- Gas, or “petrol”, is sold in Absolut Vodka bottles
- All money is quoted in thousands of Indonesian Rupiahs
- Every meal is served with a spoon and fork, but no knife
- All napkins and toilet paper are called “tissue”
- The best coffee in Bali is made from luwak poop
- When traditional Balinese people die, they are buried for a few years, then exhumed and cremated
- When Balinese Hindus pray, they often put rice on their foreheads
- Every morning, Balinese Hindus put out an offering to the gods which includes a small straw plate with incense and often a cigarette
- David Bowie’s ashes are scattered in Bali, as was requested in his will
- Indonesia has the fourth highest population in the world - at 256 million
- Indonesia is made up of 17.5 thousand islands
Bali is an island with several cities, a fact I didn’t realize before I visited. It is also the only area of Indonesia which is largely Hindu, unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is largely Muslim. While Balinese cities vary in their look and feel, one thing remains the same – everywhere you go on the island you can find on the ground small woven plates with incense, food, and sometimes cigarettes. These are the spiritual offerings that Balinese people put in front of their homes and places of work twice a day. After use, the entire offering, even the plate, is discarded, and new plates are handmade every day. The offerings are for the gods and ancestors. Balinese include items their ancestors liked, such as cigarettes, in the offering. These offerings have two main effects for pedestrians – the air often has aromatic scents and the sidewalks look a bit littered.
The other noticeable item in the streets of Bali are large woven poles that line booth sides of the street and have woven designs which hang in an arc over the street. I asked a bus driver about what these were. I didn’t understand everything he said, but what I could figure out was that Balinese people pray in the mountains, yet many are not able to make it to the mountains to pray. These woven poles are symbolic of the mountains, and bring the mountains to the people.
I found the Balinese people to be extremely nice and accommodating. They do not speak English that well, but they tried hard to answer all my questions. Often their answers were not related to my questions, which led to some entertaining conversations.
Brief History –
Bali is an island and region in Indonesia. The population of Bali is 4.2 million, and its square area is 2,232 square miles. Just three decades ago, Bali’s economy was largely agrarian. However, today, 80% of the Balinese economy is tourism, and consequently, Bali is one of Indonesia’s riches regions.
Bali was inhabited around 2000 BCE by Austronesian people. The Balinese are majority Hindu, and there are nine ancient Hindu sects. The first known European contact with Bali was in 1512 by Portuguese explorer Antonio Abreu and Francisco Serrao. In 1597, Dutch explorer Cornelius de Houtman arrived in Bali, and soon after, the Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. The Dutch expanded control across the Indonesian archipelago in the 19th century, and the Dutch enhanced their control of Bali in the 1890s, when they exploited the struggles of Balinese kingdoms.
The increasing Dutch control came to a point in 1906, when The Dutch mounted a large naval and ground assault. The inferior Balinese forces numbered in the thousands, and fought in a suicidal defense, rather than face humiliation of surrender. An estimated 200 Balinese marched to their death, after the Dutch demanded surrender. Following this battle, Dutch rule was established, yet local culture and religion largely remained.
Imperial Japan occupied Bali during World War II. Following the Japanese Pacific surrender in 1945, the Dutch returned to Indonesia and Bali, and reinstated their prewar colonial administration. This was resisted by the Balinese rebels, who had recovered Japanese weapons. In 1946, the Battle of Marga was fought and Balinese rebel forces made a suicide attack on the heavily armed Dutch. The Balinese rebels were entirely wiped out, preventing any further resistance by the Balinese and establishing complete Dutch rule. Finally, only three years later in 1949, Bali was included in the “Republic of the United States of Indonesia” when The Netherlands recognized Indonesian independence on December 29th, 1949.
What I did –
Canggu, pronounced chane-goo, was my first stop in Bali. Canggu is a small coastal village in the south western area of Bali. People from around the world come to Canggu to surf and enjoy the beaches. The village is connected by single lane roads, which are crowded on both sides by lush, tropical vegetation. The dining in Canggu is great. There is a mix of both hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurants, and western style, hip, health-minded cafes that you might expect to find in the village in NYC. Fruit smoothies are also popular in Bali, and many cafes have selections that include banana, guava, avocado, and berry, among others. I was especially impressed with one café called Ruko, that was a block from my hostel. The café had delicious eggs benedicts, tofu quinoa salads, and coca banana smoothies. And the best part, is the price in USD for an entire breakfast including a cup of coffee and a smoothie is often no more than $5.00!
I stayed at a small and laid-back hostel called Surfer’s Dorm, which is about a 15 minute walk from the beach. I highly recommend this place! The location is great and it is only $89K rupiah a night, or USD $6.84.
Bali is known for its massages. I got one of the best massages I’ve ever had! It was a deep tissue 60 minute massage, and cost me around $19.50 USD, which is actually expensive for this area.
Kuta and Uluwatu
Kuta is a resort area in the south part of the island, just north of the airport, and adjacent to Bali’s capital, Denpasar. It is a congested city with traffic, tacky tourist shops, and loud, western style nightclubs.
I stayed for one night in Kuta. I met two German girls at the hostel and we all scootered to Uluwatu, which is about 14 miles south from Kuta.
I rented a scooter for the day, which, when including insurance, only cost me $6.92 USD. I was a bit apprehensive about driving a scooter since I had never done it before, and the streets of Kuta are chaotic. However, everyone at my hostel rented a scooter, and they are cheaper than even one taxi ride, so I gave it a go. It was pretty easy to pick up and fun to ride. Driving through traffic in Kuta is nuts though, and scooters take over the streets and sidewalks. I was following the two girls, which was a challenge. Whenever a little bit of space would come between our scooters, another scooter would rush in to fill up the space.
Uluwatu is an area on the south western tip of Bali, and is home to some of the most famous surfing spots in the word. Our first stop was Padang Padang beach. To get to this beach, you need to walk down a narrow rock corridor. The beach is actually pretty small and was packed with people.
Following Padang Padang, we went to the famous Single Fin bar, which overlooks Uluwatu beach. The bar is located probably around 50 to 70 feet above the beach, and offers a complete view of the surfers below. We hung out at the bar for a bit, and then went to the beach below, which is not really even a beach, but an opening between massive rocks.
Ubud is considered the cultural capital of Bali, and was made famous by the novel and movie Eat Pray Love. Ubud is located in the center of the island. The town has a hippie vibe, and is known for yoga, vegetarian and vegan food, and art galleries. There are also Hindu temples scattered throughout the city.
I stayed at a hostel called Best Friend’s, which is just south of the town center. This has been my favorite hostel so far. It is chilled-out, with a common area in the center and a bar with a kitchen. The guys that work at the hostel are very nice and accommodating, and at night, they form a band and play low-key western pop music such as Jack Johnson and Oasis. There’s also a bar-b-que every night, which is delicious. I had BBQ’d “river fish” on two of the nights. The bbq dinner plus a beer is $55k rupiah, which is about $4.23 USD.
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
This sanctuary is located in and around Hindu temples that were constructed in the 13th century. At some point, monkeys began inhabiting the area, and now they are fed, which keeps them on the grounds, although there are no fences keeping them in. The monkeys are friendly and can also be mischievous, and it is advised that you keep your stuff securely in your pockets.
Tegalalang Rice Terraces
These rice terraces sweep across a large valley like a green blanket, and provide a surreal and beautiful view.
Tirta Empul Temple
This temple was constructed around 962 AD around a large water spring. People wade in the water and pray in front of the water spouts.
Bali is known for its coffee. I took a tour of a coffee plantation, where pineapple, cocoa, and tobacco are also grown. Our group did a tea and coffee tasting. Each tea was infused with a different fruit that has a certain purpose, such as focus, or energy.
We also learned about luwak coffee, which is coffee made from coffee beans that have been digested and pooped out by a luwak. The luwak, also called the Asian palm civet, is a mammal that looks a bit like a small raccoon. The luwak only digests the skin and poops out the whole bean. When the bean is then roasted, it is more aromatic and flavorful. Apparently, Europeans and Americans thought this coffee was a hoax, until Oprah Winfrey featured the coffee in her show. It’s also one of the most expensive exported drinks in the world. In Picadilly, London, a cup of luwak coffee can cost $1 million rupiah, or about £60.
Sunrise Hike of mount batur
Hiking, or "trekking" as the locals refer to it, is a popular tourist activity. There are two volcanoes on Bali - Mount Agung - the largest, at 9,944 feet, and Mount Batur, at 5,633 feet. I decided to join a group and do a sunrise hike of Mount Batur.
Mount Batur is located slightly north east of the center of the island. The volcano is active, and erupted as recently as 2000. As a result the mountain and area adjacent to the mountain is covered in black volcanic rock. The volcano is also right next to a lake - Lake Batur.
To do the trek, we left our hostel at 2am. We drove for about an hour and then stopped at a small hut where we got banana pancakes (for some reason, all the pancakes in Bali are banana pancakes), tea and coffee. We then took another 20 minute ride to the base of the volcano, where we met our guide. Our guide gave us all flashlights. We then set off on the hike.
The hike was actually quite steep and challenging, and it was pitch black the entire ascent. The only light you could see was the trail of flashlights going up the mountain coming from the trekkers ahead of us.
At around 5:30am, we reached the sunrise viewing point. Unfortunatley, it was very cloudy, but the clouds subsided for a few minutes, and we took in the awesome views of the countryside and lake below.
Following the sunrise, we trekked to the top of the mountain. Now that it was light, you could really see the clouds surrounding the path, and so it looked like we were trekking into the abyss.
the Yoga barn
Yoga is popular in Ubud, and the most well-known yoga studio is The Yoga Barn. The Yoga Barn offers classes on a variety of types of yoga. I tried a yin yoga class. Yin yoga is a style of yoga in which you hold certain postures for long periods of time (30-60 seconds), while applying pressure to muscle groups with foam boxes and tennis balls. I found the class to be both meditative and helpful in loosening up tight muscles.
Agung Rai Museum of Art
This museum is comprised of three buildings of Balinese art and Bali inspired art from the 18th century to today. I found most of the art to be narrative and similar to folk art. The descriptions for the art are not too informative like I’m used to in American museums, which I realized helped me just focus on the art. In 2012, the museum was recognized by the United Nations Education Scientific Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.
Goa Gajah Temple
This temple, also known as the Elephant Cave, was built in the 9th century. Around the cave, there are several small shrines and a pool for prayer. A small path behind the temple area leads to a wooded area with a stone façade where there are carved faces and symbols. The whole area has a mysterious feel and is fun to explore. As with all temples in Bali, it is mandatory to wear a sarong, or a shawl that wraps around your waist.
This is an awesome waterfall where you can swim in the basin. A really fun activity on a hot and humid day in Bali!