Making Bali a Real Cultural Experience
Following Bali’s negative PR over the past decade this magical Indonesian island has suffered a substantial loss of tourism. Fortunately for the locals, over the past few years the popularity has picked up and Bali, which is 5 times bigger than Singapore, has seen masses of tourists swamp its South and Southeast coast.
While many complain that the backpacking culture of Bali is corrupting its pristine natural beauties with carelessness, drugs and wild parties, my experience has shown that this is concentrated only to Denpasar, Kuta, Seminyak and the surrounding areas.
To experience the real Balinese lifestyle and its incredibly rich culture, avoid the tourists, fold up your tour guides and make some local friends.
Here is my list of must-see places on this beautiful island:
1) Ubud – many people will note down Ubud as the must-visit spot in Bali thinking it’s one of those spiritual centers where hippy yogis go.
Ubud is in fact the very heart of Bali, surrounded by rice paddies and gorgeous tiny villages where you can, within 10 minutes drive from Bali watch the locals produce their crafts and observe the morning offering rituals. Ubud is a great cultural center where you can also attend one of the performances from the Ramayana and indulge in some great local food. You can rent a bicycle and ride through the Monkey Forest, drink fruitshakes overlooking the rice fields and enjoy some incredible massages using the local hot volcanic stones.
2) Singaraja – located in North Bali this old capital of Bali is far from touristy and very few foreigners end up coming here to see the black volcanic beaches and watch the dolphin migration from East to West each morning at 5am (spider boats depart from Lovina). Singaraja, or the ‘Lion King’ is a typical Balinese town where you should stay for a few days to experience the real local life style and perhaps even attend one of the local ceremonies.
Mingle with the locals to learn more about the local traditions and you might even get to attend a local wedding or some other traditional ceremony.
On the way to Singaraja make sure you visit the numerous waterfalls where you could enjoy some white water rafting and other water sports.
3) Check out Bali Temples - Every Balinese village has several beautiful temples but the most famous ones include Tenah Lot, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), Ulun Danu Temple, Pura Luhur (Uluwatu), Pura Tirta Empul and Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi. Each temple is special in its own way and the best way to see them is to rent a car (ideally with a driver) or a motor bike (please be careful on the road) and drive for 2 days. Given that Ubud is in the center of the island making this your home base would be ideal. The temples are scattered around the island and each one has its own story.
Make sure you learn something about them before visiting or at least get a driver who could brief you on each one. When visiting temples make sure you are appropriately dressed. Most of the temples provide covers (sarongs) for both men and women when entering but you could also bring your own.
4) Mt Agung or Gunung Agung – this volcanic mountain is one of the tougher ones to climb in Bali and is located just an hour drive from Ubud. The climb ideally begins at 2am in the morning so that you can reach the top just in time to see the sunrise. Being about the clouds, overlooking the entire island and witnessing your guide providing the spirits offerings is priceless and worth the steep climb. On a good day, from the top of Mt Agung you can even see Mt Rinjani in Lombok – the island East of Bali across the sea. The view is simply stunning.
According to the Balinese Hindu religion, Agung is the most sacred of mountains and is home to Bali’s largest temple, Pura Besakih. Make sure you get a guide if you plan to climb this mountain and ask them to bring along some good Balinese coffee. If you are not an avid mountaineer make sure you let you guide know as they could guide you through a different, easier path up to the summit.
5) Coffee Degustation – Indonesians are proud of their coffee and the Balinese guides will be quick to suggest visiting one of their numerous coffee plantations where you can enjoy various blends, aromas even (if you are lucky) try the famous Luvak coffee (Kopi Luvak)
It’s yummy and once you see the price tag you will want to enjoy even more :)
Remember, unless you are a surfer Bali is not about beaches and expensive hotel resorts. You can also opt to stay in a local villa, away from the buzzling night life, surround yourself with monkeys, stop and smell the frangipanni flowers and enjoy the local delicacies. You can camp in the national parks in the West and snorkle with tourtles in the South. You can dive in various sites along the coast and enjoy the colourful culture, smiley people and unique language. Get lost in Bali and write your own last chapter of Eat, Pray, Love.