What lures tourists back to Bali?
“Bali, is about a thousand simple experiences and endless natural beauty.”
It was time to quiz friends who’d experienced Bali. Contemplating Bali as my possible next destination, their unanimous response was “oh, you will love it,” closely followed by, “once you’ve been, you will want to go back.”
Its not just people I know who are frequenting this place. The Australian Bureau of Statistics* show Indonesia as the second most popular destination (behind New Zealand) for short term resident destinations. (1,012,800 Aussie visitors in 2013/14.) That’s a large number of Australians travelling to Indonesia. Unfortunately those stats can’t be broken down – but I bet a large portion of those Australians are making a steady pilgrimage to Bali.
Thinking about travelling to Bali, I wanted to know what exactly it is about the place that lures people back year after year. Tracy Dobbin, Salon Director of Coorparoo’s aesthetica visits Bali annually. I questioned her about it’s allure.
“Foreigners have discovered the magic of Bali,” she said. “Bali, is about a thousand simple experiences and endless natural beauty,” said Tracy.
Watching her face light up as she discusses her imminent trip, I realise Bali hooks people in.
Bali has plenty to offer most travellers including:
- world class surf at breaks like Ulu Watu;
- the diving and snorkeling in the pristine waters of West Bali;
- the cheap accommodation, alcohol and party atmosphere in Kuta;
- the up-market beach resort experience in Seminyak;
- spiritual journey in the artist’s town of Ubud.
With time and not necessarily an endless stash of money, tourists can immerse themselves in a Balinese experience of their choice.
Ubud – is my choice
My wish was to immerse myself in the Balinese culture and village life. So for my first trip, I chose to steer clear of the Seminyak / Kuta Beach (party) area, instead choosing Bali’s epi-centre for culture – the Ubud Region. An area renowned for art, culture and also for healing and medicine (anyone who read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love” will know the Love section was based in and around Ubud.) Numerous spas and healing places offer massage and pamper treatments, at very reasonable prices. Ubud is also jam-packed with fabulous cafes and restaurants.
Bali’s weather rarely varies from tropical and hot, for much of the year. As Ubud, is situated higher in the mountains, it usually has slightly cooler temperatures (sounded appealing.) But it can rain at any time. The rain often lasts for an hour or two and usually cools things down. The only inconvenience, (as I discovered) is the rain may force you into one of the many bars or restaurants around town, where you just have to relax with a drink or two while waiting for the rain to pass.
I spent a few days exploring the town of Ubud, indulging in many fine eating areas, spa treatments and shopping trips. Murni’s Houses was the perfect location for my first couple of nights in Bali as it was central to everything in Ubud town.
A place called Sharing Bali
My next Balinese experience was in a small village called Singaparang, north east from Ubud. A 30 minute taxi ride higher in the hills, I headed to a place called Ayung Sari Indah (Sharing Bali), run by an Aussie Karen Willis and her Balinese partner Wayan.
Ayung Sari Indah is a “simplistic” retreat where guests, family and friends stay in humble bungalows, each with their unique, traditional Balinese style. Every private bungalow has a balcony looking towards the mountains.
Wayan has travelled all over Indonesia to small, remote villages searching for unique Bungalows. The houses, often in disrepair, are dismantled and shipped back to Ayung Sari, where Wayan, using his artisan skills, lovingly restores and re-builds them by hand to liveable condition. Karen said, “It is Wayan’s special way of preserving Indonesia’s beautiful architectural history and culture.”
The bungalows are rustic and basic each with an outdoor bathroom (with Western toilet and shower). Karen and Wayan pre-warn guests they do not class their retreat as five star. I felt the opportunity to escape five star luxury was very appealing.
Karen, who for the last 15 years has travelled back and forth from Australia to build her dream place with Wayan, is the consummate host, happy to share with her guests many intimate and insightful stories. Her knowledge and understanding of the Balinese culture and people, helps to answer many of the niggling questions western guests and first–time visitors to Bali have. Karen would often join us at lunch and dinner, where in conversation sh helped unravel the mystique beneath the magic that is Bali.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the communal eating area (Ayung Sari Indah is all about sharing). A collection of musical instruments, near the dining area are available to the guests (musically inclined or not.) Attempts to bang the large ornamental gong or play the bamboo xylophone, seemingly summoned the staff who proceeded to share their musical talent. These gentle Balinese folk are gifted with an ability to create captivating music. Many evenings of fine dining were finished in this enjoyable manner.
“How’s the serenity” comes to mind as I relax into the abundant piles of soft cushions in the bale (pronounced bar-lay) hut. Sipping on a delicious freshly prepared lemon grass teas, watching the storm clouds brewing – I’m part of a very special Balinese moment.
For the adventurous, there are numerous activities to stimulate the energy levels. One highlight, was the Sunrise Volcano Climb. Mt Batur, the third largest active Volcano in Bali rises 1,717 metres above sea level. An early start (3am),from Ayung Sari and an hour’s drive brings us to the meeting place at the base of Mt Batur.
It’s an eerie climb for the first hour in the dark, with only your personal torchlight illuminating each step. The terrain is steep and rocky at times, which is challenging. A better than average level of fitness, will ensure you arrive at the top with less huffing and puffing. But whatever your level of fitness, the friendly guides walk at your pace and your fellow walkers keep the spirits up.
The early start and the effort is quickly forgotten when you reach the peak. “There is a massive overwhelming sense of achievement when you get to the top,” said fellow walker Sarah Thompson. While our sunrise may not have been as spectacular with the morning’s heavy cloud cover, our party of walkers felt special. “We all shared this magical, mystical moment. We climbed this geographical monument and felt incredibly accomplished,” said Sarah.
A taste of civilisation at the summit, is a lonely tent where you can purchase a coffee. We sampled some eggs, boiled by the guides on a naturally steaming volcano vent. How often do you get to eat a breakfast cooked by volcanic steam?
This active volcano’s rugged beauty makes it one of the most attractive and (relatively) easy to climb in Indonesia. Karen advises you can also climb Gunung Agung (the highest on the island at 3,142m). Comments by local guides indicate that climb is more challenging and risky. (Bear Grylls knock yourself out.)
Karen, (who joined us on our climb), kept our spirits up by telling us it would all be worth it, not just for the view and the sense of achievement, but for the soak in the hot springs after. She was right (again). The hot springs was a sensational way to relax our sore and aching joints.
Another activity I chose, was to explore neighbouring villages by bike on an organised tour run by Eco and Educational Cycling Tours. Breakfast was at a hotel overlooking the majestic Mount Batur. The lava flows (where we climbed) were easy to see from this vantage point.
The bike tour through villages involved cycling mostly downhill, minimising the need to change gears. We visited a coffee plantation and were entertained by the amusing guide’s animated voice and swift explanations.
Tamarind, cinnamon and cardamom trees in their natural state look very different to their processed, bottled form in my pantry and seeing and learning about the Luwak – a cat-like animal (Asian civet), that literally “poos” the most expensive coffee beans in the world was an eye opener. (Luwak costs around $65 AUD for 125 grams.)
Ahhhh the Balinese food
Karen and Wayan provide a truly authentic Balinese food experience. All meals at Ayung Sari Indah are made from fresh, locally grown ingredients cultivated in their own land or sourced at nearby farms and markets. The food is prepared by hand using traditional methods. For Westerners used to supermarket shopping, it was enlightening to be reminded of the food cycle. The farmers toil in the rice paddies, using the same farming methods of many previous generations. Now when I open my packet of rice bought from the supermarket, I have a very different appreciation of its origin.
Participating in an open air cooking class, provided a greater appreciation of how labour intensive and time consuming the food production is at Ayung Sari. A labour of love and tradition, something Karen indicates the younger generation are no longer interested in. I recalled seeing a few fast-food “kitchens” set up on the back of small trucks and motor bikes in Ubud. Bali it appears is also experiencing a generation preferring instant gratification over tradition.
The authentic food at Ayung Sari with its intense flavours, freshness and variety makes it hard to stop eating, (thankfully it’s extremely healthy.) Each meal is accompanied by the staple commodity rice and a variety of sambals (spicy sauces – in some cases very spicy!) The chicken coconut satays; green beans in peanut sauce and the Bali Sambal were personal favourites. But word of warning – your body is about to have a natural de-tox. The high fibre content naturally creates the desire to pass wind. Lets just say I was happy the bungalow design includes an outdoor private bathroom, (and to be among friends!)
What made this Balinese retreat so special?
Sharing Bali is all about personal treatment. Karen’s ease of sharing stories about her many years immersed in Balinese village life, further adds to the personable experience. The unique bungalow accommodation provides an individual style and character, larger resorts with rooms styled en-masse cannot. Wayan’s selection and placement of sculptures, water features, carvings and idols enhance the oasis feel. There is a warm sense of family and you leave feeling part of a village community.
“You can immerse yourself in nature here and leave feeling as though you have received a personal experience, not a tourist connection. It is Sharing Bali in the most natural and gentle way,” said Sarah Thompson. “My stay here felt like a stolen precious moment.”
Framed by rice paddies, watching swallows swoop and dive, it is impossible not to be caught up in the calm that is Ayung Sari Indah. As the days pass, you’re enveloped by the peacefulness, leaving you with no other choice than to slow down and leave the western world stresses far behind.
Ayung Sari Indah is Sharing Bali as the gentle Balinese people sincerely intended. An experience you won’t forget and will most likely want to repeat.
It also gave me an understanding of what is Bali’s allure and why travellers sign up for repeat experiences.
Ayung Sari Indah, Singaparang Village, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
www.sharingbali.com skype: sharing bali