We spent a little more than a month on Bali, and we loved it. Even though modern day Bali is quite spoilt and damaged by tourists and many of its clear blue water lagoons have been terribly polluted and many of its wild beaches have sank in grey cement construction works, Bali is still gorgeous, its nature is breathtaking and its people (those who are not tourist hunters) are cheerful and sincere inside out.
We found out about Eat, Prey, Love movie when some Dutch girls told us that its about Bali, so we had to watch it and (surprise!) thats not the real Bali they are showing there. The rice fields - yes, the sea - yes, the toothless old man - yes, but that's pretty much it. Those who haven't watched Eat, Prey, Love - don't worry, you haven't missed much unless a bunch of stereotypes + Julia Roberts is your kind of thing.
Our first week we stayed in Kuta - the Ibiza, Goa, Las Vegas and Jamaica of Bali. Everything there is for white people, everything there is for having the best time of your life - white beaches, gorgeous sunsets, surfing gigantic waves, chilling with a beer and a massage on a beach, great shopping, all sorts of accommodation - from $10 basic rooms to $200 resorts, Indonesian, Balinese, Thai and European food at every corner, sheeshas and magic mushrooms, numerous bars and pubs, crazy parties all night long, local gangsters, hookers and transvestites, pirate movies and $2 Gucci bags, well, you can imagine the sort of place Kuta is.
Kuta is in the South of Bali, but water is generally a bit colder than in the other parts of the island, however the waves are unbelievable - when you spot a surfer on a wave you know for sure that the wave is more than 2m tall. Sunset in Kuta is breathtaking, I havent seen anything like that anywhere else. Locals and foreigners gather on the beach every evening around 6 - 6.30pm to watch the sun rolling behind the sea and leaving behind this unbelievably colored canvas in the sky. All spectrum of colors is there, and when graphic designers use abstract pattern of sun rays like this one in their designs - that's exactly how the sun shines during sunset on Bali. If you walk about 4km West from Kuta, the sand on the beach becomes black velvet - soft, warm and sparkling. The village is called Seminyak and its the spot for chillout & party on the beach.
There is a constant party atmosphere on the beach, all the way along the beach there are "mini bars" - about 5 chairs put in a circle around a freezer box with beers, a beach umbrella, a "barman" and a dog. The barman's job is also to keep the people lying on the beach full with beer, so all you need to do to get a fresh bottle of beer is to show a sign of movement on your beach towel or lounge chair, and the barman is already there with a cold beer. Not that much has changed since the colonial times, huh.
You can also get a dirty cheap massage right on the beach by local women. They say massage is so cheap in Asia - yes, but the price is never linear like that. When you have a massage by these women on a beach in Kuta for 4 euro/hr it's not just 20 times cheaper than in Europe when you enter a massage salon there. Here the price usually comes with all sorts of de-humanization, humiliation and attitudes of the colonial era. I don't know how those people don't feel like fat white spoilt pigs. Come on, you're getting a 4 euro hour long full body massage lying on a white beach and you still find something to complain about? Ahh, sad.
Drugs are common in Kuta, they sell on the street pot and all sorts of LSD-like pills. It's dangerous though, because the dealer may be co-operating with the police, and as soon as you buy something, you can get arrested right there, so a $5 bag of pot will cost you $15,000 in this case. A win-win situation for the dealer and the cop as they split the "profit". Magic mushrooms though are sold legally in many shops, even in cafes and restaurants. In restaurants you can get them as cheap as $4 per baggy, and you can have them as a juice and omlette as well. One night we met some cool Russians who work for Первый канал (the biggest Russian TV channel) and tripped balls on the beach at night. The experience (for me) was quite pleasant - I was giggling and watching my own funny cartoons that my brain kindly produced for me for a good hour and a half. But yes, kids, drugs are bad for you! I won't have the mushrooms again because thats just not healthy to let your brain mess up like this.
Kuta is also one of the most crowded places I have ever seen. You can literally get stuck between cars, motorbikes, surfboards and other people on the street. They say that there are around 2,000,000 motorbikes on Bali, its safe to say Kuta has the most of them after Denpasar (the capital of Bali) In addition to all that crowd, there will be guys on every corner who will offer you a ride on their bikes wherever you need to go. You'll remember Kuta for its neverending and neverstopping "trans-pooot?" (transport?) yelled at you everywhere you go. Some Russian tourists obviously appreciated this offer so much that they decided to memorialize it on one of the walls in Kuta :)
After the chaos and crowds of Kuta we went north - first to a small village 20km away from Denpasar called Kesiman. There was a Hindu celebration for thanking the gods in Kesiman at that day. We accidentally found about it from a local booklet and the driver who took us to Kesiman seemed quite reluctant to show us where the celebration is taking place. The reason is that many celebrations on Bali are staged for tourists, and the Balinese tend to keep the true religious celebrations "hidden" from outsiders. When you travel through the island you will often see quite big celebrations in villages and there will be nothing mentioned to tourists about this kind of events. So when we eventually got to the ceremony at a Hindu temple and holy hot springs there were no white people indeed, we were the only ones. We asked for permission to enter the ceremonial yard and it turned out that everyone was quite happy to see us there (the Balinese generally are acting happy and cheerful so its hard to tell usually if there is a reason or its just their regular state of being :))
The ceremony at the temple and holy springs was followed by a walking parade to another temple where devoutees would perform a sacred Kris dance (a dance in trance perfoming an as-if stabbing with Krises, sacred daggers, to show the devotion to gods) We weren't allowed inside, but next to the temple there was another entertainment arranged for the celebrations - cockfighting ring. Cockfighting is very common on Bali and many celebrations include this kind of "circus". The Balinese actively gamble and argue about the strength and endurance of each rooster before the fight which is very entertaining to watch. The fight itself as you can imagine is very cruel (the roosters have sharp blades tied to their legs) and quite short, and they manage to have up to 5 fights in an hour. When one or both roosters are dead, they pull their feathers right there and the bodies go to kitchen.
After Kesiman we went for one day to Denpasar, the capital of Bali. Denpasar is not a tourist destination, so you won't see any white people there. Most business owners in Kuta have their families in Denpasar, so they commute from the real life in Denpasar to the tourist heaven in Kuta very often. We went to see the night market - a very authentic place where they sell grilled suckling pigs next to Nike sneakers. The food stalls, shoes, clothes, bensin - all thrown together in one place. We were brave enough to have a dinner there with the locals - didn't regret, the food was excellent.
Next day we caught a Bemo in Denpasar to go to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. Ubud has numerous places to see in it and around, any direction you go - you'll find something worth seeing - temples, holy hot springs, villages, forests, local arts and crafts, theatre, etc. I'd really recommend anyone who goes to Bali to sacrifice some time on a beach for visiting Ubud (Besides, Julia Roberts stayed very close to Ubud and rode her bike through one of the rice fields nearby ;)) Monkey forest was especially fun - monkeys are hilarious animals, they really don't give a shit about humans and they do what they do whenever it suits them.
We also got to see the traditional Barong dance in Ubud - you probably won't see a lot of performances that are as colorful and choreographically and emotionally complex as that.
But the best part about Ubud was our trip outside of town on motorbikes. When we told the guys who rent out the motorbikes that we'll be doing that for the first time in our lives, they were seriously concerned and didn't want to rent the bikes. After all the traffic and concept of good driving in Bali is quite different from the West. Eventually we managed to convince them, the guys gave us a 15 minute motorbike driving lesson on a local football field, and off we went! That was an unforgettable experience! My favorite way of seeing Bali is definitely by bike. Wind in your face, feeling of freedom and adventure, passing numerous breathtaking and unbelievably beautiful places - amazing!
Ubud also has really nice food, not so cheap though in restaurants (about $3-4 per meal), but quite cheap if you eat at a Warung ($1.5-2 per meal) Warung generally is a good place to eat in Indonesia - cheap, tasty, authentic, prepared by simple and sincere people. Some most popular Indonesian dishes & foods include: Nasi Goreng, Nasi Ayam (chicken fried rice), Gado-Gado, Tempeh, Water spinach, Indonesian version of Cap Cay, Soto Ayam, Bakso, Mie Goreng (fried noodles), Babi/Bebek Goreng/Bakar (Fried/Grilled Pork/Duck), Satay, Krupuk, all sorts of fish and prawns. Beer is expensive though, in many places it will be $3 per Bintang (Indonesian beer) which is what you pay for a good dinner - so dinner with a beer in Bali is gonna cost you like 2 dinners. Wine goes even crazier, even though their local grown Hatten wine is quite affordable ($12 at a store)
Thats it for the part 1, next - Bali North & East and islands.