A couple months ago, my friends Sian, Lisa and Jess from Brisbane asked if I wanted to join them for 8 days in Bali at the end of January. My reaction was something along the lines of ‘Hell yeah!’ Who says no to Bali? The other three girls had all previously visited, and maybe it was because of this that I did absolutely zero research before arriving. Being the travel nerd I am, this is very unlike me. My point is, I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect upon arrival.
The flight, first of all, is 6 hours from Brisbane. A lot further than you’d think by looking at a map. It’s easy to forget that Australia is just as big as the U.S. Once we collected our bags and headed through the doors, we were immediately harassed by approximately 40 different men asking if we needed transport. You couldn’t move a foot without someone shoving their business card in your face. We found our driver that was pre-arranged through our accommodation and zoomed quickly away from the airport.
My pre-envisioned idea of Bali as one big tropical paradise, full of nothing but pristine beaches and thatched roof huts quickly slipped away as we drove through the smog of traffic and half-developed, run-down buildings. The Burger King we drove by served as an ugly reminder that westernization is pervasive, even on small Southeast Asian islands. Am I depressing you? Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic time in Bali, it was just more touristy than I imagined.
These areas just north of the airport is where a lot of the action happens. Most backpackers tend to stay around Kuta, as it’s where a lot of the nightlife is situated. Legian extends north from Kuta into the more hip area of Seminyak, where you’ll find boutique cafés and trendy beach clubs. Legian road is the main drag that connects the three. During the day it’s good for souvenir shopping and finding cheap clothing. Expect to be heckled by the men and women running the shops, but don’t back down when bartering: they often quote double the price and come down to meet you halfway. At night watch out for your personal belongings on Legian road, as some locals will work in cohorts to distract you and reach into your pockets or purse. Walking down the main drag, we were offered drugs probably 5-10 times. Some of these people were actually undercover cops trying to bust tourists. If you’re a female, watch out for butt-grabbers (local and foreign alike) in the clubs; unfortunately assholes are everywhere.
Around the island
Bali is more than just resorts and beaches. Join a tour or hire a private driver (cheaper than a tour if you split between a couple of you) and go up to Ubud, stopping at waterfalls, rice terraces and a monkey forest along the way. Watch out for these cheeky buggers – they’ll steal your sunnies off of you! Tanah Lot and Uluwatu temples are renowned for their ocean views and you can often watch a traditional Balinese fire dance here as the sun sets. If you have a longer period of time, visit the north to escape the crowds, see dolphins and visit traditional villages.
Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is Muslim, Bali is almost exclusively Hindu. This is evident in the Hindu temples that sprinkle the island – Bali is known as the island of 1,000 temples. There are nine directional temples on the island known as kahyangan jagat that form a star shape. This helps protect from evil spirits and also keeps Bali balanced. Offerings are a meaningful everyday ritual that the Balinese make at least once per day, usually three times (morning, afternoon and evening). Every family has its own shrine, and businesses often leave their offerings out the doorstep on the sidewalk so you’ll often accidentally trod over them as you walk in. Since the offerings usually include food of some sort, dogs and monkeys are quick to tear them apart. I wanted a monkey do this at Uluwatu temple – bad karma!
Indonesian food is YUM. The most typical dishes you’ll see are mie (noodles) and nasi (rice) goreng, stir fry with meat and assorted vegetables. Satay is also a popular dish, found easily in local markets. If you eat at a catering restaurant, many small plates will be brought before you including fried chicken in coconut oil, spicy prawns, beef rendang, stew and fish dishes. At these restaurants you pay for what you eat and they take the untouched plates back. I’m sure we got some items that were on another table’s untouched plates, which would be a major health code violation in America- ha! We ate it anyways. It’s common for travelers to come down with Bali Belly aka the rumble in the jungle aka…diarrhea. We somehow emerged unscathed (didn’t mean we didn’t have an upset stomach or two), but it usually just comes from the change in diet if you’re not used to eating exotic foods, or from bacteria found in the water – don’t drink from the taps! If you’re boring and don’t want to try the local cuisine, not to worry since the mass tourism influx has led to many restaurants introducing international menus.
Pork satay and mie goreng
For a true islander experience, take the fast ferry from Bali over to Gili Trawangan, one of three teardrop islands located off of Lombok. Gili T, as it is locally known, is the size of my thumb and you can circle the whole island on bike in about 45 min – 1 hour. It’s still touristy in its own right, but has a more relaxed vibe and life moves at a much slower pace – literally, because there are no cars or motorized vehicles allowed on the island. The Gilis are a snorkeling and diving mecca: signs for PADI certs are everywhere and many come here to complete their divemaster training courses. The main activity of the evening is to watch the sunset, which skews the sky into cotton candy pink and fuchsia tones. Gili T is known for its partying, and with cheap local drinks you’re in for a fun night.
I enjoyed many things about this trip, but one of the most fun experiences was zipping around on motorbikes to and from the bars at night on Bali. While they’re more expensive than sharing a taxi, our rides were never more than $3.
As soon as I stepped foot on Gili Trawangan, I knew immediately two days wouldn’t suffice and I would want to come back. There’s something about the laid-back atmosphere and the stunning beaches that leave you wanting for more.
When to go
We were there in the low season, which is also the wet season. It probably rained twice the entire time we were there, and that was only in the evening (and maybe once when we were asleep). From what I hear, high season can be hellish on Bali, with traffic jams so dense that even motorbikes can’t move. Accommodation prices obviously rise, and if you’re looking to dine at trendy restaurants or hang at stylish beach clubs, fat chance! My suggestion would to be avoid July & August and holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and Ramadan.
For next time
Because, yes there will be a next time in the not-too-distant future. I probably will avoid the Kuta area, or only go for 1 night. I want to travel around more of Bali and surf – unfortunately I ran out of time to surf on this trip (hangovers are getting harder to recover from, okay?). I will return to the Gilis for a longer period of time as well as visit their larger neighbor, Lombok. And I’d like to see other islands of Indonesia, such as Sumatra, Nusa Lembongan and Papua to name a few.
I’ll be writing more posts on Bali soon, so stay tuned!