Bali is a magical island in the Indonesian archipelago that has come to be known as the ‘Island of the Gods’. It is not hard to understand why. From golden sand beaches to misty volcano peaks and shimmering rice paddies, Bali is a very special island that is all too easy to fall in love with.
Religion plays an integral part in Balinese life; there are temples in every village, shrines in every field and offerings made at every corner. The island is predominately Hindu, yet Hinduism in Bali is a world away from that which is practiced in India. The Balinese believe that spirits are everywhere, an indication that animism is the basis of much of their religion. Offerings are carefully laid out every morning to pay homage to the good spirits and carefully placed on the ground to placate the bad ones.
Overall, Bali has more than 10,000 temples and shrines in all shapes and sizes! The arts, including Balinese painting, music, dance and drama, are also very important to local life; music in Bali is based around the Gamelan orchestra and can be heard regularly.
Base Yourself in Ubud
For three weeks Ollie and I based ourselves in Ubud, the island’s cultural capital, where I practiced Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga with an excellent teacher. Ubud, though it gets more and more commercialised every year, still retains its funky, artistic village vibe. Traffic is a huge problem in and around town, which is crammed with all manner of restaurants, cafes and boutique stores. Once you escape the bustling centre, however, the peaceful Bali of yore can still be found.
There is so much to see and do across the island. As Bali is not huge, you can see many places on day trips while having Ubud as your base. Although renting a scooter allows you to get out and see a large amount independently, do make sure you always wear a helmet and be vigilant when driving on Bali’s notoriously hazardous roads.
See below for some of the island’s highlights that can either be visited on day trips or as short breaks from Ubud.
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Right in the centre of Ubud itself, the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is undoubtedly a quintessential experience. This dense swath of jungle houses three holy temples and is inhabited by a large troop of grey-haired long-tailed Balinese macaques that are most certainly not sweet and innocent. Despite being a tourist magnet, the forest is a very special place, offering a great chance to see the monkeys in their natural habitat.
There are many temples and caves around Ubud, including the ancient monuments at Gunung Kawi. Situated at the bottom of this lush green river valley are 10 rock-cut shrines, believed to be memorials to members of the 11th Century Balinese royalty. The shrines are impressive but it was the surrounding scenery that really caught our breaths; the ancient terraced rice fields shine magnificent shades of green in the sunlight and look simply beautiful. This was the Bali that we had come to see.
Explore Campuan Ridge and around Penestanan
There are rice terraces all around Ubud and it is a real delight to just drive on quiet country roads and backlanes, taking in the magical vistas. Even from the centre of town, peaceful rice paddies are merely a short hike away and make a wonderful escape. We followed two walking tours, highlighted in our guide book, along Campuhan Ridge and around Penestanan, which were definitely Ubud highlights for us.
Before you hike the Campuhan Ridge walk find out everything you need to know before you go, including how to get to the start point and top tips!
Drive Bali’s East Coast
On two separate days we headed to the east side of the island, where we drove the Sidemen Road, explored the water palace at Tirta Gangga and cruised along the Amed Coast, where we discovered the ‘real’ untouched Bali.
The Sidemen road offers stunning paddy-field scenery and has a rural character that we would have loved to have spent longer discovering. There are many places to stay in this green river valley and guides are available for more in-depth trekking. It is also possible to stay in Tirta Gangga and Amed.
High on a ridge, Tirta Gangga offers some wonderful treks into the surrounding terraced countryside. As well as rice terrace vistas, you’ll see coursing water and numerous temples, the most famous in the area being Pura Lempuyang, 10km northeast of Tirta Gangga. The 1.2 hectare water palace was built for the last raja of Karangasem in 1946. With an 11-tiered Nawa Sanga fountain and ponds covered with lotus blossoms, the gardens are a beautiful place to visit.
The semi-arid Amed coast is a joy to drive; the roads are quiet, the tarmac smooth and the route very simple. You’ll pass a succession of small grey-sand beaches, lined with colourful fishing boats, and you can make stops to take in ocean views or explore quiet villages.
The atmosphere in this part of Bali is very quiet and relaxed, making it a great escape from the crowds. The coast is comprised of a series of small sea-side villages that are quite spread out so, staying in this area, it is very easy to be antisocial! The diving and snorkelling around Amed is also reportedly fantastic.
Summit Mount Batur
The central mountainous area of Bali was perhaps our favourite part of the island and we made numerous trips to explore the rugged scenery here. A big highlight for us was the organised tour that we did from Ubud to the summit of Mt Batur.
At 1717m, Gunung Batur is the second most important mountain in Bali and was formed by a 1917 eruption. A cluster of smaller cones lie alongside it, formed by later eruptions. We were picked up from our guesthouse at 2am for the long drive to Toya Bungkah, where we would start our trek to the summit. Before we hit the trail we were given a small pancake breakfast; we then started the hike in the pre-dawn darkness, using torches to avoid tripping on the uneven ground.
We made it to the top in time for a spectacular sunrise; the hard trek up was worth it for the breathtaking panorama before us. Over a sea of clouds, we could see as far as the cone of Gunung Rinjani on Lombok island. Our guides boiled eggs over steaming vents and, atop the volcano, we enjoyed another light breakfast. It was a surreal yet fascinating experience, the setting otherworldly and the early morning views simply sublime.
Although it is possible to organise a guide independently and stay in one of the villages around Danau Batur, the huge lake at the foot of Mt Batur, we found it more convenient and hassle-free to go on a tour organised by our homestay in Ubud. We had a fantastic experience and got some amazing photos!
Discover Bali’s Central Mountainous Region
From Ubud Ollie and I also hired a car and driver for the day and headed further into the central mountains. Our first stop was Pura Taman Ayun, a huge royal water temple. The temple is surrounded by a wide moat and was the main temple of the Mengwi kingdom, which survived until 1891. Pura Taman Ayun was built in 1634 and extensively renovated in 1937. It’s a great place to get a sense of spiritual Bali away from the crowds.
We then headed to the famous Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, centuries old rice terraces that really are something special. Despite being a tourist hotspot, a visit to these majestic terraces is wholly worthwhile; with a sea of greens of every possible hue, Jatiluwih is a quintessential Balinese experience. As well as enjoying the sweeping panorama from a viewpoint above the terraces, we also took a walk through the rice fields, following the water as it ran through channels and bamboo pipes from one plot to the next.
Not far from Jatiluwih, on the misty slopes of Gunung Batukau (Bali’s second highest mountain), was our next stop – Pura Luhur Batukau. This temple is one of the island’s holiest and, surrounded by cool forest, has an evocative atmosphere.
Our final destination of the day was to the misty mountain country around Danau Bratan. The lake itself is large and picturesque and, on its shores, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, another very beautiful Balinese temple, makes the scene even more impressive. This Hindu-Buddhist temple is dedicated to Dewi Danu, goddess of the waters, and is built on small islands; the temple, therefore, is completely surrounded by the lake.
Hiring a car and driver allows you to visit multiple places in one day without the stress of navigation. A fair price for the whole day is around 500,000 IDR; most hostels and hotels in Ubud can arrange one for you.
Stay in Munduk
The small village of Munduk, also in the central mountainous region, makes a great escape for a couple of nights. With a cool misty atmosphere, Munduk represents a totally different side to Bali. We stayed at a very cosy guesthouse, where the helpful manager gave us a map of the surrounding area. We then set off on our own day trek through the lush jungle covered hillsides, hiking through coffee plantations, rice paddies and villages, taking in some very impressive waterfalls along the way.
Whilst in Munduk we also hired another scooter and, this time, headed to Bali’s north coast, stopping on the way at viewpoints and more tumbling falls. We made a circular trip, breaking for a short time in Lovina, a low-key beach resort that’s a world away from Kuta in the south. The beaches along this northern stretch of coast are made up of grey and black volcanic sand; whilst clean, they aren’t so photogenic to look at. For those staying in Lovina, sunrise dolphin watching boat trips are very popular.
Squeeze in a Trip to Pura Tanah Lot
Pura Tanah Lot is the most visited and photographed temple in Bali. It’s a long drive from Ubud along some not so quiet roads and the scene is very commercialised. However, the temple is worth seeing; for the Balinese it’s one of the most important and venerated sea temples. Although you can walk over to the temple at low tide, non-Balinese people are not allowed to enter. A visit to Bali would not be complete without squeezing in a visit to Tanah Lot.
From Pura Tanah Lot you can head to Pura Luhur Uluwatu, another important sea temple on Bali’s south coast. Check out: The Ultimate Uluwatu Itinerary to find out all about the temple and its surrounding area.
Spend a Week on Bali’s Islands
We spent our final week in Bali enjoying some beach time; from Ubud we headed to the small port town of Padangbai, where we spent one night. We then visited two of Bali’s islands, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida.
Nusa Penida turned out to be an adventure; very few tourists visit this island so there is very little infrastructure or signage. We’d read a blog online, which had inspired us to venture to this untrammeled place, hired a scooter and set out to find the natural wonders the writers of the blog spoke of. However, it was not as easy as the adventure loving bloggers had made out.
There was no tarmac on any of the roads; in fact I should have been driving a 4×4 on some of them instead of a scooter. To say we had difficulties is an understatement. We managed to find a couple of the places mentioned but, after one day of sheer dangerous driving conditions, we gave up, cut short our stay on the island and headed to the safer shores of Nusa Lembongan.
Mellow Nusa Lembongan was exactly what we were looking for; there’s enough development but not too much. A string of small white sand beaches back clear turquoise water, all of which are within walking distance of the main commercial area and are perfect for swimming. Ollie and I spent a peaceful few days on the island, taking some time to chill out and relax. The vibe was just right; evenings were spent watching incredible sunsets outside our beachfront guesthouse and enjoying a few local beers as the final rays dipped below the horizon.
Spend your Last Night in Sanur
The bustling southern town of Sanur is not far from the international airport. With big-name hotels, resorts and expensive restaurants and shops, it’s not the kind of place we would choose to spend much time. It does, however, make a useful transit point between Bali’s islands and the airport!
Accommodation in Bali
Our accommodation in Bali was incredible value; we paid roughly $15 a night for some of the best rooms we’ve stayed in anywhere in Asia. In Ubud we stayed at two different homestays which were very traditional in style; each time we had our own unique Balinese cottage set around a garden area.
In Nusa Lembongan our bungalow was so large that six people could have practiced yoga inside! Situated right on the beach front, it was a real gem. Everywhere we stayed included a fantastic filling breakfast; the banana pancakes in Bali are probably the best in Asia!
The people in Bali are very special; everyone we met was friendly and always ready with a smile. Despite the large number of tourists that flock to Bali every year, the island remains a peaceful easy-going place that it very easy to fall in love with. With some stunning natural scenery, great local food, beautifully artistic temples and a vibrant cultural scene, Bali is, undoubtedly, the ‘Island of the Gods’.
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