Bali is a destination that seems to split opinion. Many flock their due to its popularity, especially backpackers and Australian tourists. Others avoid it like the plague exactly because of that, considering it to be too touristy and lacking in real culture. The truth is we were very interested to visit to see the reality between what Bali really is, after visiting pretty much every corner of South East Asia, from remote villages to busy westernised cities as well as many other areas of Indonesia we had a great perspective. What we discovered was a diverse island with many areas that appeal to everyone. Sure there are the tacky bars, overpopulation of tourists and an influx of western culture… but that is only is a small area of the island. The rest is filled with villages, unique culture, beautiful landscapes, quiet beaches and isolated waterfalls! Here’s our guide to authentic Bali!
Bali: More than just one tourist filled town, but real authentic Bali!
One of the main misconceptions when it comes to Bali is the size and make up of the place. Bali isn’t a town, it is an island of 5,780 km² made up of many various and different towns and villages from Kuta, to Ubud, Canggu, Sanur and Nusa Dua as well many others. Each area of the island has completely different characteristics, some are tourists hubs, beach towns, full of western shops and restaurants. Others are very rural, mountainous, filled with villages and local Hindu temples. Some areas of the island are very isolated, others quite developed, the weather and landscape changes from hot, humid and sunny to cold, cloudy and fresh.
Where to stay in Bali
Making the most out of your time in Bali and also importantly getting the right impression of the island depends highly on staying in the right location.
Many people do head over to Bali for a traditional beach holiday, especially Australian families and young adults looking for a relaxing break or a party on the beach. Though this isn’t our way of travelling this still has it’s place and Bali is of course perfect for this. Staying down on the beach in Kuta and Seminyak you will be surrounded by lively western style clubs, hotels and restaurants and only a short walk from many beaches and great surf spots. It is no wonder many on their first trips abroad flock to this area where they can take still be surrounded by familiar culture.
For a great mixture of local culture, landscape with peace and quiet combined with smaller independent restaurants, boutique hotels and general amenities, Ubud took it for us as the best place to stay. It’s location also means that it is close to many amazing places to see in Bali and also quite central so exploring the rest of the island is easy. Ubud is a great place to see the real authentic side of the island as well as having the option to stay in some amazing Bali villas surrounded by rice paddies too.
Guide to the best of Bali: Both the popular and off the beaten track spots
Hire a scooter and search for the amazing waterfalls
Hiring a scooter is the ultimate way to see all Bali has to offer. Public transport on the island isn’t great and tours are overpriced and rushed. Hiring a scooter in Asia for the first time might been daunting, but compared to the rest of South East Asia Bali is very safe and the traffic outside of Kuta pretty relaxed. Over here it is cheap and easy to organise and everywhere on the island is accessible for a day trip. Just make sure you have maps on your phone and internet if you can as some of the road layouts can mean long return journeys back to the right turning!!
Bali is an island of lush mountain scenery, jungles hugging the sides of active volcanos and as a result many stunning waterfalls. As with Bali there are many different experiences you can have at the waterfalls in Bali, some are very popular, lined with shops on the walk down and quite over bearing. Other waterfalls around the island involve trekking through isolated jungles in areas of the island that are quite difficult to access. There is a waterfall for everyone over here and many that combine the best of both worlds by being in remoter areas of the island but with tracks made for visitors. This is a great way to see the authentic Bali and some beautiful spots too.
Some of the more off the beaten track waterfalls that are still very accessible are:
Munduk Waterfall, Aling Aling Waterfall
For the more adventurous:
Sekumpul Waterfall, NungNung Waterfall
Of course, there are many many more. So get exploring. This is a great post on some of the best waterfalls Bali has to offer: Best waterfalls in Bali
Head for the mountains
Heading to Bali you might think you are in for just a standard beach holiday! But if you prefer your travel to be a little bit more on the adventurous side then Bali is also perfect for you. The Indonesian Islands are full of volcanos, many still active and Bali is no different. Here you can take single and multi day trekking trips up into the mountains to climb the highest peaks of Mt Agung and Batur where you will find the climate to be very different to the coastal areas of the island.
Even if you don’t fancy a long hike you can still take your scooter up into the higher altitude areas of the islands and see how the landscape and way of life changes in the true authentic Bali. Visit some of the many waterfalls mentioned above, some of which have rock slides, canyoning and jumps or see some of the wonderful lakes up in the hills too.
Discover the unique culture of Balinese Hinduism in the many temples
Bali has a very unique culture not only for Indonesia but for the world and is a result of the fascinating history of this region. Whilst Indonesia is the worlds most populous Muslim country, Bali is still Hindu and has been for thousands of years. The result of this religion existing here for so long alongside indigenous cultures is a unique Balinese Hinduism that involves many traditions that survive today. If you head out of the areas around Kuta it is easy to see many traditional festivals and ceremonies around places such as Ubud, locals wearing sarongs and folded head scarfs, this is authentic Bali!
There are over 20,000 Pura (Balinese for Temple) on Bali. Many are large public temples with washing pools, tranquil gardens and huge Pelinggih Merus (Like pagodas!) constructed still from natural materials in the traditional fashion. Many have highly detailed carving on every surface and gateways with intricate images of the guardians and gods of the spiritual religion. Each family will also have their own personal temple still based on the Tri Mandala concept of Balinese space allocation for even the smallest of designs!
As we’ve already established with Bali when it comes to things to see there are always the very popular and busy places and then there are the much lesser known gems that take a little bit more effort to visit. The temples of Bali all offer difference and unique experiences, architecture and atmosphere.
Some of the not to be missed are:
Tanah Lot: Set on an island off the rocky coast it is only accessible at low tide
The Besakih Temple: The largest temple on the island and a long ride out to the north of the island. Watch for the scammers though!
Pura Tirta Empul: The amazing water purification temple
Pura Ulun Danu Beratan: Set on the water its iconic towers and pavilions on the mountainous lake are a perfect setting that appears on the 50,000 Rupiah note!
Pura Dalem Agung: The famous monkey temple of Ubud
Goa Gajah: The 9th century Elephant Cave
Gunung Kawi: The awe inspiring 23ft high carved shrines that sit inside the mountain side and surrounded by lush rice terraces
Ubud Palace: Much more than a temple, the heart of this traditional town where many ceremonies are held.
There are of course thousands of other temples to visit, many of the best are just sitting along the roadside as you explore this island where you can just pull up and take a look, usually having it all to yourself.
Remember to wear a sarong or long trousers for both men and women when visiting temples and cover your shoulders to respect the Balinese culture.
Visiting the many beautiful rice terraces
You’ve probably guessed there is a theme here. The brilliance of Bali is that of all the different things to do and see there are always several options that range from the easy and popular to the more remote and quieter. It really means all bases are covered and visiting the many rice terraces that characterise this island is another example of that.
Like much of South East Asia, the rice growing industry is one that has existed in Bali for thousands of years. The amazing rice terraces are not only an amazing visual spectacle but also a marvel of engineering especially given just how long they have been here. The traditional farming methods are still alive today and given the mountainous terrain of the island they are still the most effective way to grow rice in this challenging environment. Things may have changed over the years in Bali with the rise of tourism, but for many of the people who live in the more remote areas of the island live remains very much the same and these terraces are a piece authentic Bali life!
Tegallalang Rice Terraces in Ubud are one of the most popular but don’t let that put you off, people flock here for a good reason! The huge steep terraces spread out along the hillside with their lush green sprouting leaves punctuated by a forest of palm trees. You can still find many local people tilling the fields and terraces using traditional techniques. It really is both a fascinating and beautiful place to explore and if you walk a little further than where most people congregate its quite easy to find a wonderful view all to yourself!
Jatiluwih rice terraces are a little further out and less visited but consists of a stunning and dramatic landscape that spans an awesome vista. These ancient terraces are some of the most stunning on the island and in the region as a whole.
Attend some of the fascinating Balinese festivals
The unique blend of culture in Bali means that nearly every week there is some kind of festival, from smaller local affairs to one that take over entire towns or even the island! Speaking to local people and doing some research means that if you want to dive into the colourful and loud traditions of Bali then there should be plenty of chances!
Whilst in Ubud, which has quite a strong traditional spirit, we attended a huge funeral procession. Rather than a sombre and sad affair it was a festival of celebration, music and dancing filled the streets alongside huge constructions to be burnt alongside the woman who had passed. She was apparently a well respected member of the religious community in Ubud and this was a time to reflect on a life well lived alongside the rest of the town. This is a great way to see authentic Bali and real life!
Explore the vast and varied coastline from surfing to dirt biking
Of course, Bali isn’t just all about the mountains, temples, festivities and rice terraces… there is the amazing beaches too! Many are initially drawn here for the endless coastline that goes from popular beaches just off the main strip of Kuta to wild jagged and isolated cliffs. There really is something for everyone once again and a place to enjoy the different vibes and activities that the coast can bring.
Bali is famous for its world class surfing and its no wonder so many Australians are tempted away from their own amazing coastline to head over here. Right by the main towns there are some awesome breaks and plenty of places to rent out all kinds of boards, take lessons and also rent a scooter with a board wrack too if you want to explore further a field.
Bali also has some incredible black sand beaches made as a result of the volcanic region in which it sits. This means that just a few KM apart you can go from a white sand paradise to a dramatic black beach, perfect for dirt biking! Just another way on Bali to enjoy the incredible coast lines!
Don’t forget too that just because there isn’t a beach that doesn’t mean the coast isn’t still wonderfully beautiful. Along Bali’s shoreline there are many amazing and rugged cliffs offering dramatic views over the landscape, rock pools, blow holes and unique places of worship.
Meet the locals: The wildlife that is!
Bali is a place for a bit of fun too and where the monkeys across South East Asian can be a bit scary, the ones here in the Ubud monkey forest are a little more tame! This forest infested with these cheeky monkeys is actually a temple in their honour. The scared area was built to achieve peace between humans, animals and the environment and so interaction is encouraged as part of this spiritual Hindu belief system.
However you can just enjoy this serine and lush forest without having a monkey use you as a climbing frame if you don’t quite fancy it! However you chose to visit this fascinating place you will find it a pretty intriguing and unique experience!
Visit the surrounding islands!
Bali is also in a great location to explore some of the other areas of Indonesia. Firstly there is the massive island of Java to the west which can be reached at its far end by a 30 minute ferry from Bali. On here you can quite easily head to the amazing volcanos of Bromo and Ijen on public transport or a tour. These are truly stunning examples of the volcanic landscape of Indonesia and are absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful. You can also very easily head further across Java over a longer period of time to places like Yogyakarta and Jakarta.
Read more here:
To the east there are several amazing islands to visit. The closest and easiest to get to are Lombok and the Gili islands. Lombok itself is a really interesting place to visit and quite different to Bali. Here there are far less tourists and many more small rural villages up in the mountains including many traditional Sasak tribal settlements. Lombok also has its share of amazing nature to take in too, from yet more white sand beaches, immense waterfalls and the two day hike up Mt. Ringjani, another wonderful live volcano!
Read about getting to these islands here:
Off the coast of Lombok there are three tiny islands, the Gili islands. These are absolutely paradise, an cheap too! The islands have no cars, sandy roads, perfectly clear turquoise waters, wild sea turtles, white sand beaches and a laid back hippy vibe!
Read more about them here:
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