Having written any number of posts about my wonderful travels around the Indonesia island of Bali, I though it time to bring it all together with a highlights reel. If you are planning a visit to Bali, here are a few tips to keep in mind and my top 10 things to do in Bali:
1. Eat, Pray, Love in Ubud
It is easy to be disappointed by today’s Ubud. After thirty years of tourist development Bali’s artistic heart often seems merely a noisy, polluted traffic jam, overwhelmed by western shops and tourists. However, Ubud has a fascinating mix of east and west, and thankfully if you look you can find the romantic, spiritual, sensual Ubud. Enjoy watching the evening light reflected in newly planted rice fields; the graceful wafting of a hand through the incense rising from a puja offering; the distant sound of gamelan music played in a local temple. Walk through the rice fields where farmers are going about their work, and listen to the gentle sound of scarecrows spinning in the breeze.
2. Visit a Balinese temple or two
The ‘Isle of the Gods’ is not a frivolous description. Balinese culture is rich with a spirituality that is ingrained in the daily lives of the people. Every tiny village has its three temples and graceful displays of daily religious life are everywhere. You only have to watch the women in Ubud’s temples creating exquisite decorations for ceremonies that are a regular part of Bali’s unique form of Hinduism to be jolted out of your Western cynicism. I visited a number of beautiful temples in Bali and I recommend you make time to see one or more, ideally coinciding with a festival or ceremony.
3. See Bali’s rice terraces
I visited three areas of rice paddy terraces in Bali. The Tegalalang rice terraces north of Ubud that so many tourists flock to on day tours; the Jatiluwah rice terraces that Unesco has named a World Heritage Site; and the rice fields surrounding Munduk in the Central Highlands. By far the most impressive and interesting was Jatiluwah, an idyllic valley of verdant fields, mixed in with other food crops in the way of traditional Balinese rice growing life. By contrast Tegalalang was just a tourist trap.
4. Explore Bali’s Central Highlands
I highly recommend spending a day touring Bali’s Central Highlands region. A dramatic ridgeline runs through the Central Highlands, alongside a chain of three lakes, set deep and sparkling in steep, thickly forested mountains. Lake Temblingan is the most beautiful, then Lake Buyan and Lake Bratan (the ‘Lake of the Holy Mountain’). I enjoyed exploring the Candi Kunung market and botanical gardens and also visiting one of Bali’s most iconic temples – the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan.
5. Go trekking in Bali from Munduk
Munduk is a small village in the heart of Bali, up in the lush mountains where thundering waterfalls tumble through wild jungle. It’s a great base from which to explore the surrounding area, as well as Jatiluwah and Bedugul. The forest-clad mountains have steep terraces pushing upwards and the red rusted tin roofs of villages hide friendly people going about agricultural life in the same way as they have for generations.
6. Get off the beaten track in West Bali National Park
If the Central Highlands are very different from your postcard image of Bali beaches, West Bali National Park is truly off-the-beaten-track. Most people I have met who have visited Bali have never even heard of this massive national park in the far west of the island.
Wildlife roam through a savannah forest and you might as well be on the moon, so far are you from the fleshpots of Kuta.
7. Unspoilt diving on Menjangan Island
I’ve cried over the despoiled coral beds of Thailand and Malaysia. Menjangan Island, just off the coast of the West Bali National Park, was a revelation. The dive boats are run by locals (former fishermen), who banned destructive fishing methods over a decade ago. The fish swarm around you and the coral colours are bright through the clear water. Worshippers visit the island temple bearing floral offerings. It feels remote while being very accessible.
8. Have a Balinese massage
I’ve never experienced a massage like the one I had in Bali, not anywhere. It was at The Viceroy hotel Spa Lembah and it was unbelievable. It involved lying on a lawn overlooking the lush Petanu River valley, shaded by coconut palms; listening to the faint sound of gamelan music playing at a temple ceremony and being serenaded by birds and insects. A skilful masseuse left me worked out and dreaming the scent of frangipani essential oil. Followed by a body scrub of brown rice, turmeric, Balinese spices and essential oils that made my skin feel impossibly smooth and soft for a week afterwards. The piece de resistance was the flower bath: luxuriating under an inch-and-a-half of artfully arranged, multi-coloured petals. I need say no more.
9. Eat Delicious Balinese Food
Fragrant cloves and vanilla pods; rosemary; star anise; chillies and ginger. Balinese spices are at the heart of food in Bali and you can see them growing in the fields, watch them being harvested and spread out to dry, and then see them added to your food. Coconut-y Balinese curries allow the amazing flavours of all those unadulterated spices to come through. Combined with natural unprocessed rice and followed by a desert flavoured with rich, unprocessed palm sugar mixed through with roasted cacao beans. All exquisitely presented of course! For some specific recommendations for eating out see this post on the best cafes in Bali.
10. And finally… hit the beach in Bali
OK so I will allow you some beach time on your Bali holiday, it is what most visitors come for after all. My most relaxing beach experience in Bali was on the north coast in Lovina. Here you will find budget accommodation on the beach with gorgeous sunsets and fishing villages. In other words a beach where real people live.
In the developed south of Bali where most people holiday, I briefly visited Kuta, Seminyak and Nusa Dua while I was in Bali and the best beach option in my opinion is Nusa Dua. The beaches were pretty, clean and quiet, and the resorts were friendly. I attended a destination wedding in Nusa Dua and it was lovely. So if you must…
So there you have it, my top 10 things to do in Bali. Obviously it would be very difficult to experience even half of the above from a hotel room in Kuta. I stayed in three different places during my Bali holiday, spread across the island. It was easy to make day trips, usually hiring a driver and car (at around $25) or using public transport. I find a multi-centre holiday is really the best way to capture the best of a destination and combine many different experiences during your precious time away.
Happy travel planning!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to Bali? What would be on your top 10 list of things to do in Bali?