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South East Asia. The backpackers paradise. A cheap ticket to those exotic cultures.
Indonesia. Bali, to be more precise. It's a seasoned touristic hotspot now & the reasons for why are all over your friends latest holiday posts in the news feed of your social media. Once you've battled your way out of Denpasar airport & navigated yourself to your own little spot of Asian paradise, it all becomes clear.
I feel i should mention that i've been told time & time again by those from other parts of the nation that there is far more to Indonesia than just Bali. Other regions that have remained largely untouched by tourists, such as Flores, Sulawesi & Borneo of course, amongst many others.
But for the duration of this blog, i'm just another tourist in Bali. However, i'm not focusing on those luscious green rice crops of Tegalalang in Ubud, or the multitude of temples across the island. Instead, i'm focusing on the beautiful & hard working people that make the welcoming place the way it is.
If you're in the built up areas of mass tourism then you're not really experiencing what this cultured island has to offer. Kuta will deliver a party environment amongst young visitors from all over the world & a pretty decent spot for surf seekers, but it won't deliver what many natives term "the real Bali experience". For this you have to get a tad adventurous. With some solid research & a reasonable fee, you can land yourself a driver to show you the ropes. I would recommend a good 3 or 4 full days with a reputable driver if possible, to really see a good chunk of the beauty. That way you can hit up a little North, East, South & West.
Ubud is the easiest location when it comes to something closer to what life may have been like a few decades ago all across the island. There isn't too much traveling required to reach the serene, lush green rice terraces & waves with a vibrant smile from the locals going about their daily business before spotting you swing by. Yes, this area is slowly becoming more commercialised as it has cemented itself as a must-see on all visitor lists, but there is still an abundant of hidden gems & the Balinese are always genuinely happy to meet you. From terraced rice paddies & monkey forests to family temples, waterfalls & chocolate factories. That'll be enough to fill up 1 of your 4 days. There is still plenty more to fill up the other 3.
Amongst the quaint surroundings are the coffee plantations. An important part of the growth the country of Indonesia has seen, it's in the top percent of coffee producers across the world. For centuries families have nurtured the production of coffee, right back to the end of the 17th century when the Dutch governor in Malabar (India) sent an arabica coffee seedling to the Dutch governor of Batavia (Jakarta). Indonesia was the first country outside of Ethiopia & Arabia where coffee was widely cultivated.
In a fascinating add-on to this story, the mid-19th century saw Balinese farmers prohibited from picking coffee for their own use by the then Dutch rulers. But what these hard working, wry Bali folk discovered was the undigested coffee beans that lay within the shit of Asian palm civets. These are medium sized mammals that look like a sort of... cat come fox sort of thing.
They collected, cleaned, roasted & ground these shitty beans to make their own secret coffee.
Fast forward almost 200 years & the coffee plantations are selling this mammal shit coffee (called Luwak Coffee, or Kopi Luwak) for an eye-watering £400-500 per kilogram.
This is one of the most expensive coffees in the world!
Head over the incredible forested volcanic mountains & tranquil chilled out crater lakes & the trek will deliver you into the calmer North. With incredible diving opportunities up here, waterfall hikes & prices that make even the South seem steep, it's well worth making the effort to visit.
Right across the land you'll bear witness to the true traditional cuisine of Bali. Varieties of local spices, local vegetables, freshly tendered meat & fish & of course an abundance of rice, the primary grain the Balinese have honed to perfection. Across the island there is no shortage of cooking classes. You are even welcome to pull up roadside & help out with the harvesting.
Markets provide stalls packed full of eclectic goodies as well. Hand crafted & sourced from the area, these products tend to be another key to the locals earning a living. Art has a huge place in the hearts of these people & the creativity can be astounding. Passed through the generations it has helped carve a significant piece of the culture. Competitively priced as trades folk often joust with each other to gain your custom. Haggling is a way of life, so you may want to brush up on your technique if you're not too familiar, but rest assured - you can have fun with it.
Just try to have a little understanding of what a fair price is for the item is - usually a lot of talented craft has gone in to it's production & we don't want to be too insulting now!
So get over there & venture about.
Bali is an island steeped in culture, flavours, smiles & dedicated, hard working people.
But most importantly, they are ready to welcome you with open arms. And a bowl of rice.