While Kuta is replete with endless strings of stalls touting gimmicky tees and knock-off fashion wear, and Ubud comes awash with airy-fairy arts and crafts, guests to our luxurious villa Adagian and villa Bulung Daya often ask what souvenirs they should take back home to show the traditional and earthy and side to Bali. Here, we taste potent coffee beans and fly flamboyant kites, all in the name of finding seven worthy gifts to impress even the most demanding of friends. Find out what to bring back from Bali in this great list.
Believed to have been one of the favourite pastimes of the Indian god Indra, kite flying in Bali fuses fun and religious devotion. Villagers spend months meticulously flying up kites that dwarf even cars in size and come in a kaleidoscope of different colours and styles, all to pay homage to the Hindu gods and usher in abundant harvests. And while these colossal fliers may not seem like the perfect souvenir for taking home, the island’s craftspeople also produce plenty of smaller, luggage-friendly kites that still display all the hallmarks of this traditional Balinese product; the bold colours, the animist designs, the streaming tails. Choose between classic bebean, pecukan and janggan-style kites, all of which come in different shapes and orientations, and be sure to opt for something soulful and bright – just like the ones the locals fly!
Kites are available right across the island of Bali, from the markets of Ubud to the acclaimed kite-making village of Sanur just south-east of Denpasar. However, for some of the most cutting-edge designs and a taste of what kite flying really means to the locals here, be sure to attend the Bali Kite Festival that takes place each July in Padang Galak. Stalls tout homemade kites aplenty, while people come from all over the Nusa Tenggara to fly their finest and most ambitious creations.
The meticulous process of batik dyeing using wax spots dates back millennia, and hails in from the rustic villages of Java just across the Bali Sea. Today, the craft is one of the most recognisable in Indonesia and Bali is home to some seriously accomplished batik makers, capable of layering their designs to create the impossibly intricate murals, patterns and geometrics seen on the sarongs of local men and women from the Bukit Peninsula to the temples of Gerokgak in the north. What’s more, the ancient and methodical practice of batik making is now hailed by UNESCO as an example of traditional Asian culture, while batik fabrics are foldable and promise to fit easily into those already packed cases for the journey home!
Batik factories offering an insight into the cloth making are dotted all over Bali, while some of the most acclaimed can be found hidden between the temples and monkey forests of Ubud.
Flamboyant and fearsome, Bali’s magnificent, wood-cut dance masks represent a tradition of art and craft that goes back all the way to pre-Hindu times. They depict the spirits and demons of the great mythological battle between good and evil; a battle that inspires the performances of Barong and Topeng dancing that still take place in towns and villages right across the island. Be careful what you buy though, because these intricate face carvings of the Balinese djinns range from effigies of the well-meaning Banas Pati Raja, who accompanies and protects children as they grow through life and typically appears as a lion, to the evil demon queen of Rangda, with her swirling black magic, dark incantations, bulbous eyes and spiked teeth. Other masks are carved in the likeness of forest beasts, with monkeys and pigs some of the most common.
For some of the best mask buying on the island, be sure to head to the rural village of Mas, which sits nestled in the jungles just south of Ubud. Here, master carvers chisel and chip their days away, shaping fantastical effigies from local timber, augmenting them with goat skin decorations and buffalo and horse hair wigs, and painting them with all-natural dyes sourced from the jungle.
Famed as one of the world’s top destinations for silver and gold buying, Bali is home to some of the most accomplished jewellery smiths in Asia. We’re not talking the usual array of tourist bangles and anklets, but rather a refined and unique set of products that comes courtesy of the pande families (members of a special caste of smithies renowned for their knowledge of metallurgy). Travelers can expect intricately carved necklaces of matt silver, broaches inlaid with gleaming precious stones and bracelets imbued around the edges with a spiritually important touch of gold. Prized in metal markets right across the planet, these handmade pieces are a sure bet when it comes to buying for even the most discerning of friends.
Unquestionably the top spot to go searching for silver work on Bali is Celuk. This small village on the cusp of the Ubud rice paddies is awash with countless jewellers and showrooms, all of which sparkle and glisten with hairpins and earrings in the Bali sun. For some of the more interesting pieces, be sure to take to the backstreets here, where the fumes of silversmith workshops issue into the streets and the artisans work their metal in plain sight.
Bali’s tropical climate and fertile volcanic valleys are just about the perfect place to raise coffee crops. Since the beginning of the 20th century, plantations here have been churning out aromatic Robusta and Arabica to rival the likes of Columbia and Kenya, and the Kintamani region that rises around Lake Batur is now the proud bearer of a Geographical Indication tag for its beans, guaranteeing each crop maintains the famous quality and taste the area is known for. What’s unique about the coffee from Bali is that the beans are commonly wet-processed (dried without their thick husks on), which makes for a smoother and more refined overall taste. And for those feeling just a tad more adventurous, there’s always the famed Kopi Luwak on offer; made from the excrement of the wild Civet cat.
To sample and purchase the top-quality coffee beans in Bali, there can really be no substitute for heading to the Kintamani region and hitting one of the plantations that hide between the volcanic lakes and verdant mountains.
The perfect accompaniment to that cup of fresh Balinese coffee, island chocolate is another of the major exports of this section of the Nusa Tenggara. Well suited to growing in the wet and sultry climes of the central highlands, cocoa is both picked and processed here, often on the same street and by the same family of workers. That means chocolate producers in Bali have a deep and spiritual connection to their work; a connection that shows through in the tenuous balance of bitter and sweet that characterises their product.
In recent years, the Pod Chocolate Factory and Café has risen to become one of the best-known spots for sampling Balinese chocolate. Shrouded by rice paddies and waxy jungles close to Tegalalang, this one’s dark cocoa bars are famed for their soothing and medicinal powers, while souvenir seekers can sample homemade chocolate ice cream while they browse!
Deep in the untrodden climes of the Karangasem Regency, the ancient art of basket weaving comes to the fore. Here, the locals are the undisputed masters at manipulating the ata reed, which they form into traditional oval shapes, or work into coasters, handled baskets and trays. The material is sturdy and hardwearing naturally but the practice of smoking the finished products over fires of coconut husks is thought to bring another level of durability to the weave, and makes these baskets totally unique.
Head to the remote village of Tenganan for the top-quality products. Here, makeshift weaving workshops spill out of homes and onto the cobbles of the street. Tanned, leather-faced locals do the weaving and are a veritable wonder to watch at work!
What to bring back from Bali – Your own suggestion?
So there it is: our line-up of seven Bali souvenirs worthy of even the most discerning of travellers; all a far cry from the usual Bintang vest or tropical tee! If you’ve got any more suggestions to add, feel free to comment below.