[tourismindonesia] Eat, Pray, Love, and flock to Bali

Posted on Sun, Aug. 29, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, and flock to Bali
By Natalie Meisler


BALI, Indonesia - The backdrop in the movie trailer looked vaguely familiar: Somebody pedaling a cruiser bike down a narrow alley; the magnificently contoured terraces of the rice field.

Wait, that's Bali - and it hit me that I was leaving for the Indonesian paradise the next day.

One of three travel areas in Eat Pray Love, the newly released Julia Roberts movie, the island is probably about to be overrun. It's likely the flick will do for Bali what The DaVinci Code did for Paris: cram it with more tourists.

A movie trailer - and I suspect the film - is unlikely to capture Bali's essence. A trace of incense permeates the equatorial humidity, part of the ceremonial offerings that line every nook and cranny on every street. At night (and far from the capital city of Denpasar), the chirping wildlife takes on a surround-sound quality. By day, the traditional gamelan music ensembles of percussion and xylophone-type chimes fill the air.

Welcome to Bali, one of the great destination recovery stories of the last decade. What with the post-Sept. 11 jitters, global economic downturn, and the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, tourism had dwindled by mid-decade. The first hint of the rebound came this spring, when many places were booked a month in advance.

"With or without the movie, this high season [dry season] is looking to be the highest on record . . . the movie will only increase the expected arrivals," said American expatriate Scott O'Dowd.

Bali's appeal lies in its diverse attractions. It is at once a destination trip for the adventure-minded - with surfing, volcanic mountain hiking, and river rafting - and a sedentary getaway for spa pampering.

For some, Bali is a side trip from other destinations in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Still more visitors discover Bali as the gateway to Indonesia's "Coral Triangle" diving in Wakatobi, Lembeh Straits, and Raja Ampat.

My first visit to Bali was on a dive trip in 2006 to Wakatobi, a remote slice of diving heaven a 21/2-hour charter flight from Bali. I returned two years later to photograph the unique critters in Lembeh Straits. With my dive days probably drawing to a close, I had to make one final trip to Bali and Wakatobi.

Each time I regretted not seeing more of Bali.

One dive friend, Anita Langdon of Colorado, passed up the diving on a subsequent trip to spend the entire time in Bali. Langdon told me she left in the middle of the night for the trek up Gunung Batur in the central mountains. A guide with a miner's flashlight lit the way. The reward was sunrise with mountaintop views of a lake and the Indian Ocean.

"It was magical," Langdon said.

Magical and mystical are the words most often associated with Bali.

With a land area of only 2,174 square miles, it sits in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. Despite its small size, the island has great diversity - the beaches on the circumference, the inland artistic/cultural center in Ubud, the northern volcanic chain, as well as the beach development around the airport and the one major city of Denpasar. All three of my trips were based out of Ubud, with a final day at the beach.

In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote of Ubud: "The town is sort of like a small Pacific version of Santa Fe, only with monkeys walking around and Balinese families in traditional dress all over the place."

Also like Santa Fe, there are many tourist-oriented art outlets. Unlike Santa Fe (except for handicraft sellers in Santa Fe Plaza), bargaining is the accepted way of doing business. Merchants are eager to sell, but remember this isn't your neighborhood Saturday garage sale. The locals are trying to make a living and probably need the extra few dollars more than you do.

Any tour company will probably take you to crafts outlets and factories specializing in batiks, wood-carving, and jewelry. The groups I've gone with show less and less interest each time, preferring the bargains on Monkey Forest Road.

One small section of Ubud is dedicated to mask makers. Some are ceremonial dance masks, some strictly artistic.

No trip to Ubud is complete without seeing one of the Balinese cultural dances put on by members of the Hindu temples. All involve the retelling of folklore deeply rooted in Balinese Hindu tradition. Performers gather in midday heat, applying makeup and wearing what must be sweltering multiperson costumes.

A must-see is the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It's not a zoo: Monkeys and people mingle without barriers. Buy the "official monkey forest bananas" or the monkeys will pilfer your snacks and water bottles. Sit down to check the results on your camera, and a monkey will grab anything not tied down, or jump on your shoulders.

One major attraction I skipped with mixed feelings was the Elephant Safari Park, which rescues endangered Sumatran elephants. I envied others in the group who showed off their photo ops with baby elephants. I was just about to book a tour when I read that the elephants also perform circus tricks.

The group left for Wakatobi the next day. The way back is beach time, as if a week at a premier dive resort wasn't enough time in the water.

I remembered the Aston Hotel in a row of upper midlevel properties. Unlike the mostly deserted area two years ago, there were enough motorized water toys to resemble the coastline in Cancun or Grand Cayman.

Just wait until everyone sees the movie.


Magical, Mystical Bali
Barely south of the equator, Bali has uniform temperatures year-round. Rainy season is October to March.

Getting there

It takes forever to get there. Singapore Airlines (a United partner) with a connection in the Singapore Airport is the gold standard in terms of in-flight service and seating comfort. It's also the priciest.

Cathay Pacific (American Airlines partner) had outstanding service and looked the other way at my twice-the-weight-limit carry-on, but was far more uncomfortable, and the food was atrocious.

American, British Airways, Japan Airlines, KLM, Korean Air, Qatar, United, and US Airways fly to Denpasar Airport from Philadelphia with at least two stops. The lowest round-trip fare was about $2,034.

The Hong Kong Airport has plenty of dining opportunities but is difficult to navigate.

Be prepared for a long wait to clear customs. Denpasar is poorly set up and understaffed.

Getting around

Don't even think of renting a car, at least at the airport. There are roughly three lanes of cars and trucks trying to squeeze into two lanes - plus motorbikes everywhere.

Taxis are plentiful and competitive - negotiate the price before you get in.

Tour operations such as Floressa Bali Tours (www.floressatours.com) greet you at the airport with cold water and iced hand towels.

Places to stay

Ubud has a range of accommodations, from over-the-top luxury (Four Seasons at a top price of $944) to value cottages. Virtually all include breakfast service.

One of the top-rated is the Alam Shanti (www.alamindahbali.com) for $150 a night, but it requires bookings more than a month in advance.

A terrific value at less than half that price is Taman Harum Cottages (www.bali-hotel-taman-harum.com). A private driver was available at most hours.

Pertiwi is reasonable ($85, www.pertiwiresort.com) and within walking distance of shops and cafes. It has the most magnificently landscaped grounds, an infinity pool and porches, and koi ponds outside many rooms. Basic rooms on the economy generic side.

Places to eat

There's an international selection around Ubud and Denpasar. Indonesian food tends to be on the spicy side, but no one gets insulted when you ask them to hold the chili peppers. There are American-style cafes along Monkey Forest Road in Ubud. Denpasar hotels have outstanding and reasonably priced restaurants. Best meal was at the Aston Hotel: garlic shrimp and an umbrella drink for less than $25.

Staying connected

Forget about AT&T or Verizon cell-phone service. GPS didn't work on iPhone, either. Internet cafes are plentiful, and many hotels offer wireless service.

More information


Official website is a good starting point.


A directory of resources for sightseeing, travel tips, currency, and visa information.

- Natalie Meisler
http://www.philly.com/philly/travel/201 ... ?viewAll=y


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