Just the name conjures up images of an exotic, distant, magical place, and the Bali that we visited for the first time in 1999 fit that description. It was the most beautiful, serene place that we’d ever laid eyes on, like something lifted out of a Somerset Maugham short story. We explored small tranquil towns where temples and family compounds rested beside emerald green rice paddies and tropical flowering forests; the earth was pungent, the air sweet and pure. Everywhere we went we found unique Balinese handmade craft: from fabrics to wooden furniture, jewelry, sculptures, basket ware, and straw handbags.
Graceful women – like Balinese goddesses – wearing form fitted long silk blouses, brightly colored sashes around their waists, and long fitted skirts – skillfully balanced baskets of fruit and delicacies on their heads as they made their way to the temples bearing their offerings.
The little town of Ubud oozed with charm and a wonderful Zen-like energy. Its little streets were lined with open fronted stores, restaurants, small hotels and spas, each one a little paradise set in a tranquil garden. Noise pollution was near zero.
Fast forward to the Bali of today. Every family seems to own at least one SUV and every family member drives a scooter from about age thirteen or fourteen, if not younger. The noise of scooters and the honking of horns are overwhelming. The roads are clogged, the air polluted, its one big traffic jam even on the once quiet, idyllic, mountain passes. In Ubud, scooters are parked six to eight deep so that it’s impossible in some places to use the sidewalks. It seems like everyone who owns an SUV is also a part time taxi driver with the result that one can’t walk more than a few steps without being accosted by someone offering their services: “Taxi? Taxi?” The small open fronted craft stores are gone, and there is no Balinese craft to be seen. The same clothing and trinket stores that one sees in every other town in the world sit behind glass doors.
But don’t give up on beautiful Bali. Just know what to expect, do your homework and opt for the countryside, the small villages or one of the hundreds of luxurious resorts and spas in exotic settings beside rice paddies, on the edge of forests, or beside the sea.
We returned to Candidasa and the understated Alila Manggis boutique hotel, which was The Serai when we first visited. It’s as tranquil and welcoming as it always was, the staff kind and attentive, the food even better than it was in 1999, and the massages – given in a romantic setting where the background melody is the combination of the birds twittering and the waves lapping – is every bit as rejuvenating as I remembered it to be. Yoga classes are held in the early morning and at sunset in a Zen setting on a garden terrace facing the sea.
Nearby in the little town of Candidasa, which boasts a flowering lily pond at its center, one can still find some unique Balinese craft. A short drive from Candidasa through the bamboo tree forests lies the ancient walled village of Tenganan, preserved in its original state much the way it was four hundred and fifty years ago. It is well worth a visit. Today the majority of the little homes are occupied by artisans. Roosters – most of them with their feathers dyed in bright shades of turquoise, pink, and green – crow inside their woven bamboo basket, cows graze beside them, and the locals sit under the trees painting, weaving or enjoying a meal.
A visit to Basakih Temple, which rests below the smoking volcano of Mount Agung, is always worthwhile, especially on a clear day. Not far from Basakih is a coffee and spice plantation where their specialty coffee is made from beans that have been swallowed and pooped out by the civet cat. The beans are cleaned, roasted, and ground to produce the most delicious and expensive coffee in the world.
Consider combining a hike through a lush, pungent, flowering forest, to the gorgeous Git Git Waterfalls in Northern Bali, with an overnight stay a few hours further in Lovina.
Awake before dawn and hire a fisherman to take you out in his boat on the calm South China Sea to experience the thrilling sight of hundreds of dolphins that suddenly appear at sunrise. They dive, leap, spin and call to one another, then disappear as quickly as they appeared.
Be forewarned, in 1999 there were a handful of boats that set out before dawn hoping to see this unforgettable sight. Unfortunately, now there are likely to be hundreds of boats. There’s also no guarantee that you’ll be lucky enough to see the dolphins but you will see the most exquisite sunrises and sunsets in Lovina.
Bali is still beautiful. One just has to be willing to get out and explore a little farther to experience the unique aura of serenity and spirituality that once permeated the majority of the island.