We returned from Bali late last Monday night feeling exhausted after a full day of travel through Kuala Lumpur and onto Mumbai, where we got 5 hours of sleep at a hotel before driving down to Pune after sunrise (this is a safety precaution my partner's company asks us to take when driving the Mumbai-Pune Expressway).
It was our first trip there and it was a total whirlwind. Even though our days were packed from 8:00am to lights-out, I don't think we covered more than 25% of what was on our wish list. We split the trip into two by staying in different parts of Bali for each half (Ubud and, later, Nusa Dua) which allowed us to increase the amount of area we could cover, but I think more than one visit is necessary to actually see a majority of this huge and hugely diverse island.
Instead of writing a tome, I made a list of good and bad things based on our experiences...of course I put the good at the end so you finish this post with an impression of Bali that is more lovely than not. We will definitely be returning, in spite of the bad ;-)
1.) Bali's big attractions are SUPER crowded and super touristy. Like Times Square at Christmas. The volume of "low-season" tourism on Bali as a whole was much higher than I had anticipated, and every place we went was swarming with cameras, go-Pros, selfie poles, sun-shielding umbrellas, and "amateur photographers" (read: tourists with fancy cameras who think they're the next Ansel Adams).
2.) Drivers get paid to take passengers to tourist traps. We hired a driver who got a kick back every time he took us to certain places, so we stopped at a random place on the road (a "lookout point") with a view of a pretty poorly maintained rice field in order to get hit up by locals to buy souvenirs (the locals pay him to bring tourists there). Later, after visiting a temple, we were taken to one of the worst buffet restaurants ever, paying $10.00 USD per person for the privilege of eating cold, over-oiled versions of Indonesian dishes (our driver got a free lunch out of it).
3.) The bait-and-switch is alive and well. I bought a sarong at Tampak Siring Temple and when I got home I realized the vendor had replaced it with a much smaller piece of fabric in the same pattern. The fabric had been sewn into a loop and had a stain in the middle. Guess I'll have some nice pillows made instead...
4.) The "feedback forms" at Jimbaran Beach seafood restaurants are NOT feedback forms! After an amazing meal of perfectly grilled seafood on the beach a waitress gave me a feedback form, which I like filling out because I think it actually helps businesses. The next morning at 8:05am, our hotel room phone rang and the voice on the other end told us we had won 2 free nights stay at a group of resorts due to my "feedback form" being selected as a "prize winner" and all we needed to do was come to the hotel to collect our "prize". Yeah, no...
5.) Traffic jams. Especially in places south of the airport, bigger towns, and roads leading to tourist attractions and beaches. Pad your schedule with a little extra time given for travel or, better yet, rent a scooter if you're able!
6.) Pollution and Garbage. After living in a rather polluted and densely populated city in India for the better part of a year, I think my view on trash and air pollution is a little skewed. I actually didn't notice the trash in Bali, I'm just putting this down because other tourists we met had made comments about it.
7.) Legian Street madness. I'm pretty much past the point in my life where I think going out and getting wasted during vacation at a place where I can't hear myself speak is a good time. Legian Street seems to be a 24 hour party with everything available for the taking. We had a beer at a bar while listening to a cover band (the band was actually pretty great) but walking there and back was one of the low points of the trip for me. I got flashed vials of white crystals for sale by two random men, the music was pounding, we passed hoards of drunken, barely-standing 20-somethings, and saw at least three "couples" that didn't exactly look like they were in it for love, ifyaknowwhatImean. I'm sure this place is awesome for some, it just wasn't really for me and I don't see us returning during the evening. Maybe during the day for the beach and shopping...
Bali is indescribably beautiful, and magical, and I can't wait to go back and find my piece of paradise. Knowing what I know now, I'm sure a perfect vacation is out there on that island. The architecture, the people, the sense of community and family that can be seen in any town or village, the beaches, the Balinese homes with their temples and ijuk roofs, the mountain forests, the food, the jungles, the festivals and religion, the arid northeast coast; these are things that make Bali amazing!
As far as highlights go I'd say that the food is where it's at. Come to think of it, the more I travel the more obsessed with regional cuisine I become. I'm no Anthony Bourdain, in fact I don't have the liver to drink as much or the balls to eat half of the stuff he does (though there was that one time I tried balut...), but I am always on the hunt for new ingredients to use at home, recipes to make, and a conversation with the folks who are feeding everyone else.
Here's a list of our Bali highlights...
1.) The FOOD is so GOOD!!!
2.) Watching the sunset with a cold Bintang and eating dinner at one of the seafood restaurants at Jimbaran Beach. No reservation needed, we just walked in, sat down, and chose our giant meal of grilled and seasoned lobster, prawns, fish and sides for about $30.00 USD per couple.
3.) Spending an afternoon at Angseri Hot Spring, which was accessible only by a ten minute walk through the jungle and rice fields. It's a little rustic, but very relaxing!
4.) Driving through falling leaves at Bedugal Botanical Garden. In stark contrast to the muggy, endless summer in lower elevations, we breezed through this forest with the windows down and it smelled like autumn in NJ! Wish we would have brought our sneakers so we could have done the treetop obstacle course that's offered near the entrance!
5.) Eating Klepon (aka, the most delicious thing I've ever tasted) at Tanah Lot. Glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar and rolled in coconut. In fact, trying a bunch of different Indonesian dessert items...it totally deserves its own number on this list!
6.) Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest. I wish we had revisited this place a few more times. The monkeys are mischievous and adorable, and the scenery is beautiful!
7.) Watching a ceremonial procession through the heart of Ubud. It's a beautiful thing to see these customs and traditions kept alive, even amidst modernization.
8.) The scenery. Bali is absolutely breathtaking and it seems like there is painstaking effort that goes into making everything, small or large, a work of beauty, either by nature or by hand. I can't wait to spend more time on our next trip wandering around and taking it all in again.