A few friends, all the travel books and what little I know about the book Eat. Pray. Love suggested that the best of Bali was to be found down the road less travelled. That road took me to a world I did not expect.
My boyfriend and I were confused for straight men pretty much everywhere we went in Bali.
'Massage, sir? You want happy massage?'
My boyfriend turns around to the Balinese woman offering 'regular' massages to passer-bys, but a 'special' one to him.
'No thanks,' he says. 'I'm gay'.
The woman bursts out laughing, shares my boyfriend's cheeky response with her surrounding companions, and walks up to us.
'That's ok. You get regular Balinese massage, then.'
So relaxed and convivial are the Balinese that you can't help but laugh along with them. For the two weeks my boyfriend and I travelled throughout the tropical paradise that is Bali, we were met with genuine smiles and humble hearts.
The next day when we passed the woman riding our bikes, she yelled smiling and waving: 'Still gay?!'
What's not to love?
We split our time between the beaches of the south-east region and the jungles of central Ubud. In between, we travelled by foot, by bike and by car to the ends of the island.
We explored ancient Hindu temples, tripped in muddy rice paddies and tried to communicate with villagers without knowing a lick of Balinese. We rode elephants, were terrorized by monkeys, ate like kings and slept like babies.
All in all, my Balinese vacation taught me it truly isn't about your destination, it's about your journey.
The following are my favorite pit-stops along the way.
Titi My Darling - Sanur beach
On the sleepy southeastern beach of Sanur in Bali, there are women lining the coast offering traditional massages in the shade. After spending a day sunning under the equatorial sun, nothing compares to oily hands kneading your back.
Unless, of course, it involves food.
By far one of the best meals I had in Bali was at Titi My Darling. Order a large Bintang (typical Balinese beer) and let your taste buds take control. My favorite dishes include charcoal-cooked chicken satay and grilled corn on the cob.
Leha Leha - Sanur Beach
When you've had your fill of fun in the sun, I suggest moving indoors for a proper spa-style Balinese massage. I left Leha Leha on cloud nine. I can't even remember the name of the massage I requested. It was that good. All I remember is a two-hour treatment and the delicious lemongrass tea I enjoyed on the second-story veranda of this eatery/spa combo. Live on the wild side: ask the masseur to go a little deeper. You'll thank me later.
The best part, the entire experience cost just under 220,000 rupiah ($23 €18).
Sacred Monkey Forest - Ubud
Ubud is located in the center of Bali and is known as the island's cultural hub. True, it's also the place where that woman from Eat. Pray. Love spent a year talking to a medicine man and finding love with a Brazilian.
Do yourself a favor and don't mention the book. The t-shirts that read Eat. Pay. Leave summarize how the locals really feel about the book.
Do yourself another favor and roam through the monkey forest. Just when you start to wonder where the monkeys are, you realize that you're completely surrounded by families of long-tailed monkeys. Attendants at the entrance and throughout the forest will sell you bananas to feed the adorable animals. Just keep your fruit hidden or the greedy monkeys will snatch them from you all at once.
Tanah Lot Temple – Tabanan
95% of Bali’s population is Hindu, and the effect of the religion on their way of life is one of the first things I noticed about the island. Temples for worship abound, and they range from small, private rooms in homes to impressive rock formations on the beach. Typically, temples are not built higher than the tallest surrounding coconut tree, to keep the holiness of the structure.
My favorite temple was Tanah Lot, a temple nestled atop rocky cliffs on the southwest coast of Bali. Watching the sunset from the shores surrounding the temple is meant to be breathtaking, just beware of the throngs of tourists that show up early to find a proper spot on the rocks to watch the sun melt into the ocean. Sarongs are required to enter any temple, so be sure to buy one from a market or shop before going.
Putu's Wild Ginger - Ubud
Our last night in Ubud I had a religious experience. One of the concierges at the rice paddy hotel we were staying in suggested Putu’s Wild Ginger for dinner. Putu’s place has no more than four tables, and so much charm I nearly cried. Putu’s husband runs the business, and Putu cooks classic Balinese dishes in a kitchen you can see into from every table.
Dinner served, Putu came smiling to our table, thanking us for helping her by coming to eat. 'Eat slow, like you’re at home'. I nearly dropped my fork. My boyfriend and I usually make a competition of who has the best dinner, and who can finish first. Not for 20 years has a woman told me to slow down when eating, and Putu’s reminder nearly brought me to tears. Blame the large Bintang I was nursing, or Putu’s old-soul wisdom, but I suddenly felt a peace sweep over me that made me feel at home.
Tune in next week for more top picks from Jean Paul's Bali trip, including a museum honoring Bali's topless past, vegetarian menu options and a white-sand beach he's keeping a secret.
Look at Jean Paul's website to see more photos of his travels in Bali.