Richard Gill planned to spend two weeks in Bali, but the stunning landscapes, rich history, and heart-warming culture drew him in for longer. It’s really no wonder that this destination is becoming evermore popular among travelers! Here, Richard offers tips for an authentic Balinese experience despite the increasing crowds, and shares some of his favorite moments from his time on the island.
What originally drew you to Bali?
Before heading to ‘The Island of the Gods’, as Bali is often called, I had traveled significantly throughout other parts of South East Asia. I met people in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam who had recently spent time there, and their eyes seemed to glaze over as they recalled the beauty and splendor that they witnessed on the island. Every conversation I had affirmed that it was a place I had to experience for myself.
When it came time to decide which part of Bali I would visit first, I consulted with a few close friends who I trusted to give me the very best suggestions. One in particular told me about a town called Ubud and explained it as “an enchanted and spiritual place where you will fall in love with the ancient culture, amazing food and humble people.” Those words alone had me convinced: it was where I would start my Balinese adventure.
How long did you spend there?
I initially wanted to spend a few weeks on the island and then move on to see some of Malaysia; however, after a few days amongst the rice terraces, the luscious green jungles and the vast Indian ocean, I knew that I had found a very special place and a few weeks just wouldn’t do.
My fiancé, Andra, and I decided that we would stay for as long as our visas allowed: two months. We spent most of our time in Ubud, a small town north of the capital Denpasar, and took short trips to towns like Taro, Seminyak and Uluwatu. We also visited the Gili Islands, which are a part of Bali’s sister island, Lombok.
What was a typical day like during your stay?
I spent most mornings at Yoga Barn, a yoga studio and holistic healing retreat center, in Ubud. They offer guided yoga, meditation and sound healing classes with some of the world’s best spiritual teachers. After a class (or two), I would usually head over to one of the town’s buzzing cafes and indulge in a traditional Balinese meal. The most popular cafes are the local warungs, which are family-owned and serve Balinese cuisine for prices as low as $2 a dish. My favorites were the nasi goring (fried rice) and Mee Goreng (fried noodles).
The rest of the day unfolded with little planning. Often, Andra and I would make impromptu decisions to jump on our motorbike and carve through windy roads in search of beautiful beaches, temples and landscapes to explore.
What was something that stood out to you about Balinese culture?
Most Balinese are devoutly religious Hindus who participate in daily rituals and ceremonies that ask for protection, happiness and health for others. Being surrounded by people who care so deeply about one other helped me develop my own sense of self and understand the root of my own happiness.
A breakthrough moment for me was during a cremation ceremony that I attended in Ubud. During the ceremony, the body of the deceased is placed inside the body of a man-made Lembu (buffalo), a scared animal in the Balinese culture, and then burned in its entirety. The Balinese believe that the fire frees the spirit from the body and enables reincarnation. The ceremony was filled with music and dance, treating death like a celebration, much unlike Western culture. This experience confirmed that the essence of Balinese culture is to constantly strive for happiness and joy, even in the saddest of times.
Did you encounter any challenges while traveling in Bali? If so, what strategies did you use to overcome them?
That’s an interesting question. When in such a blissful paradise, it’s hard to perceive anything as a true challenge. The Balinese are the kindest and most humble people I have ever met. Even though most of the country lives in poverty (by Western standards), the people consistently express gratitude and satisfaction. They believe that smiling is the secret to living a long and happy life – such a wonderful message!
There is strong sense of community that is ever-present in Bali as well, and so if and when challenges presented themselves, I always felt supported and embraced, sometimes more so than I have been in my very own country. I ran out of fuel, got flat tires and even rode my motorbike into a ditch, but each time a few helpful locals who happened to see me in trouble helped me out (often before I could even process the situation!). Moments like that taught me to perceive any challenge as an opportunity to connect with others, rather than as a true “obstacle”.
What are your recommendations for getting off the tourist track and experiencing a more authentic Bali?
I think a lot of people miss out on the “real” Bali by heading to the over-populated resort areas like Seminyak and Kuta. My advice is to forego the tours and crowds and explore the island on your own terms. Be courageous and join the chaotic flow of motorbikes to find hidden nooks of paradise. You may find yourself on a secluded beach or among rice paddies with virtually no other person in sight.
If you’re looking for an authentic Bali experience, I also recommend a trying a homestay, where you rent a room and stay with a local Balinese family. If you’re looking for a little more privacy, a villa that is run by locals is also a nice alternative. We opted for the latter and stayed at Villa Mandi just outside of Ubud. We quickly became friendly with all the staff there and built some really nice relationships.
No matter where you stay, though, the real soul of Bali lies within its people. When I would introduce myself to locals, their hands would immediately reach to their chests. When I asked why, they said that it’s because they take every encounter to heart. If you take the time to sit down and have conversations with locals, you’ll get to know the heart and soul – the history and values – of the island.