Backpackers love Bali. It’s an easy destination to visit with a strong tourism infrastructure, lots of cool things to do, beautiful beaches, a spiritual vibe, cheap living and awesome tropical surroundings. Because of this the island has developed a bit of a reputation for being overrun with travellers but you’ll find the Balinese sensitive of the importance of preserving their culture while still welcoming new visitors and returnees with open arms every year.
When I visited I travelled from Kuta to Seminyak to Ubud and then out of Bali onto the Gili Islands and Lombok via boat. Each place I visited in Bali had a different vibe. Kuta is for the party people, Ubud for the spiritual or entrepreneurial travellers, and Seminyak was somewhere in between, with more of a luxury vibe.
With stunning beaches, rugged mountains and incredible historical and religious architecture, Bali is definitely one of the most picturesque and interesting places I’ve visited.
Visiting Bali on Your Gap Year
Where to go and what to see
Bali’s culture is inextricably intertwined with its religious beliefs, which reflect on every aspect of daily life. Treasured practices include rainbow-coloured flower petal offerings, pulse-pounding Gamelan orchestras and dizzyingly disciplined traditional dancers.
To experience all this first hand you should visit a Hindu temple. Bali’s largest and most sacred Hindu temple, Pura Besakih, in the east of the island at the foot of Mount Agung is as memorable for its breathtaking architecture as it is for the hordes of locals trying to extricate ‘donations’ from visitors.
If you prefer your temples more spiritual, less financial, the ancient site of Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) is a must-see. This 9th century Buddhist retreat provides not only amazing views but also a grotto of elaborate stone carvings and pretty water gardens – all in all a more relaxing experience.
The best beaches in Bali are usually cited as Nusa Dua Beach, Kuta Beach and Sanur Beach, but if you can, head out to some of the lesser known ones like Balangan Beach, Crystal Bay and Balian Beach, where you’ll be rewarded with more space, cleaner sand and the feeling that you’ve found a piece of Bali for yourself.
If you’ve ever seen Eat Pray Love (be warned, there’s a whole industry built up around Julia Roberts’ character’s time in Bali here, you’ll be sick of it!) you’ll know that Bali is a spiritual place too. This is your chance to visit a witch doctor, to practise your downward dog with a yoga class in tropical surroundings or to join an ‘ecstatic dance’ class. You need to experience that last one for yourself.
One of my favourite things I did in Bali was cycling down Mount Batur in Ubud. We were driven to the top of the volcano and dropped off with a bike and some breakfast before cycling down the 1717 metre slope. And when I say ‘cycling’, what I mean is sit on your bike as you travel through villages and rice paddies with no need to peddle the bike whatsoever. The incline is so steep I think I only did about five rotations on the peddles for the whole time.
I also took advantage of the opportunity to visit the coffee plantations in Ubud. I tried the famous civet poo coffee, Kopi Luwak. It’s basically made from coffee beans digested by civets and then ‘released’ to be made into the most expensive coffee in the world.
The absolute best thing I did in Bali, though, was to hire a moped and cruise around Kuta and Seminyak, I loved it. Looking back now and having heard the reactions from friends, I now wonder if it was a little dangerous, but I felt totally in control and the traffic never moved that fast anyway. It was great to be able to depend on myself after having to rely on bus drivers, planes and taxis for so long. Freedom!
Best times of year to visit Bali
Bali has distinct seasons. The very humid monsoon season lasts from October to March, when daily rainfall and low cloud can reduce all visibility for prolonged periods – not great for sightseeing! I visited in early March and there were a few downpours that meant I couldn’t go out, but there were also some beautiful days to enjoy seeing the island bathed in sun too. I’d definitely recommend going a little later, though, to make the most of your time there.
The cooler, drier season between April and October has temperatures reaching the low 30s on a daily basis. To save money but still enjoy good weather, take advantage of one of Bali’s two low seasons for the best deals on accommodation and the best of the weather, either mid-January to the end of June, or mid-September to just before Christmas.
Getting around Bali
Bali’s main airport is Ngurah Rai International, eight miles from the island’s capital, Denpasar. Although small by international standards, it’s considered one of the best airports in the world, and has international and domestic terminals separated by the stunning Festival Plaza. Outgoing international visitors are subject to airport tax of 150,000 IDR (around £7.50) and if you’re flying to the outlying islands you’ll pay a domestic departure tax of 30,000 IDR (around £1.50). These taxes are only payable in the local currency.
Ngurah Rai Airport Taxis are the only licensed cabs permitted to operate from the airport and charge on a ‘fixed price fixed point’ basis – look out for drivers in their distinctive blue patterned shirts. If anyone else approaches you, be wary, they could be operating illegally and won’t have insurance.
As I said earlier, renting a motorbike is the best way to travel the island and it’s also the cheapest. It costs between 30,000-50,000 IDR (£3-5) per day to hire one. Just to note, you’ll need a driving license, or you’ll get a hefty fine if you get busted. A full tank of fuel costs around £2, and you get to visit one of these awesome ‘garages’ to fill up.
If you don’t fancy taking the driving seat yourself you can hail an ‘ojek’ (motorbike with driver) pretty much anywhere and negotiate a fixed price to be taken wherever you want on the island.
Finding accommodation in Bali
By law, Bali hotels must levy a combined tax and service charge – known locally as ‘plus plus’ – typically 21%. Budget hotels and hostels usually include it in the total price but it’s good to ask to avoid a nasty surprise at check-out.
Most backpackers head for Kuta on arrival in Bali. As well as being just a short drive from the airport, it’s famous (some would say infamous) for being Bali’s party capital. Okay so Kuta’s not going to give you a dose of authentic Balinese culture but it has a great backpacker scene and it’s the ideal base to start your exploration of the island.
Whatever your budget, there’s a hostel to match it in Kuta. At the bargain basement end of the market, Ayu Beach Inn, centrally located in the Poppies Lane district of Kuta, starts at 150,000 IDR (around £7) per night and has a pool but no air conditioning. If you need it, you can find cheaper, but remember you get what you pay for. Good luck!
If you’ve a bit more to spend, you could try one of the two Kayun hostels in the town centre. Both are a stone’s throw from the bars and clubs of Legian Street and within walking distance of Kuta Beach. These lively hostels start from 250,000 IDR (around £12) a night and have excellent facilities including a common room to hang out in, free Wi-Fi and pools.
Eating in Bali
First off, be like the locals and eat at the roadside cafes, known as Warungs. They serve amazing food, buffet-style. For a fixed price you can get a good meal plus the chance to try some authentic Balinese cuisine. The locals love Warungstoo, so choose a busy one – the food’s guaranteed to be good but watch out staff don’t inflate the bill just because you’re a visitor.
Warung Bali at Kuta’s night market is a firm favourite, serving up delicious seafood and Chinese for less than a quid. Craving a Maccy Ds? Warung Wulan, Kuta, has burger and chips for 21,000 IDR (£1), and at Bamboo Corner, a tiny cafe on Poppies Lane, you can get the delicious Indonesian national dish, Nasi goreng for 7,000 IDR (30p).
Shopping in Bali
The shopping in Bali, like everything else, is brilliant – even if you’re on a budget. If you’ve got a bit of money to spend, avoid the usual sarongs and tie-dye t-shirts and opt for something uniquely Bali instead.
Bali is fast becoming famous for sustainable and ethically conscious consumerism. Natural dyes, local ingredients and cottage industries abound, with several local brands working hard to alleviate poverty and preserve Balinese culture. Ono Creations (gorgeous bags), Smile Clothing (men’s and women’s beachwear) and Threads of Life(Indonesian batik textiles) all advocate sustainability and can be found here.
Top five experiences in Bali
1. Leave the hustle and bustle of Kuta behind for a day and get contemplative at Nusa Dua Beach. Wander the palm-fringed shoreline and pay a visit to the twin temples… yes, it’s pretty much paradise here.
2. When in Kuta… do shots on every floor of the famous Skygarden Lounge.We recommend you start at the top and work your way down or you may never come out again!
3. Learn why the Balinese are known as the friendliest people on earth. Go for food at a Warungand get to know the locals in their favourite place.
4. Chill out at Balian Beach – this little resort is one of Bali’s best kept secrets but, thanks to some great surf, it’s getting more and more attention. A beach bar and a few delicious Warungs make for low-key nightlife and a relaxed friendly vibe.
5. See the sunrise from volcanic Mount Batur. It’s an early start but an easy ascent; well worth it for the view of the placid lake below mirroring the mighty mountain in the first light of dawn.