Bali is one of the most exotic–yet affordable–places I’ve ever been. Too bad it’s so far! The flight including layovers was 24 hours long! Tucked away below Singapore and Malaysia, Bali is located in the nest of islands that is Indonesia, right above Australia. The relatively small island (a little bigger than Delaware) has a bustling metropolitan area named Denpasar, but is mostly rural countryside. I was there for two full weeks with my travel buddy on a vacation that we booked through Sayang Holidays for only $2,300, including air, hotel, and daily breakfast. We stayed at the Sanur Beach Hotel located on the southern part of the island. We found that it was a great base for exploring the major attractions. IMHO, here’s the top nine things you must do in Bali!
There’s a temple on every corner is seems, and each has meticulous details and carvings making each unique. The guide books suggested a handful of particularly stunning and popular temples to visit.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu is at the southern tip of the island, perched on a cliff that drops into crashing waves. The temple is a great example of classical Balinese architecture and the view at sunset is surreal. Beware of the monkeys at this place–sure they look cute but they will steal anything they can get their hands on from dangling earrings to flip flops. And you won’t get your stolen item back!
Pura Tirta Empul in Manukaya north of Ubud is a sacred spring temple with rectangular bathing pools. The spouts dispense (cold) holy water in which people shed their clothes and submerge–never mind the somewhat large fish that call the pool home.
Pura Taman Ayun in Mengwi is a substantial moated temple with 11 large towers that are meant to represent the mountains. The grounds are lush and green and a watch tower in the front left corner provides a great view of the entire expanse.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan on Lake Bratan is a temple built on a small island and is dedicated to the goddess of the lake. The mist coming in from the water against the backdrop of dense green mountains behind the temple make for a serene setting.
Pura Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s most visited temples so be prepared for a crowd. Nevertheless, the temple resting on a tiny island about 100 yards from the shore, is worth it. It’s only accessible at low tide by foot. The guide books will warn against going at sunset but honestly that’s the best time to see this gem. It literally glows against the horizon. There’s also a beautiful black sand beach and lots of shops and restaurants to peruse.
Pura Ulun Danu is a sleepy temple on the edge of Mount Batur, the most active volcano in Bali. Although we got to stroll the temple grounds completely alone, it is supposedly one of the most important temples in Bali because it is associated with Lake Batur and the irrigation it provides.
In our travels we also visited Pura Taman Saraswati (gorge!) and Pura Dalem Puri in Ubud, but I didn’t find more than a few sentences on either in the guide books.
The food in Bali was delish and cost a fraction of what it might in the U.S.! A three course meal with drinks could cost as little as $15. We mostly ate in Sanur and I can recommend many great restaurants there, including Jegeg (yummy!), Mezzanine (Asian Fusion), Kamuela Sanur, The Caesar, Tropical, and a French restaurant called CharMing Resto. A typical Balinese meal includes fried rice and chicken satay. For dessert don’t miss the black rice pudding–I would almost be willing to fly 24 hours just for one more bowl of it. I had an AMAZING grilled lobster at Dewata Cafe on Jimbaran Beach (not in Sanur) in Kuta. This deserted beach is perfect for tanning and on a clear day the profiles of all of Bali’s volcanoes are visible from here.
Brace yourself–full body, one hour massages are only $12!! The only thing that kept us from getting a massage every night was the fear of dehydration. Our go-to spot was Jegeg (same as the restaurant) in Sanur. On our last day, we splurged–and by that I mean we spent about $60, to get a massage, yogurt and carrot body wrap, and flower bath at Kamuela Sanur Villas & Spa. It was the perfect way to end our vacation.
We also found a cute little place that offered yoga classes called Manik Organik in Sanur. A yoga enthusiast, I was eager to sign up for a 90-minute session for only about $10. The instructor was skilled and spoke English. Most of the people in the class, which was full, were expatriates and tourists.
4. Ride an Elephant
Riding an elephant isn’t for everyone. As you can imagine, it’s not a very smooth ride. But we enjoyed our jaunt at the Elephant Safari very near to Ubud. There is also a great restaurant there which we ate at and a museum of the elephants and their history. You can feed the elephants also, watch them play in the water, and paint.
5. Bike Riding
A bike is a great way to explore Bali. We rented bikes at our hotel to explore Sanur. There is a walking/ bike path along the beach that connects all the resorts. Along the path there are restaurants, small shops with everything from professional paintings to souvenirs. We took the idea one step further and booked a mountain biking tour through Bali Adventure Tours, and road through the rice patties in Sangeh, near Ubud–through small villages and deserted back roads. The scenery was amazing and our tour guide took us to a Balinese mansion with exotic animals and luxury to die for.
Our mountain bike tour lead us to a monkey forest in Sangeh, where several troupes of long-tailed monkeys live. These monkeys were angels compared to those at Pura Luhur Uluwatu–they even posed for pictures. The workers there will give you nuts to feed the monkeys and take your picture when they climb into your lap or on your head. The photos are a bit expensive (maybe $5) but worth it.
7. Go Shopping
Bali is a shopper’s paradise! There’s Kuta Mall near Denpasar, Poppies I and II (lanes full of boutiques and shops), the Open Air Market in Ubud, and entire villages that specialize in various crafts. I bought some unique and beautiful jewelry in Celuk, there’s the Batik designers in Kemenuh Village, wood carvers in Batubulan, and the Coffee Plantation in Tampaksiring.
8. Go Swimming
I have to say that I wasn’t impressed by the beaches in Bali overall. On some the wind was so strong and the waves were so big that I was afraid to approach the shore. These beaches are better for surfing and bring out that crowd in droves. Others were so shallow they reminded me of a baby pool rather than a beach. The only happy medium I found was Jimbaran Beach, and even the local cab driver had trouble finding it. It’s well off the beaten path.
Fortunately we were lucky enough to take a dip in Gitgit Waterfall. This secluded attraction is quite a hike through the back jungles of Singaraja. You can try finding it on your own or pay a local guide. We opted for the latter. He was nice and even took pictures for us and carried our bags (we gave them to him with some skepticism). He really could have stole everything and left us to fend for ourselves, but instead he was nice and respectful–he even turned his back when we removed our clothes to dive into the waterfall. The journey is a bit rough so by the time you arrive at the waterfall you’ll be ready for an ice cold plunge.
9. Take in the Culture
You can’t help but be immersed in and intrigued by Balinese culture. The people are very spiritual and small offerings litter the sidewalks and decorate the temples. There’s a lot of history at your fingertips–at the Museum Puri Lukisan and the Puran Saren Royal Palace in Ubud. We saw a traditional Barong and Kris dance in Denpasar at a small theater that was enjoyable–even hilarious. We stumbled upon a Full Moon Procession in a small town, a traditional wedding on the beach in Jimbaran, and a death ceremony at Pura Tanah Lot. My favorite experience was at the Gunung Kawi Royal Monuments in Tampaksiring, where we saw men working the rice field, women weaving offerings and baskets, and young boys stark naked diving in the frigid water.
It’s possible to enjoy Bali on less than $50 per day. To get to most places not too far from the hotel a cab might cost less than $5. For the more far-flung locations, $50 will get you a driver for the entire day! Our driver was Austi (mobile: 081 246 818 27) and he was patient, a cautious driver, and well-informed (although he spoke little English). He took us to all the best places, picked us up on time, and delivered us safely back at night.
There’s much more to do in Bali–we didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s volcano hiking, boating, camel riding, bungee jumping, surfing, diving, and an assortment of other water sports. It truly is paradise–for the budget conscious.