Everything is gracious about Bali.
The traditional dress of silks and gold embroidery. The ritual offerings of flowers in tiny woven palm trays set out every morning. The stone walls turned green by moss. The blanket of silence in the jungle punctuated by the call of birds and the soft chirring of cicadas. The family compounds, just the tips of the mini temples peeking over the top of the ornate walls and gates. The statues at every home, restaurant, wall, gate and corner of crouching panthers, fierce king monkeys and doting monkey moms, sleek dogs and lions baring their teeth. The smell of incense. The prayer hands and bow of thanks. The weather, which during July is warm enough to go swimming in the afternoon, and cool enough to sleep at night with the windows open. Even the abandoned homes look gracious–their red roof tiles and white walls being overtaken by the jungle vines look as beautiful as any ancient temple ruin. And of course the people, who seem nothing if not delighted to share their country with you.
(PS. Check out my Bali and Southeast Asia packing list.)
Bali is done in what I like to call Indonesian Baroque–curlicues and animals carved into every available surface and post, gold filigree, bright reds and oranges and pinks and yellows, heavy hanging vines from trees and big tropical flowers floating down the rushing waters of the river. And yet, none of it is garish or too much. It’s just earnestly beautiful, and much of it very sustainable. You can check your cynicism and irony at the door–in Bali, your belief in the goodness of people and nature can bloom.
I look forward to the day when I can return to Bali for a month or more. But until then, I’ll share with you the all-too-few days we spent there, my favorite places and things, with the hope that you can experience the deep pleasure and peace that I did.
No one told me how long it would take to get to Bali. I mean, I could have Googled it, but I figured that I had seen the worst with my flight to Australia. Oh, I was so wrong. It was a cross-country hop to Chicago and L.A., first. Then, from L.A. I flew 12 hours to South Korea, and from there, another 7 hours until I finally landed in Bali. Those last seven hours were spent amidst 12 families on the plane, seven of which had toddlers who shrieked, cried, sobbed, screamed and babbled incessantly for the first three hours of the flight until the flight attendants mercifully shut off the lights and everyone snuggled down for a much-needed nap. Bali is much closer to Europe, so when you are there you will meet few American tourists, which is a bonus. (We can be loud and annoying.) You will meet many more Australians and French.
When I finally arrived to the Denpasar airport at 3 in the morning, I was delighted to find my bag on the carousel and a driver waiting with my name on a sign. (Tip: You can email the place your staying at ask for them to send a driver.) I could barely take in my surroundings in the dark, only knowing that I was heading up bumpy, twisty roads lined with palm-thatch huts. But when I crept into Lovely Bungalow, where we are staying, I could see the stars above, which was the first real assurance that I was far, far away from New York City.
I was happy I managed to sleep on the plane, because three hours after I finally snuggled down into my bed, protected by wispy mosquito netting, I was woken by roosters and the sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. The walls here are just thatch, so sounds travel right through. I was ready to get up though. The day was still cool, and outside my door I found a little paradise.
The roosters that had woken me were strutting about on the green lawn and in between the palmy plants. Sleepy couples wandered by the small pool on their way to breakfast in the open air pavilion. Everything was charming to me. Look! Tiny ants exploring the landscape of my placemat. The kitties (or maybe stunted cats?) adamantly talking to one another (some my call it yowling) on my porch. Even the fact that the open air shower had no hot water didn’t bother me. Who cares if I shave today? Just need to wash my pits and hair and put on a bikini! I’m in paradise.
The first thing you should be aware of is the threat of Bali Belly, a nasty three-day stomach bug which you can get from drinking or brushing with tap water, eating uncooked vegetables that have been washed with tap water, or failing to sanitize your hands after handling money. In fact, you shouldn’t even use a straw because, apparently, some places rinse and reuse them. For breakfast I ordered banana pancakes, yogurt, and a cup of pineapple juice. It came with a straw, which I took out. And then I drank it. Does that break the rules of only produce that is cooked or I peel myself? Perhaps. (When I asked D. later, she said it was perfectly fine.)
After breakfast I wandered down the dirt road to Bangalan surf beach. The sun was already starting to sear the air at 9 in the morning, but the beach was quiet except for a couple sunbathing, a group of Asian tourists and a half dozen surfers far out on the breakers.
Along the beach were offerings laid on the sand, being swept away by the tide. Offerings are quite the thing in Bali. You’ll see the tiny trays of orange and pinks flowers everywhere–laid on the sidewalk in front of shops, piled at the foot of shrines and statues, and placed carefully along bridges. They are a a lovely daily Balinese ritual to curry favor with the gods. Seeing them everywhere over the course of my trip, I thought, “I wish I had a pretty little ritual like that every morning.”
Back at the beach, at first I was charmed by the flower petals strewn on the sand, but then I noticed many of the offerings of boiled eggs and rice cakes were wrapped in plastic, ready to be taken out into the depths. It’s always disconcerting when you see another culture, one that is rooted in tradition, doing something that is harmful to the environment. (Most offerings I saw later did not have plastic, fortunately.) I left the offerings be, but on the way back up to the resort, I picked up a plastic bag and filled it with plastic litter–crushed cigarette packets, juice pouches, yogurt cups–and took it back with me to my room. I would like to think of that as my own offering to Bali.
When my friend D. arrived a few hours later, we dropped her stuff off at the bungalow, then walked down to the beach. We walked in the first surf hut we saw and asked about lessons. $50 a person (should we have negotiated?) for two hours for a semi-private lesson. But the next high tide was either that moment or 6 am the next day. So we left a deposit, had a lunch next door of fried rice noodles with veggies, accompanied by huge coconuts with a straw stuck in and a spoon for scraping out the white coconut meat. Then we headed back up to relax by the pool.
On recommendation from a friend, we got dressed up for dinner and hired a car (that’s the only way to get around Kuta) to take us to Rock Bar, part of the luxurious Ayana Resort. It was breathtaking. We pulled through a lush forest to the front of the resort, where the staff hurried to open the doors of our car, and a women in full traditional dress greeted us. We walked through the open-air lobby and found ourselves looking at an expansive view of terraced gardens, fountains, statuary and infinity pools dropping off into the sea. To get to the ocean, you meander down through paths and steps fragrant with flowers. We asked for a spot at the “sunset bar,” which was just chair and tables set up on the lawn. The drinks were pricey, and not exactly creative (this is a New Yorker talking) with options like mojito, pina colada, margarita, but they were expertly crafted. And the sunset! It was unreal. It was as if Lisa Frank had done it, in garish pinks, purples and oranges, with rays of light shooting up into the sky. They were even playing excellent deep house music–my favorite and a pleasant surprise.
For dinner we went to Jimbaran Beach for seafood. Any of the restaurants will do, so we picked one at random and sat at a table in the sand watching the waves crash and eating a smorgasbord of seafood like lobster, prawns, and fish, while women did a traditional dance behind us on a stage.
The next morning we were up before dawn, picking our way down to the beach while stray dogs ran up to bark and then (thankfully) sniff us and wag their tails. As the sky brightened, our instructor handed us our gear, then gave us a quick lesson in the sand on getting up on our boards before he took us out in the white waves. The hardest part about surfing isn’t getting up, it’s getting yourself out in the waves against the sucking tide. I managed to get up and ride with my instructor shoving me forward, then even managed to catch a couple of my own waves while my instructor shouted instructions. By the time two hours were up, we were exhausted and deliciously sore. So we took a quick shower, had breakfast, and took an hour-long massage in the little “spa” (a hut at the bungalows) for $15.
Two days was enough in Kuta for us. I know some people are cool with surfing, beach, dinner, beach, breakfast, surfing, dinner, pool, dinner, but I’m more of an active person. (We were not alone in this assessment of Kuta.) So we hired a car to take us on to our accommodations in Ubud.
What we didn’t do and wish we had: You can hire a driver for a day excursion to the Uluwatu Temple on the cliffs 40 minutes away from where we were. Also, Dream Land beach is supposed to be lovely for swimming.
I can see why people come here to find peace–it is peace here. The smell of incense is everywhere. A girl passes you and she trails lavender or patchouli behind her. Everything is old and everything else is fresh. Here is a vegan restaurant with gluten-free desserts. Next to it is a temple that looks like the jungle would engulf it in a week if given the chance. Here is a gas station with motorbikes buzzing in and out. Then there is an art center in the jungle offering traditional performances.
The main road is a cacophony of horns and motors, with no traffic rules, crosswalks, stoplights or even stop signs. Don’t be overwhelmed. Turn off the road and walk down a path and you are enveloped in a humid silence, draped vines, mossy stone paths. Every restaurant has a humble front, but walk in and you might find a huge serene terraced dining room stretching back and back, with tinkling fountains and necklaces of fresh orange flowers draped around statutes of Ganesh, plus a pastry counter filled with gluten-free treats. Or walk down a small street to find shops selling chakra jewelry, batik-making lessons, tattoo parlors and everything else the modern hippie might want. Our own homestay, Balila, was only 100 feet off the main road, but as soon as we walked down the driveway a curtain of silence fell behind us, city life ceased, and peace reigned. When I woke up early one morning, I meditated for a half hour next to the Buddha seated atop the fish pond. And yet we were right in the center of the city! (Tip: A homestay is what we might call a B&B, and they are the way to go! Find yours on AirBnB.) The secret gardens in Ubud just never end.
Our first stop was the Sacred Monkey Forest, where “wild” monkey reign supreme. At first we just bought seven bananas at the entrance, but they were quickly snatched out of our hands within a minute of entering by the most entitled little creatures. So we went back for more bananas so we could continue the fun. Large boss monkeys would come over, take a banana, then tug at my pants, like, “OK cool, but I want another.” If you didn’t give monkeys your banana, they would climb your clothes up to your head, seeking the prize. When you’ve spent all your bananas, take a side path off the main trail and find some peace at the koi pond or temple. All is quiet and lush there. Just sit down and take it in–there’s no rush.
As far as food goes, well, this might not be the best place to get traditional Indonesian food. Tourists and expats from Europe, Australia and America are so prevalent that you could never learn a word of Indonesian and get by beautifully. And this town truly does cater to the European set. While elsewhere in Asia you must avoid fresh salad, because of the risk of a stomach ailment, here the vegetables are washed in mineral water.
But that’s just the beginning. We had some of the best vegan and gluten-free food we’ve every tasted in Ubud. In fact, there are organic, vegan, local, gluten-free options everywhere. Really. Everywhere. You must try Kafe (south of the Sacred Monkey forest on the main road), Alchemy (all the way to the north east, it’s walkable but you might prefer a cab, go there for lunch,), and Dayu’s Warung (on the small road parallel to the east of the main road). They all put the healthy food restaurants in NYC and LA to shame. Dayu’s had this amazing pumpkin with crispy tempe ravioli that is destination in itself. The fun at Alchemy is in the salad bar, locally-made kombucha and assortment of vegan desserts.
This particular night, D. was craving Mexican, so we went to Taco Casa for chips, guacamole, tacos and fresh-pressed juice (D.) and a fiesta salad and tamarind margarita (me). Or you can wander into almost any warung (basically, a restaurant) and get a fairly good Indonesian meal. While it may not be organic, it will be pretty local–judging by the chicken farms, rice paddies, and chili pepper gardens we passed around Ubud, factory farms aren’t a thing here.
We finished our day by watching a traditional dance/play at the Agung Rai Museum of Art, right next to our homestay. Surrounded by dark forest, we were seated in small chairs in front of a stone stage with an ornate, mossy-green stone entrance through which dancers emerged. The women were graceful and serene, the men shook with anger and strength. It was mesmerizing and at times hilarious, as dancers clad in huge, furry beast costumes threw temper tantrums on the stage. They were accompanied by a chorus of drummers and gamalan players from young boys to old men. It was beautiful and more than worth the $7 we paid for our ticket. (Just bring bug spray!)
The next morning we slept in, and had a lovely organic breakfast in the outdoor kitchen served by the live-in housekeeper at the house. Then we allowed ourselves the luxury of wandering around town, ducking into shops to finger silks and Buddha statues. Tip: Shop around. You’ll find after just a few hours of being in Indonesia that pretty much everyone sells the exact same thing across Bali and even over on Java. There are Buddhas of every kind, size and material in hundreds of different shops and in the main art market. There are silk sarongs in every store. Even the carved cow’s skull I found–one of the rarer things–was available in another shop down the road for about $50 less. So if you plan on shopping, take some time to poke around and get a feel for prices and what’s available. Then haggle the price down to half–you are at an advantage because you can always go next door. The first cow’s skull I saw was $200. I ended up getting it for $95 at a temple market. Or check out the art market on the north side of Ubud and get your serious haggle on for a lot of Cheap Interesting Crap. It’s the perfect place to pick up a toy for your nephew or a funny, trashy present for your college buddy.
My two favorite shops in Ubud were Stargate Sacred Geometry shop and Tunjung Mas Galleri Batik, which is located on the main road on the east side, south of the Sacred Monkey Forest. Stargate’s website may be janky, but it offers gorgeous, gold and brass and crystal modern jewelry that would retail for hundreds in Brooklyn. The batik store is the best place I found for high quality, authentic Balinese clothing. In fact, I inquired about the textiles on the mannequins in the window, and was told they were not for sale–only for rental to locals for ceremonies. You won’t find what’s offered in either of these stores anywhere else.
Ok, onto activities. Like everything else for sale in Bali, you should shop around. There are dozens of excursion shacks lining the main road all offering the exact same thing. In fact, many of the tours vary only in the main attraction, and surround it with the same stops: coffee plantation and rice paddies. So wander up and down the street asking for prices until you hit on the lowest and book that. Believe me, the different tour providers are a fungible product.
I highly recommend the Eco Cycling tour. It’s not so eco. You get in a van early in the morning and it takes you up to the top of a mountain, you glide down the mountain expending about 100 calories on the way just using your hand brake, and then I assume a truck hauls the bikes back up the mountain. But it is an experience you can’t miss.
You start by sampling coffees and teas at a coffee plantation. (NOTE: I’ve been informed by a reader that civet cat coffee often comes from caged and abused civet cats. Try finding an excursion that does not include a visit to the plantation, or inquire when you get there about whether the civet cats are caged, and/or refuse to eat the civet cat coffee and explain why.) Then you have a delicious buffet breakfast at a tiny restaurant overlooking Mount Batur and Lake Batur. Then you hop on a bike and take off, winding your way through villages, around rice paddies and through the rainforest on your way to Ubud. We stopped along the way inside a modest family compound to learn about family life, pet the cows, peek inside the rudimentary kitchen, and watch the process of splitting bamboo to use in basket weaving. We wandered into a rice field where young men were hoisting a large kite into the sky. Children ran out into the road to wave, yell, “Hello!” and high five us. It was two hours of perfection.
Another excursion that is offered is the sunrise hike to the top of the volcano Mount Batur. While we had read you should invest $40 in hiring a guide, after doing the tour, I don’t think you need to. Here’s what you should do: buy a flashlight and rent a motorbike for $5 the night before. Pack water, a hearty breakfast, and lunch. Dress in layers: running shoes with grippy soles, athletic pants, a tank and a sweatshirt. Leave your homestay at 2:45 am to drive to the mountain. On the way, you’ll probably find and join up with a caravan of vans carrying other tourists to the foot of the mountain. Sneak in with the procession of tourists and their guides starting up the hiking trail in the dark. Save money, and get out of waiting for strangers to catch their breath.
I won’t lie: it’s a hard hike. Two hours of scrambling up a steep trail is not for smokers or girly girls. (We saw two guides literally hauling their exhausted female charges up the mountain.) But it’s worth the early wake up call! The cool night air, the silence of nature, the stars dappling the black sky above and the far-away lights of Bali down below while a procession of flashlights bob up the side of the mountain. When you reach the frosty summit, the sky is already turning purply red. Seat yourself on a bench, dig into your “lunch”, slow the shutter speed of your camera and get ready for fireworks. (Save a snack to give to the monkeys on the way back down!)
Another thing to do in Ubud is get the spa treatment. There are spas everywhere, but a friend recommend Taksu, a huge, open-air spa complex that offers everything you could think of: mani pedis, massages, facials, tea, dinner, and cocktails. For $35, we booked a coffee body scrub and oxygen facial. We followed our aestheticians down a long set of stairs, past a lush creek and up into our Turkish bath-like tiled treatment rooms. Isn’t natural bird song so much better as a spa soundtrack than new-age music?
Finally, you cannot leave Bali without taking a yoga class or six. Yoga Barn is the most popular destination. The open-air studio nestled in the forest can fit 80 students, and yet it fills up quickly, so you must get there at least 15 minutes before class starts. We took a night class in the small studio that “only” fits 30 students, and made fast friends with other foreigners who were visiting or living in Bali, trading travel tips, stories and advice. It’s a great place to meet people, and you can have your lunch in the cafe there too.
We rounded out our trip with a visit to the local Tirta Empul temple, and active Hindu Temple about a half hour outside Bali. (We negotiated our driver down to about $3.) Wear long pants or a skirt when you go, or rent a sarong when you are there. It’s a peaceful complex, where Hindus come to bathe in the holy waters, and definitely worth the trip.
Other things we wanted to do but didn’t: Explore the painting galleries south of Ubud, take a cooking class, eat at Wayan’s Café, Kafe Batan Waru, and Murni’s Warung, take a drink at Dragonfly or Cafe Havana, grab a smoothie at Soma, or stay at Bambu Indah, a gorgeous luxury bamboo house that was out of our budget.
We also never got to Seminyak, the clubby nightlife part of Bali. I can’t speak to it because I have no personal experience, but I’ve heard it’s a little too drunk and commercial for my personal taste. Who knows? I might have enjoyed the music and clubbing there. It’s possible.
As for how long you need to “do” Bali? Well, one week is enough to leave without regrets. Two weeks is enough to do everything you want to do and then some. But if you truly want to experience Bali, I suggest you take a three-month-long sabbatical so that you can truly take it in–make friends, get deep into your yoga practice, learn to surf, lose weight on the massively healthy offerings and find a smidgen of inner peace.
No, one week was just not enough.