If only life was as easy as cycling downhill in Ubud Bali. Cutting across fields sculpted out of hills, the breeze wafts through the rice stalks stirring them slightly. Ducks fall in line with military precision, in rows facing out towards the roads, on mud slats just wide enough for their waddle, watching with interest. Meanwhile, one city girl, breathless and heaving, pedals as furiously as she can uphill on her arduous travel to Bali. The view is almost as breath-taking as the enterprise of getting there to see it. This is a sight you’ll never see in Singapore – a soft, un-sporty Singaporean, under the scorching mid-day sun, out in the wild not complaining.
We Want What We Don’t Have
We, the tropical islanders of Singapore, seek out what we long for back home on foreign shores when we travel to Bali. In lush, luxuriant Bali the equatorial heat makes sense – punctuated by the occasional surprisingly chilly gust of wind (from the seas or mountains) lazily moving through a place and people that value culture, leisure, and great natural beauty. Cling-wrapped into clammy corporate wear, in Singapore we find ourselves jam-packed single file on to trains that transport us to cubicles of repetition and recycled air and back, avoiding natural, non-air-conditioned elements with an almost religious fervour. Even after years of being worn down by the daily grind, every so often we remember that we want more, beyond a good bonus or a shinier phone.
Quality of life is a dream that vanished with the coinage of the term “work-life integration” – two steps beyond the lie that is “work-life balance” on the descent into madness and modern misery. Bali travel stands out from the dozens of luxury lifestyle, highly instagram-able beach destinations because a Bali trip isn’t about selling you the good life, it’s about looking around and realising that life, indeed, is good. The questions is whether we can’t feel the same in Singapore.
Despite the scores of tourists that wash up on Bali’s shores, cementing watered down, less exciting “tourist price” experiences of activities and dining, the seemingly good life is why we keep returning to travel to Bali. We come unperturbed and with shifting lists of what to do in Bali that we mean to whittle down with experience.
Freedom From the Fantasy of Bali
Bali has come to represent an exotic, far-away tropical paradise in Western imaginings (thanks, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’! Did the Balinese dream need commoditising so desperately Julia Roberts had to be a part of it?). In Singapore, we aren’t so impressed with the “tropical” aspect of the travel to Bali. Nor is it “far away”. Is Bali fascinating, in its history, culture and religion? Yes. But is it exotic? Well, it’s just as exotic as nasi padang or satay, which is to say, not as such, but I would be lying to say I wasn’t dead excited about the world of differing grilled seafood and meats that Bali travel opens up to me, and the deliriously delicious condiments to go with.
Suckling pig? Crispy duck? Spicy chocolate samosas with vanilla bean ice cream? My bahasa may be tragically sparse, but food is a language anyone living in Singapore speaks fluently – put some rice on a banana leaf, spoon on tons of sambal, deep fry something green and any part of an animal, and I feel at home on my travel to Bali, with happier people, a laid-back lifestyle, and surroundings I seek out instead of cowering indoors tuning out the reality and wonder of the tropics.
Take your own Bali home and celebrate it with your friends – speak the language of food. Here are some Balinese and Indonesian menus for your inspiration.
The Call of Cultural Tourism in the Travel to Bali
In a region sick of exoticism, imperialism and exploitation, given our recent and often violent post-colonial history and the complex web of trade and tourism South East Asia is drawn into, I have my reservations about cultural tourism, especially where it involves ‘preserved’ villages, gift shops and dancing. Dumbed down, Disneyland versions targeted to cater to tourist sensibilities, insincere urges to travel to Bali (touch an elephant! Hold a lemur!) make me feel less excited. Between appreciating and experiencing different cultures and dehumanising the people “on show” when you travel lies a worrying nebulous mass of nerves and ideas and discomfort around being the subject of touting, begging, and attempts to rip you off.
But in Bali, culture isn’t a show put on for tourists. Culture, tradition and religion are central to every day life. A travel to Bali doesn’t have to involve going to a cultural show in Ubud Bali or take an offering-making class to be exposed (although I would recommend both those things to do in Bali) – a stroll in the neighbourhood will do. Three things seem to matter – leisure, culture and nature. There is no greater aspiration than to achieve balance in life, between people, within the physical world, and in step with the spiritual dimension. The Balinese I speak to, they take such pride in their heritage, their community, and the traditions that conversations with them are exchanges rather than thinly veiled transactions. I enjoy the incisive philosophical and social discourse that my guides treat me to during my Bali trip, introducing me to a rich, colourful history, springing from a cross-cultural medley based in respect, openness, and the idea that as humans, we are not so different after all.
Of Waves and Wonder
It doesn’t matter what your list of things to do in Bali is comprised of – whether you choose to travel to Bali to dive, traipse through temples, or laze about on a beach sipping bright blue cocktails shielded ineffectually from the elements by miniature umbrellas, you can’t escape an all-pervading sense of wonder. To approach what to do in Bali as a laundry list (complete 5 quests and level up) would be a heinous injustice. Don’t try to do everything, but a few things you like, and enjoy every moment of it.
Everyone horns when passing in traffic, you’ll notice when you travel to Bali, not the enraged “get out of my face!” blare I’m used to, but a good-natured toot-toot of a greeting – “good morning, I’m a car/motorbike! Look out for me!” People smile with their eyes and talk to you frankly and thoughtfully – life is too short for hostility, whether open-facedly or of the passive-aggressive variant densely populated cities seethe with. And that is why we travel to Bali – to enjoy life, and remember that life is to be enjoyed, not measured out and managed. Perhaps to real reason is the wish to take some of it home to Singapore.