In Bali beauty and blessings are an industry. Hotels advertise “meditation area” on road signs, shoppers visit Reborn Gifts, graffiti is simply “KARMA” spray-painted in capitals. Its allure is obvious and since 2006’s book Eat, Pray Love, the island’s come under increasing pressure from tourism: international visitors rose from 4.8 million in 2006 to 6.5 million in 2018. But if Bali’s on your bucket list, there’s beauty to behold and sustainable ways to see it.
I’m about to share a bath with a hundred people, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
The Pura Tirta Empul is one of the most popular water temples, and it’s colourful chaos – like most things in Bali – crowded with supplicants heaving armfuls of offerings for purifications. This ornate 960 AD temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the protector, and he’s overseen centuries of devotees washing karmas clean.
Swathed in a sarong, I lower myself into the icy water of an ancient stone petirtaan pool to be purified in the holy spring with scores of soaking strangers.I bow repeatedly, splashing water over my head. As I emerge from my melukat (water blessing), it seems like something’s washed away.
If you’re interested in wellness and spirituality, you know Bali, jewel of the Indonesian islands, where orchids grow like weeds by the road and hydrangea and chrysanthemum fields colour the countryside.
We begin at Puri Bagus Jati Resort and Spa, near the heart of the island’s wellness centre, Ubud, but worlds away in a deep bamboo-forested valley. Our guide, Hesti Rialita Elvandari, joins us for morning hatha yoga followed by dragonfruit juice and homemade yogurt with coconut muesli. The five-hectare grounds invite strolls to temples, koi ponds, organic gardens, exotic orchid, Balinese statuary and even a waterfall. Being in this valley feels like resting in the curve of a lush, green palm.
Rest is only one route to wellness. With instructor Buda Siwantara Ida Bagus Gede we make palm basket offerings called canang, pile them with petals, burn incense and are blessed with rice pressed to foreheads and a gentle, “Om Swastiastu.” (May god give every kindness.)
I’m here with G Adventures, a Canadian small-group-adventure company offering 700 trips in 100+ countries. Among them, ten new Wellness tours to that feature a slower pace, daily yoga, meditation, visits to Balian healers and temples, cultural immersion, outdoor exercise and healthy food to restore and renew. Travellers support charity projects, eat at family restaurants, hire area guides and stay at locally-owned hotels to grow the economy: wellness abroad includes travelling ethically.
Come afternoon at Puri Bagus Jati, there’s lounging by the infinity pool post frangipani oil massage listening to monkeys, then a garden tour – the resort grows avocados, mangos, jackfruit and more – and an outdoor cooking class. We pound spicy sambal with mortar and pestles, chop fiddleheads for lawar pakis, make chicken satays and dadar gulung, pandan-leaf pancakes with palm-sugared bananas.
Then it’s time to explore; head into Ubud to visit the Monkey Forest, shop the Gianyar night market, join a vinyasa session at Yoga Barn, or pay $35 USD for a “Bali swing” Instagram photo op.
“When I came in 2009, there weren’t so many hotels, no traffic, no swings, no Instagram,” Elvandari says of development. “You can’t stop it. But Balinese are still doing rituals and offerings. That is the best thing, to respect the culture, tradition and local people, especially if they’re performing ceremonies. It may be unusual, but this is what Bali is.”
Next, we head through highlands, stopping at spectacular scenery: the 15-metre Munduk waterfall, spring green rice terraces, sparkling Twin Lakes – to explore the northwest coast in Permuteran and relax at Taman Sari Resort.
Here, fruit drips off trees and staff sweep frangipani blooms at sunrise like floral snow. Follow a morning “smiling yoga” session by basking on the beach. The underwater views are even better.
Nearby Menjangan Island, one of 17,508 in the Indonesian archipelago – many disappearing with tides – is home to Hindu monks and some of Bali’s best coral reefs. We take a traditional boat over the swells and float weightless in the warm sea, swimming with unicornfish.
Come evening, I watch sunset and dine on king prawns with my toes in the sand.
I’m at ease knowing my vacation matches my values: protecting the marine environment from over-tourism and fishing is a community priority, with plastic bag bans, bamboo straws and reusable water bottles on offer on the island. Taman Sari supports a biorock project to restore reefs and guests can visit an adjacent baby turtle sanctuary.
We finish in Sanur, a former fishing village, stopping to marvel at UNESCO-protected Jatiluwih rice terraces, then settle into Puri Santrian Resort and Spa.
In the morning, we stroll the beach to The Power of Now for anti-gravity yoga – upside down in swings! Afternoons, visit the Bali Orchid Garden, try Balinese dance or introductory massage. Sanur’s a parasailing paradise, so get air on your own or watch from a beach cabana, gorging on seafood from beach warungs (food stalls).
There are lovely shops – Daun for Balinese sarongs and wood toys – and fun food – Soul in a Bowl delivers opur ayam (chicken coconut curry) and duck laksa (curried noodles) and Gaya Gelato serves lemongrass, mangosteen, and ginger gelato. Evenings, find serenity in a spa, join a beach bonfire or stargaze under the eye of a giant stone Buddha with a wise smile.
Before I leave, I savour a treatment in town at charming Chantara Spa, known for boreh body wraps and eastern massage. I’m soothed with a scented foot bath, slathered in ylang ylang oils and soaked in a candlelit bath of rose petals, orchids and marigolds.
It occurs to me, with a considerably less-wise smile, that I’m now the offering, and blessed.
I leave knowing I supported a company that travels sustainably, preserves the environment and empowers women. After all, a wellness journey is incomplete unless it’s an inner journey too – one everyone’s invited to pursue.
Elaine O’Connor travelled as a guest of G Adventures, which did not review this article.
FROM GUIDE TO GURU
Ethical travel empowers people. Our guide, Hesti Rialto Elvandari, says it changed her life.
Her conservative family wished she’d become a teacher close to home. Longing to travel, she studied German, using it to lead Germans around Java during breaks in university. In 2014, she joined G Adventures – their first female guide in Indonesia.
She removed her hijab – her father didn’t speak to her for a month – and went to build her career and see the world. She’s spent 13 years in tourism, training in Thailand, Europe, India and the UK and was promoted to regional G Wellness Guru and trainer.
“I was with others from Southeast Asia and their stories are amazing,” Elvandari said. “Some used to be street children or drivers, now they’re tour leaders. G is really open to help people work in tourism. They treat people equally and use locals. That’s important for us to know who will represent our country to travellers.”
Meanwhile, she’s helped pay for three siblings to earn university degrees and a new house in West Java – one that doesn’t leak. “In the new house,” she says, “everyone fits and we must not worry. I’m thankful after years working I have something to give for my family. Everything I dreamed slowly came to reality.”
It’s a steamy Indonesian afternoon and I’m sipping a mango smoothie listening to Balinese songs and lunching on spicy mie goreng noodles. It’s idyllic, but no regular roadside stop – it’s a meal with a side of meaningful – every employee has a disability.
Disabilities are seen as bad karma and kids are often kept hidden. Bali’s Senang Hati Foundation is changing that. It educates disabled young adults in hospitality and arts and with Planeterra’s support, they run a restaurant and handicraft shop.
G Adventures founded Planeterra as a registered charity in 2003 to give back to countries they visited. There are now 75 projects in 45 countries, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe, benefitting 50,000 locals – often women, vulnerable youth and people with disabilities – and attracting 500,000 travellers each year.
In Vietnam, G supports Oodles of Noodles, where former street children are trained in restaurant service. In Peru, a woman’s weaving collective built new markets in the Sacred Valley. In Cambodia, New Hope restaurant provides youth chef training, scholarships and medical care. In Tanzania, Planeterra funds a women-only business school; in Belize, a youth-run bicycle outfit provides tuition.
“It’s amazing to create opportunity,” Elvandari says. “In India, we support female taxi drivers in New Delhi with Women on Wheels. Some were abused, but got driver’s licenses and now practice English with travellers. How impactful is that to come to a country but also help people?”
IF YOU GO: