I was pretty infatuated with the island already as we navigated the labyrinth of strange, narrow, mossy alleyways to our ‘bungalow’ accommodations for the first night in Ubud. I was pretty fed-up with the island 2 days later as I trudged through the crowded, dirty streets looking for a motorbike in Kuta. I'm pretty sure that everyone hates Kuta. But then I was back to liking the island again later on as I road a motorbike along the winding mountain roads on the less developed Northern side of the Island. Overall, Bali was surprisingly interesting for how touristy it has become. I tend to be cynical about places that are such tourist havens, which is why I was anxious to get off of Bali and onto the less developed islands. But once I was on Bali, I was intrigued.
It didn’t feel like Indonesia. Or at least like what I expected Indonesia to feel like. It felt like a cleaner, nicer India. Bali is Indonesia’s Hindu island. In a country that is almost entirely Islamic, Bali stands alone as the only Hindu stronghold for thousands of miles. But their version of Hinduism is different than what you will see in India today; it is older. Being an island, Bali has been practicing Hinduism in relative isolation while India, being landlocked, has been noticeably influenced by everything happening around it over the centuries.
It also helps that the Balinese have a history of viciously slaughtering anyone who tried to have any input on their religious practices. This is the reason that they remained Hindu when the rest of their neighbors converted to Islam – their brutal murder of the Islamic missionaries that had landed on their shores over the years.
Bali is covered with mossy, overgrown temples. Everywhere you look the Hindu architecture is present, shaping even the most insignificant of structures. It was noticeably different from what you might see in India though. There were more straight lines, more sharp corners. It reminded me of ancient Aztec architecture, consisting of many diamonds and squares. It is truly a unique environment.
The cost of living was quite low. Not the lowest in Asia but by western standards, certainly a cheap vacation. We ate almost exclusively at ‘nice’ restaurants because, first of all, this was virtually our only option given our location on the island, and second of all, we could afford it. So why not? A 'nice' meal was only 50,000 IDR ($5). We could have found a slightly lower price if we had stuck with Indonesian food but before coming to Indonesia almost everybody I spoke to who had traveled there before said 'Indonesian food... If we're being honest, it's not that good.'
Well we tried it out. You eat most everything with your hands and wash the residual sauces and debris off your fingers in a small bowl of water that comes with your meal. I ate it all up, including a tough piece of cow lung, and I'm inclined to agree. Indonesian food: not that good.
The main roads of Ubud were an everlasting mossy maze of fine dining, hotels, and shopping, cleverly disguised as authentic Indonesia. I normally hate that kind of thing, but it was a cool atmosphere. Stray from the main road even a little bit though and you will find yourself in the midst of the most colorful and well-kept rice paddies out there. Occasionally the closely packed storefronts fall away and you will find yourself on a bridge over a narrow, rocky ravine. A look over the side often reveals dizzying heights but at the bottom of this drop a beautiful mossy river flows just as peacefully as it always has, since before Bali was ‘Bali.’
Ubud also had everything we needed. My travel companion burned their leg on the tail pipe of a motorbike and had had a festering wound on their calf ever since. But the friendly doctors at the Ubud clinic took care of them no problem.
Eat, Pray, Divorce
One strange phenomenon I observed in Ubud was that every restaurant I glanced into had at least one middle-aged woman, alone, reading a book with her dinner by candlelight. This was no doubt thanks to the relatively recent release of Eat Pray Love. They had all made the middle-aged woman's pilgrimage to find themselves.
Spoiler alert: apparently the inside scoop of the romance chronicled in that book / movie is that her legendary Brazilian Casanova is/was actually a ‘lonely, drunken, fat fuck that sat alone at the bar every night not talking to anyone.’ That’s how a local explained it to us at least. His words, not mine. The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, actually released a second book about her divorce from said Brazilian man, which occurred 2 years later. That book however was apparently a bit of a downer and didn't receive the same attention as it's predecessor.
Traditional Balinese Dancing
During one of our nights in Ubud, we were lucky to catch a show of traditional Balinese dancing. It was definitely interesting, and the dancers were dressed beautifully, but it was seriously weird. This was my first time seeing anything like it, and I was having trouble evaluating what I was seeing. All the same, I took some pictures and enjoyed it.
Later on in my travels, I would be told that the best way to evaluate the skill level of a dance troop such as this, is if during the performance you find yourself thinking "I could do this," they are probably not high caliber. There are supposed to be some incredible dance groups performing on Bali... I'm, like, 60% sure that this is not one of them. But then again, what do I know?
Accommodations On Bali
February, being the rainy season, is part of the ‘low season’ for tourism to Bali, so the Island was pretty quiet. I don't even want to think about how crowded the island must be during the 'high' season. Honestly the term ‘rainy season’ feels misleading. It rained once for about 15 minutes. It did rain more once we got farther up into the mountains, but tourists don't usually go up there so it shouldn't affect high and low season. Those are stories for later though.
The main perk to coming during low season though (aside from having the place to yourself) is that hotels are desperate for guests during this time. We had only booked our hotel for 2 nights initially so when we were kicked out we took to the Internet looking for a new room. We happened upon an Agoda ‘flash mobile’ deal (whatever that means) offering us a $100 per night room for $31 per night (my share was $15.50). Needless to say, we jumped on that like Oprah on a baked ham. And it was a beautiful a few days.
So, the take away here should be this: Bali was already turning out to be awesome. It is literally paradise. So hold onto your hats, because I'm not even close to finished writing about Bali!
In the next article, we're going to hike up to the top of an active volcano (Bali's Mount Batur) in time for sunrise. Strap in!