I was curious to see how I would feel about the place, and how much it had changed.

The return

After landing at the airport last Monday, I headed straight for Ubud, the cultural capital, about an hour and a half away by taxi. This is were most of my romantic memories of Bali were from. Walking out of the airport was like walking straight into a sauna, even though it was already almost 6:00 PM. Yes, dry heat and humid heat are vastly different things.

Arriving in Ubud in the dark, I didn’t recognize anything. The centre seemed so dense with shops (including many upscale clothing stores) and traffic. Fortunately my guesthouse Puji Bungalow was quiet and I had been upgraded to a “deluxe” room for the same price (since all other rooms were occupied). I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I had booked for 10 days. As you can see on the photos, the room is modern and looks pretty new. It comes with A/C, hot water, TV, a fridge, and a king-size bed (for about $28 a night including breakfast).

That first night I ate at a nearby restaurant specializing in pizzas. The following day I went exploring on foot, and discovered what happens to your brain at 31C and 80% humidity:

  • Inability to mentally calculate the 15% (tax and service) added to your bill in restaurants
  • Inability to properly bargain for fruit (consequently getting ripped off on mangosteens and rambutans)
  • Inability to turn your head to say “no thanks” to the guy yelling “Taxi?” across the street (and every 20 metres thereafter)
  • Inability to realize that small pieces of tissue have remained stuck to your face after wiping off the sweat
  • Choosing a restaurant based on where your body happens to be when you’re about to faint

Despite the uncomfortable heat, I managed to do quite a few things over the last five days. I attended two dance performances, had a Balinese massage, met up with my friend Sharrie with whom I visited the Green School, and went on a cycling tour.

Dance performances

Dance and music in Bali are unlike anything you’ve seen anywhere else. The traditional music is called gamelan, which refers to a group of instruments (metallophones, drums, flute, strings) all built and tuned to play together on a pentatonic scale. The tones of these five notes are different from our usual A-G scale and produce a very different kind of music (go on YouTube to hear some examples or see my video).

Many of the dances are based on the Hindu epic Ramayana (Bali is Hindu unlike the rest of Indonesia which is Muslim). They involve colourful and elaborate costumes and masks (or heavy make-up) and complex arm and finger movements.

The first show I saw included some Legong (interpreted by lady dancers), Barong (a benevolent “monster” brought to life by two men sharing a “costume”), and some Ramayana dance-theatre. The second one was quite different, integrating Kecak (monkey dance) and Ramayana and ending with a “Fire Dance”

Kecak is interpreted by several dozen men bare-chest and wearing sarongs, who produce the musical tram with their voices only, often syncopated with “chak-chak-chak”. I’ll write a post about Balinese dances (with video) when I get back home so you can hear it for yourselves. This second performance was only lit by a central torch, and the stage surrounded on three sides by the audience (only two rows deep).

The fire dance consisted of a gentleman made up to represent a horse, running bare feet through burning coconut husks. Some of the smouldering ashes was thrown around and hit the audience’s feet. The smoke got pretty thick too!

Green School – my day out with Sharrie

I spent Thursday riding around in a baby blue taxi with Sharrie, a fellow travelnut that I met on the VirtualTourist web site over 10 years ago. (It was  her photos that inspired me to visit Antarctica in 2005.) She had come all the way from Kuta (near the airport) so I was happy to follow her to the few places she wanted to check out near Ubud.

First off, we drove to a hotel called Hanging Gardens which she claimed had the most amazing pool, glanced in some high end magazine. This hotel, where rooms cost $200-$500 a night didn’t seem to mind us roaming around the grounds. The pool was indeed architecturally interesting, as it had two different levels with vanishing edges. In fact the property was built on such a steep slope that they were running their own funicular to link the restaurants to the pools, to the guests cabanas.

The food was expensive and not very inspiring so we decided to go somewhere else for lunch. The next place we tried, apparently famous for its smoked ribs, looked like a local hole in the wall restaurant which had indeed a lot of smoke, and was packed to the rafters. Then we ended up at the Four Seasons where the menu also proved expensive and uninspiring.

We just decided to head straight to Green School, which was to be the highlight of the day. Green School was founded by a Canadian man and his American wife in 2008 and is an alternative private school with a vision to be “a natural, holistic, student-centered learning environment that empowers and inspires the students to be creative, innovative, green leaders” (quote taken from their web site).

We found a little cafe there and had a piece of cake and drink and chatted while waiting for the 4 PM tour. When school let out at 3 PM, students spilled out everywhere. At some point a little girl was staring at me and asked “What are you?”. “I am a human. What are you?” I answered. But after a few seconds my heat-fogged brain figured out that she was wondering whether I was a parent, teacher, or visitor, and I gave a more precise answer.

Of course the rain started just as the tour did, but fortunately they provided us with umbrellas. The most striking feature of this campus is the open-sided buildings, constructed entirely of bamboo in rather futuristic shapes. The school produces its own curriculum, grows 60% of its own food, composts, and is about to start using solar panels.

The tour lasted an hour, and then it was back to town for a real meal this time. Smoked duck is a Balinese specialty, and I gave it a try. Somewhat fatty but not bad.

Balinese massage

Many people come to Ubud for its spas, but besides top hotels, many small businesses offer all types of massages and beauty treatments. On Friday I tried a Balinese massage at Lily Spa, 100 metres down the road from my guesthouse. The cost: 70000 INR (less then $7) for a one-hour massage. The cheap massages alone are reason enough to come to Southeast Asia in my opinion.

The Balinese massage was a full body massage, not much different from your regular Swedish massage. It was done with oil, and mostly long stokes, although there was also some pressure, pounding and joint bending. The room was in a bamboo pavilion and I could hear flowing water and relaxing music. And then a rooster added its loud crowing to the soundtrack. It was hilarious at first, but became annoying after a couple of minutes. The beast sounded like it was right there in the room with me. (It was just outside the window in fact).

Conclusion: it was a nice relaxing massage, but I would have paid a dollar extra to have it sans rooster.

Morning Journey Downhill Mountain Cycling tour

This is what the tour was called when I booked it on Lizmala Bali Tours‘s web site. The key word here is downhill. Cycling any kind of inclines in this heat and humidity seemed insane.

Wayan, the company owner, picked me up in an air-conditioned mini-van at 8:15 am on Saturday. I joined three other people (from Austria, France, and Australia) on an excursion through Bali’s countryside and villages.

First was a stop at a coffee plantation for a little coffee/tea tasting. Bali grows its own coffee, as well as chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and more. Then we had a late breakfast at a restaurant with stupendous views over Mount Batur (still an active volcano) and Lake Batur in the distance.

It was after 11:00 am by the time we started our downhill bicycle ride. The bikes, helmets and our two cycling guides were waiting for us in the parking lot. By then the blue skies had turned to clouds, and it started raining. Fortunately the tour company had brought rain jackets and so we set off… to be almost immediately stuck between several diesel-spewing buses trying to negotiate the narrow road. It was the worse timing ever. About a dozen buses came to a halt as a mini-traffic jam formed and we were stuck in the noxious fumes, trying to find a way around without being run over. Not a good start.

Fortunately we soon veered on a side road and started going down. Wayan was not kidding when he said that 90% of the journey was downhill. For several hours, we had our hands on the breaks most of the time and were just coasting along. Some sections were smooth and we had the road to ourselves, but in other places we had to watch for potholes, broken asphalt, and dogs.

We made a few stops along the way. One was an impromptu human ceremony involving cock fights. We stood there with about a hundred local men trying to see something, but it was very crowded and hot, and cock fights are not a favourite of mine. I heard the first fight (but didn’t see due to the crowd) which was over in about 20 seconds. Our guide explained that they tie a small knife to the chicken’s feet to expedite things. Yikes. The men were betting of course. And it was supposedly part of a celebration for a kid’s birthday! What the devil?

After that we stopped in a village to look at a family compound, then a temple, and then cycled/walked through a beautiful green rice field. The paths between the watery fields are narrow and muddy, and two people out of our party of four fell into the rice paddies at some point! And then we were hit by the rain again. A sheet a big rain droplets came from ahead of us. You could see it advance soaking each of us in turn. It was weird. By the time we had our rain jackets on, it stopped of course.

We ended this adventure, 25 kilometres of downhill cycling, at Wayan’s home where we were served a very good Balinese buffet lunch. And then it was back to Ubud. Quite a day!

So, am I still in love with Bali?

The answer is no. I still like it a lot (although the heat is a killer) but it doesn’t feel the same. Was I just more naive and impressionable back then? It was my very first trip to Asia after all.

The landscapes are still lush and green, the people still smiling and friendly. The architecture and dances are still the same. I’m probably the one who has changed the most. Although Ubud is certainly more developed and expensive than it was back then.

It’s just like meeting an old lover 19 years later, and finding him a little fatter, a little balder, although still charming and attractive. I think Bali and I will just be friends from now on. 🙂

Update May 2015: Lonely Planet has just released a new guidebook for Bali called Pocket Bali which is what I would probably use if travelling to Bali only. The larger guidebook, called Bali & Lombok, includes the less developed island of Lombok next door, which I’m eying for a future trip to Indonesia!


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