I’ve been to Bali three times over the last four years and I have mixed feelings about this super popular gorgeous exotic island. For sure its nature is stunning, its beaches are perfect for a sun and surf holiday, and there are fantastic walks from the rice fields to waterfalls, incredible cliffs, volcanoes, lakes, and jungles. Plus the locals are the most welcoming and to top it all off, it is also affordable! What is missing then? After much thought, I decided that the heavy traffic and pollution are really hard to ignore for me for choosing a place to call home. I hate coming back home with the scooter noise buzzing in my ears and the stress of driving in gridlock conditions for hours in order to get from one gorgeous place to another.
The first time I went to Bali in 2015, I had just quit my job and bought a one-way ticket after seeing a picture of Tanah Lot on my computer screen on a gloomy New York City afternoon. After doing a little bit of research, I didn’t hesitate much and packed my bag and flew to Bali with a one-way ticket. I believe the universe knew it could lure me to move to Asia with just one picture and it succeeded! As it was going to be my first time in South East Asia and a beginning of a new chapter of my life, I was beyond excited. After all, Bali was one of the best places on earth to reset, rejuvenate, explore, and grow.
I must say, after the cold and dark winter of New York City, Bali’s tropical weather and spectacular nature took my breath away. They felt like the fresh breath I’d been longing for all my life. But after a couple of weeks in and around Ubud, the magic started wearing off and the heavy traffic and crowded streets tired me out, so I decided to cut my trip short to search for more quiet places in Indonesia.
A Balinese friend told me the drastic change in Bali came with “Eat, Pray, Love” which has brought millions of people to this magical island since its release. In a short time, the roads became insufficient to handle the heavy traffic, sidewalks scarce for people to walk on, the beaches were dirty, nature got disturbed by the never-ending construction of luxury resorts, shops, and restaurants, and the prices went up with the increasing demand.
I don’t know how many people who go to Bali intend to learn and understand the religion, culture, and rituals. Sadly, most I’ve witnessed during my visits was consumerism and yoga selfies.
OK, let’s focus on the positive since this island of Gods has amazing things to offer especially if you’re visiting for a short time and not looking for your new home like I did.
Here are the things that make Bali a sweetheart:
Bali is gorgeous period. Tall tropical trees, colorful flowers spilling over walls, lush green rice fields, wild forests, waterfalls, majestic volcanos, tropical birds, sea turtles, geckos… I can’t describe how happy nature in Bali makes me! You just need to stay away from the heavily touristed towns like Ubud, Kuta, and Seminyak to be able to soak in the magic of nature. Rural areas are spectacular especially if you seek peace (or solitude) among nature.
As for the beaches, the sea is super wavy hence it makes it ideal for surfing for thousands of surfers crowding the waters of Bali. I wasn’t able to find a quiet white sand beach to chill and swim on and can’t recommend Bali for its beaches. Regardless, it was super fun to watch the surfers at Bingin Beach and Uluwatu, especially during the sunset.
People and culture
The Balinese are the friendliest people I’ve met who managed to remain kind and pure despite of the flood of tourism and rapid change. They were able to protect their culture, rituals and traditional clothes and most of them spoke English! I loved that we could make friends easily and do activities together. They are genuinely interested in you, they stop on the road to ask you how you are doing, where you are going, if they can help, etc. This was pretty surprising for me after living in Thailand for 3 years where interaction with locals is at a minimum due to the language barrier. Since I’ve started learning Thai, I realized how sweet the Thais are so the problem was the language. Kudos to the Balinese education system that teaches sufficient English in schools.
Bali is a foodie heaven
There are plenty of dining options ranging from a casual cafe brunch, organic vegan food, raw food, quality local coffee, tempting patisseries, and fresh seafood. It’s easy to find authentic cheap local fare and discover something different and exciting for every meal.
I had no idea about how amazing Balinese cuisine was before visiting Bali. They have a lot of meat in their dishes but for the vegetarians, they would replace meat with tofu in most cases and they didn’t go nuts with hot spices (unlike India and Thailand). I was able to eat my first non-spicy curry in Bali and discovered that I actually loved curry!
Bali has a lot of Western influence, from diverse restaurants to yoga classes, and is the most “foreigner-friendly” island in Indonesia.
This is the reason why you can find a lot of digital nomads, photographers, and yogis who chose this island as their home. There is good wifi, cheap housing, a ton of co-working spaces, and it’s fairly easy to get a proper visa to stay long-term.
Thanks to several Facebook groups, in Ubud you can find a beautiful house with a private pool and cleaning service for about $300-400/month. Due to the heavy traffic inside Ubud town and the popular area Penestanan, I opted to stay in a quiet area of Jalan Suweta, 15 mins north of the town.
Bali is affordable
It’s the Land of Gods
Spas and Yoga
Besides its stunning nature and beautiful people, another amazing thing about Bali is its spectacular spas everywhere! You can indulge yourself in an upscale resort spa or at a regular spa you can find all around. They all are so clean, smell nice, and you’re treated kindly. You can take a shower before going back to the real world.
I’m not a spa type of gal (wasn’t) but I couldn’t resist the treatment with a body massage followed by a fragrant scrub made of blended herbs and spices. Then a refreshing yogurt moisturizer is finished with a soothing fresh-flower bath. Oh they also offered fruits while I was in the bathtub. All for $15! Not joking. You’ve got to try Venezia Spa near Monkey Forest.
Yoga in Ubud:
To be honest, after having traveled in India and Thailand for 3 years, I found Ubud’s yogi/spiritual scene very superficial. I often thought of J.P. Sears’ videos that must have been inspired by what’s going on in the yoga and vegan scene in Bali 🙂
No offense, I’m sure there are amazing retreats and places I have missed. But since the purpose of my journey was (and is) to stay away from the cookie-cutter world, I was amazed to see how spirituality and healthy living became a trend and consumerism took them over. I had left the Western world and all its programming behind expecting the people who escaped earlier had realized something different. While running from a rat race, I felt like I found myself in another one but the masks looked prettier here. As my father would put it “same shit different smell”.
I chose to continue my daily home practice and discovered Anand Ashram , which I was so happy to have found a bit outside of Ubud. During our 2 month stay in 2018, my boyfriend and I joined their kirtans (devotional signing), satsangs (spirtual discourse with their founder/guru) and community dinners on donation. No-fuss, no ego type of place and a proof that spiritual practice doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
What to do, where to eat
You can find plenty of websites listing the basic must-do touristic activities, temple visits, surfing spots, etc. so I will skip them and will highlight what I enjoyed most during my stay.
- 9 Angels, Ubud: I love the concept of this place as well as its chill atmosphere.
You pay for what you eat and no one questions you. They have suggested the price for each dish and you drop the money in a glass jar. They trust your generosity.
You wash your own dishes when you’re done like you’re home! There are open mic nights and random live music jams.
- Atman Nourish, Ubud – Have to try vegan nasi goreng!
- Warung Bintang Bali, Ubud – Quiet setting and good food outside the Ubud maze, overlooking a rice field.
- Sayuri, Ubud – A hip vegan restaurant with a great atmosphere.
- Bali Buda, Ubud – A large veg/non-veg menu to choose from, in a central location and they have a health store.
- Warung Sopa, Ubud: A humble yet beautiful spot where you can make your own plate by selecting from yummy vegetarian options in the display.
- Sweet Orange Warung, Ubud. Take a walk around the rice paddies and stop to eat at Sweet Orange.
- Bambu Indah, Ubud. A beautiful resort/restaurant set in a beautiful serene setting a bit outside of Ubud. The best part? they make the food from the freshly sourced vegetables coming straight out of their in-house organic farm.
- The Shady Shack, Canggu – a great place to eat, chat, relax..a large selection of vegan, GF, conscious yummy food and drinks.
- Campuhan Ridge Walk, Ubud – Good way to spend an hour or two away from the bustle of Ubud. An easy scenic walk with great views and the reward is the restaurants at the end perched among rice fields. We did it closer to sunset due to the heat and walking in flip-flops wasn’t a problem. You can enjoy one of these rewards at the end of your walk:
- Dragonfly Village, Ubud. A beautiful retreat center, cafe, and herbal steam sauna set in the midst of one of the most beautiful rice fields).
- Sari Organic (restaurant)
- Karma Cafe (restaurant)
- Yugi Warung (restaurant)
- Pyramids of Chi, Ubud – Experience the power of sound inside the two Pyramids. Make sure to make a reservation for the session you’d like to join.
- Venezia Spa, Ubud – a perfect day to spend in Bali indulging yourself.
- Kecak Fire & Trance Dance (Pura Dalem Taman Kaja)
- Angelo Store, Ubud: You can buy products made from natural ingredients – e.g coconut oil, leaves, flowers, spices bark, seeds etc. at reasonable prices. I bought a bunch of stuff for my travels, deodorant, shampoo, body lotion, eye cream, etc.
- 8 hour biking tour around Ubud. I highly recommend this tour to everyone. It cost 300,000 RP ($25 USD). Besides including breakfast and lunch, our guide took us to a coffee farm and I tried luwak, also called cat-poo-chino, the world’s most expensive coffee. The way this coffee is made is pretty interesting. Check this out: A shy cat-like wild creature wanders out of the Sumatran jungle at night onto a coffee plantation and selects only the finest, ripest coffee cherries to eat. Only it can’t digest the stone (the coffee bean) and craps them out, its anal glands imparting an elusive musky smoothness to the resultant roasted coffee. Then the farm workers look for the poop in the morning among the trees, remove the coffee beans from the other possible dirty things, roast them and sell them to us.
During the super fun trip, we rode our bikes from the northern part of the island all the way down to Ubud. Along the way, we passed by tiny villages, beautiful homes, glamorous temples, young girls and their babies waving their hands and yelling cheerful hellos to us, older ladies balancing large objects on their heads, endless rice paddies, cute stray dogs, and breathtaking green scenery. It was a real intimate experience with the Balinese people and their colorful culture.
- Cafe Lotus, Ubud is a very touristic spot in the middle of the market but a fruit shake break with this view was a good call. The most appealing part was I left behind the crowded street noise upon entering this place and I found myself in a zen garden.
Seminyak is a popular beach town that offers posh spas, restaurants, cafes, high-end restaurants, and resorts targeting rich tourists and a younger crowd who wanted to get drunk. It reminded me of the Hamptons with its little boutiques but it was a much bigger version. Kuta is more popular among surfers and partiers but I wasn’t interested in that scene hence I skipped it. However, if you like to have a long night, you can still stay in Seminyak and reach Kuta with a quick taxi ride.
Canggu is located between Seminyak and Tanah Lot and it’s more low-key than Seminyak. It is a great place if you’re interested in learning to surf due to the size of its waves and surf schools aiming at beginners. I like Canggu because it’s on the beach, surrounded by beautiful rice paddies, and has a surf shack groove. Someone also said it’s like Brooklyn on the beach. You can find healthy restaurants, cool coffee shops, green-juice bars, and cute little boutiques. It’s not as crowded as Seminyak and Kuta and draws a more hippie/conscious type of crowd.