Bali. The word alone conjures images of palm-fringed tropical beaches, poolside lazing, and dense jungles permeated with the sound of “Om.” It’s the Caribbean/Mexican getaway equivalent for Australians, a cheap short flight to cheap tropical bliss. *For the unaware, Bali is an island in the Indonesian archipelago, not it’s own country. On Instagram, it’s the vacation spot you’ve always dreamed of: 5-star luxury at 2-star prices. And for Justin and I, it was the focal point of our SE Asia trip, because it was here we were meeting up with our friend Katherine (Spee) from Seattle. For almost a year, “BALI!” had been the rallying cry when the 3 of us were struggling to get through a late night at the pub. We’d dreamed a lot, planned little, and were excited to explore a new place together.
We knew that there were a lot of hustlers and touts in Kuta, the town you fly into, and that the overdeveloped strip running from Kuta to Seminyak was the equivalent of Myrtle Beach, SC. So we planned to stay here for just one night before heading north to Ubud, a land of lush rice paddies and yoga retreats (we’d heard). To be fair, the tone for the start of our visit was set by our journey from the airport to our homestay. Spee had arranged for the driver she used the day before for a tour to pick us up at the airport. We said SURE! When we arrived, we had a text that quoted $10, which we knew was too much, especially when we looked up the location of our homestay and it was less than a mile from the airport. But by the time we saw his price, he had already been at the airport waiting for us for an hour. So we went with it. It took 20 minutes to get out of the parking garage (at this point we would have already walked to our homestay), and then he proceeded to drive the wrong direction while telling us about how much people usually tipped him and tried to get us to commit to a ride later in the evening to go eat chicken or something silly like that. To finish the ride, when Justin accidentally gave him 220,000 instead of 130,000 (the 10,000 and 100,000 is easy to confuse), he didn’t comment or offer change, just took the money and ran. Needless to say, we didn’t use his services the next day.
But we were at a homestay which was beyond peaceful and beautiful, a traditional family compound with a few luxury hotel rooms built inside, complete with a swimming pool, temples, and a delicious breakfast. We relaxed a little. There was air conditioning, a good shower, and a comfortable bed.
After a joyous reunion with our beloved Spee, we went for a walk to find some lunch. Without a map to guide us, we wandered where we knew, the overcrowded strip the driver had mistakenly gone down earlier in the day. It was impossible to go more than 20 feet without being a) honked at by a taxi, b) grabbed at for a massage, or c) having to dodge a large sweaty sunburnt Australian. Nevertheless, we found a nice meal at a fancier coffeeshop and then retreated to the peace of our homestay pool.
The next day we headed to Ubud, and despite an easier transport situation, we were less than impressed with the deluxe family bungalow we’d rented for the 3 of us. It lacked air conditioning, and they were building a new unit right next to the pool, so the soundtrack of peaceful frogs and birds was interrupted most of the day by hammers and powertools. There were monkeys though- an endless source of amusement and mild danger- they would snatch any food you brought outside of the eating area, no negotiations allowed.
This was how all of the Bali we saw was: mostly a sensory overload, with some really wonderful moments sprinkled throughout. I recognize how ridiculous it is to complain about the tourism industry as a tourist. But it was hard to feel relaxed at any time, as you were constantly hassled with offers for transport and massage. The few moments of peace to be found, I feel guilty to report, were mostly in decidedly upscale Western places, like the yoga studio with $10 classes (they were really good!), or the restaurants charging $8+ for a main (also, really really good!). And the process of getting somewhere calming (walking down crowded roads, negotiating taxi fares, etc) was so stress-inducing that it almost made it not worth the effort.
We spent most of our time on Bali proper in Ubud. I’m not sure how I feel about Ubud- it was a paradise on the one hand, but one that imported so much of what made it great that it felt completely inauthentic. There were plenty of artisans around the area, and some genuine and beautiful artwork. But the combination of tourist shit and yoga retreats and upscale art shops resulted in an overall feeling (and a look) that this was a place where white girls go to “find themselves” by doing exactly what they do at home: go to yoga, drink overpriced cocktails and espresso, do macro/vegan/raw diets, and shop. The place was flooded with hundreds of girls that looked just like me, people trying to sell you stuff, and rich older white folks. It was, to say the least, not what we came to Indonesia for.
We hoped Nusa Lembongan would be better. The island lies 15 km or so off the coast of Bali and has a reputation as the new tourism hot spot. We booked a nice place (way above our budget), mostly because I felt guilty about the place we stayed in Ubud. Our plan was to have beach time, sun time, and relax without the pressure of taxis or tours or massages. Our resort was one of those perfect places that really lives up to the photos. We were pleased, and soaked ourselves in the luxury. We’d eat a nice breakfast looking at the water, then ride scooters around the backroads and beaches before returning in the afternoon to sunbathe and read and get ready for dinner. There wasn’t much to do on the island except swim and read and eat (although I was able to get in some good runs!) so after a few days and the necessary snorkeling trip, we were done there as well. Also, we’d pretty much spent through our splurge money and were ready to get back to the cheaper way we’d been traveling all along.
We literally had to look back on Bali, from the shoreline of Nusa Penida, to see what we missed about the island. While all we saw when we were there was endless towns and scooters and traffic, when we looked from afar there were huge peaks and jagged coastlines, all cloaked with green jungle. We knew there were trekking opportunities, but Spee and Justin were both keen for beach time, and we were all so tired of being hassled to take tours that organizing a trekking tour (the only way to do it) seemed like a terrible idea. This was almost definitely a mistake, we realized while staring at the towering summit of Mt Agung from the shores of Lembongan. We were too caught up in how much we didn’t like the typical Bali tourist trail to seek out the places that might appeal more to our tastes. We aren’t tourist trail people, and our big mistake in our Bali trip was trying to pretend like we were. Fortunately for us, with roundtrip flights only $400, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to come back and find something to love.