Saturday, January 28, 2006
MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH-- AFTER HOME: BALI
Because I've traveled so much and to so many places people are always asking me which was my favorite. For many years I would always say that it was a three-way tie between Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. These were all places I went between 1969 and 1971, places that blew my young mind. I went back to Sri Lanka in 1996-97 and I've been back to Nepal twice as well. Nepal holds up pretty well-- and I'll be writing about my trips there-- but Sri Lanka... well, long civil wars usually screw places up pretty badly. Afghanistan is still exquisite and pristine in my mind. But since those days I've been to many places and eventually Thailand supplanted my Big 3.
Last year, however, I discovered a place I had never been to but instantly fell in love with: Bali. I'm not a beach kind of guy; I always prefer a shark-free/non-sewage dumping swimming pool to the ocean-- and Bali is a small island famous for beach life. And drunken Australians, another thing of no interest to me. I'm more interested in native culture than sunburn and tourists; always have been. In researching Bali, I soon figured out that as long as you stay away from one little tiny area on the Southeast coast, specifically developed as a tourist ghetto so as not to pollute the island's incredible indigenous culture, you can still be in paradise. (Al Qaeda apparently figured this out too and the bombs you've heard about were all in the tourist ghetto area.)
So I decided to rent a villa in the interior, away from the crowded beach area-- but where? And how? Short answer: a Google search of "Bali + villa" soon brought me to Bali Villas, a great local company that rents out villas to visitors, most of which are owned by wealthy foreigners who only use them a month or two per year. (About 20% of tourists who came to Bali in the last couple of years rented a villa!) The one I rented has 4 bedrooms, lots of common space, a really beautiful swimming pool, 4 incredible people who live in an attached house and do all the work around the place-- including a mind-blowing chef. (She was able to adapt all the traditional Balinese and Indonesian recipes to my dietary restrictions of no sugar and no flour-- and, aside from fish, I'm a vegan; every single meal was MAGNIFICENT.) Also included was a van with a driver, Anwar, who was always there for whatever crazy requests the 4 of us made. I mean, some people love the beach and some love Hindu temples in remote mountains (me) and Anwar worked it all out, always.
Most of the great villas are on or near the beach. Most tourists go to Bali for the beaches. But there are places in the mountains and up near Ubud, the kind of cultural center of the island. Ours overlooked the mighty Ayung River (the photo above was taken from my bedroom terrace) and we never saw another foreigner anywhere nearby for the 3 weeks we were there. We never did find the "village" on a map and it had an impossible, unpronounceable name. It's between Denpasar and Ubud. That link gives all the details, amenities, prices, etc. I'll get into the reasons why I think Bali is the best overall place I ever visited in the next couple of blogs.