Discovering the real Bali on bike
BY CHRIS JOHNSON
Traipsing through someone’s house as an itinerary stop on a day tour is a little disconcerting. It is especially so when you are enthusiastically encouraged to inspect how the occupants live. A little less so once you realise the payment they receive for opening their homes amounts to a significant boost to their income. More on that soon.
Bali is Bali and Australians usually either love it or leave it well alone. We do have a special relationship with the Indonesian island. It is close enough for a quick, cheap holiday and inviting enough for some fun on the beach and at its numerous nightspots.
Beyond the water sports, bargain hunting, resorts and bars, however, there is a vibrant arts and cultural scene that many visitors embrace.
Beyond that, there is what is often referred to as ‘the real Bali’.
The real Bali might be more elusive than actually real but making any kind of effort to leave the bustling tourist traps behind and spend some time exploring rural neighbourhoods away from the beaches can be a rewarding experience.
Doing it on bicycle makes it a whole lot of fun.
There are a number of small companies offering Bali bicycle adventures. All of them do a decent job of providing a good glimpse into how locals live, work, worship and rest. Their itineraries are remarkably similar to each other, so you can’t really go wrong with whichever touring company you choose.
And it is all done by passing through the heart of some of Bali’s most spectacular scenery.
En route to the starting point, a driver will take you to a working coffee plantation not too far from Ubud where you get to drink a very tasty blend that can only be brewed after a particular coffee bean is eaten and excreted by a civet cat ... yum.
Then a late breakfast high up one side of Mt Kintamani that comes complete with a stunning view of the active volcano Mt Batur and its gorgeous namesake crater lake. That spot is hard to leave, but it is where the pedalling begins.
Because it is high up already, there’s not much pedal pushing to be done. It’s a downhill ride that is extremely enjoyable.
In a small group with a tour guide out front (“no one go ahead of me ok?”) cyclers pass by jungles, bamboo forests and rice paddies, and through quaint villages and traditional compounds. All along the route, stops are made for the purposes of educating the group in the ways of the locals.
Walking through the paddies and around temples is part of the experience, as too is meeting a real farming family and having a dig around their compound home.
I was struck by the dignity of the matriarch who greeted us. The polished tiles of her home’s entrance (no doubt paid for by the tour companies who bring their travelling guests by for a visit), belied the starkness of the cramped and bare living quarters inside. Children sat on the porch helping their mothers craft traditional baskets and bags. Everyone seemed happy and were delightful to interact with.
We were invited to inspect their home, their farmyard animals, their place or worship – all of which was nestled together in a compound where at least three generations cohabitated.
It did feel a little weird – invasive even – gazing down on their rustic, basic beds and uncovered floors. But they seemed happy to have us there – if only for the fees they are paid by the touring companies and the money we tourists give them for their crafts and photos.
Once you accept that, the stop becomes an enriching encounter.
Then it’s more cycling through villages and ever-changing landscapes before reaching the final destination a few hours down the mountain from where it all began. After loading the bikes onto trailers, your driver whisks you off to a local restaurant for a traditional ‘late’ lunch.
The bicycle tour itself lasts about four hours, but with the chauffer drive to and from whichever beachside hotel you’re staying at, you need to allow a whole day.
And it is a day to remember. One which will give a whole new meaning to the words “I’ve been to Bali too”.
Published: 08 Mar 2019