Bali is probably one of those beautiful and exotic places, that are actively advertised at your local travel agency. Paradise on earth, I think, they call it. Not without a reason, of course. It’s this beautiful, haunting place, where you imagine yourself lying on the white-sand beaches, sipping coconut cocktails and watching the azure ocean. You know, like in movies.
Welcome to Bali! You and the other 3 million curious tourists annually made it to the destination. Seriously, Bali has almost no off season. People come and go all the time. According to the statistics, provided by Bali Government Tourism Office, the island hosted on average 300,000 newcomers each month during 2014.
Even though Indonesia has 18,307 islands, Bali stays the top one attraction. So be prepared to meet crowds of people. To your attention, Visa on Arrival (VOA) costs 35 US dollars and don’t forget to spare 20,000 IDR for the departure tax. Generally prices grow every year, so get informed before the trip.
Where to go
When I was hearing Bali, I always thought of just Bali. It never crossed my mind that the island is big enough to have a variety of touristic flavors. North is different from South. Center of the island is different from its outer parts. Since I have spent a month and a half in Indonesia, I got plenty of time to try 3 types of Bali life.
Kuta is a famous beach on Bali. It’s full of life, since most of the Australians stop here. As a matter of fact, Australians represent the major nationality visiting Bali. It is a 3-hour flight on average from Darwin to a paradise-like, cheap and always welcoming location.
Kuta was very attractive to me, because it has the best beginners surfing beach. The ocean surface by the beach is sandy with almost no rocks, it is not deep and the waves are good both for beginners, as well as for pros. Kuta doesn’t have the perfect tube wave, but I guess I am far from mastering that one.
There isn’t much you can do around Kuta, except for party and surfing. If you can get out of the village, then you can visit Pandawa Beach. The water is clean and still. There are less people and the cliffs around look lovely.
Unfortunately Kuta is the most annoying place on all Bali. Every time you walk past local people, they will try to sell you goods or services: massage, motorbike rent, taxi, tattoo, souvenirs, board rent, surfing lessons. They never get tired of asking you again and again.
I guess I sound very picky, but in 2 or 3 days most of the tourists start to feel the need to avoid the eye contact with vendors. On the other hand the behavior is understandable, since the competition is huge. The advertising is aggressive and pushy, but it works for the most part.
Some of the marketing strategies are more sophisticated. Locals try to establish a relationship with you. Make a little smalltalk. Lure you with their fake interest. And when time is right, they tell you what they really want - sell stuff.
Most people who tend to seek peace and balance go to Ubud. Ubud is a lovely place, 2 hour ride from Kuta to the north. It breaths culture and style. It can be summarized as art, yoga and dance. Ubud has several museums and plenty of galleries.
There are a lot of home-stays in Ubud, so it is kinda easy to find intimate accommodation for a low price. Search for a home-stay that offers breakfast. They cook tasty pancakes and always include fresh fruits - yummy.
Ubud has this big hype around organic stuff: organic food, organic drinks, organic yoga pants. I might be wrong, but I assume the local cheap food uses same veggies as organic restaurant do. It’s just organic rises the price tag.
There are some famous foot tracks in Ubud, which lead you to beautiful fields and hills. I have really enjoyed the Campuan Ridge walking tour.
If you like monkeys, go to Monkey Forest. I am not sure who is bothering who: monkeys the tourists or tourists the monkeys. I have seen people who were not respecting the rules of the forest and in some way harming the animals. Monkeys aren’t really polite as well. They will snatch shiny objects and will climb on to you if they think you have food.
Up to the north is tranquility. We visited Lovina Beach - a real backpackers heaven. There are considerably fewer people and the accommodation prices can be very low. Nearby is the Bali sea, mountains and beautiful nature.
Lovina is known for its volcanic black sand beaches. If you go swimming, there are barely any waves. It’s an amazing feeling to swim in quiet rain and witness some gorgeous rainbows (and double rainbows).
It is a fishing village, so expect to see a lot of boats. But the real symbol of Lovina are the dolphins. By the beach there is a tall status of a dolphin. They come to Lovina for the fish and no one loses the opportunity to see the mighty creatures. Wake up at 6 in the morning to catch a boat to see the wild dolphin chase. It’s kinda funny how tens of boats try to guess where exactly the dolphins will appear. And when they do, the whole gang of roaring boats tries to catch up with them.
It’s worth going to the north to do snorkeling and diving to the Menjangan Island. I will never forget how impressed I was by the rush of the tropic aquatic life near the riff. Those pretty little fish going round their own business, as if never really bothered by weird guys in masks.
For the most part Indonesia is a Muslim country. But Bali is different. Bali practices Hinduism as religion. And you could feel it even with the soles of your feet. It is a big deal in the life of locals. They wake up in the morning and prepare the offerings for the God, light up a scent stick and repeat the process by the afternoon and evening. It doesn’t seem like a burden to them, they feel happy and accomplished to perform the ritual daily.
That said, Bali is overwhelmed with temples. To be honest, most of the them look the same with slight differences. There are important temples, then big touristic temples and everyday temples. Important ones are of some big significance for local people, but on the exterior they have nothing special. Pura Besakih is the largest template of Bali and was my one and only saint place, which I visited. And then come the everyday temples - the ones built by the house. Yes, more or less every house has a temple of its own.
If you plan to visit more than one template, buy a sarong up front. Men and women are not allowed without one. Besides even if you get inside the template, you actually just walk around it, since visitors are not allowed in the prayer/meditation zone.
Mesmerizing tropical nature is what left me speechless. During the trip good and bad stuff happened, but I always got reconciled somehow by the natural beauty of the island.
Bali is famous for its wonderful rice fields. The green cascading pieces of land are protected by UNESCO, otherwise endangering the main Bali cultivation to be torn apart by greedy construction companies.
Bali has to offer several hot springs mostly found at the north of the island. The way to Air Panas Banjar Hot String is somewhat famous, for the road being beautifully shadowed by old trees, with a clear blue coastline by the side of the road, which makes up for nice bike ride.
Volcanoes - just some mountains with some lava boiling in it. But it’s kinda impressive to see a real active smoking volcano. We’ve been to Batur Volcano on motorbikes and the whole trip was a blast.
That being said, there ain’t no sunshine without rain. Unfortunately ecology is not something locals care about. People throw tons of plastic into the ocean and guess what, during the rain season it all comes back to the shore. The amazing tingling of plastic bags in the water - a dream come true.
That smell can never be forgotten - durian. Druin is a fruit extremely liked by the Asian population. There is very little point in trying to describe the smell, but as they say it, whether you love or you hate it. I got the last one.
Along with durian there are all kinds of fruits: passion fruit, dragon fruit, bananas, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, lychee, mango, etc.
But the real treasure is Manggis. This fruit is not particularly rich in nutritional value, but it’s inner juicy vesicles are very tasty. The fruit is in high demand always. Manggis season is short and hence big price fluctuations happen. It’s nice when you are able to catch the season.
You walk by and every local person will greet with “Hi” or “Hello”. Local greetings sound the same as English versions by the way. The hospitality of the place is felt everywhere as long as you behave. Once you crossed the line, bad things can happen. Don’t forget that the police is corrupt, so no easy way to get out of a bad situation.
The whole time we were on Bali nothing was stolen or attempted to be stolen. At the inns they usually don’t have safe boxes, but it felt like you don’t even need them. I was told by the locals that indeed theft doesn’t occur often and for the most part it happens to drunk tourists late in the night returning from a party.
Balinese people are very friendly and smiley. They will always help you if you have the intention to purchase something from them. But with all the welcoming appearance, it’s never a bad idea to be prudent. I hate to say it, but Balinese will lie and deceive you if they see profit. For example, you might be deceived at some local money exchange booths ending up with less money than you’d expect. Nevertheless nothing seriously bad ever happened.
Bargaining is more than welcome. Once the price was dropped by 70% and I didn’t say a word. To me all the prices felt dummy afterwards, since it’s rather hard to estimate the real value. Nevertheless white people will overpay in any case. You can’t convince them to sell goods by the local real price. It just never happens.
I felt in love with Balinese food. It’s slightly spicy, averagely salty and delicious for my tastes. Bali has a lot of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Generally meat is more expensive, seafood is mainly available and vegetables and rice are everywhere. Most common dishes are mie goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice), nasi campur (rice with toppings like meat, veggies, souses), soto bakso (soup with meatballs), soto ayam (chicken soup). My all time favorite is the mie soto - chicken soup with noodles, prepared at a small local dinner in Ubud. I can fill my mouth all watery now just by the thought of mie soto.
Rice is a complement to every meal. Even McDonals and KFC will serve you rice.
As in most Asian countries food is everywhere, and particularly on the street. The authentic bakso is sold by guys driving a bike-tiny-kitchen assembly. They stop where there are customers and fix you a fine bakso, that you eat on the spot.
Of course hygiene should be of concern and you would probably prefer a more “posh” place for dining. In reality there is one universal rule: if locals eat that food, it’s safe for you too. To be mentioned, I have never had food poisoning while on Bali.
Transport and traffic
Traffic is big and hectic. Few rules apply. For the most part just watch out! People drive bikes, all kinds of bikes. It’s a like a big collection of cute Vespas, Scoopies and not so cute Honda Vario. It’s easy and cheap to rent a bike, if you like extreme driving. Keep in mind that cars are not exactly respectful towards the bike drivers and traffic jams are awful.
It won’t be boring on Bali, trust me. Locals are offering plenty of activities.
Start with lying on the beach with a good book and get a gorgeous tan. Catch the wave on a surfing board, fall, try again. Go trekking on the top of a volcano. Get a bicycle and visit some nearby villages, buy bakso for it’s real price of 5,000 IDR. Soak in the greenish water of a hot spring. Don’t forget about white water rafting in Ayung River - instructors make it an unbelievably fun experience. Take long walk to discover the blooming nature of Bali. Go to a cooking class and learn some secrets about Bali cuisine. Explore the templates if you feel attracted to the spiritual side of the island. Get fit by taking yoga or traditional dance classes or relax by having an oily Balinese massage. Go diving or snorkeling to special beautiful spots. Join a group of tourists to see the Legong and Kecak dance. I think there is a lot more to this. Once you are there, you will figure it out.
One last piece of advice: Live in Bali once, but leave it before it makes you soft. And that’s what we did.