First-Timer in Bali: 3 Essential Things I Learned
Bali is the most popular island holiday destination in the Indonesian archipelago, but before I visited for the first time, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The visions in my mind’s eye were like multi-sensory scenes from Eat, Pray, Love, accompanied by the sounds of a gamelan, full of modern hippies blissing out on yoga and drunken Aussies in Kuta.
While there is some truth in all of these clichés, I learned during my visit that enigmatic Bali is so much more than the sum of its parts.
1. Culture, religion and life are all the same thing.
From the moment we landed at Denpasar airport, I could feel that something was different. Apart from the overwhelming humidity and heat, there was a change in spiritual energy.
For starters, it’s impossible not to notice how religion is woven into Balinese culture. While Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, Bali is home to more Hindu temples per square meter than anywhere in the world. Each home compound has a shrine or temple. After the first few days, I almost stopped looking, even though each one seemed more intriguing than the last. As I explored, it became obvious that Balinese culture is engrained in how the people see themselves and how they see the world.
The Balinese sense of community is strong, inclusive and ubiquitous, permeating every aspect of life. We had the privilege of staying with local hosts and had the opportunity to listen and learn from their stories. From our friend’s driver, Wayan, we learned that lives are centered around a rich tapestry of ceremony, temple, religion and family activities. Balinese men take turns watching over the temples overnight and the whole community spends days making offerings and partaking in never-ending cycle of dance, music and ceremonies.
An average Balinese family will dedicate up to the 30 percent of earnings to the upkeep and maintenance of the local temple. This is seen not as a burden, but as an accepted and everyday part of what is required to live a righteous and caring life.
Mysticism plays a big role in the Bali's belief system. Wayan told us that behind each corner of Ubud there could be dark magicians and priests who can place curses or take the shape and form of a monkey or animal. He shared a story in which Hanuman, The Monkey God, played havoc in the daily life of someone who had been cruel to a monkey. He was poking his cigarette towards the monkey and subsequently the animal had bitten him. Conventional medicine wasn’t healing his wound. When he went to a local shaman, he was told that to make offering to Hanuman. After making his offering, the man’s wound healed.
Global Family Travels’ Bali: Learn, Serve & Immerse Tour offers families many opportunities to get a deep sense of the culture and daily life in Bali. You’ll spend time with locals, learn local arts at the banjar, visit sacred temples and palaces, see a traditional shadow puppet performance, and visit local organizations addressing some of Bali’s biggest challenges.
2. You will meet many people named Wayan and Putu
In Balinese culture, there are only a few names that parents can give a child, based on birth order. First-born children can be named Wayan, Putu or Gede. Second-born children can be named Made or Kadek. Third children can be named Nyoman or Komang. Fourth-born kids are named Ketut. Child number 5 is named Wayan Balik, which loosely means “another Wayan.” On the upside, you will have a better chance of remembering people's names.
3. Ubud is an expat’s Disneyland
Until about 30 years ago, Ubud was a sleepy little hamlet. Then expat money and tourist money began flowing into it, and it began to develop into a Mecca for hipsters and yoginis. Today, Ubud is a thriving village wrapped in Disneyland-like veneer that, when peeled back, can be sweet to the taste and leave you feeling like you have learned something valuable.
The word Ubud comes from the Balinese word for medicine, and the health craze is real here. I have never seen a place with more vegan and vegetarian restaurants than in Ubud. As a vegan traveler, this was a hugely positive thing for me. In Ubud we had what I consider to be a Michelin-worthy vegan experience at the restaurant Moksa.
Ubud is also famous as an arts and crafts hub, and much of the village and nearby areas consist of artists’ workshops and galleries, many of which we visit on our Bali: Learn, Serve & Immerse Trip.
Tourist destinations are shaped and transformed by money and Ubud is no exception. While this is positive for the economy, the boon has driven up the cost of living exponentially, ultimately leaving many local people behind. Now there are multi-million dollar properties in and around Ubud, along with much more modest residences.