Bali, in case you didn’t already know, is a beautiful tropical island in Indonesia, famed for its relaxed atmosphere, rich cultural diversity and world-class waves which attract adventure seekers from near and far. It is a place I have always dreamed about, and one which elicits images of long lines of palm trees swaying in the wind, lazy days spent reading “Eat, Pray, Love” while lounging in a hammock, and smelling the sweet scent of spices and incense which lingers in the air. Even if you’re travelling to Bali solo, it’s still the destination of your dreams!
Often when you have such high expectations of a place the reality can be a bit disappointing, but I feel I can honestly say that for me Bali totally lived up to my outrageously high, dreamy expectations and at certain times, it even went over and above this imaginary line and simply blew me away. That said, there are definitely two sides to Bali and in order to write an honest review which will help rather than hinder future visitors, I will try to write about the good, the bad and the ugly.
Here are my first impressions on my first trip to Indonesia….
Let me start with the ugly to get it out-of-the-way as quickly as possible. For me, arriving in the tourist hub of Kuta having spent 19+ hours on an airplane, was one of the biggest let-downs of my traveling life thus far. All my images of Bali were shattered instantaneously as I felt I was stepping out of the plane and on to the set of “Benidorm“. Heck, if I wanted to walk around in hot pants and a boob tube with my love handles sticking out for all to see while drunkenly stumbling from a shitty tourist infested bar to an overpriced, over crowded, run of the mill night club full of drunk, rowdy and disgustingly pervvy package holiday tourists, I could have spent 50 Euro on a one way ticket to Lanzarote. To say I hated Kuta and that I recommend everyone to avoid it like the plague would be a fair statement. Unless, of course, you are a 19-year-old gap year student from Britain or a mid-20’s Aussie on a Package holiday from Perth…in that case Kuta is your place, make yourself at home!
After just 1 day and 1 night in Kuta, my traveling buddy Ann-Marie and I were on the first boat to the Gili Islands. This group of 3 islands (Gili T, Gili Air and Gili Meno) are not technically part of Bali, but as most visitors here come via Bali and return via Bali, I’m including them in this post!! For me, arriving on Gili T was like arriving in Paradise. (Tramadol) There is no other way to describe it…the water was so clear, half of it an amazing blue, the other half turquoise, and the sand was so incredibly white. This is what I had been looking forward to, THIS is what I had worked so hard and saved so hard for. We knew on arrival we would never want to leave. We were meant to stay only 5 days but I ended up staying a whole week, and if it wasn’t for time constraints I definitely would have stayed longer.
We snorkeled with Turtles and all sorts of tropical fish, we went to a full moon beach party under the biggest moon I have ever seen, we stayed in both a hostel and these funky little bungalows, we found the most un-irish looking Irish bar made of bamboo and we watched the most beautiful sunsets day after day. It really was an incredible experience.
Speaking of experiences…I also experienced my first earthquake!! One moment I was lying on the beach joking with newly made friends and the next the whole beach, the whole island started shaking vigorously, the whole earth moving. It was such a surreal moment and then everyone started running from the beach, looking scared. But there was nowhere to go as the island was flat. I just looked at the locals who didn’t seem too worried, then sat back down on my bean bag on the beach and took another sip from my beer! 😛
Admittedly, not everyone has such raving reviews of Gili T. Being the bigger and most developed of the 3 islands, it is clear that tourism has left its mark. The beach is sometimes dirty and full of litter, and as there are 3 HUGE parties each week this mean there are plenty of passed out bodies to be spotted along the beach on any given day. Booming, over-played pop and reggae songs can be heard throughout the day and night which must really annoy those who arrived on the island for peace and tranquility. While the food choice wasn’t great, it also wasn’t that bad, with a pretty good selection depending on how much money you were willing to pay! I found most things pretty cheap, which probably makes up for the extremely, painstakingly slow service! While Gili T may not be ideal for many, for me it was pretty darn awesome.
After the Gili islands, I got the boat back to Bali then caught a bus to Ubud, the cultural centre of the island known for traditional dancing and handicrafts but also a good base for surrounding attractions such as the rice paddies, numerous temples, Mount Batur Volcano and the monkey forest. It was a lot cooler and wetter here…which was a welcome break from all the sun and heat. I did an amazing full day cycling tour from Mount Batur Volcano down through Central Bali, which included cycling through insanely green rice paddies and past HUNDREDS of small temples, exploring a traditional Balinese home where a huge, but non-poisonous, spider decided to drop down on me and time spent learning about sacred trees and local customs. I also went to the Sacred Monkey Forest where, despite what the brochure may indicate, these are not cute little friendly monkeys. They are greedy little menaces who will try steal everything from you! On arrival, one jumped on me and started unzipping my handbag…I had push it off me and run away. Another guy got his cigarettes taken while some poor/stupid woman got her 300 euro Gucci sunglasses stolen! You have been warned.
One of the things I loved most about Ubud, and Bali in general, was the beautiful hand-woven offerings that lined the pavements. Everywhere you walked, from my guesthouse, to the local store, at the bus stop, or outside an exclusive up-market shoe store, you would have to look down to avoid trampling on these beautiful little carafes of flowers, offered up to please the various Hindu Gods. Many of these would have small incense sticks peeking out from below the petals, so everywhere I walked seem to smell just the way I always dreamed it would.
Lastly, I simply must give a quick mention to Balinese massages. It would be a crime not to considering how many I treated myself to. These sensational massages, while some times slightly painful, were also delightfully cheap. From a full body massage to a half hour foot massage, a sensual head massage to the aptly named “sun burn massage”, the variety is wide, the quality is high and best of all…the prices are ridiculously low.
So there you have it, in a nutshell; my memorable ten-day balinese experience. One that I’m sure never to forget. If I do go back, the one thing I would do differently, and what I would recommend others do as well, is to splash out a little but more money on accommodation. Sometimes a backpackers hostel just doesn’t cut it.
Where to next? My guide to Jakarta for culture lovers.