Published August 27, 2012
The morning sun turned pools of water in the rice paddies into mirrors. A farmer swung a load of coconuts onto his shoulder. Somewhere, a cow was lowing.
The scene should have been perfect, but something was off.
After four years, I was back in Bali to relive a memory of a walk through the rice fields near the town of Ubud. My disappointment may have started with the bizarre signposts, on a dirt path in the rice paddies, advertising Italian restaurants and French rotisserie chicken. Or maybe it was the villas sprouting up in the green fields, boasting of infinity pools and yoga workout rooms.
With Bali developing so fast, my husband and I realized we would have to look harder this time to rediscover the Indonesian island's serenity and beauty.
We regrouped, got advice from locals, and found our travel pleasures in places we hadn't known to look for — in a simple meal of fried rice and coconut juice at a deserted beach, and in the treasure bins of an out-of-the-way antiques row.
Obviously, nobody heading to Bali expects to find an undiscovered paradise. It's a longtime favorite of honeymooners, surfers and travelers drawn to its dancing, music and religion. Though Bali is part of the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, most residents practice a form of Hinduism known for elaborate ceremonies and rituals.
The tiny island offers a touch of adventure and all the creature comforts. You can hike up a volcano, then come back to your hotel for a cappuccino and a massage. Bali, specifically Ubud, is where Elizabeth Gilbert put the "love" in "Eat, Pray, Love," an inspiration for some tourists.
But sadly, amid the island's speedy, haphazard development, sometimes it can be hard to see past the construction cranes, traffic jams and trash on the southern coast.
Even in landlocked Ubud, the island's supposedly laid-back cultural hub, my taxi got stuck in gridlock outside a Starbucks. It seemed a fitting symbol for a vacation going wrong.
To tackle the infrastructure problems, the island's dingy, overcrowded airport is getting an upgrade. Work is under way on toll roads to ease the traffic, especially bad around the built-up beach party town of Kuta.
But the tourism numbers are growing so quickly, it's hard to imagine how the island will cope. Last year brought 2.75 million foreign visitors, up more than 10 percent from 2010. Next year, the island will get a publicity boost by hosting two very different international events, the Miss World pageant and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The Jakarta Post reported in July that Bali's governor expected the number of foreign visitors to nearly double to 5 million by 2015. Domestic visitors should also nearly double to hit 10 million, he said.
Though bombings by Islamic militants in 2002 and 2005 in Bali targeted Westerners at nightclubs and beach restaurants, killing a total of 222 people, the violence did not seem to deter visitors in the long term.
Some tourists in search of cleaner beaches and more authenticity are heading to nearby islands, including Lombok. In July, the French newspaper Le Monde published a much-discussed article declaring Bali a has-been under the headline, "Bali, c'est fini?"
Yet I would argue that Bali, for all its troubles, still offers something special, if you can forgive its flaws — and if you can get there sooner rather than later.
For me, the biggest draw is the intense moments of beauty that bloom up out of nowhere. Every day, you'll happen upon "canang sari," which are small, exquisite religious offerings made from leaves, flowers, rice and incense sticks. You'll see Balinese in sarongs and lace blouses kneeling to pray at their family temples by the roadsides.
Whizzing down the road in a scooter at dusk, you might hear a snatch of music from a rehearsing gamelan orchestra — percussive, chiming, mesmerizing.
The chairman of Bali's tourism board, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, acknowledges the island's crowding problems but says its culture and temples still distinguish it from other beach destinations. "The culture is still there, even in a place like Kuta," the party beach, he told me when I called him after my trip.
That's true. But we felt much better about Bali the farther we got from the noise and traffic.
If You Go .
GETTING REAL: We spent a day driving around the Tabanan area, which boasts endless rice terraces with no luxury villas or tourists in sight. We also came across many tradesmen at work. Some were weaving thatched roofs from grass. Still others were extracting clay from the ground and stamping it into bricks and roofing tiles. It was an eye-opening outing, especially for kids.
TRANQUIL BEACHES: To get away from the bikini-clad crowds at Kuta and Seminyak, try Kedungu beach, a lovely but not famous stretch of black sand where the only other beachgoers we saw were three surfers. We lunched on delicious corn-on-the-cob and nasi goreng, or fried rice, from a local food stand.
Even more gorgeous is Padang Padang, a surfer's paradise near the famous Uluwatu temple, where cliffs meet blue sky and waves. It has avoided mass development because it's tricky to access, but it's nonetheless getting more crowded.
The northern coast is quieter, but avoid the dawn dolphin-sighting outings at Lovina, where dozens of speedboats zigzag through the water chasing a few poor animals.
SHOPPING: Ubud is famous for its market and boutiques, though many vendors there sell the same sarongs, baskets and figurines. Laurent Pickaerts, a Frenchman who runs the charming La Maison P&L guest house in Kerobokan, took us antiquing on Tangkuban Perahu Road in the Pengipian neighborhood, where dozens of shops sell antiques and handicrafts for reasonable prices. Here, you can find small statues, shadow puppets and drums that would fit in a suitcase. For baskets, kites and children's souvenirs, try Unagi (Marlboro Road No. 383 in Denpasar). It's a wholesale craft market where Seminyak's chic boutiques buy their wares to sell at jacked-up prices. What it lacks in charm it makes up for in choice and price.