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Bali Low

An upside to the Asian economic crises: a chance to sample the beauty and artistry of the fabled Indonesian island for bargain basement prices

October 11, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

UBUD, Indonesia — "I am on Bali now," wrote the Dutch artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, "and I like it very well . . . a delightful place. And also very cheap for me." The year was 1903.

In September, when I visited this Indonesian island paradise, it was very cheap for me, too. Bali has been a premier budget destination since Nieuwenkamp's day, but it's a steal in the wake of the Asian economic meltdown. International travelers aren't coming--partly out of wariness over Indonesia's tense political climate--and the rupiah is in free fall.

In September 1997, $1 was worth 2,433 Indonesian rupiahs; last month, money-changers at Ngurah Rai International Airport, south of the Balinese capital of Denpasar, were giving 10,500 rupiahs to the dollar. How this translates for the tourist on Bali is that a fresh glass of pineapple juice costs 50 cents, a dress costs $4, car rental for a day $10, a hotel room on the beach $35, a two-hour massage and milk bath $8.

With political instability, rampant crime in Jakarta and riots on the big island of Java, travelers are wise to think twice before visiting Indonesia. The country has been shaky since the fall of longtime President Suharto and is poor by any standard, with the per capita income expected to drop to $610 by the end of the year.

But even when violent anti-government demonstrations racked Java last May, Bali remained essentially peaceful. And currently it's business as usual on the island, according to the U.S. State Department. Bali is an Indonesian anomaly: the one spot in the world's most populous Muslim nation that is overwhelmingly Hindu. And vibrantly, pervasively so, with 1,000 lavishly sculpted temples, cremations that are joyous affairs, and sacred days all through the year (even one for machines, called Tumpek Landek, when holy water is splashed on cash registers and motorcycles). So beguilingly colorful is the island's religious life that the Dutch colonial government prohibited Christian missionaries from proselytizing in order to keep the culture intact. What is more, the 2.9 million Balinese are well educated by Indonesian standards and somewhat more affluent than their compatriots in this 17,000-island archipelago.

Tourists first started trickling into Bali in the late 1920s, when European artists like Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet settled in the rice-belt town of Ubud and sent home images so tantalizing that the trickle soon became a stream. Consequently, Bali is no lost Eden; big new resorts are rising at the very threshold of revered temples, and hard-sell peddlers ply every street and beach.

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But it is not too touristy for me because it's beautiful. Fifty miles long, 90 miles wide and situated eight degrees north of the equator, it's garlanded with oleander and bougainvillea and has a bumpy backbone of active volcanoes. Twenty percent of the land is given over to terraced rice paddies cascading over the flanks of mountains in emerald green. Sandy beaches edge the Bukit Peninsula in the southeast, and in the interior rivers like the Wos and Cerik cut deeply into a tangle of banyan trees, coconut palms and lacy bamboo.

With the dollar so strong, I simply had to go, though getting there was still not cheap. In early August I shopped around for a bargain fare, learning that the biggest Indonesian airline, Garuda, had ceased operation from the U.S. A number of airlines and travel agencies were offering attractive package deals, including round-trip air fare, accommodations and transfers for as little as $899 (for a five-night stay, from China Airlines).

But then I saw an ad for Cathay Pacific's All Asia Pass, which costs $999 and includes round-trip air fare from L.A. to Hong Kong (a 4 1/2-hour flight north of Bali), followed by 30 consecutive days of travel to 17 Asian cities like Denpasar, Bangkok and Osaka. When I learned that the price dropped to $899 for those who register on Cathay Pacific's Internet site, I made up my mind.

Before I left home I decided to travel without hotel reservations because you generally bag the best deals by showing up at reception desks and bargaining (a little dicey, perhaps, but later I met a family from Simi Valley doing the same thing). To be on the safe side, I booked accommodations for my first two nights at the nine-room Baruna Beach Inn ($35, including breakfast), 20 steps from the ocean in Sanur. Originally it was built as a residence by the late President Sukarno.

Faxes had yielded other attractive options in Sanur, such as a Balinese-style bungalow at the intimate Tandjung Sari Hotel for $129 (usually $160). But I stuck with the friendly Baruna, even though it lacked a pool, because I had bigger things in mind. If all the hotels in Bali were slashing prices, maybe I could cut a deal at one of the island's luxury resorts.

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