Paradise or Paradise Lost?
by Jimmy Im
There's Bali, then there's the real Bali. The Bali we know conjures screensaver-worthy images of beaches, centuries-old temples, pampering villas and spas, and maybe a healer or two. Those who have actually visited the island will argue that's just scratching the surface. Bali is detox and spiritual quests, participating in a Hindu ceremony, rainforest trekking, and learning local customs and language. However, if you're gangbusters explorative, you will inevitably (and perhaps unfortunately) discover the real real Bali. This includes the lack of a waste management system, giving locals no option but to throw garbage into the rivers, which carries trash into the ocean, monster waves spitting them back onto shore, and seawater deemed so bad that skin disorders occur, particularly after monsoon season. The 2002 and 2005 terrorist bombings still resonate with Americans, and potential future threats are also a reality with Al Qaeda's objection to the 80 percent Hindu population and the Westerners who support this world-famous destination. Meanwhile, traffic-choked roads worsen as the rise of motorbikes create further chaos, road rage, and destroy the environment. So, now… Bali: paradise or paradise lost?
Needless to say, Bali gets a lot of slack. While the island may be quickly developing, the infrastructure is not. There are people like me who notice the buzzkill.
Like the rainbow that emerges after the Balinese rain clouds, Bali is slowly—very slowly—making adjustments. Indonesia is in its second term of real democracy and change, a country re-imagined after the collapse of the New Order in 1999. While some problems may take years to tackle, as the current president SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) is aware—he's not the only one who wants to eat, pray, and love Bali. Hotels belonging to the Bali Hotel Association practice sustainable ecological waste management, and traffic control is being explored. Furthermore, security checks are enforced at all resorts, popular restaurants and attractions, and every vehicle is inspected. In fact, the search is so thorough, security officials often check under hoods, under the cars, and inside trunks.
Thanks to the gorgeous resorts and beautiful scenery on Bali, the gay scene is burgeoning with international visitors. The gay strip— Dhyana Pura—just added another gay bar, and Gay Bali Tours, the official tour operator of Bali, hosted the island's very first gay tennis tournament last September. "We have only two seasons all year long, but gay bars, a gay beach, all-male resorts, and the local gay community makes any traveler feel like they are home," says Gay Bali tours owner Rio Maryono. Watch out, Phuket!
I also won't hesitate to say Bali is one of the most exciting destinations I've visited. The dynamic street culture is intoxicating. Exoticism is rich from beach to rainforest. Centuries-old rituals are still practiced today and ancient temples are ubiquitous, as well as moss-covered stone shrines. The Balinese people are some of the friendliest and most altruistic people on this planet. Indonesian food—if you're a fan of spice—gets high marks. Reputable hotel groups have set up camp here due to the unforgettable, commanding landscape and influx of starry-eyed visitors. There's so much to see in Bali—the size of Singapore with a population of four million—that the average time spent here (ten days) may not be enough. With that said, many visit and actually never leave, evidenced by the wealth of ex-pats, including John Primeau, a retiree from Seattle who moved to Bali on a whim. "Even though I had never visited Bali before, the lifestyle and the beauty of the island called to me. I have a very nomadic spirit," Primeau says.
Primeau bought a house in Seminyak and remains completely drawn to the people, food, and customs. It's also inexpensive to live there.
"The gay scene is great!" Primeau says. "No cliques, and smiles everywhere. Additionally, the Indonesians do not look at age as a criteria for who can join certain gay circles and who cannot. This is true for straights, too.
"And rice fields, temples, jungles, mountains, beaches—Bali has it all. I always encourage my out-of-town visitors to get away from
the city and venture out into the country. Eat at a wrung and don't be afraid of sampling the Indonesian cooking. Don't hang out at the villa hotels…that is not Bali. If possible, hire a driver and see if you can attend a Hindu ceremony. Get a feel for the people and their customs."
From the cultural point of Ubud to the sublime coast of Nusa Dua, each of Bali's eight regencies (some would equate to neighborhoods in a city) are unique, impressing those who like diversity with their one-stop destinations. Ultimately, Bali is hedonism, a place of soul-searching and finding it, whether with a romantic partner or by yourself.
While the island is sprawling with endless areas of interest, some are better equipped for tourism, one of which is Seminyak, the most visited regency in Bali, and with good reason. It serves as a hub of terrific hotels and villas, local boutique designer shops, miles of beach, and easy access from the airport (about 15 minutes). Don't expect glam, though. The narrow streets are a traffic nightmare, cramped with speedy motorbikes and wandering dogs almost 24/7, and the beaches are trashy (and I mean this literally regarding the floating debris, especially at night). Even walking along the street, the curbs and sidewalks are littered with flower offerings, small boxes or "boats" typically made from coconut leaves and filled with flower petals, and the humidity tends to capture the days-old garbage. In fact, on my first outing, it felt as if there was a huge festival the night before and nobody bothered to clean up. It turns out, well, that's how the streets look every day! Nevertheless, Seminyak does harbor some of the island's best sunsets, hotels keep their beachfront tidy, and the camp-fed "gay" street alone is a novelty.
Speaking of gays, they come to Seminyak in droves. You'll find a healthy variety at Café Bali, a restaurant that looks like a colonial dollhouse of sorts with a large outdoor deck, or at Sarong, a trendy restaurant offering a modern approach to street food. It was nice to find Seminyak offered some cosmopolitan flair. I was impressed with the diverse clientele from all around the world.
The strongest indication Seminyak lures the LGBT community is the fact that it's the only place with gay nightlife in Bali. The motherload can be found on Dhyana Pura, a tiny street that is home to a string of small gay bars. Mixwell is the preferred watering hole as the staff is the friendliest and the DJ seems to know what the crowd wants. Every 15 minutes, a drag queen entertains the audience with American pop songs and local go-go boys strut on the bar in the skimpiest and campiest of outfits. What also makes this strip exciting is that the streetfront bars allow the patrons to flood out into the street, particularly on the weekends. Tourists (both gay and straight) pause to socialize, flirt, and get a nice dose of the free shows at the bars.
Ku Da Ta with its beachfront cabanas is a casual hangout favored by both hetero and homo alike. Here, you can enjoy a South Beach-style scene with lounge grooves and killer cocktails to boot. A newer option is Potato Head, just down the road, similar atmosphere, same concept. Both bars truly took me from the bustling streets to melt away with a stiff drink.
There's no shortage of pampering hotels and villas in Seminyak, and you'll discover a diverse range of accommodations, whether it's the old-school queen of luxury at Legian or the new W Retreat & Spa Bali, opened this past March. W managed to muscle its way onto the beach, bringing its signature amenities and design gays live for including an oxygen-filled lounge, and three-story beach bar.
I wanted to go medium local and stayed at Anantara Resort & Spa, a Thai brand that opened on the beach three years ago. The comfortably chic boutique is a three-minute walk to the gay strip so my stumbling walks home were short and sweet without having to hop on the back of someone's moped for chump change. Most of the 60 suites have fantastic ocean views and all the suites are equipped with a large outdoor veranda with private Jacuzzi tub, large shower with various pressure settings, separate vanity with ample closet space, and the cuteness of the welcome fruit inside a large birdcage. The SOS Club on the fifth floor (one of the few hotels to offer an on-site lounge/club) is where the cool kids perch to watch a sublime sunset with signature cocktails.
Jimbaran Bay on the southern peninsula is only a 20-minute drive from Seminyak. While it shares the same coast, I found the beaches substantially nicer here, and a pace that truly captured "island time." The shore hosts a number of seafood restaurants, trademark Beds on the Beach, and unforgettable sunsets. In fact, these are the three main highlights of the area, considering a shortage of healers, nightlife, rice paddies, and jungle treks. It's a compact paradise luring foodies to the bustling morning fish markets and surfers to the wealth of great waves, giving a more "retro" feel to the Balinese coast. The scent of fresh seafood lingers in the salt-stung air, and the perpetual sound of crashing waves creates Zen. Even the two luxury resorts here are attractions for both locals and visitors alike. It was the best detox from Seminyak, and I finally had time to crack open my beach book, Robinson Crusoe.
If you're looking for sprawling and fab, Ayana Resort and Spa is a 200-acre, 368-room property that's so tricked out, you don't have to leave the premises and, quite frankly, most guests don't. I felt like a passing traveler in a self-contained village. There are five pools (both fresh and saltwater), 12 restaurants and lounges, two glass wedding chapels, a sliver of private beach, tucked away hales, a huge, award-winning spa (that includes a truly pampering, 12-course aquatherapy circuit), and a sports facility that includes fitness center, jogging path, yoga pavilion, tennis courts, and 18-hole golf putting course. If you think that's enough to keep you busy, they also throw in surprises. For instance, during my stay, guest yogi Jacqui Cooper, a medal-winning aerial skiing Olympian and certified instructor, taught a free outdoor class to fifty guests.
To really do Ayana right, splurge on one of the 78 free-standing, cliff-top villas. They start at 3,225 square feet and include a 24-hour butler (you're given a cell phone should you need anything), private infinity-edge plunge pool, sunbeds and gazebos, and your own waterfall garden. If that's not privileged enough, there's a separate room entirely for the soaking bathtub, about the same size of the living area. I felt quite Lilliputian in such quarters, but I also felt rightfully like a prince in my own kingdom.
Formerly the Ritz-Carlton, the property became Ayana two years ago and repeat visitors will notice the sheer awesomeness of the year-old Rock Bar. An open-top bar—with cocktails created by Michelin-star F&B executive Marc Dobbels—is set on a cliff outcrop where crashing waves, 360-degree views, and sublime sunset.
The 147 villas at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay are modeled after typical Balinese homes (of the swankier variety), completely rustic with private plunge pools and views of the Bay. The resort is intimate and simple, understated elegance with a signature Beds on the Beach so fine-toothed you'll think it was specially crafted for you. It includes pampering hale on the coast, a terrific degustation menu under the stars, and torch-baring canoes floating in the ocean before you.
If you want to feel the "old-school" atmosphere of Bali, head to Balangan Beach, a hedonistic strip of sandy beach and home to surfer competitions, $20-a-room hotels on stilts, and not much more. It's wildly idyllic and bare bones, with little shading so don't forget your sunscreen. Also, visit Aluwatu, home of one of Bali's biggest and most important shrines, where you'll experience traditional choreographed dances at sunset. Like to ride waves? The breaks here have been named one of the best surfing spots in the world.
Locals, including ex-pats, won't exactly admit Eat, Pray, Love ruined Ubud, but their eyes will tell a different story. The location for the blockbuster film is more overrun with tourists, which means longer lines at favorite haunts, cheesy tours, and thrice as many roaring motorbikes. If there's one redemptive note to the instant tourism boom in the small, inland village high in the foothills is that tourists truly fall in love with Ubud, and the small town itself hasn't changed.
Ubud is the heart and cultural pulse of Bali. There's something so magical here, you're bound to feel a wonderful sensation right away. It's traditionally been known to inspire and incite artists, writers, hippies, the spiritual seekers, and more recently, me. Retreats and ancient temples abound in unspoiled rainforest. Winding roads are lined with decades-old art studios and old-school vendors while large, stringy roots hang from leafy trees, creating a setting only found in fables. Most of the villas and resorts along the Ayung River provide views into the jungle and of rice terraces and gorges. Meanwhile, 14th-century temples in the Sacred Monkey Forest are home to hundreds of free-roaming Balinese Macaques monkeys, known to be über-sacred (both the monkeys and the temple) in this neck of the woods. Culinary treats of all kinds—fresh juices, family-run Indonesian restaurants, outdoor barbecue, and even suckling pig—make Ubud a fascinating foodie destination. Make a beeline to Ibu Oka, which Anthony Bourdain declared his favorite suckling pig place ever. Get there early as seats fill up fast. Even at 11 A.M., I stood in line waiting for crispy pork skin and savory meat.