Other than ironic tribal tattoos, of course…
If you’ve seen Eat, Pray, Love – you probably think Bali is all warm fuzzy feelings, stunning terrain, beautiful people, yoga, surf, temples and wholistic lifestyle. You’re not wrong at all.
But if you end up in the wrong part of town, or the wrong hotel, Bali will be less eat, pray, love and a lot more drunk, trash, barfing tourists with ironic tattoos.
Bali is equal parts high end luxury destination, relaxing paradise and backpacker heaven, and it’s for that exact reason that you’ve undoubtedly heard a friend rave about it, and also others who can’t stand it.
With Bali planning to open up again, here’s how to make sure you find the perfect Bali for you, and avoid doing it all wrong, like these things. To be super, duper clear – don’t do the following, and read the blurbs under each…
Stay Near The Airport
Sorry, we know the mega corp hotel near the airport looks great, but it’s not Bali, as a unique and special destination. This is where you’ll find every tourist you were hoping to avoid, and also some surprisingly mediocre beaches, which help the skeptics justify their cases. The prices, yes, they’ll be the only high.
Where to avoid? Kuta, Sanur and Nusa Dua are where the big chains and mega resorts have set up camp, and if you came from far away hoping to be inspired, the only inspiring thing you’ll find here is cheap beer.
If you want the experience people rave about, head further afield on the island, or to a nearby island, like Nusa Lembongan or the Gili’s.
Overpay For Massages
Your luxury hotel sees your couples massage request coming from miles away, and they charge accordingly. In Bali, you can get properly trained, spa quality massages starting at a mere $7 an hour, but you’ll hardly ever find them at your hotel.
Head to a local village and follow the signs or ask your concierge if they can recommend someone legit. If you’re staying in an Airbnb, which is a great choice in Bali, chances are your host will know someone excellent and they can even do house calls!
Miss Out On Scenery
Just like staying near the airport is a bad idea, so is staying in one place. Bali is a land of epic contrast and if you want to get a true appreciation, no one place will do the trick.
You’ll find jagged cliffs out of a movie scene next to pristine sandy beaches, all less than an hour away from luscious green hillsides and rice fields, which rival any jungle anywhere if you follow this advice.
For a Bali starter pack: consider Uluwatu, Canggu, Ubud and a side trip to Nusa Lembongan or the Gili’s. Moving around is easy and cheap, with drivers everywhere. And if you really want an other worldly experience, do a sunrise hike of Mt. Batur – it’s life changing and also, slightly terrifying.
Ignore Local Traditions
You’ll smell lovely burning scents almost everywhere you go in Bali. It’s highly addictive and part of the beautiful rituals which the peaceful people who inhabit this lovely island put forth daily as part of a giving to the gods.
Incense, flowers and other items are a gift to the gods, and you’ll find the streets littered with flower petals after each burning. Never step on them, never point at any locals and don’t touch people you don’t know. And like everywhere you go, be polite. If you go into a temple, try not to have your thong hanging out…
Fall For Uber Scams
With Uber, the fare in the app is the fare – right? Wrong. In Bali, quite often someone will accept a ride, and then begin the haggling process to extract roughly double the amount from you once you’re in the car and driving away. This sucks, but it’s how things go here.
Yes, it’s still generally going to be cheaper than any other trip you’ve been on, but it can get dicey with language barriers, especially after dark. Don’t let the car move until all is squared. For this reason, it can be worth arranging a more dependable airport ride via your hotel, or better, an Airbnb host, who will offer something about 1/5th as expensive.
Underestimate Cash Only
It’s 2018, of course they take card, right bro? You’ll certainly find some ATM’s in Bali to bail you out, but if you thought you were going to be able to maximize your points here – you’re sadly mistaken. You really do need to bring cash to the island and you’ll do best to follow these guidelines on best practices on how to do so effectively.
In almost any town, even bustling Ubud, you’ll find many businesses still don’t take credit or card, and cash is still king. 1 U.S. Dollar equals about 15,000 Indonesian Rupiah, so if you hear some shocking numbers, don’t fret – it’s still just a buck or two. And if you do pay card, avoid this travel scam.
Only Think Hotels
Bali is one of the greatest places to Airbnb, for a variety of reasons. Multiple bedrooms and private pools aside, the best Airbnb hosts can connect you with the people and services that make your stay unforgettable and genuinely authentic. You haven’t had chicken satay until you’ve had someone make it fresh in your place.
We’re talking private drivers for $20-$30 a day, private chefs from $50 a day and so much more. Villas are everywhere, in almost every place you want to go, so searching Airbnb or other more creative lodging options is a must in the land of infinity pools.
Miss Out On Street Food
Bali is not a place to have steak frites. You can do that back at home. Indonesian cuisine is a tantalizing fusion of Southeast Asian cultures, with fresh rice, noodles and incredible chicken dishes, not to mention the famous “babi” roast pig. If you’re ordering western dishes, or paying more than $10-15 per plate, chances are you’re in the wrong place, unless its fine dining.
If you’re staying somewhere remotely cool – you’ll see chickens running around at some point, and you may be seeing them again at meal time, in a different light. You can’t miss Nasi Goreng, Bututu, Satay, Babi Guling or Bantal and if you make it into a town, the dishes shouldn’t run you more than $5 all in.
Skip Nusa Lembongan And Small Islands
Most places you go in Bali, you’ll see present day. But if you want to step back ever slightly into a simpler time – take the Rocky Boat (yes, that’s really the name) ferry to Nusa Lembongan or Nusa Penida. Side tip: you’ll board from the beach, so wear sandals or prepare to soak your shoes.
The idyllic little islands are a mere 30 minute ride away and are home to some of the best diving and snorkeling in the entire country. You’ll find famous chefs who’ve retreated to paradise and quaint beachside bars serving potent arrack. You’ll love it, for a day trip or much more. And yes, Airbnb is incredible in these places.
Underestimate The Scooter
People love proposing in Bali, and with such rich plant life, it makes the cheesy flower petal on the bed thing thing so much easier for hotels to pull off. Nothing ruins happy vacation photos, or a happy engagement like falling off a scooter into a ditch and needing stitches though.
Tourists think they can just rock up, rent a scooter and set off on a spiritual journey to parts unknown, and if you operate a scooter regularly – do it. It’s fantastic. But if you don’t, and you’re not at all used to virtually lawless traffic and the way scooters move, you may reconsider.
I’ve been to Bali a few times, and I’d say that talking with the local people is really enjoyable and culturally stimulating. English is extremely widely spoken, and it’s fun to hear from other people and everyone likes to talk about their home, so you can learn a lot if you wish.
On the scooter front, I couldn’t disagree more, bud. Those things scare me to death. Between driving on the left, riding on the sidewalks, the chaotic traffic circles, passing on both sides, and trying to figure when to yield and when not to, it’s terrifying. And interesting, since road rage is nonexistent.
Pretty much spot on. I’d avoid the commercial areas like they’re on fire. Seriously, it’s like being in a bad Australian beach resort, where even the Australians tell you not to go.
If you don’t think it’s true, go there once, stay five minutes, I guarantee you’ll leave like you’re being chased out by bears.
Prettttty much all of this. But I love scooting there. So cheap and easy. But ya get out of the airport area before you rent one for sure. Had one at Garden Inn and rode to Nusa Dua… doable with skills but damn… if ur not used to 10 wide in a lane and those fucking round a bouts … good luck
I have just returned from one month in Bali and can be counted among the disappointed. My real downfall were lack of enough preparation and higher expectations.
I took your advice and spent one week at different locations to get a broader understanding.
First week was Canggu. Although the ‘high’ season was over I expected a quieter ambiance and was disappointed. The surfers and backpackers are everywhere. They rent specially outfitted scooters to carry their surfboards and their off searching the waves. If you are younq (25 to 40) and love the surf you will be satisfied. The best way to get around is by scooter. I am a veteran motor bike rider and I was not comfortable riding the west coast roads of Bali. Everything about the south west area is tourist oriented, not so much Balinese.
Next week was spent the southern region of Lombock Island. I felt like I was in a ghost town because I was there during the few weeks of earthquakes. They did horrific damage to North Lombock and the Gili Islands. Many tourists were too scared and the island was very empty of tourists, which made my vacation even more fun. Again, I rented a scooter visited all the fantastic beaches and felt very safe on the roads. To my surprize most residents of Lombock are Muslim, unlike Bali where are mostly Hindu. So the sound of the muazim chanting out to their believers to come to the mosque and pray was everywhere.
My next week was at Amed, snorkling, swimming, eating and relaxing. It’s important to be mobile in this region if you want to see the beautiful Balinese landscape and temples. A good place for the young and backpacker. If, however you ever dived in the Great Barrier Reaf or the Red Sea, you will be terribly disappointed.
My last week was in Ubud, where I found more artistic culture, more interesting locals and good food. I was fortunate that my hotel was in the heart of Ubud, within walking distance of everything that interested me.
Bottom line. I lived 5 years in Goa, India, and would rather return their than Bali (both are Hindu). The people are much nicer and layed back. The food is much tastier and cheaper, and getting around on a scooter is much safer. It is not, however, a surfers destination.
Bantal is a pillow, it is not food. Maybe you meant “jajan bantal”
The fintech economy in Indonesia is very advanced with grab, gojek, traveloka, gofood, peer to peer lending etc.
I think the bulk of your recommendations are more appropriate for a londo gembel, not someone who is seeking to contribute to the local economy.
I have been going to Bali twice a year for the past 4 years. I obviously love it there since I go there so often. I agree with your advice except for: Renting motorcycles/scooters. Like others have said, it is not safe and many tourists suffer from injuries that ruin their vacation. The best way to get around is by Blue Bird taxi or by renting a car with a driver that costs around US$50 per day.
I totally agree with avoiding Kuta, Sanur, Nusa Dua, and Canggu, unless you don’t mind being around large numbers of western tourists, and especially Australians. Nothing wrong with them, it’s just that when I go someplace I want to experience the local vibe. Last time I went to Canggu I felt like I was at an Australian beach resort. This applies to other popular tourist places around the world: when I was in Prague it felt like I was in China or Germany since I was surrounded by so many people speaking either Chinese or German.
I have 7 nights or so in Bali (or Lombok) for our honeymoon. Obviously it is not enough, but what kind of itinerary would you recommend, given the above? We were thinking a couple of nights in Ubud, a couple by the beach, maybe an Island. We are quite active so probs a volcano hike, and would like to do some exploring whilst we are there. Budget circa 150 – 200 usd a night.
Any help would be much appreciated, very conscious that there are areas of Bali that we will hate.
Hey Ben, I’d say your layout of the trip sounds perfect. I highly recommend the night/sunrise hike up Mt. Batur. I don’t have too many specific recommendations in that budget, but I think if you structure your trip that way you’ll have an amazing time. Cheers!
Hi all. I’ve lived permanently in Bali for the last 5 years. Your article is very good and sums up most of the things worth avoiding. I would add a little tip about some of the street-side money changers (i.e. not a ‘proper’ bank); these guys are experts at sleight-of-hand. However many times you watch them count the money in front of your eyes, in the end, you are unlikely to receive the full amount. Some people come away with a lot less. Much better to change your money in a real bank. Another tip we see regularly is that visitors didn’t inform their bank that they would be in Bali and when they get to the ATM, the bank immediately blocks their card and they end up cash-less in a cash-driven economy. Happy to help with any other advice (we are surfers on the Bukit Peninsula (farthest south).
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