Bali, An Island of Contrasts

How to describe Bali…

The word, ‘shambles’ springs to mind.

The beach at Seminyak

The beach at Seminyak

Bali is one of 17,500 islands that make up the archipelago of Indonesia.  Only 6,000 of the islands are inhabited and the population of Indonesia is more than 250 million.  Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic country although the Island of Bali stands alone with the majority of the population being Hindu.  Almost five million people live on the relatively small island of Bali and then there are the tourists.  With its more relaxed lifestyle, Bali is Indonesia’s most popular tourism destination.

The lane/road leading to Peppers, Seminyak

The lane/road leading to Peppers, Seminyak

The airport at Denpasar has been recently renovated and is now a very impressive modern, clean and welcoming building.  There is a lengthy queue to pass through immigration but no longer than the queue at every traveller’s nightmare, LAX.  Once through the doors of the airport you notice immediately you have arrived in a very different world.  It’s hot, crowded and noisy.

Bali street

Bali street

The currency of Bali is rupiah and is a source of confusion.  One million rupiah is approximately AUS$100.00.  At first we weren’t sure how many zeros we had to knock off to equate it to Aussie dollars.  We were at a high-end restaurant and when the bill arrived it was for 400,000 rupiah.  Maybe we’d had one too many cocktails but we couldn’t work out if the bill was for $400.00 or just $40.00.  It was a great relief to find it was the latter.

The lane that leads to Peppers, Seminyak

The lane that leads to Peppers, Seminyak

Having currency converted can be an issue.  We found the ATM machines won’t give you more than 50,000 rupiah which is just $5.00.  There are a lot of money exchange agencies and if the rate appears too good to be true it probably is.  There are some shonky money exchangers and you will walk away only to discover you have been short-changed.  Try to find a reputable business and count your rupiah before you leave the counter.

So many electrical wires are a blight on the landscape

So many electrical wires

There are two languages spoken in Bali; Balinese and Indonesian.  All Balinese speak both and most are able to communicate with a degree of English.  The Balinese people are absolutely thrilled and delighted if you attempt to speak to them in their own language so it’s good to learn a few phrases.

Blowing his whistle and smoking a cigarette while directing traffic

Blowing his whistle and smoking a cigarette while directing traffic

I did struggle with the language as I’m not familiar with at all.  It’s much easier in Fiji where if you just learn to say ‘bula’ and ‘vinaka’ you are practically fluent.  I learnt to say, ‘suksma’ which means ‘thank you’ and their faces would light up and in return they would say, ‘suksma mewali’ meaning ‘you are welcome’.

Rubble on a building site in Seminyak

Seminyak

The infrastructure of Bali is more like, ‘what infrastructure?’.  The Island was developed without planning and before the concept of cars so today’s roads are very narrow and you often feel like you’re driving along a series of crowded rear lanes.  Years ago the locals rode bicycles but today they’ve upgraded to motorbikes and scooters.  As there is no public transport, every Balinese family will have one or two scooters so there is probably a million of them on the choked-up roads.

A typical street in Seminyak

A typical street in Ubud

Which brings us to the traffic.  There is no escaping the traffic in Bali.  It doesn’t matter where you are or how far you’re going; it will never leave you.  Congestion on the roads is an epidemic and consequently, in an effort to get to where they need to go, rules are overlooked.  Watching the traffic down the main four-lane road is like watching crabs running along sand as they travel sideways and dart in every direction.  Scooters zig-zag between lanes and often use the footpaths if that is a way of getting ahead.  Cars go through red lights no trouble at all and vehicles pass each other so closely you need to keep your limbs wholly within your car to stop them becoming collateral damage.

Scooters

Aussie tourists

I’m not sure about the rules for riding scooters but it seems they’re very flexible with up to four passengers on any scooter and parents riding around with their children balancing precariously on some part of the bike and no one wearing a helmet.  Their balancing skills are very advanced.  The motorbikes are also used like an Aussie would use a ute and haul building materials, farm goods and tools of trade and with their bundle stacked on their bike, can be wider than a car.

Motorbikes are also used to carry big loads

Motorbikes are also used to carry big loads

Seminyak, the more upmarket part of Bali that is very popular with well-heeled tourists, reminded me of Papeete in Tahiti and not only because of the heat.  Its other similarities are that pocketed amongst what is essentially a third-world town, lie patches of five-star luxury and wealth.

Typical footpath in Seminyak

Typical footpath in Seminyak

Almost hidden amongst the third-world street appearance are narrow entrances to a world of luxury.  Luxurious resorts and villas are everywhere in Seminyak yet all are well set back from the streets.  Arriving at the entrance of Legian or The W or The Amala is like entering a completely different world from that left behind on the streets.  Here you have some of the world’s best holiday destinations with the most beautifully landscaped grounds, stunning water features, wet-edge pools flowing towards the Indian Ocean, uninterrupted views of magical sunsets and world-class dining.

Wet-edge pool at Legian

Swimming pool at Legian

But out on the streets there’s a smell.  Like Papeete, in places, the main street (width of a lane) of Seminyak smells of squalid drains.  There is a stream that flows near the main street however at this time of year (dry season) it’s not flowing and the water is stagnant.  I’m sure that in the wet season the stream would flow causing less odour.

The stream that flows beside Peppers, Seminyak

The stream that flows beside Peppers, Seminyak

When we arrived in Seminyak I thought we would discover it on-foot however this proved very difficult and after 24 hours we decided we would only venture from the villa in either a taxi or a private car.  That is because walking the streets is hazardous with the lack of footpaths, the holes in the footpaths, the live electricity wires dangling within reach, the scooters that sometimes use the footpaths to get around traffic, and the noise.

A footpath in Seminyak.  Watch your step!

A footpath in Seminyak. Watch your step!

While London has its black taxis and New York has its yellow cabs, Bali has blue taxis.  As you walk along the streets, the taxis drive around looking for a fare.  When they see you they honk the horn.  A 100mtr walk can mean you will get around 40 honks.  Then at the street entrances of the resorts and villas, there are men employed with whistles to help the cars transporting tourists in and out of the resorts.  So with the revving of motorbikes, the honking of horns and the blowing of whistles, the smell of drains, and the live wires, a stroll around Seminyak is arduous.

Blue taxis

Blue taxis

There are also hawkers in the streets who approach and try and sell you things.  It could be to come into a bar and enjoy a half-priced drink, a free T-shirt if you spend an hour touring a new resort or some sex-drug designed to ‘make it last and last’.  Who’s got the time.

A few wires

A few wires

Offerings to the Hindu gods are everywhere.  Little baskets of flowers, fruit, coins and even cigarettes were left at the entrance to our villa every morning along with burning incense.  There was also a shrine on the side of the stream outside our villa where women could enter if they weren’t menstruating.  Here offerings would be left to the gods seemingly every morning.  The offerings always contained fruit which I later saw being stolen by squirrels.

Places to leave offerings

A place to leave offerings

As you walk around Bali you need to be careful not to step on the offerings.  They are on the steps leading into shops, on public paths, in the middle of driveways and in corners of rooms.

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A typical offering basket

No trip to Bali is complete without a trip to a market.  We visited the market in Ubud, about a 90-minute drive from Seminyak.   The market is open seven days a week and there are many stalls with a lot of them selling the same thing.  It’s hot and it smells of sweat, drains, garbage and incense.

Parking spot for scooters at the Ubud Markets

Parking spot for scooters at the Ubud Markets

Bargaining is not something an Aussie is used to but it’s the expected way to shop in a Balinese market.  The price you can expect to pay is about 40% of the asking price.  If you arrive as the market is opening you will probably get the best price of the day as the first sale is considered very lucky for the stall holder.

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Ubud market

When you make a purchase your items will be put in a coloured bag.  There are many colours and this is code to the stall holders.  If you get your purchases put in a black bag it means you’re a tough and  experienced negotiator.  For an Aussie tourist, getting a black bag is like getting a trophy.

Ubud Market

Ubud Market

If you stand near a stall and so much as glance at something, the stall holder will pounce and it will take skills to get away; they are very persistent and keen for a sale.  If you see five different stalls you have pretty much seen everything there is to offer.  And just to be clear, every stall is selling penis-shaped bottle openers; there’s no shortage.  And yes, they come in a range of sizes.

Outside the Monkey Forest, Ubud

Outside the Monkey Forest, Ubud

I found the haggling over the price very draining and time consuming.  I felt like screaming, ‘just tell me the price’ so I could move on.  We did make some purchases and ended up with just one black bag.

Transport

Transport

Bali could be more clean.  Yesterday’s offerings are not always collected and so they quickly become refuse.  We were shocked to see some drivers wind down the windows of their cars and just chuck out a bag of rubbish as they drove along.  There’s rubbish on the streets and sadly, even on the picturesque beaches.

Rubbish at the markets, Ubud

Rubbish at the markets, Ubud

Yet Aussies flock here in their thousands and not just because of the climate, surf and the relaxed lifestyle of the Balinese people.  Bali is cheap so your Aussie dollars can go a long way.  On a restricted budget, you can have an amazing overseas adventure that includes tourism attractions, market shopping, massages, restaurant dining and plenty of Bintang beer, all for a fraction of what it would cost to holiday within your own country.  Homewares at the markets can be bought for just a few dollars, a 90-minute massage will cost $40.00, dinner for two can be bought for less than $50.00 and a bottle of Bintang beer is a couple of dollars.

The sidewalk in Seminyak

The sidewalk in Seminyak

One thing to be aware of is the ‘plus-plus tax’.  On almost everything you buy, 0n top of the price advertised, there will be added an 11% government tax and then a service tax of between 6-10%.  This amount can really add up.  The first resort we stayed at was not budget accommodation and a drink at the bar was priced accordingly.  I thought I might have a glass of champagne but this was around $37.00 a glass with then a ‘plus-plus tax’ of 21%.  At close to $50.00 a glass, I went without.

Rice paddy

Rice paddy

Another reason for holidaying in Bali is the Aussie love for the Balinese people.  They are very warm, friendly, hospitable and welcoming.  Petite in stature and slight in build, they have big smiles and perfect sets of straight teeth; there is no work for an orthodontist here.  They are very peaceful and the women seem able to walk very quietly almost as if they are floating on air as they silently move around you.

Beautiful waiters at Bambu

Beautiful waiters at Bambu

And then there’s the food.  There are some incredible restaurants in Bali with many being in Seminyak adding weight to why Seminyak is so popular with Australians.  A lot of these restaurants are owned by Aussies and not only is the food outstanding, but the service is faultless, the restaurants aesthetically stunning and they all have amazing water features that are soothing for the soul.

Stunning water feature at Bambu, Seminyak

Stunning water feature at Bambu, Seminyak

Very definitely, Bali is an island of contrasts and aside from the appeal of glorious weather, stunning accommodation, amazing food and plentiful massages, is the ability to travel to a place and a culture where you come home satisfied you’ve truly had an overseas experience.

Sunset, Seminyak Beach

Sunset, Seminyak Beach

If you’re up for a travel adventure you can come with me on a culinary delights tour of India.

Comments

  1. A true representation of Bali Charlie… That hotel looks divine, but yes a very expensive glass of bubbles 🙁 Liz xx

  2. I haven’t been to Bali for a long time, but have loved it, especially in Ubud, in the past. My daughter went there for the first time in January and was shocked by the amount of penis-shaped everything on sale. There was certainly none of that there when I last holidayed. I suppose they are catering to the lowest (crassest) common denominator of Australian tourist.

  3. I didn’t love it, but that was 20 years ago. Not sure it sounds like a place I’d love now, but your photos on IG have been divine!

  4. Charlie, every travel experience you learn something new. Bali makes a large degree of revenue from tourism and just look at those beautiful blue skies.. I guess after living in Asia for so long nothing really phases me much any more. The good, the bad, the ugly. Every country has it. Enjoy your trip but be careful as Bali has its shady/unsafe area… so no wandering outside of the hotel area by yourselves.

  5. I have never been to Bali but it sounds like an interesting place with lots of light and dark, metaphorically speaking. I hate bartering and would never get a black bag. It is sad about the rubbish when the people are so lovely and there is so much beauty – though perhaps that is one of the problems of so many people living in such a small space.

  6. How very interesting Charlie, I really like that you were very honest in this review. I’m not very good with smelly places (took years for JT to convince me to visit Venice!) so I’m probably crossing this place off my list. It’s unfortunate that the people of Bali are so reckless with their garbage, quite sad really. I wonder how long it will take them to smarten up.

  7. Shambles wouldn’t have come to mind with Bali for me. I love the serenity there, the lovely people and the calming atmosphere. There is good and bad everywhere though. I dare say Sydney isn’t perfect too.

  8. I’ve never been to Bali but my friends who have been have all loved it especially Ubud. I had no idea there was a population of 5 million – that sounds a lot I was expecting less than a million. I obviously have a different image in my head to the reality! Have had a little bit of envy I have to admit from your instagram photos.

  9. Bali does not sound like a place I would ever want to visit. Trash, traffic…, no thank you.

  10. Wow. So much detail! Not sure I want to visit, but very interesting post! Love the colored/coded bag idea!

  11. Thanks for showing a realistic snapshot of Bali. I usually only see the gorgeous views of the beaches. How interesting about the different colors of shopping bags! I would get the she’ll pay what you want bag since I’m a terrible market negotiator

  12. Gosh, this makes me just want to hop on a plane and head to Bali!

  13. Great pics of the resort. Still seems a long way to go to see a rubbish tip and a 2nd hand brick yard to me tho…………..E

  14. So much great info about visiting Bali. That pool with the sea in the background is gorgeous, but glad you shared some of the more real scenes of Bali.

  15. Charlie: I really and truly appreciated your real and practical views of Bali . . . . shall move up to reread! I am an old SE Asia ‘hand’ going back a number of decades and tho’ Bali and I have not crossed ways, much of what you describe was/is the same in many parts of that area. Sorry you don’t enjoy the bargaining still obviously there: awfully good fun! I am used to offering 50% and watching the sellers’ eyes: if they think you are a ‘fool’; you’ll have a bad time: but never, never lose your cool . . .when you smile and walk away you know whether they are willing to reduce prices! It IS a game; play it!!!! My two girls were the bestest at being ‘cool’ by age 5-6 . . .unfortunately they arrived in Europe and thought the same rules were OK 😀 !!

  16. See now, if you just move the location, you have pretty much described Mauritius. Although thankfully when we lived there, we lived up North away from the city centre so we had a little reprieve from all the business and smells although we still had to drive through derelict villages to get home and the animals roaming the streets covered in mange and weeping sores near killed me!
    Have a beautiful weekend Charlie.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  17. It’s so nice to read a balanced account of Bali! I am sure it’s the same from most places in Australia, but certainly from Perth, Bali was a regular holiday destination and people rave about how cheap it is and how you can stay somewhere amazing at little cost. But of course the other side of that is the shambolic nature of day-to-day life there! I’ve actually never been so can’t really profess any expertise, but I have always thought it a bit one-sided to rave about the luxury resorts and ignore the rest.

    I hope you are having a good time among the shambles, plus plus tax, but also good deals!

  18. i loved it there – all those pretty little offering baskets. But I did not like the monkey forest.

  19. There is always some unpleasantness in some of these small places but the good always makes it worthwhile. Sounds like you had a good time! Love, love the colour of that sea.

  20. Obviously, you didn’t get paid for this review of Bali. Excellent food and great massages are not enough of a seller for me to put up with everything else. 🙂 Thank you for an honest review! HGTV makes it looks like such a wonderful place that everyone would want to go so it’s nice to get the “real” story. I’m the type of traveler that likes to go where there are no crowds, where there is lots of space, great sites and smells, as well as good food, I think I’ll stay away from Bali. 🙂

  21. I think you’ve represented the “contrasts” really very well, Charlie. I don’t know how I’d do in all the confusion of the hustle and bustle, but the adventure of it must be extraordinary! And in the end it can really be the people that make a place extraordinary. You are quite the adventurer!

  22. This is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of Bali. I’ve never been there, but now I know what to expect. I like the way you include the smells, the noise, the footpaths and all the realistic details as well as the beautiful side. Thanks.

  23. It is definitely an island of contrast. It reminds me of some places I’ve been in the Caribbean. Such a juxtaposition. The resorts are just stunning though! Such beautiful water. I just can’t imagine that many people in such a small amount of space! Thank you for the visual tour. Fantastic!

  24. Appreciate the photos and honest review.

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