When one thinks of exotic places in the world worthy of a top bucket list spot, Bali often comes to mind for many people. This tropical island in Indonesia is unlike any other place in the world, with an extremely unique culture and geography. Here you can find dreamy beaches, jungles, volcanoes, bustling urban life, and rural farming villages that seem to be stuck in an older time. It became a trendy destination due to Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ book/movie. But for me, it has always been at the top of my “places my soul needs to visit” list because this is without a doubt one of the best places on earth for those looking for a spiritual awakening or renewal.
After visiting this past November with my perfect travel buddy, I found Bali to be a paradox in many ways. Known as an intensely spiritual and scared place, many go to Bali seeking peace and the answers to questions they’ve asked their whole lives. It is famous for a plethora of spas, yoga centers, and new age retreats. However, there are also starkly contrasting aspects, such as a crazy Vegas-esque nightlife area, extremely hectic driving, overwhelming strips lined with endless boutiques and restaurants, and a completely oversaturated market for souvenir shopping and tourist activities. Some go here for luxury and pampering, while others go for the exact opposite – to be completely humbled. It is truly a place that can offer something to anyone. Personally, I found the mix to be delightful. If I wanted to relax and connect with nature, I could. If I wanted to party, shop, or go on an adventure, I could too. And I did a little bit of everything. The options available were limitless.
The Balinese claim that Bali is the center of the universe, and therefore, extremely sacred land. The energy found here is said to be cleansing and rejuvenating for the spirit. So in many ways, this trip was a pilgrimage for me to find out for myself if this was true.
Well, I can report that all the fuss is for good reason. Bali not only earned a new fan in me, but it quickly became one of my favorite places. If you’re thinking of visiting someday, here’s some information and details on the ups and downs of my overall amazing experience and one of the best trips in my life.
A Spiritual Mecca
The first thing one must understand about Bali is its fascinating religious history that explains its reputation as a spiritual mecca. It managed to sustain its Hindu beliefs despite the spread of Islam throughout the rest of Indonesia over the centuries. Thus, Bali is extremely different from the rest of its country, with a distinct cultural identity where indigenous roots not only survived, but thrived. At least 80% of the population practices Hinduism, so you will definitely feel the Indian influence here that persevered over time. In fact, many times you will feel like you’re in India due to Hindu traditions that are such a defining and prevalent factor in local customs. In almost every store, restaurant, or business, you can find a small shrine for Hindu deities and an offering (such as flowers and incense) left out.
I loved that Balinese Hinduism is so unique and focuses largely on native arts and rituals. Its symbol, the Swastika or “wheel of the sun” should not be confused with the other more sinister Swastika most of us are familiar with (which was actually a stolen symbol from the Hindu faith). It couldn’t be more opposite. Instead, the Balinese Hindu Swastika represents balance in relationships and the “sacred force”. You will see this not just in temples but all over the island.
Speaking of Balinese temples, or puras, they are literally found everywhere. There are said to be over 10,000 on this small island, many seemingly on top of one another. They have to be built in accordance to strict design and rituals, and are often built on or above homes. When walking down one block, you may see 3 or 4 puras, each with delicate detail and intricate artwork that you cannot help but admire. Visiting temples is a highlight and main attraction for most tourists, especially the spiritually inclined and lovers of history and culture such as myself. However, one thing to be aware of is that tourists are not supposed to enter a majority of the temples in Bali, as only Balinese are allowed to do so. However, they are still worth the visit since they typically offer beautiful grounds to explore and take photos. Also, be sure to bring a sarong to wear if you do get the opportunity to enter a temple, as it is required.
There are plenty of puras to choose from, but we got to visit three of the most famous ones, which I highly recommend:
1. Tanah Lot temple is definitely one the most famous landmarks in Bali, since it is uniquely situated on a rock formation in the ocean. At low tide, visitors can walk up to it to view it, but beware. It is said to be guarded by venomous sea snakes!
2. Uluwatu temple was built in the 11th century, and is another holy temple that you cannot enter unless you are Balinese. However, touring the area surrounding the temple is a must, as it offers amazing views of dramatic sea cliffs and is the perfect viewing point for legendary sunsets.
3. Batuan temple is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Bali, situated in the countryside on the way to Ubud, among a fabulous artist and craftsman village perfect for purchasing souvenirs.
What To Do in Bali
Besides temples, there is an unbelievable amount to choose from when it comes to activities and sightseeing. Bali is well known for its wildlife, cultural and historic attractions, surfing, shopping, spas, and anything else you can think of, so it all depends on what you are looking for.
Different parts of the island offer different vibes. My advice is to research each part and pick the one that best suits you when deciding on an area to stay in. However, visiting each of the following areas during your trip (regardless of where you choose to stay) are a must.
Known as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali, Ubud lies in the mountains towards the center of the island (about an hour north of the airport), so it’s more country. However, its natural beauty and cultural richness are what makes this a favorite for most tourists, along with those in search of duplicating Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” journey which took place in this region.
Ubud is the jackpot if you’re looking to shop for handmade Balinese goods which are made here and sold all over the world, such as woodwork, silver jewelry, Batik textiles, and paintings. There are also numerous art galleries and museums.
Rice terrace fields can be found all throughout the island and due to the unique nature of the design of Balinese irrigation systems, they are magnificent to behold. The most famous by far is the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, which offers gorgeous views of the rice paddies for instagrammable shots.
My personal favorite in Ubud was the Sacred Monkey Forest where you can enter to see countless Balinese long-tailed macaque roaming around, feed them fruits, and if you’re lucky like me, have them climb on you. These monkeys are notoriously mischievous and can be aggressive, as I found out when they were all over me and pulling my hair. But nevertheless, it’s totally harmless and a completely amazing experience for animal lovers.
A little further north from Ubud but still in the vicinity and well worth a visit is the Jalan Elephant Safari Park. Here you can ride these beautiful Sumatran elephants, which I do not particularly agree with, so instead we opted to just feed them and hang out with them. Also here, I got to meet a very friendly and animated baby orangutan that I totally fell in love with.
Looking to relax? Ubud is also well known for its spas and there are an unbelievable amount to choose from here. This is where most yoga and spiritual retreats take place.
Situated along beautiful beaches in the south of the island, Seminyak was our choice for where to stay and it suited us perfectly. It’s lot more urban and hectic than Ubud, so it can be totally overwhelming with its never-ending streets of boutiques and restaurants. But for two ladies who can eat and shop all day long, we were in heaven. We were pleasantly surprised by the incredible selection of amazing dining we could easily walk to from our villa. Here you’ll find not just Balinese and Indonesian cuisine, but every kind of food you can imagine. It’s relatively cheap and service was always phenomenal. We truly wanted to try every restaurant but that would simply be impossible. From what we did get to try, we honestly never had one bad meal or experience. We also loved the many charming boutiques found here and did quite a bit of shopping, especially for Balinese leather bags and shoes.
Like Ubud, there were plenty of spas, seemingly on every block. Since they are pretty inexpensive, we got to try out a few. But our favorite by far was the Moroccan and Indian style Prana, which offered Ayurvedic treatments, and also had a yoga studio and a cute Mediterranean style restaurant.
Seminyak is known for its breathtaking sunset views, and there are several quaint little restaurants and cafes right on the beach. Our favorite was La Plancha, with its colorful beanbag chairs and Balinese umbrellas, adding the perfect ambiance to enjoy Latin style tapas and cocktails during a truly unforgettable sunset.
Kuta is the primary resort town in Bali. However, this is a far different vibe than anywhere else on the island. It’s not for those looking for peace, serenity, or zen by any means. This is the “turn up” area, which reminded me of a cheap island version of Las Vegas or the “Cancun” for Aussies. Basically, it’s all about partying, drinking, and nightlife. It is really the only part of Bali that can be a little shady and seedy, especially Legian Street at night. We did go out to a big club here one night and had a lot of fun, but overall, I was shocked at the very contrasting tackiness found here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s said to be a great place for beaches, surfing, and dining. But it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I will not go as far as other bloggers who have called Kuta “trash” and “disgraceful” but it’s certainly a spectacle. An interesting post on Kuta by Wandering Earl can be found here.
The southern tip of Bali is known for the island’s best beaches and thus, is generally a little more expensive than other parts. My favorite was the stunning Dreamland beach, for which the name says it all. Surf culture is huge in areas like Ulutwatu, which is a totally laid back town reminiscent of Hawaii’s north shore with surfers wandering at every turn and little cute hippie shops and cafes.
Also in the South, Nusa Dua is known for super-luxury resorts and a beach area dedicated to watersport activities, which can be purchased for cheap. However, we found the beaches to be dirty and the ocean to be incredibly polluted. I understand that when you live in Hawaii, you’re kind of spoiled and become a beach snob, but it was pretty bad. The water was brown and super hot. Even after paying for a glass-bottom boat and snorkel excursion, we skipped it after feeling too grossed out. We also visited the Turtle “Sanctuary” which was a nightmare and the worst part of the trip for me personally. The treatment of the animals (sea turtles, bats, lizards, snakes, etc.) and the conditions they live in were deplorable, but sadly, this is pretty common for Asia. Even still, it was disturbing to see that tourists could touch and hold most of these animals and were doing so in a very rough manner, making the animals visibly stressed and terrified. I don’t mean to be negative because we really tried to enjoy our day trip in Nusa Dua, but it was nothing more than a tourist trap.
Where to Stay in Bali
Bali is well known for its superb resorts and hotels, most of which offer incredible amenities. Whether you want the beach or the jungle, luxury or budget, relaxation or chaos… there is resort perfect for your needs. Guaranteed.
Personally, I do not usually like staying in resorts and feeling confined to a prepackaged experience. Whenever possible, I love to get a rental in a real neighborhood so I get an authentic experience and live like a local. Airbnb is a godsend for folks like me. Bali has hundreds of listings for gorgeous private villas, all of which seem to offer a very “zen” theme. The best part is they are usually so much more affordable than getting a room at a resort or hotel.
We found an unbelievable villa which totally wowed us in every way. It was all open-air except for the two bedrooms, which was fabulous and made us feel like we were staying IN the jungle. Yet we were steps away from some of the best shopping and dining of our lives in the heart of Seminyak, a location that could not have been more ideal or perfect. There was a pool basically situated in the middle of our living room, which was the best part for me and I made sure to put it to good use! Also, the host was truly delightful and always so helpful. All for an amazing deal we couldn’t even believe. Absolutely cannot recommend it enough.
What You Should Know About Bali
While extremely popular among Australian and Asian tourists and even some Europeans, Bali seems to remain just a wanderlust destination for many of the Americans that actually know it exists. In fact, many reactions I got when I told people I was going to Bali included things like “where is that?” and “why?” In a way, I am happy about this because usually, the more popular a place gets, the more it loses what makes it unique and sought after to begin with. You can already see some of this with Bali, as it can be crowded and touristy, so beware. Despite this, it’s still nowhere near as bad as most tourist places that have been ruined and seemingly will never will lose its charm. That is the best part about it.
The Balinese are some of the most pleasant and impossibly polite people I have ever encountered. They all give you this genuine smile I cannot even explain and make you feel so welcome. Here, I truly experienced the best service ever. Also, everyone speaks damn good English. From what I was told, they know tourism is the primary driver for their economy so they teach English and hospitality early on in school to prepare the population accordingly, which impressed me. Crime is very seldom here, as they are a very peaceful and simplistic people, who live harmoniously in the same way they have for centuries, appreciating things most of us take for granted. Their culture is fascinating, and most Balinese are very proud and eager to share their knowledge if you’re interested in learning. Also, most seemed very devoted to their Hindu beliefs. Witnessing such a beautiful culture was deeply inspiring.
A few not so pleasant but important items to note:
- Bali is very hot. Let me reiterate. Bali is VERY HOT. The island is very close to the equator, so during their summer season, the sun is unbelievably strong and the humidity is no joke. I have traveled to many tropical places in my life… hell, I live in one. But I have never experienced this kind of heat. There was no need for makeup or doing our hair. As soon as we walked outside, we were instantaneously sweating. On the bright side, we got amazing tans and always looked “glowy”. Since it was rainy season during November, we were lucky to only get a storm on one day. But when it did rain, it poured. It was the closest I’ve ever seen to a monsoon and the only time in my life when I’ve actually become frightened from rain.
- The mosquitos here are merciless. While I try to stay on the natural side of products, I was dousing myself in Deet every few hours and utilizing my mosquito net while sleeping at night. These suckers not only leave some seriously painful bites, but they spread diseases. So do not take this lightly.
- The water is not considered safe for consumption based on Western standards. It is fine for bathing, but be sure to drink only bottled water and brush your teeth with it as well. Most places that tourists frequent are good about using filtered water for ice and food preparation, so there’s generally very little threat to Western tourists. But even still, many travelers experience what is known as “Bali Belly”. Even with being cautious, we got it too. But honestly, it wasn’t bad at all- basically an upset stomach that lasted only a couple hours. It’s nowhere near as bad as other horror stories I’ve heard from other parts of the world. So don’t freak out or let this deter you from visiting. It’s simply a part of traveling and if you take precautions, you’ll be fine.
A Few Recommendations
- Get a driver. It’s cheap and they will drive you anywhere on the island or plan a perfect day for you around whatever you wish to see. To me, the best part is they will explain history, teach you about their culture, and share with you their perspective. Our driver took such good care of us in every way and made sure we enjoyed ourselves.
- Buy some sarongs. They are found everywhere, always beautiful, inexpensive, fabulous to wear on the beach or around your shoulders if it gets chilly, make great souvenirs, and can be taken with you to temples where they’re required to be worn. Even better, buy some batik fabric, which can be worn many ways and makes the best souvenir for years to come.
- Bring cash and wait to convert it in Bali. You can get good exchange rates for their currency, the Indonesian Rupiah, at the airport or in town. Most restaurants and shops accept plastic so it’s a good idea to use a credit card with no international fees (just so you can rack up on points towards free flights as I detail here!) However, it’s still a bit old fashioned in some places so you will likely need cash where cards are not accepted or for your drivers.
- Be open minded. Go see a Balinese dance show, learn about Hinduism, try a yoga class, and jump on every opportunity to expose yourself to this incredibly rich and unique culture. It’s truly one of the world’s best treasures.
- Eat your heart out. Bali is a foodie’s dream come true. Try their delicious local cuisine, which is filled with flavor and spices. A favorite for many including myself is Nasi Goreng, their version of fried rice. But also remember that Bali is extremely eclectic with international restaurants offering cuisine from all over the world, so explore those too. Most of all, enjoy the fresh island juices and fruits found everywhere, and be sure to stay hydrated.
- Get plenty of souvenirs. The Balinese are inherently very creative and talented, and thus, their beautiful work makes for excellent shopping. Not just souvenirs for others but also for yourself, since if you go to the little villages, almost everything is handmade and one of a kind. In fact, in many places you can see them making goods right in front of you so you can learn about and appreciate the process. My favorite things that I brought back were some gorgeous, authentic Balinese Batik fabric and a decorative wooden mask which is said to offer protection, so it is hanging up in my home.
A trip to Bali is exactly what you make it and whatever you desire. For me, it ended up being a blessing that brought me much needed joy and a chance to re-center during a turbulent time in my life. It’s certainly not a perfect place, but it was perfect for me and exactly what my soul needed at the time. I laughed, I cried, I prayed, I meditated, I ate good, I danced, I shopped, I played with monkeys and elephants, I did yoga, I swam, I learned, I healed, and I left Bali a much better and more balanced person than when I arrived. This is a place that I believe is good for everyone to visit in their lifetime.
It’s such an amazing (and addicting) feeling to instantly fall in love with somewhere you’re visiting for the first time. Even though I travel a lot, I still manage to feel enamored with most places I visit. But Bali took this to another level. I have tried and tried to come up with the best way to describe it, but all I can come up with is bliss.