I’ve never dreamt of going to Bali, nor was it ever on my “priority must see” list. Not because I didn’t find the island intriguing enough, but because of my own ignorance and the image of the place I saw through the prism of social media.
In my imagination, Bali was holding a place of “another tropical island”. In other words, a destination with a gorgeous coast, endless coconut trees, beautiful luxury hotels, a few overcrowded attractions (temples) and … well, that was pretty much it. A perfect spot for honeymooners, but so are many other paradise islands. As a sucker for cultures and complex societies, an irrational lover of adventurous travel, I always parked these type of destinations for “later”, for “when I get old”.
The hidden layers of Bali
Bali also happened to be the base of many digital nomads and wellness bloggers, who pop up in my Instagram feed on a regular basis, due to my field of work. Sunsets at deserted beaches, dreamy bikini swims in the emerald waterfalls, tropical fruit platters in the swimming pools seemed to be the attributes of their daily lives.
Paradoxically, on none of those top rated pictures and videos have I seen any glimpses of sarongs (traditional Balinese dresses), heard the tunes of temple gamelan music, smelled the sweetness of steamed cassava cakes. I would only learn upon arrival, that these are exactly the things that make up the daily life of the island – but it’s a parallel world for many.
The fact that Bali is so popular among digital nomads, however, was exactly the reason why we headed there to pass the winter. This time I wasn’t going to travel, I was going to simply switch my base. Moreover, I was doing so with a 9 months old baby, hence infrastructure, safety, and connectivity, along with proximity to nature, were of my great concern.
I knew very little about the culture of Bali. So, when my husband mentioned that he was very curious to experience the unique form of Hinduism that is practiced in Bali, it clicked that the island must have many more layers, hiding behind the facades of Instagram filters.
These “layers”, however, will rarely truly unfold for short-time visitors. If you come to Bali just for a week or two and stay in one of the touristic areas close to the beach, you’ll enjoy the hospitality, service and the ocean, but you risk to miss out on the essence of Bali, its culture and its soul. More so if you head straight to the perfect beach and diving spots like Nusa Dua, which has literally no local population outside of big hotels. I also heard horror stories about Kuta and Seminyak, that mentioned a lot of huggling, harassment, young drunk crowds and trash, but as I avoided those areas, I can not speak about it first-hand.
It took me quite some time to start understanding what this whole island is about. As I was filming short food documentaries for Happy Bellyfish and visiting farms for that, I had a glimpse of the local life beyond private villas, and it revealed the darker sides of overdeveloped tourism. What is mostly seen as an opportunity and income creator, can also quickly turn into the destroyer of that very environment and culture that attracted tourists in the first place.
The local community of Bali
The local population of Bali is about 4 million people, and it attracts about 7 million tourists annually. Most of the visitors are concentrated on the Southern tip of the island – the more North you go, the more chances you have to enjoy some magnificent waterfalls and views all by yourself, and get a feel of the real local life.
The community in Bali is truly unique and I haven’t witnessed anything like it anywhere else in the world (and I traveled close to 50 countries so far). The entire island is basically a bunch of self-governed villages, which lead a rather traditional way of life, and the community is very, very strong. Bali is a place where ancient traditions are being lived through and followed, and religious ceremonies are playing the central role in the organization of life. It is not unusual to see entire roads blocked for the processions and the main temples, that also serve as the main tourist attraction, being shut for weeks for the outsiders.
Well, as an “outsider”, you will always have limited access to the religious core of the island – nevertheless, you will always feel welcomed and invited. Generally, anyone is free to visit temples and join the ceremonies, as long as they are wearing full traditional attire. The reasons for this rule are obvious and they do help to keep the unnecessary curious crowd away: there, the temples are not museums, but active shrines for prayers. To make sure you are fully dressed as required and that you know when the ceremony will take place, you’ll need to have a serious interest in the event.
This is another absolutely unique feature of the Balinese society: it is extremely welcoming and accepting, and this must be one of the main reasons for its popularity. Unlike in many other destinations, known for their spirituality, visitors are free to dress as they wish, lead the lifestyle they are used to and experience pretty much all aspects of the life of the island.
Of course, to get access to and full understanding of all aspects of the Balinese way of life, you’d need to become a part of the community yourself, which involves learning the local language and spending many years on the island. But while certain parts of the culture and religion will forever be reserved for the community members only, everyone is welcome to observe and experience.
The parallel worlds of Bali
The popularity of Bali is exactly the reason that led to the formation of multiple parallel worlds on the island, which, despite their coexistence, have very little in common.
Besides short-term tourists, Bali is home to a huge number of expats and temporary residents (including me), who flock to the lush paradise for various reasons. The island is a famous base for surfers, thanks to its waves and proximity to Australia, where winter coincides with the best season in Bali. It’s also a huge magnet for spiritually inclined, and you will meet plenty of yoga teachers and healers from all type of practices. Coastal Canggu has become the known base for surfers and digital nomads, while Ubud is an unofficial “mecca” for yogis and holistic health aficionados. Another huge group of expats in Bali is retirees from the wealthier countries (Indonesia grants retirement visas ) – many of them reside in the areas like Sanur and Ubud. There are plenty of offers built around each group of expats, including specific accommodation types, reastaurants, activities and even particular grocery shops.
If you walk the streets of central Ubud, you’ll see numerous yoga wear boutiques, coffee shops, and vegan cafes. These places will be filled with “Westerners” with the only local faces behind the counters. I saw something similar in the other top Yoga destination (Mysore), where the whole economy of the area was built around foreign visitors, mostly long-term resident yoga students.
This, in Ubud I found only one yoga studio where the classes were taught by locals. Not that I doubt the qualifications of international teachers, there are many acknowledged professionals leading yoga retreats and regular courses in Bali, but I’d be curious to learn from a teacher with a different perspective, to understand a little more the local take on spirituality. For example, the approach to yoga teachings is quite different in India and the West, and I think it’s very important to experience both for a serious practitioner, but it’s a whole different conversation.
Is Bali worth going to?
If I was to walk Ubud streets on a one week trip, I’d be questioning the popularity of this destination, too. I’d be wondering, where are the praised nature, culture and spirituality, and I know that many people are wondering that too. But when you get a chance to stay in Bali for a longer time, you realize that the beauty of the island is hidden in its everyday life. You also accept that the development is the result of demand, and it’s not always a bad thing: when you stay here long term, you start appreciating some of the comforts you know from home, even if it’s a luxury for many.
Bali is also a living culture and visitors who are eager to immerse themselves have plenty of opportunities to do so, given that they have enough time at hand. Surely, there are dance shows for the tourists (and some excellent ones!), but the dance first and foremost belongs to the temple and if you are lucky enough, you can experience it where it belongs, performed during the ceremony.
Bali is also much, much bigger than you think. The overdevelopment only concerns a few areas, but there are still many quiet parts with untouched villages, empty beaches and deserted jungle paths. If this is what you are looking for, you will surely find it.
And just before you finish reading this article, please keep in mind: my intention is not to criticize or give a judgment. As the popularity of Bali only keeps growing, my intention is to give a bit of inspiration to explore this island beyond what is on the surface – with due respect to its unique people and environment. This place is unlike anywhere else, and I wish and believe that it will never lose its magic.
To get a glimpse of what Bali is really about, take a look at this unique old footage, that was taken before the arrival of mass tourism: