Bali is such a popular destination that I don’t know many people around me who have never been there. Over the years, social media – mostly Instagram – has contributed to its success. There is no place more photogenic than Bali, it’s literally impossible to take a bad picture and I was really keen to discover this place everyone was talking about. Over 2 weeks, we stayed in 4 different locations to have a better chance to visit more places: Seminyak (close enough to the airport so ideal to start with), then took a boat to Gili Air (one of the 3 Gili islands close to Bali), Jasri and then Ubud (perfect to round off our trip).
I remember Seminyak for being so crowded. You’ll find an amazing beach at sunset, many cool restaurants dotted around and loads of markets to find clothes and souvenirs. But there are a lot of tourists too, everywhere. It’s one of those places you can hear all sorts of European languages around you and bump into many Australians who are here to party. Seminyak would be for Australians what Ibiza is for Europeans. So we simply enjoyed our quiet villa with our own swimming pool, rather than fighting to find a nice spot at the beach. I feel very old writing this.
In search of a slightly more rustic lifestyle, we took a boat to Gili Air, the smallest of the 3 Gili Islands. We stayed overnight on this tiny island and it was epic to be able to cycle all around it in less than 2 hours (mostly because it’s quite hard to cycle on deep sand…). The island is Muslim – as part of Lombok – so you can hear prayers from the Mosque several times a day (including in the middle of the night) which resonates across the entire island. There are not a lot of inhabitants, they live with almost nothing and yet they seem so happy… Slowly rebuilding everything after the earthquake in 2018.
There was no worse experience than our boat trip back to Bali… Several hours below deck in an overcrowded boat without any AC (fans were also not working), going so fast than we smashed into every wave and I thought I was going to vomit my previous meal (and I’m not usually seasick). We felt like cattle being transported. Visiting the Gili islands is definitely worth it but bear in mind the conditions to get there are not going to be your usual luxury. Don’t forget to read reviews properly before you book your “ferry”, not all companies are equal.
This time we came back to Padang Bay and stayed at Jasri, where it was a lot less touristic than Seminyak. We loved wondering around and about, but you don’t have a lot of autonomy if you’re not local in this area. Our villa did offer services from a chef and a driver, so we used both to make the most of it. Some parts of Bali are more quiet but it also means you need to use extra services, it’s down to you what you prefer!
Because of all the Instagram pictures I’ve seen about the Heaven’s Gate, I really wanted to go there so we booked a day trip with our driver. Let me tell you something, and it’s not going to be pretty but I want to be honest here, this experience is the reason why I would openly say Bali is victim of its success. Too many tourists with specific needs and a thirst for popularity on social media result in Balinese people trying to meet the demand. I kid you not, we queued 2 hours for a picture of us in front of the gates. Not even a real picture, they used a black mirror to create an illusion of water’s reflection under our feet. A bit disappointing for people like us who were in search of a whole experience and not a tourist trap. So I wanted to share a more genuine picture below, same place but no special effects and no lie:
Ubud is probably one of the best areas in Bali, a lot more artsy and cultural. It’s also more central so you can easily stay there for your entire holiday and visit most things from one place (unless you want to stay near a beach). The number 1 attraction is the Sacred Monkey Forest. This place is gorgeous, only problem is it’s full of monkeys (as you would expect) and we didn’t feel 100% comfortable walking around. It’s not enough to store food in your bag, they will rip it open if they have to! They don’t understand privacy and their unpredictable nature was a real challenge for my other half who didn’t enjoy the visit as much as I did. Just saying, in case you’re not a fan of monkeys either.
Ubud is surrounded by rice terraces, but November didn’t seem to be the right time of the year to visit Tegalalang as everything was already harvested. Still worth going, just avoid other tourist traps like swings attached to the trees, that didn’t seem very safe to us. I’m sure it looks great on Instagram though.
We’ve been to many places and took a lot of pictures but we still felt like we didn’t learn much about Balinese culture so we also watched a traditional dance and musical drama from Bali: the Kecak & Fire dance. It was an hour of strange show without musical instrument, just a chorus of men repeating “chak, chak, chak!”. We learnt later that it was to represent an army of monkeys. This is usually performed at sunset and at the end they light up a fire to dance on it.
Among other places you have to visit in Bali: Taman Ujung Water Palace, Tirta Gangga, Taman Ayun Temple, Tanah Lot… Just be aware there are not secret spots (as in literally everyone knows them) so it will be busy from dawn to dusk. And I didn’t even mention Kuta Beach and Nusa Penida.
Bali is the island of the gods and demons. We found small offerings (mini baskets made of banana leaves, filled with pretty flowers and some fruits, sweets and/or cookies) pretty much everywhere on the floor. They are a sacred form of gratitude for peace and abundance in the world from the Balinese people, devoted to their gods. Most of the time, they end up being walked over by tourists or eaten by stray dogs though…
Other random things I’d like to say about Bali:
- It’s not safe to drive there yourself, you need a driver. They negotiate a price for the entire day and you can ask them to drive you anywhere. It’s a great way to talk to a local and ask questions about the culture too.
- In some places there are motorcycles everywhere… Seminyak for example. Some tourists rent them for more freedom but I’ve seen many with bad injuries and again I wouldn’t recommend it. Locals are clearly more comfortable with it and are not bothered carrying 2 adults, 2 kids, a dog and sometimes even loads of extra stuff on it (all at the same time).
- You have to negotiate before you buy clothes in a market. If you don’t, be aware you’ll pay 4 times more than you should… It’s part of the game and it’s actually fun to do. Don’t go too low though, that would be a form of disrespect and they still have to earn money.
- The island relies so much on tourism that any service will be charged. They will do their best to keep you happy though, Balinese are lovely people with a constant smile on their face.
- Don’t drink tap water… It will make you sick. Most villas have a drinking water fountain anyway. Otherwise you can find safe water bottles everywhere but don’t forget to bring some with you when you’re on the road.
- Fruits are what I miss the most from Bali… They’re everywhere thanks to the climate and they’re so good that I find fruits in Europe very bland in comparison. Watermelon and dragon fruits are definitely my favourite.
Bali will always have a special place in my heart because that’s where I got engaged. But I feel we would pick another destination for our honeymoon as its popularity made us feel too much like tourists, when we wanted to enjoy the scenery a bit more incognito. If you’ve been to Bali too, share your experience in the comments below!
Big Girl x