The writer explores the tiny island and comes away with a sense of wonder.
As the plane swerved at a 90-degree angle to the ocean, I was sure that the resident gods were not smiling down on me. But five armrest-clutching, scream-stifling minutes later, I was still breathing.
I emerged into Bali’s quaint Ngurah Rai Airport whose runway begins in the sea. The queue at the visa counter is long, the air sticky, but there is sufficient reading material on shelves dripping with tourist brochures. Not to mention eye-candy of the Australian surfer variety (if you’re into muscles and grunge). Finally we saunter out into the sunshine with lopsided grins on our faces.
Our first stop was Kuta, where traffic oozes down narrow lanes. Billabong stores and designer boutiques selling incredibly impractical, but beautiful, crochet bikinis punctuate local t-shirt shops, and nightclubs throb till dawn. The beaches are crowded, everybody thrives on the bargaining (as heated as arguments get on the island) and there is little room to breathe. There are people who revel in the crowds, but for us one night in Kuta was enough, and we headed to Ubud.
Ubud, in interior Bali, is a town out of a picture-book. Cobbled roads swirl through an undulating countryside, bumping into ancient shrines. The town melts into a blanket of paddy terraces and steep ravines. We stayed in a tiny storybook villa where a smiling Ganesha greeted us and fish ponds lined the garden. We ate banana pancakes and fresh fruit on the patio each morning and a bright-faced young man sang Bob Marley songs as he strummed his guitar in the evening.
We rode hired scooters into the hills and discovered the Gunung Kawi temple complex. A maze of ponds with enormous, endlessly hungry koi fish and chubby gods wreathed in neon pink flowers, the temple — believed to have been built in the 11th century — towers over the landscape. Mysterious springs emerge from crevices, and trickle down to the gushing river below. The interior complex consists of miniature caves. Seeing the familiar faces of Hindu gods in uniquely joyful avatars is like coming home to find the furniture rearranged.
Ubud’s main street is bursting with restaurants, European cafes and kitschy boutiques. We lunched at Murni’s Warung where the Balinese prawn curry was rich and creamy, reminiscent of an aromatic Mangalorean curry, except for chunks of betel nut and steamed banana floating in it.
On our last night, we Google-mapped our way to the Jazz Café. Aside from a band of super-talented local jazz musicians, the bar was packed with karaoke-loving Europeans. Many expensive cocktails later, they tottered as they belted out the lyrics to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’.
We left Villa Ibu reluctantly, but with enough krupuk (handmade Indonesian prawn crackers) and drove to Ungasan where our hotel rested on a deserted slope. The first beach we hit was Balangan, a surfer favourite, lined with shacks on stilts. We stumbled on the rocky expanse leading into the water, cutting our feet on the edges. But it was worth it just for the sunset.
Every Pandawa beach reminded me never to lose my sense of wonder. Formerly the Secret Beach, it remains untouched, except for the stray surfer. A small expanse of rough white sand gives way to perfectly blue water that gently rises and falls as though with the earth’s breath. Positioned on a curve along a cliff, you can float on your back and watch daredevil paragliders rise into the clouds. Unfortunately, the road to the beach is being prepared for a tourism invasion with massive statues of the five Pandavas and Draupadi carved into the rock.
The next stop Nusa Dua is filled with sprawling luxury resorts, many still under construction, leaving ugly gaping holes in the landscape. But the music as you dig into the shack’s last fish, grilled to scrumptious perfection, makes up for the view. The water, filled with electric green seaweed, is clear and still.
Accessible only through a precarious stairway cut into the rock, Padang Padang beach is a hidden cove, with huge moss-covered rock faces. The sun sets through the rocks, bathing the sand in a soft orange glow.
We saved Jimbaran for the last supper. Night had fallen, and all we could see were candles lighting up tables that dotted the beach and the dazzling airport runway. As lanterns sparkled in the trees above and planes took off into the night, we dined like royalty on barbecue seafood, sticky rice and sautéed pokchoy.
Bali is a land like no other. Needless to say, I have fallen irrevocably in love.
Getting there: Several flight options from major Indian cities to Bali, including Etihad Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas Airways, Thai Airways and Singapore Air.
Best time to visit: May to October
Visa: On arrival