Bali, “on the other side of the world”, is beautiful- a magical, mystical, alluring place, and alas, the more we Westerners write about it, the more we contribute to its ruin. And yet, we can’t help but sing its praises and tell everyone we know they should go, too, and experience its enchantment now, “before it gets worse”.
However, the development has inevitably been growing by leaps and bounds regularly ever since the mid-20th century, and still, somehow, the Balinese manage to hold on, although perhaps not quite as tightly as in the past, to their traditions, values and customs, which is why so many of us love it there, and keep wanting to go back, despite any growing disappointments.
On each subsequent visit of many, I find to my dismay that there are more hotels, fewer rice paddies, and an ever-encroaching presence of Western chain fast food joints, coffee houses and retail clothing stores, or other businesses enclosed with glass walls and air-conditioning. I miss open air stalls, palm frond shaped ceiling fans, and the lack of pollution. The number of cars and motorcycles today defies logic, and certainly stymies the local now-paved roads which are nonetheless unable to sustain them.
Some people like to blame Elizabeth Gilbert for the commercialization of spirituality in her popular and superficially self-aggrandizing book: Eat, Pray, Love, which led to the subsequent film starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem, for Bali’s losing some of its charm while becoming more popular with a certain type of (female looking for love with a Javier Bardem type) tourist. But that would be an exaggeration.
Oh, while we’re on the topic of reading, the best modern book I’ve found about the Balinese culture and people, intertwined with an American woman’s finding herself through her interactions with others around the globe after the collapse of her long marriage, which is an infinitely more interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking read, is Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. When I miss Bali, I pick up this book, re-read certain passages and sigh…
I highly recommend it.
If the topic deeply interests you, I also suggest a much older book that’s a classic primer for learning about the Balinese: Island of Bali
Ironically, my very first visit to Bali, at least the first full day, was a miserable one, and I strongly disliked being there. I had landed in Sanur unfortunately, after visiting Kuala Lumpur, and I simply had the bad luck of staying in a small hotel run by nasty people, on an ugly beach. I didn’t understand how this could be happening. It didn’t jive with everything I had read about, or heard from friends who had recently been to the “Island of the Gods”. One part of me wanted to leave, but another refused to give up so soon. Before panicking, I consulted my as-of-yet-unopened trusty little Lonely Planet guide, whose basic underlying message was, “get thee to Ubud.” And so, after a long ride and an unpleasant encounter with a crooked taxi driver in a bad mood…ah, paradise found.
Ubud back then, was something else. All of the roads leading off of Jalan Raya (Ubud’s main street) were dirt ones, except for Hanuman and Monkey Forest. But if you walked them anyway (Jalan Bisma, Jalan Kajeng- before its decorative paving- for starters), maybe you would find a small inn or home-stay here and there with a nice view, because if you walked them a little further in, you stumbled upon acres upon acres of majestic emerald-colored terraced rice paddies….
How green was my Bali
The logistics of getting there?
I like to begin my sojourns to Southeast Asia in Bangkok, Thailand, then continue south for some good scuba diving around Koh Samui or Koh Tao (best tom kha gai was on that little island), and Krabi or Ko Phi Phi, then pass through Kuala Lumpur (gorgeous mosque, great city for luxe living and spa pampering, with the best five star hotels that make you drool) for a couple of days, and finally pick up a cheap flight (booked well in advance) on AirAsia, either directly to Denpasar on the island of Bali, or to Solo or Jogya first on the island of Java (because I love the live gamelan music there- very hard core, as well as my regular visits to Borobodur and Prambanan, which I consider a must-do, especially if I time it right with full moons, and can catch the outdoor Ramayana Ballet performances), and then proceed to catch a local flight to Bali.
This is a jam-packed itinerary with windows of restful opportunity built in, too, and it usually requires at least a few weeks to do it right (teachers have plenty of time off in the summer…), and is totally worth it. These places are heaven on earth as far as I’m concerned.
Not only that, but since I usually fly into and out of Bangkok (sometimes Singapore) on a free round-trip ticket from the U.S. (thanks to bonus miles), and stay for free (thanks to bonus points) in five star hotels when I am in the big cities there, my South East Asia odysseys do not break the bank. Au contraire, you can live very well in this corner of the world, for cheap money. And the quality of the lodging, meals, entertainment, shopping and transportation will astound you.
To be continued.