In a backpacker’s not-so-budget dream, where adventure meets Asian luxury, Melanie Vella explores the land of sacred sites and sandy beaches.
After spending four months backpacking through India on a shoestring budget, the Indonesian province of Bali was our next stop.
Maria, Emmeline and I, three best friends, were ready to trade in our sleeping bags and muddy huts for crisp white linen sheets and a little slice of tropical paradise.
The beachy hotspots in the southern side of the island are known to be swarming with tourists looking for the decadent blend of exclusive chic hotels, gourmet restaurants and wild parties.
We decided to ease ourselves, and our pockets, into this haven by opting for the less touristy, southern surfer town of Canggu.
We managed to hunt down a homestay run by a Balinese woman and her daughter that turned out to be very different to a typical backpacker homestay.
The four-poster bed was set off by a glass-encased outdoor shower with pebble floors and a luxurious patio, ours for 300,000 Indonesian rupiah (€20) per night.
We woke up early to catch the first waves.
The surf instructor, Wayan, welcomed us to the beach with a cheerful “Selamat Pagi” and instantly guessed we were newbies.
He handed us a novice surfboard at 150,000 rupiah (€10) a pop, which was a big rubber softboard, then joined us on the water to get us accustomed to the waves and give us a push.
We seemed to be the only ones who didn’t have a clue how to handle the aggressive waves rolling in and swallowing us whole.
I managed a few smaller waves but Wayan told us it would be better to come back when the tide was low as this was a pro-surfer beach.
Cringing but happy with our first surfing attempt, it was time to roll on.
The next day, with sore muscles in places we didn’t know we had muscles, we decided to head 10km down the coast to Kuta Beach.
A 20-minute walk out of town rewarded us with that sight of emerald green rice terraces that morphed slowly into a jungle and a rushing stream
The hippy beach-shack town of the 1960s has given way to gaudy, glittery luxury resorts and glamorous private villas that have stretched over ancient rice fields.
Rows of tourist shops selling the same T-shirts on the beach path and bright lights advertising two-for-one cocktail hours have changed the face of this side of Bali.
This is where it gets its ‘Costa Brava for Australians’ reputation.
We spent the afternoon hopping from infinity pools to trendy cafes and beaches sprinkled with sun-scorched vacationers that go on for as far as the eye can see.
We bought a quick bite of gado-gado, vegetables with peanut sauce and rice, from a food stall.
The surf in Kuta Beach is much tamer and big, blue beginner boards lined the horizon.
This was definitely the place to mix countless clubs and a dash of summer music, so we rescued our skimpy shorts from the very bottom of our backpacks and discovered the party capital of Bali, where the nightlife ranges from chic to raucous.
The largest and most frequented club on the Kuta strip is Sky Garden, a trend-setting venue where women drink for free. Were we in Indonesia or Ibiza?
After being whipped up by immense crowds of party-goers, it was time for green, tropical, quiet, rice paddies and Balinese culture.
Ubud is the most famous country village in the tropics, after 2010’s blockbuster movie Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, was filmed there.
Tourism may be booming, but its indestructible charm and cultural treasures are thriving.
Pottering around Ubud, we visited an array of yoga schools, vegetarian cafes, charming markets, gourmet restaurants and a monkey forest.
The hippy beach-shack town of the 1960s has given way to gaudy, glittery luxury resorts and glamorous private villas that have stretched over Kuta’s ancient rice fields
Hotels and homestays are decorated with artisanal Balinese crafts and many buildings have traditional temples at the entrance, infused with the scent of incense.
We joined a yoga class at the Yoga Barn retreat centre, a ‘yogic buffet’ that offers a spiritual experience for anyone curious to dabble in the country’s spiritual side.
The girls and I had dinner at Café Lotus, splurging on a mouth-watering mix of nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice, Balinese be-pasih goa lawah, fish or tofu marinated in turmeric, lemon grass and ginger, then steamed in banana leaf, and pisang-goreng, fried banana with grated coconut for dessert, which set us back an easy €20-25 each.
This may be a pocket pincher for backpackers, yet it was a delicious, deserved treat.
The next day, a 20-minute walk out of town rewarded us with that sight of emerald green rice terraces that morphed slowly into a jungle and a rushing stream. This sublime landscape confirms Bali’s soul-soothing reputation.
In the heart of the terraces lies the Green School, which teaches its students about sustainability. We took a tour through the maze of bamboo structures that make up this breathtaking campus.
Our guide explained that the curriculum combines hands-on experiential learning through green studies and creative arts with the usual academic subjects.
This is not the typical day out in Bali. However, hearing about the school’s pioneering work truly proved to be an inspiring outing.
The most scrumptious part was that we met an American expat on the tour, who invited us to his small chocolate factory that he set up with his wife.
We were invited to sample the bitter, raw cocoa beans and watch the bean-to-bar process in his sustainably built bamboo house.
Bali is full of sustainable buildings, as architects aim to blend development with the tropical landscape.
In fact, in Bali, a building cannot be higher than a palm tree, which is about 15 metres. How much this is enforced is another story entirely.
You cannot visit Bali without attending an odalan, a temple ceremony. I was fortunate enough to meet Sri Laksmi, a charismatic Balinese woman who invited me to her house.
Sri Laksmi dressed me up in typical Balinese temple wear: kebaya, a lace top intricately decorated with hand-sewn beads and flowers, a corset and batik sarong.
On the way to the temple, we wound past lonely cows and warung shops dripping in dried chili and saffron.
The moss-cloaked temple was wafting with incense. People were swaying through its stunning carved gate, carrying elaborately composed baskets of fruit, flowers and money on their heads to offer to the gods.
Blossoms and bejewelled figures graced the shrine, which honoured a legendary Balinese prince and princess.
Bali has its own customs and rituals, based on centuries-old beliefs that have evolved into Bali’s own form of the Hindu religion.
I was the only foreigner invited and the children were giggling at me and asking to take photos with them.
This was the epitome of the sleepy, enchanted isle that time forgot: the Bali known as ‘the island of the gods’.