It took more than 30 years for me to return to Bali, the Indonesian island lying between Java and Lombok, so I had to expect changes. I was there in the 1970s, before the tourism boom that started in earnest in the 1980s. At that time there were very few grand hotels and the government actually decided to restrict the height of buildings to that of a mature coconut palm. Well, good intentions were forgotten for today much of South Bali seems unplanned, overdeveloped and congested.
I stayed at Kuta Beach and Seminyak, among the most visited places on the island. One of the hotels was overrun with tall, broad, white Australians from Perth who spent their days moving lawn chairs around on what truly was a pseudo sand beach for the actual beach was a couple of blocks away. That’s not my Bali. The good news is that the real Bali still exists. You just have to head north.
Bali is blessed with organic soil, lots of rain and equatorial temperatures so the landscape is incredibly lush; breathtaking, in fact. When you ride along the back roads the palm trees form an arbour above you. The Banyan trees are the tallest and serve as homes for the spirits; they’re often wrapped in black and white checked cloth with a shrine positioned in front.
A chain of volcanoes forms the backbone of the island and climbing up the sides of them are tier after tier of rice fields, their green blending in with the natural landscape.
The Balinese are an attractive people, especially when dressed in white as they often are for their many festivals. They follow a unique brand of Hinduism that incorporates animalism and ancestor worship. Everywhere you go you will see incense sticks and tiny offerings of flowers, sweets and rice arranged on banana leaves. Their villages and homes haven’t changed much over the decades either, incorporating such architectural details as a small wall directly behind the doorway to stop bad spirits from entering for they have a hard time changing directions.
Other traditions such as cockfighting also continue even though gambling is illegal. Their way around it is to hold the fights for ceremonial reasons since the spilling of blood is part of many rituals. A cockfighting pavilion is at the centre of many villages.
There are the arts that the island is so well known for–the dance, music, puppetry–although some of this is now mass produced for tourists. However, interesting and sometimes outlandish sculptures of gods and goddesses can be found in temples and courtyards everywhere.
I spent time in East Bali and the area ‘ticks all the boxes’. You just need to rent a motorbike or hire a car and driver (very affordable) and drive up the coastal highway and along the back roads to appreciate its astonishing beauty. There are a couple of beaches that are just about perfect, coral reefs for diving and snorkeling, and the island’s highest volcano for hiking.
I stayed in Candidasa, a resort town that needs to be revitalized but does offer good choices for sleeping and dining and its central location is perfect. It looks out over the sea and early each day you can see hundreds of dugout fishing boats seemingly dancing off shore. Just south of Candidasa is Padang Bai, another popular place to stay and where people catch the ferry to the island of Lombok. An hour north of Candidasa is Amed, a collection of small fishing villages. Others I met stayed in one of the small villages in the picturesque Sideman/Selat valley. There are also remote yoga retreats.
The Blue Lagoon is a popular beach with white sand and calm water; I had my first snorkeling experience there. Then there’s White Sand Beach, which is near the village of Perasi (a place that probably hasn’t changed in the last century) and not far from Candidasa. The road to get there is rough but I hired a local driver and it didn’t seem to concern him. The beach is unspoiled, edged by lush vegetation, and the water is crystal clear with gentle waves. There are a few simple restaurants run by friendly locals and lawn chairs you can rent. You won’t find a beach much better than this one.
For a small donation you can visit a village where Bali Aga people live according to even more ancient traditions. Or risk being hassled by touts at the Mother Temple of the island on Mount Agung. There’s a water garden called Tirta Gangga that was named after the holy Ganges River in India and interesting to explore. I enjoyed just passing time watching farmers tend their crops and village women walking by carrying incredible loads on their head.
Mass tourism has changed the fabled island of Bali and yet the unspoiled landscape, traditional villages and deeply spiritual people are still there. You just have to look a little harder to find them.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012