by Scott Wittet -
SGN Contributing Writer
It's a cliché to say that Bali is paradise, but it's one that has endured for ages, long before this gorgeous, fascinating island was first promoted by travelers in the 1920s and '30s. Gay men and women have been coming here ever since word got out, including world-renowned artists, composers, and celebs, along with refugees from the gloomy February in the Northwest (like me).
Balinese people aren't hung up about two men sharing a luxe bed in a luxe villa (with a view to die for!), or two women enjoying a romantic candlelit meal prepared by chef Chris Salans, who trained with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa.
There are no published figures on the numbers of LGBT people who visit Bali each year, but among the 7.6 million international visitors annually, Bali gay tourism guru Rio Maryono says that many are folks who might like Seattle Gay News.
Bali is one of over 17,000 islands in Indonesia, and it's the No. 1 tourist draw nationwide. While most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali has somehow retained its ancient Hindu heritage, making it culturally very different from the rest of the country. And it's breathtakingly picturesque!
There is something for everybody there - surfing, diving, biking, or volcano-climbing for the sporty; beaches for the under-tanned; yoga retreats for the under-enlightened; clubs for late-nighters; fantasy cultural experiences for the Nat Geo set; and birding tours and go-go boys for folks who just like to watch.
Bali is close to the equator, so the weather is pretty consistent year-round (daytime temps often in the 80s, nighttime a pleasant 10 degrees cooler). The local people are friendly, the food is great, and best of all it's still pretty inexpensive (once you get there).
It takes a day or two to fly from Seattle, transiting through Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, or Singapore. You lose a day crossing the international dateline (be sure you've booked your arrival hotel for the right date), but you gain it back on the way home.
One dollar is equal to around 9,000 Indonesian rupees, so $111 makes you an Indonesian millionaire. And sometimes, with the way prices are there, you feel like one.
You can think of Bali as having three main 'zones.'
Partying, shopping, tanning, surfing, fast fooding, and lots of fine dining happen in the south, in the heavily developed towns of Kuta, Sanur, Nusa Dua, and Seminyak. The capital, Denpasar, and its international airport are down south, too.
Heading north, you enter the hills, where the land is lush green and postcard-perfect, with rolling rice terraces silhouetted against holy mountains, and where any day of the week you're likely to stumble across exotic temple festivals or fantastic cremation processions. (Who would have thought you'd make a point of seeing those? Don't miss them if you have the chance!) The cultural center of the island is Ubud. That's also where you'll find Mozaic, a world-class restaurant (with that chef from Keller's little place), and Michael Franti's Soul-Shine retreat (say hi to Michael as he twists his torso in the rooftop yoga studio).
The northern and eastern coasts (and the island of Nusa Lembongan) feature lower-key beach resorts, world-class snorkeling and diving, and hiking in a national park.
You don't have to choose one zone or the other, as it only takes about an hour to travel from Kuta to Ubud (depending on traffic) and about 2.5 hours from Ubud to the quiet, relaxed hippie beach town of Amed. You can circle the whole island in a day. If you have a couple weeks (I'd recommend a month or two!) you can chalk up lots of different experiences without leaving Bali. But if wander you must, Bali is a good base for side trips to Java (see a genuine ancient wonder of the world, the Borobudur temple in Yogyakarta), Lombok (an island just east of Bali, and more primitive), and Komodo (and its famous dragons!).
Hotel prices vary depending on when you visit. The high seasons (more expensive) are mid-December through early January (it's very crowded then, with lots of visitors from Java, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe; most Bali regulars avoid it like the plague) and July 1 to September 30 (the driest and hottest season).
The rest of the year is considered low season, with smaller crowds and more bargains.
People talk about a rainy season, and if you check the weather online this month, you'll see nothing but 'black cloud and lightning' icons for Bali every day. That's misleading - Bali is in the tropics, and while it could rain anytime, it often happens at night, and just for an hour or two. During our recent visit (February 4 through 26) occasional showers didn't cramp our style at all. That's been true during five previous visits as well (all in low season).
Like any tropical country, the sun is strong in Bali, so take care! And stay away from recreational drugs. Penalties are very high for drug possession in Indonesia, all the way up to the death sentence. Don't risk it!
Gay HQ in Seminyak
Seminyak (north of Kuta) features a concentration of extremely Gay-friendly clubs, male-only and clothing-optional resorts, and great shopping for fashionable resort wear. After a day spent bodysurfing (or lounging near other liquids), a night in Seminyak might begin drinking in a spectacular sunset at beachfront bars Ku De Ta (trendy, see-and-be-seen, expensive) or La Lucciola. Next, you and your entourage ride mopeds to pricey (but worth it) MÉTIS for dinner, or to popular and budget-friendly Italian kitchen Ultimo.
It's possible to spend $70 to $100 (or much more) for a meal in Bali, but there are memorable feasts to be had for $10-20, including your drink. Imported wine and spirits suffer from high duties (and high prices), but they are available in all the nice restaurants. Approach local wines with caution (especially the Hatten brand, though 'Two Islands' is drinkable). Beer or local cocktails generally are the better bet.
Don't expect much action in the clubs before 11 p.m. or midnight. The Gay clubs are centered on Jalan Dhyanapura (jalan means 'street'). It's easy to hop in and out of Mixwell, Bali Joe, Facebar, and Club Cosmo. Potatohead is a Gay-friendly beach club. Some bars offer drag shows, hot go-go boys, or pole-dancing.
Unfortunately we missed the 'Mr. and Miss Holiday' beauty contest at Mixwell - there were just too many things to do, and too little time! Naturally, both Mr. and Miss were XY.
Bali clubs are friendly and it's easy to connect with Aussie surferboys and fashionistas escaping the bleak Milan winter. There are lots of cute, hot, friendly Indonesians, too! Most of the local guys you meet in the clubs aren't Balinese; they're more likely from the neighboring island of Java (more on that in a follow-up article).
If you meet a local guy you like, that's great, but be clear. Some of the men in clubs are working (in Bali they call them 'rent boys' or 'sugar boys'; they might be Gay or just gay for pay) and you don't want a misunderstanding later in the evening.
When orienting newly-arrived Bay tourists, Rio Maryono, owner of Bali Gaya Travel (www.baligay.net), tells them that if a guy is aggressive and getting too close too fast, it's a good idea to clarify, gently, if he's looking for fun or money. Bali isn't Bangkok, but as at lots of holiday destinations, sex work happens.
Another friend, Michael Huffman, recommends putting up your guard when anyone says 'I love you' in the first hour.
Indonesian guys at the Seminyak clubs are there to meet foreigners. Boys who prefer locals frequent an ever-changing set of karaoke bars in the Balinese capital, Denpasar.
Unfortunately there are no bars for Lesbians, and no Lesbian-themed nights anymore. A few years ago Rio and friends tried to get things going, sponsoring The L-Word evenings for a couple of months. While the first weeks generated lots of interest among local women, it didn't sustain.
But Rio is happy to connect Lesbian clients with one of his close buds, an out woman named Sinta. Sinta is originally from Jakarta, but has lived in Bali for years. She may be able to open doors to a hidden Lesbian world.
In Seminyak and the other southern towns you'll find a wide variety of accommodation options - beachfront hotels, low-rent guesthouses, and private villas.
A great value is charming, totally private Villa Vayu. This beautiful, two-bedroom garden villa sits in a quiet lane minutes from 'restaurant row,' and just a short hike to Petitenget Beach, near the Oberoi Hotel. Petitenget is popular with Gay tourists, and locals who want to meet them.
Since Villa Vayu is all yours, once the staff have cleaned up after breakfast and freshened your room, they leave you on your own. You can decide what rules apply at poolside.
Male-only options in Seminyak include Spartacvs Hotel (yes, that's how they spell it), Laki Uma Villa, and Villa Layang Bulan (according to the website, rooms there start at just $40 a night!)
In case of health problems, you might want to try Gay-oriented 'Bali Medika' clinic in Kuta, near Seminyak. Originally started as an NGO providing HIV/AIDS services to locals, they now open their doors to foreign patients, using the new income to help support the charity.
Ubud, the cultural and artistic heart of the island
My partner Gary and I usually base ourselves in Ubud for the dramatic scenery, easy access to local culture, great restaurants, and a multitude of villa and hotel options. It's a lot closer to the 'real Bali' than Seminyak, though Ubud now boasts a Starbucks and plenty of not-so-traditional shops.
For a tiny town, Ubud is rich in museums. It has five, all of them impressive and well worth visiting!
Balinese have art in their blood, and most families include painters, woodcarvers, stone sculptors, and other talented craftspeople. Ubud is so full of art shops that it can be overwhelming.
Sometimes the best art buying experience comes when you stumble across a small family-owned shop during a relaxing trek through the rice fields. The artist offers fresh coconut juice as you try to decide between an elaborate portrait of elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, a charming scene of village life, or a fantasy frog orchestra serenading cute, dressed-to-the-gills lady fishes. Small original paintings, framed, often can be had for just $20 or $30.
Every time you look at that little souvenir, you'll remember the hour you chatted with the artist, the view from his porch, the cool tropical breezes, and the duck family that waddled by.
If you'd like to meet local Gays and Gay westerners in Ubud, try Café Mendez. There's an informal, friendly Gay get-together every Thursday about 7 p.m.
Spa culture is big all over the island, and you'll find great options in Ubud too. A one-hour massage, plus special turmeric scrubdown, culminates in a warm bath filled with floating, tropical blossoms. A tall glass of iced herbal tea is delivered bathside. That treatment runs about $15, and it's only one of many packages available.
There are no Gay saunas in Bali and you won't be offered a 'happy ending' at most spas (though it can happen). Rio's advice: 'If you want massage, go for massage. If you want sex, go to a club. If you mix the two, you probably won't be happy with either.'
Every evening six or eight different cultural programs are available in the Ubud area, priced at $7 to $10. The quality tends to be high - look for performances outdoors, in front of temples or the Ubud Palace, or at the ARMA Open Air Stage.
Don't miss the famous 'Kecak dance,' featuring 50-60 bare-chested men and boys lying on the ground in a circle, chanting hypnotically and with great energy, while a story-dance from the Hindu Ramayana epic unfolds in the center. It's very exciting and photogenic! The Kecak feels like an ancient ritual, and is based on some old magic, but the performance was developed in the 1930s by German artist Walter Spies. Soon it took the island by storm! These days you can see Kecak any day of the week around Ubud.
Ubud restaurants run the gamut from Mozaic (for a very special night out) to been-in-the-guidebooks-forever-and-with-good-reason Café Wayan on Monkey Forest Road.
At Café Wayan, the waiters are super-friendly - one invited us to his temple festival the next evening. During our last visit, the grandmotherly owner remembered us from two years earlier, thanked us for being 'return guests,' and sent over a free dessert! Alas, she has become a priestess since then, but her daughter presides over the garden dining room in her place.
Our favorite restaurant in Ubud is Belgian-owned and run Café des Artistes. We have never been disappointed with anything at the café - Western or Indonesian - and the tenderloins are not to be missed!
Owner Rudy Kerremans raises his own cattle in Bali. For about $15 you get a perfect steak, a couple of sides (remember, Belgians know how to do fries right), and a drink. If you have room, try one of Rudy's desserts, like his yummy chocolate cake 'stuffed' with whipped cream. I haven't found a steak as good as Rudy's in Seattle yet.
Warung Pulau Kelapa (Coconut Island), a restaurant just up the road from Anhera Suites, serves excellent Indonesian food at good prices. The owner 'collects' old houses from across Indonesia, and you are dining in one of them. He displays more of his houses at his new museum, the House of Masks and Puppets, just outside town.
Bridges is an upscale restaurant owned by a Gay couple from Belgium. We haven't tried it, but reviews are good.
Ubud is full of villas, hotels, and inexpensive guesthouses and they're all Gay-friendly. D'Omah Ubud is Gay-owned, featuring private villas in a garden setting. For the well-heeled, Four Seasons Sayan or The Samaya would be wonderful experiences, complete with private pools and attentive butlers.
Sayan Terrace is a special place we return to visit after visit. The rooms are large and clean (though they show their age), and the extensive porches in rooms 110 and 111 offer truly awesome views of the Ayung River gorge.
The scenery is better at Sayan than at the Four Seasons, which sits lower on the ridge. (And at Sayan you'll pay a quarter the price.)
Sayan Terrace is about a mile outside of Ubud, but the staff is happy to arrange transport into town, and it's easy to find a taxi to bring you back home.
As in most hotels in Bali, at Sayan breakfast comes with the price of your room, and includes freshly squeezed juices (the orange and banana combo is great, so is watermelon), a fresh fruit plate, toast, eggs, and Balinese coffee or tea. Or order nasi goreng (Indonesian-style fried rice) - complete with two sticks of chicken satay - if you'd rather go local.
Another favorite hotel in Ubud is Anhera Suites. For some reason Anhera is nearly empty in low season, but it shouldn't be. The eight boutique rooms are trendy and beautiful, and two of them share a private pool. The hotel also has a big pool, great for swimming laps.
All the rooms are built into the side of the hill and feature incredible views across an unspoiled ravine. The Anhera staff is very accommodating - just let them know what you need and it appears - and they offer free transport into Ubud and back for dinner or shopping. All the rooms include free wifi. I'm writing this now on a loaner computer for guests, with a fresh-squeezed orange juice and mint cooler just north of my mousepad.
Less expensive options include a variety of guesthouses in town and outside. You can find a nice, air-conditioned room in Ubud for as little as $30 or $40, sometimes with great views over the rice fields. Expect a froggy chorus at night!
During our visit in February, we spent four nights in a village just out of town, Bankiang Sidem, staying in a family compound called 'Suchik's House.' If our friend Del isn't in residence there during your visit (Washington state-based Del lives in Ubud six months of the year), try to book his house. It's cozy, comfortable, and comes with an awesome view. There's a full kitchen in case you want to fix your own breakfast, or you can replicate one of those great Balinese dishes from Café des Artistes. Suchik's has one or two other, smaller bungalows as well, in case Del's place is booked.
Going down deep in Amed
Amed isn't so much a town as a collection of villages strung along Bali's northeast coast, north of Candidasa.
There are many hotel, villa, and dive resort options, most of them pretty inexpensive ($30-50 per night, and guesthouses can be cheaper). Though a bit pricier, the Blue Moon Villas are pleasant and comfortable. They sit on a bluff high above the water; there's a long stairway to the black sand beach.
Amed is probably best visited with a friend; it's quiet there. Some of the restaurants organize live music or Balinese dance performances, and many hotels put DVD players in your room or in a common area. This gives you time to catch up on those films you picked up cheap in Ubud. It's also a good time to update Facebook and make your friends jealous.
If you're into coral-gazing, or being mobbed by thousands of aquarium-colorful fish, you'll love Amed! The snorkeling is great from the beach and there's even a shallow-water Japanese wreck to explore near Baliku dive resort.
Most scuba diving is done from the beach too. A dive costs only about $30, including all equipment, air, and a divemaster! The same package would set you back a couple of hundred dollars in Seattle.
We like Puri Wirata Dive Resort - it has two big pools, the 'villa suite' rooms are airy and bright (with air con and DVD), and the dive shop is super-professional. If you haven't learned to dive yet, this would be a great place to get certified.
Our favorite new restaurant in Amed is The Grill, opened last year by Australian Susana. She's put lots of interesting dishes on the menu from all over the world. Susanna grills anything, and bakes a mean coconut lime pie.
Sails restaurant also is nice and has great views.
Both restaurants will pick you up at your hotel when you call, and drive you home later. Nice!
Another great area to see Bali sealife is Pemuteran, near Menjangan Island in the far northeast corner of the island. You'll find two national parks, one above-water and one below. You have to book a park guide to tour either of them - you can do it at the entrance - and these local experts are worth the money.
Bargains, and bargaining
There is a lot to buy in Bali, from designer fashion to leather products and original art, handmade jewelry, and unique home furnishings. Seminyak and Ubud offer the most variety, and prices seem a bit lower in Ubud. Gary was delighted to see a fun shirt priced at $45 in Seminyak because he had just bought the same shirt in Ubud for $16.
Symon's Art Zoo in Ubud specializes in erotic paintings and sculptures; the gallery oozes with passion for the male form. Even if you're not planning to buy, be sure to visit - you'll discover lots of photo ops. In 2013 you'll have to look for Symon in northern Bali; the Ubud location will shut down.
The key to much of the shopping in Bali is bargaining. Bargaining isn't about cheating anyone, just the opposite. It's about agreeing on a price that both sides think is fair (or at least is what they're willing to pay or accept). We see it as a kind of friendly competition, seeking a win-win result.
Bargaining is normal in many shops - Balinese often do it, except at the supermarket or bank - but you'll find 'fixed prices' at some tourist-oriented stores. If you're buying several pieces, you might even be able to get a discount there. But don't start to bargain unless you're serious about buying.
Americans by and large don't have good bargaining chops, but it's easy. The key is to be friendly and relaxed, smile a lot, tell jokes, casually mention that you have a tight budget, and be ready to walk away from the sale (still smiling and expressing regret that things didn't work out). Don't go wild over the piece you want, be cool. And never, never let the salesperson hear you enthuse to your companion about how cheap it is! The guys in those stores understand all known languages.
You can even negotiate hotel rates in Bali, especially if the hotel doesn't have many guests. Feel free to ask about occupancy as you're getting a tour of the property.
We have negotiated spectacular rooms for only $100 a night (including breakfast, of course!) that listed in the hotel brochure at $400.
In general you'll have better luck negotiating room rates in-person or on the phone, locally, just before you're planning to move in. Sometimes you can bargain for a room or villa over the internet in advance - it doesn't hurt to ask what their best rate is. This all works much better during low season.
When bargaining, the main thing is to approach the negotiation with a spirit of adventure and fun - getting angry or frustrated always is counterproductive in Bali (and in most of Asia).
Plus, you can always get that dream piece for the first price if that ends up being their best offer.
Usually the most favorable currency exchange rates come from your American ATM card at one of the thousands of cash machines all over the island. So far most machines in Bali don't charge you to use your card, but your home bank may assess a fee.
If you bring cash, it's easy to change dollars to rupees, but beware small-time moneychangers on the street - they have a million ways to rip you off.
Rates at official moneychangers aren't that good and, surprisingly, banks are one of the worst places to convert your dollars. Caution: It's better not to take bills older than 2006 to Indonesia, or bills that are torn or marked up, because most shops won't accept them.
Credit cards are welcome at any business that caters to tourists, but there may be a fee for using the card. Important: Call your card company before you leave the U.S. to alert them where you'll be traveling (even where you're transiting because you might use your card in the airport).
If you don't call in advance, the company's fraud avoidance computer may block your card when it sees a charge from another country. That can be especially inconvenient when in a rush to check out of your hotel and get to the airport.
Lots of visitors rent cars or scooters to explore Bali and for day-to-day errands. There also are public minibuses (called bemos). They are very cheap, but service is erratic and the routes are confusing.
By far the most common choice is to hire a private car with driver. You can find them anywhere (actually, they will find you) and in general they are very good value. Most cars don't have meters (even the ones that say 'taksi' on top), so be sure to agree on a fare ahead of time. Cars can be booked for a short trip, or for half or full days. A full day tour, taking you anywhere you want to go, only costs $40-50, and your driver often doubles as a guide.
A driver we stick with is Kadek Cenik, based in Ubud. This personable young man speaks English well and is honest, and reliable. We also like to work with driver Gus Putu.
You can find contact information for Kadek, Gus, and the restaurants, hotels, and other resources mentioned above online. Just search 'Wittet Bali 2012', or write me through SGN.
It's true, Bali is a long way from Seattle in terms of time zones, culture, and weather, but isn't that the point?
Don't miss this remarkable, super-friendly place - everyone we know who's visited raves about it afterwards. But watch out; it's easy to fall in love with the island. You could find yourself spending a lot of time back in Seattle fantasizing about how soon you can emigrate to paradise.
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