With its pounding surf, emerald-green rice terraces and exceptionally artistic culture, the small volcanic island of Bali – population 3.1 million and the only Hindu society in Southeast Asia – has long been Indonesia’s premier tourist destination. Although it suffers the predictable problems of congestion and commercialization, Bali’s original charm is still much in evidence, its distinctive temples and elaborate festivals set off by the mountainous, river-rich landscape of the interior.
Bali’s most famous and crowded resort is Kuta, an eight-kilometre sweep of golden sand, with plenty of accommodation and the best shopping and nightlife on the island. Surfing is fun here too, but experienced wave-riders head for the surfing beaches on the Bukit peninsula and along Bali’s southwest coast. Sanur is a fairly sedate southern beach resort, but most backpackers prefer the tranquil island of Nusa Lembongan, the beaches of peaceful east-coast Amed, Candi Dasa and Padang Bai. Immensely rich sea life means that snorkelling and diving are big draws at all these resorts. Dolphin-watching is the main attraction in Lovina on the north coast, while Bali’s major cultural destination is Ubud, where traditional dances are staged every night and the streets are full of organic cafés and arts-and-crafts galleries. In addition, there are numerous elegant Hindu temples to visit, particularly at Tanah Lot and Besakih, and a good number of volcano hikes, the most popular being the route up Gunung Batur, with Gunung Agung only for the very fit.
Transport to and from Bali is efficient: the island is served by scores of international and domestic flights, which all land at Ngurah Rai Airport just south of Kuta, as well as round-the-clock ferries from Java, west across the Bali Strait from Gilimanuk, and from Lombok, east of Padang Bai. Pelni ferries from ports across Indonesia call at Benoa harbour.
Bali was a more or less independent society of Buddhists and Hindus until the fourteenth century, when it was colonized by the strictly Hindu Majapahits from neighbouring Java. Despite the subsequent Islamicization of nearly all her neighbours, Bali has remained firmly Hindu ever since. In 1849, the Dutch started to take an interest in Bali, and by January 1909 had wrested control of the whole island. Following a short-lived Japanese occupation in World War II, and Indonesia’s subsequent declaration of independence in 1945, Bali became an autonomous state within the Republic in 1949. But tensions with Java are ongoing and there is concern about wealthy entrepreneurs from Jakarta (and the West) monopolizing the financial benefits from Bali’s considerable attractions, with the Balinese fearing they may lose control of their own homeland. These tensions were horrifically highlighted when Muslim extremists from Java bombed Kuta’s two most popular nightclubs on October 12, 2002, killing more than two hundred people and sending Bali’s tourist-dependent economy into severe decline. A second attack, in October 2005, came just as the island was starting to recover. Reprisals and religious conflict have not ensued, however, due in part to Bali’s impressively equanimous Hindu leadership; by mid-2008, tourist numbers were healthier than ever, though it will take a lot longer to redress the hardships caused by the bombings.