Located just south of the equator, Bali bombards you with beauty, beaches, and culture. The entire experience feels at once effortless and nonpareil – the apex of tropical living. Sure, the beaches provide a gravity that draws travelers from all over the globe to this tiny Indonesian Island, but the culture brings them back. The lure is as persistent and persuasive as a boiler room hustler. There's a saying that God lives in the Himalayas. I have a feeling he vacations in Bali.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Bali. The easiest way to get to Bali is through Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta. From any of these locations, it's simple to hop on a direct flight to Bali's airport in Denpasar. The cheapest international flights to Bali are from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on Airasia or Jetstar. It's possible to fly from the United States to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur for under $1000 round trip, and onward to Bali for around $100 round trip. This is the cheapest way to get to Bali.
Bicycle around Ubud
The streets of Ubud teem with culture. A great way to see the town, surrounding artistic villages, and working rice paddies is on bicycle. Start at Monkey Forest and visit with the infamous residents -- crab-eating macaques. Mid-day, head over to Goa Gajah, one of Bali's most unique holy places. To end your day, ride to the village of Petulu. A massive nightly Heron migration is said to be the manifestation of spirits felled in a communist cleansing back in the 1960s. The birds began showing up exactly one week after an especially brutal massacre and have roosted in Petulu every night since. The scene is holy.
No trip to Bali is complete without a stay in Ubud. Some of my favorite Ubud guest-houses are Tegal Sari, Tepi Sawah, and Greenfields. Book early and get a view overlooking the rice paddies. Some great bike tour companies are Bike Baik and Banyan Tree, but setting off on your own trip of discovery is much more exhilarating.
Surf in Kuta
If the heart of Bali's culture beats in Ubud, then its hard charging Bintang gripping extremities flail about in Kuta. The scene is all here: bikinis on the beach, clubs that go all night, expat bars, hip travel cognoscenti, and intoxicated Australian high fivers. Depending on the experience you expect to derive from travel, Kuta will either be a place to remember or a place to forget. Perhaps, even a place to remember forgetting. Either way, Kuta does surf lessons brilliantly. Since the Kuta wave breaks over sand rather than coral, new riders do not exit the water grasping for gauze. This provides a perfect arrangement for wide-eyed noobs to pick up the surf game. After a day spent learning your way around a barrel, quench your thirst with fresh fruit drinks and a sunset at KuDeTa.
Kuta Beach is a quick ride from the airport and full of cheap accommodations. Some great surfing schools are Odyssey and Rip Curl School of Surf, though hiring a local guide will likely be cheaper. If you possess some serious skills check out the legendary Ulu Watu break. KuDeTa is a seaside bar and restaurant that draws huge crowds. Get there early to secure a spot for sunset.
Sunset at Tanah Lot
The sea-draped temple of Tanah Lot rises out of the surf like a hazy dream along Bali's southwest coast. Beneath the waves that crash along the dark temple walls, a pride of banded sea kraits patrol the waters. The snakes guard the temple from evil spirits and harm. (Or so I've been told.) Tanah Lot is many things: magical, stunning, unlikely, romantic, and strange. It has a plucked from a dream aesthetic that allows you to believe the lore and have fun with it. A local told me about those sea kraits, and I believed him because the place looks so unreal. It seems to exist on dreamlike terms. Catching it at sunset frames the temple at its most beautiful and surreal.
On a map, Tanah Lot seems close to much of south Bali. Due to the layout of the roads, however, it takes quite a while to get there. It is best to hire a driver. Enjoy the sunset from the beach at low tide or up on the cliffs at a cafe. The nearby markets are a great place to grab some touristy trinkets and cheap art. I once bought 5 Balinese paintings for $27. If you enjoy golfing, then the nearby Nirwana Resort has the best links course in Bali.
Kecak Dance in Ulu Watu
In the 1930's, a German artist taught the Balinese a peculiar performance called the Kecak. The dance has no instruments, just vocal chords, about 100 of them. They chant generously and costumed performers dance and act out the Ramayana. While the 20th century German impetus may sound slightly inauthentic, you will hardly care about details as the sun slowly sets beyond the cliffs of Ulu Watu and you get lost in the chant. There is also lots of fire.
The show begins at 6:00pm nightly. Hire a taxi to drop you off at Ulu Watu temple. Once there, follow the crowds to the performance area. It is perched on the cliffs at the southernmost tip of Bali. Your driver will undoubtedly offer to take you to a Jimbaran seafood dinner after the show. Decline this service. It is an expensive tourist trap.
Snorkeling around Menjangan Island
Menjangan Island in the far west is a long trip from almost anywhere in Bali. The remote location augments the pristine experience by discouraging crowds. Much of West Bali is sparsely populated parkland, so it is a departure from the bustling south. In Menjangan, hire a boatman to take you out to the reefs for the day, and prepare to get your mind blown. Snorkeling does not get better than this. The bright reefs and strange fish will tattoo a smile upon your face. At the end of the day, shack up on the beach in nearby Pemuteran. It is wise to stay a night, or three. If you have time, then take a trip into Taman Nasional Bali Barat to view some Balinese flora and fauna.
The drive is over 3 hours from south Bali, so a day trip is way too cumbersome. A great way to experience Menjangan is too stay in nearby Pemuteran for a few nights. The Amertha in Pemuteran grazes perfection. Its secluded location framed by towering mountains and gorgeous villas with private pools is well worth the modest splurge. The amazing house reef full of critters just meters offshore will almost talk you out of visiting Menjangan. Don't let it.
Road Trip to Lake Bratan
With taxi rates substantially lower than Western standards, it is cheap and easy to hire a driver for a good old-fashioned chauffeured road trip: $50 for an entire day is about average. One of my favorite paths begins in the southern part of Bali and snakes up through the lush highlands ending at the otherworldly Lake Bratan. It takes about 2 hours. The lake is home to the unbelievably photogenic cover-girl temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. The mist hangs low, the air is much cooler, and it all feels so right. This is an enlightened place.
Arrange a driver for the day through your guest-house or hotel, or use my favorite driver, the extremely jovial Made Dana (081338719877).
Climbing Mount Batur
The volcanic Mount Batur and surrounding lake provide a proper setting for a gorgeous clamber to the summit. The best time to climb is the morning. Most groups begin their ascent around 4am, hitting the summit at 6 to watch the sun slowly rise over the Lombok strait. Bring a jacket and be careful at the summit. Batur is an active volcano and an unfortunate tourist fell into the cauldron in early 2010.
You can arrange a trip up the mountain with your guest-house or driver. It is not too physically demanding. If you find yourself bit by the climbing bug, check out Mt. Rinjani on nearby Lombok Island. It is beast and takes several days to summit.
Eat Babi Guling at Ibu Oka in Ubud
Babi Guling, or suckling pig, has made a name for itself as Bali's main course. Many roadside warungs serve the oinkers, but Ibu Oka has garnered some serious praise for its delectable hogs. Anthony Bourdain called it the best. We are in agreement on this point. Just go there, order a combo plate, and find a place in the crowds to hunker down and grub. It costs about 2.50 for a plate, which is a small penance for something with a "best" moniker. Wash it all down with an ice cold fruit drink.
It is hard to miss Ibu Oka in the heart of Ubud near Ubud Market. Just ask around. Be sure to arrive early for lunch; 11 am is early enough. They only prepare a few beasts each day, and once the food is gone... they shut down.
Rafting through the heart of Bali
You will get drenched, and you will love it. Rafting through the heart of Bali thrills the heart and frightens the mind. The rapids shoot you through Bali's lush interior like a drunken torpedo. The voyage zips passed rice paddies with working farmers and kids flying kites. It feels like traveling through a privileged backstage portion of Bali, and that is a great feeling.
Bali adventure tours near Ubud can arrange your rafting adventure. Like everything else is Bali, just ask your driver or guest-house for arrangements to be made. They will be happy to phone in their commission. Banyan Tree also arranges rafting excursions.
Attend a Buffalo Race in Negara
Water Buffaloes serve many purposes throughout Southeast Asia. They are agricultural tractors, beasts of burden, milk producers, a source of food, and...racing machines. In western Bali, on Sundays, these beasts line up and drag jockeyed chariots around an oval course like cans behind a car. The brightly accessorized water buffaloes grunt around the dusty track while local spectators shout their Bahasa encouragements.
Negara is quite a haul from South Bali, and the buffalo races start very early on every other Sunday during the dry season (July to October) around 7am. To arrive on time, it is best to stay the night prior to the races. Medewi is a nearby surf town with nice accommodations. Check out Medewi Beach Cottages or Medewi Bay Retreat. Once there, it is simple to arrange a driver to the races. To determine when the races take place, ask a tour operator or driver before heading towards West Bali. Things change often in Bali, and it is best to be informed to avoid disappointment.