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Idyllic Rice Paddies, Colourful Street Markets and Potent Arak Cocktails in Bali
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Landing in Denpasar, my holiday plan to retreat to the quiet calm of exotic Bali just about suffocates to death in the crippling heat and traffic fumes of this charmless and intensely busy city on the south of the island.
The roads are locked in a day-long rush hour that eases to merely ‘chock-a-block’ at lunchtime, before resuming with a vengeance. And as we crawl through generic suburbia, desperately trying to get out of town, we crane our necks to catch sight of the one ornate building we have spotted so far - only to find it is a furniture showroom.
Luckily, just a little further on, the corporate cash-in gives way to the real thing – mile after mile of roadside workshops displaying the most incredible craftsmanship.
Never mind that I would need a stately home to host them when I got back, I find myself coveting a pair of nine-foot tall wooden doors, every inch of which is intricately carved.
Furniture shops alternate with decorative stonework and, every hundred yards or so, stalls selling big glass bottles of petrol (garages aren’t commonplace in the countryside, apparently) and lean looking chickens under lobster-pot style cages. This is more like it.
I am just getting used to Bali, with its drive-through artisanship and traditional rice farmers planted in back-breaking poses under the midday sun, when halfway through the fairly nondescript village of Kedewatan, the car tucks down a narrow path and I am whisked abruptly into a world of five-star luxury and serenity. If it wasn’t for the slightly awkward gold sign on the wall, you could easily miss the turning for Amandari.
A quick under-the-car bomb check – a strict routine check that shows just how far the shadow of the the 2002 and 2005 bombings still reaches – and I am through the gates and grateful to be a world away from Denpasar, although a little sad to have shut out Bali's beautiful rural scenes.
But Amandari is famed for its soothing abilities and has recreated a Balinese world in miniature for its guests. The main buildings are largely open from all sides, to let the occasionally storm-force winds through, lily ponds surround reception and the accommodation is laid out in the style of a traditional village, with winding stone paths leading from one walled villa to the next.
Space is the main priority: I have an area the size of a large bungalow to call my own, complete with private 10m swimming pool and terrace. A quirky addition is a marble bathtub, sunk into the ground outside and - thankfully - lined with 7ft walls all around.
And as I explore further, I realise Amandari has not completely cut itself off from its surrounds. It perches on the side of a valley, with striking views out across the jungle and rice fields below, and behind my accommodation, across some lush green fields, I can see the local village.
The hotel’s party piece is a panoramic infinity pool, its edge dropping off into the valley below.
Eager to head back to the rural idyll that reminds me of a thousand National Geographic photos, I head off on a 'jungle walk' with one of the hotel's guides.
It’s easy enough to nip down the village paths to the river below on your own, but I prefer to be shown around by a local.
Thankfully, no machetes are required and it is quite a gentle stroll through the rainforest to the lower village.
In a clearing near the grandest house-complexes (Balinese mostly live in four- or five-house compounds with their extended families) we find the village temple, under repair, and the village cock-fighting pit (the fate of those straggly roadside birds I saw on the road from Denpasar). Cockfighting isn’t strictly legal, I am told, but is an important spiritual tradition (and popular gambling pastime).
Venturing further afield, I head inland to Ubud, regarded as the cultural centre of Bali, the following day. Dotted with temples and ancient sites and surrounded by paddies and coconut trees, this is the town where Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame came to find her happy ending.
Her influence is perceptible. The town - in essence made up of lots of little villages - is famed for its arts and crafts, but in recent years even more local artisans have set up shop, all sorts of courses are offered to visiting travellers and there is no shortage of floaty-clothed foreigners trying to find themselves.
I head straight for the main market, a labyrinthine complex split over three levels, and right next to one of the larger temples of the town – where a constant procession of local women come and go with their offerings; palm leaf baskets containing fruits, flowers and incense.
The lower level of the market is devoted to food and household goods, and provides a refreshing contrast to the tourist-baiting stalls above.
Of course, there are a couple of guys selling fake Rolexes and designer sunglasses, but thankfully most of the market is given over to slightly more authentic produce. You can pick up silk scarves, sarongs and spices very cheaply, but the real pride of Ubud is their wood carving – and they know how impressive it is. I nearly commit to buying a chess table the size of my bed by merely glancing at it appreciatively for too long.
When the heat of the market gets a bit too much, I make like a celebrity and head for the spa.
Across the island, on the north side, Spa Village is the kind of place sought out by Keira Knightley when she’s in the area, so I decide it must be worth a visit. And it is.
The treatment I have is an odyssey of relaxation, starting with a foot scrub and immersion in a steam tent, and ending with a warm bath and herbal tea. Having to cross Bali to get to it, however, undoes all the good work. Any car journey in Indonesia is at an average speed of about 20mph, and the driver picking his way along the tangled mountain roads in thick mist does nothing to lower my stress levels. I can only assume the A-listers get helicoptered in and out.
Back at Amandari, I practically fall upon my food after a long day of culture, shopping and spa-ing, who knew it could work up such an appetite?
While the restaurant itself is fittingly rustic, the food is anything but. Ignore the western options if you possibly can, and order one of the ‘feasts’.
I am overwhelmed by fish curries, prawn satay on lemongrass sticks, brilliant beef rendang, sticky sweet chicken in banana leaves, all served up with mounds of jasmine rice and never-ending bowls of fresh chilli sauce.
Somehow I make it to dessert, where the coconut rice balls and palm sugar syrup with crisp battered bananas are wonderful, washed down with an arak cocktail, the local spirit that the waiter flat out refuses to let me try neat.
Perhaps there is a reason why. Not long after I am in a happy stupor as I zig-zag to my room musing on how Bali really is good for the soul. Without even trying, I seem to have had my own Gilbert-style Eat, Pray, Love break.
Flights to Bali with Thai Airways depart twice daily from Heathrow via Bangkok from £797 for autumn departures. There are also frequent promotions so check out the website for the latest deals. Visit www.thaiairways.co.uk, or call 0844 561 0911.
A double room at Amandari (www.amanresorts.com, 00 800 2255 2626) costs from £543 per night and includes return airport transfers. For more information and reservations visit .
A Kamar room at Spa Village Resort Tembok (www.spavillage.com/tembokbali, or email email@example.com), Bali costs from $340 (£211) plus taxes per room per night, full board.