With its white sand beaches, rich cultural heritage and friendly people, Bali has earned itself a name as one of the top worldwide destinations for expats. Since the success of the book Eat, Pray, Love and the movie of the same name, tourists have flocked here in droves in search of spiritual enlightenment and the ‘real Bali’. Yet so many follow the same cookie-cutter experiences of yoga classes, staying in 5-star villas and popping into Starbucks for a caramel Frappuccino. The real Bali is here for anyone willing to look for it and all it takes is a little observation of how the Balinese really live their lives to start to experience a little of that Bali magic.
Rise with the sun
Many first-time tourists to Bali complain of the same thing – being woken up at stupid o’clock by a rooster or someone sweeping outside their window. Instead of putting a pillow over your head and going back to sleep, the best thing you can do is rise as early as possible to make the most of the few hours of each day before the heat and humidity sets in.
I was definitely not an early-riser before I came to Bali but I have learned that if I get up at 5am while the day is so fresh, I can get so much done and feel so much better for the rest of the day. All of Bali is alive in the morning as everyone cooks, sweeps, makes offerings, shops in the market, washes in the river, all while the tourists sleep. Get up with the sun and see the island at its brightest and best.
Shop in the market
Bali is not short of modern conveniences these days and you can pretty much guarantee on seeing a supermarket or mini-mart everywhere you look. Yes, the Balinese shop in them too but the real shopping is done in the local pasar, or traditional market. Again, getting up early is a must as many of the stallholders will be packing away by 7 or 8am. Friendly bartering is expected and while you may be charged higher prices at first, you’ll be treated as a local once they realise you’ll be shopping there regularly.
Ditch the car
If you’ve been in Bali for any length of time you can’t have failed to notice the ‘Balinese people-carrier’ consisting of a whole family of father, mother balancing something on her head and 3 kids (with a baby wedged in somewhere). As in many countries in Asia, it is truly amazing what some people manage to fit on their motorbikes here.
Most tourists hire a car with driver to do day tours but seeing the island from the back of a motorbike gives you a completely different perspective and tearing through the rice fields at dusk can be quite an exhilarating experience. Motorbikes also make navigating the narrow back roads that are so common here much easier and let you weave around traffic jams.
Don’t follow the local custom of not wearing a helmet and make sure your travel or health insurance covers use of motorbikes.
Learn the language
A few words go a long way and Bahasa Indonesia is one of the world’s easiest languages to learn so it is somewhat surprising that so many long-term visitors here don’t make the effort. Yes, nearly everyone speaks English so it is easy to be lazy but you will be rewarded for trying with cheaper prices in shops, less hassle from transport touts and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from mastering a foreign language.
If you really want to impress, then try learning a little Balinese. The Balinese only speak Indonesian with tourists and Indonesians from other islands so they really appreciate it when you take the time to learn a few words from their native language. Try suksma (thank you), sing ken ken (it doesn’t matter), or om swastiastu (a formal greeting said on entering someone’s house).
Attend a temple ceremony
Most tourists include a visit to a temple or two on their itinerary of Bali but few attend an actual ceremony. The Balinese religion, Hindu Dharma, is such a huge part of daily life that I think taking part in a temple ceremony is an absolute must if you want to experience the ‘real’ Bali. It doesn’t matter what religion you are or if you are not religious at all – all faiths are welcome.
First you’ll need to find someone to accompany you to the temple but that shouldn’t be hard as most Balinese people are very friendly and keen to encourage anyone showing an interest in their religion. You’ll need to wear traditional dress and join the communal prayer inside the temple – just watch and follow what everyone else is doing and nobody will mind if you don’t get it quite right.
I have seen things inside temples here more amazing than anything else I’ve seen in Bali and I’ve never seen this reproduced in photos or film. It is definitely an experience not to be missed.