When I was growing up, our holidays were usually taken in a caravan park down by the ocean or in a small town in the bush. But there were always a few kids in our class (whose parents must have owned a gold farm) who would go for their holidays to a magical overseas place known as Bali.
These days thanks to the low cost airlines, Bali is not just a retreat for the upper class and gold farmers. It is (and probably always has been) the perfect middle class luxury holiday escape. Here everyone in the middle can upgrade their life for a week or two. The lower-middle becomes middle-middle and so on, thanks to a slight more affordable cost of living coupled with an economy that relies on western tourists.
With a determination for our kids to see more of the world than we did when were young, we headed on over to live that upper-middle class highlife. The thing we didn't realise was that we hadn't adjusted our expectations around travelling with kids. This wasn't going to be like the Round the World adventure we took the year after we were first married. We were going to be knee-deep in a pre-schooler and teething toddler tour of duty.
What follows aren't so much tips as observations and lessons that you may wish to absorb should you consider heading to Bali, the island of smiles and salmonella, with kids.
Flights- try and book these for times that fit with your children's sleeping pattern. If they don't have a set pattern or are insomniacs, try and book flights when it isn't peak season so you can get one that isn't full and spread out across the vacant row. This will allow you more space for your clan or you can just move and pretend that the kids aren't yours and look on in confused disgust with the other passengers at the unsupervised children chewing the seats and pouring OJ down their pants.
Accommodation- Villas, just like thongs and bowl haircuts, are popular in Bali. They offer a private, furnished space for you to relax. This is made easier by the pools that come with most of them but harder by the gardeners and housekeepers that are also usually included. Nothing is more relaxing than spending a quite, sunny morning semi-nude as a family only to be joined by a small Balinese man determined to bring down a tree with nothing but determination and a tiny axe.
Water- one of the great paradoxes of Bali is that it is so hot that all you want is a drink of water, except you cant because it contains contaminates, metals, sewage and the ghosts of tormented theatre restaurant actors who once played the role of a pirate. Combined together, they are responsible for what has become known as Bali Belly. This is not a cute little illness or by-product of a bikini led lifestyle, but a mini volcanic eruption of your insides that could overflow at any point.
Food- Bali is a foodie destination. The variety of food options is high particularly around the Seminyak area. Each night you can choose from a range of international cuisines to fill your face hole with. Unfortunately this isn't the same for kids, and unless they too want to enjoy suckling pig, soft shell crab and beef tongue tacos, then it is fish n chips, spaghetti bolognese or ham and pineapple pizza wherever you go! The bonus ice cream always keeps them happy, but you'll soon become concerned with the nutritional value of a diet that is based on the colour white.
Babysitters - Nannies can be hired for around $5 an hour, which is about how much childcare costs me per minute back in Australia. Once you get over trying to figure out ways to smuggle the nannie back home with you, use them to enjoy your holiday while you do things like get massages, sleep, go for lunch or dinner or just explore. We tried one out and as nice as they were, our kids were too street-smart to be left alone with a strange person in a foreign land, away from Mum and Dad. When I break it down like that I can't say I blame them.
Nightlife - Bali has amazing nightlife and a great cocktail culture or so you will read. That sort of thing is left to those people without children, or those that have kids that take to the concept of a nannie. Otherwise night times will be filled with going to bed early, watching pirated DVDs, swimming nude in the pool, playing with phones and arguing.
Transport - Scooters are everywhere in Bali. Not the cool mid century Mod vibe of the Vespas though. Instead the streets stream with cheap, noisy bikes that resemble what the nerd Transformers must look like. Families seem happy to use them to transport toddlers, washing, chickens and furniture on, often at the same time. You can use these to get around by catching lifts with sweaty dudes who petition you to grab hold of their love handles as you zoom through the streets towards an insurance claim. Another option for families is taxis, but be warned that seat-belts aren't compulsory in Bali and kids seem to love this idea more than ice-cream at Christmas. You can bargain with most of the taxi drivers but if you get the Blue Bird ones with a meter you wont have to. There is something comforting about knowing how much your imminent death will likely cost you. If you want a safer option again, book a driver to drive you around.
Hiring- Most of the things you will need to keep kids entertained, alive and safe can be hired in Bali. They have plenty of Baby Hire centres where you can get things like toys, pool fences, prams, cots, car seats all delivered to your villa. You can even hire a real baby if you just wanted to try out what it would be like to have another one!
Activities- There are plenty of day trips to be had across the island. Most of these will involve a car trip so unless you have sedatives, Bali traffic is best avoided with kids. What looks like a 4 hour round trip could turn into a 7 night expedition. Plack plenty of water, rations and jaguar repellent. Perhaps just leave that amazing scenery and natural beauty to some other barren couple to enjoy. The best you've got waiting for you is a 5 hour round trip stuck in a mini van that will play host to a family melt down. Besides you have the pool at the villa waiting for you and it has no jaguars.
Culture - The Balinese people are always happy, despite the average national income being around $6,000 USD. I think they know some secret we don't and are constantly trying to not laugh at the over-earning, stressed and unfulfilled westerners who bombard their country in the hope of relaxing and finding some perspective and purpose. Plus they all love kids. Really. Even yours. So much so that it makes you feel bad. Also it will be on of the few times in your life where the decision in the 90s by the Australian government to make Indonesian a language studied in schools will make some sense to you. Selamat pagi Bu!
Shopping- Once it was almost rite of passage for an Australian tourist to return from Bali with braided hair and a bin tang singlet. Now days with gentrification, the zeitgeist's taste has upgraded to any apparel from Deus Ex Machina. You can barter for a bargain with street vendors and in the market. Bali is one those great Asian places where copyright law is rarely enforced, so you can grab some of the worlds most high end counterfeit goods, helping you make your family and friends think you love them more than you do next Christmas.