BALI, Indonesia — I always thought of Bali as such a cliche Southeast Asian tourist destination. Not that Phuket, Thailand — a place I’ve been twice — isn’t, but perhaps it was Julia Roberts’ visit to Bali in that abysmal “Eat. Pray. Love.” film a few years ago that turned me off.
For the record, I watched that film in 2012 only because I was on a Los Angeles to Dubai flight and had 16 hours to kill. The movie lacked a lot of things, but its major downfall was that it didn’t show the side of Bali that I fell in love with last May.
Ryan and I wanted to see another side of the island, a side far away from the wild nightclubs in Kuta where drunken tourists stumble around the beaches by night and surfers crowd the water by day. We had just spent a week on a beach in Thailand, and we’re not surfers or club hoppers, so we headed for the hills in central Bali rather than the coastlines.
Upon landing at the Denpasar airport, I was quickly overwhelmed with how crowded it seemed. There were blonde-haired tourists everywhere, which initially confirmed the cliche I pictured in my mind. Luckily, as soon as we got out of there and headed north, most of that disappeared.
Traffic on the island is bad. The roads are not in great shape and there are a lot of cars and motorbikes fighting for room. It’s no different than most Southeast Asian destinations we’ve been to, but it seemed more crowded on Bali — at least in the vicinity of the airport. The roads also got narrower and narrower as we headed toward Ubud, the culture-rich town set in the hills surrounded by brilliant green rice terraces.
My love affair with Bali began right away in Ubud. We checked in to a gorgeous hotel with lush gardens, set right beside a rice paddy field. The architecture — with Indian, Chinese and Arab influences — and the gardens were exactly what I imagined.
We got our first laugh at an ATM machine when we took out millions of Indonesian Rupiah — $180 dollars equals about 2 million Rupiah. It’s a hoot to carry around such large denominations.
‘You go eat’
By the time we hit the town, things were quiet and shutting down already. We found a restaurant that was still serving food — about the only one still open in town — so we got a table even though it looked touristy. We typically eat street food and pick small, local restaurants when we travel. My general rule of thumb is that any restaurant in Asia with pizza on the menu is immediately eliminated as a contender.
We ordered a beef dish with rendang sauce, which exploded with flavors of lemongrass, ginger, chili and coconut milk. The beef was unctuous and tender enough to cut it with the side of a fork. Sometimes you find the best food by accident. After seeking out hotspots throughout Asia visited by Anthony Bourdain and written about by the New York Times, which have surprisingly tended to live up to the hype, sometimes I put my notes away and we just pick a place based on pure intuition. This place was found with more luck than intuition. We ate there three more times.
Because we had booked the Bali trip very last minute — we decided to head there just a few days prior while discussing our options from our hotel room in Thailand — I hadn’t done the proper amount of food research. I’m usually not so casual about where to eat. I’m the type of traveling foodie that must try the staple local dishes, but in the case of Bali, I hadn’t even studied what those would be and felt kind of lost when we got there.
Thanks to a Facebook response to one of my posts from Bali, I discovered our next delicious meal from a friend who had been to Ubud: “Ibu Oka,” he wrote, “you go eat!”
Ibu Oka is definitely one of those hyped up food places on every “must eat” travel list about Ubud. The funny thing was that I hadn’t heard of it, because we spent our time researching what to see and do rather than what to eat.
We got there at some magical time when there was no wait for a table. We took our shoes off, sat down on the floor and ordered the special.
A few minutes later, out came a steaming bowl of rick topped with roast suckling pig. Sprinkled around the bowl were also pig intestines — which I only learned about later, and my boyfriend Ryan will only learn of that small detail as he reads this article — spicy vegetables and a secret, spicy sauce. Perhaps the best part of the dish is the crackling or crispy pork skin served on top. Perfection.
While food is always a highlight on any trip to Asia, the Balinese countryside was the uncontested highlight this time. It’s a landscape so green and beautiful that it’s hard to describe the feeling you have when you see it for the first time.
We fell in love with mountainside rice terraces in Sapa, in northern Vietnam, in 2010. We fell in love with hillside tea plantations in Sri Lanka in 2012. Now, it was the Balinese rice terraces that had stolen our hearts in 2013.
We hired a driver to take to the terraces north of Ubud and to see as many other sights as possible. We were in Bali for just three nights, the culmination of three weeks in Asia that included Taiwan; Phuket, Thailand; Penang, Malaysia; Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo; and now Bali. Needless to say we wanted to see as much as we could in such a short amount of time.
We visited the verdant, terraced rice paddies in Jatiluwih near Mount Batukaru, hiked to the Tegenungan Waterfall along the banks of the River Tukad Petanu, visited the Pura Ulun Danu temple complex at Lake Bratan in the Bedugul highland, and countless other temples, including the Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi.
In Bali, one of the most stunning and impressive pieces of the culture is that every family has their own temple at their home. Some families share a common temple, but every turn you make — no matter where you are on the island — there are elaborate Balinese Hindu temple entrances and gates to private residences. They’re all built by hand and often take years to complete — it’s truly spectacular.
For our final night of the trip, we headed to Seminyak Beach, a seemingly more sophisticated beach town than what we had learned about Kuta. We checked into a nice beach-side hotel, dropped off our stuff and immediately walked out to stick our toes in the sand. Ryan took a nighttime dip in the ocean, as I stood back and watched the glimmering city lights of Kuta off in the distance. We then dried off and did the obligatory visit to a nightclub, expecting to hate it and to last for an hour at the most.
About three hours and many beers later, we had made friends with some Kiwis and were swimming in the club’s pool. We partied into the early morning before going back to the hotel and taking another dip in the pool. In just a few short hours, our cab would arrive to take us to the airport and end our latest journey through Asia. The last day of such an amazing adventure is always so bittersweet.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com and 970-777-3125.