We had planned 4 days in Bali and we soon realized that we didn’t have enough time. Bali is an island with a lot to see and 4 days is simply not enough. We didn’t know the area well so we decided to take guided tours instead of traveling on our own. After reading the guidebook and information online, we booked two day tours: the “Green Tour” and “Island Tour”, two tours that Bali is most famous known for.
Day 1 was the Bali Bedugul “Green Tour”. The tour included Taman Ayun Temple, coffee plantation visit, lunch at a balinese restaurant in rice field, Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, monkeys at Alas Kedaton Temple, and Tanah Lot Temple at the sunset. We would visit quite a few temples in the area of mostly rice fields, plantations and forest, thus called “green tour”. A small car came and picked us up at our hotel and we met our driver and English speaking guide. We stopped at another hotel and picked up the 3rd tourist, an Indian guy working in Dubai, and drove about one hour to our first stop Taman Ayun Temple.
Bali’s main religion is Hinduism, despite of the Muslim majority in the rest of the country. There are thousands puras, or Hindu temples, on the island. Our tour included a few of the most famous ones in the central part of Bali. The first is Taman Ayun Temple, which is the royal family temple in Mengwi city, built in 1600s. We walked through the iconic split gate to the entrance. We then walked across the garden with water fountain. At the end we saw the tower gate, which was exquisitely decorated with stone carvings. The gate was closed so we had to walk around it to the temple. Bali temples are open places with enclosed walls. They usually are only open for prayers during ceremonies. Inside the closed walls, there are usually towered shrines, each for a specific god. The size of the shrines are determined by the importance of the god it hosts.
Unfortunately our guide was very new to the job. She was nice but apparently didn’t know how to do a guide’s job. During the entire tour, she only accompanied us through the sites, but barely talked about the any places we visited. Most questions we asked we got nothing other than ‘sorry I don’t know’. Taman Ayun Temple was very beautiful. The towered shrines were tall with multiple levels, and all had a very elegant black thatched roof made of palm fiber. But other than the visual architectures, we didn’t get any information about the temple. I was hoping to learn some history about it, like when it was built, who built it, what the temple was used for, and how the ceremonies were held in the temple. But there was nothing we could get out from our guide. The temple was nice, but it would have been much better if we could have learned some history associated with it.
Our next stop was Hidden Garden Agriculture plantation. One of Bali’s famous produce is Kopi Luwak coffee, or civet coffee, which is coffee beans collected after being eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. It is said that the process improves coffee quality as the cats only eat the best beans, and the fermentation as the cherries pass through the cat’s intestines alters the composition of the beans. I read about it a while back in a BBC show. Historically Kopi Luwak was collected in the wild, so it was very expensive due to its rarity. However, driven by profits, recently there are plantations with civet ‘farms’ which will confine and force-feed the cats in order to produce this high priced coffee. This process created horrible living conditions for the cats and sparked huge controversies due to animal cruelty. The plantation we visited was one of these. There we only saw one of the civets in a small cage they put up as display. The cat was in horrible condition. It had dry sparse furs and the tail was bleeding with infection. It was really sad to see that cat suffering like that.
The plantation staff walked with us and showed us what they were growing. Apart from coffee, they also grow herbs, tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, banana, coconut and durian. We walked across a bamboo bridge over a creek and saw a large rice field. The rice fields in Bali are famous after they got UNESCO recognition. They are created by hand using traditional ‘subak’ layered terrace watering system. It now seems the rice fields are more of tourist attractions than what they are supposed to be. It is pretty but it’s nothing really special for me as I have seen plenty in my region as I grew up in China. But for people who have never seen a rice field, it must be pretty impressive.
At the end of the tour we were give tea and coffee sample taste. There were about half dozen coffees and teas each we could taste. Nick and I both much preferred the tea to the local coffee. As much as what we heard the great quality coffee beans produce in Java and rest of Indonesia, we could say that to the coffee we tasted. I think it was because the way the coffee was roasted and prepared. Indonesians drink mostly instant coffee and they like to mix coffee with other flavors like coconut, chocolate, spices such as ginger and tamarind, and fruits. So the coffee we tasted more or less was flavored coffee. The only ‘black’ coffee tasted pretty much like burnt water, or 8 o’clock instant coffee at best. Since we were at a Kopi Luwak plantation, we paid for a couple of Kopi Luwak coffee. And again we weren’t that impressed as it tasted no better. They maybe have good quality coffee beans but they should improve their coffee roasting process.
Our next stop was Balinese lunch at a rice plantation. Balinese are still an agricultural society despite of increasing tourism. The locals figured out how to irrigate the hilly fields with similar techniques (‘subak’ system or step terrace in China) used in south China. They created layered rice paddies on the hills to distribute water evenly.
The food was really bad. Most dishes were heavily spiced deep fried meat. I pretty much just had vegetable soup and some stir fried tofu with rice. But the view was really amazing. We got sit on the bar tables in the covered porch overlooking the iconic water filled Balinese rice terraces, lush with rice grass, fringed by jungle with bowing palms and banana trees. It was raining on and off during the day, and the mist rose from the fields like smoke, which made the view magical.
After lunch we stopped at another temple, Ulun Danu Beratan Temple. The temple is famous for its shrines which sits in the lake. When the water rises the shrines seem to be ‘floating’. But again, our guide didn’t explain anything so we didn’t get to know much about the temple other than enjoying the view. Our next stop was the Alas Kedaton Temple which was one of the four temples housing monkeys. Our Indian tourist wanted to see strawberry plantation so we made a quick stop. But it was the end of season and the harvest was over so we didn’t go in.
Alas Kedaton Temple was fun. It was late when we got there so we were the only tourists there. As soon as we turned into the driveway to the temple we could see monkeys freely roaming along the road. We didn’t realize there were over 1,000 monkeys in the temple and they were everywhere we went, up on the trees, underneath the roof, in the grass lawn, in roads, etc. We were given crackers to feed the monkeys. There were many groups and each had an alpha male. The male was the one that came to feed from us. It was really cool that we could get so close to the monkeys and feed them. The temple staff played some tricks so the monkey could get on our shoulders and got fed. That was fun.
Our last stop was Tanah Lot temple, which is one of the most famous landmarks in Bali. The temple sits on a large offshore rock in the west coast of Bali and it’s famous for its unique sunset scene. The tour had it as our last stop so we could see the iconic sunset scene. Unfortunately, again, our guide was very inexperience and did not time our trip well. We got there at 6:45, 20 minutes after sunset. So we could only see a dark rock, which was a huge disappointment for us. So much for the magical Tanah Lot sunset.
Our tour ended here and we were on our way back to Kuta. It took about an hour in the perpetual traffic and we were dropped off at our hotel in Kuta around 9PM.
Overall we enjoyed our tour. I think definitely the highlight of the tour was the green landscapes of the Bali countryside: the rice fields, fruit grooves and the plantation. It was nice to see even after decades of tourism booms, Balinese could still maintain their traditional way of life. Though, unavoidably modernization, globalization on top of tourism changed life a lot. We could tell that a lot of farmland were turned into tourist accommodations. Older houses with traditional brick and tiles were converted into cheap concrete buildings. And plantations even rice terrace were set up as tourist attractions rather than to serve their true agricultural purposes. But still, unlike a lot other places I visited, such as a lot of tourist attractions in China (eg. the so-called ‘Shangri La‘, and those watertown in south China) where the whole sites were turned into tourist traps, there were plenty originalities we could see and enjoy. I hope Balinese, while enjoying the modernization and improvements brought by tourism, can keep their traditional way of living.