What's not to love about Bali? Plenty, I thought

Culture clash ... there are two very different sides to Bali.
Culture clash ... there are two very different sides to Bali. Photo: AFP

It's apparent at the airport. Even before we've reached customs, even before we've entered the building, it's there. The smell is different when you step out of the plane; the air is thick with unfamiliar scents mingling with jet fuel. Groups of men squat in the shade in that typically Asian way. Everything - the buildings, the tarmac - just looks that little bit dilapidated (in that typically south-east Asian way).

The airport's chaos, of course, a mess of trolleys and ragged queues and unconcerned staff. Outside, however, is where the madness really begins.

The touts crowd around the fence that separates the arrivals from the masses. They're yelling for business, some waving placards with names scrawled across them, others just waving their arms and pleading with people to join them.

That's when it becomes truly apparent: this is weird. This is different. This is another country. And that's what travel's all about. I'd never been to Bali. If that sounds shocking to you, it was far more shocking to the inhabitants of the Indonesian island.

"So, how many times you been to Bali?" someone would ask. "Me? First time.""First time? No!"

Australians love Bali. It's like a sunny magnet most of us seem to find irresistible. After all, it's close to home, it's cheap, and the weather's great. What's not to love, right?

Well, plenty for me.

All those other Australians, for starters. Who wants to go to some exotic overseas locale just to hang out with the people you hang out with every day?

That was Bali in a bag for me - an island of drunk antipodeans taking advantage of a gentle people and a good exchange rate. It would be nothing but parasailers and resort pools, endless nights of Bintang and AFL grand final replays.

That sounds about as much fun as a family dinner at Arnold Schwarzenegger's house, so I've always spent my travels elsewhere.

Until now.

A work assignment in Bali had popped up, so I was on the plane and over there. That was when I realised the island actually is all those things I thought it was - but so much more.

The streets outside the airport are as chaotic as the queue to get through quarantine. Scooters carrying whole families zip between lumbering old trucks, cars honk their horns in the vain hope it'll get the whole mess moving.

Somewhere to our left is Kuta, that famed den of Aussie-led debauchery. I'm heading to Seminyak, however, which seems to be Kuta's slightly upmarket cousin.

There, the streets are crazy but they're not too crazy. No one's parasailing above the beach; in fact, no one's doing much of anything by the beach, save for wandering slowly up and down it.

There's a restaurant advertising the latest NRL and AFL screening times but there's also a little hole-in-the-wall joint, one with plastic seats and a menu stored only in the chef's head. It sells fish curries and nasi goreng - it's brilliant.

Sure, there are Aussie surf brand shops selling Havaianas but there are also little general stores selling Balinese snacks and supplies to the local population.

There might be elements of Bali I'm not into but it doesn't take long to figure out how easy it is to avoid these elements. Once that's done, you're left with an interesting, beautiful place, one with a rich culture; friendly people and tasty food. One I would happily go back to.

It's amazing how you can build up an idea of what a country or city is like without ever having set foot there. Bali's not the only place but it's the one that sticks out.

Places get a reputation, sometimes through the media, sometimes through friends, sometimes just through some sort of bizarre travellers' osmosis. Those reputations can be bang on, but not always.

I expected Mexico City to be so dangerous that I wouldn't want to leave my hotel without an armed guard. But it wasn't. I expected Amsterdam to be filled with opportunistic stoners hunting for munchies but, for the most part, it was not. I expected the Chinese to be unfriendly. They're anything but. And I expected Bali to be a bit of a hole.

With all the talk of the drunken Aussie hordes taking over, you can almost forget it's a part of Asia. Then you see the temples by the side of the road - beautiful, intricate structures just left there to watch the passing traffic. You take a drive to Ubud past locals tilling the fields; you see the town itself, with history and culture seeping out of its sides.

That's Bali. Sure, you can go for a parasail if you want. And you can watch the footy.

But you don't have to.

What do you think of Bali? Are you a fan of joining the party on Kuta or have you escaped to the enjoy the culture and quiet of Ubud? Post a comment below.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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