When I was living in Bali, my mailbox was flooded with e-mails from friends and acquaintances planning a trip to the island of gods, asking me which spots to hit. I probably should have written a standard answer to copy paste in every reply but just thinking about these places got me so excited, I didn’t mind carefully hand-picking the places that would suit my correspondents. Today, the same question continues to pop up regularly in my inbox and I’ve noticed I tend to recommend the same places on a loop. Anyone can open up a guide book or browse the internet for ‘things to do in Bali’, but these are the picks I recommend acquaintances, friends and readers.
Scooter trip Tirta Gangga to Amed & Bathing in Tirta Gangga’s holy water
Eastern Bali is an excellent area to drive around by scooter. The little roads lead you through picturesque villages and breathtaking landscapes. Somewhere in the midst of it all lies the ‘Tirta Gangga Water Palace’. Though the palace is alluring, it’s the soak in holy water that adds “pazzaz” to the scene. Spend the night in one of the charming guest houses in Tirta Gangga and visit the palace very early in the morning, before the day trippers arrive. There is something transcendental about taking a dip in a pool of sacred water surrounded by nothing else but sounds of nature awakening. From there drive to Amed and take in the natural beauty as well as scenes of rural Bali.
Learn to dive in Tulamben
If you’re a seasoned diver, you might not love any of the dive spots in Bali. It’s just not the most impressive place to scuba. There are however, some beautiful submarine sites worth exploring.
Tulamben lends itself superbly as a place to get scuba certified. The fish and coral are both bountiful and colourful, there is excellent visibility and the water is warm. Right by the shore, at only a few meters depth lies a shipwreck in outstanding condition. It’s one of the few places where you have the opportunity to ship wreck dive as a beginner. Most of the dive spots are near the shore, so there’s no need to jump off a boat; you can just shuffle your way to the sea and gradually ease into deeper waters. Ideal for a nervous beginner. Not into diving? You can access some parts of the wreck by snorkelling too!
Exploring Jatiluwih rice terraces on foot
The rice terraces of Jatiluwih reflect the beauty of the Balinese agriculture. I drove to the UNESCO protected fields using the back roads and found myself at a non-official entrance. The only other people there were the occasional farmers working the land. Get got off the scooter/car and walk through the paddies of endless green. The further you walk, the less people and the better the experience.
Coffee, cloves and strawberries in Munduk
Anyone referring to Bali as an over-touristed hellhole, clearly hasn’t been to the Northern part of the island. In Munduk the air is cool and the soil is fertile. Perfect circumstances to cultivate coffee, strawberries and cloves. Munduk may be different from typical Balinese towns, nonetheless it’s not very memorable. It’s where the dutch held mountain retreats during colonial times to escape the Indonesian heat. That is still the main reason to head up there; a breath of fresh air, the hilly scenery, the waterfalls, the coffee plantations and eating strawberry covered everything -even pizza.
A Deep soul massage in Ubud
Ubud is a great hub to explore the verdant centre of the island. Base yourself here and enjoy all it has to offer: culture, art, spas, every type of yoga you can imagine, meditation, healing, delightful guest houses, organic restaurants catering to every allergy/food trend… Be warned, the town is extremely touristed. However it’s not too hard to get away from the over-commercialised areas and activities. As long as you know to expect a tiny but busy 10-street city, you won’t mind the crowed centre of Ubud too much. Let your hair down, join a yoga class, get a massage and a flower bath, eat an organic meal accompanied by a health shake and have a chat with locals. All the while wearing loose flowy pants and flipflop. Groovy?
Sunset in Pantai Suluban
Narrow steps in between cliffs bring you down to this tiny beach which disappears with high tide. The setting between the tall escarpment, the soft sand between your toes and unbelievably talented surfers riding impressive waves in the backdrop; It all comes together magnificently when the sun starts to sink in the sea. Strangely enough I didn’t carry my camera with me when I caught my favourite sunset in Bali! Perhaps that’s what made it even more enjoyable?
Snorkelling with manta rays on Lembogan island
Nusa Lembongan is a small, tranquil island where you can truly spoil yourself. Be it with stylish yet affordable accommodation or with cliff hung spa’s overlooking the turquoise sea. Still, the best treat Lembongan has to offer is that of underwater splendour. Experienced divers may be able to encounter mola mola (giant moon fish) given the right season. But not all is reserved for divers. In fact all you need is a mask, a snorkel and a pair of fins. Try “drift snorkelling” where currents do the heavy paddling for you and carry you crossed the corals. Marvel at what looks like the worlds biggest aquarium drifting by and with you. The absolute highlight is snorkelling with 2 meter wide manta rays: so exhilarating!
Beach Bumming on the Gili islands
Although technically not Bali but Lombok, the Gili islands are often visited as part of a trip to Bali. And they should. It’s THE place to be for the classic exotic beach vacation. No motorised vehicles, rustic shacks serving food and drinks, parties, beaches and all that goes with it. There are three Gili islands with very different personalities to chose from. Check out my Gili post to find out which one is right for you.
Sunrise atop or at the foot of Mount Batur
Scaling Mt Batur to see the sun come up is one of the top attractions in Bali. Fit hikers can reach the summit (1717m) in a short two hour climb and can enjoy the sunrise from the top of an active volcano. However, I found that hanging around the slopes of Mt. Batur is just as pleasant. You can watch the sunrise from the foot of the volcano by the crater lake, have breakfast on its hillsides and bathe in the surrounding hot springs. Either way the Kintamani region promises a spectacular scenery.
For the insane: ascending Mount Agung
As I mentioned above, the most popular volcano sunrise trek is on Mt. Batur. Let me just say this, from the top of Mt. Agung, Batur looks like a joke. Mt. Agung (3031 m) is the holiest place in Bali and although the Balinese tolerate foreigners ascending it, they themselves will not do so. It’s just that sacred. The climb starts around midnight and takes about 7 hours. From the top you have views over the entire island and you can even spot Lombok’s coastline and volcanoes. It’s a strenuous climb, to say the least and an even more taxing, somewhat dangerous descent. Pray for clear skies. If you’re looking for a physical challenge, this is it. I’ll admit it, I cried of desperation during this hike but I don’t regret doing it. Would I do it again? Nope!
For more “insane” activities in Bali, read my article “5 quirky things to do in Bali“.
Bali is packed with remarkable places, secret beaches, stunning temples, lush green valleys… So wherever you decide to go, there is no wrong answer. Except Kuta. Please, stay away from Kuta. It’s crowded, polluted, full of drunk teenagers, pimps and dealers. Mc Donalds, O’Neil and other chain companies rule the town. It’s the only part of Bali I really disliked.
One last tip: as you know by now, Bali is full of tourists, at times too full. I recommend you to visit the more popular sites as early in the morning as you possibly can. This is the only way to avoid the crowds and not return home pissed that you’ve seen too many -insert Western nationality. True, waking up at the crack of dawn is no pick-nick but if it means having ancient sites to yourself and the best lighting for photos, it’s 100% worth it! Don’t worry, there is always a quaint café nearby where you can take a nap later during the day.
Which part of Bali have you enjoyed visiting or would you like to visit?