The water is so clear you could almost count the grains of golden sand on the bottom.
The girls are in heaven, splashing in the warm, tropical waters of Nusa Dua, Bali, putting their newly learned swimming skills to the test. ‘Look Mummy, fish!’ my eldest shouts excitedly, as a silvery shoal zig-zags its way along the shallows.
We’d arrived in Bali a couple of days earlier, but the noise, traffic and over-commercialised bustle of Legian Beach had left us slightly underwhelmed. THIS was the Bali we’d pictured when we booked our flights a year earlier – blue skies, stunning sandy beaches, and the gentle shushing of the Indian Ocean as it rushed in and out. Heaven.
We could see rows of sun loungers further up the beach, sectioned off for the five-star resorts that ringed the bay, but we preferred to lay our sarongs down on the sand, in the shade of a tree. The girls made sand castles and splashed in the shallows with Daddy, while I read a book – entire chapters at a time, a rare treat these days!
Bali is one in a string of islands making up the archipelago known as Indonesia. But while it shares many similarities to its tropical neighbours, this island differs because the vast majority of its local people are Hindu, rather than Muslim.
You’ll often hear that the Balinese people are some of the nicest in the world, and we found no different. Their entire way of life is built around kindness, humility and an unshakeable sense of community that’s both humbling, and inspiring.
I’d read that the larger hotels were owned by foreign investors and big Indonesian companies, while the small villas and guest houses were owned and run by Balinese families, meaning the money was going straight back into local community.
This was one of the reasons we avoided the resorts, choosing instead to rent a three-bedroom GRAND BALI VILLA for our stay. Not only did the villa give us more private space for around the same price, it also felt like a more authentic stay, as we were surrounded by locals, rather than swarms of tourists. It wasn’t five-star luxury, but it was more authentic, more real.
During our stay we were lucky to have a car and driver made available to us, from BALI GOLDEN TOUR. As well as offering set tour schedules to all of the island’s most stunning sights and attractions, the company also gives visitors the option to hire a car and driver for the day, so you can create your own bespoke itinerary.
Which may sound like an impossible luxury, but the comparatively low cost of living in Bali means you can get all of this for $US60 (around £42) for 10 hours.
Our smiling driver introduces himself. In Bali it’s traditional to name your child according to the order in which they were born; his name – Marde literally translates to ‘Second’.
We pile into his minivan – a chattering mass loaded up with hats, bags, sunscreen and cameras, and his calm manner instantly soothes our travel-weary nerves.
We’d chosen to drive inland to Ubud to visit the famous Monkey Forest. It’s a free-for-all on Legian’s busy roads – mopeds buzz noisily in all directions, while cars fight for dominance at the crowded intersections.
We’re shocked to see a woman riding a moped through the chaos with a small boy – no more than three – sitting behind her. To make sure he doesn’t wriggle and fall off, she has literally lashed him to her own body with a length of fabric tied around both of their waists. As we pull up alongside our jaws drop open as we realise she also has a tiny baby strapped to her front.
This sight becomes commonplace over the next week as we learn this is simply how young parents transport their families in a city with limited public transport, and where few people can afford a car.
Dotted every few minutes along the busier roads are ramshackle shops with rows and rows of glass bottles, filled with petrol so drivers can top up their tanks. The vendors sit inches away, smoking cigarettes.
‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I gasp. ‘Very,’ Marde answers.
He explains that Absolut vodka bottles are used, as the wide neck makes it easier to pour petrol into. It’s not unusual, he says, for men to accidentally set themselves alight during the decanting process.
‘They’re not supposed to sell petrol like that,’ he shrugs, ‘but everyone does.’
As we make our way out of the bustle of the popular tourist beach, we start to glimpse the ‘real’ Bali. Dusty streets give way to lush green Banana trees, and then the famous rice terraces open out before us.
This was a sight I’d dreamed of seeing since I was a girl, and they’re just how I always imagined them – bright green gently sloping layers, cut into the surrounding hillside, irrigated using a process called ‘Subak’ an ingenius centuries-old system that channels fresh water from the volcanic lakes, and distributes it to all the plains and gullies where rice is grown.
We arrive at the MONKEY FOREST t at lunchtime, just as the muggy heat begins to close in. ‘Don’t go near the babies,’ Marde instructs us, as the mums can get territorial over their offspring. ‘If a monkey climbs on you, just stay calm and show them your open hands, so they can see you don’t have any food.’
As we wandered the forested trails, it was instantly clear these Balinese long-tailed monkeys were much more used to humans than we were to them; there was almost an air of arrogance as they sauntered alongside us.
Lil Sis was delighted when a baby – just a few months old – stopped in front of us, then sat right on the tip of her shoe. There are few places in the world where tourists can get so close up and personal with wild monkeys.
However, this unique access also proved to have a downside; over the next hour we saw three tourists get their backpacks burgled by dexterous simians searching for food (they can open a zip with ease, and are also partial to bottles of sunscreen and bottled water).
They can sniff a morsel of food a mile off – don’t buy the bananas on sale at the entrance unless you actually want to get buried under a mountain of monkeys. Trust me when I say, it’s not as cute as it sounds.
A bit further down the trail Lil Sis got spooked when a larger monkey jumped on her shoulders, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when travelling with younger children. Also, travel earlier in the day when temperatures are cooler, and the crowds less claustrophobic, and carry antibacterial gel in case you do happen to get scratched.
In the afternoon we travelled further into Ubud, to the ELEPHANT SAFARI PARK. The animals are clearly well looked after, and the staff genuinely love and care for these gentle pachyderms, but I find myself with conflicting feelings about this reserve.
The girls were so excited to see elephants so close up, and it really was the most amazing learning experience for them, but I left feeling slightly uneasy about the way the elephants are still essentially in captivity, and unsure if I agreed with the way they’re trotted out every hour to perform circus tricks.
Reflecting on it afterwards, I’d like to use our visit as a way to educate the girls, and myself, more about wildlife causes, and as a base to encourage and grow their compassion for the protection and conservation of wild animals.
We leave the Elephant Safari Park and exit to a see of identical minivans; just as we’re wondering how on earth we’ll find Marde, he bounds up to greet us.
It’s immeasurably easier to climb inside and let a local guide us where we need to go, rather than attempting to follow maps and street signs in an unfamiliar country; I must admit, I could get very used to this VIP-style service…
Read part two of our Bali family holiday HERE.
• moped photo, courtesy of Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock, Inc.