Travel feature: Indonesia
- Credit: Archant
An archipelago of 17,000 islands spread across a vast swathe of the Indian and Pacific oceans, Indonesia has a lot to offer.
From the heavily built-up West to the still tribal, wild East, you could spend several weeks travelling Islam’s most populous nation and hardly scratch the surface. Yet despite the country’s enormous size, the first port of call for the European traveller is nearly always Bali – and with good reason.
Though you may have heard lurid tales of the sub-Aussie ghettos of Kuta and Legian, it’s a remarkable island filled with emerald-green rice terraces, picture-postcard beaches, thrusting surf and a beguiling Hindu culture. After a lengthy but ultimately pleasant KLM flight, filled with films, decent food and lots to drink, we weren’t up to much more than collapsing into an exhausted slumber.
But when we woke – at the luxurious Alila Mangiss on the south west of the island – it was to waves crashing against the shore and a spectacular view of an enormous pool, with villas dotted across manicured lawns and junks on the ocean in the far distance, all painted in vivid greens and blues.
After a delicious yet fiercely spicy breakfast surrounded by the ornamental ponds, we got down to some serious first-day sunbathing.
A couple of relaxing days by the pool ensued, with evenings wandering along the beach for cocktails, watching the sun set in a purple implosion as the fishing boats slowly came in.
There probably are Balinese restaurants in London, but if there isn’t, I am now determined to open one, so impressed was I with the food.
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A typical meal seems to be the megibung – a traditional family dish of several tempting morsels on a big plate.
And a riot of flavour they are too, at least at the Mangiss: a perfect picking platter of fresh fish, lively with lemongrass, Bali chilli, coconut and ginger.
We had another of these devilish platters at our next stop, the Alila Ubud.
Ubud, in the heart of the island, provides an opportunity to see a completely different side of Bali, with lush green rainforests replacing sultry beaches as you head up into the mountains.
The journey was an experience in itself, illustrating aspects of Balinese life. Elections were approaching, so demonstrations were rife. Also coming up was the Hindu festival of Nyepi, which seemed to necessitate the erection of some fearsome-looking statues.
The Alila is formed of some luxury treehouses up in the hills, affording lovely views of the verdant forest canopy, as well as a quite astonishing infinity pool.
The shrill call of jungle birds echoed through the valley as cheeky monkeys swung around us, endangering our lunch.
Ubud is a famously arty enclave with galleries, cafés and exhibitions aplenty.
It’s a thriving hub of Hindu culture and no visit is complete without a visit to one of the ubiquitous dance shows.
A good way to spend those hot, balmy nights is sipping a Bintang (local beer) from an old woman wielding an ice bucket and watching odd tales of princesses and demons accompanied by wild, hypnotic music.
The town is hot and hectic, though, so it was lovely to use of the hotel’s luxury spa.
A full body Balinese massage as one of the infrequent yet torrential tropical storms rages outside is hard to beat.
Exploring the nearby rice fields is another nice distraction. An early start for sure, but it gets you a bit deeper into Balinese life. A tour of a typical Bali home (laid out in an alarming swastika arrangement) is followed by a march into the wilderness to see the rice being plucked from the paddies in the searing heat.
If you’ve travelled all the way to Indonesia, it seems neglectful not to see a few more islands. Lombok, Sumatra and Java, to name but three, have so much to offer the enlightened traveller. But we had our hearts set on the neighbouring Gilis – three little islands in the midst of bathtub warm, crystal-clear waters, teeming with friendly wildlife – which were astounding.
They don’t have cars (you get around on foot, pushbike or horse and cart) and all boast out-of-this-world diving and snorkelling, technicolour sunsets and a chilled out Indo-Rasta vibe.
Trawangan is the biggest, and the only one with any nightlife to speak of; Air is good for romancing couples, while Meno is virtually deserted and can be walked around in a couple of hours. When you think of a Robinson Crusoe paradise island, the Gilis are what’s on your mind. One day, after a fruit breakfast and a bike ride along the unfeasibly perfect sands, we went for an impromptu snorkel, were dazzled by the multicoloured fish and followed (at a respectful distance) a turtle who had taken a shine to us.
We laughed about the impossibility of it all while drinking sub-£1 margaritas, as the sun set in a feast of crimson tranquillity. Having travelled around quite a lot of southeast Asia, if there’s once place that deserves another month or so of my time it’s Indonesia – and that’s high praise indeed.