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Bali: The Basics

Bali can be baffling for some, but the beautiful, traditional Balinese escape is possible with a little planning.  The mainly Hindu island is rich in cultural delights and offers something for every traveler.  Whether it’s great shopping, delectable dining, a glowing night scene, serene relaxation or spiritual exploration you’re looking for, you can find it in beautiful Bali.  But, Beware! Bali isn’t a rolling expanse of tropical paradise – if you hang around most tourist areas, you may find it dirty, cramped and over commercialized.

The Basics:

-The currency is the Indonesian Rupee

-DON’T exchange money with companies on the street – it’s best to simply use the ATM.

If you must exchange money use the reputable company found in what locals refer to as the ‘Centre’.

-It’s best not to drink the water, instead buy bottles for around 2-5 IDR at any convince store.

-The best taxi company is Blue Bird – ask to use the meter.

-A driver for the day can be hired for about 450,000 IDR or 45.00 US – it’s the easiest and most reliable way to get out of the city.

-DO explore the culinary delights!

Most food is perfectly safe to eat..even within some of the night/street markets.

A solid meal can be found for anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 IDR around 5 bucks US outside of your hotel.

-Most people don’t tip in Bali, but please DO!

Most Balinese are wonderfully accommodating and hard working people!

-DON’T enter temples without your shoulders and knees covered.

Also, make sure to carry a sarong with you to tie around your waist. If it’s required, most touristy temples will have a sarong rental at the main gate.

Places to Visit:

-To get away from the tourist crush try the islands of Lombok or Gili

-Seminyak remains the upscale or “chic” district, but more and more young Aussies are heading there for the clubs and bars.

-Kuta Beach remains the main tourist hot spot, but be prepared to struggle with dirty, cramped streets and hawkers constantly soliciting you.

-Ubud is known as the cultural center of Bali (it’s where most Americans stay on a visit to the island) – there you’ll find yoga more retreats, etc.

The Puri Saren Ubud or the Ubud Palace is located directly across from the Ubud traditional market and is free and open to the public.

-Most tours from the south portion of Bali take you to: the UC silver factory where you can watch workers mold beautiful jewelry and later purchase it in a grand showroom, a woodworking shop where intricately detailed carvings are up for sale, a traditional Balinese house, the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, the Ubud Traditional Market, The Tegalalang rice terraces and a performance of the traditional cultural dance.

-Other tours include the east coast of Bali with its secluded beaches and good snorkeling and the temples located farther north.

-West Bali National Park is located on the north western tip of the island and requires an overnight stay (some drivers will accompany you if you pay for their room and board).

-Temples: Uluwatu Temple (25km south of Denpasar), Gua Gajah or Elephant Cave (27km west of Denpasar), Gunung Kawi, Tirta Empul Temple or Tampak Siring Temple (holy spring water temple), Tanah Lot (temple situated on a rock 30 km west of Denpasar), Taman Ayun Temple (18 km north of Denpasar), Ulun Danu Temple on Beratan Lake, Pulaki Temple (north Bali)..and many, many more!

What to do in Bali: 

Whatever you do – do NOT make Kuta Beach your only destination. Kuta Beach, near Denpensar and extremely close to the airport, was once Bali’s tourist hot spot, but as more of the internally recognized, high-end resorts have shifted farther South to more secluded areas, it has left Kuta Beach with a crush of young Aussie surfers, aggressive and pushy salesmen peddling fake merchandise from filthy street stalls, and a plethora of cheap American restaurant chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville. With that being said – this is Bali, and a part many tourists need to see to help shatter their unrealistic expectations of pristine tropical paradise.

However, within the Kuta Beach area there are some cultural gems, fabulous and traditional culinary finds and plush resorts for half the price of what the well-known chains are charging. It these reasons why many people still make it their destination of choice within the island of Bali. Kuta Beach is also centrally located and lends itself perfectly to be a central point for exploring the more culturally rich area of Ubud to the north and the higher-end resorts and beaches in Seminyak and South Bali. With that being said, other travelers have alluded that more and more of those trashy young Aussies are now flocking to Seminyak and bolstering the bar and club scene in the once luxury area of town.

If you’re looking to simply soak in the sun by the plush pool of your resort and revel in the unparalleled hospitality of the Balinese – then quite frankly the location of your hotel doesn’t matter, only the services offered. We were blessed to find a beautifully appointed hotel for $60.00 US/night including a gorgeous pool lined with plush cabanas, an inclusive and expansive breakfast buffet, a great open-air restaurant, free wifi and modern, clean rooms. The Rama Beach Hotel was slightly off the beaten path but was within walking distance to Kuta Beach and the surrounding malls, restaurants and nightlife.

If you are staying in the Kuta area and are looking to shop, the nicest place by far is the Beach Walk Mall directly across from the main section of Kuta Beach. Here you’ll find higher-end retail stores as well as international brands like GAP and a few smaller local boutique stores. The Beach Walk Mall is also home to a movie theatre and a wide array of dining options including a Johnny Rockets and Tony Romas (strange, I know!) as well as some great local restaurants. For more on the mall click here.

Surrounding the mall you’ll find dozens of shops including Polo, Roxy and Quicksilver stores as well as internationally recognized food chains like Starbucks, McDonalds, Wendy’s, KFC, The Coffee Bean, Hard Rock Cafe (near the Hard Rock Hotel located on Kuta Beach), and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. …See, it’s not the Bali you imagined, is it?

While there are some great cultural aspects to the Denpensar/Kuta Beach area, to really get a feel for Bali, it’s best to leave the city behind…which is harder than you may realize. Hiring a driver to spend the day exploring other areas of the island is most likely your best option. Drivers are cheap to come by, and we found drivers from the Adimelali Company are wonderful! It’s a small company with great English-speaking drivers who are more than happy to teach you about the Balinese culture. A full day tour including Ubud, the Monkey Forest, the Rice Terraces, a Silver Factory, a Woodworking shop, a tour inside a traditional Balinese home and an evening cultural dance cost us 450,000 IDR or about $45.00 US plus tip. Click here for a great list of places they can take you as well as how to contact them for a reservation.

If you’re like me, you may be excited to escape the crush of Kuta to explore the rich cultural heritage of Bali. But, you’ll quickly realize escaping the developed areas can be difficult. With 4.22 million people, Bali is extremely populated, and as you travel from heart of the city toward Ubud, which is known as the cultural center of Bali, but you won’t find yourself in rolling rice fields with towering palms. Instead, the drive is a continuum of development mostly shops lining the roadway with houses tucked closely and neatly behind. Arriving in Ubud, you’ll most likely feel as if you haven’t left the city at all. Even your trip to the Tegalalang rice terraces reveals you’re still in a very heavily developed and to be honest extremely touristy area. Alongside the road from where you’ll view the rice fields, you’ll find stall after stall of tourist crap. Luckily, the hawkers are nearly as aggressive as they are in Kuta, but still it’s just another reminder the tourist crush is hard to escape.

If you’re looking to dive deeper into Bali’s cultural traditions, make sure you catch one of several cultural dances offered daily.  The evening performance of Sahadewa Tari Kecak and Sanghyang at the Stage Chandra Budaya is phenomenal.  Sanghyang or trance dance is a mesmerizing old ritual dance performed without an a gamelan; instead, hundreds of men serve as a chanting choir.  The Sanghyang dance developed as a way to ward off evil spirits and stop them from spreading sickness and death through a community.  It’s fascinating to experience, just make sure to read the information given to you before the performance so you understand what each scene depicts.