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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Most Scenic Place I've Ever Stayed At: Munduk, Bali

I was browsing through a travel magazine’s hot list of the best hotels, restaurants and attractions of the coming year the other day and it got me wondering what the best place I have ever stayed at was. Was it my first and (so far) only stay at a luxury resort on Koh Lanta in Thailand? The stylish Airbnb apartment in the heart of Madrid? Or the cozy and remote B&B on the Outer Hebrides in Scotland? There were lots of awesome places to chose from, but in the end my decision was easy: The best place I have ever stayed at was a wonderful, family-run 20-Dollar-a-night guest house in the north of Bali.

People aren’t kidding when they describe Bali as utterly magical. Escaping to Bali to a life of meditation, yoga and fresh fruit juices may have become somewhat of a cliché in the last few years, but it’s been close to two years since my visit now and I still dream about the island daily and so I can wholeheartedly say that I understand and share the fascination that keeps some people coming back again and again. Bali touches many people in a way that is hard to put into words - you have to experience it for yourself to understand why Bali is just so special.

But that being said, Bali isn’t exactly what you would call an off-the-beaten-path travel destination. Hundreds of thousands (!) of people flock to the island every single month to enjoy the beaches, make the most of the world-class surf and party the nights away at nightclubs and the numbers rise every year. If you really wanted to, you could probably spend weeks without any significant contact to the local culture and some places along the south coast have apparently become such bad examples of mass tourism that it makes some people run for the hills.

I don't believe that every single vacation we ever go on has to be the next most profound cultural experience and encounter, but I personally don't like flying halfway around the world to not ever leave the confines of a resort - I always want to go out and experience something I could not possibly experience at home. And that was why I really wanted to spend some time in a part of Bali that hasn't yet completely succumbed to tourism.

The airport of Denpasar is the most chaotic airport I have ever been at. After no less than three queues to pay the visa fee, clear immigration and then have your bags checked, you’re pushed into a crowd of taxi drivers that vie for your attention and any chance at respite is abandoned until you have managed to haggle your way into a cab at a price that seems somewhat reasonable. It's an overwhelming kind of crazy!

We had a cab drop us off at the bus station in Denpasar because I had naively assumed that figuring out public transport on Bali would be easy enough (side note: it isn’t) and while we never really did manage to figure out how the local bus system worked, we somehow still managed to make our way up into the mountains along streets that became increasingly narrow and less busy. It was dark by the time we finally arrived in the small town of Munduk and it was so dark that you could barely make out the surrounding countryside at all. But the guest house that we had booked a room at welcomed us warmly like a bright beacon shining in the night and my friend and me toasted to ten days in Bali that were surely going to be memorable.

When I woke up the next morning and stepped out onto the balcony in front of our room, I was immediately blown away by the view. What had been enshrined in the darkness of the night when we had first arrived, now revealed itself as a scenic landscape of mountains, palm tree, ricefields and more green than I had ever seen anywhere else and I was giddy with excitement at the days ahead.

It had taken Bali less than five minutes to prove itself as one of the most scenic places I had ever been to – and when our first breakfast on the porch overlooking the valley quickly showed us that the Balinese must have perfected the art of cooking food that feels oh so indulging and yet nourishing at the same time, I also knew that it would be hard to leave eventually. I still dream about the Papaya-Pineapple-Shake I had every single morning with either Banana Pancakes or Indonesian fried rice, but somehow recreating them back home just doesn't feel the same.

After our first breakfast, we had our guest house owner draw us a map of the surrounding countryside and then set off exploring. We decided to go for a walk through the rice paddies and with palm trees lining the fields, the occasional colorful flower popping up among the ever present green and religious ornaments decorating the houses that we passed, we agreed that the scenery couldn’t get more postcard-perfect if it tried.

The rice fields around Munduk aren’t as large as some of the more famous ones on the island and they also can’t boast with a UNESCO World Heritage title, but they still touched me more than any other natural sight I saw on Bali – and that’s no easy feat for a place filled to the brink with beautiful things to discover. It certainly helped that the only other tourists we met were a French family and I think it was that solitude that made Munduk so special for me. But the longer I stayed the more baffled I became: How could a place so idyllic not have more visitors?

We passed Melanting Waterfall shortly after a quick rainshower which possibly made it even more atmospheric than it would have been in the blazing sunshine. Almost all great waterfalls I have seen in my life so far have been in colder and more barren landscapes (hello Iceland!) and so I loved the combination of the gushing water and lush jungle that felt so utterly abundant.

Munduk is a really small town and aside from a few guesthouses here and there, it has been mercifully untouched by mass tourism. There are no fancy resorts, busy nightclubs or ample shopping opportunities and so the people who bother to make the treck come to experience nature and find a slice of stillness in the mountains. I suppose that some people would find this lack of classic entertainment to be an annoyance on vacation, but I enjoyed that you could actually see and feel what life in Bali was like outside of the tourism industry.

I also enjoyed how life would slow down in the evenings and how the animals would continually grow quieter as it became darker until the only noises breaking the silence of the night came from the occasional car or scooter passing. I could see how just a few weeks of being part of this natural cycle of waking and sleeping could have a positive impact on a stressed out spirit - and looking back now, months and months later, this thought makes me long to go back even more.

Balinese culture is deeply rooted in rituals. It must be impossible to name just how many temples and shrines are scattered across the island and everywhere you go you can spot small baskets made of thick leaves and filled with colorful flowers that are left as offerings to the gods.

During certain times of the year, the streets are lined by a series of penjor, tall bamboo poles said to symbolize the mountains which carry deep religious meaning for the Balinese, and they created an ambiance that made even the simplest of houses look more festive and regal.

Bali as a whole is a beautiful place, but it was those first few days spend in Munduk that turned my visit from a mere lovely stay to a truly memorable one. If you travel to Bali, I absolutely encourage you to leave the well-beaten track for a few days: It was one of the best decisions I made during my whole Asia trip!

Where I Stayed:

Aditya Homestay, Pura Puse Street, Munduk Village

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