You’ve seen Bali on Instagram, you’ve read about it in Eat, Pray Love (or watched the film).
Perhaps you’ve considered heading to the famed Ubud, nestling into the green rice terraces and seeking spiritual revitalization? Or perhaps you’ve been wholeheartedly put off the whole idea, because surely this classic destination must be ruined, overrun with tourists, and lacking true charm?
Well, there are some spots of dense tourism in Bali, yes. But. There are hidden depths to this island that are still raring to be discovered. I don’t think I’ve ever visited an island so rich in history and so diverse in opportunities for travelers. Just by hopping on a scooter and zooming a couple of hours around the coast, you’ll find everything from wreck-diving to world-class surf, to calm waters and white sands fit for sunbathing marathons.
Religion and spirituality have merged into daily life here, making it a cultural feast. Every day you’ll see locals making offerings in shrines that sit outside each house. As I rode around I sometimes couldn’t tell what was a Hindu temple and what was simply an intricately decorated home – every wall and building here is so elaborately carved with Hindu imagery.
From hot springs to spring rolls, rolling rice terraces to volcano climbs at sunrise… need I continue? This place is awesome. Go. And if you do, here are some top activities to check out – minus the crowds.
Food in Bali
For starters, (pardon the pun) food in Bali is hella-cheap. And the further you get from the tourist zones of Seminyak, Canggu and Kuta, the cheaper it gets. The cheapest I had was in the beach village of Lovina in the north. I was messaging friends back home listing the many yummy dishes I had just eaten for the same price as their morning coffee. I’m talking coconut curry, spring rolls, satay skewers and even a freshly squeezed mango juice, all for less than $5.
If you find yourself suffering from Bali belly and wanting a break from spicy local food, never fear. Bali is home to many chic joints that will serve a beautifully presented smoothie bowl – photogenic dishes of neatly sliced and well-presented exotic fruit. This will be a highlight for any Instagram-loving foodies.
But to escape those crowds and experience cuisine like a local, try Nasi Goreng (or Mie Goreng). This consists of either rice (Nasi) or noodles (Mie) stir-fried with tasty vegetables in soy sauce and chili, with a fried egg laid on top and shrimp crackers on the side. My absolute favorite was Gado-Gado, which is a kind of salad of steamed veges, a boiled egg, fried tofu and tempeh, all topped with an addictive peanut sauce.
Getting active in Bali
To compensate for the amount of food you’ll be eating, there is plenty to do to burn some calories. If you’re a water baby, there are a number of surf spots calling your name. Unfortunately, I don’t have the finesse to pull off surfing without looking and feeling disheveled, so my number one pick is to climb Mount Batur for sunrise. I must admit there will be plenty of other people on this hike, but the view is worth the company.
When you first reach the top you’ll see the artificial lights from twinkling towns below, then slowly the sky will blend from pitch black to a deep blue, followed by fiery reds and burnt oranges. Watching a sunrise has a unique magical quality, different to any sunset. Perhaps it’s because everyone has made that extra effort to leave bed prematurely. Or maybe it’s because sunrise is nature’s trigger for a new day, full of possibility and unknowns. The poet in me chooses the latter.
Sitting atop one volcano, you’ll watch the sun illuminate another – Mount Agung – and the lake that sits below will reflect the palette of sunrise colors from the sky, enhancing the spectacle even more. Everyone will fall silent in awe. And if they don’t, throw a torch at them so that they do.
If you’re serious about getting active in Bali, it’s also worth checking out Intrepid’s 12-day Bali & Lombok: Hike, Bike & Raft trip. You’ll hike to the crater of yet another volcano (Mount Rinjani), cycle the coastline, go white water rafting near Ubud, snorkel in the Gili Islands, and so much more.
Getting spiritual in Bali
There’s been a boom in recent years of tourists seeking spiritual awakening in Bali, mimicking Julia Roberts’ Eat, Pray, Love journey. And to be honest, it is a fantastic place to learn about religion.
The Balinese have rituals for everything. I can guarantee that there will be some form of celebration or religious blessing going on every week, with traditional dance and colorful costumes everywhere you look. I encourage you to explore any and every little shrine or temple that you come across (which is a challenge because there are many).
Besakih Temple is the biggest and holiest, and the views of surrounding rice terraces are impressive. There are at least 70 celebrations held every year at Besakih since each of its shrines has its own anniversary. See what I mean by frequent rituals? But my personal favorite was the quieter Tirta Gangga, which is a water palace and former royal site.
Aside from the touristic aspect of visiting temples and witnessing cultural performances, Bali is a welcome environment to slow down the pace, leave the crowds behind and explore your own mind through meditation. Many places offer mindfulness and yoga classes. Even if they’re a little outside your comfort zone, I encourage you to give one a go, because all the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.
There are many great beaches on Bali for chilling and enjoying the sunshine. Just a ferry ride away are the picture postcard Gili islands, which are a true paradise destination. But for other under-the-radar gems, check out this guide to some of South Bali’s most scenic spots.
But moving away from beach life, my top spot in Bali for chilling was Munduk, because it was so very quiet and tourist-free. Set along a ridge in the landscape, this little village has far-reaching views on both sides of lush green rice paddies. Away from the busy tourist hotspots, prices for rooms here are verging on outrageous – in the good way. I found myself a beautiful place complete with four-poster bed, a large balcony and stunning views for only $4 a night. Ask a local for directions to the nearby waterfall, and then soak up the scenery to a soundtrack of silence. Pure bliss.
Sanur is another great options for relaxation. This seaside town in Bali’s southeast is a far cry from the hectic parties of Kuta. Colorful jukung boats rest on the sand, the beach is peaceful and not crowded, and the local eateries are superb. It’s the last stop on our new Cycle Bali trip because it’s the ideal place to kick back and relax. The art gallery scene here is pretty impressive, as is sacred Hindu temple, Pura Blanjong.
It’s an action-packed yet peaceful destination, it’s a stunner of an island.
Ready to visit the picture-perfect paradise of Bali? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Gemma Saunder, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Judy Guo)