The island of Bali is the face of a duck with great volcanoes for eyes, with the Bukit Peninsula, where surfers make year-round pilgrimage, dangling by a narrow isthmus like the giant testicles of a holy bull. Bali is an expanse of unspeakable beauty. It is the land of the gamelan — the orchestral ensemble of bronze-keyed percussion instruments — and temple dances, and theatrical ritual. For centuries, the Balinese have waylaid the forces of cultural change on its jagged reefs that bite into the Bali Sea. Big cities teem with tour-driven tourists, Kuta more than any other, and parts of the southern coast are caked thick with resorts and thousands of turis all getting away.
On Bukit, near the cliffs of Uluwatu, is a beachy surf spot called Padang-Padang (“fields”), hidden but popular in a crescent-shaped dip in the coast. Minutes north are Impossibles and Bingin and Dreamland and Balangan. A little shack on the beach serves up nasi goreng (fried rice) and the traveler’s staple: Indonesian Bintang beer in half-liter bottles. The Peninsula lives by the tourist pulse — Mexican restaurants, happy hours, an Italian trattoria, burger joints in a culture where cows are sacred. (Bali is a Hindu enclave in the largely Muslim Indonesia.)
Travelers here are rarely sweet to the random traveler. There is no surprise in seeing western faces, in Spaniards meeting Spaniards, in Australians finding Australians, in Manhattanites finding Manhattanites. Though for more than a hundred years Westerners have lamented Bali’s lost mystery at the hands of all-them-that-have-been-here-too, recent decades have increasingly watched parts of Bali paved and primped for the world’s pleasure-seeking onslaught on its southeast. Some of us that travel there may never let go of the idealized “untouched”. Some of us doing the touching will continue to look for the “untraveled”. Along the coast of the Bukit Peninsula, at least, this is not the healthiest expectation.
The duck’s bill is almost entirely uninhabited. West Bali is gorgeous and ravenous (as in, having lots of gorges and ravines) and as seen from above is nothing but pointy green hills rolling towards Java. At the very northwestern tip of the island is a tiny, separate island easily reachable by boat: the steeps walls around Menjangen are a diver’s paradise, with rays, sharks, fish dressed like it’s the 1970s, and ones like the Scorpion Fish, with rocklike skin that changes color almost instantly to match its surroundings. The extremely lucky (not I) may see a massive ocean sunfish, a mola mola, rising to the surface mouth agape to have its teeth cleaned by a swarm of tiny fishes.
By the volcanic black sand beaches in the far east of Bali, resorts and bungalows are easy to find but not overwhelming. There is little to do but snorkel and relax, or buy blowguns from Komang on the beach and shoot them into trees. Life is relaxed. Predawn Balinese prayer may waft from loudspeakers into open bedrooms if it is a holy day. It’s often a holy day.
I spent the largest part of my summer month just outside the town of Payangan high in the hills of central Bali. From Ubud, a major destination for temples and monkeys and restaurants and big city life à la Balinese, we drove an hour and a half towards away. Small, square floral offerings plated in banana leaves are common, set down in the road to protect against evil and accidents. Up here in sight of the great mountains was yet another side of Bali, more rural but perhaps more complex in its balance of tradition and tourist desires.
Ducks padded around in the rice paddies, picking out bad stuff and leaving the good. Just opposite on the semi-paved road that wound around to the local temple was the understated entrance to a huge villa, anyone’s for the renting.
Lots and lots of pictures from Bali if you click here.