The Times, 2007
Here's the astonishing thing: even the scruffiest motorbike can be made sacred by hangings on handlebars, a car dashboard become a shrine, an open drawer in a clothes shop turn into an altar – complete with an offering of food and flowers on a palm leaf plate and a joss stick, reverently lit by the beautiful salesgirl.
That is – in Bali.
Nowhere else have I been where Hindu shrines in the smartest, internationally-owned hotels are tended many times a day by staff, lighting incense and mouthing ritual prayers with no self-consciousness. I was prepared to be sceptical about claims made by Bali-high friends that it is a special spiritual place. But I left this greenest of islands a convert to that truth - and like all born-again zealots I need to spread the word.
For Bali needs its tourists. Wherever we went, in the south and the east of the island, we were painfully aware of how desperate the people are – wanting to drive you, guide you, paint your nails, sell you sarongs, give you massages. Again and again you hear that there are not enough visitors - not since the Balinese faith in a benign, balanced universe was shattered by the 2002 terrorist outrage. In a zingy boutique in Kuta I met Mary Lambe, a 60 year old Irish woman who goes to her beloved Bali twice a year and sells Balinese jewellery on Portobello Road. I was thinking Kuta crowded and noisy (the nature of the place, after all) but she told me it was nothing compared to before October 2002. Mary was in town when terrorists destroyed Paddy's Bar and the Sari Club – heard the blast, shared the shock and outrage, and is now a returning witness to how Bali has been changed. 'Tourist numbers are still down. Lots of local people have gone bankrupt. It makes me very sad.'
Along the narrow alley the site of the outrage is marked by an impressive memorial. Tourists stand in silence reading the names, divided into groups according to nationality – the largest number being Australians. 'So many Balinese too,' said the plump, middle-aged lady on the beach, trying to sell me shell jewellery whilst her friend attacked Robin's feet and another trader insisted I needed daisies painted on my stubby nails. I bought some jewellery. You have to. These beach traders pay to be licensed and some days they travel in and make nothing at all.
In the rarified world of grand hotels it is easy to forget the real Bali, pampered as you are by the best service. We'd begun our visit at the new, very beautiful Ubud Hanging Gardens, constructed up one side of a ravine in the densely wooded area north of Ubud. Considered to be the artistic centre of the island, Ubud is too spread out to be walker-friendly; we'd have rented a car but forgot about an International Driving License. But again local drivers are extremely cheap and they need the trade. Anyway, the Ubud Hanging Gardens is a perfect example of hotel-as-destination, since it's hard to leave your pavilion with its private plunge pool. You travel up and down the steep site on a little funicular and the two level swimming pool is a spectacular piece of construction. We went for a guided early morning trek through the village next to the hotel, the forest and rice fields, where gangs of people worked with covered heads in the heat that was already pretty exhausting by 9.30am. Our fellow trekkers were French, Russian and Japanese.
After three days in Ubud, we headed south again to stay at the island's other Orient Express hotel, Jimburan Puri Bali. This is so near the airport it would be ideal for the first couple of nights, the continous boom of the surf lulling you to sleep. Here the hotel was not a destination in itself; the beach – to dine on, play on, stroll on – is all. We strolled past rows of cheap seafood restaurants to watch the locals pushing out their spidery fishing boats, and generally cavorting on the sand: rich, joyful teeming activity.
A thirty minute taxi ride away is Uluwatu, the famous cliff-top temple where wild monkeys mug tourists for anything edible they might be carrying, and each evening dancers stage the classic Kecak fire dance, as the light fades. The huge 'choir' of men chants 'cak-cak-cak' whilst the beautiful dancers enact the barely comprehensible story of Rama, Sita and Laksamana, before the thrilling, fiery finale. All you need to know is that it's the old story of good v evil, like the black and white of the men's costumes.
After six days of luxury in (roughly) 3/4 full hotels, we wanted a change. So a driver took us the two hour trip Eastwards, to sweet little Candidasa: a small strip of hotels and restaurants along a rocky shore. We checked into Ida's Homestay – one of those small places you find all over Bali, with an open-air, cold-water-only bathroom, stunning carved wood pavilion, and peaceful atmosphere. But the man who looked after the rooms was sad because we were only staying for one night, and we were the only guests.'No tourists' he said mournfully, and indeed you couldn't walk Candidasa's (only) street without being invited, pleadingly, to dine, to watch the Legong dancers, to buy, to hire a driver. Restaurants had only two or three busy tables.
Next night we moved to the slightly more upmarket Ida's Beach Village (hot water here!) where one of the staff told me how, after 2002, he had only worked one week in each month – with a family to feed. With such hardship in mind we hired Wayan for a day's tour of the area, taking in Tenegan, the picturesque village of the Bali Aga who make traditional double ikat, and (oh joy) accidentally coming across a temple ceremony in pouring rain. We were invited in like honoured guests.
After three nights in Candidasa (and if you go to Bali, you must travel beyond the south) we went to infamous Kuta for our last two nights – taking pot luck with accommodation once more. And again we were lucky, for Poppies, one of Kuta's oldest, prettiest hotels had one room; a lovely 'cottage' in the exquisite garden. From there we walked straight out into the land of t-shirts, surf-boards and bars, slightly depressed because everybody was selling the same thing. The famous sunset on Kuta beach didn't happen for us; the surfers were silhouetted against a poetically melancholy grey sky. But I don't want to give the impression that Bali left me sad. I pray for it to recover, although with the continued threat of terrorism allied to environmental pressure, it is hard to see that the boom can ever return. Yet the lovely people I met, like Wayan with his baby, and his cousin Nyoman (both drivers) live in one of the most beautiful places on earth – so how can tourists bear to stay away?