On my last full day in Bali, I hopped on the back of a motorbike with a local who showed me the highlights of the lower Karangasem Regency. My tour guide was Han, a local who offered to take me around the region. His tour turned out to be the perfect wrap up to my time in Bali.
There really is no experience like the one you can get from a local showing you around. I got a personalized tour of the region with opportunities to learn about Indonesian culture and take in some of the sights on my own terms.
Han ended up driving me to 5 separate locations, including a traditional Bali village, two water palaces, a chocolate and soap factory, and a chilled-out, sandy beach. Below, I describe my experiences visiting each of these places, but the real story to share is how wonderfully well-rounded Han had made this tour.
Han's Adventure Tour
Han and I laid out the plan for my final day in Bali. It would include 5 major stops and some little surprise stops along the way.
In case you have the chance to visit the region one day, I've mapped out where we went and the approximate paths we took to get there in the image below.
The course was about 30 miles (under 50 km) round trip and took up the whole day from 8am to 5pm.
One of the best parts of the trip was Han. He provided those extra human touches that made it exactly the kind of travel I like: an authentic experience grounded in real human connections and an appreciation for our world.
The places I visited kept reminding me of the themes I had confronted throughout my travels. It was an unexpected, perfectly representative way to close out my travels abroad.
1. The Traditional Tenganan Village
Our first stop was a 10-minute, bumpy drive up a back road behind Candidasa to Tenganan Village. Tenganan is special because it is a village that has remained relatively untouched in terms of its preservation of ancient, pre-Hindu customs and traditional Bali way of life. They preserve their customs by enforcing marriage within the village. They must give up residence there if they marry outsiders.
Han introduced me to a man from the village at the gate. I paid a small, maybe $0.30 fee to enter, and then was brought around the whole village.
The village thrives on the fees, donations, and souvenir purchases of tourists to maintain and expand on its infrastructure. For example, when we were walking around, there were several villagers working on one of the roads in the village. The guide told me it was basically paid for by the tourism to the town.
I was brought through the center space of the village where they hold huge festivals and ceremonies throughout the year. Festivals include gladiator battles and ritual dances as well as cockfighting and battles between local youth.
I was particularly in awe over the intricately designed crafts they sold in the village. They didn't push these on me at all—I was interested in how they were made so my guide showed them to me in detail.
He and his wife and neighbor handcraft traditional style sarongs hand stitched or using an original loom. The patterns and colors are quite subdued and way more authentic and one-of-a-kind compared to the brightly colored, mass-produced ones you will see at shops all over the country.
What really got me were the Lontar he designs. Lontar are a type of manuscript inked over palm leaf and strung together. They can depict many aspects of life including legends, history, genealogy, healing, constellations, and more. I thought this was the most impressive of all the art I had seen in Bali. The detail of these drawings were amazing!
Here's a quick video of my guide inking one of them:
You can be certain that purchasing these crafts will directly benefit the local villagers in Tenganan.
2. Tirta Gangga Garden and Palace
Our next stop was Tirta Gangga—a water palace with landscaped gardens and pools. Han clued me into the fact that I didn't need to pay any of the guides outside the place to walk me around—I could guide myself. This was great because I love being able to explore a place on my own.
I paid a 20,000 IDR entrance fee and then walked around for almost an hour on my own. I almost fell in love with Tirta Gangga for a few different reasons.
First, it was an extremely hot day and I was able to go for a dip in one of the big pools. There is usually a 10,000 IDR fee to go in but nobody was managing payment at the time so I went in for free along with only a couple of other tourists and a handful of Balinese locals. It's too bad I was there 2 days before the November full moon. Apparently, if you bathe in this pool on a full moon you will have long-lasting health and youth!
Second, I had never seen architecture quite like what I found at Tirta Gangga. My favorite part was the raised octagonal platforms in one of the reflecting pools.
You could hop onto each platform—positioned just above the water line—and observe coy fish swimming around you. There's something really satisfying about jumping across these platforms, as if I was walking on water.
Third, taking in the entire grounds was a feast for my eyes. There were tropical plants and flowers, bright green grasses, glistening pools, stone carvings and walkways, and a symbolic, 11-tiered lotus fountain to tie it all together.
All of it was beautifully manicured and maintained by a slew of locals who were busy at work even as the tourists weaved around the area.
Lastly, in the north west corners of the grounds , I found an area symbolically representing the transitory struggle between humans and gods and demons depicted through 8 sculptures arranged in a meditative circle.
There is woman (Manusa), man (Manus), demon (Bhuta) and god (Dewa) plus 4 of their hybrids (e.g., Woman-Demon) displayed in between.
I thought these statues, in particular Bhuta and the demon hybrids, were fascinating! As a solo traveler, I had to get a selfie with the Bhuta-Woman hybrid—my favorite of them all and clearly my best pal.
That tongue!! :P :P
At the opportune moment, Han eventually met me inside and offered some one-on-one tidbits about the place. I really appreciated this balance between leaving me to it and then providing me with some extra info toward the end.
3. Talking Politics and Visiting a Market on the way to Ujung
After Tirta Gangga, we took a long, steady drive down from the upper countryside to reach another water palace called Ujung. On the way, we stopped on the roadside to snap photos of Mount Seraya in the distance across farmland.
In these stretches of travel time, I had many conversations with Han about the area and Indonesian culture. At one point, I also asked Han about his perception of America. His positive view of the USA quickly became very clear to me.
And the reason? Obama. He said "Obama very good. He stay here in Indonesia." I looked this up later on and, sure enough, Obama once lived in Jakarta with his mother who visited there to work with the Indonesian-American Friendship Institute when Obama was a young boy.
I love finding out little positives like this about my own country on the other side of the world!
Han stopped at one point to pick up a few items at a marketplace. I got to walk around there for a while, observing all of the different produce people had for sale. This was a true local farmers market and not something I could have found easily on my own.
When we got back on the bike, Han gave me some apples and mangos to hold onto in my day pack—insisting I keep them to have on the beach later.
When we arrived at Ujung, he asked me if I'd like to go inside. I told him I felt satisfied with my time at Tirta Gangga and with the view I was already seeing of Ujung from the road! I snapped this photo and we moved on.
4. Charly and His Bamboo Chocolate Factory
After turning down a side road and paying a small toll, we rode a narrow dirt path between towering palms toward the beach. Emerging seemingly out of nowhere we came upon a few little houses set up between trees.
An American expat, aptly named Charly, set up a chocolate factory here. Charly had started out making soap and eventually used local cacao to make homemade chocolate products. I was led inside one of the huts by a local under Charly's employment. He gave me a chocolate tasting and then I purchased a chocolaty drink to sip outside on polished stumps.
If you visit, you can try Charly's chocolate relatively guilt free, as coconut sugar is used in his products and is considered one of the healthiest sugars in the world! Some of the chocolates I tried were infused with a slight spice and others had a rather subdued sweetness.
They were not anything like the overly sweet chocolate I was used to from the West (Related: My tour of the Lindt Chocolate Museum in Cologne).
What really fascinated me about this place was the buildings were little huts made out of bamboo. At first, Charly wanted to make bamboo pyramids but found the look to be too dull, so he bent the bamboo to create the building's bulbous bottoms.
I absolutely loved them especially since they reminded me so much of little hobbit homes with their port hole windows and rounded doorways.
Charly's coconut soaps are packaged and sold inside a building designed in the shape of a ship. Set against the backdrop of the beach, this building almost looks as if its shipwrecked on a desert island. Inside, I found a group of local women huddled around a table putting labels on the soaps. They encouraged me to smell all of the different varieties—so fresh!
Unfortunately, Charly was taking a nap at the time I visited (the middle of the afternoon!), so I didn't get to meet him. But his presence was felt. His employees seemed to consider him family and appreciate him for bringing jobs to their poor neighborhood.
And Charly appeared to have set up something here that is a true example of deviating the norm. He followed his heart and created his dream home and business, bringing something positive and unique to the quiet nearby town of Jasri. Truly inspiring.
5. White Sand Beach
Close by Charly's is a beach you won't stop hearing about while in Candidasa and the surrounding region. The famous White Sand Beach is populated by lounge chairs and eateries ready to cater to tourist's every need.
Han dropped me off here and gave me a few hours to chill by myself. Although the sand there was more beige than white, it was pristine and a welcome change from the stone beaches riddled with litter in Candidasa.
I soaked in the relaxing atmosphere here and took full advantage of these final restful moments on the last full day of my journey abroad.
I lied flat in the chairs, nibbled at the fruit Han had given me, and took in the sounds of the ocean waves. I gladly accepted a massage offered by one of the women working there—much needed after holding on tightly to the motorbike all day!
Nearly 5pm, the time Han was going to return to pick me up, I ordered a meal which turned out to be possibly the best meal I ate during my entire 2 weeks in Bali.
The white fish was fresh and lightly grilled, served with a sweet garlic salsa and a side of rice and vegetables. So yum!
That's a Wrap
Han eventually drove me back to Crystal beach where I thanked him and told him he truly gave me a gift on my last day in Bali. I had experienced a full, well-rounded day that touched on the experience of my entire 15-months of travel.
I relaxed on one of Crystal Beach's day beds that night, watching as the sun set behind a mountainous eastern shore across the bay. The sun's rays broke through dark clouds in the distance as I thought back on how perfectly the day had summarized many of the themes I had encountered during the entire course of my travels.
These were themes like learning about culture through the eyes of the locals, appreciating the immense beauty of our Earth, identifying people who have created a life that is true to who they are even if it's a bit unusual, and reminding oneself to always stop, relax, and appreciate the moment in front of you.
The motorbike tour with Han seemed to be the perfect wrap-up to an incredible "year" of deviation.
Next up in my travels: My trip home! I had a layover in Tokyo where I spent my time rushing around to do some holiday shopping that included a lot of anime and nerdy gamer stuff. Then, I touched down for a few days in San Francisco to visit my very pregnant best friend before returning to my hometown of New York. Check back next week for the next installment!