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Eat, Play, Love in Bali

I blame old age. I get agitated by humans when I’m in crowded places. Yes, humans! And my tolerance level is getting shorter every day and That’s why I’ve never had the urge to go to Bali.

All the travel stories I’ve heard about Kuta Beach, a popular spot among the international backpackers, describe a congested and rowdy place. But after much cajoling from my better half, who is headed to Bali for a work conference, I (along with my future 87 year old mother-in-law) finally brave Bali for the first time, hoping to find my own inner-peace on this spiritual island.

With a population of 4.22 million and approximately seven humans every square meter (in comparison Sydney has about 3.8/m2, ), this “dens-city” doesn’t leave much room to swing a cat.

Having said that, there’s still plenty of peace and quiet that can be found.

balinese architecturerice fieldgeger beach

Juxtaposition between Two Islands

We choose to spend our first few nights at the more family-friendly corner of Bali – Nusa Dua (meaning two islands) is only 15 minutes drive from Denpasar airport. Nusa Dua is an enclave of exclusive international 5-star resorts sprawled along the pristine Geger Beach. There aren’t many waves for the surf riders, which makes Geger Beach an idyllic spot for swimming, kayaking and relaxing on the sunbed lounge with a cocktail.

If budget allows, one can seriously go all out for the ultimate luxurious indulgence at The Mulia. This newly built resort was voted as one of the best new hotels in the 2013 Condé Nast Traveler Hot List Hotel. Our Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa isn’t too shabby either; this iconic 30-year-old hotel is rich in Balinese architectural traditions at every corner you turn; from the grand Candi Bentar (traditional split gate) at the entrance of the hotel to the Balinese style amphitheatre within the complex.

split gateskecak dance

Since my better half is spending time with the conference group during the first leg of our trip, I’m left to hang out with my future-mother-in-law at the hotel. That can be easily mistaken by curious eyes as “the young-ish Asian toy-boy with the older Caucasian lady”. I don’t blame them as we get to do some cool stuff together – like kicking off our shoes and dipping our toes in soft sand while enjoying a candle-lit dinner by the beach with a mesmerising sunset as our backdrop. We also get to witness a highly choreographed Balinese Kecak Dance accompanied by a scrumptious buffet dinner at the Budaya Cultural Theatre inside the hotel, which saves us a trip to Uluwatu Temple to watch it.

bali bombing memorialsate grill

Getting around Bali is super easy with motorbikes ready for hire everywhere on the island – but let’s face it, motorbike and an 87 year old lady simply don’t mix.

Alternatively go with the less life-risking option and book a taxi like we do. Most hotels will provide taxi services at fixed prices depending on whether you are booking it by the hour, day or by destination. We take a half day joyride where our designated driver is able to drop us at Bali Collection, a large shopping and dining complex in Nusa Dua. Here we have our first taste of Indonesian Sate (Satay), an array of meat skewers served on a mini charcoal grill, accompanied by the aromatic sambal and sweet peanut dipping sauce. We then head north to Kuta to pay a visit of the Bali bombing memorial located at the busy Legian street, where 202 people lost their lives during the bombing attack back in 2002, including 88 Australians.

I can’t help but having a Groundhog Day moment when our taxi zooms past the hustle and bustle of Kuta town centre, the narrow streets are lined with souvenir shops which more or less selling the same thing, including dirty dad jokes about “Rhonda and Ketut” – you have Aussie’s TV commercial to blame! We finish our tour in Seminyak, another tourists’ hot spot filled with high-end restaurants, hotels and fashion boutiques. We settle in for lunch on the upper deck at La Lucciola, one of the best Italian restaurants in town. The location right on the beach with an unobtrusive view of the Indian Ocean is part of the experience.

 

monkey forest 2

Monkeying around in Ubud

On Day 4, we start to travel inland and head north to Ubud. It’s a nice change of scenery; the forty-five minutes road trip seems a lot shorter when we’re fully transfixed by the lush landscapes. Tourists flock here to have their own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ experiences, submerging themselves in art, history, culture and spas.

For budget travellers, there are plenty cheap hotels and family-run home stays right bang in the town centre. It can be a little bit intimidating and you can’t help but feeling sceptical when touts on the streets are offering you a bed and a meal at their houses for 200,000Rp (equivalents to AUD$20). If you’re looking for your own little piece of paradise, there are plenty world-class luxurious resorts nestled in the midst of the rainforest. It’s a dream for many to spend a night at the Hanging Gardens Ubud with its world-famous twin-level infinity swimming pools; hanging over the stunning jungle landscape below. Who needs an infinity pool when we have our own private pool in the villa at Kamandalu Resort & Spa? This 5-star boutique resort resonates the traditional style of a real-life Balinese village with a touch of contemporary comfort.

bali-5

In the morning we head straight to the Sacred Monkey Forest. The sanctuary is located right at the end of Jalan Wenara Wana, commonly known as Monkey Forest Rd. We’re mobbed by a barrel of cheeky macaques as soon as we walk in and they snatch any loose items off us. I thought I was going to lose my future-mother-in-law when I saw her putting up a good fight with a huge aggressive male macaque who tried to snatch a water bottle out of her hands. Thank God she lets go just in time before the monkey snarled at her and pierced through the bottle with two long sharp fangs. So, you’ve been warned.

ibu oka babi guling

For lunch, there’s only one thing on my mind. As a food lover, a trip to Bali is not complete without trying Babi Guling (roasted suckling pig), a local specialty in Ubud. Despite Indonesia being a muslim country, it’s surprisingly easy to find pork dishes in Bali. 84.5% of the population adhere to Balinese Hinduism, which makes this part of town pork-friendly. Ask any local where to find the best Babi Guling and they’ll point you to Warung Ibu Oka. This Ubud institution is so busy they now have three shops around town to satisfy everyone’s porky cravings. The restaurant tucked away in an alleyway opposite the former Royal Palace is the closest to the touristy area. They do one thing and one thing only – roast suckling pig. Thin slices of pork meat are doused in homemade secret spicy sauce then topped with wafer-thin pork crackling that’s deliriously brittle and crispy. I even order an extra side of just pork crackling for that ultimate gratification.

rice field terraceTirta Empul

There’s no better way to burn off those extra calories we’ve just consumed than by visiting some of the ancient sites and temples around Ubud. We put our haggling skills to the test and are able to book a taxi for a full day service at 300,000Rp (around AUD$30). Our taxi driver takes us to the major attractions – we admire the cascading rice field terraces; we walk 300 steps down (and prepare to climb back up!) to the valley where ancient temple facades are carved into a ridge dated back to 11th century; we stroll around the holy site of Tirta Empul (Holy Spring Water Temple), where everyone is welcome to bathe in holy springs.

coffee and tea tastingcivet cat

Last but not least, we are offered to sample the world’s most expensive coffee, Luwak Coffee, brewed from coffee beans pooped by wild civet cats. I’m extremely dubious. The coffee tasting house is clearly set up for tourists. We’re led through the front garden where one can observe wild civet cats confined in cages, looking rather tired and sleepy. At the coffee house, you’re free to sample a variety of flavoured teas and Balinese-styled coffees, but it’s 50,000Rp (around AUD$5) a pop if you want to find out what the fuss “pooped-coffee” is all about. I got brushed off every time I tried to find out how they actually harvest the coffee beans from the cats which naturally belong in the wild. The ethics of trading this highly priced coffee remains a mystery.

On the last day, we do some last-minute souvenir shopping before heading back to airport. While the souvenir choices are endless, I simply can’t resist spending my last 100,000Rp on some giant wooden penis bottle openers to remember Bali by. You just can’t beat usable kitsch!

I’m glad I visited Bali and this spiritual island has definitely touched my soul in a way that I never thought it would.

If Bali is Ketut, then I will be Rhonda.

“Oh Bali, saya cinta kamu, you too.”

 

 

Billy Law is also a travel writer for Expedia Australia, this story was published on blog.expedia.com.au.