Often people travel to carefully chosen destinations because they boast a monument, museum, or view that has been dubbed a “must see” by travel guides and tour operators world-wide. Almost all of these highlights have become tourist traps for a reason – they’re worth it!
That being said, many guidebooks and tour companies are shifting their focus to incorporate more authentic experiences, such as cooking classes or traditional dance lessons, to allow travelers to dive deeper into the local culture.
While finding these authentic experiences may seem like the obvious thing to do, our experience in Bali, Indonesia taught us that where you decide to vacation can single-handedly determine whether you partake in authentic local culture or just skim the surface with the well-rehearsed tourist package.
We decided to spend the first week of our vacation in Ubud, a small city in the center of the island known as the cultural heart of Bali.
We were lucky to be in Ubud during the Balinese holiday of Galungan, a time when the island’s rich cultural heritage is on full display. Galungan is a joyous festival where families invite their gods and ancestors to return to earth to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. To celebrate, the island is decorated with thousands of elaborately decorated bamboo poles, called penjor, which sway gently in the breeze accentuating the island’s mystical allure. The streets themselves became places of worship, hosting lively parades starring colorfully-dressed devotees hoisting beloved images of their gods high into the air or nimbly balancing headdresses piled high with offerings of fruit and flowers.
We spent our days enjoying the island’s relaxed ambiance while taking in some of the “must see” sites around the island: the Tanah Lot Sea Temple, the Tegallalang Rice Terrace, Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave), the GitGit Waterfall, and the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, to name a few.
One of our most memorable experiences was a foot journey into rural Bali through the rice fields. The beauty of the verdant fields, each displaying the crop at a different growth stage, was beyond captivating. The peaceful magic of this tropical paradise seeped into our souls.
We were so enraptured by our surroundings that we failed to notice a massive thunderstorm quickly approaching. Within minutes, we were engulfed by a torrential downpour. We ran up the mud path between rice fields as fast as we could to take shelter in a small hut where the proprietor sold his paintings. He graciously invited us in and kept us company as we waited for the storm to pass.
Half an hour later, there was no sign of the rain abating. We decided to embrace our fate of getting caught in the elements, wrapped our camera and new painting in plastic bags, and stepped into the rain. We were soaked within seconds, which gave us a lovely excuse to jump in puddles, giggling like carefree children, as we made our way back to our hotel.
We also ventured off the tourist track for a beach day on Lovina Beach, a quiet stretch of black sand on the north shore of the island. We swam in the deliciously warm water and took a long walk along the beach, during which we were privileged to witness a cremation ceremony. The family of the deceased gathered to honor their loved one by laying offerings at the shoreline and releasing the ashes into the water.
For the last four nights of the trip, we decided to spoil ourselves and stay at a luxury resort in Nusa Dua, on the southern tip of the island. We thought a couple of beach days at the end of the trip would be perfect to shake off any stresses from travel and prepare us for the lengthy plane ride over the Pacific to get home.
The resort was spectacular! It was a beachfront property covered with swimmable lagoons that casually snaked throughout the property. The lawn chairs and free towels were abundant, as were the fragrant plumeria flowers drifting down from the trees into the pools. The resort had everything we needed: food, drinks, extra sunscreen, snorkeling gear, surf lessons, dance performances in the evenings, and street peddlers selling souvenirs on the beach. The prices were reasonable too, allowing us to splurge on fruity drinks and a private beach cabana with enticing views of the ocean.
It quickly dawned on us that we could have easily spent our entire vacation inside the resort. We never would have seen the real Bali that locals experience every day. It was not hard to imagine how often this happens to tourists all over the world.
Our takeaway from our contrasting experiences in Bali: Although our touristy, beach resort experience in Nusa Dua was spectacular, we were most thankful for the authentic cultural experiences we had in Ubud.
-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel