Travel Secrets – A Week in BALI

Story and Pictures by Andrew J Wood

Travel writer Andrew Wood reports on his most recent adventure in Bali. Discover his new travel secrets and experiences. There’s much to discover. A seasoned traveller he always find something new to experience. Join him on his latest adventure. 

BALI, Indonesia: Often referred to as the Island of the gods, Bali’s neighbours are Java to the west and Lombok to the east. It’s a tropical paradise of unsurpassed beauty. Being just 8 degrees south of the equator, Bali has an even tropical climate with average temperatures of 30°C year round.

Bali’s special allure

Bali has sparked the minds of travellers for generations; a treasure trove for explorers, Bali still retains its special allure with its unique culture, arts and the warmth of its people.

Its capital, Denpasar, is located in the southern part of the island along with the international airport. It’s highest point is Mount Agung volcano (3031m) in the north east of the island.

Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport, also known as Denpasar International Airport (DPS), is located 13 km south of Denpasar. It is Indonesia’s third-busiest international airport.

The island’s population is 4.5 million spread across 5,780 sq km (2,230 sq mi) at its longest 145km and 80km wide.

From magnificent mountain jungles to deep valley gorges, rugged coastlines to rice paddies, black sandy beaches to stunning ancient temples, it’s no surprise Bali is known as the Island of the gods.

Balinese temple architecture

Classic Balinese architecture is omnipresent with the island housing thousands of Hindu temples in every nook and cranny. Black and white cloth is everywhere. On stone statutes, at the front of houses, in temples, worn as a wrap or adorning holy banyan trees. The black and white religious holy cloth is called saput poleng (saput means “blanket,” and poleng “two-toned”) it’s a woven black-and-white checkered textile.

Bali’s saput poleng – holy black and white checks

It can be found in almost every corner of the island. The black and white squares represent balance in the universe similar to Ying and Yang.

Equally the evocative smell of incense permeates wherever people and buildings are found. Unmistakable Frangipani flowers, white or red with yellow centres, are used extensively to decorate. Their splash of colour bringing life to static objects, spaces and even people. A flower of beauty.

Daily you’ll see square trays filled with brightly coloured flowers lying on the ground or placed on objects. Made of palm leaves pinned together with bamboo sticks, they form a small flat square tray called a Canang Sari, they appear everywhere. They are offered in prayer to appease the gods and ward off evil spirits. Don’t step on them! It’s bad luck.

Canang Sari – religious offerings 

Sometimes the offerings includes betel nuts, lime and even cigarettes and sweets. They adorn everything and are placed liberally around buildings, temples and homes.

Hinduism is the predominant religion on the island (84%) a rarity in Indonesia’s largely Muslim population (87%).

Bali’s tourism success can be dated to the late 1970s. Free spirited travellers explored this beautiful island, especially the beaches that attracted many surfers. Artists and writers flocked here too.

Art is an important feature of Bali. Artists and writers flock here

There‘s a strong spiritual feel here. The heady mix of rugged mountains and beaches, strong island winds, the waft of incense, the plethora of temples, the flower offerings – and above all the happiness and calmness you experience with your interactions with smiling islanders. They all draw you towards an inner spiritual self.

If it’s soul searching and meditation you seek I can recommend no better place.

Ubud is my favourite place on the island. I simply wallow in the rustic atmosphere, its greenery, its mountains, its village, its charm! Each morning  I woke to silence punctuated by a cacophony of morning sounds. The crowing of a rooster, the rustle of the trees, the sound of distant water falling, a dog barking, a farmer’s tractor. All calming and reassuring.

I’m here to learn and educate myself about new happenings, new experiences. It’s my fourth visit and whilst I’ve been a resident of Asia for a quarter of a century, I’m still drawn by Bali’s uniqueness. I adore the statues; the umbrellas, the temples and the architecture. I’m a city dweller so to be enveloped in an environment of nature’s greenery is sheer bliss.

We flew with THAI on TG431 from Bangkok. With a good tail wind our journey time was only 3hrs 50min. It was a new Boeing Dreamliner 787-8. Extremely comfortable and smooth.

It’s been four years (2014) since I was last here attending a SKAL Asia Congress.

Since then two things have improved. Firstly the airport now has both a domestic AND international terminal. Providing a much improved passenger flow and few queues.

The second change of note is that Bali is visa free for many countries (140) for a 30 day visit. A boon for travellers.

Our first overnight stay was at the impressive four year old Sankara Boutique Resort in Ubud. The Resort layout is centred around the pool and has a forest feel. Trees and greenery abound. Our villa had a traditional thatched roof with a high ceiling. The ensuite bathroom was huge!

The impressive Sankara Ubud Resort

Access to your villa is a paved walk through the forest. It’s the friendliest hotel I’ve come across. The staff are genuine and sincere.

It has a great kitchen too. Over two days, with the exception of lunch, we had all our meals here.

Ubud is Bali’s cultural and artistic heart, it was the place of choice for artists from all walks of life. Today Ubud is a small town with an emphasis on wellness, small local shops, and great cuisine. At night the bars and restaurants come alive. There’s a buzz.

We continued to explore Ubud the following day. We spent the morning with an outstanding local musician. We were privy to a private recital and a face to face meeting with one of Bali’s most famous recording musicians. We visited him at his home in Ubud.

One of Bali’s most famous recording musicians with the author

His music was relaxing, spiritual and mesmerizing. We stayed for about one hour. I absolutely want to hear more from this talented flute player. He has millions of followers on YouTube. He is a kind, unassuming gentleman. His wife surprised me by presenting me with a collection of all four of his albums.

He plays from memory. He doesn’t read music. A trait I’ve seen with many musicians, my uncle amongst them, an accomplished clarinetist.

He makes all his own instruments from wood. Such a talented man!

We said our goodbyes and in the car travelling to our next adventure I checked out the videos online.

To be connected and online throughout the day we rented a handy WiFi Router which was waiting for us on arrival courtesy of our travel provider Khiri Travel.

Pocket WiFi Router 

It was small and compact and slipped easily into a pocket. It allows multi-users with a good range and one charge lasts all day. Great for keeping in touch on the move.

After our musical interlude we headed off to a spectacular local home for a very unique cooking class.

I believe that one of the most remarkable ways of discovering Bali and any destination is through its people and their indigenous culture. Certainly this is the case for Bali. The island and it’s cuisine is well known the world over.

We were invited to take part in a rare culinary experience at the home of a local celebrity. It opened a door to a world that is normally hidden.

We were introduce to our chef at his sprawling traditional Balinesian home-cum-restaurant in Ubud. He only allows 7 classes per month and 3 in the low season. He believes in a simple lifestyle with little stress. He takes great pains to ensure his work ethos does not negatively impact his family’s well being and his own harmony. What followed was an extraordinary afternoon with a former hotel chef now an entrepreneur, farmer and family man who shared with us his philosophy for a balanced life and sustainable harvesting. It was fascinating.

Talented chef and entrepreneur

After our introductions we were invited to join him in a special cooking class culminating in lunch. It was no ordinary cooking class. Eight dishes were prepared. We chopped; sliced, diced, cooked and even wrote down the dictated recipe by hand.

It was serious work and we took great pride to help prepare all the dishes meticulously under the clear instructions from the chef. He was a good teacher, explaining every ingredient and even the philosophy that ‘Food is Medicine’.

Personally I’ve always believed we are what we eat.

In the kitchen nothing was bought. All ingredients are 100 percent organic and from chef’s garden and farm.

We always hope to meet interesting local people when we travel. Meeting Dewa at his home was one of those occasions, a real pleasure.

It was day three and after breakfast we checked out  of the Sankara Resort and headed east to see the Kerta Gosa, or Hall of Justice, built in the 18th century in Klungkung.

The 18th century Kerta Gosa, or Hall of Justice. 

It is beautifully laid out within a moat and provides an exquisite example of the Klungkung style of architecture which can also be seen in their ceiling murals here.

The weather was wet and cloudy but spirits were high as we headed to the Batcave at Goa Lawah.

The entrance to the Batcave

The cave, whose walls vibrate with thousands of bats, is a holy place and a temple and surrounding shrines protect the entrance. We saw hundreds of the small cave dwellers. There was quite literally a buzz in the air.

Our next stop stop was at Tenganan, an original Balinese village, one of the last remaining Bali Aga villages with their own language; traditions and customs that date back several millennia. This includes its famed double ikat weaving. Mr Komdri was on hand to welcome us, bare chested with purple hair he was quite a character. He had the honour to escort UK’s Prince William around the village in 2012. Komdri showed us various samples and explained the techniques for weaving the tie-dyed cotton strands. Each piece of cloth is for sale, a medium piece costs a few hundred dollars. It is considered magical and can ward off evil spirits.

As we were leaving we saw the brightly coloured roosters all lined up in baskets. A perfect photo op! 

For our next hotel and overnight stay we returned to Ubud and checked-in to the Chedi Club Tanah Gajah hotel.

The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Hotel

Set in a sprawling 5 hectares (13 acres) of land it is a low-rise five star development with 20 rooms in private villas. It was glorious. A wonderful property. So much space. The grounds and gardens were beautiful. Statues and bronzes were evident throughout. The artwork and attention to detail was exquisite.

The room was wonderful. We had our own butler. The ensuite bathroom with its indoor/outdoor feel was luxurious and so well equipped.

So much was included in the room rates. Complimentary afternoon tea; evening cocktails, laundry, car service into town, yoga classes, minibar and decanters of spirits.

It was the weekend and we had dinner in the hotel on our first night. It was exceptional. The following day we had arranged to meet old friends who live on the island. We had a day of eating and shopping in Ubud. Very relaxing. I particularly enjoyed Bridges Bar and Restaurant and Naughty Nuri’s for BBQ.

On Monday morning we were met by our Khiri tour guide Mr Sana and driver and were whisked away to visit to the world famous Jatiluwih. Perfectly manicured rice paddies.

UN’s World Heritage Site –  Jatiluwih Rice Paddies

This World Heritage Site (bestowed in 2012) is a living museum showcasing the island’s traditional methods of agriculture, where clever land use and cooperative use of water and other resources turns almost vertical hillsides into lush, ‘postcard’ rice paddies. A photographers dream.

Beautiful and pristine, the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces are just spectacular. This is natural Bali at its best.

The line of volcanoes that dominate the landscape of Bali make for fertile soil which, combined with a wet tropical climate, make it an ideal place for crop cultivation.

Water from the rivers has been channelled into canals to irrigate the land, allowing the cultivation of rice on both flat land and mountain terraces. We were able to walk right amongst the paddies. The views were movie stills. The landscape here is over a thousand years old. It was a very special experience.

We drove south to Seminyak and en route stopped to visit Tanah Lot temple, one of Bali’s most spectacular sites and one of the most photographed temples in the world. It is perched on a barren rock outcrop and at high tide is completely surrounded by the ocean. It is only accessible on foot at low tide.

Tanah Lot Temple

The Temple was using the low season (Jan-March) to undertake repairs and carry out maintenance to the temple complex. The view from the hill top down to the temple island is still spectacular. Well worth a visit and clearly very popular. (The temple complex was the busiest we had seen anywhere all week).

That night we once again had dinner with friends. This time at the Bali Garden Beach Resort. We had a great meal at the hotel’s Aribar Mexican Restaurant.

Aribar Mexican Restaurant 

It has an open airy atmosphere with direct street access. A great choice of Mexican flavours presented à la carte or buffet. The cocktail list was impressive. The staff were extraordinary. Friendly and talented. We had a fun night out. Great value.

We were checked into the Indigo Hotel (an IHG property) in Seminyak. It had just soft opened and was brand new. It’s a beautiful five star property with 270 rooms plus 19 villas.

The Indigo Hotel at Seminyak

It has a great location in Seminyak; beachfront right in the centre and close to popular restaurants, bars and beach clubs, with great boutique shops and galleries. It’s bright, modern and colourful. Impressive design, great breakfast.

Our last night in Bali was a very special treat – dinner with a member of the Royal family

It was an extraordinary experience. We were escorted to the private villa of a member of the Balinese Royal Family in Tabanan, a relative of the late King.

We arrived at her villa in Sanur after a 40 minute drive from the Indigo Hotel. We were met by the butler and ushered into a small private courtyard. We were greeted by a showering of rose petals and a Balinese dancer.

A warm welcome dance

The ornamental pool was completely covered with a carpet of bright red flowers and floating candles. Strings of yellow chrysanthemums hung from the trees. It was all very magical and special. My sense of expectation was raised to maximum.

We didn’t have to wait long, we met our host straight away and were ushered towards the poolside dining area. We were the only guests. The conversation flowed effortlessly. I had plenty of questions.

We were hosted to a fabulous 5-course dinner which was simply delicious, a culinary highlight of the entire trip. Our host was an avid supporter of organic and healthy cuisine, explaining that the menu had been carefully crafted with a minimal use of sugar and fat.

It was in an extraordinary dinner, cooked by her private chef. The desserts contained no sugar but used instead the natural sweetness found in fruit and vegetables such as coconuts, carrots and sweet potatoes.

The chicken dish was cooked slowly in the ground over hot rocks and covered for 9 hours. The chicken (whole) was first marinated in herbs and spices and wrapped in the outer leaves of the coconut flower.

The private villa was a perfect dinner venue providing a quiet, intimate and luxurious experience.

It was memorable. Our first time to be welcomed into the home of a Balinese Royal. It’s been a great adventure – thank you Khiri Travel!

About the author

English born Andrew J Wood, is a freelance travel writer and for most of his career a professional hotelier. Andrew has over 35 years of hospitality and travel experience. He is a Skal member and a hotel graduate of Napier University, Edinburgh. Andrew is also a former member of the Executive Committe of Skal International (SI), National President SI THAILAND, Club President of SI BANGKOK and is currently SI Asia Area a.VP Southeast Asia (SEA), and Director of Public Relations Skal International BANGKOK. He is a regular guest lecturer at various Universities in Thailand including Assumption University’s Hospitality School and the Japan Hotel School in Tokyo.

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