Southeast Asia (SEA) was never on my radar in terms of places I dreamed about traveling to. My knowledge of areas like Malaysia and Indonesia is pretty limited, as the most interface that I got with the cultures from SEA was mainly in the form of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants back home in Hawaii, and from a couple movies that I had seen growing up (Full Metal Jacket). But when the opportunity to go to Bali during my Chinese New Year break with a friend, I knew that I had to go. Expanding my world and seeing and experiencing as much as I possibly can has been a sort of goal, or modus operandi, for me for a while. The world’s too large to stay in one place, looking at one scene for most of my life.
All I knew about Bali going in was that it was a small island in Indonesia, with beaches and yoga. After that, it was a complete mystery for me, which was exciting in its own right.
Bali is known by locals as the island of the Gods because of the many temples located on the island, worshipping many different Hindu gods. It’s also home to iconic rice paddies, beaches, and volcanoes that are featured on many a travel-based Instagram page. While Bali exports rice, coffee, chocolate, and other agricultural products, tourism makes up 80% of the island’s economic income (for reference, only 20% of Hawaii’s income is tourism related).
Getting to Bali is not a quick trip, at least from Shanghai. Since there aren’t a lot of flights going to Bali everyday, I had to spend 17 hours in Malaysia, on an overnight layover. This gave us the opportunity to experience a little bit of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, which was a limited experience but a nice warm-up to our actual vacation. Getting off the plane, the wave of heat that hit me was welcomed, as Shanghai’s winter had been biting cold up until that point (at least for an island boy like myself). It felt almost like coming home, but the foreign language, sprawling forests on a wide highway, and large bill boards on either side told me that I was far away from Honolulu.
The ‘hotel’ we stayed at was minimal to say the least. For 60 Malaysian Ringgit ($15 USD), all we got was a room big enough to fit a bed, and a small bathroom. I haven’t slept on a bed that old since staying at my grandma’s house on Maui as a kid, but for the price and central location in Kuala Lumpur, it was a fine deal. For breakfast, I had my first taste of a Malaysian (and Indonesian) staple, Nasi Goreng. I include Indonesia because the language and food of the two countries are extremely similar, at least at first glance. Nasi Goreng is basically spicy fried rice, with chicken, veg, and small potent peppers, topped with an over easy egg. It was pretty decent, but nothing that blew me away. After breakfast and a bit of shopping, we headed back to the airport, and to Bali.
Our hotel in Bali was a short trip from the airport via Grab. Grab is like the Uber of SEA (Uber is also present, but a little pricier). The same problems between ride-sharing apps and Taxi companies that exist in the States and other Western countries persist here too, with some local monopolies actively trying to shut out the ride-sharing apps from picking up in key tourist areas. However, for our journey to the hotel, everything proceeded smoothly, and we arrived around dinner time. The hotel that we stayed at was much nicer than the Kuala Lumpur layover pitstop. While the room was a little dated by western standards, it had a tub, a shower, large bed, and balcony overlooking the hotel pool. The AC was also a welcome retreat from the sweltering heat outside. My first meal was at an Australian-focused restaurant, a 3 minute walk from our hotel. The hotel street (and most of the streets in the Kuta Beach area) were small winding roads, with open air shops on either side, and merchants soliciting their wares or services as you walked by. We happened across this place first, and with no real plans for dinner, we stopped at what I later learned was part of a chain of restaurants aimed at pleasing Australian tourists (who make up a large portion of the tourists that visit Bali). I had butter chicken and a Bintang beer; the beer of choice in Bali.
The next morning marked the start of my vacation, first eating breakfast at a local café and eating Mie Goreng (the noodle version of Nasi Goreng), then heading to Kuta Beach to see what one of the most popular beaches on Bali was like. And you could definitely tell it was popular. The first 30 feet or so of beach was covered with beach lounge chairs and umbrellas, with their owners soliciting you to rent a chair every 20 feet or so as we walked past. The beach itself was a brown sand beach, littered with trash and flotsam and jetsam. While the view on the beach was definitely a little disappointing, the warm weather and sand between my toes was welcome as we walked towards a nearby shopping center.
Shopping was mainly purchasing some food/snacks, like fresh coconuts to drink or a coffee here and there. One thing that was pretty interesting was dealing with the Indonesian currency, the Rupiah. While currency conversions are different for many different type of currencies, the Rupiah is definitely one of the more extreme. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, the current exchange rate for 1 USD is 13,734 Rupiah. Throughout the trip, I was constantly checking the conversion rates to try to get a sense of whether or not spending a hundred thousand of a currency was me getting a great deal or getting ripped off.
After watching the sunset from a beach chair (yes we caved), we ate dinner at an Indian food place nearby the hotel, which featured live Bollywood music. The food was pretty good, as I haven’t had Indian food that I haven’t enjoyed, and it was kind of like taking a step into a different world from the tropical island setting just outside.
Properly burned from day one, we thought it was best to take it easy the next day and enjoy the accommodations of the hotel. After all, if you’re going to pay a little more for something a little nicer, it wouldn’t make sense to not make use of it right?
After applying liberal amounts of sunscreen, we spent the day lounging by the pool, which was in the middle of the hotel. However the surrounding area was filled with plants and vegetation, so that it was less like what you’d imagine a hotel/motel pool to be like, and more like a grotto in a below ground watering hole. The pool had a swim up bar which was an extra nice touch for getting my R&R on. It was nice to take a moment to do nothing, especially coming from a city like Shanghai, that makes you feel like you should always be doing something.
For dinner, we headed south to Jimbaran Bay.
Jimbaran Bay is famous for seafood dinners on the cheap, right on the beach. Growing up around seafood, it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. And it was well worth the hour trip both ways to get there. For 7000000 rp – lots of zeroes I know, but it translates into roughly 50USD- we got a whole lobster, crab, fish, 8 prawns, clams, squid skewers, and even a large Bintang and glass of wine. Talk about a feast for the famished. As we polished off the seafood, we also got to enjoy a better sunset view than the view from Kuta, which made the whole meal quite the experience. If you ever come to Bali, come to Jimbaran for dinner. The sunset, sand, sea, seafood, and suds made for a stupendous supper.
Craving a bit of culture, we used the last day to venture even more south, to Uluwatu Temple, a temple sitting on the cliffs of the southern peninsula of Bali. For most temples in Bali, it’s customary to wear a piece of cloth around your waist called a sarong. It’s an essential garment for practicing Hindu religion, even outside of temples. For example, in the café that I had breakfast in, one of the employees donned her sarong, and spread incense smoke and water around the premises, in addition to making an offering to the gods, placed on the front steps of their business, presumably for good fortune.
The temple was really touristy, with one section being zoned off for actual worshippers of the Hindu faith. From the temple walls, there were spanning views of the Indian Ocean, and walking the grounds came with a surprise- wild monkeys! The monkeys were taking turns jumping into a pool that the caretakers had built for them, eating on the walls of the temple paths, and jumping down from trees around us. It was really interesting because I have an affinity for monkeys, being born in the year of the monkey, and I had never been that close to a wild animal.
Returning to Kuta for dinner, I had BBQ ribs in Indonesian spices, which was really tasty and interesting. However, as we finished up our last meal, rain started pouring down, which isn’t unusual given that it’s rainy season for Bali, but still took us by surprise. Sometimes, you wait for the storm to pass.
Others, you run through the rain.
Bali had some really beautiful moments, and some really realistic ones. It’s important to keep in mind that the places you travel to have people that have their own hardships and that even world famous travel destinations aren’t perfect. Bali has real problems with traffic, modernization versus tradition, and how it treats the natural environment, but it was a real treat to get to experience the natural beauty of Bali and see another type of island culture as well. I left much of it unexplored, as I was only there for a few days, but definitely plan to come back at some point and skip the touristy spots in exchange for more nature.
Overall, the trip was a really nice getaway from the Shanghai winter, and I got some much needed rest in relaxation, while also throwing myself into an unfamiliar environment and experiencing new cultures. Resetting your mind with different scenery is a great way to refocus on what’s ahead, refresh your work motivation, and be more mindful in your everyday life. If you have the opportunity to travel, take it. Seeing new places will give you much more value than buying a new watch or purse.