It’s the last day of my adventure through the Island Nations of Southeast Asia, so I will try and wrap up my experience, starting with the last stop, The Island of Bali.
I had two reasons for choosing Bali as the end point for this adventure. First; it is close to one of the primary destinations of my trip, Komodo National Park, Second it is a World Class resort area and I wanted a little relaxation before the long journey home; all in all it worked out better than I hoped.
To be honest I didn’t know a lot about Bali before getting here, consequently my stay was full of surprises and joy. I did know where Bali is located, a small island in the Indonesian Archipelago between Java and Lombok Islands and that a little farther along the chain of islands were the 4 small islands that are the only home to the giant lizards known as Komodo Dragons. I also knew that Bali’s population is primarily Hindu in a nation predominately Muslim and internationally known as a resort destination. But when it came time to find a place to stay on the island, I didn’t do a lot of research, I went with a friend’s recommendation. It seemed to be a good quality hotel, reasonably near to the beaches, shops, restaurants and airport and the price was good; in the end I am satisfied with my choice.
I stayed at the Best Western Kuta Beach; about 10 km from the airport, I could see the runway from the roof-top lounge, and a 100 meter walk from the famous sandy beaches. I knew there were a lot of hotels in the area and that it was popular with Australians looking for a cheaper beach vacation than they can find at home. I didn’t realize just how popular and how crowded with hotels, shops, restaurants, and bike rentals the area actually is. I was there in January, the rainy season, so the crowds of tourists were down, but the shops, hotels etc. and locals are here year round so at times it still became quite hectic.
The national currency of Indonesia is the Rupiah (Rp) with an exchange rate that fluctuates but is about Rp 12,000 = US $1; during my stay the US Dollar gained a little against the Rupiah. Prices were very reasonable, nearly all of my meals were under US $10 and included a main course of a rice or noodle dish, spring rolls and one or two beers or a Mango juice.
I had over a week on the island and didn’t want to spend all that time at the hotel or the beach so I planned to do some touring. My first trip was to visit Hindu temples and rice terraces. That took me into the interior of the island and saw the island outside the beach community of Kuta was beautifully rural with forests, stretches of rice paddies, and small villages, towns and small cities.
I’ve seen Hindu temples in other cities outside of India and they were always crowded and filled with brightly painted statues of spirits and gods. The temples I saw in Bali were much different. The population is intensely religious and every home, most businesses and every road have small shrines, sometimes only a foot or two tall and some very large. All made of carved stone and each adorned with one or many small woven leaf basket, a few inches square and filled with green leaves, colorful flowers, pieces of fruit, incense sticks and sometimes cigarettes or small coins. Every village and town has a community temple and then there were the large temple complexes I visited. They were all very large with beautifully carved spirits or deities at the entrances and well groomed and flowering park-like gardens. I was there on a ceremonial day commemorating the full moon and many of the visitors to the temples were dressed in white or colorful batik dresses making offerings. Every morning people are out early placing new offering baskets in front of every door and shrine.
Everywhere I went the people were smiling, happy and gracious, always interested in where I was from and what I thought of Bali. Most didn’t speak English but always knew a few words. They seemed both surprised and very pleased when I told them I was from America. I always felt very safe but avoided doing foolish things like walking alone at night on dark streets.
Traveling solo has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that taking tours isn’t always easy since they normally require two person minimums. But even when I joined tours that had already been booked I ended up taking a solo tour with a personal guide. I don’t know how that happened but was very pleased. The two day tour to Komodo National Park was like that and for the most part went very well. It was a two day and one night tour; I’d already paid for my hotel in Kuta so just kept my room there while gone for one night on Flores Island, and a short flight and long boat trip to the park but well worth it when I got close to the famed giant lizards, and after seeing them live in the wild understand the name and do believe that given the chance they would eat me. The city of Labuan Bajo where I stayed was small but the draw of being the jumping off point for the tourists going to see the Dragons means it gets lots of tourists and is planning on more. The airport is undergoing a major upgrade to handle more passengers in a large, air-conditioned and modern architecture terminal; I would have liked if they had made the improvements with a building designed to reflect at least the appearance of a small island community instead of the silver wave design that seems totally out of character to the island. The National Park is also undergoing badly needed upgrades including raised walkways although with a rather overdone entrance gate. Also new facilities such as the small café and toilets for visitors. The park rangers are getting modern accommodations outside the headquarters compound instead of the wooden cabins on stilts they now live in during their 10 days of duty on the island.
The guide I had for my first tour on Bali was Wayan Edi, and asked to be called just Edi (Eddie). He is an independent contractor with the tour company, only working for them when they needed a guide. At other times he uses his small van as a taxi or as a private tour guide. I told him about my interests in masks and birding so he arranged to be my driver to a community near Kuta that specializes in wood carving and arranged for a private bird watching tour to the National Park on the island. He was more than just my driver and a wonderful source of information about Bali, the island’s people and the Hindu religion. We became friends and was honored when he invited me to his home for a meal and to meet his family; a wonderful experience.
Everywhere I went on the island I was impressed by its beauty from wide valleys of rice paddies and farmland, rice terraces that climbed the sides of the interior mountains, early morning markets teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables, park like temple compounds, coconut palm lined and deserted beaches and clean, orderly cities away from the crowds of tourists who mostly never get more than a mile from the beaches and resort hotels.
I saw many resorts and hotels in the mountains and away from Kuta so those parts of the island are not unknown, just uncrowded. However the isolation from cities like Kuta means they are harder to reach so more expensive to get to and probably to stay at, there are fewer restaurants and nightlife options outside the hotels but those are not disadvantages for many travelers.
Few Americans visit Bali, mainly because of the distance and expense of getting there, it is closer to Europe so many Europeans visit and very close to Australia so lots of Aussies come for cheap holidays. If you’re interested in visiting Bali, and I highly recommend you do, determine what you want to do and see before coming; maybe splitting your time between the beach communities nearer the airport and more sedate hotels or even other islands. I don’t think you will be disappointed if you plan ahead.
Enjoy the Journey