Bali: Beaches, Culture, and the Worst 90 Mins of my Life

There’s a recurring thread on the Lonely Planet message boards, and everywhere else where Bali is discussed, in which travelers debate the essential Bali question: can we still consider Bali a tropical, fascinating paradise, or have years of overdevelopment, a hard-partying atmosphere of “Western-style hedonism” (quoth one Malaysian website), and the legacy of Eat, Pray, Love effectively ruined the place for travelers seeking a beautiful, “authentic” Balinese experience?

Well, let’s start with a word about this concept of authenticity, which is one I object to rather strenuously. I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of travel in my 25 years (Indonesia makes country #41!) and have had many different types of travel experiences. Everyone’s travel goals vary: the average Chinese tourist is happiest on whistle-stop tours to the biggest sites with all other cultural experiences relegated to second-place or last place. My father experiences a place by photographing it on endless walks through the streets; other friends experience places best by sitting in cafes “soaking up the atmosphere.” Is any experience truly less valid or “real” than any other? Any more than there’s no “right” way to experience a certain piece of art, I don’t think any travel experience should be considered invalid as long as the visitor gets what he wants to out of his trip.

So back to Bali. Is Bali overtouristed and overdeveloped, compared to what it probably was ten or more years ago? Yes. It’s still possible to find Balinese experiences interacting with natives and enjoying unspoilt nature and temples, but it may be harder to find them. But if modern Bali is just this–more built up and noisy and tourist-filled–then that is what modern Bali is. So quit your whining about authenticity, accept that what this place actually is means that’s what’s authentic, and move on.

* * *

Ferry captain-cum-DJ en route to Gili T

Anyway. My Balinese experience began via a backdoor. I left the CQ Posse in Sumatra and flew from there to Lombok, the island east of Bali, to meet up with the SNU Crew. The final leg of my day-long journey was a short ferry ride to Gili Trawangan (Gili T, henceforth), one of three tiny islands suspended between Lombok and Bali, and I was delighted to arrive in style thanks to our ferry captain-cum-DJ and the dance-pop he blasted.

If you’re planning a trip to Bali and choose to visit a Gili island, I hesitate before recommending Gili T, and I hesitate before recommending it as your first Bali-region stop. Of the three Gili islands, Gili T is the one that’s most developed, and besides being home to beautiful beaches and resorts, it’s also home to some of the most raucous nightlife you can find outside of Bali’s famed Kuta area (more on that later). All this in spite of being an island that bans all motorized vehicles (visitors and deliveries get around via horse-and-cart).

When making plans to come to Gili T, I hoped to be able to combine the best of both worlds—to experience the dance parties at night and explore the quieter side of the various Gilis by day. Unfortunately, I was laid up with illness for much of our time on the island, so these plans didn’t quite come to pass. Either way, I learned a useful travel lesson from our Gili tenure—no place can do everything perfectly (BEST beach, BEST nightlife, BEST restaurants, BEST unspoilt wilderness), so prioritize what’s most important. If I could do it again, I might have chosen to sacrifice development and entertainment in favor of a quieter experience on one of the other two Gilis. I also might have chosen to start on Bali itself and get to know that area before moving on to the “Little Bali” experience, so that I would have been better able to appreciate the differences between them.

Approaching Gili T

After a few days on Gili T, and having finally recovered from my malaise, the seven of us (did I tell you there were seven people in the SNU Crew? Yes, that many can be a little much) headed to Bali via two separate fast boats on an experience henceforth to be known as The Horrifying Ferry from Hell and Horror, aka the Worst 90 Minutes of my Life.

Our winter is the rainy season on Bali, and apparently that also makes for more vicious waves—something I didn’t know. And this fact remained unknown until about 20 minutes into the ferry ride, when things started to get rough. And then rougher. At various intervals we were airborn, suspended in the waves at a 60 degree angle, or looking out upon columns of water as waves rose up perhaps 15 feet on either side. Where were the lifejackets, I wondered? Or at least, I wondered absently during the few moments of calm between bouts of vomiting.

Finally we were let out to stumble onto dry land, making half-hearted attempt to wipe off the vomit, tears, and sea water. Apparently two days later one of the boats capsized near the harbor and operations on all fast boats were suspended until the end of the rainy season.

* * *

Our next stop was Ubud, cultural heart of Bali in the middle of the island. You go to Bali’s beaches for sun and entertainment, and you come to Ubud and environs for yoga, temples, rice paddies, and spiritual balance. Apparently. It was here that Elizabeth Gilbert spent the “Love” part of Eat, Pray, Love.

Lindsay, Chelsea and I with some rice paddy terraces

Ubud is overrun with family compounds-turned-hotels, since traditionally an extended Balinese family lives together in a walled complex with separate bungalows for each family branch and for the family’s temple(s). Here the living was far cheaper than it had been on Gili T, or would be on the beach. We spent the next few days strolling the streets and browsing the shops, eating everything from back-alley Balinese street food to organic Cuban-fusion (which we actually ate twice), and generally enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of the town. One day we took a little hike through rice fields, and another day we did a formal bike tour (beautiful, but could have been more fun if we weren’t compelled by our guide to coast downhill riding the breaks the entire ride). Ubud is a place where seekers of spiritual balance come, and it also serves as a good balance for travelers hoping for a counterweight for Bali’s beaches. If you’re looking for something a little meatier than tanning for your Bali vacation, you can find whatever intellectual stimulation and cultural significance you want. I recommend staying a few days, but to stay longer is hard—the siren song of the beach is too tempting.

* * *

Balangan Beach--the buildings are restaurants and surfer-friendly homestays

The final act of our ten days in Bali was the beach. Perhaps Bali’s best known area is Kuta, the beach that’s home to all the wildest clubs and most youthful, party-going crowd—but we chose only to visit that scene rather than to stay. Instead, we headed to the island’s southern peninsula, picking a hotel on a cliff overlooking Balangan Beach. The southern beaches are often described as Bali’s most beautiful, but getting off the beaten path also means staying down a long, windy path that’s a costly taxi ride from everywhere else. I picked our hotel, Balangan Sea View, at the conclusion of a stressful morning of calling around, since one doesn’t want to just walk-in to middle-of-nowhere hotels when one is rolling in with eight people (we had gained another member by then, you see).

In any case, we were happy to spend the next two days enjoying the hotel’s clear pool and the dramatic-looking beach down the cliffside. The nights were interesting too—one night Amy, Gareth and I made the trek to Kuta to see the scene, which was an excellent choice.

Someone had told me at a bar in Phoenix that I had to find this club in Bali that had five stories, bungee jumping over a pool, and only opened at 3am. I’m still not sure if we found the club in question, but we definitely found a Scene in Kuta. I had no idea how close Bali is to Australia—most Australians can reach it with a cheap flight of 2-6 hours, and MANY apparently take advantage of that. I have never seen so many boys (and boys they were) in tank tops up in the club. We danced, we chatted with other travelers, we walked up and down the main drag of bars, and we concluded—yep, that’s Kuta, let’s check it off the list and be done with it forever! But in any case, it was fun.

"Friend" from the Monkey Forest in Ubud

On our final night in Bali we enjoyed a more serene scene, heading for the row of seafood markets and restaurants on the beach in Jimbaran. We splurged a little on the meal, but where else could I, for $20, pick my own live seafood and then enjoy, fresh-grilled, an assemblage of shrimp, clams, fish, lobster tail, and crab? One caveat: I definitely do not recommend trying to pry all that shellfish apart when in the company of anyone whom you’d like to impress with your social graces.

The strange conclusion of that evening was that, as we were leaving Jimbaran, we saw a car get stolen. Yep, as we were negotiating with a taxi driver another taxi was snatched a driven away like a bat out of hell, while a herd of helpless taxi drivers ran after it. Saudi Arabian organized crime, big problem, implied our driver.

The following day (using that term loosely), I once again enjoyed a 4am wake-up as Amy and I prepared to leave the group and head to Singapore for the final leg of the trip. As discussed previously, Malaysia surprised me in providing a new experience despite having visited before, and Sumatra surprised me how wild and untouristed it felt.

Bali surprised me in that it didn’t meet the (perhaps too-lofty) expectations I had set for it. Yes, it was beautiful and interesting and we had a great time, but there are lots of places that are beautiful and interesting and fun but aren’t as built-up and slick as Bali. Would I describe our experience as inauthentic because of all that? No—just different.

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4 thoughts on “Bali: Beaches, Culture, and the Worst 90 Mins of my Life

  1. Pingback: Experience the Unique Traditional Arts and Cultures of Bali | XTRIPZ Holiday

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