Where to begin? This is the dilemma vexing many first-time visitors to Indonesia and its vast, sprawling archipelago.
With more than 17,000 islands spread over almost two million square kilometres, Indonesia is the world’s largest island country as well as the globe’s fourth most-populous country. It is home to over 1,300 ethnic groups and more than 700 languages, and its people, cultures, lifestyles and habits are amongst the most diverse in the world.
So, where indeed does one begin when it comes to planning a jaunt to Indonesia? Well, the truth is historically mainly people have simply not done very much in the way of planning at all. Rather they have preferred to rock up at one of Indonesia’s various ports or airports with perhaps an initial night or two in a hotel booked, with a generic plan to go where the wind blows and see what the fascinating country and its people have in store for them.
This has been particularly true with regard to first-time visitors to Bali. This Island of the Gods has always been popular with the casual traveller, but in the two decades or so immediately prior to the pandemic a definite expansion to include the more discerning traveller looking for a luxurious all-inclusive experience was visible. It is this diversification in the target market that has led to Bali justifiably gaining a reputation for offering something for everyone.
In July 1990, this writer first arrived at Denpasar Airport at the height of the Italia ‘90 World Cup and immediately fell in love with the charming chaos of the place. On a backpacker’s budget, I simply allowed myself to be led by one of the hundreds of hawkers jostling for position at the exit doors and ended up staying in (what I considered at the time to be) a cheap hotel in the heart of Kuta. The fact of the matter was that after I had been there just a couple of days, I was able to find accommodation at about a quarter of the price I had paid.
Anyway, as I say, I soon became enamoured with Bali and its diversity and it’s a romance that shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon. In that inaugural trip all those years ago, I contented myself with staying close to the tourist hot spots of Kuta and Seminyak in the first week or so and taking in the nightlife and sense of fun and adventure these places have to offer. They have not changed significantly over the past three decades or so other than gaining in number and size through expansion and extension, and so Kuta and Seminyak remain the go-to places for the young and not-so-young who wish to party the nights away.
Moving out of the tourist hubs and away from the bright lights, Bali is a paradise waiting to be discovered. Families might like to stay in the more refined resorts of Sanur and Nusa Dua which boast wonderful stretching and clean white sands in contrast to the oftentimes rather polluted and crowded beaches of Kuta. A little further research and investigation can uncover some more secluded spots such as Uluwatu and Candidasa beaches.
Bali has long had a reputation for being an artistic hub and many a budding artist, both Indonesian and expatriate, has found themselves moving to the island to eke out a living – some more successfully than others. Consisting of such artefacts as paintings, wood carvings, sculptures and statues, the most well-known and popular places to visit are probably Ubud and Sanur, where the work on offer and display still tends to be aimed at the commercial end of the market and thus might not totally appeal to real enthusiasts, but the wide range and variety of artefacts available more than make up for this.
Bali is seen by many as a mystical and spiritual place, and although it has become something of a cliche over the years, many people really do claim to have undergone a sensual cleansing and resetting of the emotional clock during their time on the island. The fact that there are so many temples and ceremonies and that religion plays such an important role in the lives of the locals, no doubts add to this ambience and sense of peace and wellbeing.
A predominantly Hindu island, Bali fairly strictly observes the annual Nyepi “Day of Silence”. This is a day of peace and reflection when Balinese Hindus are discouraged from doing anything loud, energetic or strenuous. They are forbidden from working except for members of the emergency services and the use of electricity must be kept to a minimum. On this day, the streets of Bali are deserted and all inhabitants of the island, including tourists, are confined to their homes or hotels for the entire day.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Bali was well on the way to obtaining a reputation for attracting those seeking a digital nomad existence. This is a lifestyle whereby those who are able to work remotely, and thus need no fixed place of residence, travel the world whilst engaging in online employment. They work thus either full-time or part-time and operate from internet cafes, coffee shops or co-working spaces as and when the need arises.
The onset of the pandemic has, of course, made remote working much more commonplace and it will be interesting to see which way the wind blows going regarding digital working once things finally return to normal.
Speaking of which, the Indonesian government has finally relaxed restrictions to the extent that foreign tourists can now once visit Indonesia, including Bali, without the need for spending any time in quarantine as long as proof of a negative 24-hour PCR test is provided upon arrival.
It has been a long two years since the streets and alleyways of Bali have bustled to the brim with the noise and excitement of the visiting hordes from overseas, but now the light is at the end of the tunnel and it is to be hoped that the first trickle of visitors will soon once more become a flood.
Is the world ready for a return to Bali? Bali is certainly waiting with arms wide open in welcome and anticipation.