We’re a few days into our Bali family holiday and – I’ve got to be honest – I could get very used to this VIP treatment we’ve been getting from our BALI GOLDEN TOUR driver.
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, and the cost per day – when converted – works out less than a taxi through central London.
As we pass the lush green rice fields with their intricate layers our driver Marde explains how each individual rice plant is hand sown into the marshy field. With the number of fields, I’d assumed that rice was one of Bali’s biggest exports, but he reveals most of it is actually used for local consumption.
We wind our way through tiny villages, and I marvel again at the simplicity of life here. I spot a familiar sight – a pile of smouldering rubbish on the side of the road – and ask Marde about it. He explains the country is too poor to provide the weekly rubbish collection we take for granted, so locals will gather piles of refuse themselves and burn them off.
I spot a women standing in an open section of the water drain that runs alongside the road. ‘Is she… washing her clothes?’ I ask incredulously. ‘Yes,’ Marde answers, with a bemused smile.
It makes me appreciate my comfortable life that much more, but also makes me realise just how disposable Western life has become. These people have so little, yet seem so much more content than the people I see everyday at home. I wonder if we’ve fallen into a trap of always wanting more, more, more, and never quite appreciating what we already have.
There’s an admirable sense of community here – Marde explains how Balinese people have a deep sense of respect and duty towards the villages where they are born.
In a way, they’re almost autonomously run; when something needs to be built or repaired, or there is a celebration for prepare for, everyone pitches in to get it done. Very unlike the ‘pass-the-buck’ culture that seems to prevail in wealthier countries.
Our next stop is the famous Tegalalang rice fields. As a child growing up in New Zealand I used to dream of seeing them in real life, so it was quite surreal to see then stretching out before us, lush and green.
The vertiginous terraces drop sharply into a gully, and if you fancy the walk you can pick you way carefully down one side, and up the other. It was late in the day, and the girls were getting tired, so we decided just to take some photos, and admire the magnificent view.
As we piled back in the minivan, I’m thankful again for our decision to hire a driver for our stay – being able to sit back and enjoy the ride home makes the day so much more enjoyable. Marde knows where to go, and how long it will take, and when we hit a build up of traffic he knows all the alternative routes to ensure we’re not caught in the snarl.
He also gives us some fascinating insights into Balinese life. He tells us how hard the island was hit after the Sari Club bombings, and how horrified and distressed the Balinese people were that something so awful had happened on their soil. It had taken many years for tourism – the lifeblood of the economy – to recover, he said, and many, many families had struggled in its wake.
I mention to him how the island seems immune to the shallow trappings of Western life. ‘Do you have celebrities?’ I ask. He shakes his head. ‘No, not really.’
I wonder if this can be right, so when I get back to the villa I Google ‘Balinese celebrities’. Aside from a reference to Indonesia’s Got Talent – where the entrants seem to be mostly from islands such as Jakarta – I can’t find anything. Which, when I think more about it, does seem to fit in with the modest, unassuming way of life I’ve seen in Bali.
Taking advantage of the grandparents also being on holiday with us, the other half and I venture out one evening to Jimbaran Beach.
There are a string of beach shack-style restaurants along this popular coastal spot; we pick one and walk through, and are greeted by the most stunning expanse of beach. To our right, far in the distance, we can just make out a cycle of planes landing at Denpasar Airport. Before us we can see the tiny outlines of fishing boats, while to the left the sandy white beach curves gently, tapering off at the tip of the bay.
We’re excited to see the tables are actually set in the sand, and grab one right at the front with uninterrupted views of the waves crashing frothily onto the beach.
We watch as a man pushes a cart piled high with fresh corncobs. He peels back the leaves, and grills them over hot coals, ready to sell to passersby. In front of him, a man walks along the waterline, a pony trailing behind him.
As the smell of roasted corn wafts lazily past, we listen to the soothing ebb and flow of the waves, and watch the sun sink towards the sea. This is heaven.
When darkness falls, we’re treated to a traditional Balinese dance show. Suddenly, a man with a violin appears, behind him his bandmates brandish a guitar, a cello and a bongo drum.
Tableside bands can often border on cringey, so we steel ourselves… but they’re amazing. When the violin player opens his mouth to sing his voice is so beautiful, I literally get goosebumps.
We couldn’t have wished for a more perfect night.
Afterwards we stumble back outside, grinning from ear-to-ear, where Marde magically appears. On the way home we make him sing Queen songs with us, at top volume. Bless him, he obliges, proving there really is no end to the ‘above and beyond’ service of Bali Golden Tours (sorry about that, Marde!).
Our final excursion came a couple of days later. We were visiting the famous sunset temple, Tanah Lot.
While definitely worth a visit, this popular tourist spot becomes increasingly busy as sunset approaches and I’m not sure I’d want to navigate pushchairs, or very small children though the crowds.
Marde had tipped us off about some restaurants located up on the cliffs overlooking the temple, so we made up our way up the steep incline and found a row of modest but cheerful open-air cafes. The selection was small (meals are prepared in tiny spaces with only the most basic amenities) and the tables unnervingly close to the vertiginous cliff edge (definitely not suitable for young children), but the views of the temple and out across the Indian Ocean are unbeatable.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t on our side during this visit, obscuring the sunset with dowdy grey clouds.
On our way back down I pause at a café I’d spotted on the way up. Sitting on a perch outside is a furry animal, like a cross between a possum and a raccoon, and I realise it’s actually a Luwak – or Asian Palm Civet.
These fluffy mammals famously eat coffee berries, digest the soft flesh, and pass the undigested beans. Native farmers collect the droppings, (thoroughly) clean them, roast them and brew them into Kopi Luwak coffee. The resulting brew is believed to be especially flavoursome – the result of being exposed to enzymes in the Luwak’s digestive system.
I’ve heard so much about this coffee, so can’t resist a cup: ‘Here is your cap-POO-ccino,’ the barista announces, with a cheeky grin. It’s smooth, rich and delicious; thumbs up for the poo coffee!
(Updated to add: in recent years animal charities have raised concerns about civets being held in captivity – rather than processing the cherries naturally in the wild – and the conditions they’re held in, so do your research to make sure you’re getting an authentic, ethically-sourced cup.)
As usual, Marde is right there when we come out, with his now familiar big smile. We’ve spent so many hours with him now that there’s a sense of sadness to know this is the last day we’ll spend together.
He had already told us that his wife was due to give birth to their first child, a girl, in three months’ time. He gestures towards our girls: ‘When my daughter is old enough, I will tell her about her two sisters in England,’ he says.
In just a few days he’d gone from our driver, to someone we considered a genuine friend. We went on a holiday, but came away with a new-found outlook on life, and that’s the true magic of Bali.
READ THE FIRST PART OF OUR BALINESE FAMILY HOLIDAY, HERE