For an island as 'zen' as Bali, the drive from Ngurah Rai airport to the tourist hotspots of Kuta and Legian is anything but calming. Especially after a 17-hour journey from Cape Town.
In Bali, cars officially drive on the left. Sometimes though, they also drive on the right. If need be, somewhere in the centre seems to be just fine. It may be chaotic (and you’ll use a hire car at your peril), but as one taxi driver told me: "In Bali, the traffic flows like water." Ah, at last the zen paradise I’d expected.
"G'day mate. How ya goin'?" was the voice that greeted me as I stepped out of the taxi.
It’s not unusual to hear a thick Aussie accent while wandering the shopping streets of Kuta, but it’s a little disconcerting when it’s coming from a Balinese teenager.
From dime-a-dozen knock-off shops to bars filled with over-friendly local women, the hordes of package tourists from Down Under have ruined the beachfront suburbs of Kuta and Legian. Packs of them mill around with bleary boozy eyes, while T-shirts emblazoned with crass slogans are stretched across unnaturally large beer bellies. Charming.
Seminyak to the north is a little more refined, and there are admittedly a few good beaches in the area, but any self-respecting visitor to Bali will get the hell out of Kuta and surrounds as quickly as possible.
Luckily, you don’t have to travel far to find a piece of the Bali you’ve been dreaming of. The highlands town of Ubud is little more than an hour’s drive away, but may as well be on another island.
It’s a good place to start or end your visit. The pace is altogether more relaxed here, making it a welcome respite from the frenetic streets of Kuta and the coast.
The cultural heart of Bali, Ubud is home to the island’s finest restaurants, shops and art galleries. But it’s not any of these that have made the town a low-key tourist paradise, rather the magnificent spa facilities on offer.
There are dozens of spas here, with only your wallet to limit the level of luxury. For a paltry R80 you can easily find a simple, but friendly and clean, spa where an hour or two on the massage table will iron out any knots left in your weary tourist shoulders. The petite Balinese women may look meek, but they massage with hands of steel!
If being massaged by strangers isn’t your cup of peppermint tea, the area also offers excellent mountain biking, river-rafting (in the rainy season), walking and birding. A wander through the wonderful market is also a great way to experience some local flavour.
At the entrance you’ll be accosted by tourist tat of all kinds, but delve a little deeper and you’ll find the real market of exotic fruits, slaughtered poultry, piles of fresh vanilla, coconut milk sweets and packs of pre-made daily offerings for the multitude of Hindu gods.
If you’re looking for a few souvenirs the nearby Monkey Forest Road is the place to wander. Bargain hard and you’ll get up to a third off the asking price. And they’re not kidding about "lucky morning price"... notes from the first sale of the day are fluttered over the merchandise to bring more luck... and more tourists.
Monkey Forest Road leads, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the Sacred Monkey Forest, another of Ubud’s highlights.
Over 300 Long-tail Macaques live in the forest, clambering over the 14th century Holy Monkey Temples to make light work of the daily offerings left here by Hindus each morning.
Hinduism is woven throughout the fabric of daily life in Bali and temples dot the roadside across the island. You’ll spot them in almost every backyard, but tours of the island routinely include some of the most spectacular and inevitably end up at the magnificent Pura Tanah Lot.
Page 2: Join the crowds at Tana Lot