The island of Bali is a magical place brimming with a unique culture that is at once traditional and modern. It is the perfect destination for a first time visitor to Asia (us!) due to its robust tourism infrastructure. Yet with its varied regions, vibrant local community, and strong Hindu belief system, the Balinese experience is anything but a cookie cutter island get-away.
That being said, during our Emirates flight out of Dubai, we were seated next to a tribal-tattooed bro who downed 7 rum and cokes in preparation for whatever beach party awaited him upon landing. This certainly did not do a lot to inspire confidence in the uniqueness of our first stop in Asia. We were thus relieved to meet our dear friends from San Francisco – Joe and Quinn – at our first home in Ubud: a gorgeous rainforest oasis of a villa that felt anything but mainstream. Although party regions like Seminyak and Kuta often give Bali a bad rap, one definitely shouldn’t chalk the island up to just a spring break destination. Here’s the detailed recap of our 2 weeks in Bali: where we stayed, things we did, and what we ate!
Don’t feel like reading the whole post? Scroll down to the bottom for the 411.
Ubud was a perfect starting point. Nestled in the forest amidst the rice terraces, it’s far enough away from the beach that it keeps most of the under 25 crowd out. But it’s still beautiful and unique enough to attract even the die-hard beach bums among us. Ubud has long been Bali’s spiritual and cultural center.
Health & wellness
Though Ubud gained mainstream popularity from the book “Eat Pray Love,” it has long been a center for art, health and wellness. Attracting yoga practicing, vegan eating hippies from all over; many of them choose to expatriate in order to live a more relaxed pace of life. This lifestyle resonated with our group as well, and we couldn’t get enough of the daily massages, delicious food (more on that later) and laid-back vibe of the town, which has enough yoga studios, vegan cafes, and local artisan boutiques to keep one occupied for weeks.
The Balinese culture is very spiritual. Everywhere we went, we smelled incense emanating from the daily blessings placed in front of all homes and businesses, and saw the famous black and white gingham plaid pattern – Saput Poleng – which represents the Rwa Bhineda philosophy of balance. The Balinese Hinduism differs from that of India as it combines elements of both Hinduism and Animism. We learned about the Animist influence during one of the more touristy things we did: a traditional Legong and Barong Waksirsa performance where dancers in animal costumes reenact the eternal battle between good and evil, all set to a gamelan orchestra. Afterward, we spent time at the famous Elephant Sanctuary (the name is misleading as it no longer has any elephants): a beautiful temple and former compound of the King, now used as a spiritual place for meditation. While these sights were worth seeing, I felt we got a more authentic picture of the Balinese spiritual life by visiting the smaller local Hindu temples. There was a temple right next to our villa and we were taken go get blessed on our first day – a beautiful experience.
Rice farming is perhaps the single most important productive activity on the island, and Ubud is famous for its many rice terraces. One of the most beautiful and unique uses of these green spaces was the Chedi Club Resort, a 20-room oasis that sits directly on the rice fields. Since it was next door to our villa, we stopped by for sunset cocktails one night and it was truly fabulous. We also got to experience the terraces firsthand when we took a bike ride through the famous Tegalalang Rice Terrace. Starting at the top of Mount Batur for breakfast at the Lakeview Hotel, our host Putu took us down through the forest and rice fields, before completing the ride with lunch at the edge of the rice fields.
As we finished our time in Ubud and headed over to our next stop – Tulamben – we had a whitewater rafting adventure on the Ayung River. After our relatively calm rafting experience in Slovenia, this was a whole different trip entirely! The Ayung River winds through the rainforest, with branches, boulders and waterfalls seemingly coming out of nowhere. Additionally, there were too many other rafts on the river at the same time, so it felt like a game of bumper boats. Fortunately, our guide took it all in stride, and got us back in one piece.
For most people traveling Bali, Tulamben doesn’t even break the top 10 list. But for the diving-obsessed, this little slice of coastline is their mecca. Here lies the USS Liberty Ship Wreck, hit by a Japanese torpedo over 60 years ago. It is arguably the best dive site in Bali, and has created an entire town based around scuba diving.
However, if you aren’t into diving, there really isn’t that much to do here. The beach is volcanic and not a good place to spend time, while the “town” is just a tiny stretch of road with a small handful of basic restaurants and a grocery store that doesn’t carry booze. The scenery in Tulamben is also very different from the tropical greenery of Ubud, in no small part due to its positioning at the base of the Mount Agung volcano (which a week after we left suddenly became an active volcano ready to erupt at any moment!)
So of course, we went diving! We went with Bali Elite Scuba Team, an amazing company that provided pool certification and also took us out on 2 dives: one to the shipwreck, and another to the nearby reef. The owner and our guide, Jink, was one of the coolest dudes we met while traveling. He was hilarious, and talked like he belonged in Southern California instead of a tiny Balinese town. Most importantly, he knew everything there was to know about diving in Tulamben, easily making our experience one of the best things we did in Bali!
Our third and final stop was Sanur, a relaxed, upscale resort town with a well-developed tourism industry and lots and lots of beachfront hotels. Of the three places we visited, Sanur was probably the closest to the Bali beach vacation that most western tourists envision. We once again opted to get away from the resorts and stay at an Airbnb, which ended up being one of the more beautiful properties we slept in: a two-story white colonial with a huge pool and balcony. After an adventurous week and a half, a bit of beach and relaxation time was the perfect way to close out the trip.
The beach in Sanur is gorgeous but very shallow, not allowing for much swimming. It’s a lovely walk, with clean beaches and lots of colorful jukung fishing boats to admire. We did rent paddle boards one day, and got an intense 30 minute workout while paddling from the beach to where the waves finally broke! In my opinion the best part of the beach was the lovely paved beachfront path, which runs the whole length of the district, and is perfect for early morning or sunset jogs. Along that same road, there are many local seafood spots, healthy cafes, beach massage places, and boutiques.
We loved the food in Bali so much that I needed to devote a separate section to it! While traditional Indonesian food wasn’t anything to write home about (especially when compared to places like Thailand and Vietnam) Bali has carved out a nice organic niche for itself.
The healthy options in Bali are plentiful and with some key exceptions, the food is cheap! Think ~$5-7 per dish. My mouth still waters thinking about the delicious salads and macro bowls we feasted on. Here are some of our most favorite spots!
- Clear Cafe (Ubud): A gorgeous, two-story organic restaurant with living wall and a strict no-shoes policy. Serving up juice “elixers” and macro bowls, this veggie paradise has many options for meat eaters too: divine fish tacos and melt-in-your mouth sushi rolls.
- Mozaic Restaurant: Standing (Ubud): One of only a few Michelin-starred restaurants in Bali, Mozaic was perfect for a special occasion (we went for G’s birthday). There are three different tasting menus: Trip Around the World, Vegetarian, and “Surprise.” The dessert that comes with the Trip Around the World menu is quite a spectacle that includes liquid nitrogen! Also notable is the cocktail list, in which a twist on a classic gin and tonic was my absolute favorite.
- Moksa Plant-Based Cuisine (Ubud): A farm to table vegan restaurant tucked away in the rice fields, Moksa serves up both raw and heated plant-based cuisine, local coffees, teas and healthy elixirs. They don’t serve alcohol, which proved to be a welcome break. In addition to dining, they offer cooking classes and frequent talks in their casual, community-based “dojo” space.
- Kismet Restaurant & Lounge (Ubud): A restaurant + boutique concept tucked into one of the side streets in Ubud. They serve only organic, vegetarian food in a cool, dark setting. My favorite part of Kismet was the red light bulb above the table that you switch on whenever you need anything. It was a great way to relax and ensure that the staff wasn’t constantly hovering around us.
- Tuckies (Ubud): Amazing coconut ice cream shop, perfect for an after-dinner spot if you’re craving sweets!
- Malaika Secret Moksha (Sanur): This cafe was an outstanding discovery right next door to our villa in Sanur. The gorgeous, quirky space serves up a great selection of veggie/ vegan, raw and gluten-free options, as well as a selection of Indian and Indonesian dishes. Every dish is made from scratch, and the people who work there are some of the nicest we met. They have several food and coffee items for sale to take away, I recommend the pumpkin bread! One of my greatest regrets was not having the opportunity to take a cooking class here (the owner had to cancel at the last-minute due to a family issue).
- Lilla Pantai (Sanur): Healthy beachfront dining at its finest! This adorable beach cafe was a perfect way to refuel after our beach runs, serving up amazing açaí bowls, in addition to more traditional western dishes like eggs benedict.
- Jack Fish (Sanur): Sanur is known for its toes-in-the-sand seafood joints, and this one is popular for a reason. They deliver freshly-caught, perfectly cooked dishes ranging from mahi mahi, to prawns to lobster, all for incredible prices. We ate here on our last night in Bali and it did not disappoint!
So what’s our verdict? We loved our time in Bali and look back on our time very fondly. Here are some of the best…and also not so great parts!
- Culture: Bali has definitely not sold out in this department. Despite being a super popular tourist destination, heaping with all-inclusive resorts, the island has maintained its soul with amazing temples and cultural sites, plenty of local performances, and a nice mélange of locals and expats.
- Prices: While it’s not the cheapest country in Asia by far, it was pretty incredible to spend an average of $50 on a meal for 4, with alcohol!
- Hospitality: Pretty much everywhere we stayed, we were in awe the hospitality that was shown to us. But the grand prize definitely goes to Putu – our host while in Ubud – staying at his villa was a wonderful intro to the Balinese tradition of hospitality.
- Spa treatments: Anything beauty-related in Bali is a must! The massages are excellent, and you can get an array of treatments: anything from a body scrub, to a milk bath, to hot stone massages. And the best thing is: they will come to you. Our favorite parts of staying at a villa was ordering up a massage therapist, barber, aesthetician (whatever!) and enjoying the treatments. With prices about $10 for a massage, and $5 for a manicure or haircut, we didn’t hesitate to indulge daily!
- Food: See above! The food was spectacular.
- Animal ethics: With huge growth in tourism, Bali is unfortunately one of many countries in Asia that has fallen into animal exploitation. For instance, everywhere we went, we saw ads for elephant rides, which unfortunately involves taking a baby elephant away from its mother, “breaking” it in captivity, and then forcing it into a life of carrying humans on it’s back. Another common tourist attraction is the wildly popular Luwak coffee, made from coffee beans in the excrement of the civet (a small nocturnal mammal). The process of passing through the animal’s intestines ferments the beans and creates a coffee that reportedly tastes like chocolate. But in order to meet tourist demands for the coffee, civets are kept in cages and forced to eat the daily equivalent of 120 shots of espresso, resulting in health problems. We did our research before coming to Bali, and encourage everyone to check out the Bali Animal Welfare Association for common ethical concerns before engaging in animal tourism.
- Infrastructure: Bali still has a long way to go to catch up to many western standards. For instance, on several occasions we saw locals bathing in the ditch water on the side of the street. And we quickly discovered the need for alertness when walking on the sidewalk due to the risk of falling into one of the many large holes in the pavement.
- Burning trash: Disposing of trash by just burning it in a pile on the side of the street is a common practice in Bali. Unfortunately this results in a disgusting burning plastic smell that constantly lingers in the air. Some places were worse than others, the low point was definitely when we went jogging through the outskirts of Ubud and had to run through the smoke of a trash bonfire on every block.
- Stray dogs: There were more stray dogs than we’ve ever seen, many of which had skin rashes, an injured leg, or some other clearly visible health problem. Even the dogs that appeared to have a home did not seem to be in the best of health. However, they were still able to run pretty fast when chasing us down the street on the aforementioned worst run ever.
And that’s a wrap! From here, we fly to Bangkok, which is our gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia.