• The real Bali: not idyllic, but will charm you anyway

When I decided to visit Bali I was nearly reaching the end of my 5-month trip around Southeast Asia. I didn’t have an itinerary for most of the trip, so I could have decided to go anywhere.

Yet, for some reason, I decided to go to Bali. I hadn’t really researched the place, so the only reason I can think of is the name, Bali, itself.

The word “Bali” carries some magic power, a mystical allure and a host of connotations: tropical paradise, pristine, white sand beaches, verdant terraces, and food for the soul. That’s how I imagined it, anyway.

After spending two weeks on the island, I came to the conclusion that the tropical paradise image of Bali may have conformed to reality in the past, but not anymore.

Fresh coconut, Bali

True, maybe Bali deserves some of the bad press it’s getting lately. Traffic is horrible thanks to narrow roads and way too many scooters; pollution and waste are a problem, there are taxi touts everywhere, and the most well-known beaches look anything but idyllic. That last bit, I knew in advance, so I didn’t go to Bali looking for postcard-pretty, white sand beaches. I only spent a couple of days in Sanur and found it pleasant but average as beaches go, and nothing I read before or after my trip to Bali has made me regret my initial decision to totally skip Kuta and Seminyak.

And yet, Bali has so much to offer that it’d be crazy to pass up the opportunity to discover it. If it’s natural beauty you’re looking for, Bali has it in spades, and you can find it in its verdant rice paddies and imposing volcanoes.

If you’re interested in culture and traditions, Bali will amaze you with its uniquely rich cultural heritage and identity. Despite all those articles claiming that Bali may have lost its soul, I found it alive and kicking almost everywhere I went on the island.

The best part is that, in my experience, Balinese people are a friendly, open and chatty bunch. So, if you’re curious about any aspect of their culture, or want to learn how to say something in their language, you only need to ask and they’ll be happy to oblige.

(All photos are © Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).

Balinese woman wearing traditional costume and offerings basket

Let’s discuss with some detail what makes Bali a one-of-a-kind destination that no traveler should miss:

A unique brand of Hinduism that permeates all aspects of life

Granted, if you’re, like me, not a very religious person, you may be inclined to think “meh”. But religion in Bali, a unique mix of Hinduism and pre-existing animist beliefs, manifests itself in the form of captivating art and colorful rituals full of symbolism.

Some of these rituals are conducted daily, like the Balinese custom of making fresh offerings (sesajen) to please gods and demons. These offerings are usually made of organic materials like flowers, fruit, betel nuts, pandan leaves and rice cakes placed in a square palm-leaf container. If you walk around Bali you will find them everywhere: on the sidewalks, at family compound gates, in temples, on the beach, at crossroads… and they are replaced every single day.

Sesajen, traditional Balinese offering to gods and demons

In addition to that, the Balinese love their ceremonies and festivals. Because they follow not one, not two, but three different calendars, and there are thousands of temples on the island (more on that below), there are ceremonies and festivals of various importance pretty much every day. Many of these, even cremation ceremonies, are open to the public; so if you visit Bali and want to attend one, just ask at your hotel or guesthouse and they’ll inform you.

Balinese man making religious offerings for ceremony

Unusual, but charming, social customs and family traditions

As I just mentioned, Balinese people follow three calendars. How incredible is that? In addition to the international calendar, they have two others: saka (12 months of 30 days) and pawukon (6 months of 35 days). Each of these two calendars contains a host of holy days, as well as auspicious days for any events and activities of daily life you can imagine: planting a tree, getting a haircut (yep), plowing the fields, building a house, digging a well, starting a business or getting married, to name but a few.

Another unique feature of Balinese culture is marked on one of these calendars: Nyepi (“day of silence”). On this day, the Balinese celebrate the New Year by staying at home and avoiding all kinds of activities and distractions that require too much light or make noise, since the main purpose of this day is meditation. It may sound over the top, like some pumped up version of a digital detox; but the more I think about it, the more I find that most of us could benefit from dedicating a whole day to reflection at least once a year.

And what about Balinese names? The first three Balinese people I met when I arrived in Bali were called “Wayan”, but I didn’t think twice about it and simply thought it was a very common name in Bali.

There was more to it, though. In fact, not only Balinese people don’t generally have family names; they also name their children depending on their birth order. So every firstborn child (boy or girl) is named Wayan, Putu or Gede, every second child is named Made or Kadek, and so on until the fourth child, where they start all over again. Only people from a caste (although the Balinese caste system nowadays seems a much more relaxed affair than in India) don’t follow these rules. It is therefore not surprising that many Balinese people go by a nickname. Now you know why you shouldn’t probably call out “Wayan!” in the middle of a busy street in Ubud.

I first heard these and many other amusing facts about Balinese culture from (yes, you guessed it) Wayan, an incredibly funny and entertaining driver I hired a couple of times to go sightseeing around the island.

Wayan told me tons of other things I don’t remember, even though at some points I was furiously typing notes on my phone as he spoke. He explained to me that Balinese families don’t normally eat together, except in celebrations; that there are different levels in Balinese language which are used depending on who you’re talking to (by the way, Balinese is different from the Bahasa language spoken in the rest of the country); the different kinds of temples in Bali and their purposes, and much more.

If only for this, and for the fact that traffic in Bali is positively awful (and, I’d say, dangerous for most people without prior scooter or motorbike experience), I would recommend hiring a driver at least for one day in Bali. It’s great value for money and an excellent way to explore the island. For reference, after some bargaining I payed Wayan 450,000 rupiah (36 Euro/40 USD) for a whole day driving around. I’m terrible at bargaining so you might be able to get a lower price; and even if you don’t, if you’re traveling with someone and sharing the cost, it’s an even better deal.

Traditional Balinese pavilions

Beautiful traditional architecture

Architecture in Bali is beautiful, and, despite its similarities with other Asian styles, very much unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The distinctive traits of Balinese architecture are obvious from the moment you set foot on the island. I arrived in Bali by ferry from Java, and I’ll never forget the instant impression I had of being in a different culture altogether.

Balinese sculpture

Traditional Balinese architecture is intricate, baroque almost, but at the same time it feels organic. It’s really hard to explain for me, but at times it vaguely reminded me of Gaudi’s style, despite the numerous and obvious differences.

Typical Balinese family houses, particularly those belonging to well-off families, are walled compounds with gorgeous courtyards gardens, statues, temples, shrines and pavilions. In places like Ubud there are dozens of these houses. You can enter the courtyards and wander around freely (another proof of the open and welcoming character of the Balinese) while admiring the gorgeous landscaped gardens and pavilions.

Sculpture and garden in traditional Balinese compound

Temples are another must-visit attraction in Bali. As mentioned above, there are thousands of them on the island, both private and public. Every village in Bali has three public temples (pura) dedicated to different deities (the Hinduist trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and functions.

If you travel to Bali, make sure to visit a few of the main temples, as they are all beautiful and some of them are situated in stunning locations.

Pura Besakih, located at the foot of Gunung Agung volcano (see below), is the most important temple in Bali. It has a well-deserved reputation for trying all sorts of scams on visitors (additional fees for cameras, “voluntary” donations and so on), as well as aggressive touts and guides who insist you need a guide to visit the temple. You really don’t, but if you get tired of being asked, like I did, you can hire one for 50,000 (about 3 euros/US dollars). If you run a Google search, you’ll find different experiences, many of them negative, from people who have visited Besakih, so be warned. Despite all the hassle, the temple is worth visiting.

Main entrance to Besakih Temple, Bali

Pura Tanah Lot is another temple I recommend you visit. It is an extremely popular spot to watch the sunset, though, and crowds can get a little overwhelming and detract from the experience. I arrived there in late afternoon, and was disappointed not just by the crowds, but also by the position of the sun, which in my opinion was not the best to photograph the temple (though I’m sure you could get some nice silhouette shots), so I decided not to stay until sunset proper. Next time I’ll definitely go in the morning to beat the crowds, and I’d recommend you do the same. In comparison, Pura Ulun Danu Beratan is a much more relaxed experience, and the temple looks gorgeous sitting on the shores of Lake Beratan.

Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, Bali

Stunning natural and man-made scenery

Although Java and Sumatra are paradise for volcano lovers, northern Bali is also pretty impressive in this department. For starters, there’s Gunung Agung (gunung means “mount” in Indonesian), at just over 3000m the highest peak on the island, and considered by the Balinese to be the center of the universe. Actually, in Balinese religion all mountains are thought to be home to gods and therefore considered sacred. It was pretty cloudy when I went near Agung to visit Besakih temple, but if you are luckier than me, you’ll see some stunning scenery.

View of Mt. Batur and Lake Batur from Kintamani

Another area where you will find some breathtaking volcanic landscapes is Kintamani, home to the impressive Mt. Batur (Gunung Batur) and neighboring Lake Batur. I was positively mesmerized by the sight of Batur’s double caldera. So much so that I didn’t mind paying a not very cheap (even for Bali standards) 154,000 rupiah (10-11 euros/US dollars) for the pleasure of having lunch on a terrace opposite the volcano in Penelokan. Many guesthouses and tour agents in Ubud offer sunrise treks to Batur that sound quite amazing. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I decided to give that trek a miss. At the time I was reaching the end of my trip around SE Asia, and I didn’t feel I had the energy for yet another 2 AM wake-up call; but this is definitely something I hope to do in the future.

Finally, Bali has some truly gorgeous terraced rice paddies. Perhaps the two most famous ones are those in Teggalang, north of Ubud, and Jatiluwih, in the center of the island. Jatiluwih is pretty much on the way to Ulun Danu Beratan temple from Ubud, so if you’re staying there you can easily fit the two in the same day trip. The lush, green rice fields, abuzz with dragonflies, are a joy to watch and walk around.

Jatiluwih rice terraces

The Campuhan (pronounced “champoohan”) Ridge Walk, which starts right on the outskirts of Ubud next to Pura Gunung Lebah temple, is also a very scenic area with beautiful sights of rice paddies and hills and, if you’re lucky with the skies, nice views of Mt. Agung (see above). The path is deceivingly easy because it is paved with concrete slabs, but don’t make the same mistake I did by setting out mid-morning, as the undulating hills and smothering humid heat will quickly take their toll on you. Luckily there are a few bars along the way where you can get some rest while drinking some fresh coconut water.

Rice paddies along Campuhan Ridge Walk

Great food for all tastes and budgets

Although not exactly dirt-cheap on average by SE Asia standards, food is diverse and delicious in Bali. If you’re staying in, or passing through Ubud, I recommend you go to a traditional Indonesian-Balinese cuisine warung (restaurant) called Warung Boga Sari. The place is small and cozy, the staff and the chef are really nice people, and I liked the food so much that I ate twice there during my stay in Ubud. I’d suggest you try the amazingly complex and balanced dish I had on my first visit, called Pepes ikan laut, which, along with a couple of Bintang beers (and mangosteen for dessert, on the house), came at just 79,000 rupiah (around 5 euros/US dollars).

So, is Bali worth visiting?

As far as I’m concerned, the answer is a resounding yes! I hope after reading this Bali won’t be sounding to you as terrible as some people would have you believe. And I haven’t even touched upon yoga, massages, gamelan music and traditional dances, surfing and many other great things you can see and do on the island.

Yes, Bali has its problems and may not be the pure, pristine paradise of the past. But if you know what to expect and where to find it, there is something in Bali for pretty much every traveler.

What do you think? Have you been to Bali or are planning to visit soon? Let me know in the comments!

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