Bali is a multi-dimensional island that offers much more than stunning sunsets and sea views. Our Villa Expert Max Vee highlights some of the characteristics that make the island unique, and suggests some ways that visitors can make the most of the Island of the Gods.
When it comes to travel hotspots, Bali has been on the A list in Asia for more than two decades. Just like its sister islands in Thailand; Indonesia's favourite hotspot has recovered quickly from natural and political disasters to maintain its popularity with international visitors.
Interestingly, when you talk to fans of Thailand as an idyllic holiday destination, they often say Bali is too "touristy", and conversely "Bali-philes" feels the same is true of places like Phuket and Koh samui. Having spent plenty of time in all three locations I am happy to report that none of the above "island legends" are true.
Of course, all three islands have their busy seasons and packed tourist areas, but even during peak periods it's possible to experience that original island vibe, whether its perched on a bamboo stool at a beach bar with reggae music playing from the stereo, trekking through tropical hills or exploring local temples and ancient traditions that have survived the side effects of international travel.
If you stay at one of Bali's many private villas, it's even easy to tailor make a break to suit your travel aspirations down to the last detail. If you want to supplement your lazing by the pool with something unique, here are three Bali experiences to include in your trip plan.
Bali is a rare paradox as a major tourist destination. Despite welcoming a staggering 2.8 million international visitors last year, the island retains a strong traditional feel, and in many areas agrarian village life continues all but oblivious to the effects of global influence.
The fact that Nyepi, the Balinese "Day of Silence" is still respected every year island-wide (even the airport closes), shows just how devout the Balinese people still are, and if you happen to be on the island during this or any of the many other religious festivals celebrated on Bali throughout the year, you will definitely leave with a strong sense of the island's spiritual side.
Visiting at least one of the hundreds of ancient Hindu temples peppered through the countryside is also a great way to appreciate where the lasting respect for tradition comes from. Although the sea temple of Tanah Lot is undoubtedly the most famous, and probably also the most spectacular, there are also other less crowded sites that offer a memorable encounter with Balinese heritage.
Pura Luhur in Uluwatu is a stunning cliffside shrine built in the 11th Century, believed to protect the Balinese people from evil spirits. Then there's Besakih, or Mother Temple, which is over over a thousand years old and actually features a collection of impressive shrines (Bali's version of Anchor Wat), considered by local people to be one of the most important spiritual sites on the island.
When it comes to food, the "internationalization" of Bali is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the island is a foodie's heaven, with a huge choice of quality restaurants serving delicious dishes from all over the world. Conversely, it's actually quite difficult to find authentic Balinese cuisine, especially dishes that have not been adapted to what the locals believe to be "foreign tastes".
Local people on Bali tend only to eat their traditional dishes during festivals and celebrations, which means that even local restaurants tend to serve Chinese, standard Indonesian dishes or Padang food form Sumatra. However, guests at private villas can request Balinese dishes from their personal chef, who will be proud to introduce guests with the rich tastes of the island.
In its purest form, Balinese food is big on presentation, flavour and technique. Fragrant seeds like pepper, coriander, clove, nutmeg, sesame and nutmeg are all essential ingredients, as are roots such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, shallots and galangal. Chilli and palm sugar also play an important role, and fermented fish paste adds the salty grace notes. Dishes include sate lilit
(ground meat satay on lemongrass stalks), tempe manis
(soy beans in spicy, sweet sauce), or the exquisite sambal udang (flash fried fresh prawns with chilli paste and coconut milk).
Bali's vast interior not only provides a rice bowl for its people, but is also home to several areas of tropical forest that offer shelter to a variety of birds and animals. The famous Monkey Forest in Ubud was once the island's main natural attraction, and although it still draws thousands of visitors and remains a sacred site for many Indonesians, it is sadly not the natural wonder it once was. Tour buses line the road outside the forest temple and the monkeys can be quite aggressive, so its best to approach with care, especially when giving food.
Those with an adventurous spirit can still enjoy once in a lifetime, up close natural experiences on Bali however, and visiting an active volcano is certainly high on the list. Mount Batur is located at the centre of two volcanic calderas north west of the island's highest peak, Mount Agung. According to geologists, the volcano has erupted 26 times, the last one being March 1968, and a substantial lava field is still visible today when viewed from Kintamani, a town that straddles the southwest ridge of the greater caldera.
Sunrise tours are particularly stunning. You are picked up at around one in the morning and driven to the volcano, then take a one- to two-hour torch-lit hike to the peak. When the sun comes up, the breathtaking views of Batur Calder and its vocalic lake are made even more amazing with the appearance of sacred Mt. Agung and also Mt. Rinjani, the highest mountain on neighbouring Lombok.
by MAX VEE