One of the temples around Uluwatu
Cycling in Ubud
Seafood in Jimbaran
Shops by the roadside along Legian, Seminyak and Kuta
South Bali was hot, humid, noisy and crowded. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Will I go there again? Probably not.
South Bali felt to me like a tourist’s place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a tourist myself. But I’ve always loved traveling because I like discovering culture, and the best feeling in the world is when you find yourself wandering in a place where locals are going about their daily business and you’re just observing in amazement. Here in South Bali, it seemed like everything was catered for tourists. The beach was filled with tourists, the shops sold imported things, and the restaurants served hamburgers. Most of the shops sold overpriced souvenirs and it felt like a tropical Westernized city, in a way. Which is fine if that’s what you were hoping for, but I was personally looking forward to see the real authentic Bali. The traffic was horrendous too.
I wanted to discover this part of Bali on foot, so I made a point to walk along the stretch of Seminyak, Legian and Kuta, ending my walk at Kuta beach. The shops were interesting, and there were plenty of art galleries displaying works from local Balinese artists to some more established European ones. There were nice cafes open all day, and I spent a good day going in and out of shops with a bottled ice tea in hand. For every six shops I passed I was bound to find a massage parlor, and for as cheap as USD20 you can get an hour’s worth of good, Balinese massage. Which I did. A couple of times.
A common misconception of Bali is that it is famous for its beaches. It is not. The beaches are average, and truth be told you can get better ones in Malaysia. But the appeal was definitely there. We had dinner at Jimbaran, a famous place to have seafood right by the shore of the beach, and the energy was quite good. We went to see the Kecak dance at Uluwatu, which was a pretty good show, and later visited the many temples around Nusa Dua. If you put aside the fact that there were herds of people visiting that place all day everyday, you could imagine that once upon a time, Bali was a mystical place with high cliffs and temples in a faraway land.
A good way to explore the more local side of Bali would be on bicycle around Ubud. The route takes you through local villages, paddy fields and temples. It was good fun, and the weather was sunny with a chilly wind, which makes the perfect condition for a bike ride. Most of the routes were downhill, so I wasn’t all sweaty and disgusting by the end of it.
Overall, I could see why Bali would appeal to a lot of people. It has the wonderment of an exotic place with the convenience for all kinds of tourists. Aside from the nightlife, which was a bit too wild and noisy for my liking, I quite enjoyed discovering it, while hotel-hopping every single night. It certainly brings a lot to the table in terms of what you can do on vacation at a single island.
Where to Eat: There are plenty of restaurants offering both local and Western delicacies. Try Flapjacks if you’re looking for really good pancakes, both sweet and savory. If you walk into a local diner, try the fish satays which are really amazing. Food prices can range from as cheap as USD4 (local places) to pretty steep (Hard Rock Café, Kuta Beach). If you’re having seafood at Jimbaran, do NOT overlook those small hawker stalls selling grilled corn. They are out of this world!
Sunset Snorkeling on the small dodgy wooden boat.
Sunrise around Lovina. Local fisherman.
Pak Madu grilling some fish.
Parrot fish with chili and Balinese onion relish.
The small pool at the resort.
Here’s the thing about Bali. It is no doubt an island of its own. It will be like nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere else. It has its own thing going on, its own vibe, its own culture, but only if you know how to find it. Personally I felt that all that was hazed by the growing Westernized culture brought over by foreigners, especially in the Southern part of the island.
We arrived at the Ngurah Rai International airport pretty late, as we spent the whole day discovering Surabaya in the Javanese island. That particular night, we stayed at Tunes hotel (for the love of God, don’t ever do this! There are so many other nice hotels with the same price range around the city), too tired to do much.
Now, I would gladly split my travels in Bali into two – the South of Bali, and the North of Bali. The former is a modern, hip, Westernized side of the island, and the latter is the tranquil journey one would hope to get from an island escape. It takes anywhere between two to four hours to get to the Lovina, North of Bali, from the Southern central. It’s great if you’ve got a great Pak Supir (driver), which we luckily did, as the long trip would then be filled with stories on Bali history, hidden hot spots and an extensive introduction to Bali Hinduism.
Lovina was so quiet that I couldn’t believe it belonged on the same island as the heavier, noisier cities of South Bali. We stayed at a small resort owned by a German man, with a small empty pool and a narrow beach. At late evening, our Pak Supir introduced us to a local guy named Pak Madu. He was a local fisherman, very well over his forties, but fit as a horse. He owned a small wooden boat and agreed to take us sunset snorkeling (about RM50).
Sunset snorkeling was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been to many, many snorkeling trips before, but there was something about that particular snorkeling experience that I would always remember. It could be the fact that we travelled to the middle of the sea on a small wooden boat that could only fit four people and looked like it was going to collapse anytime soon. It could also be the fact that the current was so strong that the boat didn’t seem like it was moving. It could very well be the fact that as I went in and out of the water, the orange sun was setting, and the water became eerie and dark, but exciting at the same time. There was absolutely nobody else around for miles, just the three of us and Pak Madu, who sat at the edge of the boat, daydreaming with a cigarette. By the time I was done I was panting, because the current was so strong it was challenge to keep up.
Another must-do action item in this part of the island is to go dolphin watching. Pak Madu was nice enough to come knocking at our door as early as 5.30 a.m., to make sure that we wouldn’t miss a thing. On that foggy morning we climbed into that same small wooden boat, and it slowly chugged into the now-calm sea. As we moved peacefully across the water, the sun rose above the fogs and it really was a nice wake-up jolt of excitement. But it gets better! Soon we saw what we were there for. Dolphins! Hundreds and hundreds of them, swimming in schools, in and out of the water, against the rising sun. I couldn’t contain my excitement I think I shrieked so loud Pak Madu was startled.
The dolphins were on their regular morning migrates to get some breakfast near the shore. There were other small boats with us too, and as we move with the dolphins, we saw them swimming gracefully near the surface of the water, doing occasional summersaults that received applause from all of us, in the early morning air that was cool and crisp. It was a sight to behold. I hope the Balinese government would do their best to protect the dolphins’ wellbeing.
North Bali is the perfect place if you’re looking to stay at a place where tranquility is priority, with a lot of things to see and do. I was glad to be there with good companion, as the nights can be a bit dull, so it’s best to have companion and you can spend endless hours hanging out by the pool doing nothing.
Where to Eat: This side of Bali wouldn’t have too many modern eating places, so you’ll have to settle for local shops and there are plenty of grocery stores to get whatever you need. Pak Madu, aside from being a local fisherman, also owns a small eating place. The style was very original – you choose the fish you want (which were personally fished by Pak Madu), and he will prepare them with only one style (grilled), and it’ll be served with condiments, stir fried vegetables and rice. We ate in a small hut while being bitten by mosquitoes, but it was alright. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the parrot fish. They look to brightly colored to be edible, but they’re pretty delicious.