Across the lush valley high above the raging Ayung River, the resonant call of the drums beckons the villagers to the temple. The sweet smell of incense and frangipani fills the air as slender Balinese men and women work the fertile rice fields. Sweet-eyed cows graze contentedly as the setting sun casts a golden glow over the age-old rice paddies. By the side of the road, before a small temple, a Balinese man sprinkles holy water over his head, presses a flower between his fingertips and bows his head in prayer.
Here, far from the madding crowds, is a reminder why so many Australians are enamoured with this enchanting island where travellers come in their thousands for the sun, the surf and the charming Balinese smiles. Bali is, and always has been, so much more than cheap accommodation, binge drinking and fleshy tourists turning pink under the intense Indonesian sky. Scratch beneath the surface and the real Bali, with its rituals, festivals and ancient culture, remains firmly intact.
Despite recent events placing a cloud over Indonesia, Bali remains a firm favorite with Australian travellers, with arrivals up 17% in the 12 months to December 2014. More than 92,000 Australians flew into Bali’s new Ngurah Rai International Airport in December alone, while overall Australian visitor numbers were up from 938,279 in 2013 to almost 1.1 million.
Restaurateur, author and Ubud Writer’s Festival director, Janet DeNeefe, says while development on the Island of the Gods has been rapid, the real Bali can still be found. DeNeefe, who moved from Melbourne to Ubud 30 years ago, laments Australians who visit Bali for nothing more than cheap drinks.
Brett Morgan, another expat Aussie who runs Private Concierge Bali and VW Limo Bali, encourages Australians to spend time learning about the island’s unique and fascinating culture. “Understanding even a little will enhance your holiday,” he says.
There are many ways travellers can get more out of Bali, reconnect with the island’s culture and experience some of what made the destination so popular in the first place. One way is by joining one of Morgan’s culture-rich tours, particularly the Seven Temples of Enlightenment. This fascinating day-long tour takes participants on a journey through World Heritage temples and monuments that trace the creation of the Balinese Hindu religion – all in a restored VW Kombi.
The exploration of Bali’s most sacred temples starts with ginger tea at the private home of Bapak Anong Ishmail, the curator of the Sukarno Museum. Highlights include a visit to Bali’s first Hindu temple and a trek to a 10th century meditation temple hidden in a lush valley where ancient chambers are carved into moss swathed rock.
Another inspiring day trip is to Bali’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed rice terraces and water temples that date back to the ninth century at Jatiluwah. You can hire a car, get a driver to take you there, or book a full-day tour with an English-speaking guide. DeNeefe’s famous Casa Luna Cooking School, meanwhile, takes an in-depth look at Balinese cuisine. The day starts with an early morning visit to the bustling Ubud market, followed by a hands-on cooking class in an open-air kitchen. The relaxed class ends with a communal lunch featuring all of the dishes cooked that morning.
Alternatively, take a sunset sail aboard a traditional jukung on Bali’s northeast coast with its stunning black sand coastline, watching dolphins frolic in the waves as the sun slips beneath the waves. You can also join a gamelan class with master musicians at Arma Museum in Ubud, or take a meandering walk among bucolic scenery and be rewarded with lunch at an organic warung set among ricefields. The open air Sari Organik in Ubud offers affordable and delicious vegetarian cuisine in a stunning paddy setting.
Alila Hotels and Resorts regional vice president for South East Asia, Sean Brennan, says one of the most overlooked activities is experiencing Sideman Valley by bicycle. “Start at the craters’ edge, ride down the side of Kintamani and its villages and rice paddies, and finish up in the beautiful Sideman Valley for lunch at the foot of Mt Agung. It’s a perfect way to see the true Bali,” he says.
Meanwhile, Double-Six Luxury Hotel hospitality creative director, Robert Marchetti, recommends diving into Bali’s flourishing restaurant scene with flavours from all over the world at your table. “It’s easy to order a burger from the room-service menu, but you’ll miss out on so many amazing food experiences if you do,” he says.
Marchetti says riding on a motorbike through the rice paddies is a simple but life changing experience. “It really is a beautiful island,” he says.