Bali isn't exactly an unknown destination and for some, that's a turn off. True the island is packed with tourists, but exploring the unique Balinese culture and temples, as well as the hidden beaches, is still worth your time, especially when you consider the quality and affordability of the amenities.
See and Do
Your visit to Bali is best divided into two categories: beaches and culture.
There are endless options for the former, but because we were short on time before Dina headed back to NYC, we first settled on Kuta, a mere 4km from the airport.
Kuta gets a bad rep for being a tourist trap full of drunk Australians, trash, and trashy t-shirts and bumper stickers. All this is pretty accurate, but you can find some peace if you make the effort.
The beach is far from stunning, but it's decent, especially considering its proximity to the transport hub. It's also a good place to learn to surf, which is exactly what we did.
For 40,000IDR total, the three of us got a two-hour surfing "lesson" complete with equipment and rash guards. The lesson was pretty short, but the guy who came into the water with us was decent at helping us get onto waves.
Having surfed in Oahu, Hawaii, I can say with 100% certainty that Kuta isn't a great place to learn. I'm sure if you pay more and go to a school you get better instruction, but that wasn't really the problem. What made it difficult is that the waves break so close to shore, which means you either get a very short ride (by hopping off quickly) or you crash into the sand and all the respective tumble that comes with it. Sand burn hurts, so jumping off is better, but it results in little time on the board and lots of time spent dodging other surfers who don't know what they're doing.
Besides surfing, we spent our time in Kuta checking out the temples, browsing the shops, and releasing baby turtles into the sea.
It was just Rob and me during our second stop in Bali, so we opted for a quieter beach to the south of Kuta. Tubon Beach, or Airport Beach as we called it for its perfect view of landing planes, was a lot quieter and more peaceful than Kuta. There were hardly any touts, but if you wanted to catch waves you needed to charter a boat as they break farther offshore here. In my opinion, that's a huge plus as you're less likely to get hurt on the sand. The breaks were also completely empty except for a few lone surfers.
But again, Tuban was far from spectacular. For those types of beaches and that type of surfing, you need to rent a motorbike (40,000IDR/day) and head south to the Bukit Peninsula. The most famous beach here, and rightfully so, is Uluwatu. Make sure you make the right before paying for parking at the temple and follow the paved road all the way to the end. Head down the steps, through the rocky outcroppings, and discover this:
You can spend all day here, at least while it's lowish tide, relaxing in the natural pools and watching the amazing surfers offshore. There's plenty of food to buy, so no need to bring anything along. And, if you're not convinced yet, it's just absolutely beautiful:
More hidden beaches line the Bukit, but you'll have to follow the surfers or ask locals regularly how to find them. We spent the rest of our day at Padang Padang, which was also accessed by a stunning staircase. If the main beach is crowded, head right. There are hardly any people to be found and the sand is even better.
Other beaches you may want to check out are Bingin, Impossibles, and Balangan. Each offers an interesting access point and great surfing offshore. If you're looking for some beach dining, stop at Jimbaran on your way back to Kuta and grab some seafood in the sand. It's a tad pricey, so we had to skip the eating part, but the sunset was free—and stunning.
Unlike most of Indonesia, Bali is primarily a Hindu island with all the ceremonies and offerings to match. Once you get off the main tourist drag in Kuta, you find yourself amidst beautiful mini temples and locals putting out offerings and lighting incense sticks throughout the day. Going inside the temples is difficult as the doors are often locked, but make sure to take a look around and keep an eye out for ceremonies and celebrations. We saw two large affairs—one from our hotel balcony in Kuta and the other on the beach.
If you like what you've seen in Kuta, then Ubud will blow you away. Yes, it's full of tourists, but it's also full of Balinese people performing the rituals that make up their culture. Ceremonies and dance performances (both for tourists and locals) are aplenty, and you only need to get lost in the back alleys to stumble onto tiny temples and shrines that will blow your mind.
Make sure to visit the Lotus Pond and the Royal Palace in town before taking trips further afield.
We took an unguided walk along the Campuan Ridge one day and on another, chartered a car to Gunung Kawi and the Tegallalang rice terraces. You can ask for Goa Gajah to be included in this route as well. The half day trip cost us 150,000IDR, after bargaining of course.
If you want to avoid the backpacker holes of Poppies 1 and 2 in Kuta, check out the deals on Agoda. For $38/night, the three of us had a beautiful room at Ohana Hotel, just a bit off the tourist strip. The beds were clean and comfortable, breakfast was good, and pool (aka beach) towels were provided. Overall, a great find.
On our second stop in Bali, we stayed at the Bakungs Beach Resort. We booked the first two nights on Agoda for $32 and negotiated $30 for the third night in person. The first room we saw was dated and smelled like cigarettes so they moved us to a newer room that had good amenities AND a TV with HBO. Let's just say I gorged myself on movies, BBC news, and white sheets/comforters. The pool here was also much nicer than at the Ohana and the hotel was about 5 minutes from the beach. In America, it would cost $125/night minimum.
You don't need to book ahead of time in Ubud unless you're set on a specific place. Otherwise just show up and look around. There are seemingly 100s of places to stay, but we picked Dewa Bungalows on Jl Hanoman. For 360,000IDR, we had a decent bungalow, but what really made it a standout was the beautiful infinity pools and the delicious breakfast that included fruit shakes. This is also where Rob and Dina discovered, and fell in love with, the jaffle.
Eat and Drink
Balinese food was delicious, and incredibly affordable if you avoided the super touristy restaurants. Our best meal in Bali was at Warung Nikmat. For less than 20,000IDR, I was full from lunch until the next morning.
Ubud is packed with restaurants, and if you have money to spare, you're guaranteed to eat well the entire time you're there. If you're trying to watch the budget, Dewa Warung is a popular choice. Their lime juice is out of this world.
Next door, Melting Wok has the best "Thai" food I ever had, including what I had in Thailand. Meals run around US$3. On the same street, treat yourself to a real cup of coffee at Casa Luna. Lattes are cheap by Western standards, but the beans rock.
We didn't have a chance to try the popular smoked duck, but if you'd like to, pick a restaurant and make a booking the day before. For suckling pig, the celebrated Warung Ibu Oka was a bit of a disappointment. Now an upmarket restaurant with inflated prices, it may be worth skipping.
Perama, with an office in every tourist town in Bali, has a monopoly on tourist buses, though take that with a grain of salt as the buses suck. You pay about US$5 to get to most inland locations from the beach and they do leave several times a day, but expect open windows, small seats, and old vehicles. Your only other choice to get around Bali is to rent a motorbike or charter a driver. Bargain hard, and always agree on a price that's less than the first one quoted.
To get to Java, head to the Ubung Bus Terminal in a cab (around 60,000IDR) and then bargain hard for a ticket. We were traveling the last week of Ramadan so prices were greatly inflated and buses were packed. For Probolinggo, which is the access point for Bromo, we had to pay 200,000IDR. The bus also took 4 more hours than it should have because the line for the Bali-Java ferry was, quite literally, miles long. To top it off, the driver forgot to drop us off and took us two more hours in the wrong direction. Let's just say it was a challenging day.
Interested in seeing the temples and beaches without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Bali photo tour.
You can also share your favorite tips for backpacking Bali by leaving a comment!