Satay grilling over coals made of coconut shells . . . fresh fish wrapped in banana leaves . . . fragrant coconut rice . . . these are some of the tastes of our recent visit to Bali.  The island’s cuisine relies heavily on its abundant fish and produce, using techniques that are similar to its parent country of Indonesia.  Somewhere along the way, however, a spice or a fruit or a special touch manages to make it uniquely Balinese.  The minced meats for satays are mixed with shredded coconut.  Three varieties of fresh ginger are used to prepare a basic curry blend.  Tiny limes the size of marbles give a salad a refreshing tang.  Wash it all down with a Bintang beer and go back for some more tomorrow . . .

Bali food ingredients

Lemongrass, candlenuts, fresh turmeric, galangal, sweet & hot red chillies and shrimp paste are among the ingredients in base gede, the ubiquitous Balinese yellow sauce.

Bali food mushroom soup ingredients

Mushrooms, lemongrass, red chillies, limes, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves for clear mushroom soup.

Food of Bali

Jukut Urab – A salad of coarsely grated grilled coconut and chopped snake beans tossed with base gede and garnished with crispy shallots.

Bali food chicken sate

Chicken satay is served over flaming hot coals right at the table. A peanut sauce is on the side.

Indonesian rijstaffel

The ultimate in Indonesian food, rijstaffel, which is Dutch for rice table. The multi-course, multi-dish meal is a treat. The Balinese style satay is wrapped around lemongrass stalks.

True Balinese food connoisseurs may have noticed that we left out Kopi Luwak, the famous coffee whose beans are, um, extruded from the working end of a civet cat. Look for an upcoming video with a Kopi Luwak taste test.

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!Fresh vegetables, succulent curries, the aroma of grilling wafting through the air . . . the foods of Bali make this island paradise even more special

Update: August, 2019. This continues to be one of our most visited posts, and also one of our most controversial. Updates from readers (along with our continued research) indicate that Bali’s beach/trash situation has unfortunately not improved. While we typically seek out the good in any destination, we felt compelled to share this disturbing story in 2013 and still do. 

On our first day in Bali we headed for the famed Kuta Beach. The current Lonely Planet guide offers a list of “Top 25 Experiences” in Bali, with Kuta Beach right up there.  According to their experts, “Tourism on Bali began here and is there any question why? . . .Kuta Beach was and always will be Bali’s best beach.” At least that’s one version of visiting Bali.

An unhappy discovery

If our experience today is anything to go by, we can pitch our Lonely Planet guide in the trash. Or perhaps just pitch it on Kuta Beach. Because when we got there all we saw was trash, lots and lots of trash: on the sand, in the water and even clinging to the stray ankle. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, papers and heaven knows what else. It was downright filthy. This is the dirtiest beach we have ever seen, anywhere.

Our research told us that Kuta was one of the more built-up areas of Bali. Therefore, we were expecting crowds, but what we saw was not the detritus of a few too many holiday merry-makers. This was a public sanitation disaster.

It’s not surprising that the beach was practically devoid of people, though there were a few intrepid souls sizzling away on the sand. They were lobster-red and had the look of folks who had come to Bali to enjoy the beach, and were damn well going to, regardless of the rubbish.  One sad-looking girl sat at the water’s edge amidst sodden debris, a lonely mermaid washed ashore from the sea of litter.

kuta beach bali trash

Trash walking on Kuta Beach.

Trash on Kuta Beach: the explanation(?)

Surely this couldn’t be the normal state of affairs–there must be some explanation. Perhaps a garbage scow had recently overturned? Maybe the beach patrol was on strike. Bali has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful places on earth, so how could this be happening?

Unfortunately the explanation is not a good one. After further research we learned that this is an annual event at Kuta Beach. According to the Jakarta Post, “Beached garbage is an annual problem for Kuta. From early December to late March, strong wind and powerful currents send waves of garbage from the ocean onto the beach.” Locals even refer to it as the “trash season” and say the debris comes from the nearby island of Java.

But we’re not so sure we accept the “Let’s blame Java” approach. You see, the sides of the roads in this part of Bali are convenient open-air trash receptacles piled high with the same stuff we saw on the beach. In the rainy season (which we were well into) storms wash the trash into gutters, out to sea and then back onto the beach . . . where it waits to be washed out to sea again. It’s not quite the recycling system that Bali needs.

An alternative (and deceptive) viewpoint

We left the beach via the grounds of the nearby Patra Resort.  Almost immediately we were amidst manicured lawns, trickling fountains and a sparkling pool.  We glanced back at the beach where we saw lounge chairs nestled on gently raked sand, with nary a speck out of place.

are bali beaches dirty

This is a view of the exact same beach taken from the shore side. (These chairs are visible in the photo of the woman on the beach at the top of this post.) From here the trash is hidden from view.

Because of the slope of the shore, the garbage wasn’t visible from here.  But we wondered how many of the hotel’s guests actually venture down to the waterline.  We saw one family do so. Then, in a few seconds they came scurrying back like sand crabs escaping the tide. We bet they won’t go back for a second look.

Overall we loved the Balinese people; they were warm and welcoming, and much of the island was beautiful. But visitors should be aware of the trash situation on Kuta, along with other beaches on the southern part of the island. You really need to do your homework before visiting a place. With Bali, we thought we had.

If you’re interested in cleaner beaches, check out “Activist Abby,” a remarkable teenager from Illinois who is trying to rid the world of plastic bags: Activist Abby on Facebook

What places in your travels have not lived up to your expectations?

Pin it!Believe it or not, the tropical paradise of Bali has a "trash season." Do your research to avoid spending your holiday on a trashy beach in Bali.

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When we walked the streets of Bali we noticed sidewalk vendors selling bottles of Absolut vodka with a yellowish liquid inside. Usually the bottles were stuffed closed with a wad of cloth making them look like a row of Molotov cocktails. Whatever was in them, it certainly wasn’t vodka.

Petrol bottle

In some parts of the world these would be potential weapons.

We thought maybe it was arak, the potent local liquor that is fermented from coconuts and responsible for the occasional tourist death. Michael asked the shopkeeper if it was something to drink. He just laughed and said, “No, it’s for motorbike.” What we thought were impromptu liquor stores were actually gas stations.

We noticed the same thing in Cambodia. Only there the preferred bottles were Johnnie Walker Black and Johnnie Walker Red, maybe the Black Label was higher octane.

You can learn about the visitors to a place by the bottles used to sell petrol. Bali, with its beaches and warm weather, appeals to vodka swilling Russian tourists, hence all the leftover Absolut bottles. The tourists visiting the temple of Angkor Wat are apparently more of a scotch drinking crowd. In neighborhoods less affected by tourism the preferred bottles were Coke and Fanta.

Either way, we admired the ingenuity of this bottle recycling program.

Coke petrol bottles

In local neighborhoods Coke bottles are the real thing.

Balinese kids love to play a game we dubbed “tourist tag.” It reminded us of a game American kids play called “punch buggy” when they spy a Volkswagen Beetle and get points. Everywhere we went kids would call out to us, smiling and waving. 

We first became aware of the sport as we were walking on a one-lane dirt road in Bali. We heard the low rumble of a motor scooter behind us and a short discreet beep beep. We obligingly stepped aside so the scooter could pass, and hoped he wouldn’t race through the nearby puddle and splash us too badly.

Instead, the driver slowed to a near stop to glide through the puddle with nary a ripple. The little boy sitting on the back smiled at us and sang out, “Hello, hi! How are you? I am fine!” while giving us a cheery wave. We waved back and the scooter continued on its merry way.  In game parlance, that was probably worth 10 points to him.

This encounter was to become typical during our two-week stay in Bali. The Balinese are wonderful people, very warm and eager to make visitors feel welcome. In other countries on our trip when strangers were friendly to us there was often an angle that involved us being pressured into buying something.

But not so in Bali—here the locals are genuinely friendly. People on motor scooters, shopkeepers, old women sitting on porches, construction workers—they were all ready with a smile, a wave and a “Hi! Hello!”

If this is a game, then naturally children are the best at it. We were staying in a local neighborhood in Kuta, away from the tourist areas. There were lots of kids in the neighborhood and once word got out that some visitors were nearby we became the object of their amusement.

Bali kids

The kids get an early introduction to Rocky

It started with a “Hello, Hi!” followed by a giggle and hiding behind a palm tree.  Eventually one eight-year old girl named Yuni got bold enough to walk up to us and shake our hand.  She scored major “tourist tag” points when she learned to greet us by “Hi Mike!” (She never mastered “Larissa,” but that’s a tough one for little kids, even in English.) 

Yuni became the ringleader in our little band of taggers.  As our stay went on, the group of kids that greeted us every day grew larger. The conversation would usually just go in circles, since “How are you? I am fine!” was about the extent of their English vocabulary.  We tried to get them to teach us a few words in Indonesian, but they were more interested in practicing their English on us. So beyond a few terima kasihs (thank you), we stuck to playing tourist tag.

On our last day we picked up a few soccer balls at a local toy store to give to Yuni and her merry band.  They were very happy, and solemnly shook our hands to thank us for the gifts.  Yuni’s little brother, the class clown of the bunch, started rolling a ball around and acting silly. We looked at Yuni, rolled our eyes and said “goofball.”  She rolled her eyes and smiled back.  Goofballs—and little brothers—are the same in any language.