People often talk about “Bali” like it’s just one place – one town. Actually, while Bali is a small island (relative to, say, Java) it’s not that small. There’s actually tons of different towns, villages and even a city, all separated by mountains, lakes and countryside, plus loads to see and do, with each coast and region offering a completely unique experience.
My Bali Highlights
After rambling around Bali for a few weeks, here are my unmissables:
- Throw yourself into hedonistic Kuta Beach, if only for a night!
- Get naked on Bukit’s west coast, where anything goes!
- Rent a scooter and take in Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Gunung Batur and more rice terraces than you can shake a stick at.
- Get your Eat Pray Love on in Ubud.
- Take the fast-boat to the Gili Islands for the paradise all the backpackers are talking about.
- If you have time, take the ferry to Java for a night climb of Kawah Ijen.
Renting Motorbikes in Bali
With mass tourism effectively killing the bemo (shared taxi) industry on Bali (it’s been practically impossible for some time now to get out of Kuta or any other tourist area by bemo…except on market days, if you’re in the right place at the right time) and with scooters for rent just about everywhere for only 50,000 rupiah (£2.50) per day (40,000 if you rent for a few days) renting a scooter is the obvious, most cost-effective choice of transport for the budget traveller, and affords infinitely more freedom. The wind in your helmet, riding amongst a convoy of fellow travellers: that’s what travelling Bali is all about!
We rented from Beneyasa Beach Inn I, and they didn’t even ask for anything as a deposit. Apparently they tried the scooter rental business in Java too, but for some reason all the bikes got stolen…
Where to Go in…
Southern Bali, particularly Denpasar and the bottleneck around Kuta suffers from serious traffic as a result of mass tourism. If you’re going to “Bali”, you’re probably going here.
- Kuta Beach – one of Bali’s longest-running and biggest tourist draws – it’s one of those places you just have to experience at least once. Other than clubbing, the main excuse for a tourist attraction is the Ground Zero Monument – a memorial to the Bali bombings of 2002, which destroyed Sari club and Paddy’s Pub and killed over 200 people. A lot of people hate Kuta, but if you like getting drunk abroad, it’s for you, and if you stay in the right place, away from the main strip (Jalan Legian), it can actually be quite pleasant. My tip is to do a lot of your pre-gaming in bars like Tubes and Alleycats down Poppie’s Lanes I and II before hitting the main drag, where drinks will cost you a fortune. When you do hit the main drag, Sky Garden is the place to be, with a roof-top bar, drinks deals and too many floors to remember. Oh, and watch out for drunk Australians on scooters!
- Legian, the next beach up, is quieter, cheaper and still retains some of the hippy feel that put this region of Bali on the travellers’ map back in the 60s and 70s.
- Seminyak, the next beach up again, is more sophisticated (and therefore expensive). Expect many a trendy wine bar.
- Canggu (pronounced “changgu”) is further north again and the next in line for mass development. Many expats and surfers have already moved in to stay, taking advantage of the relatively low prices and close proximity to the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area. This is by far the quietest and most relaxed of the four…if that’s your thing.
- Sanur, on the east coast, is a more relaxed alternative to the Kuta area, supposedly ideal for couples and older travellers.
- Denpasar is the capital city of Bali but has more in common with Java. It is where all the locals live, has almost nothing to draw foreign visitors (besides genuinely cheap shops) and is a world apart from the beaches.
- Ngurah Rai Airport, though officially labelled “Denpasar”, is actually so close to Kuta that you’ll watch the planes land from the beach and could walk it if you didn’t have a bag.
Where to Stay in Kuta?
- Beneyasa Beach Inn I (not to be confused with its shittier sister, Beneyasa Beach Inn II) has a pool, free breakfast, motorbike rental, great location and is only 175,000 (£8.75) per night for a basic ensuite double with balcony.
- Suka Beach Inn, just a few doors further down, has better, cleaner rooms, more of a choice for breakfast and lovely Balinese architecture for only 135,000 (£6.75)! Downsides are no top-sheet or towels and the pool layout’s not as good for some reason.
…The Bukit Peninsula
South of the bottleneck is the Bukit Peninsula. On its east coast is the high-end resort area of Nusa Dua, now connected to the mainland (and airport) by a 220 million (US) dollar causeway toll road. However, the oft-forgotten west coast remains relatively undeveloped and home to several hippy-come-surfer beaches, where anything goes.
- Jimbaran Bay, on your way down through the ‘neck, has a bunch of seafront warung (local Indonesian restaurants) where you can buy fresh seafood by weight and eat it as you watch the sun go down.
- Balangan Beach is probably my favourite. It has the bluest water and whitest sand I’ve seen in a long time, but sadly is quite narrow as far as beaches go. It’s great for surfing, and has plenty of rustic accommodation, bars and restaurants, but not-so-great for swimming – the steep shelf and massive wave will smash you up good. Once on the peninsula, take the Ulu Watu road then turn right at the turn-off for “Cenggiling” and follow the dirt road as far as it goes (about seven kilometres). It’s 2000 for motorbike parking and entry (6 am ’til 7 pm) but just ride straight past, turn left at the beach and this will take you along the backs of the beach accommodations. Just pick one.
- Bingin is made up of beaches, cliffs and the network of narrow paths and passages that run thereabouts. Accommodation prices can range anywhere from the budget to the ridiculous, just next door to one another. (I recommend booking Leggie’s as I was gutted they were full when we arrived.) From the Ulu Watu road, take a right at Pecatu and right again when you see the accommodation signs. It’s supposed to be 5000 to park, but we didn’t have to pay.
- Padang Padang Beach is a spectacularly beautiful spot between Bingin and Ulu Watu. It makes a great day-trip or rest-stop, but not a good place to stay overnight.
- Ulu Watu is the end of the road and home to both a world-renowned surf resort and the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu sea temple (open 3 am ’til 7 pm; 25,000 entry and 1000 for parking), which has stood precariously on an outcrop since the 11th century and is best photographed at sunset.
As for Bali’s south-west coast, avoid it. It’s the main artery from Java to Denpasar and so suffers from the same pitfalls as Java: heavy traffic, pollution, over-crowding.
…North & East Bali
The north and east coasts are relatively free from traffic and offer more low-key, local black-sand (often a nice way of saying ugly) beaches like Amed in the east or Lovina, a string of fishing villages attached to Singaraja in northern Bali. Both are in the process of going from local secret to “off-the-beaten-track” destination and offer a more relaxed, more authentically Indonesian beach experience, for those who actually like to see the culture of the places they go.
Central Bali is characterised by mountain roads, lakes and jungle, rice paddies, coffee plantations and clove orchards, volcanic crater rims, picturesque temples and beautiful Balinese architecture. North of Ubud, the traffic disperses and the tourists thin out.
We rode up, past Pura Ulun Danu Bratan to Lovina, then borrowed a couple of scenic rides from Lash, who knows Bali ridiculously well, and drove the mountain road up to Kintamani, along the crater rim of Gunung (Mount) Batur, then down again through little Balinese villages like Manikilyu and Lembean and on to Ubud.
Ubud is one of the major settings of Eat Pray Love (and so, as is to be expected, is full of women of all ages trying to find themselves). While not the most beautiful place on earth, it’s Bali’s unique, hospitable and beautiful culture that continues to draw travellers from all over the world, and Ubud is arguably the best place to experience this. Try:
- The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
- Traditional Balinese music and dance, such as kecak, legong, barong and gamelan. Ask around for nightly performances at the likes of Pura Dalem Ubud and Pura Taman Saraswati (all on Jalan Raya Ubud).
- There are several walking paths around Ubud.
Nightlife in Ubud is easy: the place to go after hours is CP Lounge. Until then it’s all about great food and the many shisha, tapas and live music bars in town. My personal favourite spot is Laughing Buddha.
Where to Stay in Ubud?
- Jiwa’s House, on Jalan Sandat, offers the perfect Indonesian homestay experience, with clean rooms, great breakfast, lovely, down-to-earth owners, friendly dog, good location, abundant greenery and Balinese architecture everywhere. This is the perfect place in which to experience Ubud and only 200,000 (£10), so I strongly advise booking ahead. You won’t regret it.
Further Afield than Bali?
Take the ferry or fast-boat from the port of Padangbai – a decent backpacker town in itself – to Lombok and/or the Gili Islands (by the way, gili means “small island” in the local Sasak language of Lombok, so not only does “the Gili Islands” mean the “small island islands”, but all the islands in the region are “gilis”). You can get a door-to-door transfer from your hotel in Kuta (or Ubud) to Gili Trawangan for as low as 190,000, though that involved some serious haggling.
I also recommend taking the ferry over from Gilimanuk to Ketapang (the ferry port on Java, eight kilometres north of Banyuwangi) and tackling the volcano and crater lake at Kawah Ijen.