Towering volcanoes…world-class surfing…superb beaches…fiery Indian Ocean sunsets…. Bali is a feast for the eyes. Add to its appeal cheap and tasty cuisine…a super-low cost-of-living…amazing nightlife…and locals whose friendliness borders on legendary…and you’ll find you’re hard pressed to point to a more alluring destination in Asia.
I’m not the first to notice. This Indonesian archipelago welcomed over a million international visitors in the first half of 2010. Point is, it can get crowded — especially in Kuta, the main resort town.
The trick is to get outside Kuta and explore the real Bali.
There you stumble upon entire villages taking part in spectacular religious processions, marching down the street in traditional ceremonial dress… and shutting down traffic in the middle of the day. I snapped photos of a young Balinese child herding a gaggle of ducks alongside magnificent terraced rice paddies in the shadow of a 10,308-foot active volcano.
In this Bali you can sit with your legs dangling off the edge of a 150-foot cliff and marvel at the brave surfers below, taking on some of the world’s most challenging waves. While you do, though, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the mischievous long-tailed macaque monkeys who live by the hundreds on this island and make a game of stealing people’s stuff.
In this Bali, hauntingly beautiful gamelan music comes from the hundreds of small villages all over the island…the wonderfully-creative daily offerings to the gods you’ll see placed on the ground almost everywhere you look…the fascinating Balinese architecture in which every structure is considered “a living being”…and so much more.
I lived in Bali for a couple of years a decade ago now. On a recent trip back, I was struck by how much Kuta had changed… and, too, how wonderful the rest of the island remains. The trick is to explore. Here are my top nine recommendations, my guide to the Bali you’ll love….
1 Cycling is a great way to see and experience the parts of the island that most tourist “vans” and “buses” skip altogether. Plus, it’s a great way to burn off a few calories, too. The best part? Many organized bike tours start by taking you high up in the mountains via van, then dropping you off with your bikes… giving you a mostly downhill trip past terraced rice paddies, Hindu temples, local villages and more. Bring your camera—you’ll need it!
2 Enjoy a sunset seafood dinner at Jimbaran Bay. This was (and still is) one of my favorite things about Bali. The sunsets at Jimbaran Bay are postcard-perfect. The beach is lovely. And the fresh-grilled fish is out of this world. You choose which fresh-caught fish you want from an ice-box. They grill it for you on the spot for less than $10. Jimbaran Bay is easy to find on a map. Plus it can be reached easily by car, motorbike or taxi. (Make sure the taxi driver uses the meter… and doesn’t give you a fixed price.) All the restaurants at Jimbaran are good, in my opinion. So simply choose one that appeals to you when you get there.
3 Watch the sunrise from the summit of the 10,308-foot Gunung Agung. This has to be one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. You start at about 1:30 a.m. in total darkness—with a flashlight mounted on your head. Then you’re in for three or four hours of grueling hiking… straight up. It’s not for the faint of heart. But watching the sunrise from the summit of Bali’s holiest mountain is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
4 Learn how to surf in Seminyak. You’ll find many surf schools in the adjacent beach towns of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak. I was most impressed with the Rip Curl School of Surf in Seminyak. It offers beginner lessons starting at $65—and promises that “at the end of it you’ll be riding your first wave.” (See: Ripcurlschoolofsurf.com).
5 Enjoy the kecak dance at Pura Luhur Ulu Watu. The views from Pura Luhur Ulu Watu, on the southern tip of Bali’s Bukit Peninsula, are nothing less than breathtaking. What’s more, for just $7.70 you can take in a performance of the traditional Balinese kecak dance…with massive cliffs, the sunset and the Indian Ocean in the background. Bring your camera… and watch out for monkeys! One of those little buggers stole my favorite hat the last time I was there, and I had to use a big stick to get it back! You can reach Pura Luhur Ulu Watu by car, motorbike, taxi or with a tour company. It’s only about 45 minutes from Seminyak, and one to one-and-a-half hours from Ubud, depending on traffic.
6 Take a few day trips to the island of Nusa Lembongan and the Gili Islands. This requires a minimum of planning, yet could be the highlight of your trip. These small islands offer the kind of laid-back, funky beach vibe you may think exists only in daydreams. For surfers, divers, writers, readers, photographers and beach bums, Nusa Lembongan and the Gili Islands are as good as it gets.
7 Watch world-class surfers tackle massive waves at Ulu Watu. These waves are the stuff of legend. You’re likely to see some big names in surfing carving it up when conditions are right (April to September). Make your way to Pantai Sulaiban to get the best views.
8 Shop for unique Balinese and Indonesian arts, crafts, textiles and furniture in Ubud. Ubud has become a haven for artists. So you’ll find no shortage of shops here that offer Bali’s finest handicrafts. It’s a great way to find some one-of-a-kind decorations for your home. Most of what you’ll find in Ubud is very inexpensive when compared to prices for similar products in the Western world. In fact, many expats have turned exporting Balinese arts, crafts, textiles and furniture into a part-time or full-time business.
9 Rent a car or motorbike and make your own discoveries! And don’t worry if you get lost. You can always ask for directions. Almost everyone speaks passable English. Just remember to wear a helmet if you’re on a motorbike (required by law), be careful (the traffic can get a little crazy) and bring your camera (Bali is a photographer’s dream).
Getting the Most from Bali
I’d recommend staying in Seminyak or Ubud… at least for your first trip. Both are good home bases for exploring the island your first time there. Stay in Seminyak if you’re more into the beach scene, and Ubud if you’d prefer a cooler, “jungle” environment and more of an “artsy” scene.
Try not to spend too much time at your hotel, bungalow or home stay… no matter how nice it is. Bali is meant to be explored!
Pick up a copy of the Bali Advertiser—the local expat newspaper—as soon as you get there. It’s a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on and what opportunities are available right now (for example, starting a new business, owning property, special events, meeting other expats and more). You can find it for free at many shops and restaurants throughout Kuta, Legian and Seminyak. (See: Baliadvertiser.biz).
And finally, learn Bahasa Indonesia – the national language of Indonesia. You won’t believe how easy it is! In fact, I guarantee that if you study it diligently for just an hour a day for two months, you will become semi-fluent… and that opens up for you a whole new level of experience and fun.