Bali - Paradise regained
If the soul has changed, pure magic remains in Bali. Surrounded by whispering palms, a gentle breeze carrying the faintest scent of frangipani, I’m sitting cross-legged on my own little patch of earthly paradise, reflecting on the after effects of terrorism in the fabled Island of the Gods.
As ever on cue, the clinking of bamboo chimes mingling with the swish of a rushing river below are the only sounds as I stare dreamily across an uninterrupted panorama of sweeping rice terraces; my thoughts drifting randomly in the soporific heat.
Five years on from the last of two outrages, such musings are common among frequent visitors and expatriate lotus eaters in or around the artists’ colony of Ubud where I’m fortunate to retain, still untouched and undeveloped, a rare and idyllic sliver of unused land.
Leased to me many years ago by a kindly village elder, it is a place where, unlike the average visitor, I can regularly retreat without noise or interruption to privately ponder the deeper inner complexities and underlying moods of an island traditionally driven by the spiritual and metaphysical.
Once again a major tourist magnet, Bali’s remarkable recovery is evident in no vacancy signs and an admirable new selection of elaborate rural resort and villa complexes, for which the island originally set the global benchmark in stylish, spacious and much-copiedtropical luxury.
Yet it’s hard not to argue that Bali might also be losing its soul to commercial necessity. The inevitable heightened security apart, you’ll now also find here a rash of could be-anywhere tourist compounds, indifferent service, permanent traffic jams and, in some parts, a visual and aesthetic mess compounded by woefully uncontrolled, get-rich-quick construction.
This is particularly true in the already concrete heavy south of the island where, for example, the once cheap and cheerful Kuta – Australia’s back yard equivalent to Magaluf – has spread its shoulder to shoulder tentacles to create an amorphous and unsightly breeze block morass. Excellent for knockabout bars, shopping and surfing but far removed from any cerebral notion of a far distant paradise.
Most Europeans paying a premium to travel from the other side of the world have anyway come to expect more than the sun, sea and sand offerings that can be found nearer to home.
Like the lead character in the recent Julia Roberts’ movie Eat, Pray, Love which was filmed here, many gravitate instead towards the central Ubud area on a journey of soul searching and self-discovery; to balance earthly delights with a spirituality that can be as illusory
as it is intoxicating in conjunction with transcendental local devotions to satisfying the good omens of the rice terrace-carved mountains while appeasing the demons of the sea.
Formerly just a jumble of market stalls, cafes and art and craft shops mixing the eastern philosophical with the western esoteric, Ubud these days boasts sleek art galleries, exotic spas, fancy restaurants and a growing share of suffocating traffic.
Yet it remains the centre from which the, albeit fading, traditional spirit and still amazing rural scenery of Bali are best absorbed or discovered.
Besides, as the late and eclectic local artist Antonio Blanco once told me: “Just close your eyes to the ugly or irritating, dear boy. The true essence of Bali is found in the heart rather than the eye.”
Wherever you stay, you won’t have to travel far to experience the powerful off-shoot Hinduism at the heart of Balinese life. Oblivious to tourists, ritual offerings of flowers or fruit are made daily at up to 20,000 temples across the island, from the smallest of family
compounds to largest places of worship.
Almost as frequent are the vividly-colourful processions and cymbal-crashing dances accompanying festivals that can last for a week or more. Similar processions accompany funerals, to which an invitation should be prized.
Chances are that your car, van or tour bus will be held up by one of these processions on the predominantly narrow roads that snake through the island in a spider-web of often-unfathomable directions.
This means that excursions can often take longer than expected and, together with the humid climate, can demand patience and stamina. The choice of tours is formidable, the operators professional and the majority of official guides informative and helpful.
Chief among tours are major temples, such as Tanah Lot and Uluwatu, and volcanoes, such as Mount Agung and Mount Batur, with a variety of options including local market shopping and visits to artisan villages in between. From the south, day trips to Ubud frequently include visits to the silverwork centre of Celuk and woodcarving centre of Mas.
Hire a car – or motorbike – and travel east and north for the ancient relief at Bedulu; the regency city of Gianyar, the peaceful east coast and exquisite, unspoiled scenery of Sidemen. See the fabric markets of Klungkung or the tile factory at Sadus.
Go white-water rafting on the Sunda River or discover the vineyards on the north coast.
when to go
May-September is usually dry with a breeze cooling average temperatures of 30° C.
Flights from the UK are indirect via Amsterdam with Garuda Indonesia (www.garuda.com) and KLM (www.klm.com) or via Far East points with Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com); Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) and Thai Airways International (www.thaiairways.com).
Visitor visas, valid for 30 days, cost US$25 on entry at Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Cheapest, but inadvisable for all but experienced riders, are motor scooters. Cars or vans, with or without a driver, are available for hire at the airport and in key centres. Inter-island buses link main areas and are inexpensive. Taxis, with optional sharing, are inexpensive for short journeys and offer fixed rates for inter-island links.
Luxury resorts, including Amanresorts (www.amanresorts.com), Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com), Oberoi (www.oberoihotels.com), Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com), Bulgari (www.bulgarihotels.com) and the Westin Resort & Spa, W Retreat & Spa, Westin Resort Nusa Dua and St Regis Bali Resort – all members of Starwood Hotels’ Luxury Collection (www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury) – are among the finest in the world and priced to match.
A good selection of boutique hotels and private villas supplements exceptionally high standards. In contrast, mid and lower category hotel accommodation is unremarkable. Traditional guest houses, or “home stays”, are now few and far between.
Indonesian Embassy: 38 Grosvenor Square, London W1K 2HW. Tel: 020 7499 7661, www.indonesianembassy.org.uk.
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you travel.