Bali: not just a tourist trap for bogans and yogis
Look, I’m not going to lie, I am a bit judgemental about Bali. I’d heard so many stories about tourist-overrun Kuta, drunkenly acquired bamboo tattoos, cringey cornrows, Bintang shirts, and just general trashiness, that I didn’t think I’d ever set foot there.
But I recently spent a week over there and it was honestly one of the best holidays I’d ever had – and featured none of the Bali stereotypes I’d heard of. I loved it, and definitely plan on going back! (Just to be crystal clear, this doesn’t mean those stereotypes don’t exist – they most definitely do. But it is possible to avoid them and have a completely different experience of Bali.)
What did I love so much about my trip? Let me tell you…
Super cool thing #1: the place we were staying isn’t even on a map!
We spent our week up North, in a teeny tiny little village called Singaprang. There’s one main road through Singaprang, and it’s not on most local maps, or even on Google maps. There’s no wifi, there’s very poor phone reception, and it’s surrounded by acres and acres of greenery. There’s an abundance of birds around, as well as the occasional cow, dog, and lots of roosters. Cars and scooters only occasionally pass through, and you don’t hear them very much.
It’s definitely the type of setting in which you can forget about the rest of the world and just relax. I mean, I know people say that about lots of their holidays – but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as relaxed in my entire life as I did that week in Bali.
We were staying at this lovely place called Sharing Bali. It’s run by an Australian women named Karen, and owned by her partner, a Balinese man named Wayan. They met and fell in love years ago, and decided to create this place. Wayan is a musician and artist, so Sharing Bali is full of these gorgeous sculptures and water features made by him and his friends. And then there’s the bungalows – some of them are old bungalows from various islands that Wayan restored and then bought over there piece by piece, while others are ones that he’s built himself. Everything’s just so pretty, but not in an overly ostentatious way. It feels well thought out, warmly designed, and welcoming.
Super cool thing #2: staying here felt like visiting friends, not like staying at a hotel
But like…. visiting rich friends, who have enough bungalows on their property that each of you can have one to yourself.
So we were at Sharing Bali having our private retreat. I know, sounds fancy, right? It’s much less of a big deal than it sounds though. We’d emailed them asking if we could run our own retreat, and Karen replied back saying yes – as long as they had a minimum of 4 people, they’d be happy to organise a private retreat for us. So I got Eliza, Brent, Nadica, and Jess to come along, we sent Karen a list of things we’d like to do (yoga, whitewater rafting, trekking, massages) and she took care of the rest. We had to do zero work on our end, just paid for the retreat (only $1250 altogether!) and flights and Karen took care of the rest. Oh, by the way – we had the entire place to ourselves. How rocking is that?
This place was nothing like a hotel. There wasn’t marketing material everywhere or price lists or menus. The staff were chilled, and would be laughing and joking and genuine.
And Karen was a champ! It makes such a difference having someone else plan things. Everything was flexible too, and it never felt rushed. Felt like sleeping in? She just moved the day’s activities an hour later. Got peckish in the afternoon? She’d get us some chopped up fruit and smoothies. Wanted to take a bath? She’d send someone over with flower petals to add to the water. I didn’t have a watch, and I didn’t need my phone on me to check the time, because timings weren’t that important. Karen would come around and let us know that we had to be somewhere soon and we’d stop lying in the sun reading or playing around under the yoga hut and would get ready for whatever we were going to do next.
Food was home cooked, all from local ingredients, and all fresh. All the staff were locals, as was everything else there. The neighbours all knew Karen and Wayan, and were friendly to us because we were staying with them. If we really liked something we’d eaten, Karen would make sure that it was cooked again at another mealtime.
We’d paid for everything beforehand, and that made a huge difference too. Everything – food, activities, drinks – was included in that price, so when we were on the retreat, we didn’t have to think about money at all. It sounds like a small thing but it’s actually huge – it meant we didn’t have to make choices or think about how to spend our money (since we’d made that decision earlier). And making decisions takes effort! It also meant that when anyone would do anything for us, like cooking something we liked or getting us a coconut, it wasn’t because they were trying to get money out of us. They were just being nice (although we did tip all the staff at the end of the trip).
There were no locks on the doors, everything was open, and we didn’t have to worry about theft or safety. Now did you ever think you’d find that in Bali?!?
Super cool thing #3: We got to do lots of adventurous things – and lots of relaxing
There’s lots of retreats in Bali (and elsewhere) but most of them were about detoxing or, if they had lots of yoga, they were a bit over zealous about it and were all about “spirituality”. Or you had the really expensive ones which were about getting heaps of massages or going hard bootcamp-style.
We just wanted something in between. We wanted to really relax and spend heaps of time reading and sleeping, as well as having massages, and going white water rafting and getting to bicycle around.
Every day we’d start off with a lovely relaxed breakfast, sit around chatting for a while, then go off and get ready for the day’s activity (we went trekking, bicycling, whitewater rafting, walked through the village and to a nearby temple, and checked out the local markets). Then after the activity, we’d have a nice lazy lunch, then chill for the rest of the arvo, reading books, getting a massage, or napping. In the evening we’d do a yoga class, shower, have a long dinner followed by dessert, and would then turn in for the night (usually around 8pm!) – although for me at least, ‘turning in’ meant lying in bed reading for an hour or two before I slept.
The best part of this was that Karen knew all the local tour operators, so we didn’t have to deal with the pain of organising pick ups or figuring out times and availabilities and especially not about having to vet anyone. There have been so many times when I’ve been travelling and gone ziplining or trekking and it’s just been kind of shit, or we’ve had a dodgy guide, or it’s a mess figuring out pick ups and drop offs. Or worse, the tour operators/guides make you feel uncomfortable and you’re on edge the whole time.
Not this time though. Everyone was phenomenal, and they knew Karan and Wayan personally so they treated us like their friends’ guests. We got picked up directly from Sharing Bali, had our own guide, got taken straight to the activity, and deposited right back after. There was no faffing about, and we just felt like we could trust them.
Super cool thing #4: We learned a lot about the local culture
One of the problems I’ve encountered with a lot of places where tourism is the primary industry is that sometimes it feels like no interactions are genuine. I struggled with this in Fiji, for example. It felt like everyone was just trying to get your money, and you didn’t feel like you were really getting to know them, or that they saw you as anything more than a giant dollar sign.
So our experience at Sharing Bali was a lovely surprise – because we did get to meet lots of people, and have genuine interactions with them. We went next door to our yoga teacher Heidi’s dad’s place, and played with their puppy (also named Heidi), and he showed us around his home and had us over for ages.
At another point, when we were bicycling around, we stopped at this ancient banyan tree that the locals reckon is over a thousand years old, and when our guide Puck gave us bananas to eat, this wizened old man came around and grabbed our peels for us, smiling sagely. Also while we were bicycling, we stopped at this family’s home and went in to see what a traditional Balinese home looks like. While we were waiting, they chopped up a couple of passionfruit for us and shared them around.
I hadn’t thought that this holiday would actually include learning anything about the local culture, or meeting locals, but we got to know so much.
- People in Bali generally walk around really slowly, and you’re never meant to run inside the villages (which I learned after I’d already done it) because people only run when something bad has happened. I was wondering why everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me as I jogged through Singaprang…. Karen explained this to me later and told me that if I wanted to run, I needed to first walk to the edge of the village.
- Balinese food is very spicy and/or very sweet – they love palm sugar and chilli. Rice features heavily in their diets (as expected, I suppose), but meat is eaten sparingly – especially beef, since most of Bali is Hindu, and cows are considered sacred. Tourism’s changed this a bit, as the cities will offer beef to cater for travellers’ tastes, but it’s not easy to find in the villages. Meals consist of lots of small dishes, and are heavy on vegetables, peanuts, and coconut. Milk is rare in Bali, although I never found out why – but most milk drinks are made with milk powder or condensed milk.
- Bali is mainly Hindu, as opposed to mainland Indonesia, which is mainly Muslim. Bali used to be animistic, however, and despite being official ‘Hindu’, a lot of the villages still have various animistic practices. (Animism, FYI, is the belief that plants and animals have souls!)
- Families in Bali live in compounds, in their home villages. A compound is made up of lots of little buildings – each around the size of one or two rooms. A family compound will feature a few of these, and so you might have the grandparents in one, and then each of their children’s families in other ones. The family compounds are passed down from generation to generation, to the youngest child. I think the eldest children go to live at the compounds of the families they marry into. Because they’re so old and each generation puts in heaps of money to maintain and update their family compounds, they’re almost all pretty and grand, with statues and delicate stone and woodwork and grand doors and gates. Each family compound will also have it’s own temple. Kids may move to the city or overseas for work, but they’ll come back to the family’s compound and village for special occasions, and to settle down in once they have kids of their own.
- Ceremonies are a backbone of Balinese culture, which is very community oriented. Each community has it’s own community hall, and every now and then the community leaders will decree that everyone needs to take a few days off and clean up the area, or fix up the road, or do something else – and everyone will just drop what they’re doing and do that. There’s lots of processions and rituals and everyone in the community has a special part to play in each of them.
- Bali’s having some contraception issues. Indonesia’s been trying to enforce a one-child policy, but in Bali, first names are passed down, in order of birth. The names are the same for both girls and boys: The first born is named Wayan, the second is named Made, the third is Nyoman, and the fourth is Ketut. Balinese families want to be able to pass down all four names so generally want to have four children, not just one or two. Information about contraception is also not easily disseminated through the villages – condom ads use a lot of euphemisms to explain how they should be used, and this often results in older people putting condoms on their fingers or other appendages, but not on their genitalia….
- Balinese people have strict laws about marriage. If a man gets a woman pregnant, the man has to marry her or gets thrown in prison and has to pay her regardless. Couple this with poor education about contraception, and there’s a lot of very young married couples in Bali, with kids. Marriage and kids are both seen as things that everyone has to do, and wants to do – it’s inconceivable that anyone would want to remain single or childless.
Super cool thing #5: I got to spend time with an AWESOME crew
I usually travel alone, and I’m very careful about travelling partners because I don’t do well with people who are grumpy, precious, fussy, unfit, or who want to do everything together without giving me time on my own. So I haven’t really done a lot of travel with friends.
But this time I did and it was SPLENDID. Everyone was chilled and we had so much fun together. It’s awesome travelling with a bunch of people who are funny and inclusive and like being silly and adventurous. Here are some of my favourite moments:
- We each seemed to have forgotten some important travel accoutrements – but, as Eliza proclaimed, “With our powers combined, we are ONE well prepared traveller! But only one.”
- When we went whitewater rafting, there were a lot of precious travellers, including some very dainty Asian girls who walked painfully slowly down to the river, two of whom were kitted out in full length raincoats and goggles. We were super mischievous and would try have little races with other rafts that came near, splashed the hell out of everyone, and tried especially hard to splash the girls in their raincoats. They freaked out the first time, but afterwards seemed to enjoy it! Afterwards, one of the guys with them asked Brent if he could take a photo with him.
- Brent had started off so nervous about whitewater rafting, and wasn’t sure he’d like it- then did a complete 180 when we got going. He ended up moving to the front of the raft, and being the most enthusiastic – when the guides were taking a photo they suggested (jokingly) that we stand up; Brent was the only one who actually did!
- When we were finished with whitewater rafting, our guide joked that we could just swim down the next km – and we took him at his word and jumped in. Turns out he meant that we could swim the next 100m – and he only called out to us to stop after we’d already let ourselves get swept away by the current. I was the furthest out, and Brent chased after me, grabbed me, then grabbed onto a tree branch hanging off the side. The current was too strong and we got swept away again – this time Brent managed to get his foot near me, got me to grab onto his toe, and grabbed onto a tree root! Eventually the others caught up and we had to all hold on to each other, form a human chain, and grope our way onto the next climbable river bank!
- We took a lot of silly yoga photos!
- There was also a lot of toilet humour – as each of us had at least one occassion on which we had stomach upsets – often caused by us eating some very spicy Bali chilli sambal! Eliza and Brent were the bravest, and handled the chilli like pros, even though it was as painful coming out as it was going in.
Super cool thing #6: I got inspired about where my life will take me
It’s not always easy to think of less travelled paths to take in life. Or to know how to get yourself on those paths! That’s why Karen was inspiring – she’d worked in fashion and retail, then ended up in Bali, running these retreats, doing her own thing, and never wearing close toed shoes. And she’s always thinking of other little things to work on and do, and finds ways to bring her hobbies into the business.
And she’s older too, but doesn’t look like she’s slowing down. People seem to think that all the exciting bits of life happen in your 30s and 40s, but Karen’s got Sharing Bali and is thinking of running something like this in France, where her brother lives, and maybe running these kinds of experiences in other countries as well, where the focus is on involving locals and providing an experience that doesn’t feel touristy, but lets you relax and have adventures while getting to see things about a country that most tourists miss out on, but that the locals know and love.
I guess the lesson I took from this was ‘don’t be scared to change directions, start from the beginning, and do something completely different’ – and also, that you’re never too old to start something new.
Want to do the same thing?
I really enjoy holidays that change your perspective and make you think – especially if they also leave you feeling more at peace with the world, and with yourself. This was definitely one of those holidays! If you want to go to Sharing Bali, check out their website and hit Karen up about your own private retreat.