One of my absolute favorite destinations is the little Indonesian island, Bali. This slice of paradise offers something for all travelers. From the tiered rice patties, to the world renown surf waves, iconic temples, cheap food and drinks, massive clubs, and stunning resorts; this island will leave every visitor swooning. On my first trip to the island, somewhere between the untouched beauty in the north and the gorgeous Plumeria flowers that seemingly fell from heaven, I completely fell in love. Although I could rattle on about Bali and the endless things to see and do, instead here are the top ten things not to miss:
1) Monkey Forest Ubud- stepping into the monkey forest in Ubud was a bit surreal as I followed the carved stone staircase leading down to mossy covered temple hidden in the forest on the edge of a river. The macaque monkeys were crawling all over the place and it literally felt like stepping into an Indiana Jones movie as I explored several of the trails winding through the forest to the various ruins and temples. There are over 600 monkeys living in this nature reserve which is considered to be a sacred space and the forest also includes three temples or pura that were built in the 14th century. At the entrance to the forest, guests are warned to remove all things that the monkeys could possibly grab, which seemed a little unnecessary at the time since the monkeys appeared to be more interested in romping around in the fountain with each other than in the dozens of visitors snapping photos of them. That is until they started climbing up on people searching for food or the contraband that we had been advised to remove or hide. Visitors are allowed to bring some food into the forest to give to the monkeys, but are warned to be careful when offering it to them as they may become aggressive. Much to my delight, a small one hopped up on my shoulder and I quickly passed off my phone to the closest person to snap a few pictures. Moments after my new little friend lost interest and scampered off, I saw another one climbing all over a girl nearby and was horrified to watch him rip out her earring. After helping her clean up I quickly followed the trail back out of the forest. While I still think the Monkey Forest is a must visit for the island, definitely be extra cautious and remember that the monkeys are still wildlife and can be very ornery so be sure to remove everything before entering!
2) Tanah Lot- this is one of the most iconic temples that is located on the south western side of island by the coast of Beraban village, which frequently is featured in magazines and on postcards from Bali. Tanah Lot is an ancient Hindu shrine that is partially carved out of rock and sits on top of a small outcrop just off the shore surrounded by the crashing waves. Since the temple becomes its own small island during high tide, it is best to visit at low tide so it is possible to walk out to it. Underneath the actual temple is a small cave where the priests sprinkled visitors with water as a purification ritual before putting a small pinch of rice on their forehead between their eyebrows, which is considered one of the 'chakras' and the center of spirituality. The water and rice are applied together to gain positive energy, release negative energy, and increase mental focus. Although visitors are not allowed to go all the way inside the temple, I was still able to climb most of the way to the top of the carved stone staircase that wraps around the rock. There are several other smaller temples in the area that are easily walking distance from Tanah Lot and also worth exploring.
3) Beach Bars- one of my favorite parts of Bali is the fantastic beach scene. Not only is it an amazing place to go surfing, but there are beach bars lining much of the coast. Down near Kuta are some of my favorite beach bars that offer massive colorful bean bags under umbrellas that are strung in lights and typically have live music. With sand between your toes and a cold drink in hand, it is hard to top the view of the sun dropping below the horizon set to the soundtrack of island music being strummed on the guitar. Equally fun but a little more sophisticated are the beach bars up the strip in Seminyak like Cocoon, Ku De Ta, and Potato Head. The latter bar is one of my favorites in the world with its open lawn in the center- perfect for sun tanning or picnicking, the swim up pool bar on the edge of the beach, and the menus with fun stickers for adults to fill in. Not to mention the delicious fruity cocktails they serve! In the daytime some of the pools can get a bit rowdy and pull off almost a Vegas pool party vibe, but at night the atmosphere transforms to a much classier locale with the smartly dressed and more trendy crowd arriving to enjoy fancy cocktails in the open air bars. Further to the south in some of the more surfer oriented spots, there are low-key cafes that are perfect for enjoying some of the local Bintang beers and listening to island/Bob Marley/chill playlists while watching surfers catch the final waves before the last of the sunlight fades away. While each of these areas offer distinctly different types of beach bars, each of them are well worth checking out!
4) Surfing- one of the primary reasons that I first wanted to go to Bali was to learn how to surf. After living in North Carolina for the previous summer, I had been a bit spoiled with the easy access to the beach and spent many evenings after class going body boarding, but never thought the waves were big enough to try surfing. Bali however offers some of the best surf spots in the world so learning to surf was a huge factor in picking the spot and I was not disappointed! The first morning on island I woke up very early and headed out to the beach. For about $20 I was able to rent a surfboard for the whole morning and got an hour surf lesson included. After practicing 'popping up' on the beach several times, on my first wave I was able to stand up and glide for a few feet before losing balance and diving in. The next few sun soaked hours flew by as my instructor eventually grabbed a board and continued surfing the whole morning as well, but by the time I turned in the board I was thoroughly exhausted. Now I definitely understand the appeal of being a beach bum and spending every morning out on the water. Since the island offers tons of excellent spots for surfing to people of all skill level, Bali is most certainly a place that I would love to return once I've improved my skills a bit more!
5) Temples around Ubud- Bali is filled with over 20,000 beautiful little temples and religious sites located all over the island. Many of them are easy to spot while cruising on a Vespa or to visit with a guided tour guide, while several of the larger more iconic ones take some planning to visit. There are plenty around each city and they all welcome travelers to join in their religious rituals. I loved their openness and willingness to share this aspect of their culture as they always encouraged me to participate in the traditions and rituals rather than to just observe. When visiting the temples it is important to wear proper attire, but if you arrive in shorts or a t-shirt, sarongs and sashes are available to rent for a small fee or donation at most of the sites. Several of the most incredible ones to visit are: Besakih to the east, Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Gunung Kawi,and Luhur Lempuyang.
6) Vespa ride through the north- an extremely cheap way of seeing much of what Bali has to offer is to rent one of the little vespas and take a self-guided tour. I spent my second day zipping around for hours exploring the emerald green rice patties in the north and discovering small temples tucked away in the various hillsides. Since they cost only about $4 to rent a day and gas is easy to find for sale on all the main roads (even though it is sold from reused soda and beer bottles) this was a convenient way to go exactly where I wanted. After spending the mornings sweating off the drinks from the night before while out surfing, I would load up on my little Vespa and set off to explore a new area. Be careful of the traffic in the big cities though because the drivers are accustomed to the small bikes knowing when to get out of their way. Also the cops tend to pull tourists over and demand to see international license since they know most people don't have one and are willing to pay a bribe to avoid a ticket. When they pulled me over I called their bluff on this and refused to pay to $50 bribe, which could have gone terribly wrong but thankfully worked in my favor and they let me go with a warning. However, to avoid being hassled by the cops it is easy to avoid driving in the main tourist parts of town or actually getting an international license from AAA before traveling.
7) Kuta Nightlife- despite the serene countryside that at many points seemed like the Garden of Eden (the beautiful plumeria flowers literally fall from the sky in Bali!), the nightlife is geared towards the rowdy party-going crowd in several areas, but mostly centered in Kuta. Drinks are extremely cheap and there are several multi-story clubs with different DJs on each floor. There were a group of other young travelers at my hotel in Kuta who invited me to join the first night out in town. We started at a bar that was tucked away a few blocks off the main drag and was situated half underground with an open courtyard that was mostly hidden by the massive trees. With Red Bull vodkas for only $2 and people dancing on the table tops in the courtyard I was already impressed with the scene, but this was only the pregame spot. We continued on to the downtown and visited several of the big nightclubs that were just starting to fill up around 2300. Eventually we made our way to Sky Garden, a four story club with a different DJ and performers on each floor. The cover to get in includes a few drinks, but the lines were long at bars on every floor. Although the club had slight traces of those who had gotten sick from partying too hard the night before, it was quite the electric crowd and some of the light shows made it seem like we were stepping into an EDM festival. Nearby are plenty of smaller but equally packed clubs. Bounty and Eikon Bar are two of the other very popular spots which both offer numerous dance floors and are also full of tourists out enjoying some revelry. Although I wouldn't recommend spending many nights frequenting these massive clubs, they were quite impressive and it is hard to beat most of their reasonable drink prices.
8) Kopi Luwak- after reading on several small cafe signs that they offered Kopi Luwak coffee, I finally had to stop and ask someone what exactly it was. The barista described it to me the same way that I now use to explain to everyone, it's the coffee from the movie the Bucket List! It is the super fancy and expensive coffee that has been eaten and processed by a small cat like animal, the luwak or civet, found in the trees of Indonesia. Obviously one of the first questions is why anyone would want to drink a coffee that was sifted from animal droppings. The short version is that the native workers on the Dutch East Indies coffee plantation were not allowed to pick and consume the coffee fruits themselves. However, they were able to bypass the rule when they discovered that the luwak ate the beans and passed them through undigested so they cleaned off the beans and used them to make their own coffee. Eventually some of the plantation owners sampled some of this dung coffee and realized it was far more delicious than the original beans so they began marketing it. During the digestive process, the luwak adds enzymes to the coffee fruit resulting in the smooth, rich, and full bodied coffee that people around the world are willing to pay premium prices for. There are several tours offered in the area that provide the whole history of the origins and allow you to see the step by step process of how this rich and expensive coffee is made. Due to the limited production (and the effort to produce) Kopi luwak is extremely expensive and can cost up to about $700 a kilogram. In Bali it is significantly cheaper and offered in most cafes for reasonable prices. Since it is considerably cheaper to purchase on the island, it is also an excellent gift to bring back for friends and family to offer them a chance to sample the deliciousness!
9) Hanging Gardens- One of Bali's numerous and stunning infinity pools, the Hanging Gardens are tucked away in the jungle just outside of Ubud. It is a part of a luxury hotel that is comprised of beautiful villas surrounding this cascading infinity pool overlooking the valley. The price tag for renting one of the villas definitely exceeded my travelers budget, so I stopped out at the resort for lunch and a quick dip in the famous pool. The Garden's restaurant is well known for its Indonesian cuisine and its dishes serving freshly caught fish from the Jimbaran Bay. It was a bit of a trek to get all the way out to the Hanging Gardens Resort, but the views and this beautiful pool certainly lived up to the hype!
10) Lunches at the luxury resorts- there are numerous stunning resorts around Bali that are extremely popular on social media due to their infinity pools and breathtaking views of the jungle or the ocean. Although Bali is very cheap, staying at one of these fine accommodations can still cost pretty penny and if you did stay at one, it would be easy to be mesmerized by the resort and not leave. Instead, I opted for a cheaper hotel close to the water and nightlife up near Seminyak and Kuta and visited the resorts for lunches or poolside drinks. Most of the famous resorts have restaurants that are open to the public, which allowed me to visit and enjoy all of their gorgeous views and pools for a fraction of the cost. I mapped out some of the most famous places around island and visited them during my afternoon Vespa rides. This was a very cost effective way of enjoying some of the best views on island that were a bit out of my budget. Each offered some unique features in simply spectacular settings!
There are plenty more things to do and see in Bali and on the surrounding islands! There are excellent dinning options to meet every preference from green smoothies and fresh fruits in the morning to massive Balinese fish dinners in the evenings. Also there are plenty of massage shops in every city and super cheap stores offering anything you want along the main road from Seminyak to Kuta. Discounted group or private tours are also offered all over, making it extremely easy to pick and choose exactly what sights to visit without doing much planning ahead of time.
Two of the main things I wanted to do but didn't get the chance was to visit Gili island which is well known for its snorkeling and energetic nightlife and to participate in the $5 taco 'n tattoo Tuesday. Desus Cafe offers a taco and tattoo combo for only $5 in celebration of taco Tuesday and as enticing as the free souvenir was, I eventually opted out of the tattoo because I really didn't want Hep A as another free keepsake. Nevertheless that would be an absolutely epic way to get a first tattoo and is still rather tempting.
If you have visited Bali, please share some of your favorite places and things to do around the island!
Hostel Average Cost: $20
Currency: Indonesian Rupiah
Drink: Kopi Luwak Coffee, Bintang beer, and Loloh
Food: Bebek betutu- this is a Balinese dish made of garlic stuffed duck or chicken that is wrapped in coconut tree bark and steamed which is typically served with rice and spices.
Electric Outlet: European
Visa: Visa on Arrival is offered for $35 and there is typically a long line in the airport waiting to process everyone.