Travels

Bali History and Culture

While there is debate about Bali’s prehistoric history, there is ample proof of a well developed Megalithic culture. Nevertheless, good documentation about Balinese culture does not begin to emerge until the 8th or 9th century A.D. At this point the Balinese had already begun to practice various forms of Buddhism imported from India and there is evidence of Hindu influences as well. From the 10th to 11th century, Hinduism continued to merge with local customs. Through intermarriage, Javanese culture began to permeate royal court life and later spread to the villages.

The Hindu Majapahit Empire of Java conquered Bali in the 14th century. (The Majapahit imposed a caste system on Bali with themselves on top and the original inhabitants of the island on the bottom.) By the beginning of the 16th century Bali became a sanctuary for Hindus forced out of an increasingly Islamicized Java. As the Majapahit Empire crumbled, there was a huge influx into Bali of Javanese noblemen and craftsmen.

Indonesia’s wealth in spices, precious stones, gold and other exotic items have attracted traders for centuries. The islands in the Indonesian Archipelago were natural way stations on the trade routes between the Middle East, India and China. The Balinese were never an active seafaring people. It was the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Malays, Javanese and Bunganese who plied the trade routes. Later came the Portuguese, English and Dutch.

Bali has no naturally protected harbors and the coastline is notoriously perilous. Many coastal villages profited routinely by plundering shipwrecks. One such incident provoked the Dutch invasion of 1906, which was relatively late in their 300 years of colonial rule in Indonesia. Despite the bloody conquest, Balinese culture was relatively undisturbed for most of the years of Dutch occupation, partly because Singaraja, in the north of the island, was the only place that ships could anchor in relative safety and travel in the interior of the island was difficult. Ships from all over South East Asia stopped to exchange goods in Singaraja but for the most part, before the advent of airplanes, only the inhabitants of the north end of the island were directly exposed to foreign influences. Nevertheless, the Dutch did exploit the island vigorously, siphoning off essential resources through an efficient and clever system that used the local aristocracy to do their bidding. After the Dutch, Bali endured an era of Japanese occupation during World War Two and then became part of an independent Indonesia. Under Presidents Sukarno and Suharto political loyalties continued to shift the balance of power. Technically the aristocracy and the Brahmins (priestly caste) no longer “rule” but in practice they still enjoy a large measure of power and privilege.

The arrival, in the last few decades, of tourists, export industries and technology, have had many easily observed effects. The Balinese usually dress in Western cloths, they send faxes, roar down the streets on motorbikes and watch TV. But such changes can be misleading.

Beneath the Surface

Balinese reality is vastly more inclusive than Western consciousness allows. The Balinese have a word, “sekala,” for things which you can perceive with your sense of vision, hearing, smell or touch. There is another word, “niskala”, for “that which cannot be sensed directly, but which can only be felt within.” In the West, we only recognize sekala phenomena as “real”, but in Bali they make no distinction between the two.

Mystical forces, both malevolent and benevolent, occupy a central role in Balinese life. The principal Hindu-Balinese rituals and ceremonies are concerned with maintaining the balance between positive and negative forces. Demons and witches, called leyaks, are not creatures of fairy tales but dangerous and common menaces against which everyone must be on guard at all times. Objects and places which are considered inanimate in the West may be charged with mystical power and therefore very much alive to the Balinese. For this reason, they make offerings to many objects, including the tools used to make silver beads and the building in which the silversmiths work. Directions, numbers and dates can be charged with “kasaktian,” which means “magical power.” Every activity must be carried out with careful consideration and the Balinese often consult religious authorities for propitious dates for important events. The Balinese also accept dual realities, something may be true, but not true, and in certain circumstances they reject linear time.

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Tips for Traveling Around Lombok

In general when travelling Lombok you should drink plenty of fluid (water and fruit juices) to avoid dehydration. It’s certainly better to drink bottled water. Even in hotels it is best not to drink straight from the tap. Ice in drinks, however, is usually not a problem. Use common sense when choosing a place to eat. Eat in established restaurants that are clean, and if you are trying the hawkers in the street stick to those not serving meat unless your system is already well adjusted.

If you are using prescription drugs bring a sufficient supply. Pharmacies (apoteks) often can fulfill a prescription but the dosage may not be quite the same as your doctor has prescribed. Promptly take care of any cuts or burns – do not risk infection in this heat and humidity.

You can exchange most major world currencies (cash or traveler’s cheques) easily into Indonesian Rupiah. All hotels offer currency exchange but at less favorable exchange rates. It is best to change your money while still in the “tourist area” before visiting south, central or east Lombok. In these areas there are neither money changers nor credit card payment possibilities available!

In tourist areas (Senggigi or Gili Trawangan) and in the capital Mataram there are several “authorized” money changers available. If you choose to deal with a money changer – here are a couple of points worth remembering. First, the rate posted on the door usually is for amounts in notes of USD 100 – lesser denominated notes (i.e. USD 50) will be given a less favorable rate. Verify the exchange calculation next (ask to use the calculator or bring your own) and count your change before you leave the window. Lastly, be prepared, if you are cashing traveler’s cheques you will need to present your passport for identification and many money changers do not accept cash notes that have been defaced – or are in less than near mint condition. The official exchange rate is daily posted in all major newspapers. Also, rates that are too good to be true – generally watch out for.

Credit cards are accepted at better restaurants and retailers (tourist areas). But be aware, most retailers add an extra 3 – 5 % on your bill for the privilege of using plastic. You do not have to accept this: You’re not going to get anywhere arguing with the shopkeeper but if you want to get this surcharge back make sure the retailer or restaurant writes it down as an extra charge for using the card and then claim it from your monthly billing.

Most large hotels and restaurants will automatically add a service charge of between 5 – 10 percent to your bill which is quite sufficient. Smaller restaurants generally don’t add anything extra, but considering that the waiter’s wage may well be less than $1.00 a day – a tip of 5 – 10 percent is very much appreciated. Bellmen generally get Rp. 500 – Rp.1,000 for a small to medium sized piece of luggage, and with taxi drivers it is the norm to round up to the nearest Rp. 500 or Rp. 1,000 depending on the length of the trip. With tour guides tipping is up to you – just remember that your driver will probably receive a commission from anything you’ll purchase during the day.

The Essential and Complete Bali Travel Checklist

The essential and complete Bali travel checklist

Passports, Tickets and Visas

If you carry a Singapore, Malaysian, Philippines, Thai, Vietnam, Chile, HK, Macao, Brunei, Morocco or Peru you will not need a visa to enter Bali.

For all other passport holders you’ll need USD$25 on arrival (valid for 30 days, and extendable) to pay for your visa on arrival. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry into Indonesia, and you must have proof of onward passage (either return or through tickets).

When leaving Bali, you’ll have to pay a departure tax of 150,000Rp per person at the airport. You pay this in rupiah not US currency. Put this money aside and don’t spend it on shopping!

Pro Tip: If you want to avoid the queues and baggage collecting – use The Bali Concierge airport service for a VIP pickup experience. For USD$50 they will escort you from your arrival gate, handle all the visa stuff and put your bags through immigration – all while you wait at the bar and enjoy snacks.

Travel Insurance

Insurance when traveling anywhere is a must. Especially somewhere like Bali, where you are likely to do outdoor activities, ride scooters and get in the surf. You don’t want to be stuck without insurance. We recommend using a reputable insurance company, such as Zuji, who is underwritten by Allianz.

Drugs

Don’t even try Indonesia is very strict with drug laws, and even has the death penalty for drug trafficking. There are plain clothes police that also patrol the streets looking for sellers and users. Basically, don’t even try – else you’ll end up like the Bali 9 or Schapelle Corby.

Credit Cards

Bring em but be careful It’s always good to have a credit card with you when traveling, especially for those unexpected expenses. Remember to notify your credit card company that you are traveling, and give them your overseas contact details – otherwise they may cancel or suspend your card under suspicion of fraud. When using credit cards in Bali, make sure its only on legitimate looking credit card machines – be wary of devices that ‘skim’ and steal your card information. Avoid places that use the old type manual carbon copy units – any decent place should have a electronic unit. Rule of thumb: If you are not sure, just use cash.

Staying Healthy and avoiding “Bali Belly”

Indonesia is a developing nation and as such does not have the same level of sanitation and health care standards which we come to expect in developed nations. It’s recommended to be vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Flu. It’s best to consult your local doctor about vaccinations. The water in Bali is not recommended for drinking, so to avoid the infamous “bali belly” stick to bottled water. If you want to be extra careful, use your bottled water for brushing your teeth as well. Avoid ice in drinks from food stalls and small warungs (eatery). But ice from the convenience store or from a bar should be okay.

Alcohol and Drinks

Alcohol can be quite expensive Other than the locally made Bintang Beer (similar to and owned by Heineken) which is refreshingly Delicious and dirt cheap, and the horrible hangover inducing Arak, most alcohol is very expensive in Bali. This is supposedly due to the ‘moral’ tax put on by the Indonesian government. Eg. A bottle of Smirnoff Vodka can cost us to 500,000rp (About USD$55). So it’s a popular option to bring in your own duty free alcohol. Indonesian law allows up to 1L per person, which is not a lot. If you choose to bring more and get caught you will have to surrender it or pay a, *ahem*, “fine” of anything from 20,000rp to 100,000rp and you will be able to keep your alcohol.

Getting Around

The best way to get around Bali, if you are not game on driving/riding your own vehicle is taxi and car+driver services. Taxi’s are inexpensive (ie a metered taxi for a 45min ride is less than USD$7), see the bottom of this post for Taxi companies. Make sure the taxi is metered and starts at 5,000rp. You can also get car+driver services from about starting from USD$35 for a whole day – it would be recommended to tip the driver at the end of the day.

Mobile Phones and Wifi

Your own phone will probably be able to global roam on Indonesian networks, but it can be very expensive to make and receive calls. The best thing to do is purchase a local prepay sim card (like SimPati or 3) and pop it in your phone – you will then enjoy the low local rates. iPhones and Blackberry work but you’ll have to get a SIM card that has internet data. It’s easier to stick to the free wifi available at many cafes and bars.

Electricity plugs

In Indonesia they use 220V, 50 Cycle and the plugs are dual round prongs of the European variety. Adapters are available at some hotels OR can be purchased at Matahari’s ( supermarket ) for around 35,000 Rp.

Tipping is good karma

Tipping There will sometimes be a service charge tacked onto your restaurant bill. It is not compulsory, but it is good practice to tip your hotel porters, masseuses, maids and any other staff during your stay. It doesn’t have to be much – but you will ensure you will be looked after, and it would be greatly appreciated by the staff who only earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day.

Other Stuff

Sunscreen and moisturizer is expensive for some reason in Bali, bring your favorites from home. Condoms in Indonesia are not the best quality, it’d be safer and wiser to bring some of your own. Imodium (diarrhea medication) is worth keeping with you, you can buy them at any pharmacy (called apotik in Indonesian) in case of the infamous “bali belly”.