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Bali: Indonesia’s Laid-Back Hindu Haven

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Asia Life

Bali: Indonesia’s Laid-Back Hindu Haven

Known as the Island of the Gods, Bali offers something for travelers of every stripe.

Bali, or the Island of the Gods, punches well above its weight. Only 5,780 square kilometers – roughly the size of Delaware – the island is a rare Hindu jewel in the predominantly Muslim Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

The tropical island is popular with travelers from around the globe, but particularly from Australia just to the south. The island’s draws are many, from its rich cultural heritage and spirituality to affordable five-star stays and adventure sports like surfing and diving. Not to mention the friendly locals.

The Balinese live in a stunning landscape, flush with terraced rice paddies, volcanic hillsides, and lush jungle. As to be expected, there is abundant wildlife and flora, as seen in the flower-petal offerings seen throughout the island.

To be sure, there has been trouble on the island, the most prominent example being the night club bombings that occurred in 2002. But by and large the island has bounced back. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the number of Australians heading annually to Bali will surpass one million for the first time within the next three years. No less than 80 percent of international arrivals to Indonesia are Bali-bound (especially in August-September and again around Christmas and New Year).

Although Bali is located just over two kilometers from the east coast of Java, the island is worlds apart. There are also distinct regions within the island itself, catering to visitors of every stripe.

One set of tourists – the jet set – can easily find digs to their liking, with accommodation ranging from villas and boutique hotels to opulent resorts. There are also a healthy range of five-star bargains in the offing for those who like their holidays upscale. Just bear in mind that most bills on the island carry an additional 21 percent service charge and government tax on the final bill. A staggering array of hotel options can be explored here.

For those just wanting to luxuriate, spas, massage, swimming pools, and meditation retreats can be found in abundance. Meanwhile, visitors hankering for action – the backpacker, surfs-up crowd – can chill in bungalows along the island’s plentiful beaches and catch waves to their hearts’ content.

For culture buffs, there is no shortage of options either. Thousands of Hindu shrines are scattered across the island, with the island’s three million Hindus going about their daily business – prayers, offerings, rituals – lending an added authenticity to the experience. Balinese dance, the famed hypnotic kecak (or “monkey dance”), and the otherworldly sounds of gamelan court music are among the plethora of other visual and auditory experiences on offer. Not to mention the nation’s rich and varied cuisine, influenced by Chinese and Indian elements and infused with a heady mix of spice and color.

403px-Balinese_dancersIt’s worth noting that Bali does not exist in a vacuum. It is the most well-known of Indonesia’s tourist highlights, but there are many other options on this continuum. Those who hope to go a bit off the beaten trail often jump over to the neighboring island of Lombok – 20 minutes by air from Bali and another gem in Indonesia’s crown. Bali’s neighbor allows for even deeper relaxation. In many ways, Lombok offers visitors a view of paradise before it was “lost” to overdevelopment.

This raises the issue of paradise’s underside. Alongside the low-level tension that lingers in the aftermath of the 2002 bombings, there are other rough spots. A minor issue is the gradual concreting of the island, which has particularly taken place in its urban and resort areas, such as Kuta, which swarms with touts and scammers.

A more serious issue: Among the hordes of visitors to Bali, many come to partake in some of the island’s unsavory offerings, including the availability of illicit drugs. The arrest of the “Bali Nine” brought this reality to international attention when nine Australias were caught attempting to smuggle 8.3 kg (18 pounds) of heroin from Indonesia to their home country.

While all of these issues should be noted, they need not scare you away. Parts of the island have retained their magic despite these negative forces. In the right spots, Bali’s cultural traditions are alive and well today, and its offerings for adventure and luxury are among the world’s best.