Discovering The Enchanting Isles of Bali & Flores In Indonesia

Discover the breathtaking beauty of the classic Indonesian Islands with its lush green hills and pristine white sands that has everyone wanting to return
Rinca Island in Flores
Rinca Island in FloresGetty Images

On my first morning in Bali, I see a slender feminine figure, dressed in a bright batik sarong. She lays a basket brimming with frangipani blossoms, a few grains of rice and a coin in a carved niche by the entrance to her home. The small palm-leaf basket, or the canang sari as its called, also contains a gambier, a betel nut and lime to represent the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, respectively a few seconds of intricate hand gestures before she lights an incense stick and glides away. The Balinese make canang sari offerings on a daily basis, very often multiple times in a day. It's not uncommon to see canang sari on street intersections, in front of homes and shops.

For many, Bali is all about kaleidoscopic sunsets, verdant rice terraces, monster waves and a rollicking nightlife, especially the strip along Kuta beach where beer-swilling gap-year backpackers rule. Bali is all this and a lot more. Religion is not just an integral part of Balinese life it is life itself. Bali is the only Hindu enclave in the predominantly Muslim Indonesian archipelago of over 17,000 islands and she wears this identity prominently and proudly. Beginning from the airport in Denpasar, there are statues, draped with black and white checked material, at every street corner.

A Templar Trail

Its often said that there are more temples per square kilometre in Bali than anywhere else in the world, and it could well be true. Every home has a temple and then there are family and village temples. Each village has three temples dedicated to the holy trinity, explains my guide Made. Theres a good reason why Bali is called the Island of a Thousand Temples.

Goa Gajah Temple, Ubud
Goa Gajah Temple, Ubud

Rock-cut temples set against exotic backdrops, embedded with soft green mosses with carved Garuda statues and ornamental gates and the sounds of gamelan ensembles wafting through multiple courtyardsBalinese temples have little in common with Indian temples. Their legends and epics, on the other hand, Vishnus mount Garuda, Ramayanas Rama and Ravana and Bhimav and Arjuna from Mahabharata are what most Indians have grown up listening to.

On an island where every view is postcard-perfect, Bali's temples are her most iconic landmarks - the dramatic sunset and silhouettes of Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, the mist covered peaks of Mount Agung at Besakih the mother temple, the Pura Taman Ayun that translates to Garden Temple in the Water, the mysterious ruins of Goa Gajah or the beautifully carved Batuan Temple complex thats over 1,000 years old. The sunset at Uluwatu is just as spectacular as the guidebooks promise. Perched at the end of a cliff, nearly 70 metres over the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean, Uluwatu is overrun by tourists at all hours but more so around sunset. Even as the sun begins its daily descent, Im ushered into an open-air arena, with the temple and the sea as the perfect backdrop to watch the hypnotic kecak dance.

Kecak dance
Kecak danceWikimedia Commons

About 40 men, dressed only in black-and-white checked sarongs, each with a red hibiscus planted behind their ears, sit in a circle oblivious to the steep banks of spectators that surround them. As the turquoise sky shot with intense shades of pink and copper made way for a bruised purple afterglow, their soft hum of the polyrhythmic chant cak, cak, cak, reached a crescendo. Its the familiar story of Sita being kidnapped by Ravana and rescued by Rama who was helped by Hanumana and Garuda. I was riveted, in part by the exquisite costumes of the main characters but mostly by the chanting men. Throughout the hour-long performance, the men sit, sway and move as one, forming a wall of sound.

Caci whip fighting in Flores
Caci whip fighting in FloresGetty Images

The kecak, or the monkey dance as the West has come to know of it, came into its present form in the 1930s when German painter Walter Spies, one of Balis earliest expats, encouraged a Balinese dancer to adapt the ancient chanting to a tourist performance. I remember being mesmerised by the brief kecak scene in Tarsem Singhs escapist fantasy The Fall about a decade ago and it was no different when I saw it live recently. The spell was broken only after good triumphed over evil and the houselights came on to facilitate selfies with Ravana and Rama.

The Balinese are just as serious about their food. The tiny island offers a smorgasbord that will satisfy every palate and fit every budget. There are honest-to-goodness warungs (tiny road side cafs) all over the island that serve local food like babi guling (suckling pig) or Balis take on satay thats called sate lembat. Ubud is where you head if you are looking for organic, vegan, gluten-free or macrobiotic food served in tropical gardens overlooking emerald green paddy fields or lily ponds. Acai berry smoothies, pancakes and quinoa pasta are menu staples in Ubuds organic hipster cafs. Seminyak is where you head for trendy fusion food, al fresco meals with killer views or sunset drinks at beach lounges. Seafood dinners on the beach in Jimbaran are touristy but the soft crash of waves soundtracking a candle-lit meal of fresh seafood, grilled over coconut husk, is one of the simpler pleasures of Bali.

Bali is booming with tourists. It was once a haven for rock-and-roll stars, artists and world-weary sophisticates but these days the overdeveloped road between Denpasar and Ubud is mired in gridlock. The resort enclaves of Seminyak, Ubud and Kuta are so overcrowded that developers are reaching for the unexploited corners of North Bali. And, yet, Bali is still enchanting and it is possible to find authentic Bali beyond the painted masks and T-shirt vendors.

To A Pristine Island

A pink sunset from Labuan Bajo
A pink sunset from Labuan BajoWikimedia Commons

From Bali, I flew an hour-and-a-half to Labuan Bajo, a scruffy little fishing town. I flew over terrain that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting all aquamarine water dotted and flecked with tiny splashes of green and tufts of white clouds. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Flores, a rugged island in the Nusa Tenggara province peppered with active volcanoes, tribal villages, incredible dive sites and the Komodo National Park. Flores is what Bali used to be two decades agopristine instagram-worthy vistas and authentic experiences.

The national park is spread over 25 volcanic islands of which the three biggest are Komodo, Rinca and Padar. This Unesco World Heritage Site is home to over 5,000 legendary Komodo dragonsthe largest lizard species in the world. My guide Martin utilised the two-hour boat ride from the bustling harbour in Labuan Bajo to Komodo to educate the group about different aspects of the giant reptiles. They can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh about 90kg. They eat up to 80 per cent of their body weight in one sitting and that can last them about a month, explained Martin.

A view from Flores island
A view from Flores islandWikimedia Commons

As we sailed across waters an indescribable shade of deep blue that exist only far, far away from shore, it was hard not to succumb to a sort of tropical torpor, but I was roused by the prospect of seeing dragons except both Martin and the guide at the national park repeatedly reminded me theres no guarantee with wild animals.

Less than 10 minutes after I started a mid-level hike (that lasts about 90 minutes) through the savannah-like landscape punctuated by towering lontar palms, I mentally checked off an item from my bucket listsee a real dragon. At the watering hole, shaded by tamarind trees, I spotted two Komodo dragons. Excited whispers among the visitors gave way to a hushed silence.

Meeting The Dragon

A Komodo dragon lording it in Flores
A Komodo dragon lording it in Flores

Even as the male dragon was oblivious to his audience, the slightly smaller female dragon ambled under the boiling Indonesian sun, forked tongue darting, and her black obsidian eyes unreadable. My lasting memory of Flores is the unlikely juxtaposition of the gargantuan reptiles with orange butterflies flitting on the sun-dappled forest floor.

A male Komodo dragon on the beach
A male Komodo dragon on the beachAdhi Rachdian//Flickr

The two-hour trek took us to the highest point of Komodo island, where a massive male dragon dozed in the bushes after a large meal of water buffalo. Just as I was walking towards the jetty, happy to have spotted the elusive animals, a little dragon shot across my path sending the guide into a tizzy. He is very young, probably just three years old. Young dragons mostly stay in trees because adults kill them. This one must have been hunting for insects, he explained, even as the dragons tail disappeared in the bushes.

Idyllic Beaches of Flores

Pantay Merah or Pink Beach on Komodo Island
Pantay Merah or Pink Beach on Komodo IslandAnton DIaz/Flickr

On the other side of Komodo island is the exquisite pink beach that gets its striking hue from tiny fragments of red coral combined with dazzling silica.

I spent the rest of the day snorkelling. The seas around Flores offer one of the world's richest marine environments. If legend is to be believed, the island was named so by 16th-century Portuguese colonists who were mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the corals in the surrounding waters.

Sunset from the Ayana Komodo Resort
Sunset from the Ayana Komodo ResortAyana

It is possible to spend an entire holiday exploring Flores marine life but there is a lot to do on terra firma. Head inland to Milo village and watch caci, the traditional fight dance of the Manggarai people drink ginger coffee or eat the fresh catch of the day at any one of the restaurants around the main street. Flores is on the verge of becoming Indonesias next holiday hotspotgo before the hordes get there.

The Information

Both Bali and Labuan Bajo offer multiple accommodations options across budgets. In Bali, before you decide on your budget, its important to decide on the location. The uber-luxe W Retreat & Spa (Tariff: Starts $370 Website) offers villas with private pools and suites with spectacular views. Families on a budget can try Harris Hotel & Residences in Kuta (Tariff: From $38 per night, Website ) and Accor's Mercure Bali Legian (Tariff: From $64 per night, Website) is perfect for those who want to straddle the two worlds. Couples can head to Hanging Gardens in Ubud (Price on Request, Website ) one of the most romantic resorts on the island. Situated on a private strip of Pede Beach, Luwansa Beach Hotel (Tariff: $75 doubles Website) in Labuan Bajo is a great mid-budget option. Indulge your Robinson Crusoe fantasies at the Ayana Komodo Beach Resort (Tariff: $225 per night doubles, Website)

CURRENCY: One Indonesian Rupiah is about .0052 Indian rupees. US dollars are the most easily accepted foreign currency.

VISA: Indians do not need a visa for Bali for a stay less than 30-days. Extended visa costs INR 2400.

Getting There

The most convenient way to reach Flores or Labuan Bajo from India is by air. You'll need to book a flight to one of the major airports in Indonesia, such as Jakarta (Soekarno-Hatta International Airport) or Bali (Ngurah Rai International Airport). Once you land in Indonesia, you'll need to take a domestic flight to Labuan Bajo. There are several airlines that operate flights from Jakarta or Bali to Labuan Bajo. Airlines like Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, and Wings Air offer regular flights to Labuan Bajo.

What To See & Do

FLORES: This island is all about experiencing nature at its tropical best. If you have a week to spend, hire a car and drive around the island, visiting Spiderweb rice fields of Ruteng. Climb the Mt Kelimutu to see its three volcanic lakes of different colours, and walk through the Batu Cermine Caves in West Manggarai.

What To Shop

Bali is a treasure trove for souvenir-hunting tourists. Shopaholics can take their pick from fine art, handicrafts, batik, silver jewellery, antique furniture, wood and stone carvings and masks. In Flores, look for locally grown Manggarai coffee. Balinese cocoa is finding its place in the world of chocolates look out for commercially made slabs of Pod Chocolates or artisanal organic chocolates in cafés in and around Ubud is backpacker central in between the two is Legian.

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