My Love-Hate Relationship with Bali
“Bali?!” I spat, cynical with visions of unfiltered humanity.
“Well yes, Bali. But also Indonesia!” my travel partner enthused.
I hadn’t seen Indonesia in eight years. This, coupled with invitingly cheap air fares, resulted in an impulse purchase to the land renowned for bogans and Bintangs. Having visited Indo as a salty, salivating grommet, I prided myself on travelling to the region for surfing purposes only. Never had I assaulted my senses by staying in pungent, probing Kuta.
I was warned, however, that Bali had changed dramatically in the near decade I’d been absent, and I was keen to witness these firsthand. So whether you’ve visited 15 times or none at all, I’ve compiled a list of my personal loves and loathes of this wildly vivid place.
1. Atmosphere (literally)
Anyone who’s travelled to Asia understands all too well the continent’s dense potency. Walking onto an Asian tarmac is usually a familiar slap in the face of sweat, spice and heat. Not to mention the unannounced street odours that seem to have neither source nor solution. But I’ve got to admit – this is actually one of my favourite parts of Indonesia. It signals another world: a world of exotic foods, traditions and people, and I urge you to accept this aspect with open arms. You don’t really have any other choice.
My first three days in Bali involved Extra Joss, Bintangs, getting pickpocketed and obtaining a relentless earache. Basically, it was a clusterfuck of chaos and pollution, all thanks to Bali’s hectic party capital. My view on Kuta did morph rather empathetically, however. After speaking with local and foreign business owners from the area, it seemed the reasons for Kuta’s cheap-and-nasty connotations are more close to home than you think. The general consensus was that Bali (and Kuta in particular) is basically the ignorant tourist’s mecca. The locals are slaves, the tourists their masters, and the government isn’t even trying to regulate society’s descent, as they themselves are arm in arm with these foreign foragers. After hearing this, I looked upon each heckle and hassle a little less angrily. Even though Kuta definitely isn’t my type of holiday destination, day trips to places like Seminyak, Canngu, and Keramas can make it a convenient location. As a result of the heavy international influence, there’s a bunch of swanky beach clubs and restaurants (Potato Head, La Plancha, Mexicola, Grocer & Grind, Sea Circle) that have great food and drink as well, but you’ll probably want to smuggle a goon sack in if you don’t want to take out a loan. My advice? Have some short, sweet fun with Kuta, and don’t stress too hard when someone tries to massage you in the street or shove a Bintang singlet down your throat. Travelling is about surrendering, and you definitely have to surrender when in Kuta.
Do: Eat at TJ’s Mexican, Poppies I.
Don’t: Swim in the Bounty pool.
I travelled to the Bukit Peninsula in high anticipation: this was the Bali I knew, but from so long ago. After my Kuta experience, I had expected the region to have transformed into some sort of neon brothel where everyone had braids. Thank heavens, I was pleasantly surprised. Although the areas from Dreamland to Ulu’s have definitely been developed, it wasn’t the unsightly, uncultured mess I was expecting. Local restuarants still semed to thrive, and the majority of the crew staying there were surfers or beach babes or… Chinese couples on their honeymoon. It did make for a strange dynamic, but not a corrosive one.
Do: Go to Single Fin, Uluwatu on a Sunday.
Don’t: Try to walk the peninsula on high tide.
4. The Islands
Perhaps my favourite thing about Bali is the surrounding Indonesian locations: the Gilis, Nusa Dua, Nusa Lembongan and Lombok, to name a few. For the majority of my trip, I stayed at Gili Trawangan island, and in short, it restored my undying faith in this beautiful country. Like stepping back in Bali 40 years, Gili Trawangan has no cars (only donkeys and push bikes) and has one main street that lines the beach. The locals hassle you a lot less, and the locale seems to weed out the cooked Aussie tourists who boast about having visited Bali 34 times, but have never been anywhere else in the world. There’s parties on every night at different host bars, snorkeling, paddle boarding and incredible diving. Sounds like an expensive beach resort, I hear you say. Not in the slightest. You can live on nearly nothing here, and even the water activities are the cheapest I’ve ever experienced in Asia. However, it’s the natural environment that really captured me. The scenery is so vivid you can taste it. The water, coral and surrounding greenery are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I could have spent my whole trip here very easily.
Do: Eat at the night markets ($4 for a huge plate of local deliciousness).
Don’t: Do mushies and swim the channel to Gili Meno (actually happened to a dude on our trip).
My opinions of Bali have indeed been softened, but it was the new places, such as Gili T, which were definitely the most enjoyable for me. As a whole, the Balinese people and culture are so welcoming and inviting, and I don’t think any experience could change my view on that. The waves were still better and less crowded than home, food and beer was still cheap, and I met as many cultured and interesting human beings as if I were traveling anywhere else in the world. Still definitely a frothing grommet for this place.