A Backpacker’s Bali

Savouring food, friendship, and freedom on a solo trip to Ubud and Kuta.  
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The Kecak dance, a Balinese rendition of Ramayana, takes place at the sea-facing Uluwatu Temple. Photo by: Peter Schickert/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

I waited at the edge of a cliff that dropped straight into the Indian Ocean. A shoulder-high brick wall scaling the far ends was the only barricade that separated me from the tumbling surf below. Draped in orange sarongs, tourists gathered at the sea-facing Uluwatu Temple to witness the Kecak dance, a Balinese rendition of the Ramayana. Perched atop the southwestern tip of Bukit Peninsula, the temple welcomes all with gateways flanked by Ganesha statues. Inside, the coral-covered walls featured intricate carvings of Bali’s mythological creatures. The cherry-red sun began to dip behind the sea, as if igniting the small amphitheatre, where the stage was set for the fire dance.

“Chak, chak, chak-a, chak,” the chant reverberated as 30-odd men, wearing only checkered skirts, marched their way into the arena. The plot was the same as the Indian version of the epic. Almost hypnotic, trance-like, a masked Ravan and a doe-eyed Sita—the antagonist and protagonist—entered, commanding complete attention. Their eyes widened, expressions shifted from fear to torment. The rhythmic chants rose and fell, powering the theatrical drama. Just then, the sky grew ominously dark and the story built to a climax when Hanuman swooped in and set fire to Ravan’s castle. The burning embers at the stage centre evoked gasps from transfixed spectators, including me. As I sat at the 11th-century temple bearing witness to a nearly century-old dance form more than 9,000 kilometres away from home, I thought back to moments in my native India when I had been rather indifferent to temple visits. Travel makes you more accepting of cultures, sometimes, even your own.

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Ubud is home to macaques at the famous Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Photo by: Edmund Lowe Photography/ Moment/Getty Images

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Culture infuses with Bali’s traditional setting, where penjors are erected outside houses. Photo by: simonlong/Moment/Getty Images

 

Bali is an unabashed cliché—a harmonious paradox of cultural rawness and overcooked tourists, the latter pouring in by the bucketload, just like the ice that chills their Bintang beer. They all seek a slice of paradise, whether it be forests, sea or zen.

When work brought me to Indonesia I decided to add on a five-day long solo trip in Bali. My mind needed some clearing and my heart some mending. With a suitcase, bookings to my hostels and an appetite for adventure, I arrived on a corrosively hot, tropical evening. The plan was not to have a plan.

Kuta was my first stop. Crowded and frenzied, this southwestern town is the island’s party pocket. Placard holding vendors from spas, and souvenir shop salesmen packed the narrow but well-lit lanes of Kuta Market, cajoling potential customers with hard-to-resist offers. Live music gushed out from open-air bars, soundtracking the ebb and flow of taksi cabs filtering through the pedestrian traffic emerging from the nearby beach, a crowd that evidently bought their clothes on the same market streets they now traversed.

Along with Juan and Younes, two other solo backpackers I had met earlier at the hostel, from Switzerland and Germany, respectively, I followed the heady scent of spices wafting from warungs (local eateries). We dined at an al fresco restaurant with Chinese lanterns and steel furniture. We tucked into hot plates of nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles) and chicken satay on skewers served with a side of piquant peanut sauce—all Indonesian staples. Socialising has not been my strongest suit, but staying at hostels helped me hone them, and I gradually shed my inhibitions. Conversations swirled around Swiss gold, Germany’s political scenario and India’s many festivals. In between embracing cultural differences and breaking stereotypes, food and friendship were savoured that night.

No matter the exertion, it is difficult to resist exploring Kuta’s nightlife. Acting on an impulse turned into a night of bar hopping, leading us to Sky Garden, which is possibly the region’s most iconic club that has been graced by the likes of Yellow Claw, Steve Aoki and Afrojack. The rooftop bar of the multilevel club flirts with the sky and dishes out panoramic views of a glistening Kuta. Hip-hop numbers brought party goers—mostly local teens and backpackers—to the dance floor. It was only at two a.m. that we decided to call it a night.

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Nasi goreng, an egg-topped Indonesian staple, is relished at local eateries. Photo by: Kate Higgs/shutterstock

Sometimes, lounging at a beach is the perfect antidote to a night out. The sun blazed the following noon, occasionally hiding behind puffs of clouds. I skipped the touristy Nusa Dua and headed far down south to the secluded Padang Padang, an oasis of calm water shaded by soaring cliffs. The 330-foot-long stretch of golden sand is accessible down a flight of stairs through a unique hollow rock entrance. I remembered the idyllic setting from Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love mega-flick, where grey long-tailed macaques played around the stairs on the Balinese gapura gate and high up in the acacia trees. I parked myself at the beach, sporadically taking a swim in the deep blue waters, watching surfers ride the tide in the distance.

None of this, however, captures the spirituality that mantles Bali. I got a taste of it in Ubud, an hour-and-a-half’s cab ride north of Kuta. Branches of banyan trees hug ostentatiously carved archways, temples dot the roads and a stream warbles under moss-coated bridges. More modern facades have sprung up, with museums and arty cafés dotting the topography. This is a place where traditional Balinese culture inspires every waking moment, where a penjor—an ornamented bamboo pole that vaults up above roof level, its end weighed down with offerings—is erected outside every house. The soothing tune of gamelan is the background score to everyday life.

What it lacks in beaches, Ubud compensates with waterfalls and forests. Kanto Lampo waterfall in Gianyar village is easy to get to and fairly tourist-free. Sunlight filters through a dense canopy of trees and settles over the rock-topped 33-foot waterfall, forming a semi-rainbow.

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“When I clamber over the rocks, you hit record.” Knee-deep in cold water, Hannes directs me in a thick accent whilst handing over his GoPro. Having met earlier at the hostel, the German gap year student backpacking through Asia became my travel companion for the next two days. Slapping on sunscreen, we set out on a rental scooter in Bali’s scorching heat, flickering past green, gradient rice paddies.

We temple-hopped in a time warp-like journey. We passed through the portal of the 11th-century Pura Gunung Kawi, a collection of 10 candi (shrines) cut out of rock faces, all believed to have been carved in one night, before capering to the purification ritual in holy waters of the 10th-century Tirta Empul. The Hindu temples of Bali resemble no other in the world.

Wandering through the 27-acre Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is like walking into a folkloric jungle. Some 700 Balinese long-tailed macaques live here amidst the verdure—some vying to snatch gadgets and food from unassuming visitors, others impassive to human encounters. There isn’t much to do here, but that’s part of the charm.

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A walk through the Tegalalang Rice Terrace reveals expansive views of gradient green rice paddies at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by: Andras Jancsik/Moment/ Getty Images

On my final evening, we head to the Instagram-famous Tegalalang Rice Terrace. Subak, traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation systems, punctuates the stepped valley. The rice field crackles under a drizzle. Drones fly overhead and cameras shutter to capture the landscape. As for me, I put my phone away at one of the most photogenic locations in the world. Pink skies and warm company were better enjoyed in the absence of technology.

  • Pooja Naik is Junior Writer at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.

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