It took a few seconds to sink in that we had indeed landed at Bali's Ngurah Rai airport, because from the airplane window all you see is a small temple-like structure below. In 15 minutes flat, we left the small, cosy airport with our visa-on-arrival and baggage in hand. Many faces behind countless foreign-exchange counters tried hard to grab our attention, each offering the same exchange rates as the other. Here we discovered that for a few hundred dollars, you get millions of Indonesian rupiahs! The lady behind one such randomly chosen counter generously dished out the notes, turning us millionaires in a flash.
With Hindus forming more than 90 per cent of its population, Bali in Muslim-dominated Indonesia immediately strikes the Indian visitor with the many similarities as well as stark differences in culture. You see the same gods, such as Lord Ganesha, but they look different — rather more dramatic here. The rituals performed at its many temples, known as puras, are distinctive. The Balinese make daily offerings of colourful flowers such as champa and frangipani, and rice and fruits — all placed on neatly woven coconut leaves. Called canang sari, these offerings can be found left on the pavements and at the entrance to most shops and hotels in Bali. Care must be taken not to step on it by mistake, as that can hurt religious sentiments.
The caste system is prevalent here, with the divisions of Brahmana, Ksatria, Wesia and Sudra in vogue. But there are no ‘untouchables', and the Balinese seem to take great pride in this fact. On the cab from the airport, our driver said to us, “Oh! You are Indians… we don't have untouchables like you do.”
We checked into the Bali Nyuh Gading villas, nestled in a sea of rice fields, in Kerobokan village. We were welcomed with a wide smile and a loud “Haaai!” by Ary, the ever-ready-to-help chirpy receptionist at the hotel. The private pool and a huge open bathroom at our villa added a contemporary charm to the Balinese experience. The hotel's complimentary breakfast is a treat, with continental and Indonesian food to choose from, apart from a daily selection of fruits. The banana pancakes and nasi goreng (a choice of rice and noodles, with the noodles proving definitely tastier) were our personal favourite. If strong coffee is your favoured cuppa, then try Balinese coffee — the bitter brew promises to keep you wide awake for a busy day ahead.
People in Bali are incredibly friendly, whether it's your cabdriver or a salesperson at the department store — regardless of whether you buy anything or not, you'll hear a musical “thank you for coming”, and you may even end up feeling a little guilty for not buying!
The best way to explore Bali is to hire a chauffer-driven car. You could also hire a bike or car for self-driving, but a local advised us against this as tourists are apparently easy targets for the traffic police. “And you'll also require an international driving licence,” he pointed out.
If you are looking for lunch with a great view, head to Kintamani — an active volcano in Batur, where the mountain stands majestically next to a beautiful lake. There are plenty of restaurants at this popular tourist spot, and you can also pack in a tour of the magnificent volcano. With Indonesian cuisine on offer, the buffet at the Batur Sari Restaurant was delicious; the chilly air in the scenic surroundings complemented the hot delicious meal.
For shopping, Ubud market is the place to be — artefacts, silver jewellery, paintings — everything is available at a reasonable price. But do bargain, nevertheless, as the shops tend to quote higher prices. While you are here, visit the Ubud palace, where the royal family still resides. For those who find Ubud market a bit too crowded and noisy, Gianyar offers a great alternative.
Among the temples, the Pura Tirta Empul temple stands out for its natural green surroundings and holy springs (believed to be created by Indra). But the mini-marketplace nearby can be trying for tourists, with its rather persistent salespeople.
Bali is dominated by tourists from Australia, which is just two hours away by flight. They have brought with them their love for surfing, which has become a popular local sport.
Looking for a beach to unwind at, we headed to Dreamland, which proved true to its name — located behind a hill on the Bukit Peninsula, the clean white sand and blue waters are straight out of a fairytale. The Kuta beach is the most popular one though, and is crowded at most times.
One thing you absolutely cannot leave Bali without trying is the Balinese massage… it is everything you hear about and more. Having sampled a fair share of massages in the past, I was however caught off-guard when the masseuse climbed onto the elevated massage table to have a go at my back. But I ended up feeling great, as the massage does greatly loosen stiff muscles.
The Indian connection
I was pleasantly surprised to see how popular Bollywood is in Indonesia — from my cabdriver Ivan, who said Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is his favourite Bollywood film (although he admits he doesn't understand Hindi) to random people on the streets singing songs such as Chalte Chalte and calling out “Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol” as we passed by.
“What does achcha mean?” an airport official asked with curiosity as she rummaged through my baggage when we were checking-in for our return journey. Told it meant ‘good', she explained that she hears Indians using it all the time at the airport. Truth be told, that word does not even begin to describe our experience of Bali.