If there’s one thing I learned when I asked my friends and fellow travelers for tips about Bali, it’s that people have some freaking strong opinions about the place.
To some, it’s absolute paradise, the Garden of Eden. To others, it’s “hell, but more crowded.” This Indonesian island, famous for it’s gorgeous beaches, bright green rice terraces, seedy Kuta Beach and the place where Liz Gilbert learned to love again, seems to elicit just as many negative opinions as rave reviews.
The following are actual pieces of advice I received while planning my 16 days here:
“It’s so touristy and really overcrowded everywhere. Completely overdeveloped.”
“Kuta Beach is dirty and full of raging, blackout-drunk college kids. It’s a nightmare.”
“Seminyak is just fancy beach resorts. You can get it for a lot cheaper elsewhere.”
“Ubud is kinda cool, but full of people trying to be all ‘Eat Pray Love’ and shit.”
“Sanur is called ‘snore’ because it’s too quiet.”
“Indonesian food isn’t the best.”
“All the ‘cultural performances’ are fake, Balinese culture is essentially lost.”
“Don’t waste your time with Bali. Skip it and head to the Gili islands instead.”
Despite a few positive recommendations I heard from other people, I was surprised by the amount of negativity, especially from travelers whose opinions I respected. I resolved to keep my expectations low, preparing for the worst.
What followed was a week full of surprises that left my head spinning. Bali was absolutely nothing like I was expecting it to be, and most of the negative stuff I’d heard turned out to be false.
To start, Sanur, the beach town I based myself in for the first half of my trip, was quiet, but there was still plenty to do. Within a ten minute walk from our budget hotel, there were opportunities to snorkel, dive, kayak, windsurf, paddleboard, hire a boat, get a spa treatment, eat a fancy dinner, eat street food, sample Balinese coffee, and book a tour inland.
The bars weren’t full (it is low season, after all) but there were plenty offering live music and drink specials. And the beaches were virtually empty – the few people that were enjoying them were mostly locals. Because the waters on the east coast are fringed by reef and rocks, the water is calm and almost placid at low tide. It was such a relaxing place to hang for nine days, and I’d highly recommend it.
Kuta, which most people told me was an overcrowded and seedy beach city, was also surprisingly tame. When my brother and I spent the day there, we were surprised to find clean, wide beaches with a few dozen surfers and just a small smattering of tourists lounging on beach loungers.
Yes, there was a little bit of trash on the beach, and of course lots of Western chains and stores lining the main beach boulevard (a Coffee Bean!) and pushy shopkeepers selling the same crappy souvenirs, but nothing outrageously disgusting, seedy or crowded. Maybe we caught it on a rare down day, maybe I’m used to Santa Monica beach on a weekend, but I thought Kuta wasn’t as bad as I’d heard. Developed? Yes. Busy? Sure. But overcrowded? Not really. I thought it was a lot like Santa Monica actually, but less homeless people.
Seminyak was also nice, though I see where it gets it’s classier reputation. We checked out Ku De Ta, a fancy beachfront club where we had a very expensive meal in exchange for the privilege of being seen there. But again, the beach was gorgeous and relaxing. I guess I was expecting Cancun at Spring Break, but I didn’t find it.
But has to be said: Bali is more expensive than other places in Asia, and not just at the fancy beach clubs. I was surprised at how much money I went through here, though Ubud is slightly cheaper than the beach cities and fantastic deals can be found in the countryside. The hostel I chose outside of Ubud overlooks a gorgeous rice terrace and my bed cost under $7 a night.
Speaking of Ubud, I was surprised to find it packed with more travelers than in any of the beaches. It’s more of a hopping backpacker city than a village Julie Roberts once rode a bike through. It has a hippie-dippy, yoga-lover vibe to it, buzzing with healthy smoothie joints and vegetarian restaurants, but it also has a solid nightlife scene as well. 2-for-1 happy hour specials abound, and I admittedly followed up a few yoga sessions with a tasty caipirinha or two!
One big tourist draw in Ubud is the famous Monkey Forest, a protected bit of jungle smackdab in the middle of town that nearly a thousand monkeys call home. It was at the top of our list of things to do, but when we arrived we discovered that actually, the place is a bit terrifying. The monkeys aren’t afraid of people – they will come right on up, jump on you, scratch you while they rifle through your pockets and unzip your backpack looking for food.
Walking through the forest felt like being in a horror movie, our eyes anxiously scanning the surrounding trees for the monkeys who would jump out and claw our eyes out at any moment. It was still fun, but the monkeys were definitely not as cute and cuddly as I was expecting…
Aggressive monkeys aside, it needs to be said that there seems to be plenty of Bali that is untouched by massive development. I’ve spent over a week in a rural homestay outside of Ubud, gazing over the rice terrace views and enjoying super cheap local food. Nearby, there are the rolling Telalagang rice terraces, which although over-visited are an amazing sight to behold, and Tegenungan waterfall which doesn’t disappoint.
And beyond the beaten path, I’ve been told of stunning beaches and epic hikes on the northern half of the island, where most travelers to Bali never venture. I wasn’t expecting as many opportunities for adventure here, and I’m definitely going to have to come back for a longer stint to explore all of them.
Despite all I’d heard about the crowds in Bali, there was only one place we went that was truly super-duper-mega crowded, and it was probably the place I’d expected to have the least people: Tanah Lot, the oceanfront temple found in so many gorgeous brochures of Bali. All the pictures I’d seen showed the temple surrounded by water, not a soul in sight.
But I guess this time of year, the temple is at low tide around sunset, and thousands of people wander the rocks and beaches at it’s base waiting for the perfect shot of a colorful sky behind it. It could have been due to it being a religious holiday, but it seemed like the majority of people there were tourists.
The Balinese holiday we happened upon was called Galungan, and we were lucky enough to see locals celebrating everywhere we looked. Dressed in colorful sarongs, women carried huge bowls of offerings to the roadside shrines while local men in white head wraps congregated in temples to pay their respects to their gods. I was glad to see Balinese culture is alive and well, and seemingly thriving!
And a word to the friend who told me not to expect much from Indonesian food (you know who you are): Balinese and Indonesian food is fucking amazing! From Babi Gulung, the local suckling pig specialty, to Gado Gado, which essentially veggies smothered in lip-smacking peanut sauce, to the everyday favorite Nasi Goreng (friend rice with a chicken skewer) I’ve loved it all. Spicy in all the best places, savory and surprisingly sweet in others, it may have eclipsed Thai food as my favorite cuisine in the world.
What did these surprises teach me? I really need to check my expectations of a place at the door – for reals! You can’t take too much stock in other people’s opinions when rounding up advice on a destination. Sure, you should do your research and ask advice, but in the end, your experience will be just that – yours. I assumed my experience of Bali would fit a mold other people had forged for me, and when it didn’t, I was (mostly) pleasantly surprised.
I really loved my time here in Bali, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Destinations, especially popular ones, can be a million different things to a million different people, and it’s worth having an open mind when you arrive. You never know what you might like, or dislike.
Or love, in the case of me and Bali!