In Search of The True Bali

95 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Virgin Beach, Prasi

Virgin Beach, Prasi

Throngs of upscale fashion boutiques, fancy restaurants, and trendy clubs fill the streets of Seminyak – one of Bali’s liveliest areas north of the raunchy scenes of Kuta and Legian. However some might find it hard to feel the tranquility and the laidback atmosphere of Bali which drew the first tourists to the island decades ago as the island is now a popular holiday destination. Many choose to go to Ubud for its bucolic ambiance, surrounded by rice terraces and calm-flowing streams, to get the authentic Balinese experience they dream of. But as is the case with other places, the once quiet streets of Ubud is now studded with shops and restaurants, often conspicuously located right next to Hindu temples, palaces, or local traditional houses.

This time my coworkers and I head further northeast to find a relatively untouched and secluded patch of beach, far from the crowds and the hype in the southern part of the island. The waves are calm, the water is clear, and the skies are blue. Virgin Beach, as the name indicates, is a beautiful and quiet stretch of white sand beach, tinted with black volcanic ashes from the past eruptions of Mount Agung. A stark contrast with Kuta, business in Virgin Beach – or Prasi as locals call it – only consists of several modest restaurants and t-shirt shops.

A lonesome old man with an unusual hairstyle sits under a blue beach umbrella, too focused on his tiny dictionary to care about what happens around him. Meanwhile a model sits on a nearby rock, striking poses you would only see on a swimsuit calendar. The combination of her flashy white bikini, tanned skin, blonde dyed hair, and erotic poses is such an absurd scene amid the calm-seeking sun-bathers on the beach.

On our way back from Prasi, I notice one thing that I have never seen before on my previous visits to Bali. A middle-aged lady walks on the street side nonchalantly bearing her breasts. Alexander who lived in Bali for 7 years during his childhood explains to me that the Balinese culture dictates all women to not cover their breasts once they have got married, contrary to many other cultures which require married women to wear more modest clothes.

Our search for a true Balinese village, off the trails of most tourists, finally brings us to Sidemen in the eastern part of Bali. Terraces of rice paddies and other vegetables lie on our left side, sloping down to a river. While on the right side a dense forest provides shade to the sleepy road on which local residents lay coffee beans over mats made from plaited dried leaves. Going deeper into the countryside, we cross a bridge painted in bright yellow, exuding liveliness to this serene part of the island. Two foreigners with bottles of mineral water on their hands are walking down the road with a local guide, and they are the only visitors to this area other than us.

“This is how Ubud was like in the 70s,” Alexander describes.

Modest Restaurants

Modest Accommodations at Virgin Beach

A Perfect Place to Relax

A Nice Place to Wind Down

Local Traditional Boats

Local Traditional Boats

White Sand Tinted by Volcanic Ash

White Sand Tinted with Volcanic Ashes

Agricultural Bali

Agricultural Bali

Bridging the Villages, Sidemen

Bridging the Villages, Sidemen

The Source of Life Flowing through the villages

A Healthy Environment, Sidemen

Rice Terraces, Sidemen

Rice Terraces, Sidemen

The Tranquil Sidemen Village

The Sleepy Road to Sidemen

Living Simply

Living Simply

Holding on the Tradition with a Twist of Modernity

Holding on the Tradition with a Twist of Modernity

The serenity of Bali – the island of gods – was shattered in 2002 and 2005 following a series of deadly bombings, bringing a deep social and economic impact the island has never experienced before. Tourist numbers plummeted, hotels were deserted, businesses went bankrupt. Governments all around the world issued travel warnings to their citizens, further curbing foreign tourists from visiting the island. In a desperate attempt to restore the economy of Bali, the Indonesian government issued an unprecedented holiday policy. National holidays which fell on Tuesdays automatically made the Mondays holiday as well, also with holidays on Thursdays which made the Fridays holiday. In a way it did affect the productivity as people got more days off. But in the other hand it encouraged people to travel more, especially to Bali.

Domestic tourists gradually brought back the economic pulse of the island back to normal. But it took a few more years until the foreign visitor numbers returned to the pre-bombing level. Visiting one of the locations where the 2005 bombings occurred, I find it hard to imagine that in a crowded seafood restaurant in Sanur dozens of lives were lost almost eight years ago.

Today the island’s tourism industry is thriving even stronger than ever. New hotels and restaurants have been built and more are still under construction – many of them are owned by foreign nationals. Unfortunately some turned breathtaking beaches into private properties which can only be accessed by paying exorbitant entrance fees.

Vital infrastructures have been modernized, including a new airport terminal with the roof resembling the sea waves which is slated to be fully operational later this year. A new highway is also under construction which solves the issue of land acquisition – which hampers many infrastructure development projects elsewhere in the country – by building it over the sea. However that sparks another controversy over the environmental impact to the reef ecosystem. The spokesman of the state-owned enterprise which leads the consortium of the project stated that they have conducted a proper analysis of the environmental impact of this project. They made sure that there is no species in the IUCN Red List lives in the area and they are committed to reforesting the lost mangroves due to the construction of the highway. A commitment we all hope to be fulfilled.

Bali, as it has always been for centuries, will always be a fascinating and thriving place, attracting new waves of people from all over the world to come and even live in the island. People will come and go, businesses will flourish and fail, but the unique Balinese traditions will live on, hopefully.

La Lucciola, One of The Finest Restaurants in Seminyak

La Lucciola, One of The Finest Restaurants in Seminyak

The Exclusive Finn's Beach Club

The Exclusive Finn’s Beach Club

Menega Café, the Location of the 2nd Bali Bombing in 2005

Menega Café, the Location of the 2nd Bali Bombing in 2005

Menega Café Today

Menega Café Today

Sunrise over the Nearby Island of Lombok

Sunrise over the Nearby Island of Lombok

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

95 thoughts on “In Search of The True Bali”

  1. Good to hear there are still pockets of the original Bali, Bama. It sure is a gorgeous island, with its unique culture and architecture – Island of the Gods indeed. I haven’t been since 1988, when I felt tourism had invaded too far for my liking – but of course, people have been saying that every decade since it was ‘discovered’ 🙂

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    • True Meredith. One thing I’m quite fascinated about is the way Balinese hold on their cultures despite the mass tourism, because for me that is one of the reasons why Bali is an interesting island at the first place. Other islands might have turquoise sea with white sand beaches, but only a few has a society with such an intriguing culture.

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  2. This is a great post Bama! We have been to Bali in 2010 and mainly stayed in Ubud area. It was true that I wondered why everybody called Ubud the relaxed and laid back area of Bali as it was, like you mentioned, full of shops and restaurants!
    Next time we come to Bali we will make sure to visit Prasi.

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    • Thanks Emiel! During a TEDx event in Ubud last month I met some expats who live in Canggu. They said Ubud is too crowded for them, even though it is far better compared to Kuta. Actually I also went to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, two small islands off the coast of southern Bali. I would recommend those islands for you as great alternatives to Bali. I’ll let you know when I’ve published a post on those islands. 🙂

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    • Sama-sama Badai! 🙂
      Yes we can swim there. When I went to the beach the waves were calm so I could swim quite far from the coast. 🙂 I’m not sure about snorkeling though, because as far as I remember I didn’t see anyone snorkeling there.

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      • I’ve never been to Amed or Tulamben, but I guess Prasi is about halfway from Klungkung to Amed.

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  3. alexander sriewijono says:

    I’m happy in a way that we still can find peaceful places like Sidemen and Prasi in Bali, a kind of place that I used to be my pkayground in 70’s. As we observed, the lagoon in Candi Dasa has changed. Also Kusamba beach.
    I enjoyed the peaceful moment in Sidemen, taking pictures around those bamboo trees and that yellow bridge. Maturnuwun mas.

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    • It is such a shame how they turned a beautiful lagoon in Candi Dasa into an ugly pool. Hopefully people learn how to manage tourism without jeopardizing the environment itself for their own benefit in the future. Sama-sama Mase.

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  4. Beautiful post, Bama – my two favourite shots are the boats at Prasi and the rice terraces on the way to Sidemen. Reading your account reminds me that I should get to Bali sooner rather than later… let’s hope places like Sidemen will stay just the way they are. Love the parting shot too – can’t believe we’ll be standing at the top of that mountain in less than a month!

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    • Thanks James! Bali is developing even faster now, so I guess you’re right to consider visiting the island sooner than later. However there will always be pockets of ‘undeveloped’ Bali where the locals live far more simply, and in some cases, more happily. Watching the sunrise while looking at the volcano we’ll be climbing next month was quite daunting for me. I know it will be much harder than Bromo, but I also know that it will be really worth it.

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  5. It’s good to hear there’s still spots that hark back to the old days of Bali – something which is hard to do given how fast real estate developers push their modern ideas forward!
    Didn’t know married Balinese women have to leave their breasts exposed, quite a contrast to conservative parts of Indonesia.

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    • True. We all hope that the economic benefits from the development will sustain longer and broader benefits for all, and most importantly the Balinese themselves. I’ve heard about the bare breasts Balinese women a few years ago. But I never really saw one until my third trip to the island.

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  6. The popularity of an exceptionally beautiful tourist spot is usually its downfall. Good to know that Bali has bucked that trend and survived excessive tourism and the bombings, with its cultural identity intact. A beautiful post Bama. The lush green shots are how I picture Bali in my mind, but that last shot is truly stunning. Look forward to your posts on the nearby islands.

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    • How true that is Madhu. Some people are just too ignorant of the impact of their visits to local communities and the environment. I remember reading a post by a popular travel blogger who wrote on Kuta in Bali: http://ow.ly/miHeM . That is the worst case of what mass tourism can do to a place. But what’s really encouraging is the resilience of the Balinese and their indomitable values to preserve their traditions.

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  7. Good to see there are a few unspoilt spots left in Bali. When I was there in 2007 it was over run with tourists and touts. It really struck me that Bali is to Australia what Magaluf is to the British. Lombok however was incredible!

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    • So true! There are more flights from Bali to all major Australian cities than from Jakarta, the country’s capital. Ahh, I really can’t wait for Lombok then! 🙂

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  8. Great post and amazing pictures, it’s somewhere I would like to go to one day and you sell it very well. I am going to travel around Turkey and Greece in August, I read your posts on Istanbul and will use some of the places you visited as my travel guide !

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    • Thank you Florence! I’m honored that my posts on Istanbul can help you plan your trip to the city. Happy travels across Turkey and Greece!

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  9. Gorgeous photos, and wonderful post about Bali. I think in places like this that can’t help but be “discovered” by tourists, that it is best to seek out the back roads and villages for a true taste of the culture; I wonder how many tourists bother to do that…I hope not too many.

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    • Thank you Angeline! Even if a lot of tourists did do the same, I hope that would not cause a significant impact to the local culture and environment.

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  10. This is a great post! I’ve never been but now know where I can find the original Bali. Great photos of the agricultural side of the country.

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    • Thanks you! Finding the original Bali can only be done in the countryside, where modernization hasn’t taken its toll.

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  11. Hi Bama, love your post about the “true” Bali, i just visited Bali in May 2013, i do still in love with Bali!

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    • Thank you Riany! Despite the mass tourism, for me Bali is a lovely place, indeed. The charm of the local culture and the beautiful landscape are unrivaled.

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    • Thanks! Let’s hope that there will always be serene places in Bali despite the rapid development of the island. And good luck with your retirement plan! 🙂

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  12. I really enjoyed this post. Bali is full of wonderful surprises. It’s a place rich with traditional history and yet saturated with modern developments, and all amidst such beautiful nature! It’s truly one of a kind.

    I haven’t been to Bali since I was a young girl. I would love to go back and visit sometime.

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    • Thanks Sindhu! It is so true of what you feel about Bali. There are places with great white sand beaches. There are places where modernity is the norm. But you get all that in Bali, and that is exactly what drives people to keep visiting and coming back to the island.

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  13. I especially like the photos of the Sidemen area, as they depict something of the life of Bali people in non-tourist areas. The lush, green countryside is so inviting.
    As all of us who travel well know – we have an enormous impact on the areas we visit, and it can be a blessing or a curse to local environments. It seems much of what many visitors dislike are the developments of big investors in what are probably not even their own countries. Do millions of tourists really demand this kind of development, or is it just what’s available? I certainly don’t know, but I wonder. I wonder after a few years what the local people really think about the situation and whose life actually improved. I’m sure it depends…but I’ve got a pretty good idea.
    I appreciate all your information and exquisite photos. Keep traveling so we can learn!

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    • Sidemen is truly a scenic area of Bali what most people always think of about the island. About the development, it’s always a good thing, as long as it’s sustainable and does not threaten local values and cultures. What we can see in Kuta – which was the tourism icon of Bali – is just really appalling. This post of Derek’s really gives a blunt idea on how extreme tourism can affect the locals: http://www.wanderingearl.com/when-tourism-goes-terribly-wrong/
      But as you said, traveling makes us learn and not to make the same mistakes as others did in the past.

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  14. Hi Bama, nice post. I love reading and learning about off-the-beaten-path locations. It’s good to know that Bali still has areas devoid of mass tourism. Sidemen looks very bucolic and peaceful. I’ll keep it in mind when i visit Bali. Lovely photos.

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    • Thanks Marisol! Anytime you go to Indonesia, drop me a message. I’ll give you some suggestions on places I believe you and Keith would love. I’m leaving for Lombok in mid-July, and maybe when I return I’ll have some places that I would recommend to you. 🙂

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  15. Nice to see after the horrible australian tourist hoards of Kuta Beach. Thankfully I avoided it all down in padang padang. Awesome pics.

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    • I went to Padang Padang twice – first in October 2011 which was nice as it was in dry season, and the second in December the same year which was during rainy season. From those trips I learned that beaches are at their best during dry season. Thanks for dropping by!

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    • Despite the mass tourism, there’s always something magical about Bali. Thanks for dropping by!

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  16. this place looks amazing! and the local lifestyle there seems beautiful, it’s always sad when tourism takes away authenticity. great post!

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    • Thanks Sarah! Despite the mass tourism, Ubud manages to retain its cultural values and vibe compared to the southern parts of Bali. Hopefully other places on the island will be developed in a much more sustainable way.

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  17. Posted this on my facbook as my son is visiting Bali at the moment. It is a wonderful post with gorgeous photos x Thank you

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    • What an honor for me! I’m glad you found this post a useful resource for your son. Thank you!

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  18. emilybrennan1992 says:

    Wow, your an inspiration!! I’ve always wanted to travel the world! Its just trying to find the money to do it – will you ever go to America?

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    • That is such a nice compliment Brennan! Thank you! Of course I have the desire to go to the western hemisphere one day, but that might not happen in the near future. Unless I’m really lucky and get a free ticket to the Americas. 🙂

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      • emilybrennan1992 says:

        I totally get that feeling!! My fingers are crossed 😀

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    • Thanks Suze! There are still secluded beaches and tranquil places in Bali which are perfect for honeymoon. Wish you have a great time there!

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  19. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I plan to do a lot of traveling around SEA in the next 12 months and Bali has been near the top of my list. This gives me some great insight on where to find some quiet places.

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    • My pleasure Lindsey! It sounds like you’re going to have a year full of fun in SEA! 🙂 Make sure you don’t miss Laos in your itinerary because it’s often overlooked by most people while it actually has one of the most beautiful scenery and the most delicious food across SEA. And when you go to Indonesia, other than Bali, make sure to visit Jogja (Yogyakarta) where you can find the magnificent ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples.

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      • Hi Bama, Thanks so much for the recommendations! I’ll be living in Chiang Mai so I think a visit to Laos will be very likely as it will be close by 🙂 I’m adding Jogja to my travel wish list now! Out of all of SEA, are there any countries in particular (in your opinion) that I as a white, female traveling alone should be weary of or extra cautious in?

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      • Honestly in my opinion traveling in SEA is very easy for female travelers or even for someone who has never traveled abroad before. However I do suggest you to be mindful of local customs, for example when you travel in Muslim countries (Malaysia, Brunei, Muslim-dominated parts of Indonesia) it would be better to wear more modest outfit. Nevertheless, generally SEA is a safe region and sexual harassment is very rare, but using your common sense will always help you to stay away from things you would least expect from your travels. Safe travels!

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      • Great! Thanks so much for the information and perspective. I appreciate it. Safe travels to you as well 🙂

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    • Merci beaucoup Julie! Despite the mass tourism, Bali is still a very nice place to visit, only if you know where to go. 🙂 Bonne chance et bon voyage!

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  20. lievoyage says:

    Very nice picture !
    The real Bali is very beautiful…We want to go back again and again !

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    • Merci de votre visite sur mon blog! Bali is a very nice island, only if you can find the right places. I’m not surprised why you want to go back to the island. I’ve been there four times and never get bored.

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  21. Dear Bama, thank you for your storyline (and pictures) on Bali. It really brought me some lovely – partly lost – memories. (stolen camera on a night train Ketapang – Surabaya). Me and my girlfriend had a fantastic trip to Indonesia in 2011 almost avoiding Bali due to our fear of finding it too touristy and overdevelopped. Thanks God for our final decission to visit places like Ubud, Danau Batur and Pemuteran while totally avoiding south. We fell in love with this place. P.S.: Check my favourite spot on Bali: http://www.urodnykompost.blogspot.cz/2011/09/morning-at-lake-batur.html

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    • My pleasure Thomason! I’m really sorry for what you experienced in the train journey, but I’m glad you went to the ‘right’ places in Bali. I would recommend Ubud for everyone because it has such unique ambiance compared to other places in southern Bali. I have taken a look at your post and it looks like you did find a very peaceful place to spend your time in the island.

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  22. A great post and a reminder that I have to go back to Bali. So much I didn’t see like Seminyak! We stayed in Ubud mostly and not a day goes by when I don’t think about driving through the rice fields and meeting the incredible people there!

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    • Thanks Kasia & Paul! In fact this December I’m going back to Ubud to further immerse into its cultural and culinary delights. I hope you’ll go back to Bali sooner than later! 🙂

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  23. Amazing article and photos !! You know ,I fell in love with Bali when I visited it last year in December …Today you made me fall in love with it all over again 🙂

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  24. Wow! Incredible photos!

    I have just discovered your blog and find it very inspiring! I have spent this year traveling round SE Asia and teaching English in Vietnam. I still haven’t made it to Bali but I fully intend to soon! These photos have sealed the deal! Love them.

    Thanks again for the great site. I’m heading to China and then Australia very soon, you can follow my journey here, if you have a second.

    http://overdueadventure.wordpress.com/

    SIobhan

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Siobhan! I have only been 4 times to Bali, but if you need any suggestion prior to your visit you can drop me a message at anytime! It seems like you yourself is enjoying your time exploring many parts of Asia (and Australia)! Good luck and safe travels!

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  25. Pingback: Ubud, Bali- Culture, Rice Fields and Sacred Monkeys | travel shutter

  26. Great picture Bama, I’ve been to a virgin beach last May and it was really a beautiful place like a hidden paradise, there is no electricity, people only use generators. I’m curious about Sidemen, cause it look same way to come Besakih Temple. I hope can come to there in future, so beautiful place also.

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    • Thanks Ika! From the look of the place, I believe modernity has touched that Virgin Beach that I went to. But I have no idea to what extent. Sidemen was a nice option to escape from the more tourist places on the island.

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  27. Hello Bama, I am just discovering your blog and I am really loving your pictures. This post where you are talking about the Sidemen area and the pics that go with it really brought back some great memories (I think I crossed that yellow bridge ! ) Thank you !

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    • Hi Juan. Sidemen is really one of those areas on the island that is often overlooked by tourists. When you were on the bridge did you see any mid-sized Indonesian taking photos? That could be me. 🙂 You know, I haven’t been to Bali for a year now. Maybe I should plan another trip. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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