Welcome to Bali – island of Gods, mecca for surfers, yogis and lovers of Eat, Pray, Love!
Despite a rapid tourism development which as everywhere is not always a good thing, it is hard not to be at least charmed by Bali. Green picturesque rice paddies meet some of the best waves around, friendly locals, the smell of incense and frangipani in the air, and the most amazing food for vegans, carnivores and everybody in between. As I said, Bali is easy to like and a perfect destination to ease into traveling in Asia as it offers great infrastructure, good value for money and is pretty safe.
Choices of what to do and how to spend your time are endless; Bali has something for everybody. But you gotta start somewhere and so I have put together a few good classics that you shouldn’t miss as a first timer on the island.
No island trip would be complete without a stunning sunset to get you into the holiday mood. While Kuta is anything but quiet and idyllic anymore, it still serves up a really good beach sunset. Join the crowds, sit Bintang in hand and watch the world go by while the sun disappears.
Alternatively, head to Seminyak – hot spot KuDeTa whips up some mean cocktails, some of the best food on the strip, and offers beautiful terrace views overlooking the beach. Welcome to Bali!
2. Surf’s up
Once you have enjoyed the ocean from afar, it is time to head into the water. Bali is home to some of the best surf beaches offering waves for all skill levels.
If you are a complete surfing newbie like me, head to Kuta Beach. Right next to the Mercure Hotel, Odyssey Surf School has set up shop. Here you will be outfitted with a rashguard, a soft board for beginners, and a very patient instructor. From Odyssey walk just across the street to get to the beach and into the water.
While my instructor, Ketut, was absolutely amazing and so very patient, I only managed one stand-up action shot before swallowing a lot of salt water.
With that said, I think I will stick to diving and watching from shore. However, if you have thought about giving surfing a try or can already firmly stand on a board, Bali is the place to be. While surfing itself might not be my cup of tea, I do appreciate the vibe of surfer communities everywhere: beach boys, salty tousled beach hair, and drinking chilled coconuts on the beach.
3. I’m just here for the Savasana
Little goes better with surfing than yoga, the perfect complementary sport to get shoulders and legs in shape to brave the waves. So it comes as no surprise that many yoga & surf guesthouses and retreats have popped up where you can combine the two.
If you prefer a mat to a board, like me, then Ubud is your place. Here you will find studios offering classes for all levels and styles of yoga and vegan smoothies to go with. Check out Yogabarn, where the cool kids hang out for the best rice paddy views with practice or Ubud Yoga Centre for Bikram classes. Whether you are master of Crow and Hanuman or just in class for the Savasana, in Bali you can definitely get your om on.
4. Monkey business
From one monkey pose to the next, no visit in Bali wold be complete without some monkey business. Most famous is probably the Monkey Forest in Ubud, but you will find them all over the island at roadsides and temples.
While I think there is little better than playing with monkeys, be warned – they are incredibly clever, fast and like to steal stuff. During our visit to Uluwatu Temple, Travelette Nikki had her sunglasses stolen right from her nose and another girl in our group had her iPhone taken! It took some tough negotiations with the monkeys to get both back so better hold on tight to your belongings. Also keep in mind that as adorable as they may look, monkeys do have some pretty sharp teeth!
5. Holy water
Balinese temples are not only worth a visit to see monkeys, though. Head here to get a glimpse into Hinduism and see how people worship along with some amazing architecture.
One of the most famous is Tanah Lot, close to Canggu or Uluwatu for incredible cliff views. Definitely the most fascinating for me was Istana Tampak Siring, the Holy Spring Temple by Ubud. Here Hindus and tourists alike come to cleanse themselves of diseases as well as purify the mind. Whether you like to believe this or not, it is a sight to behold how people wade through the water amongst Kois, leave offerings, and dip their heads under the massive faucets of spring water.
Note that, in general, you will need to borrow a sarong and a sash to get into a temple. As a woman, you are not allowed to enter while you are on your period. Of course, nobody is going to check, but it is expected you adhere to this rule out of respect.
6. Rice, rice, baby
I firmly believe that Eat, Pray, Love wouldn’t have been as successful if it wasn’t for the stunning rice paddy views – and neither would Bali. What means business for many locals is a romantic backdrop for visitors here. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Tegalalang rice terraces outside of Ubud. Quite frankly, I was a bit stunned to realize that these terraces are a big tourist attraction that come not only with crowds but also an entrance fee.
We still managed to find some quiet spots for picture taking, but if you want serenity, this is not the place to go. For that, just head away from the main road, any main road for this matter and you will find rice fields that are still being farmed. I was surprised to discover that there are rice fields everywhere in Bali; you don’t need to choose between countryside and ocean views and you usually don’t need to search for long. So grab your camera and take a stroll or a scenic scooter ride and enjoy 50 shades of green!
7. Eat, pray, eat more
Oh, how the food gods must love Bali! The food is definitely something to write home about and offers something for everybody. Start your day with a healthy nalu bowl and some excellent Balinese coffee. From here move on to some Indonesian classics – Nasi Campur, Mie Goreng, Chicken Sate and my personal favorite Gado Gado. All of these dishes are available at local Warungs (family run cafes) or from little street carts. As per usual these usually only serve a few dishes and make them fresh upon ordering.
One of Bali’s favorites is Bali Guling, a slow roasted suckling pig, only available here. While it is usually a dish made for special occasions, an increased interest from foreigners has put it on many regular menus.
If you rather want a healthy diet with your yoga and surf regime, Bali has plenty to offer as well. Raw food restaurants on every corner, smoothie and juice bars, and it is also a heaven for vegans and fans of ayurvedic teas.
If you want to do more than eat, I recommend a cooking class. I went ot Kayumanis, a beautiful all suites hotel, where their chef Made took us to the local market before teaching us how to make curry, soup, sate, and sweet green dumplings for dessert. An experience not to be missed!
8. So you think you can dance?
While food is one way to observe and take in a country’s culture, another integral part is music and arts. To be honest, I was very skeptical about the traditional Balinese music and dance shows that everybody mentioned I had to see. So far I have not been a big fan of many types of typical Asian music. When we got invited to see a Kecak dance performance at Uluwatu temple I was less than enthusiastic – until it started. Kecak is a kind of drama musical which was invented in the 1930s by the German musician Walter Spies and is based on sanghyang, an exorcism dance. The story of Prince Rama, his love, and the evil King Ravana is performed by 150 performers chanting ‘cak’ and depicting their battle.
It might be a show put on for tourists but honestly it was an incredible experience and only made better by the sun setting over Uluwatu. So while you can see Kecak performances throughout Bali, I definitely recommend you come to this one.
9. Beauty & the Bali
After eating everything, working out and taking in all the culture, it is time to relax. And again, you have come to the right place. Bali is known for its massages and spa culture. From simple little massage parlors to fancy spas that will lather you in oils and bathe you in rose pedals, the options are endless. Of course, all at prices that will make a little reflexology a daily occurrence rather than an occasional treat.
Travelettes approved: Karsa Spa in Ubud with a view on the rice fields as well as the Cream Bath hair treatment and massage at Therapy in Canggu. Pure bliss awaits!
10. On an island far far away
Once you have worked your way through tips 1 – 9, don’t forget that Indonesia stretches far beyond Bali. After all, there are over 17.000 Indonesian islands on offer! Start with a diving or snorkeling trip to the neighboring Gili Islands or head over to unspoiled Lombok, the Bali of the past. Want more adventure? Head over to Komodo to play with dragons, find wild orangutans in Borneo or make friends with the Bajo people in Wakatobi.
Enough island hopping done? You can always come back and start with No. 1 again – the famed Bali sunsets will still be here when you return!
Thank you to Indonesia. Travel for inviting me on their Trip of Wonders and showing me Bali and beyond!
Yoga and spa image by Nikki from The Pin the Map Project.