A couple of weeks ago, I returned to the land where I first discovered my wanderlust more than seventeen years ago…the Indonesian island of Bali. When I first visited in 1994, I was a wide-eyed, inexperienced young lad, travelling for the first time…I wasn’t even aware of the term ‘itchy feet’ back then. I will never forget the way I was totally mesmerized by that initiation to the world outside of my comfort zone in England. It was the first of many, many travels around the world, hence I am no longer a naive kid but a fairly experienced traveler. However, there is one thing that will never change. When I am visiting a place, whether for the first time, or for the second or even third time, I am left as spellbound and intoxicated by my freedom as I was all those years ago. It is this unabashed joy of discovery, the notion of being somewhere, anywhere, other than where one perhaps should be, where one was yesterday, or even last year, that prevents me from giving up this life I lead. I feel lucky that travelling, or even the act of planning a trip, still gets me so excited and continues to give me such a buzz! Long may it continue!
So, being back in Bali last week was to return to the place where it all began. I was actually there for a few days just before Christmas of 2009, but I didn't do anything other than sit on the beach (It was cheaper to go through Bali and Singapore for a week than fly direct to Australia) This time though, with my brother Ian, his wife Rochelle and our friend Nathan in tow, there was more action than you could shake a satay stick at. My first day was spent solo, slumped in the sun on the beach at Sanur, followed by watching the Rugby World Cup final in a bar. It is amazing how easily people can adopt another nation's colors when sport is involved...I'm referring to the rowdy group of Ozzies that inexplicably became French for two hours and thus were cheering against New Zealand. I was delighted to be the only All Blacks supporter in the bar, and I had a great time watching the French team choke under pressure and the Ozzie guys choke on their cheap Ozzie beers. What this also meant though, was that Ian and Rosh would probably arrive after their short hop from Darwin the next morning very hung-over, being a Kiwi and an adopted Kiwi themselves. It would be the first time I'd seen them in almost two years, and I couldn't wait. After hugs and a 7.30a.m. Bintang beer, we made our way to the ferry bound for Lembongan, an island off an island. Lembongan is a small, dusty island with very little infrastructure, sporadic electricity, no cars and a snail's pace of life...perfect for a few days to unwind and catch up. We checked into our delightful rooms, booked our Scuba diving for the next morning, and went out exploring the island on hired scooters, finding our way to secluded coves and stunning beach bars.
I imagine this was how Bali might once have been, long before I first came in 1994, and long before the Ozzies started making it their quick vacation fix. Lembongan retains an air of tranquility, with no resorts, the very few roads more pothole than tarmac, and the local kids grubby, happy and carefree. Right now it is a tropical haven, but I fear that this Shangri-la feel is under threat, as investors begin Lembongan’s metamorphosis from Bali’s sleepy, dormant neighbor into a partying rival to chaotic Kuta.
The next day promised to be memorable, diving with the giant mola mola fish and manta rays, a must-see on any diver’s ‘bucket list.’. In reality, the mola mola didn't turn up, and the manta rays proved elusive, but the diving was amazing, and I got to dive with my brother for hopefully the first time of many.
After chilling in Lembongan we headed back to Bali, and our driver Katuk deposited us in Ubud, the culturally rich hippy town an hour inland. I had long yearned to visit this area, believing it to be spectacular and with a vastly different vibe from the highly developed beach resorts, and I wasn't disappointed. Ubud was recently made more famous by Hollywood, in the movie ‘Eat. Pray. Love.’ Instead of following this lead, the four of us acted out our own story, for which a fitting title would be 'Eat. Play. Eat again.' The culinary delights in Bali are cheap and delicious, and we couldn't get enough of the native Nasi or Mie Goreng, and of course chicken Satay. The amount of satays on sticks we devoured doubtless escalated the destructive deforestation across much of Asia, so for that we apologize. Meditation and yoga is rife in this town, and a year ago a visit with Guru Ketut Miyer would have been an interesting and cheap experience, an hour costing $10. Well, nowhere is safe from the curse of celebrity, and a thirty minute session with Mr. Liyer, after featuring in the movie, will now set you back $250. When I learned of the astronomical hike in price, my penciled in visit was quickly scratched off my to do list, and apparently if I want to know what he would tell me, I simply have to watch the movie again, as every disciple/tourist gets told the same things. A shame, but that’s capitalism, right?
My room at The Bali T Houses was beautiful, and each morning I awoke to a stunning view over waterlogged rice paddies. Silent and serene, with a backdrop of coconut palms and pink skies, it was idyllic.
Our first Ubud action was to indulge in white water rafting. The trek down through the jungle to the river itself was stunning, and the towering vine clad trees and dazzling tropical flowers provided a spectacular setting for an adrenalin fuelled two hour voyage down the rapids. I got my customary injury when I do anything adventurous, managing to gauge a giant slice out of both my foot and hand while everyone else of course remained unscathed, but it wouldn't be quite the same if I didn't.
It was great fun surging under waterfalls and negotiating the immovable giant boulders, but my highlight was witnessing a 400metre stretch of river wall beautifully carved with the Hindu Mahabharata epic. The ingenuity and endeavor to first envisage and then create the dramatic riverside tableau is incredible, and given the obvious challenges of difficult working conditions, it was truly a sight to behold.
The following day was spent visiting temples, and some of the architecture was exquisite. Despite Indonesia being the world's most Islamic country, with over 200,000,000 Muslims, Bali itself is historically Hindu, and 80% of its architecture is of a traditional Hindu persuasion. Delicate design and fine carvings adorn every wall and gateway, while multi-level pagodas strikingly pierce the clear blue skies.
With an avid interest in architecture and art history, it is always fascinating for me to compare different culture’s interpretations of what makes a temple, and how they reach out to their various gods. Despite my own Atheist beliefs, I am drawn to religious architecture, and I’m intrigued by alternative methods when striving for the holy. These endeavors are almost always vertically inclined, and in this at least Balinese temples are no different, with towering pagodas and shrines stretching skywards. Intricately cut from indigenous stone and brightly colored with natural pigments, they are very impressive indeed.
Our next adventure was mountain biking. After being delivered with a guide and our bikes some 20 miles outside of Ubud, we were somewhat apprehensive about making it back to town in one piece. However, assured that it was 90% downhill and away from the busy highways, we eagerly set off. Our skeptical minds were soon at ease as we cruised downhill, with wonderful views of volcanoes and rice terraces, and through peaceful, traditional villages with local kids having fun by the deserted country roadsides. It was real Balinese life playing out before us, like a flashback, or a snapshot of time of how I imagined much of Asia to have been before industrialization took hold.
The romanticist in me longs to have been around in that era, where life was tough but honest, and we were not burdened with materialism, only with our daily needs of family and sustenance. It was a refreshing look into the past, and as I caught a glimpse of the iconic hats of the rice farmers, or called out a greeting when trundling past sporadic groups of colorfully adorned women bearing offerings to various Hindu gods, I was truly in my element. Once we were confident that our bikes were the only traffic on the back roads, we began to let gravity take control, allowing it to carry us down the hills at speeds up to 40mph…it was exhilarating and scary in equal measures, and as the brilliant greens of the rice paddies flashed by, I was reminded of just why I love my freedom so much.
It was wonderful to see this side of Bali, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the over touristed area of Kuta Beach. However, the beach is where we were headed next, and we made our way to Seminyak, a couple of miles north of the hedonist mecca of Kuta. As we arrived in the late afternoon, my travel companions made fun of my desire to hit the beach in time for sunset.
However, as I live in Korea and I am surrounded by mountains on every side, a beach sunset is a rare treat, so I was going to make the most of it. It was worth the effort. After a couple of icy beers and an impromptu game of beach football with some local kids, I sat back and basked in the spectacular show of nature as the sky transformed: from blue to gold, and from orange to pink, and finally from red to purple to black. It was amazing, and just as I recalled from my previous visits.
When I first knew I was going to Bali as a twenty year old kid, I believed I was on my way to paradise. Before the advent of the internet, looking at holiday brochures was the way we picked our destinations, and Bali genuinely was remote and exotic, as far away from my hometown of Lowestoft, both physically and emotionally, as it was possible to go. And of course it totally lived up to its tag as a paradise island, qualifying the images on the glossy pages of the travel agent’s books. However, since tourists and ex-pats have so heavily invaded Bali, I am no longer sure it can still be called paradise, in the unspoiled, halcyon sense of the word. Nevertheless, it is still a magical island, and if you transport yourself away from the litter strewn beach and noisy streets of Kuta, and delve into the lesser known interior or hit the deserted coast of the east or the outlying islands, then Bali really can fulfill traditional ideas of paradise. And, regardless of the fact that I have now been three times, I know for certain I will return again soon, once again re-tracing my footsteps while hopefully creating new ones. And when I do, I have no doubt that I’ll be as wide-eyed and as mesmerized as I once was, all those years ago.