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Eat, Pray, Whatever

It’s not difficult to see why Bali is a very popular tourist destination: the landscapes are often very beautiful with rice fields and terraces everywhere, traditional Balinese compounds and temples lining the streets, and beaches that stretch endlessly along the coastline.  It also feels like a place of concentrated culture, where despite their long-running contact with Western tourists, the local people still seem intensely and specifically Balinese.  Women dressed in sarongs tend to the temples multiple times per day, balancing offerings of fruit and incense on their heads as they walk.  Business owners and shop assistants can be observed constructing little baskets, placing offerings on the pavement outside, or erecting decorations for one of the many religious holidays.  All of this is lovely.

But Bali’s popularity is also it’s downfall, at least for us.  The island is very crowded, with a population approaching 4 million, and around 2.5 million tourists every year.  The island’s narrow roads are constantly buzzing with traffic – on the day we arrived, the trip to Ubud (which we were advised usually takes about one hour) took two and a half due to the traffic conditions, and the late afternoon traffic jams in Ubud town were far worse than those we experienced in Bangkok.  The density of people cannot but make an impact on the landscape, and we noticed this most while staying at the coast, where thick piles of rubbish are strewn for miles along the high tide line.

Colin and I realised quite some time ago that we prefer to travel in places with an under-developed tourist industry.  In Battambang, Cambodia for example, we were able to amuse ourselves for hours, just observing people going about their everyday lives: a man delivering big chunks of ice to shopkeepers who placed them inside giant chilli bins full of cold drinks; a street vendor doing a roaring trade in fresh sugar cane juice; a thin elderly woman with her arms covered in yellow dust from the incense she was making.  None of this was enacted for the eyes of tourists, and if anything, we felt like we were the curiosity.  In Bali, however, 80% of the island’s economy derives from tourism, and some of what’s on offer is downright cheesy.  In Ubud, which is widely touted as the cultural hub of the island, we went to a performance of the Kecak, or Monkey Dance.  The dancers could not have looked more bored and uninspired, apart from two or three who actually put some energy into their performance.  Interestingly, Balinese dances were traditionally performed only within a sacred, ritual context, and never for a paying audience.  But it seems that now everything is for sale in Bali.

It was quickly clear that Bali was not going to provide us with the kind of travel experience that we had enjoyed elsewhere, but Bali is great for a ‘holiday’.  I now think of a holiday as distinctly different from the traveling we have done, which hasn’t always been easy or comfortable.  Last year Colin and I went to Phuket for seven days.  With only a short time away, we wanted to get straight down to business: lazing by the pool, partying at nightclubs, eating lovely food, and being ferried around to pre-booked tourist attractions.  But during our recent three-month trip, our most memorable experiences have been those that were as far as possible out of this tourist-bubble.  Our Bali-stop was meant to be 10 days of comfort and relaxation at the end of a long and often-challenging trip. It was this, but although we still enjoyed it, both of us would have traded it in a second for 10 further days in Laos, or Myanmar, or the northern hills of Vietnam…

Ubud is located in the southern hills  of Bali.  It is lovely and green, with dense foliage and moss covered rocks everywhere.  This is part of the lush tropical garden at our hotel.

Beautiful Balinese houses and temples are literally everywhere. This one in Ubud wasn’t particularly special, just typical.

This is what happens when you say “smile!” to a group of people who’ve only just met! Slightly awkward faces, except for Colin on his fourth coffee of the day (can you tell?).  We decided to do a 40km cycle tour during our stay in Ubud.  We were picked up from our hotel, then driven to the start-point of the tour.  On the way, we stopped at a coffee plantation, where we were able to sample local blends.  These included the prized Kopi Luwak, or beans that have been eaten by the civet cat, not-really-digested, then pooed out, collected up, cleaned (we hope), roasted and ground for our drinking pleasure.  Actually, I didn’t think it tasted especially great.

The tour started from a point high up the side of Kintamani mountain.  From there we had a spectacular view of a lake, and the active volcano, Mt Batur.  I should point out that the 40km cycle tour did have the advantage of being 70% downhill.

Partway through the bike ride we stopped at a traditional Balinese home compound. It consisted of several buildings, each with their own function (sleeping, kitchen, ceremonies etc). The property was thick with fruit trees and vegetable gardens, chickens and pigs. Cock fighting is a huge sport for the local Balinese, and roosters-in-training (such as the one in this photo) are prized possessions. They are massaged daily, fed special food, and generally coddled, only to later die a bloody and painful death for the amusement of the audience.

Stopping for a water break and photo opportunity at a temple on the way.  I think Colin still had plenty of caffeine in his system.

The tour took us through some absolutely stunning countryside. The only frustration was the lack of opportunities to stop and photograph most of it. Hiring our own bicylces or motorbikes, even if we get lost, are defintiely the way we like to look around.  The tour ended with lunch at a Balinese restaurant.

There is a large Moneky Forest in Ubud, which we walked through a couple of times. I’m a bit wary of monkeys after our Vietnam escapades, and the ones in Ubud didn’t do much to put me at ease! At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a big scrap between several male monkeys, and the screeching and fangs were rather intimidating. It was only when the victor mounted and rapidly screwed a nearby female that we realised what it was all about.

There are three temples in the Monkey Forest, with beautiful moss-covered carvings. This is the largest temple, Pura Dalem Agung.

Other carvings are doted throughout the forest. This one was on the side of a river bank.

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