So, Bali… a washed-up, westernized has-been? A genuine yet blemished treasure? Coming here, we really didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully, after spending a few weeks on the island we found that most of the qualities that have brought wonder to Bali throughout history are still very alive, but you do have to work a little to find them.
First, the bad…
Moreso than many places we’ve visited on this trip, we assumed that Bali’s popular tourist hubs, Kuta, Ubud, etc, would be difficult to love. Unfortunately, at least in our brief experience, that assumption was largely confirmed. Bali’s world-class surfing, close proximity to wealthy Australia, long-established package-spa-tourism industry, and presence in recent Hollywood bookbusters continues to push the “real Bali” further away from these centers, replacing it with too many uninspired versions of the comforts you’d expect to find at home. Walking around one of these former villages, you get the impression that this island may have been Eat-Pray-Loved to death, and indeed, a few locals jokingly told us that they wish she (author Elizabeth Gilbert and her fans) would just “eat, pray, leave!” (…jokes aside, I should note that Steph and I both found her book to be a fun read a few years ago, but the attention it brought hasn’t had the most positive effect on Bali.)
Of course, tourism happens anywhere worth visiting, and the downsides of it can often be attributed to people just like ourselves. But many places we’ve been on this trip have shown us that a tourism-driven economy doesn’t have to be a bad thing, that it can bring much needed income to suffering regions, raise awareness for dying, cherished traditions, and help preserve natural wonders that may otherwise succumb to destruction from logging, mining, or development.
Perhaps then, the problem here in Bali is that many of its tourist activities and interests have little to do with what makes Bali, well, Balinese. Worse, the cost of those imported interests manifests itself in other seemingly unrelated aspects of daily Balinese life. For example, the prices for food and stay were 3-4 times what we’d seen in other parts of southeast Asia, and that might be a good sign if those prices weren’t artificial and unashamedly subjective depending on where you are from – good luck getting the Balinese price for that mototaxi ride! Like anywhere else, in Bali we expected to find reliable, if slow, public transport (often the setting for great conversations and memories) along major driving routes, but we found that while its humble “Bemos” (local public minivans) did still run on occasion, they were not welcoming to outsiders, who are able and willing to pay many times more for the brand new air-conditioned megabuses that clog Bali’s unequipped village roads. Yoga, an activity nearly synonymous with my ill-preconceived notion of Balinese culture, turns out to be – allegedly – barely ever practiced by actual Balinese people! Despite Bali’s delicous and unique coffee, the largest building we saw in Ubud was occupied by a Seattle-latte-slinging Starbucks (tastefully decorated to look like a Balinese temple, of course)! And even Bali’s sacred traditional wood carving artists have relegated their talents to carving more tourist-friendly wooden penises (peni?), which line the storefronts, obscuring their gorgeous statues of Ganesha and other Hindu deities.
Blagh! What are we doing to this place?
Fortunately, a little authenticity can still be found even within the main hubs (as evidenced by some yes, touristy, but distinctly Balinese attractions we found in Ubud), and a mere mile or two by motobike in any direction outside these places brings Balinese culture back into full focus. In other words, despite the “bad” alluded-to above, we found much much more about Bali that was just plain great – and by great I mean unfamiliar, disorienting, confusing, endearing, shocking, delicious, hilarious, and discomforting (in a healthy way) – all the qualities that we find make for memorable and meaningful travel experiences!
For the best examples of the “good,” check out our more detailed posts on our favorite experiences from our trip in Bali:
- Finding Bali in Sideman
- A Balinese Cremation Ceremony
- Scenes from Sidemen
- One man’s litter…
- Into the mountains of Munduk
- A dose of old Bali in Ubud
- Escape to Pejeng
…But such focused posts make it difficult to mention some of the random, often reoccurring aspects of Bali we’ll remember most fondly, and they do very little to sum things up on the whole. So like we did with Thailand, here are a few superlatives, our time in Bali by-the-numbers, if you will:
Worst toilet encounter
- Steph: Tile floor of Swallow Guesthouse (Didn’t quite make it to the toilet. To vomit, for the record).
- Scott: well, I just can’t try to top that.
Running “toilet” score for the trip: Steph: 1. Scott: 1 (from Thailand)
- Sing Ken Ken (means “no worries”). Always received with hysterical laughter, and a Balinese person repeating it several times.
Public “Bemos” Ridden
Public Bemos Expected to have Ridden
First memories that come to mind
- Steph: Getting sprinkled with holy water by a Hindu priest, in the rain
- Scott: Buying a pirate ship kite from a craftsman in Sidemen (which we later gave to our hosts’ kid Maya, in Munduk)
Number of weddings attended
Number of funerals attended
…and we wouldn’t have it any other way – Balinese mourners sure know how to throw a party!
Things we miss most about Bali
- Steph: Bubur Injin (sweet black rice dessert, with coconut milk, palm sugar, and bananas), chanting from nearby temples lasting late into the night.
- Scott: The funerals! (Cremation ceremonies are a village-wide celebration in Bali, see posts above)
- Steph: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (woohoo! first book finished on this trip!), currently reading: First They Killed My Father (about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime)
- Scott: 1/2 of Steve Jobs’ biography (on borrow from a guesthouse), currently reading: The Glass Palace. (Also still enjoying Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but it’s hard to tell when it’s appropriate to pull it out of my bag, as it’s banned or taboo in most countries with a large Muslim population).
Biggest travel “milestone”
Crossing the equator!!
Things that are no longer just dead weight in the backpack
- anti-diarrheals and oral antibiotics
- Steph: Bubur Injin
- Scott: Sate Ayam (chicken skewers with fried peanut sauce), Balinese fried corn fritters (for the record, Steph can never eat these again. See “worst toilet encounter,” above.)
Number of times asked if we had children
~47 (…Number of times asked why we don’t yet: also ~47)
- Futu seriously describing the importance of “massaging his cock” – his rooster, that is – so that its muscles are strong for cockfighting (and afterwards, being too tired to massage his wife’s shoulders)
- Scott telling his “an anteater walked into a bar…” joke, to a completely dead-pan response from Futu and Ketut.