My husband and I spent four amazing weeks traveling through Laos and Indonesia for our honeymoon. Of all of the places we visited, I fell completely in love with Bali and could have easily spent another four weeks exploring the island. I suppose what I found so appealing about Bali was its display of nature, culture, food and history. So often when choosing a holiday destination, I find myself having to decide beforehand what kind of vacation it is that I’m looking for. Beach towns tend to lack culture or cities tend to lack nature, etc. With Bali, I didn’t really feel as if I needed to make these tradeoffs so long as I stayed away from the tourist ghettos of Kuta.
We based ourselves in Ubud, a town in the middle of Bali, in a lush valley surrounding the Ayung River. In the morning we hiked to neighboring villages where the Balinese live with their extended relatives in individual family compounds. We had just missed Galungan, a major religious holiday for the Balinese, but each family compound was still beautifully decorated with penjors, a tall and curved bamboo pole decorated with paper, flowers and coconut leaves, staked at the entrance. Terraced paddy fields bordered one corner of our lodgings and some days we would just laze about in an open air hut called a pondok accompanied by nothing but our conversation and the occasional tropical bird or the sight of a farmer tending to his fields.
The paddy fields of Bali are unlike any I’ve ever seen. In Malaysia, they stretch over large acres of flat land whereas Balinese paddy fields are laboriously terraced into the hillside giving the landscape incredible texture and form. We spent a whole day bicycling through these fields, on narrow and windy paths demarcating plots of land. I was feeling nervous about falling off my bicycle into the muddy wetness, but fortunately I learned that paddy fields in Bali are leech-free, unlike the ones that my father grew up running around in. I’m such a girl when it comes to creepy crawlies.
Another highlight of Bali, in Ubud in particular, is the abundant availability of what felt to us as fairly authentic dance performances. We saw several at the Agung Rai Museum of Arts (ARMA), a private museum in downtown Ubud, as well as in a community theater in a village neighboring Ubud called Peliatan. I highly recommend both venues, especially ARMA. The performance narratives are primarily adaptations from two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Gilgamesh, which brought back some hazy memories of freshman year philosophy lectures (yay SLE). A gamelan musical troupe almost always accompanies Balinese performances, with perhaps the Kecak as the only exception. In the Kecak, the musical accompaniment is provided by half-naked men, over one hundred of them, chanting in a trance. Through sounds such as “cak cak cak” and “pong pong pong”, the chanting men created a backdrop of forest sounds for the dance performance. The effect, especially given the scale, is quite spectacular and a little haunting.
Ultimately, what I found most appealing about Bali is its people. Offhand this might seem a little trite but I was really drawn to how easy it was to get to know them and they seemed to have a genuine curiosity about getting to know their visitors. Their daily lives are so deeply rooted in culture and tradition. The dancers we met typically learned their performance art from their parents or grandparents. Despite living fairly difficult lives, often holding multiple jobs and almost all of them related to tourism, the locals we met had an easy charm. I felt very much connected to them. Maybe it’s because we share the same shade of brown skin. Or maybe it really just is because our languages are so similar. Whatever it is, I felt very comfortable among the Balinese and I would visit that little island in the sun again in a heartbeat.