Bearing Down on Bali: First Impressions of an Island Paradise


After Elizabeth Gilbert published her best-selling novel Eat, Pray, Love, Bali’s tourism numbers shot up as vast numbers of eager readers made the pilgrimage to find their new spiritual self. But is Bali really the mystical realm made out in the books and films?

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Landing in Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai airport is not like landing in many Southeast Asian airports. While capital cities like Manila in the Philippines often have modest and underdeveloped airports, Ngurah Rai is shockingly clean, modern, and well decorated.

The resort-like surroundings that greet travellers certainly caters to the tourism industry. It’s the first sign that things have been going well for the island, at least for those involved in bringing in travellers from around the world. Of course much of this is immediately halted by the onslaught of aggressive taxi drivers quoting obnoxious prices right out of the airport doors. Save yourself some heartache and make a hard left out the doors to the official taxi stand–you’ll save yourself some haggling and a lot of annoyance.

Driving through downtown Denpasar is much like many other countries in Southeast Asia. Poverty alongside modest success, a smattering of massive corporations and the mega-rich, and a lot of tropical trees. Bali is a lush island, virtually anywhere you go. As if the island is trying to reclaim itself over the manmade structures that stand in it.

Bali’s main draw brings you to one of three main places: Ubud, the coastal town of Kuta, and the Gili islands.

Ubud

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Ubud is perhaps it’s most well-known town, owing partly to Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love novel and the Julia Roberts film of the same name. Suppressing the urge to dry-heave at my own distaste for the premise of the book based simply on its name, it’s hard to deny the absolute beauty and calm that Ubud envelopes you with.

If you’re a woman freshly out her divorce, looking to fulfill that missing something in your life and wanting to find a way to get away from all of the bullshit of modern life (without being too uncomfortable in the process), then Ubud is the perfect place. There is no surprise why Gilbert chose the town as a setting, in part, for her novel. But it’s not only midlife crisis bearing thirtysomethings that would find this place magical. It is idyllic and charming even for the most cynical traveller. Artistic, cultured, and exceptionally tourist friendly, Ubud is pretty much a must-see on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail whether or not you resent the attention it has received from the gagworthy film.

Kuta

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In stark contrast to the small town in the middle of the jungle, Kuta is just south of Denpasar and a surfing mecca along the coast of Bali. For several decades it has been extremely popular with the surfing crowd, in particular, those from Australia. Kuta is more akin to the Thai islands of Ko Phi Phi or Ko Phangan, although admittedly not nearly as crowded.

It’s not intolerable, but there’s a fair amount of insistent locals selling trinkets on the beach, the vague feeling that you’re being watched by pickpockets, and an overall feeling that perhaps we, the tourists, have absolutely destroyed something that was once beautiful. There’s certainly a lot of “I’ve seen better beaches” snobbery going on here on my part, so take that advice with a grain of salt. It’s a huge beach with nearby facilities and a fine place to spend a day. But it’s not the white sand paradise you may be looking for.

But it this way: if Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Richard from The Beach were here, he would immediately catch the next bus out. It might be an excellent place to surf and drink obscenely cheap beer, but probably not much else.

The Gili Islands

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The Gili islands have been described to me as “off the hook dude”. I can’t confirm. While I was visiting Bali I happened to arrive near the national holiday of Nyepi, which meant that travel (indeed leaving the hotel) was strictly forbidden. Unfortunately, this was the part of my trip that had had been planned for the Gili islands.

At the very least, not having seen the Gilis gave me an excellent reason to return to Bali in the future–not that an excuse is really needed.

So…worth it?

Absolutely. Bali is stunningly beautiful, easy to travel, and full of things to do. If you’re even asking the question “Should I go to Bali?”  in the first place than the answer is a resolute yes.

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