Indonesia’s best-known island, the holiday mecca Bali, is said to be close to tropical paradise. So, Nick Ross took advantage of the cheap airfares to find out if this haven for surfers and holidaymakers is more than just another Costa del Sol. Photos by Nick Ross.
Latin jazz plays in the background as I look over Legian Beach in Seminyak. Surfers ride waves and beachgoers sun themselves on a not-so-sunny, almost white sand beach. I am in Kudeta (think coup d’etat), one of Bali’s most iconic bars. Last night Jose Padilla of Cafe Del Mar fame played his hallmark concoction of beachside lounge music that has helped him sell five million albums.
It’s fitting that Padilla plays in this kind of venue. Ibiza, the Balearics in general and Costa del Sol are on the opposite side of the earth, but the panache of bars like Kudeta, the hordes of Australian, Japanese and European tourists, and the Balinese playing host to their every whim, is reminiscent of upmarket southern Spain, without all the surfers of course.
Not Just the Beaches
While the beach life is one of this small island’s attractions, there is much more to Bali than toned surfers, suntans, bars and alcohol. Much of this is due to the Balinese themselves who, despite their laid-back nature, have tried hard to retain an identity tied to their Hindu ancestry.
Then there is the lie of the land. Only 153km wide and measuring 122km from north to south, Bali is fashioned around two giant volcanoes, Mount Agung and Mount Batur, with its capital in Denpasar. The centre and north of the island is characterised by mountain ranges, rolling hills and terraced paddy fields surrounded by jungle. In the south, the landscape flattens out and is traversed by skinny, meandering lanes, alleyways and built-up areas scattered with Balinese Hindu architecture.
Lying in the foothills of the northern mountain range and surrounded by deep ravines and terraced paddy fields, Ubud is hands down the cultural centre of the island. It is also a magnet for tourism.
Originally an important source of medicinal herbs and plants, in the late nineteenth century Ubud became the seat of the Satriya family of Sukawati, feudal lords and supporters of the village’s increasingly renowned arts scene. The arrival of Walter Spies in the 1930s, an ethnic German born in Russia, helped bring a more international touch to the handicrafts, metalwork, music, dance and carvings that were already flourishing here. Celebrity visitors such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Barbara Hutton and H.G. Wells, as well as a number of the world’s best-known artists, added a worldly dimension to the Balinese arts.
Modern Ubud seamlessly mixes tradition and finesse, with a fair amount of tack in between. Handicrafts, clothing stores and art shops litter the town’s main street and the surrounding villages, while at every step lie the motifs and Hindu-influenced altars and temples so typical of the island. The Puri Saren Agung Palace remains one of the town’s main attractions, as do Ubud’s many museums. The untouched nature reserve, the Ubud monkey forest, is home to over 300 crab-eating macaques and three ancient temples.
North, East and Beyond
Only an hour north of Ubud is the Batur area, home to the island’s one remaining active volcano and an enormous caldera lake. Surrounded by mountains and soaring 1,700m above sea level, the blackened central valley is home to a mixture of prickly volcanic rock and small, well-irrigated plantations of tomatoes, garlic and chilli. This gives the Batur area a slightly exotic but eerie feel. While tourists do make their way through the lakeside villages and take the two-hour trek to the top of the volcano, Batur remains raw. Living in the shadow of an active volcano is not for most, although the descendants of many of the original 14th century Balinese settlers continue to reside here.
Tourism in the island’s north and east has yet to develop into the raging, money-spinning industry that it is in the south. Prices are cheaper and village-like beachside areas such as Lovina, with its black volcanic sand and dolphins at dawn, and Candi Desa provide a perfect antidote to the brash feel of the island’s most famous south-side beach, bar and shopping area, Kuta.
Not far from Lovina in the north-west is the diving and snorkeling paradise of Menjangan Island, which lays claim to mainly European visitors (Australian accents are a rarity out here). Part of a nature reserve, this island is great for spying underwater coral and multi-coloured tropical fish, while the jungle here is home to a number of larger mammals including the deer-like muntjac.
On the opposite side of the island, at Bali’s most eastern point, is a beach that stretches from Amed to Aas. On this series of headlands overlooking bays lined with fishing boats, agriculture and fishing reign supreme. The shipwreck of the USS Liberty lies close to the beach at Tulamben, with access for both snorkelers and divers, a real rarity. Then of course there is the tranquility. The tourism in the north and the east is geared far more towards experiences like trekking to waterfalls, temples, diving, wildlife or the serenity of village life. In Kuta it is not.
A View From a Villa
It’s five in the morning and the calls of sunrise have roused me from my sleep. I am staying in a luxury, five-star villa paid for by the money I saved flying AirAsia rather than Garuda, Malaysia or Singapore. The six-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur’s LCC Terminal was far from pleasant, but then luxury, as they say, comes at a price.
The greenery of the flora here is akin to western notions of tropical paradise. Stony man-made streams filled with fish run beside the infinity pool, kept company on the grassy lawns by Balinese altars and exotic plants. The spacious, comfortable accommodations come complete with
in-house staff. We are in a world unto our own. And beyond the four walls of our enclave, green, well-tended paddy fields stretch into the distance on both sides.
I am struck by the juxtaposition. As romantic as they may seem, paddy fields in the poorer nations of South-East Asia represent poverty. Here in Bali, poverty and splendour go hand-in-hand. Our chef Gede lives in one room with his wife and son. His daughter is staying in Lombok with family. The two maids are live-in and salaries, despite working in a luxury villa, are between US$50 and US$70 a month. Where a few have gained riches, many, many more have been left behind. Tips and spreading money around help strike a balance.
With family and friends I have come to Samaya, one of Seminyak’s beachside restaurants, to watch the unfurling of the sea and the evening sky turn from orange to pink to purple before settling into night.
During my trip I have taken on the centre of the island and part of the north, I’ve also headed south to cliff-side surfers’ paradise Uluwatu and the temple above. Tomorrow I drive out east with Gede to his village and beyond to Tulamben. In less than a week I’ve relaxed by the pool, journeyed around the island by both car and motorbike, and have got a sense of the sights, sounds and feel of Bali. It is truly an amazing place.
A glass of wine and some beers go down with the sun while our kids play on Legian Beach out front. Around us are deckchairs, sofas, a stylish bar and restaurant area, and a green, well-tended lawn.
The bill comes and eyebrows are raised. As with most places in the Kuta-Seminyak area, everything is plus plus – 10 per cent tax and five per cent service. A glass of wine costs US$13 and the beers are US$4 each. It’s the price you pay to drink in a western-style, international-standard venue. Indonesia, this is not.
The round trip to Bali via Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia starts at US$140 return including tax. This is available for early bookings. The standard fare with other airlines is between US$500 and US$600 return.
The exchange rate between the US Dollar and the Rupiah fluctuates between RP9,000 and RP10,000 for one dollar.
Standard guesthouse accommodation in Kuta can be found for as little as US$15 a night while renting a bungalow starts at US$40 to US$50. Villas are all over the tourist areas and start at around US$100 a night and rise into the thousands. In the more refined, upmarket locations such as Sanur, expect to pay US$300 plus for a three to five-bedroom villa.
One of Bali’s attractions is the accommodation. Imagine spacious, whitewashed villas in tropical paradise and you’ll get the idea.
Tropical island holidays usually mean staying in a beachside resort, bungalows on the beach or a guesthouse. The idea of renting a villa just doesn’t spring to mind. In Bali, though, it’s the villas that make accommodation a little bit special.
Scattered about the island and pitched in clusters in areas such as Sanur, Nusa Dur, Legian, Seminyak and Canggu, renting a serviced villa, with its own swimming pool, in-house chef and maids, not only helps bring the holiday atmosphere home, but can also be economical, if you don’t mind sharing.
Starting at around US$150 a night for a two to three-bedroom villa and rising to US$2,000 for a five-bedroom estate built in the image of a Balinese palace and replete with a tennis court and an in-house gym, the range of villas available caters to all tastes.
From Palatial to Contemporary
Take for example Villa Batujimbar in Sanur (pictured). Built on a beachfront hectare of prime real estate, this palatial property was built by Australian artist Donald Friend in the 1960s. Based on the 19th century palaces in Klungkung and Amlapura, the estate is a testament to Friend’s fascination with traditional Balinese architecture. Including landscaped gardens, water features and a Majapahit red-brick museum, which houses Friend’s collection of Balinese artwork, the estate uses traditional materials such as alang-alang thatching, bamboo, brick and paras stone.
More down-to-earth but equally enticing is the five-star Double N Villa in Canggu. This four-bedroom property, which boasts a contemporary interpretation of Balinese architecture, well-tended gardens, and an infinity pool, is spacious yet cosy. With both communal areas and secluded spots, at a mere US$500 a night, this villa is perfect to share with friends and beats any luxury hotel for price and privacy.
For more information on Villa Batujimbar go to www.villabatujimbar.com. For Double N Villa go to www.doublenvilla.com. General info on Bali’s villas can be found by doing a search for Bali Villa on Google.
Republished with the kind permission of The Word HCMC