~Life’s a beach and then you die
Bali is often celebrated for its rich cultural traditions but I doubt it would get so many tourists if it didn’t have such outstanding beaches as well. These are places where you can get back to nature and eschew the cold-blooded materialism of the modern world for the simple pleasures of long walks in the sand, salty dips in the inviting sea and – if you are lucky – the proverbial “coconut on the beach” as Robinson Crusoe would have experienced it back in his day.
But Bali being Bali, the sharp contradictions created from the juxtaposition of a traditional and deeply-mystical local culture with the hedonistic ways of modern-day tourists are also evident at the beach, in fact especially so. Since for the Balinese, the sea is a deeply spiritual place. It is where the ashes of a cremated person are scattered or are eventually deposited by the river. The Balinese believe that we never die. Rather, we go back to nature and are reunited once again.
So, as a result of these beliefs it is not unusual to see cremation ceremonies taking place on the beach in Bali. Sometimes the fragments of a funeral pyre are even washed up by the sea at a later time: a stark reminder that death is never too far away however much we would like to believe otherwise.
But the beach is also a place for fun. At least that’s what those crazy, barely-dressed foreign tourists think. Tiny bikinis and garish tropical shorts. Hormone levels into the stratosphere.
It is comforting to know that whilst in Bali you are unlikely to be very far away from a good beach – most likely not more than an hour. Nonetheless, the beaches do vary quite a lot. Most are sandy but some are pebbly. Some have seas as rough as Indonesian moonshine while others are so still that Narcissus could get a glimpse of himself in the waters quite easily.
Most of the beaches that I have visited in Bali I have liked but a few I would definitely never visit again. So here is my list of just ten of them. The beaches are rated on a scale of 1 to 10 - but are in no particular order whatsoever!
1. Nusa Dua. A “gated” resort area in South Bali where well-heeled holidaymakers are pretty much guaranteed that they don’t have to rub shoulders with the local riff-raff. Pretty much a no go zone for backpacker traveler type tourists. As for the beach itself, it’s not bad – sandy and clean but nothing special. Verdict: 6/10
2. Lovina Beach. I have fond memories of Lovina as it is the first beach I visited in Indonesia way back in the 1990s when sending post cards was still de rigueur and a small bottle of coke sold for Rp350. Got badly sunburnt as I vastly underestimated the ferociousness of the Indonesian sun (why isn’t solar power a big thing here?) Lovina is down-to-earth and unpretentious if lacking in thrills – early morning dolphin spotting is one of the most exciting activities here. The sandy beach is expansive but unspectacular. Okay for swimming. Verdict: 5/10
3. Bali’s most popular beach, Kuta attracts the young party crowd whose pleasures lie in the visceral rather than the cerebral or spiritual. Think tattoos, booze, scooters and sports bars. The only culture here will be in your yogurt. Kuta Beach is expansive, busy and has to be raked and cleaned of rubbish every day. It still attracts plenty of surfers. Great for people watching. Play safe – whatever you may get up to! Verdict: 7/10
4. Blue lagoon, Padangbai. One of Bali’s “hidden beaches”, Blue Lagoon is one of my favorite beaches in Bali – and is especially enjoyable if the weather is fine and the sea calm. To get there it’s a bit of a trek but from a positive aspect that helps keep visitor numbers down. When we were there, there were only a handful of other tourists - a far cry from the mayhem at Kuta! If you are lucky and the sea is calm – which is not very often! – the snorkeling is pretty good. Otherwise just lie back and soak up the sun! Verdict: 8/10
5. Mushroom Beach. This wonderful sandy beach cannot actually be found on the main island of Bali but on the nearby island of Nusa Lembongan, which along with its sister islands Nusa Penida and Nusa Ceningan is still technically part of the province of Bali. And what a beach it is! Its secluded location means it is never that crowded and – if conditions are supportive - the snorkeling can be pretty good too - even if the sea temperature is noticeably cool. Verdict: 9/10
6. Lebih Beach. This expansive beach is not particularly attractive due to its volcanic black sands but the huge waves entice plenty of surfers. Watch out though: at high tide the beach is pretty much inaccessible. Noted for its affordably priced seafood, Lebih Beach – like several other beaches in Bali – has some dark secrets that most tourists will never discover: during the 1965-66 pogroms against communists some 50,000 Balinese were slaughtered and many of the bodies were buried in mass graves by beaches such as Lebih Beach. In an act of further concealment, many plush hotels were then built on these burial sites - such as the Oberoi, a five star beach-side hotel built by the government in the early 1970s, under which the remains of two thousand communists are said to lie. Spooky! Verdict: 4/10
7. Banyuning Beach, Amed. On the arid north east coast of Bali are many coarse black volcanic sandy and pebbly beaches. Banyuning Beach is one of them and it is located in a wonderfully remote location about eleven kilometers along the road from Culik in Amed. Close to the shore lies the wreck of a Japanese steel freighter in 6-12 meters of water. Being in such shallow water, the coral encrusted wreck is a mini ecosystem in itself, and snorkeling here is like being in a large aquarium. In this bay are also some of the most beautiful coral fields in Bali. The huge sea fans are a sight to behold. Verdict: 9/10
8. Dreamland Beach. One of the things I wanted to do in the rugged south of Bali was check out a beach called Dreamland. I’d heard good things about it a number of years back and how it was a quiet and idyllic refuge for surfers looking for that perfect wave. The reality today is very different, however, and the ravages of the mass-market tourism industry have unfortunately turned Dreamland into Brickland. More here. Verdict: 3/10
9. Jimbaran Beach. I’m always twinged by a feeling of sadness whenever I visit Jimbaran Beach as I usually end up here before making my way to the nearby airport to catch my plane back home to Jakarta. The sandy beach is nothing special and the seafood restaurants a rip-off but if you are lucky the sunsets can be as spectacular as they are at Kuta. Verdict: 5/10
10. Padang Padang Beach. Made famous by American actress Julia Roberts in her much maligned film “Eat Pray Love”, Padang Padang Beach is a very nice beach and a huge improvement on the now ruined and overly-commercialized Dreamland Beach which is not far away. Admittedly, it does get a bit crowded at times but you can usually find a nice enough spot to chill out. Verdict: 7/10