BEAUTIFUL BALIBy Susan Drew – Newspaper Travel Columnist One of the loveliest places I know of is Bali. To visit Bali, it touches your soul and always leaves you the richer for the experience. It’s a country that is lush and gentle, alive and vibrant, warm and welcoming all at the same time. It’s simply a spicy form of paradise!
People travel to Bali for many reasons. As for me when I lead trips to Bali I mostly concentrate on the people, culture and spirituality. Bali is the only Hindu island in all of Indonesia, and the Balinese take great pride in their religion. Small makeshift altars are set up in every home and shop – even in the rice fields, in anticipation of a good harvest. Incense and flower offerings are also made many times a day in hopes of pleasing the Gods. The Balinese often visit the great temples, but every village has a number of small ones too for daily worship. Throughout the year people participate in an endless array of ceremonies, all the while wearing their best clothing and making beautiful offering of flowers, fruit and pastries. Colorful dances are also performed as another form of worship. So everywhere you look the Balinese have integrated their religion into everything they do, making Bali a unique and fascinating place.
If you go to Bali, you’ll fly first into Denpasar, the capital city. Many people stay in Kuta Beach for swimming and surfing. I generally prefer to stay in either Sanur Beach or Nusa Dua Beach. Sanur offers some fine hotels like the Hyatt and smaller ones like the Puri Santrian, where I’ve often stayed. What’s nice in Sanur is you’re right on the beach, but you’re also in a village, filled with local shops and restaurants. Lately I’ve been staying further south in Nusa Dua, a pristine community of larger hotels. I like the deluxe Nusa Dua Beach Hotel, owned by the Sultan of Brunei. The rooms, grounds and lobbies are so pretty along with two pools, the beach and a spa. I always feel very comfortable there.
After some “fun in the sun” at the beach, it’s time to see a few of the cultural sights of Bali. From Nusa Dua it’s easy to get to the holy temple of Ulu Watu, set high on the bluffs overlooking the sea. If you arrive near sunset, you can get some great photos and maybe be treated to a performance of the Kecak dance, which tells the story of the monkey God Hanuman and his rescue of Rama’s princess Sita. If you miss the dance there, you can always see it in Denpasar, where it’s performed nightly. Another day, you might want to visit a monkey forest, the temple courtyards of Mengwi, do some shopping and get to Tanah Lot Temple. On a small island, accessible at low tide, it’s a photographer’s delight at sunset. Other sights in the area are some princely palaces, local markets, rice fields and Bedugal, a day trip into Bali’s lake region.
After you’ve stayed for a few days at the beach, you’ll probably want to travel up into the hills to Ubud, Bali’s artist’s colony. It’s a beautiful ride through the countryside, with a number of temples to explore along the way such as Tampaksiring and Goa Gajah, the elephant temple. As you approach Ubud, you’ll pass by many artisans’ shops and you may want to stop and check out their wares such as: silver jewelry, batiks, wood carvings, weavings etc. While in Ubud, I always stay at my favorite hotel called the Alam Indah (“beautiful nature”). It has only 10 rooms and each one is named for a local flower. One of the rooms I’ve often stayed in is the Lily room. It’s decorated in shades of blue and it has a lovely porch, filled with carved Balinese furniture. It just invites you to sit and have a drink or dinner, overlooking the rice fields nearby. This room is air-conditioned, but not all are – though I’ve never had a problem with bugs. Sleeping with the mosquito netting at night, is all part of the romance of staying in your lovely room filled with Balinese furniture, art and linens. The Alam Indah has been so successful that Alam Jiwa and Alam Shakti have now been built. The staff is kind and attentive and the meals suberb. The hotel is located on the other side of the monkey forest, so you can either walk through it to get to town (while keeping the monkeys away from your belongings) or take the hotel van. Also try some of the fine restaurants nearby.
There’s a lot to do in Ubud, but one thing I definitely do is take my groups on a rice walk. First we’re driven a few miles out of town and then our guide takes us on a gentle, meandering walk through the rice fields back towards town. As we walk through the bright green fields, we watch the workers planting and harvesting the rice. Once we end our walk at dusk, it’s time to attend one of the magical Balinese dance performances, held nightly in Ubud’s ornate palace grounds The dancers act out mythical stories of Bali’s rich religious history through gorgeous costumes, dramatic make-up and transfixing hand gestures.
The next day I like to visit the holiest of all Bali’s temples, Besakih – the mother temple. It’s a fascinating drive through the mountains and even if the day is clear below, it’s usually misty at the temple’s higher elevation. To get to the top altar you have to walk up many steps, but if you choose to go its beautiful and well worth the climb. It’s traditional to take a small leaf basket filled with flowers to leave on the altar and if you’re lucky the priest will perform a brief ceremony for you. The view from the top is breathtaking and the ride to Ubud, sublime. Over the next few days try to spend time in Ubud’s shops and markets, visit some of the museums, maybe visit an artist’s studio, treat yourself to a Balinese massage and perhaps a yoga class before leaving town. From Ubud, you can also travel to Lovina to swim with the wild dolphins (if you’re lucky), visit Candi Dasa to snorkel and explore the craft villages or go to see the volcano of Mt. Batur. Once my group bravely decided to try the sunrise climb, starting at 4:00 AM. It was a tough trek, but we finally made it to the top. The best part was finding a thatched coffee house at the summit, so we could have a cup of coffee with our breakfast - all heated up on the volcano’s sulfur vents!
After exploring more of Bali, you’ll probably want to head back to the beaches for a few additional days of rest and relaxation before heading home. No matter how much time you get to spend in Bali, I’m sure you’ll agree - it’s never enough!
Susan Drew is the owner of Sangha Tours. She specializes in leading and arranging cross-cultural tours that follow the sangha path (Tibetan: community). For information about a tour or to be on her mailing list, contact her at 772-567-6202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org