I don’t think there’s actually any buried treasures in Bali, but you do need to scrounge a bit to find a gem of a place. If you just stick to the southern part of the island, where its only airport is, you’ll leave wondering how the island is consistently ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world (by the way, you should also check out #6, one of Portugal’s two incredible archipelagos). Don’t get me wrong: Kuta, Bali’s most well known beach, is nice… for about a day. Enjoy the beach, visit the Ground Zero Monument (which pays homage to the 202 victims of the 2002 Bali bombings), enjoy the beautiful sunset, and then get yourself in a minivan headed north.
Bali is only one of Indonesia’s 14.000+ islands, but it is certainly unique. Tourism has contributed to a spectacular population increase, and the island is now one of the world’s most densely populated places. Travelling through the island is a bit like visiting Disneyland’s Small World: the roads are narrow and packed with houses, and there’s people from every corner of the world zooming back and forth. Also, more than 80% of the residents practice Balinese Hinduism, a unique religion that combines elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and local animism beliefs.
Our first stop was Ubud, some 35 km (22 miles) north of Kuta. Ubud used to be a quiet little inland town until the “Eat, Pray, Love” bestseller (and subsequent Julia Roberts movie) skyrocketed it to global fame. Not everybody enjoys the resulting hords of visitors seeking spiritual enlightenment, but Ubud continues to be a pretty special place. Start with a morning hike around the many rice fields. Have lunch on one of the many great restaurants (we specially liked Fair Warung Bale, whose proceedings help finance a network of free clinics). Wonder through the town’s backstreets, avoiding the mainstreet hipster coffeeshops and overpriced shops. Maybe visit the Sacred Monkey Sanctuary (a word of caution: monkeys, not unlike their distant human relatives, can be complete douchebags. They will steal anything that vaguely resembles food and can bite if you get too close). And, by the end of the day, definitely go see a Balinese traditional dance show. We saw a Kecak, a musical drama inspired in Ramayana, a Hindu poem. The “monkey chant” is mesmerising, and so is the plot. As the story goes, Sita, Rama’s beautiful wife, is kidnapped by the evil king Rahwana. Rama and his brother Laksmana embark into an epic quest to save Sita. After facing magical arrows and dragons, and with the aid of a giant monkey, they finally manage to rescue her and they all live happily ever after (come on, it’s not really a spoiler, the story is 2.500 years old).
After Ubud, we hopped into another minivan headed to Amed, a handful of tiny fishing villages in the east coast of Bali. This 14km strip of coastline only got tarmac roads in 2000, so it’s still relatively tourist-free. If you’re into diving or snorkelling, Amed is an absolute must. Besides beautiful coral gardens, Amed probably has some sort of Bermuda Triangle mystique going on, because there’s a bunch of ship wrecks in the area. We snorkelled around two: the USAT Liberty and a Japanese wreck. USAT Liberty managed to survive the first World War, but not the second one. In January 1942 it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. US and Dutch destroyers still tried to tow it to a nearby harbour, but the damage was too severe and the ship was beached near Amed, so that the cargo could be salvaged. Today it sits 100 meters or so from the beach, at a depth of 5 to 30 meters. The second site we checked out was the so called Japanese wreck. Details on the ship origin are scarce, but according to the prevailing theory it was a Japanese patrol ship sunk during World War II. it’s also very close to shore and at a depth of 2 to 12 meters, so it’s perfect for snorkelling and goofing around the wreck.
Hope you’re not fed up with underwater photos, because next up are the amazing car-free Gili Islands and its cheeky turtles!