Rare Places: Journeys in Bali

Like so many of us who read, watched and rewatched ‘Eat Pray Love’ until we’d almost worn out the DVD (yes, I’m aware that is showing my age!) Bali rapidly became an essential stop on my long trip around Australia and South East Asia back in 2017. The thought of dense, luscious jungles, endless rice paddies, and beautiful temples in remote locations provided a tantalising glimpse of a place that I couldn’t even fully imagine. Until recently, I have lived my entire life in England, and spent most of my family holidays in France or Italy – both stunning and culturally rich places, and yet a far cry from jungles and small, remote islands in the middle of the Indian ocean.

Having started my trip with 2 weeks in Australia, spending time with my extended family, Bali was the next stop on my journey, and aspiring to follow in Elizabeth Gilbert’s footsteps, I decided to spend a month exploring all that the island and its surroundings had to offer.

Week 1 - kuta

I had been warned by people at the previous hostels I had been staying at, not to get too excited about Kuta where I was staying for my first week, but while the rest of Bali turned out to be infinitely more spectacular, I found Kuta to have its own unique charm regardless. I checked into the H-Ostel, a trendy hostel with pod-style dormitories and a roof terrace that was a 5 minute walk to the beach. A welcome haven in comparison to some of the hostels I had stayed at while in Australia, this felt more like a boutique hotel than a backpackers hostel, with each ‘pod’ containing a blind for privacy, a fold-down table, fresh white linen and a charging point for phones and cameras. Aside from someone accidentally bringing one of the infamous Durians that could be bought from a stall outside, into the dorm and sparking a gas-leak concern due to the smell, H-Ostel was an unexpected and luxurious surprise.

That first evening in Kuta, I wandered through the town in search of somewhere to eat, and accidentally stumbled across Kuta beach, not realising just how close it was to my hostel. Arriving just in time to witness the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, I emerged at the end of the road, to see the entrance to the beach ablaze under a rich, orange sky. Locals and tourists gathered on the sand, laughing and socialising, while kids played in the waves, their shrieks of excitement rippling along the beach. Dotted along the sand as far as the eye could see, locals had set up makeshift bars, each one full of patrons sipping on the famous Bintang beer, while appreciating the sunset and watching the ever-growing throng of people. This quickly became a daily ritual, and over the coming days I met fellow backpackers at the hostel and we became regular participants in this tradition, enjoying traditional Balinese meals at one of the cafes on the beach before finding a spot to enjoy our Bintangs and the view.

I settled into a comfortable rhythm during my 10 days in Kuta. I had signed on to a week-long surf course, and every morning arose with the sunrise, before hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi that took me a few miles up the beach to Legian, where I then spent the morning attempting to surf (and on many occasions falling off). Lessons usually finished at 10am, after which I would spend a glorious hour walking barefoot back along the beach which was often deserted at that time, before stopping at one of the makeshift beach cafés for breakfast. The traditional Balinese meals often consisted of variations of fried rice, with vegetables and an optional addition of shrimp, chicken or beef, or otherwise a delicious omelette laden with vegetables. After breakfast, I’d meet up with people from the hostel and enjoy a day of sightseeing, visiting countless stunning temples and shrines, including the spectacular Uluwatu temple and Tanah Lot, before having a group dinner on the beach and resuming our sunset post.

Week 2 - Ubud

I was almost sad when my 10 days in Kuta was over, as I had greatly enjoyed my new routine, but knew the sights of Bali would only be more spectacular the more I got to see. Having had the wonderful surprise of discovering another friend from home, Harriet, was in Kuta at the same time, we then teamed up and made plans to spend the remainder of our time on the island together. Our next destination was the beautiful Ubud, a small town in the middle of the island that had achieved international fame as a result of its spectacular scenery and also its beautiful fields and rice paddies that are seen throughout the film. We stayed at Ons Hostel, near the Sacred Monkey Forest and over the following few days were kept entertained by its furry residents who regularly escaped over the fence and would happily attempt to steal anything you happened to be holding, believing that all humans were a constant source of food. The first full day that we were in Ubud was spent visiting the forest itself, exploring the beautiful ruins and shrines that are dotted around the area. Despite being warned to keep all our possessions firmly attached to us, the monkeys turned out to be the craftiest of creatures, and not only managed to sneak a paw into my backpack and undo the fastening, but also hook my sunglasses out and throw them off the bridge that we were on!

The following day I decided to explore the centre of Ubud and after wandering through the main streets for hours, past shops filled with beautiful sarongs, blankets, clothes and homewares, I came across a small alleyway off one of the main streets. Deciding to see where it would lead, I followed it for ages down a winding foot path, behind a series of abandoned buildings and was just starting to rethink my idea when I emerged in the most beautiful rice fields completely unexpectedly. Surrounded by lush, green fields dotted with palm trees and broken up by narrow pathways, the view was spectacular and it was fascinating to watch local farmers at work in the rice paddies, and the horses hard at work tilling the fields. I spent a few hours wandering through the paddies, and ended up stumbling across a wonderful little restaurant right in the middle of a field, that turned out to serve the most delicious nasi goreng (fried noodles and vegetables, topped with a fried egg) along with some super tasty and nutritious smoothies.

Having started my trip with 2 weeks in Australia, spending time with my extended family, Bali was the next stop on my journey, and aspiring to follow in Elizabeth Gilbert’s footsteps, I decided to spend a month exploring all that the island and its surroundings had to offer.

The following day brought with it torrential rain, but undeterred, we ventured out into the downpour to visit the breathtaking Tegallalang Rice Terrace, one of the most spectacular natural wonders in Bali. With sheer cliffs that have been landscaped into beautiful, undulating rice paddies, and populated with a dense jungle of palm trees, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the beauty of this incredible country. As we wandered through the terraces, observing the farmers at work, I was struck by the peace and tranquility that this way of life achieves, thousands of miles away from the noisy chaos of London and everything I’d previously known.

Soaked through but feeling very at peace, we set off for our next stop, Goa Gajah (The Elephant Cave), a stunning complex of the cave itself and a number of temples, believed to date back to the 9th century. Originally buried under centuries of earth, the cave was only excavated in 1923 and the beautiful bathing pool nearby a whole 30 years later. Wrapping ourselves in full-length sarongs out of respect for the spiritual healing rituals that are still practiced there by local monks, we spent the next few hours wandering between the temples and dipping our hands in the sacred waters of the bathing pool, an intoxicating waft of incense accompanying us wherever we went.

By mid afternoon, the rain had finally died off and been replaced by blazing sunshine and stifling humidity. We decided to pay a visit to one of Ubud’s many beautiful waterfalls, Tenenungan for a refreshing pitstop. Reached by a steep and often precarious climb down, the view did not disappoint, and we were greeted at the bottom by a spectacular panorama of sheer cliffs intersected by a powerful curtain of water, the jungle perched atop like a crown. We followed the lead of the few other people there, and dove straight in, immersing ourselves in the refreshing waters and enjoying the stickiness of the humidity wash away.

Week 3 - The Gili Islands

It was coming up to my birthday and having spent a week in Ubud, Harriet and I had decided to spend the next week or so on the Gili Islands to celebrate. Little did we know the mission that we would have in getting there! We departed Ubud early in the morning and had planned on taking a taxi to the nearest port and get the ferry over to the islands. This in itself turned out to be somewhat nervewracking due to our driver who appeared to be trying very hard not to fall asleep at the wheel, but somehow we made it to Padang Bai Port in one piece. The next morning we collected our tickets and boarded what we thought was our ferry, all prepared for the 9-hour journey to the islands. How wrong we were! Blissfully unaware that the person who had sold us our tickets had misunderstood where we were wanting to go, it turned out that our ferry was actually heading to the Island of Lombok which wasn’t remotely close to where we actually needed to be. By the time we arrived, by which point it was dark outside, we realised that we had no idea where we were or how to get to our first stop, Gili Trawangan. Cue one of the most stressful journeys of the entire trip – We found a local shopkeeper who very kindly recruited her cousin as our personal driver, who then proceeded to drive at lightening speeds through torrential rain on very narrow, winding mountain roads, before delivering us to his friend’s hotel which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully what could’ve been a somewhat sticky situation, turned out to be fine, with the exception of a restless nights sleep, and the following morning we were at yet another port, hoping that this time we would make it to the correct place.

Thankfully, our luck improved and we made it onto a somewhat dilapidated looking ferry with a group of other backpackers who were also heading to Gili T, exceedingly grateful to finally be on our way. The island itself was beautiful, surrounded by white sandy beaches and coral reefs that proved to be a dreamy location for scuba diving and snorkelling. We spent our first day recovering from the ordeal of the night before, sunning ourselves on the beach, the melodic hum of the call to prayer from the mosque in the background. Having had two days of sporadic meals and in need of sustenance, we were excited to sample some of the delicious dishes and smoothies from one of the local cafes near our cabin – The Banyan Tree. With a vegetarian menu consisting of a variety of amazing options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including the tastiest blueberry pancakes and some delicious acai bowls, we finally began to feel nourished and revitalised.

Our second day was spent cycling around the island, during which we stumbled across the amazing Malibu Beach Club, which ended up being our favourite spot for evening drinks. Decked out with beanbags and umbrellas on the sand, and serving a host of incredible cocktails and dishes, we whiled away hours each evening watching the sun set, accompanied by a gentle soundtrack of tropical dance music. The spot also turned out to be a dream for instagrammers, with not only the best seat in the house for the sunset, but with a strategically placed swing for those enviable photo ops.

The next day was my birthday, and despite being so far from home and my family, I was so spoilt. Unbeknownst to me, Harriet had snuck out of our cabin at the crack of dawn, and cycled all the way to the bakery on the other side of the island, returning with the most magnificent of birthday cakes and a birthday present of a spa hotel on our return to the mainland. We spent the day learning to scuba dive, an experience which while alarming at first due to the unnatural method of breathing underwater, turned out to be an incredible experience and allowed us to see some of the spectacular dive spots around the islands, including numerous shipwrecks and reefs.

Exhausted from our diving, we then headed to the beach and the Egoiste Beach Restaurant, for some delicious seafood and cocktails, including a bright blue concoction made specially by our waiter for my birthday! Harriet was determined to ply me with as many complimentary cocktails as possible, and it was only later when we ventured to another of the island’s many bars that I realised why – she was determined to get me on stage. Having announced to the entire bar that it was my birthday, I was summoned up on stage and handed more complimentary cocktails to down on stage before giving a speech. Needless to say I’m not sure I did the speech justice, but nevertheless felt very spoit and wouldn’t have wanted to spend my birthday any other way.

Wanting to make the most of our time on the islands, the following morning we took the boat across to neighbouring island Gili Air, a much more relaxed and bohemian alternative to the party lifestyle of Gili Trawangan, and the least developed of the 3 islands. We wanted a simpler experience this time around, and opted to stay at Begadang, a low-key bohemian hostel with its own pool and gorgeous common areas complete with hammocks and floor cushions to lounge on during the nightly live entertainment. The social aspect turned out to be huge plus for the hostel, and we spent our following 3 evenings chatting with our fellow backpackers and swapping stories of travel adventures and mishaps, of which everyone seemed to have more than a few!

Gili Air itself turned out to be an excellent stop on our journey, with so many beautiful sights to see under the water, both scuba diving or free diving / snorkelling. There are a huge number of spectacular reefs and haunting shipwrecks off the coasts of the islands, most of which can be dived through one of the many dive companies located on the islands. One of my favourite sites however was the mesmerising ‘Nest’ sculpture (above), designed by Jason de Caires Taylor for BASK eco-resort on Gili Meno. The sculpture has been designed as a man-made reef, with the idea that soft corals and sponges will flourish on it, ‘paving the way for delicate hard corals and a fully established reef’ over the next decade or so.

Week 4 - Lovina

For our final week in Bali, before Harriet and I went our separate ways, we wanted to head off the beaten track and explore the north of the island that isn’t nearly as well known. Having heard mention of dolphin spotting along the northern coast, we left the Gili Islands and journeyed back to the mainland, thankfully without any of the chaos that we’d had the first time round. We found a small, local guesthouse in the town of Lovina, and spent our first afternoon walking several miles along the beach until we reached the centre of the town. Having spent a few hours happily exploring some beautiful local shops and with Harriet’s wardrobe a few kilos heavier, we found a tiny, local warung and were treated to some delicious home-cooked Balinese delicacies.

Having finally made it back to our guesthouse, during which the heavens opened yet again, we settled into warm and dry clothes for the evening, preparing for our early start the following morning in order to see the dolphins. At 5.00 am the following morning, we gathered on the beach behind the guesthouse, before boarding a somewhat rickety looking boat with some of our fellow guests. The sun was just rising and had turned the sky into a pastel gradient of pink and lilac as we set off, accompanied by every other boat in the vicinity that appeared to be doing the exact same thing. As a flotilla, the boats headed out into the ocean for about 30 mins before slowing and cruising along while lookouts kept watch for any sign of a fin. A shriek of excitement from another boat announced the presence of dolphins and before long we were following them slowly and at a distance, their lean bodies emerging out of the water every few meters.

It was a magical experience witnessing them in their natural environment, totally at ease with their human entourage, and a fitting way to end our time in Bali. Sadly even a month was nowhere near long enough to witness the incredible history and culture that the island has to offer. We didn’t really get to explore the island of Lombok at all, which is about the same size as Bali itself, nor did we visit Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida or the west of the island. There is so much left to explore and I hope that now we are moving to Australia in the next couple of months, we’ll be able to visit again very soon, for all the bits that we missed! But for now, thank you for the memories Bali, we can’t wait to come back!

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