Our trip to Bali was an unbelievable experience, and I would recommend this destination in a heartbeat. If you are considering a trip to the Island of the Gods, don’t think twice, book your ticket. However, I have to admit that after reading several travel reports and online blogs about Bali, I had my doubts. Dirty beaches, annoying touts, herds of wannabe yogis on Eat Pray Love pilgrimages…many travelers seemed disappointed with their Bali experience. Perhaps they missed the real Bali. Or perhaps they had mismatched expectations. Here is my list of things to know before traveling to Bali to enjoy everything the island has to offer.
1.Don’t come just for the beaches
A common misconception about Bali is that you will find white sand beaches and crystal clear lagoons at every corner of the island. If you’re picturing a tropical paradise similar to the Maldives or Bora Bora, you’re bound to be disappointed. Beaches in Bali are nice but they do not compare to other spots in South East Asia, such as Thailand or the Philippines. Popular beaches are often crowded, currents can be rough, and waters shallow and rocky. There are some beautiful remote beaches on Bali (and you will find many if you head over to the Gilis). But if you’re looking for a luxury resort on a gorgeous beach, I would look elsewhere. In our two weeks on Bali, we didn’t spend more than a couple hours on the beach. Because Bali is so much more than beaches….
2. Don’t spend your whole trip in the south of the island
Many tourists and especially honeymooners will head straight to the luxurious resorts of Nusa Dua or Seminyak and spend the majority of their time in their hotels. It’s the biggest mistake you can make visiting the island. Think of the south as a Balinese themed resort town. You will find decent balinese food, shops selling balinese inspired souvenirs and luxurious hotels decorated with balinese accents. All this surrounded with chain restaurants like Starbucks or McDonalds. Don’t travel 20+ hours to see a place that vaguely looks like Bali, see the real thing. Even if you only have 1 week in Bali, make sure you don’t miss Ubud and the North of the island.
During our stay in Bali, we spent some time in Ubud, in the North of the island and on the East side of Bali in Amed. We opted to end our trip in the south in Sanur because of the convenient access to the airport. In retrospect, I would definitely skip Sanur. That said, there are many amazing temples in the south of the island that are definitely worth visiting. You can easily drive down from Ubud, watch the sunset at Uluwatu or Tanah Lot Temple and be back at your hotel in time for a late dinner. If you do decide to spend some time in the South of Bali, here are 5 reasons why you should choose Uluwatu as your home base from our friends at Travel Devoted.
3. Check out nearby ceremonies
Religious ceremonies are an integral part of the Balinese way of life. Whether it is a wedding or a cremation, it is a time for Balinese to come together and celebrate with their community. Balinese ceremonies are not really private events and often involve the whole village. Balinese ceremonies are fascinating to observe and a truly enriching cultural experience. Don’t feel weird about asking your hotel or hostel if there are any ceremonies happening nearby during your stay, and make sure to take some time out of your day to check it out if you can. Balinese people will feel incredibly flattered that you are showing interest in their traditions, and if you behave discreetly and respectfully they will welcome you as their own to share those special moments.
4. Don’t step on offerings
Balinese people prepare offerings for the gods every morning and place them pretty much everywhere! On the pavement in front of temples, homes and storefronts. Watch your step and keep an eye out for offerings when you walk. Offerings are much more than a cracker and a stick of incense. They have tremendous meaning for Balinese people, and as guests on their island we should do our best to preserve and respect them.
5. Spend time with a Balinese Family
The Balinese are some of the nicest and most welcoming people we encountered in our travels. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with locals in Bali and learn about their cultures and traditions. Don’t miss the experience! During our trip North, we got the opportunity to go on a wonderful trek with Putu from Mayong Village Tracking. After the walk, Putu invited us to his house for a delicious home cooked meal. As we were chatting about how our trip was going so far, we shared with him a slight disappointment: while we were very much looking forward to seeing Lake Bratan and the water temple, the weather didn’t cooperate with us during our visit and we couldn’t get the shots we were hoping for because of the clouds and the fog. Without hesitation, Putu offered to take us back to Lake Bratan after lunch and turn this into a family outing!
That day turned into one of our favorite travel memories. On our way to the temple, Putu’s wife Rya told us: “Today you are a part of our family”. We chatted with the kids during the car ride, took family pictures, and even went to a local fair and tried a Balinese delicacy “sate escargot”. There are many gorgeous things in Bali: the rice fields, the sunsets, the colorful and fragrant flowers… but the most beautiful part is the heart and kindness of its people.
6. Take a cooking class
When we travel, we usually try to stay away from any “touristy” activities so I was a bit hesitant on that one. In the end, I am really glad we decided to do it. There are tons of cooking classes around Bali, but on the recommendation of Tripadvisor, we chose Paon Bali in Ubud. It was totally amazing! We learned about the importance of rice in the Balinese diet, we learned the meaning of the Balinese blender, and tried our best to make a delicious peanut sauce. While we cooked over 15 dishes and had a ton of fun doing it, in the end it was more about the experience than the food itself. Spending time with the locals and learning how Balinese families live in their home as a tight community.
7. Don’t drive
You will see many people renting mopeds or scooters on Bali. Unless you are a good rider AND you are used to driving in South East Asia, I’d recommend staying away from the motorcycles. There are no rules when driving in Bali, and driving is total chaos. Hiring a driver for the day is very cheap and will give you peace of mind. There are hundreds if not thousands of moped accidents every year and most of the people injured or killed are tourists. Do yourself a favor, hire a driver – sit back, relax and grab a Bintang (or a couple) for the road instead.
8. Beware of monkeys
If you spend a few days in Ubud, which I highly recommend, you will most likely find yourself visiting the Monkey Forest. While very touristy, we don’t get the opportunity to stroll in the forst surrounded by hundreds of monkeys everyday so it is still widely entertaining. However, proceed with caution. Local vendors at the entrance will try to sell you bananas to attract the monkeys and feed them. It is all fun and game at the beginning when adorable baby monkeys come out to play but soon after the big ones will follow. By then you will most likely be running out of bananas (which you gave to the cute ones…) and you will end up with a giant angry monkey on your shoulder looking for something to eat.
Monkeys in Bali tend to be pretty sneaky and can sometimes be quite aggressive. Nothing to be scared of or deter you from going to the Forest by any means but follow those simple rules to keep it a fun experience. When you’re walking in the monkey forest:
- keep your bags or purses closed with sunglasses and hats safely put away
- Throw away any leftover food you might have in your bag!
- If you decide to get up close and personal with the monkeys, stay within close range of the rangers who will come to the rescue if you find yourself in difficulty. Remember to keep a couple bananas for the big monkeys !
9. Visit a Balinese Home
Whether it is part of a cooking class or another tour, you will most likely get the opportunity to see the inside of a Balinese Home. It is a very unique experience so you shouldn’t miss it. You will learn a lot about the Balinese way of life, which fosters community and harmony. You will see the inside of typical outdoor temples which are present in every house. If you get the chance, spend a couple of nights at a homestay for a full local experience.
10. Keep an open mind and soak it all in!
This is true for every country and culture, but it is especially true in Bali. The Balinese believe in spirits and magic (both good and bad), and some of their traditions and beliefs may not make much sense to us at first glance. If you look past the surface and refrain from judging them too quickly, you will start seeing things differently. The vibrant colors of the flowers, the smell of incense and the sounds of chants and prayers will all start coming together in perfect balance and harmony. This is when you realize that you have fallen in love with Bali.
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