The highlights of a destination –its beaches, temples, mountains, etc, are only one part of the experience that encompasses a “journey”. The thrill of traveling begins and ends, more often than not, in the places that you never think of before going there –the back-street alleys filled with friendly locals, the dusty road-side stops, and the random street-food stalls.
While a destination’s highlights are great (they’re usually “highlights” for a reason!) it’s usually the little places in between that end up defining your adventure and giving the country a sense of “place” in your mind.
While you’ll never read a description of these “little places” that can adequately replace the experience of filling your lungs with their air, if you were to land in Bali today and take a wander around its streets, here are a few things you would notice.
The Approach and Landing:
As you approach Bali from the southwest before landing at Ngurah Rai Airport, you’ll see the crescent-shaped Jimbaran Bay, Dreamland Beach, Padang-Padang Beach and Uluwatu on your right. Just inland from these dazzling places you’ll see a charming patchwork of orange-hued roofs jutting out from greenery carpeting the area.
On the left side you’ll see Kuta, Legian and Seminyak. Also fairly pleasant to look at, this side of the island has a decidedly more “urban” appearance -don’t’ expect to see any skyscrapers, though –building height in Bali is still officially restricted to no taller than the height of a coconut tree, or roughly 15 meters tall!
Upon landing, the first thing you’ll notice is that the airport in Bali is probably a bit smaller than you imagined. With three million visitors each year, Bali sees about a tenth as many visitors as Bangkok. The airport is basically an aggregation of smallish buildings connected by a network of covered pathways. Be sure to not get lost on your way out!
En-route to your hotel, be sure to keep your eye peeled for the Gatot Kaca Statue, just a few kilometers outside of the airport, it’ll likely be your first “ooh” moment while in Bali. Although it can sometimes be a hassle due to traffic, ask your driver to stop so you can ogle at it and snap a few photos. It really is pretty spectacular –and even cooler in person.
Often, the first cultural experience after arriving in a new destination is the ride from the airport to the hotel. There’s a surprising amount of cultural information you can gain from the experience. One of the first things you’re likely to notice is that Balinese are friendly –really friendly. The “island” way of life saturates every ounce of their being, causing them to radiate a cool “tropical” demeanor.
Don’t be afraid to engage in or strike up a conversation with your driver, or any local you encounter, for that matter. They’re fountains of knowledge about the island and its culture. Most will happily provide local advice for the simple pleasure of being able to hold a conversation with you.
Another interesting observation you’re likely to make before long is that Balinese are superstitious people. As the only outpost of ancient Hinduism in Southeast Asia, their religious beliefs, more than most, define them as a people. It’s not at all uncommon to see strange talismans hanging from the rear-view-mirrors of cars, or depictions of Vishnu and other Hindu deities in homes and businesses. This spirituality sets the tone for much of what you’ll encounter while traveling in Bali. And while much of it is on display for tourists, it’s something that is still pervasive enough within the culture to transcend that.
Also, while you’re far more likely to see people dressed in full-on traditional garb in and around Ubud, it’s not at all uncommon to see people dressed this way in the urban areas either. One of the most striking things, from a fashion perspective, that you’ll probably notice right away after arriving in Bali is the tendency of men to wear udengs, or head clothes. These are meant to symbolize Garuda, the god of birds who is in charge of protecting the mind and spirit from evil influences.
If you’ve got a keen eye, you’ll notice another interesting cultural “fashion trend” that most Balinese exhibit: filed down teeth. Balinese people believe that carnivorous teeth give rise to primal urges and immorality. Consequently, as a right of passage, most Balinese have them filed down by a priest during a highly ritualized “coming of age” ceremony known as Mepandes. In other words, most Balinese lack pronounced canines, as the pointy edges of their teeth have been ceremoniously (and painfully!) filed down.
The Streets and Alleys:
Your first wander around the streets of Bali’s center will probably be a bit disjointed in terms of the things that you see. On one side, you’ll instantly notice the ubiquitous influence of art in Balinese life –it’s everywhere! You’ll also notice that Bali is tropical –really tropical, it is Bali after all! Almost everything is covered in some shade of green –even things that shouldn’t be. Defiant little buds of who-knows-what poke out of cracks in the pavement and drape themselves down the walls of unkempt buildings. Because of the prevalence of low-rise construction, even Bali’s most developed areas seem mostly low-key, with plenty of sky and open space.
On the other side, the center of Bali is a hive of activity and probably a bit more Westernized than you would imagine. Tourism is big business on the island, and if you’re anywhere near the center of Bali, it will be pretty evident. In and around Kuta, in particular, don’t be surprised to see the occasional Burger King or Pizza Hut, as well as some rather conspicuous nightlife which often pours into the streets and sidewalks -Kuta is the beating heart of Bali’s surprisingly vibrant party scene.
The capital, Denpasar, just a stone’s throw away from Kuta, is the administrative region of Bali. You’re not likely to find any rice terraces or other quintessentially “Balinese” things here but, in some ways, Denpasar is fairly representative of the “real” Bali.
The sprawling area of Denpasar has been the focus of much of Bali’s wealth and growth over the past few decades, and is home to roughly one quarter of its population. A wander down the alleyways and streets of Denpasar will expose an entirely different side of the island than Kuta -as most of the businesses in Denpasar are for locals by locals. You’ll see people hanging clothes out to dry, smoke-bellowing sate stands and, if you follow the noise of men yelling and cheering, probably a cock fight or two –it’s an extremely popular sport with locals.
Head outside of Denpasar and Kuta’s bustling confines and you’ll start to get into the more pleasantly suburban areas of Seminyak, Jimbaran, Sanur and Legian. Home to many of Bali’s 5 star resorts, the streets here have a distinctly different feeling. The pace is slower, the crowd is a bit older, and vibrantly-colored cafes and restaurants are the modus-operandis, business wise.
As you wander further into less developed areas, you’ll notice that the natural landscape is quite a bit more arid than you would be led to believe if you’ve only ever seen pictures of either manicured areas in the south or areas further north. The south of Bali lies within the rain shadow of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest mountain –so it can be a bit dusty at times; particularly during the dry season.
Regardless of where you are in Bali, if you head down any street or alley for long enough, eventually you’ll come across a “warung.” More an Indonesian thing than a Balinese thing, warungs are an essential component of Indonesian daily life, and this carries on to Balinese culture as well.
Traditional warungs are made from wood and thatched bamboo or other materials, though they can also be attached to family homes or made from concrete. The term warung is most often associated with a style of small family-owned eatery, although it’s also more generally used to describe a small family-owned business. A warung can be anything from a sate stand to a small internet café, coffee shop or even just a “convenience store” selling everything from soda to nail clippers. Really, a warung can be just about anything.
Some of the more interesting warungs you’re likely to find with a wander around Bali are the warung jamus. Jamu is a style of traditionally prepared herbal medicine prevalent throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Based on whatever ailment someone is suffering from, the “dukuns” or indigenous physicians, will whip up a wild concoction of various herbs and tropical ingredients to treat it. If, like many visitors on the island, you happen to get a nasty sun burn or even if you’re just feeling dehydrated, you’ll find surprisingly effective and interesting remedies at warung jamus. You can even learn how to make the magical elixir yourself if you wish!
Most of the warungs you’ll encounter in Bali are simple eateries. Whether you’re in the urban mayhem of Kuta or on the side of the road between destinations, warungs tend to serve up typical Balinese staples such as chicken satay, nasi goreng and mee goreng (fried rice and noodles, respectively). Fast, cheap and surprisingly delicious, these dishes are meant to fill you up quickly and keep you going, and there are plenty of options to be had.
Since warungs are, by definition, family owned businesses, you’ll often find that the people running them are friendly and laid back. Warungs are great places to sit down, have a chat, and get a feel for the pace of life in “real” Bali.
So you’ve read enough and now you’re ready to see Bali with your own two eyes? We’re here to help! We specialize in creating customized itineraries for travelers like yourself! So if you’re ready to plan your long-awaited trip to paradise, make an inquiry today!