What to do in Bali?
Before arrival, we had vaguely discussed visiting one of the Gilis. These are a trio of islands, technically belonging to Lombok, the next big island to the east, itself much-touted for its beauty. One is practically untouched, one is party-central, one has Goldilocks-status with some infrastructure but no bars, and all are famous for their beaches and sunsets. But after our disappointment with Ubud, and neither Peter nor I being overly bothered with beaches, they fell from favour.
So where to go?
Public transportation doesn’t really exist on Bali. There’s no railway, and buses are few and far between. Locals rely on cars and motorbikes, tourists do the same, and out of town trips are usually done by hiring a car and driver for a set distance or time.
Ubud is roughly in the centre of the island. Java, where we were headed next, is joined to Bali’s westernmost point by a 20 minute ferry. Poring over the map, friends’ recommendations, and accommodation options, we decided to cut our losses and head straight for the west. We would spend a few days in Pemuteran and get in a bit of snorkelling, before setting out for Java.
We booked a car, bid farewell to the lovely staff of Bliss Ubud, and off we set.
Bali’s roads are almost as scarce as their buses. The first half of our journey headed north, cutting across the middle of the island: through jungle, past rice paddies, into villages, and over small mountain passes where despite not being that high in the grand scheme of things, the foliage changed and the outside temperature was noticeably cooler. It was a beautiful journey, and easily my favourite part of our time in Bali. We witnessed local people engaged in construction, traditionally a community process, with each new house built according to complicated religious and cultural rules. We drove past countless workshops, outside of which lay beautiful teak furniture in haphazard piles, the sort of thing that would cost an absolute fortune in London at some incredibly upmarket, overpriced interior design boutique; but here went for a fraction of the price. It’s probably cheaper to spend a fortnight in Bali and ship home a hand-carved king-size bed than it is to buy the same thing at retail value from a shop on the King’s Road. No wonder this place is such a popular holiday destination.
But more than anything else, what we saw was that the tourist trail never quite disappeared. Although hardly an urban sprawl, the road was almost continuously lined with villages, always with signs to hotels and cafés offering banana pancakes. Up in the remote hills, we saw homestays and B&Bs for hikers. Even where the houses briefly stopped, and remote rice paddies stretched towards jungle, we would be overtaken by flip-flop-clad westerners on motorbikes. The journey took perhaps five hours and I never felt there was a single moment where we could have said to the driver “Stop here, we’ll find a place to stay” and not found ourselves face-to-face with a group of 21-year-old German backpackers, or a retired librarian from Ipswich seeking an emotional breakthrough.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this; it just wasn’t what I expected. I had anticipated Bali as an eastern paradise and was instead shocked by its westernisation. But at what point does a tourist favourite cross the line from “home comforts” to “overdeveloped”? When local people benefit from employment created by tourism, how to fairly halt the influx of jobseekers and ensuing plethora of tourist amenities, which then changes the original culture so irrevocably that it no longer holds the same appeal? Is it right, as a latecomer, to dismiss this “damaged” culture completely, when it’s our fault that it’s “not like it used to be”? Is it fair for me to benefit from an area’s western-style toilets and hygienic food preparation demanded by my predecessors, whilst simultaneously being disappointed by its popularity? Doesn’t my presence in and of itself contribute to the “observer effect”, whether I’m the first to see it, or the five millionth?
I ask myself these questions whenever I travel but in Bali they seemed particularly pertinent. I’m still seeking answers, so would welcome any musings on the subject . . .
Not long into the journey, we chatted with the driver about Indonesia’s coffee business, which segued very nicely into him asking if we wanted to see a coffee “factory”. Of course we did, and of course he was getting a kickback. Standard process for a long-distance car driver, albeit not one which Peter was overjoyed to experience.
The “factory” wasn’t exactly a Victorian workhouse, but a very small tropical fruit plantation, some weasels in cages which did their part in producing the infamous “weasel coffee”, and a nice lady stirring some beans in a metal pot. A smiley man showed us the growing beans (both arabica and robusta), a mangosteen tree, and some wrinkly vanilla pods. I got very excited about and slightly suspicious of the pineapples which, however often I see them growing, just don’t look real.
He then plied us with tasters of their surprisingly delicious coffee, flavoured with all of the natural ingredients growing around us. Cup after cup after cup; the varieties just kept coming.
We headed off to buy some of the products only to discover that they had brazenly priced it at a level which wouldn’t have been out of place in Fortnum & Mason. Peter balked at the price, I wheedled that we couldn’t possibly leave without some ginseng coffee, and if we were going to get that then we might as well go for the the double pack with the mangosteen tea.
We departed with Peter furious at the driver for delivering us into such brazen daylight robbery, and me for enabling them, whilst I trotted behind clutching my prize and looking forward to a nice cuppa.
We stopped at the top of a steep climb for a lunch of surprisingly good nasi goreng (standard fare throughout Indonesia and suitable for any time of day), served from a nondescript building with rickety tables set up outside and casually overlooking a stunning vista of Bali’s central lakes.
The equivalents of motorway service stations in other countries are always a source of amusement to me. I like to think of all the times I’ve sat in my car, shamefully gobbling down a hasty McDonalds, staring at a wall or – if I’m lucky – the petrol station. Although maybe for the Balinese, gazing over Lake Tamblingan with a plate of fried rice conjures similar emotions. Certainly our driver seemed remarkably underwhelmed.
The second half of the journey was less eventful. We saw two large electricity plants squatting troll-like on the coast, covered in Chinese characters, and it reminded me of the vast, ugly, essential bridge I saw being built over the Mekong in Laos’s virgin rainforest, also by a Chinese firm. There’s something incredibly intimidating about the fact that Chinese industry has got its claws into what feels like every country in the world; but would there be as efficient an electricity system in Bali if they hadn’t? Do the means justify the ends?
We had booked our Pemuteran accommodation at about 2am the previous night; guided, it has to be said, by the enormous discount. King-size rooms with four-poster beds were going for just £30 per night (compare that to Peter paying £15 for a room in a YHA, or £25 for a compact single room with a shared bathroom in Korea) and we pounced without much further thought. We weren’t really sure what to expect and on arrival discovered that what we’d unintentionally chosen was, not to put too fine a point on it, a resort.
I mean, it wasn’t a resort in the most offputting sense of the word, which conjures up images of 30-storey concrete monstrosities boasting in-house nightclubs, private beaches stuffed with towel-adorned sunloungers, Kidz Clubz, and all-inclusive frozen daiquiris. But it was an expanse of land along the shoreline with meandering paths, manicured flowerbeds, and semi-detached bungalows. And there were three pools. And one of them had a swim-up bar.
Except, we’d be given the aforementioned enormous discount because, it transpired, early December was spectacularly low season, and prices are slashed accordingly (so if you’re desperate to visit Bali, and you can get away from work, that or late January are the times to go. Avoid Christmas and New Year like the plague). We learnt that we were sharing the 52-room complex with about five other people; and, ultimate tragedy, the swim-up bar was conspicuously closed.
It was a truly bizarre stay. The room was huge, with parquet flooring, an outdoor palm-covered shower, and another amazing fairytale four-poster with mosquito net . . . and one of so many identical bungalows that we got lost every time we left it. The surrounding area was dusty and dry, a victim of this year’s particularly intense El Nino, suffering from a frighteningly delayed rainy season. Yet inside Adi Assri’s walls, the frangipani and bougainvillea were so lush and bright, the lawns so emerald green, that it felt positively unnatural. The meals at the on-site restaurant were overpriced but truly delicious, and we the only people eating them. There were more staff than guests. The views were lovely, but unseen; the pools perfectly heated, and entirely empty. It felt like a beautiful ghost town, waiting for guests who showed no signs of appearing. It was a Balinese Brigadoon – an Indonesian Marie-Celeste. It shouldn’t have been there. Why did it exist??!
Pemuteran, like the rest of Bali, undoubtedly sees its fair share of tourists, but when we questioned the local people it transpired that Adi Assri was never full. Yet the owners were preparing to build yet more rooms; a standard dodgy ruse, apparently, to get more money from the bank. And it transpired that whilst the area had always been prone to aridity, the resort’s arrival had redirected all local water sources, and nearby wells had mysteriously dried up. Not unlike, I suspect, many coves all over the world, Pemuteran had originally been a fishing village but the hotel had kicked out the remaining families and claimed the beach for its own.
I’m not complaining. It was just weird. It didn’t mean we resented chilling out on the empty loungers, drinking fruity (if expensive) cocktails, and walking along the black-sand beach. (By the way, I think “black sand” should be done under trade descriptions. I was expecting it to be dark as the midnight sky, an inky-hued oil slick, somewhere Jack Skellington might spend his summer holiday. Instead it’s just sort of mildly grey.) As planned, we went snorkelling off nearby island Pelau Menjangan; it’s reputedly the best place for snorkelling in the whole of Bali, and indeed, it was spectacular. Lionfish, needlefish, angelfish, coral; tropical beauties in every colour imaginable; and to my enormous excitement we even found Nemo and Marlin cleaning their anemone.
But there was nothing else to do. Pemuteran itself was little more than a dusty road 30 minutes from the ferry terminal, lined with small hotels, a couple of bars, some incongruously fancy restaurants presumably catering to the non-existent resort residents, and a few scattered warungs (little cafe/shops, ubiquitous throughout Indonesia). And the “resort”, whilst lovely, simply wasn’t that nice to warrant anyone flying out to Bali and driving for seven hours to reach it. Why was anyone there?!
Why were we there?
Decision made: it was time to leave Bali.
We took a taxi to the terminal and straight away things started to look different. After passing by a checkpoint manned by a bored guard with a luggage x-ray he had no intention of using, we walked along the baking, unsignposted shorefront and were shooed down the vehicle gangplank onto a rustbucket bound for Java’s nearest shore.
We had expected a boat filled with backpackers but were the only westerners to be seen. With our gigantic backpacks we were already a source of some entertainment but this was greatly amplified by the ceiling in the passenger section being so low that Peter was unable to stand up straight. After the initial curiosity, the passengers’ attention was split between snoozing, stretched on the sticky plastic sofas, and watching the wall-mounted TV which displayed a succession of bizarrely suggestive music videos. Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country (with pockets of Christianity, and Bali a Hindu exception), and as such the few female passengers were mostly clad in hijabs; yet on-screen women with bare legs and considerable cleavage gyrated away, pouting at the camera.
It was our first experience of the unexpected openness and tolerance Indonesia shows for “otherness”. By total coincidence, we were later to read a BBC article describing its unique brand of “Archipelago Islam”. This concept sprung from so many facets of the religion being practiced throughout Indonesia’s thousands of islands and the need to live in (perhaps uneasy) harmony. As a result, they are extremely relaxed towards not only other Muslims, but other religions and cultures too.
Islamophobia is slowly ingraining itself into the western consciousness and even with the best will in the world, I know that it affects me too. I often feel separated from Muslim people I see, self-conscious, and, yes, perhaps even irrationally fearful. But in Java, such emotions weren’t capable of forming before we were being welcomed with warm smiles, beckoned into photographs, even stroked for luck. We frequently saw women in hijabs hand-in-hand with those without. Cafés and restaurants hosted friendship groups of multiple cultures and religions. Unlike in Morocco, where in certain places Peter and I had felt ostracised and very much out of place, the Indonesians we met were so welcoming, friendly, kind, and open, that I felt we truly bore witness to a side of Islam whose existence the western world and right-wing media often refuses to acknowledge.
Sadly, just a few weeks after leaving, we were to hear the story of the Indonesian woman being beaten for “affectionate contact” with a man who wasn’t her husband. This happened in Aceh Province, to the far east of Indonesia; the country’s only Sharia-governed region and one with a long separatist history. We were also told of similarly horrific (but usually unreported) activities in the far western Sulawesi Islands, including hand-to-hand conflict between Christians and Muslims. But Indonesia is massive and unwieldy, with over 14,000 islands and 255 million people, doing its best to keep a handle on cultural differences. As the largest Muslim-majority country on earth, the religious influence is present (alcohol tax, for instance, is extremely high). But it’s not uncomfortable, and suggestions of Sharia law are generally curbed by the large numbers of voters – many Muslim themselves – who oppose such extreme lawmaking. Of course, like everywhere else, especially these days, extremists do exist. Indeed, I’ve been forced to edit this post whilst following with a heavy heart the rolling news of the attacks in Jakarta. On the back of our recent visit to the country, considering the tolerance and open-minded attitude displayed by every single person we met, this polarising event feels even more tragic.
Nonetheless, for anybody who makes sweeping negative judgements about Islam as a religion or culture, I would urge them to visit Indonesia and, specifically, spend time in Java. I have no doubt that we barely scratched the surface. But even with these latest horrible attacks – as ever, perpetrated by a sad, desperate few – I still truly can’t imagine the core inclusive, peaceful aspects of Islam being better represented anywhere else.
Of course, most of that was to be evidenced during our subsequent two weeks in Indonesia. At this point, we were still on the ferry.
Java was already proving to be interesting . . . and we hadn’t even arrived yet!