Bali is among the most popular destinations for Australia tourists. And YourLifeChoices’ trusted journeyman Max Williams is one of very few people who can still offer a new take on this Indonesian icon. Here’s why Max thinks Bali is still best on a budget.
Jenny and I, along with seven of our friends, arrive in Bali two weeks after the media circus and the convicted drug smuggler* left town. The locals are well and truly over it – good riddance they say. You will be happy to know that there are no visible monuments, T-shirts or plaques to remind us of this 13-year saga. It does seem, however, that Indonesia has strengthened its resolve regarding the laws and punishment for drug-related offences. There has been so much focus and hype given to this situation that it has taken the shine off Bali as a great tourist destination – or has it?
So, let’s talk about now and then. I have visited Bali as a tourist many times since the early 80s and there have been some noticeable changes over that time. It still appears to be a very popular destination, despite the negativity of the past. In my experience, the Balinese people have the most even temperaments of all whom I’ve met worldwide. There is absolutely no road rage and they always smile, no matter what the situation. We should take a leaf out of their book! However, the Javanese who come to Bali to make their mark selling their wares in the shops and markets can have a different mindset.
Thousands of Aussies descend on the island weekly, particularly during the winter months. There are not so many Europeans in Kuta or Legian and only a handful of Brits. Most of the tourists are middle-age to older Aussies getting some sun while their friends are back in Australia freezing their nuts off!
Yep, the Aussies are here in all their glory – not always a pretty sight though, particularly at the sports bars on footy or rugby days. I must admit, I’m not a lover of tattoos and am amazed at the number of men and women with them – usually wearing shorts, thongs and a singlet that hangs over a rather large midsection, suggesting some good paddocks back home. This could be seen to typify a large proportion of Aussie tourists in this area of Bali. Is it a coincidence that there seems to be an extraordinary number of tattoo parlours here? If you don’t like this scene, then there are many other places to go on this lovely island.
Further up the road in Seminyak, there is a much younger crowd, maybe a little more sophisticated, maybe a bit cooler and maybe with not so saggy tats. I did say tats!
They have to pay more up there for accommodation, food and cocktails. For example, we took a walk to the area during our stay and had a coffee in a local café. They charged $4 for the coffee, 50c more for a large, and get this, 50c more for skimmed milk. What a ripoff! Back down the road where we stayed in Legian, the small café Tommy’s charged $2 for a double-shot large cap. We had a juice on another occasion – $5 at the Seminyak’s trendy Sisterfields (the place was packed) but half the price in Legian. Typically, the cost for a traditional Balinese massage in Legian is $8 an hour. In Seminyak it’s about $14.
Talking about massages, in the early days a massage on the beach was the norm. A towel spread on the sand and the lady with a Chinese cone hat kneeling beside you. The wind blows and the sand swirls and mixes with the oil now being rubbed onto your body. Instant body scrub! The $2 is cheap for this sandpaper massage. This is a combination of limbs being caressed and a layer of skin removed. The suntan you’ve been working on for the past few days is gone in one session – ouch!
These days we are a little more up market and go for something more appealing, indoors and on a massage table. The quality is generally proportional to cost. Soothing music, sweet aromatic odours, private room and uniformed professional masseurs in a resort costs the most (about $30 an hour). Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, you could be in a dingy, cigarette-smelling cubicle separated by a curtain from the next bed, with perhaps a hair dryer going full pelt in a nearby area. The masseurs can be very rough and some of their movements may “raise the bar”, so to speak, and lead to an excited state in order to promote value-adding – happy ending anyone? All hearsay of course! I’ve been told that this practice is quite common in Thailand.
In most of the coastal resorts around Bali there are more families and the tourists seem to be more cosmopolitan. These places tend to be less frenetic and more laid back. Away from the hustle and bustle of Legian and Seminyak, go to Sanur or Nusa Dua or revive your spiritual self in Ubud.
If you want to experience Bali as it was 20 years ago, then go to Lovina on the northern coastline. Take a slow, three-hour drive over the mountains to this peaceful place, which has a village feel about it and has enough warungs and bars to suffice. Watch the dolphins or take a tour and go snorkelling near Menjangan Island, which is surrounded with coral reefs, on the far west coast of Bali. There are plenty of villa type places to stay and a few resorts. The beach isn’t fantastic – flat and no surf, there is nothing much to do and there is no sunset here, but hey, who cares when you can forget the woes of home and just chill.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that the traffic is horrendous in peak hour on the narrow roads. Many of the roads have been deemed one way now to alleviate this chaos, but it’s still bad and getting worse. At least the drains are all covered over now and the stench is non-existent.
The beaches are now full of brollies and makeshift bars – plastic chairs or bean bags with side tables. Sunsets are the big thing (only on the west side) and it seems that hundreds if not thousands of people gather as the sun dips, sitting at these bars sipping a Bintang. The price for a small beer is $2.50, which is only about 30c more than the local Circle K. The owners of these bars are allocated an area about 20m wide down to the water line. It costs $12,000 a year for a licence. The lounges (about 20 of them) are hired out for $5 a day. The brollies are sponsored at $200 a year from anyone who wants to have their name on the sides. I don’t think they make a fortune doing this, but it provides employment for a number of people.
The beach hawkers have dwindled in number and their approach is different now. Years ago, you would be hounded ad infinitum by these people selling everything from very sandy massages to Viagra to wooden penises to fresh fruit. Now it seems to be less frequent and less frenetic, but still the same stuff for sale. I have a strong suspicion that it’s illegal for these people to sell in this way. Their young kids are usually with them, honing their survival skills at a very early age.
What disturbs me somewhat is the high number of young males smoking – local women don’t smoke in public, if at all. Cigarettes are cheap and easily accessible. At one sunset viewing, I saw a group of seven boys sitting on the sand smoking, the youngest of which was about 10.
There are many money changers in Bali, so which one should you choose? The rates, where A$1 is equivalent to IDR10,000 (Rupiah), are usually displayed outside and can change during the day. Stay away from the ones that show a very high rate – usually down an alleyway or tucked in behind a shop. You will be ripped off by sleight of hand. They will generally give you small denominations and you can get very rattled as they pile these notes in front of you. If you try to count it, they will try to confuse you and grab the money to count it themselves – their way of course. Stay away!
Change your money where they give you large denomination notes and spread it out on the counter in front of you – then count it yourself. Use your phone to calculate what you should get before they give it to you. Also, make sure that the rate includes the commission.
So, I reckon Bali still has the attraction it had all those years ago, albeit some changes. Barter hard for the cheap, knock-off clothing or watches at the market places or shops. Generally, they will start at about three or four times what you should pay. In the end, settle on a price that you are happy with. The streets and bars of Kuta and Legian are still as tacky as they were in the past, as is the clientele.
Seminyak has become very trendy and rather expensive, by Balinese standards, with lots of boutique shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. Sanur, Nusa Dua and Ubud are still fairly laid back and are less likely to attract the “ugly Aussie”. Try out of-the-way spots like Lovina (near Singaraja on the northern beaches) for a different experience. Canggu, about 30 minutes north of Seminyak, is another laid back place and is becoming very popular. It has been described lately as being like a “Bondi to Byron” place. It has traditionally been a Mecca for surfers.
There are many resorts all over Bali that have package deals, which are great for families. Have a look at package deals from Luxury Escapes, Groupon, Scoopon, Hoot, and Trip a Deal, to name a few. Book early and get good discounted air fares with Jetstar for a direct flight of fewer than six hours from Melbourne. Try to avoid the red-eye flight on your return and instead get the afternoon flight back, which arrives late evening in Melbourne.
All up, Bali is a great place for a winter’s get-away at a reasonable cost. I reckon it’s still one of our best and most popular tourist destinations, and now that the circus has left town, it’s even better.