I fell hard for Bali.
There are some places that just pull you in – and Bali was that for me.
The people, with their wide smiles and accommodating spirit, welcomed us in a way we haven't experienced since the Philippines or Colombia. Hints of a rich culture can be found everywhere. Temples occupy nearly every block, and you can't walk far without almost stepping on offerings of incense and flowers laid on the ground for the spirits. The landscape shifts flawlessly from tropical beach to lush jungle. And the food -- with options from organic/vegan/gluten-free to traditional Balinese fare -- is as diverse as my cravings.
I've never experienced a place quite like Bali.
We packed in so much during our 10 days, but could have easily stayed for months. There's no doubt in our minds that we'll be back someday... and we're hoping that someday is soon.
If you find yourself in Indonesia, be sure to add a couple of these unique experiences to your list! Plus, check out how much to budget for a trip to Bali and take a look at 34 pictures that will make you want to visit Bali now!
Balinese Cooking Class
Ben and I like food. A lot. We like to cook it, smell it, take pictures of it. Oh, and eat it, too. So it comes as no surprise that taking cooking classes is one of our favorite things to do while traveling.
When we were planning a trip to Bali with a group of 7 friends, we (strongly) suggested we all take a cooking together. Our friends all have different levels of cooking experience (and interest), and we had talked it up so much that we were hoping it would be as good as we were promising. Even we were surprised at just how good this class was.
Prior to our trip, none of us had much experience with Indonesian cuisine apart from the occasional chicken satay or noodle dish. But man oh man, did we learn! We began the morning with a tour of the traditional market and were able to sample the local fruits – some of which none of us had heard of. Umm, snakeskin fruit? It’s much more delicious than the name implies.
The class itself took place in a beautiful Balinese home. We were greeted by Wayan, the owner, who handed out “welcome drinks”. How classy! Then we were led to the open-air kitchen with sweeping panoramic views of the jungle valley below. Wayan’s wife led our class and was extremely knowledgeable and made sure everyone was comfortable (even our friend on crutches!).
There were roughly 25 people in the group, and although it was by far the largest class we’ve been a part of, it was extremely well-organized. Each person had different jobs through the class, so you weren’t truly cooking each dish yourself, but that didn’t detract from the experience.
We made several dishes -- eight to be exact. And we made them from scratch. No bottled sauces here, guys. We made traditional yellow sauce and peanut sauce with a giant mortar and pestle, and I'm not joking, I could have eaten them with a spoon. They were that good.
And the finished dishes? Ahhhh-mazing.
We've taken cooking courses in five countries now, and while it’s hard to compare the experiences, this class was one of the best.
Experience it yourself: Head over to the Paon Bali Cooking Class website where you can reserve your spot in advance. The classes fill up quickly, so don't wait until the day of. And while you're at it, check out their reviews on TripAdvisor -- with a 5 star rating and nearly 2,000 reviews, you'll see that we're not the only ones raving!
Mount Batur Sunrise Hike
Okay, confession time. I am NOT a morning person. And hiking before the sun is up never sounds appealing to me. But each sunrise hike I've done amazes me and makes me think, Gosh, I should do this more often. I’ll have to remember that for next time.
Our driver picked us up at 2:30 a.m. and we drove for an hour and a half to the foot of the mountain. There was already a snake of light from hikers’ headlamps, moving slowly upwards when we arrived. And so we slapped our faces to wake up a little and joined that upward-moving snake -- taking in the stars as we walked.
The hike itself was less strenuous than I expected, and moved rather slowly since there were so many people climbing at once. We reached the top and saw crowds of people staking out spots, but our guide suggested we keep moving. We walked further on -- this section of trail heavily laden with powdery volcanic dust was by far the most difficult section of the hike. But well worth the effort. Once we reached the summit, we sat down on mats and waited.
The clouds were thick and formed a layer that covered the ground from view, allowing just the peaks of the nearby mountain to peek through. The clouds moved quickly like ocean waves as the sun's rays began to shine through. Man, sunrises are beautiful. Why don't I wake up earlier to see them?
One minor regret we all had was not bringing enough food. Since our stomachs were grumbling and we were ready for lunch well before 10 a.m., our driver brought us to a floating restaurant on the nearby lake. The village is known for tilapia, so of course that's what we ordered... oh, and banana pancakes, because well, it was still breakfast time. It was delicious, but we learned that fish and pancakes is not the best pairing.
Experience it yourself: There are several companies that will arrange tours for you. We hired a driver through Bali Friends, and he organized a guide for us. The cost per person depends on how many people are in your group. With 6 of us, we paid just under $20 USD each. If you go through a tour company (instead of through a driver), it will probably be a bit more expensive.
Balinese Countryside Biking Tour
There’s one question that always seems to be asked after returning from a trip. “What was your favorite part?” I’m guilty of asking it to others, yet whenever people ask that dreaded question, I react as if they're making me choose only one appendage to keep. A real Sophie’s Choice. If you were going to really force it out of me, I’d say that my favorite part of my time in Bali was... drumroll, please... the biking tour. I’ll even go a little further and say it was one of the best tours we’ve taken anywhere in the world.
We began the morning with breakfast overlooking Mount Batur, which we'd hiked the previous morning. We then biked through rice fields on gravel paths on which cars can not drive, and took in the sights of the Balinese countryside that few people passing through get to see.
We visited a traditional home, sampled Balinese tea and coffee on a plantation, helped local women harvest rice, and ended the day with a delicious Balinese lunch. Our guide was incredible, and taught us more about the Balinese culture than I could have learned by reading an entire textbook.
Experience it yourself: We booked our tour through Bali Eco Cycle. The tour is just $40 – an incredible deal that includes all a delicious all-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch, bike rentals, transportation to and from your hotel, and a guide. Our guide, Jering, made our trip. He has since started his own bike tour company, Ring a Bike Tour, which we would wholeheartedly recommend. (If you book with Jering, be sure to tell him Katie and Ben sent you!)
When in Ubud, the Monkey Forest is on everyone's list of things to do, and for good reasons. The forest itself is beautiful, with dense, tropical trees shading visitors from the sun. But it's not the trees people come to see, or even the temple inside. It's of course the monkeys that draw the crowds. And they are everywhere!
Keep a close eye on your belongings, because the monkeys are not afraid to steal glasses, water bottles, or just about anything that interests them. Inside the forest, there are a few women selling bunches of bananas (cliché, but true!) for visitors to feed the monkeys. Be careful though, because as soon as you exchange money and have the bananas in hand, monkeys will be swarming you and jumping to get a taste!
Experience it yourself: Just show up here and be ready for a good time. It is open daily from 8:30 am until 6 pm, and entrance tickets cost 30,000 IDR (just over $2 USD) per person.
Kecak Dance at Uluwatu
Uluwatu is perched high on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. Upon entering the grounds, each visitor is required to wear a long purple sarong around their waist. We explored the temple grounds a bit before making our way to the open-air auditorium where the dance was about to begin.
This traditional dance is set to music, yes, but not the kind you'd expect. At the beginning of the performance, a group of men parade into the auditorium making rhythms and melodies with their voices. And they don't stop for the entire show.
Though it started out a bit slow, the second half of the performance was pretty entertaining, and had us laughing out loud at a few points. A story is told through music and dancing, and the backdrop to the performance is the ocean and the setting sun.
Experience it yourself: We found the easiest way to visit Uluwatu was to hire a driver for the day and see a few things around Kuta. Our driver was there waiting for us when the dance was over and brought us right back to our hostel. You can hire a driver the night before at any guesthouse or hotel. The dance starts at 6 p.m. and ticket sales begin an hour earlier. Try to get in early because the good seats go fast. Entrance tickets cost 100,000 rupiahs per person.
Tips: Hustle out of there as soon as the performance is done. Though it doesn't look far on a map, the drive back to Kuta actually takes quite a while, and will take exponentially longer with all the traffic of other tourists heading back.
Release a Baby Sea Turtle
Last year while we were in the Galápagos, Ben and I stumbled upon newly hatched sea turtles making their way out to sea. We thought it was a sight we'd only see once in our lifetime, but luckily for us, we were able to experience this phenomenon for a second time in Bali. And you can too!
During many months of the year, adult sea turtles make the pilgrimage back to the beach at which they were born to lay their own eggs. This can be quite problematic at popular tourist destinations for obvious reasons. The beach in Kuta sprawls on for 5 kilometers and is crawling with people at all times.
Lucky for the turtles, a conservation program was established in 2001 to protect the babies from high tide and careless feet. The Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Centre relocates the eggs so they are hatched in a safe place before being released into the sea.
The man running the center was extremely passionate about his job, and proudly announced that he is the sea turtles "mother", taking care that they make it safely into the ocean. He said that roughly 1 in 1,000 babies survive, making it all that more impressive that he continues this work when the reward is so low.
We each got to release two baby turtles and watch them waddle through the damp sand, leaving adorable footprints... err, flipper prints?... behind. We had to warn a few people absent-mindedly walking by so they didn't step on them, illustrating the importance of the conservation center.
Experience it yourself: You can stop by the conservation center at any time during the day, but if you'd like to release your own turtles, show up a bit before 4:30 pm when people gather to watch the little guys scurry into the ocean. And if you can, plan to bring a little extra cash to donate to the cause. After seeing the work they're doing, you'll want to support in any way you can -- big or small.
Find Paradise on the Gili Islands
These three small islands are just a few hours from Bali by ferry and make a nice side trip for a couple days. Each island has its own vibe, so there is a Gili for every type of traveler.
Quick breakdown of the Gili Islands:
Gili Meno is known for being the least developed and a good place to have some quality R&R away from crowds. Be warned that there isn’t much to do on the island, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it might just be paradise.
Gili Air has beautiful beaches and a little more going on than the former. People often say it is a mix of Meno and Trawangan.
And Gili Trawagan (where we stayed) is the most developed of the three, and is famous for its wild parties. We had a great time, but were a bit disappointed by the beaches (as they were full of coral and made it difficult to walk out very far without wearing shoes).
There are no motorized vehicles on the islands, so everyone walks, rides bikes, or hires horse carriages to get from place to place.
When on Gili Trawangan ("Gili T" for short), be sure to catch the sunset on the west side of the island where you can sip a Bintang (the local beer) while watching the swirling oranges and purples take over the sky.
And don’t leave without getting a picture on the famous swing that sits in shallow ocean waters. If you arrive around sunset, be prepared to wait in line with others who want the same shot. In late afternoon though, we had it all to ourselves.
Experience it yourself: Book your transportation ahead of time because there are only a few ferries a day and they can sell out, especially in high season. Shop around a bit to find the best deal, and be sure it includes a shuttle and ferry there and back. We paid 600,000 IDR per person (roughly $41 USD) for a round trip ticket.
Things to Avoid in Bali
Drinking the (In)Famous Luwak Coffee
Also known as "cat poop coffee", this beverage is said to be the most expensive coffee in the world. We visited two different coffee and tea plantations (as part of other tours), and learned about the process that earns this coffee its name.
These pricey coffee beans have been digested by a luwak (a type of weasel). Yeah, that's right. The animal has eaten the beans, digested them, and, err... defecated. And then these "processed" beans are collected to be cleaned and roasted for a not so ordinary cup 'o joe.
At both plantations, we saw the luwak in small cages with sad, sleepy eyes. We were brought huge samplings of different teas and coffees for free -- coconut, ginger, lemongrass, ginsing, saffron -- so many I can't even remember them all. Being that it's the most expensive coffee in the world, the luwak variety was an additional 50,000 rupiah (about $5 USD). We all shared one glass, passing it around so everyone could get a few sips. It was no doubt good coffee -- strong and robust, which is exactly how I like it -- but to me, it didn't taste much different than a regular arabica bean.
Small bags of the stuff were on sale in the gift shop for $15 USD and up. Apparently, in Western countries it goes for much more. We left both plantations surprised that we got to sample all the delicious teas and coffees and learn about the local plants for free. But I had this nagging feeling that the luwaks are most likely mistreated in order to get the beans for this rare coffee.
After returning from our trip, I did a bit of research and found that my feelings were right. In many of these plantations, the small animals are kept in the small cages we saw day and night and are fed a diet consisting almost exclusively of coffee beans -- not healthy for a human or an animal.
Though the coffee plantation was an interesting experience, it saddened me to learn that visiting essentially supports the mistreatment of these animals. I would recommend looking into the issue a bit more and forming your own opinion before visiting a plantation or drinking the luwak coffee.
I found Tannah Lot to be a bit disappointing. It wasn't ugly or insanely crowded, but I just felt that it was a bit over-hyped. For being the most-visited temple in Bali, it just seemed to lack some sort of "oomph". I'm not suggesting that it's not worth the visit, but if you're pressed for time in Bali, Tannah Lot might be something you could cut without feeling too bad. It's quite a drive from Kuta, and ended up being under-whelming for me, especially after the long drive to get there.
Where to Stay
In Ubud: Ala's Green Lagoon
This guesthouse is surrounded by rice fields, and although you'd swear you're off the beaten path, it's just a short walk to the main street with more restaurants and shops than you can count. The rooms are spacious and have beautiful Balinese touches. We could choose from a selection of breakfast options, which was served with coffee on a balcony overlooking the pool and fields beyond. The staff was friendly and accommodated our large group of 7 people incredibly well. And at a reasonable $23 per night, what more could we ask for?
In Gili Trawangan: Gili Klapa Hostel
This gigantic hostel is located inland and is about a 10-15 minute walk to the beach on either side. The included breakfast is pretty good, and the bathrooms are modern and clean. We got a private 6-bed dorm room which was perfect for our group of friends, but the bigger rooms were massive and seemed like they could get quite noisy with people partying each night.
In Kuta: Kayun Hostel
Note: We spent the last couple days of our trip in Kuta so we we'd be near the airport. We stayed at a great hostel, ate decent food, and saw some cool things. I went in with low expectations, and it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be. But the truth is, I just didn't like Kuta. I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to stay in this grungy city, but you could do worse.
If you're going to be staying there, I would highly recommend Kayun Hostel. Each bed has a curtain and reading light, so you won’t be sacrificing privacy. The pool area is nice, and they seemed to have several private rooms for travelers who want their own space.