Flying in to Bali from Cambodia on a plane full of western tourists feels more like a trip to Hawaii or Mexico than a visit to Indonesia. A volcanic island paradise situated between Java and Lombok, it's home to over 4 million people and the highest percentage of Hindus (85 percent) in Indonesia. Bali is covered with temples and soaked in spirituality, music, and art; some of the reasons its popularity as a tourist destination catapulted in the late 1990’s. Since then, planes like these, packed with visitors from all over the world, have become a common occurrence.
But first impressions can be dangerous. After swiftly passing through airport immigration and customs, paying out the recently increased $35 visa fee, we’re approached by dozens of taxi drivers offering trips to nearby Legian for $20, when it’s barely 3 kilometers away and should cost $8. We let them know that “we’re okay” and find another, fair, offer. The bad news for them is that we’ve implemented a new travel rule: don’t go with the guy who tries to rip you off.
Avoiding the sharks and making it into Legian, we’re greeted by a massive party scene, full of one way streets packed with bars, clubs, restaurants, and shop owners slinging hats, sunglasses, tee shirts, and viagra. At night, the offerings become more varied as marijuana, cocaine, and sex are added to the menu. Middle-aged men utter "You want something, boss" under their breath, while young, scantily-clad women say "Hey daddy" from nearby motorbikes. Easily the worst addition brought on by tourism in such a beautiful place.
But the reasons people flock to this small island are clear. Massive waves crash on wide beaches, while skinny stone paths weave between thick walls amidst the tropical overgrowth that fills the space in between. We’ve found a quaint little hotel with a pool, just off the main road and it’s only $25 per night. From there we explore the web of one way streets that connects Legian with neighboring Kuta (the real party capital) and Seminyak (a slightly swankier version of Legian). Managing to avoid the mass of “western” restaurants offering pizza and nachos, we stumble upon Warung Yogya, which serves up our first taste of Indonesian food. The soupy coconut vegetable curry is on point and the gado gado is fresh and flavorful. Eating local has its benefits - we share a starter, two entrees and a large Bintang beer for around $7. After two nights near the beach we’re heading to the hills, to the rice fields, temples, yogis and floaty hippies of Ubud.