Bali can't match Hawaii's tropical beaches, reefs, and sunsets. But as a cultural paradise, Bali is unparalleled. Balinese kids learn to carve, paint, and dance before they learn to read. Each village in this Hindu enclave in Muslim Indonesia specializes in an artistic discipline, from wood carving to batik. Now, with the rupiah devalued by 80% since the onset of the Asian financial crisis last year, Balinese art is ridiculously affordable. Batik baby outfits sell for $1, while elaborately carved hibiscus wood statues go for $10 to $50. "Everything is so cheap, you almost feel as if you're stealing," says Doveen Schecter, an expatriate American living in Hong Kong.
The best way to shop for crafts is to head for the main road and rent a car with a driver to take you around the island for $15 to $30. When you hit a village in search of handicrafts, your driver probably will steer you toward the biggest tourist trap. It usually will take credit cards and quote high prices in U.S. dollars. For the best buys, simply walk around the village, going from shop to shop. I look for family-run outlets, where artists are busy at work and children at play. Many times, their homes and workshops are behind the shops, and you can simply wander through, watching as crafts workers do their magic.
One of my favorite towns is Batubulan, known for stone carvings. Here you can find shops surrounded by sandstone Hindu deities, which the Balinese use to guard their shrines. According to Ni Gst A Oka Ariana, an employee at Yuliani, a shop packed with captivating sculptures, it takes 4 to 12 days to carve a piece. A 50-pound, three-foot statue of a lovely Balinese woman costs $35. If you want to ship it home, add 200% to the cost. But even the shipping price is negotiable.
Head to a town called Mas for wood carvings and masks. Near the main tourist store, I found a tiny shop run by a carver and his wife. I liked the shopkeeper so much that I wanted to buy something from him, so I chose a detailed carving of the godly Hindu couple Rama and Sita for $50.
Of all the artistic places in Bali, Ubud is nirvana. Stop at any of the museums or galleries to get a sense of the best painters. But beware: Gallery prices are massively inflated. One salesman asked $3,500 for a work by a local painter--and eventually settled for $400. Many landscape paintings, made with painstaking detail, sell for less than $100--half of what they cost when I first went to Bali in 1993.
One section of Ubud is known for its mobiles. Brightly painted wooden stars, tigers, and fish dangle from street-side stalls and sell for less than $2 apiece. For $2.50, you can get your hands on a stool painted with fanciful planets or animals. In another section near Monkey Forest Road, vendors offer batik quilts--the most expensive goes for $25 and is big enough for a queen-size bed. For $5, you can get a cotton sack for your quilt.
Other towns specialize in gold and silver, or beaded bags and belts. So be sure to pack light. Otherwise, you'll find yourself buying plenty of those $5 bags for all your treasures.