Paradise, Shmaradise: Discovering the Real Bali

Bali is heaven on earth. A true paradise. A spiritual oasis. A haven for solo females. You’re gonna be Eat-Pray-Lovin’ it up and coming back super zen… if you ever come back at all, because you’ll fall in love with it! (Or with a cute Aussie. But avoid those Aussies… they’re nothing but trouble!)

Yup, as I planned my trip I heard all  of those things, not to mention a little advice of the, “You’ll be raped and robbed by a dude on the back of a Moto!”, completely unhelpful ilk. One thing seemed for sure, people either love Bali or hate it.

So which kind of traveller was I? Did Bali live up to the hype? And Is it really the mecca for solo female travellers that it’s made out to be? Well, the truth is a little more complicated (and a lot more interesting!) than that…

The Real Bali is…

Gobsmackingly Gorgeous Nature

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Where else can you scale a volcano, hike up a waterfall, cycle along rice paddies, white water raft a raging river, surf some of the world’s best waves, cut your teeth learning to SCUBA dive, kick it with monkeys and get lost in the jungle all in one vacation?

To be in Bali, especially as you drift away from urban areas is to be enveloped in lush, gorgeous, inviting nature. Living is very open air there, so you’ll soon learn to live your life to the rhythm of the jungle breathing around you. Imagine lying in bed at night being lulled off to dreamland by a chorus of bullfrogs and the gentle quack of ducks in the rice fields. Picture yourself going for a night hike in the jungle and having your flashlight land on an ancient vine draped temple looking like something straight out of Indiana Jones. Imagine spending an afternoon sitting on a beach being mesmerised by the awesome power of the waves. It’s all just an average day in Bali…

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Being in Bali even for a short period of time has definitely brought me a deeper appreciation for nature, and has made me more able to stop and notice the beauty of my surroundings at home too.

Bali is Ancient Rituals Co-existing with Modern Life 

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Bali is populated by a people with deep connection to their spiritual roots. Indonesia is a Muslim country, but most of Bali’s population practices a form of Hinduism that is completely unique to the island. Stroll along the streets first thing in the morning and you’ll see Balinese women preparing traditional offerings to the spirits consisting of a banana leaf boat laden with flowers, rice, and other small tokens for the spirits, and even a cheeky cigarette or two for the evil ones! The smell of incense permeates the air throughout the island.

If you are interested in witnessing such a ritual there’s no need to go looking for it. You’ll see this scene repeated throughout the day everywhere you go, whether it’s a temple, a roadside Warung, a trendy coffee shop or even sometimes the inside of a taxi! While I was in Bali I stumbled upon both a New Moon Purification ceremony on the beach as well as roadside preparations for a cremation. The locals generally do not put up a lot of walls between themselves and the tourists, and they do not mind you watching or even asking questions (if appropriate!) as long as you’re respectful.

Bali is Arts

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The ancient Borong Dance, which is traditionally performed to restore the balance between good and evil. 

Bali is steeped in art and expression. You’ll hear the clangy goodness of traditional Gamelan music everywhere you go and it feels like there’s another art gallery, silversmith or wood carving studio around every corner. If an adventurous story with gore, humor, suspense and amazing costumes is your bag, then you owe it to yourself to check out Borang dance. During the windy season that marks the end of the rice harvest, all you need to do is look up, because the skies at the beaches and above the rice fields will be populated with colorful homemade kites.

Bali is Sheer Indulgence

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Yep, those are my tootsies. Covered in chocolate. 

Ever been wrapped up in banana leaves? Scrubbed down with chocolate? How about a hot stone massage? I did all that and more in Bali because bodywork there is inexpensive and plentiful! Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the hair treatments, the mani-pedis, the list goes on and on. If there’s a healing art you’ve wanted to try, the place to try it is Bali.

Bali is a place where the simplest things become deeply pleasurable; enjoying slices of jewel covered fruit or one of those delectable, “welcome drinks”, sipping ginger tea, or feeling my feet supported by the soft sand and enveloped in warm water. You don’t have to pay big bucks or stay in a resort to experience this feeling. The healing vibes are everywhere.

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Bali Rules: Never say no to a welcome drink. Especially if it’s served by a pool.

Bali is Tolerance

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Me mugging at Pura Saraswasti in Ubud. Saraswasti is the Hindu goddess of literature and the arts, so naturally I had to pay a visit. 

Bali is a place where a Hindu Temple, a Mosque, a church and a Buddhist house of worship can exist next door to each other. To be in Bali is to feel accepted no matter what corner of the earth you come from. Bali is also a place where an agnostic can enter the holiest part of a Hindu temple and be blessed by a priest. Guess what, kids? That agnostic was me. Much, much more on that later.

Bali is People

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My accidental guru Made, who not only took me to Tana Lot, but dispensed so much valuable wisdom along the way!

Something about Bali flipped off my stress switch and flipped on the part of me that is able to accept kindness and being cared for without feeling guarded. Perhaps this is because of the love, openness and pride with which the people there interact with you. There is an honesty, positivity and humor to the way folks comport themselves there which is totally different to anything I’ve experienced in Europe and North America. The cynic in me wonders if it’s all a show for the tourists, but honestly, I’ve been to plenty of places that depend on tourism just as much as Bali does and the people there weren’t anywhere near as nice.

Bali is a very family oriented culture and when you go there, especially if you’re a woman on your own, they treat you like one of their own. I’ve never had so many people ask after my well being or show so much curiosity about who I am and what my story is. It’s true that folks in Bali ask a lot of questions. 99.9% of this is good natured and harmless, but as per my usual advice, you don’t owe anybody answers, so if you feel uncomfortable sharing, don’t feel bad making up a fib or two. After all, nobody’s running a background check on you!

Bali is Contradictions

Tegallalang Rice Terraces near Ubud. The left is what I pictured (serene nature) right is what I actually encountered; traffic jams, hordes of the worst kind of selfie-stick brandishing tourists and having to navigate a gauntlet of souvenir shops to even enter the terraces. 

Bali is a place where you can snorkel with tropical fish in crystal clear waters… and come up with a sack full of plastic garbage to recycle when you’re done. It is a place steeped in tradition where you can om it out on an Ashram or be constantly connected via high speed internet whether you’re a local, a tourist or a digital nomad in a hip “co-working space”. Seriously. The level of internet connectivity was comparable to what I’ve experienced in Southern or Eastern Europe. So much for being alone with my thoughts?

Bali is also a place where this tradition is giving way to a rising urbanisation and Westernisation. Spending an hour or two chatting with a local was eye-opening for me. He spoke of a Bali where rice terraces are disappearing in favor of trendy boutiques for the tourists, where hotels hoist their sewage into the waters of the pristine beaches they advertise, and locals are no longer allowed to walk on these new “private” beaches because resort owners don’t want them around.

Bali is a place where you can’t help but come face to face with the ethics of travel to developing nations. Our attraction to the nature and the “simple” life of the people who live there brings with it clouds of pollution, mountains of garbage and a slow but insistent edging out of the culture we’ve travelled thousands of miles to admire. Simply by being there we contribute to it, even if we think we’re there in the most low impact way possible.

Bali is a Place to Reconnect With Yourself 

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The sign might as well have said, “Welcome to heaven.” 

Everything the hippies told you is true. If you believe in the spiritual stuff, the sacred energy of the island will rise to greet you. Bali is a mecca for yogis and those who are into the healing arts so if that’s your vibe then you’ll be welcomed by your tribe. A lot of, “soul seekers”, come to Bali looking to find themselves. Sometimes it felt like everyone I met had just quit a job, ended a relationship or was going through some other major life turning point. That means you’ll be greeted by a lot of open-mindedness, so it’s a ripe place to shed some of that pent-up negativity and clear up some space for new things to blossom in your life.

Don’t picture a serene deserted island though, populated areas in Bali can feel clogged and chaotic, sometimes just crossing the street is a hair-raising experience. If you’re feeling overstimulated you may have to walk a little further down the beach or into the jungle to feel truly at peace, but it’s out there.

Bali is an Ideal Female Solo Travel Destination

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I honestly was not prepared for how safe, welcomed and at ease I would feel in Bali. I went on my own and aside from my yoga retreat, travelled mostly by myself around the island. Yet I never felt alone the entire time I was there. Part of it was the openness of the natives, but other tourists in Bali are looking to connect in a way I was pleasantly surprised by too! I made new friends and activity buddies everywhere I went. Had I known I was going to feel so comfortable in Bali I would have extended my trip longer.

So is it safe for solo females? Your mileage may vary, but I would say yes. Although I’ve heard a few unsettling stories, there is very little violent crime there and most people are not looking to cheat you, let alone rob and rape you on the back of a Moto. According to the Global Peace Index, Indonesia is the 112th most dangerous country in the world, just behind France. America is 50th, right between Rwanda and El Salvador.

Although I’ve heard anecdotally that domestic violence is an issue in Bali, the attitude toward independent women is open and respectful. I was never leered at, followed, harassed or talked down to by men while I was there. The one shady experience I had came at a moment when my Bullshit-O-Meter was temporarily shut off. Fortunately for me though, I realized the situation was about to go pear shaped, spoke up, and GTFO of there. It just goes to show that a girl should always trust her gut! This experience was brief and in no way indicative of the overall experience in Bali. Honestly, I’ve felt less safe walking alone on the streets of my hometown of Boston. In my opinion, the most dangerous thing you can do in Bali is try and cross a busy street in Ubud during rush hour.

Bali’s laid back vibe, gorgeous landscapes, friendly locals and ease of transportation makes it an ideal first destination in Asia and a great place for solo female travel. To me the things that are quirky about it are part of what makes it so appealing. I am firmly in the Bali-lovers column and itching to go back to that part of the world and explore further. Maybe next time I’ll even find myself one of those trouble making Aussies to hang out with?

So what about you? Favorite solo travel destinations? Got any bright ideas for a first (or second!) time in Asia? 

 

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