When you picture Bali, I think that most people picture paradise, honeymoons, beautiful beaches and luxury. Even though those aren’t the things that Dave and I are looking for during our travels (we always stay in the more happening or touristy areas rather than the secluded, relaxing areas anywhere we go), our experience in Bali was still very different from how I imagined it would be.
From the second we stepped off the plane, we were bombarded by people asking us if we needed a taxi. Of course, this always happens as you’re leaving the airport, but we could immediately tell that the people here were much more aggressive than anything we’ve experienced since traveling to India a year ago. We (or at least I) didn’t think that much of it as we were figuring out how to get from the airport to our hotel, but it ended up being a definite theme throughout our time here.
There are two main beach areas in Bali (actually, it’s one long beach, but two different areas off the same beach). From what we read before we got here, Seminyak/Legian is the more luxurious, fancy, expensive beach. Kuta is supposed to be the more touristy party beach. As I mentioned, we like to be in the action wherever we stay, so Kuta was the obvious choice for us.
Driving through Kuta for the first time on our way to our hotel, we were mesmerized by all the restaurants, bars, hotels, etc. At first glance, this looked like our kind of place. We stayed on Poppies II, right off Legian street, which is the main party street of Kuta. We didn’t get to our hotel until about 5pm and were very anxious to get out and explore. But first, we wanted to take a dip in our hotel’s pool and have a few drinks (we’ve never had a pool at our hotel before and this one was awesome – for $15/night, it pretty much couldn’t get better).
After reading that they charge a 300% tax on alcohol in Indonesia, we had picked up a bottle of whisky at the duty free shop in Singapore (every person is allowed to bring in 1 L of alc. More than that and they’ll tax you for that too). Thank god for that because what we read had been right. For a fifth (1 L) of Smirnoff that we’d normally pay about $15 for in the US, they were charging $45. Everything was around 3 times the normal price. We had a few drinks and lounged at the pool for a bit and then got ready to hit Legian street.
The second we walked out of our hotel, we realized just how crazy Kuta Beach actually is. With every step we took, we were being ushered into bars and clubs and pretty much being offered every drug under the sun. And this was all at 7pm (on a Monday). With all of that going on all around you, it’s hard not to get sucked in to it. As we were walking down Poppies II (a street that cars should never be driving down – it’s hard enough to dodge the motorbikes driving by you on this street clearly made just for walking), a taxi went by and bumped Dave. I must have been much more drunk that I thought and I got very angry about what had happened and felt that I needed to protect him or stand up for him… I don’t know what I was thinking but very much out of character for me, I hit the taxi’s window pretty much to say ‘fuck you, how dare you hit my husband!!” (I didn’t actually say this, or anything, I just hit the window). That was a big mistake.
The driver got out of the car, looked at me and Dave and said, “I’ll kill you. Come around the corner and I’ll kill you.” The look in his eyes told us that he meant it. Dave apologized for me, I apologized for myself, and somehow we got out of there. Of course, I was very shaken up by what had happened, so we walked back down the block to our place so I could take a breather and recompose myself.
For me, being in Bali, I thought I was in just another beach island similar to the ones we’d been in all over SE Asia. For those of you who have been to the islands in Thailand, or anywhere else in this part of the world, you know that these places are 100% catered to tourists. In fact, other than maybe the people working at hotels, bars, or restaurants, you never really even see local people in these places. You can be on the islands in Thailand for a week, or two, and really have no idea (other than the fact that you’re eating Thai food every day) that you’re in Thailand. This happens to be one of the things I dislike about the islands (I think the locals in Thailand are part of what make being there such a great experience), but either way, I guess I was expecting the same thing in Bali. Not Dave though. He knew from the second we got in that it wouldn’t be like that. Bali is an island with (POPULATION) people. And Java, the island directly west of Bali, is the most populated island in the world. Indonesia as a country, is the 3rd most populated country in the world. So although Bali is a huge tourist destination, tons of locals live here too. Not only that, but now we’re in a Muslim country where the people are very different from the nice, friendly, passive Thai people we’re used to.
By the end of mine and Dave’s conversation, I knew that I was the one in the wrong in the situation. Here I am, drunk at 7pm, probably getting in this taxi driver’s way walking in the middle of the street and then getting mad at him. Of course, he took it way too far and it was also very out of character for me (I rarely get mad and if I do, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything physical about it). He had a bad day, I was in rare form… the perfect storm of events that could have really gotten us into trouble or hurt. We got lucky that this guy is probably used to tourists like me and all he did was threaten us. Maybe if the same thing had happened in Jakarta or Yogyakarta we wouldn’t have been as lucky. Very scary experience for me but I think a good lesson to learn very early on into our time in Indonesia.
Luckily, by the time this was all over, Dave and I were still able to go out and have a really fun night. We drank more, we explored the whole area, we went to a couple bars, a club, were offered a lot more drugs., got ripped off a few times (which would happen almost every day throughout our time in Bali) . After one night, we realized that Kuta Beach was pretty much like the Full Moon Party in Kho Phangan every single night.
Our first full day in Bali, we had a big hungover breakfast and then spent the day exploring. We walked all the way down the beach from Kuta through Legian to Seminyak (about 3 miles) and saw why this is one of the best surfing beaches in the world. It’s not the most beautiful beach (the sand is kind of an ugly color, the water is not very blue), but I’ve never seen waves like this before. Halfway between Kuta and Seminyak, we decided we needed to rent a surf board and get out there. We just rented one to share for an hour, which cost us $5. Both Dave and I have surfed before, so we didn’t feel like we needed a lesson. Of course, neither of us were able to get up even once out there, but it was still fun to try.
After an hour when we were returning our board, the guy we had rented it from told us that we broke 2 of the 3 fins and had to pay for them. We had definitely broken one of them (Dave was practicing his technique on the beach and one of them broke off, though we think it may have been loose to begin with) but we’re pretty sure the second one was already missing. We should have checked the board before we took it out but since we didn’t, we had no choice but to pay for the two fins. $5 to rent the board for an hour, $8 to fix it. That was that day’s ripoff.
We got to Seminyak and realized that this was definitely the honeymooner’s beach. The beach was lined with fancy hotels and restaurants, and all of the streets surrounding the beach had cute boutique shops, great restaurants and more fancy hotels. It was a great area and we could definitely see that it would be much better suited for anyone looking for a relaxing or luxurious beach vacation.
A warung is what they call their local restaurants in Bali, and that’s what we were seeking out for lunch. The Lonely Planet had recommended a few, all of which looked great, but when we saw some local women eating an amazing-looking rice, noodle, and meat dish out of a paper bag, we knew that’s what we wanted. We were surprised that we hadn’t seen really any street food around Bali, but after talking to these women and asking them what they were eating, we learned that many of the snack shops (that sell chips, drinks, coffee, etc) also sell hot food. So do a lot of the motorbikes driving around with big baskets on the front. We learned that this particular dish was called Nasi Campur, and it’s one of the main staple foods in Bali. We shared one (the portions are big) for 6,000 rupees (60 cents). It was awesome and we knew we’d be eating this dish a lot throughout our time in Indonesia.
By the time we got back to our hotel, it was almost 6pm. Between our crazy/late night the night before and the fact that we had walked about 7 miles that day, we really needed a chill/early night. We had heard about a restaurant called Made’s Warung, which was really popular and decided to check it out. It had a very local menu and we decided to try some new Indonesian dishes. We went with nasi gorang (fried rice), mie gorang (fried noodles), and gado gado (veggies with peanut sauce). All three dishes were fantastic and would end up being our go-to dishes for the rest of our time in Bali.
Our second day in Bali, we went for a nice run back to Seminyak, did a little more exploring, and then spent a few hours hanging out at our pool (we had to take advantage of it!). Typically, whenever we’re traveling, we will book a place to stay a couple of days before we arrive for just the first night or two (that way if we don’t like it or we find something cheaper, we can always move). We almost never end up moving but it’s always nice to have the option if we want it. We typically just add an extra few days onto our reservation when we get there. This time, for the first time, we got unlucky and our hotel was completely booked for our third night in Kuta. We were bummed because we had really liked our place but luckily, we were able to find something very similar right down the street (also with a great pool and actually for a couple bucks less).
By our last night in Kuta Beach, we were ready for one more night of partying before heading to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. We started the night off by walking to the beach for sunset. We thought we’d have a beer or two there at one of the many seating areas all along the beach, but when we learned they were only offering small beers for $3 (you can get a big one at a mini mart for the same price – the only reasonably priced alcohol in Bali), we decided to skip that and just enjoy the sunset. Just as we had experienced in Vietnam, the beach was packed for sunset with hundreds of people. This time though, they were all fully clothed and looking like they were ready for winter. I guess that’s Muslim country for you though.
The day before, we had been given a pass for free entrance and drinks to the main club on Legian (Sky Garden, which is actually 6 clubs in 1) from 9-10 and decided to take advantage of this (especially since alcohol is so expensive in Bali). We got there, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was packed! They literally had hundreds of drinks already lined up and ready to be handed out to all of the very thirsty customers. At first, everyone was standing around being a little awkward, but within 15 minutes the dance party began. Dave and I stayed for a couple of the very sugary drinks and then decided that as fun as it was, we were ready to go.
As always, walking down Legian and Poppies II, we were stopped every minute or so to be offered drugs. “You want mushrooms? Coka? Marijuana? Ecstacy?” Those words are literally still echoing in my mind. Instead of any of that, we decided we wanted a hookah and went back toward the beach to a food-stall type area. We figured we’d get a couple more beers, a hookah, and then have a late dinner. We got our hookah and minutes later, two guys from South Korea started chatting with us, asking us advice about which flavor to get, and then finally, they ended up joining us. We ended up sitting and chatting with them for a couple hours trading stories. They loved that we had quit our jobs to teach in Thailand. They were very interested in hearing all about us. One of the guys told us that his father had been kidnapped by Somalian pirates and held hostage for two years as a result of his corporate job. Insane. Even more insane, after being rescued 2 years later, he returned to the same job in order to pay for his family’s very wealthy lifestyle (his daughter dropped out of college in the US and the son liked to travel as well; in fact, although he was only 20, he was staying at one of the super fancy resorts in Seminyok while we were staying for $20/night in Kuta). We had a great time with them and even told them we’d visit next summer when we we’re traveling in S. Korea. Meeting people and trading stories is always one of the most interesting and fun things about traveling. We had a very late dinner of our new three favorite dishes (same as we had ordered the night before) and by the time we got back to our hotel, we were very ready to head to peaceful, cultural Ubud the next morning.
As I mentioned in the beginning of my post, our experience in Bali was very different than I had been imagining it. If you’re looking for a luxurious honeymoon destination, Kuta Beach is definitely not the place, but we think Seminyak would be a good spot, but probably not better than the Thai islands, or even Boracay in the Philippines for that matter. And even if you are looking for a crazy party, as fun and insane as Kuta is, Dave and I still think that the Thai islands are a better choice. Go to Koh Phangan or Koh Phi Phi and you can get whisky buckets galore for about $4 a pop. Two of those and you’ll be good for the whole night. In Kuta, just getting drunk will probably cost you $100, the same as a big city in the US. Getting into the clubs is another $10pp, and all the hawkers, drug dealers, and people stopping you every second and not taking no for an answer make the experience much less enjoyable than many of the other party islands we’ve been to. Like India, we’d been warned of the constant harassment in Bali before we arrived, but being seasoned travelers, we always think we’re prepared for it. But like India, nothing can prepare you for the intensity of Kuta Beach.
Unlike most of the other places in SE Asia we’ve traveled to where getting around from place to place is extremely easy and very cheap, there’s no public (or cheap) transport from Kuta to Ubud. Considering almost everyone visiting Bali is going to both places, we found this very surprising. Really the only way to get between the two is to take a private car or taxi which will set you back $25 for the 90 minute trip. This may not sound like a bad deal, but considering we usually pay about that to take a 12 hour bus from Bangkok to the S. of Thailand, it seemed like a lot to us (a typical 1-2 hr bus ride in any other SE Asian country would be $3-4 pp).
We got to Ubud and as soon as we started walking around, we felt like we were in heaven. It was quiet (we could even hear crickets!), there were great stores and restaurants, and most importantly, no one was stopping us on the street every 2 seconds (other than a few people asking us if we needed a taxi).
Our plan for the day was to explore the Ubud area, starting with the palace and ending at the Monkey Forest. First though, lunch. Since arriving in Bali, we’d been dying to try Babi Guling, which is their version of suckling pig. We had heard about a place (Ibu Oka) right near the palace and figured that was the perfect spot to start our day. You can order just the meat of the pig (with rice, of course) or you can order a sampler with a taste of different parts of the animal, all cooked in different ways. We opted for the latter so we could try a little of everything. We got pork soup, crispy skin, fried pork, sausage, and just the plain meat, served with rice and veggies on the side. The babi guling was good, but from what we had read, the place we were eating at was supposed to be very local whereas we found it to actually be pretty touristy. It was definitely no lechon (the pork meal we had in the Philippines), but it was still good, albeit a bit pricey for a supposedly local meal.
After lunch, we saw the palace (which wasn’t much of a palace at all and didn’t take us very long to get through). After that, we made our way down JL Monkey Forest (one of the main streets running though Ubud and also the street we were staying on), of course stopping at every single restaurant along the way in the hopes of finding a good dinner spot (there are tons of good restaurant choices in central Ubud, just like in Kuta). At the end of the street is the sacred monkey forest, a beautiful forest filled with tons of monkeys. As many times as we’ve done similar activities to this and as many monkeys as we’ve seen, we can still never get enough of those guys!
After our first afternoon exploring Ubud, we could already tell why people spoke so highly of it. Especially after coming from Kuta beach, you really need a place just like this to unwind. We treated ourselves to a great Italian dinner (after a few days of Indonesian meals we needed a good Western meal, and Ubud had some of the cheapest Italian food we’ve seen in Asia) at a restaurant overlooking some of the beautiful Ubud rice terraces and then went back to our hotel early to call it a night.
Our plan for our second day in Ubud was to rent a motorbike and explore some of the surrounding areas. We were headed to Gunung Batur, the tallest volcano in Bali, about 45 minutes from Ubud. Along the way, the scenery was beautiful. Very green and filled with tons of rice terraces. About half-way to Batur, we stopped at Gunung Kawi, the most ancient site in Bali with 7-8 statues carved out of stone amidst a jungle surrounded by a river. It was nice, but we were ready to see the volcano, which was our main attraction of the day.
We had almost made it all the way there (we were 2km away), when we saw a group of police officers pulling over almost anyone who drove by and we assume checking their driver’s licences. We had heard this might happen and were told that if it did, you could usually pay around 100,000 rupees ($10) and they’d let you go. Well, that advice was for getting pulled over by one police officer. We were stopped by a group of about 10 of them, so we quickly realized that a bribe wouldn’t work. The officer asked for our international license (which of course we didn’t have) and then told us that we’d have to hand over our bike to him and go to court on July 3rd to pay our $25 fine. Of course, he knew we wouldn’t still be in Bali on July 3rd (a week later) so he “graciously” agreed to let us just pay the fine on the spot. What do you know??! The bike for the day only cost us $5 but the fine was $25. Although we knew this might happen, the only alternatives for visiting Gunung Batur from Ubud is to do a private tour for $35 pp, or hire a taxi for the 2 hr return trip for probably $25. So the $30 motorbike rental (including the fine) was still the best deal in town, especially since we could keep the motorbike all day and make as many stops as we wanted on our way to the volcano. But still, it’s such a scam. I guess it’s just their way of taxing you for visiting their country. Either way, we decided that when we get back to Bangkok we’ll look in to getting an international driver’s license so we never have to worry about that happening again (although in Thailand, and anywhere else in SE where we’ve rented a motorbike, this has never happened).
Finally, we made it to Gunung Batur, and it was definitely worth the trip (and the fine). We drove all around the park area seeing all the different views of the volcano which were beautiful. We started high up and drove down to the village at the base of the volcano, where we stopped for our favorite local lunch. That was definitely a meal with an amazing view. Unfortunately, from the second we entered the park until we left, we were being harassed by locals trying to sell us everything under the sun from guides to trek the volcano to bracelets to wooden flutes and more. While we’re used to this a little bit from our time in SE Asia, these people are aggressive and relentless. They go as far as to follow you on your motorbike and try to sell you things as you’re driving. And, the kids are doing it too – that’s where it all starts. From a very young age, they’re taught that if you see a foreigner (particularly a white person), just sell, sell, sell, and it’s something that these people do their whole lives. It’s very frustrating and very hard to keep your cool when someone just won’t take no for an answer.
On our way back to Ubud, we saw place after place advertising Balinese coffee. We figured that if so many places were selling it, we had to try it. It turns out that these places weren’t just coffee shops or stores, they were full on coffee plantations. We got a free tour of the place and then were offered samples of every kind of coffee you can imagine. We tried chocolate, vanilla, and Balinese coffee, and then the real treat (and the only one that wasn’t free – in fact it’s one of the most expensive coffees we’ve ever tried; $5 a cup, whereas coffee typically costs 50 cents in SE Asia) the Luwak coffee. Basically, this animal is very picky about its coffee beans. They eat only the best ones and then poop them out. The poop is collected and these coffee beans are used to make this very special coffee. It sounds pretty gross but we had to try it!
We made it back to Ubud and then got ready for our activity of the evening, a Balinese dance show. We had bought tickets the night before for this show, which we heard we had to see. It was about an hour long and seemed much more like a religious ritual than a dance, but it was very interesting and cool to see. There were plastic chairs set up for us to sit on around a big fire. As the show started, about 100 shirtless men came out, sat around the fire and started chanting (which they continued for the duration of the show). Then, other characters came out and acted out a story, but since it wasn’t in English it was hard to follow (very similar to the puppet show we saw in Hanoi, Vietnam). But again, definitely something worth seeing.
After the show, we had another local meal and then headed home. This time, we tried crispy duck (and a few other things), which is another very popular Balinese dish. It was great and now we’re looking forward to getting a whole roasted duck sometime during our trip.
For the next morning, we had booked a bus/ferry combo to get to Sengiggi in Lombok, where we were going for our overnight trek of Gunung Rinjani, the second biggest volcano in Indonesia. I have to admit that I was very ready for our next stop in Indonesia. And we were meeting our Thai friend there, so that was an added bonus.
So now that the Bali portion of our trip is over, the million dollar question… Do I like Bali? I want to say yes, I really do. There were certain parts that I liked a lot (surfing in Kuta, even the partying in Kuta, all the local food, Ubud was great and very beautiful) but overall this was definitely not one of my favorite places that we’ve visited (to put it nicely). We had heard very mixed things about Bali before arriving (some people loved it, others hated it), the latter mostly because of the hawkers, but I didn’t think that would bother me. I didn’t think it would be comparable to how we felt in India at all, but it was. Thank god the crowds and the heat weren’t factors here (that triple threat in India made it almost unbearable for us), but the people here were the most aggressive I’ve experienced in a long time and it’s not a good feeling at all. You always feel like you have to be on guard. You know that no one that’s coming up to you just wants to chat (in fact, one of the typical ways they start conversations with you is by asking you if you speak English, which obviously they know you do. Then they ask you where you’re from. The first few times, or even days, you try to be nice and respond by answering their questions and then politely saying you’re not interested in what they’re selling, but after a while, you just start ignoring them, and eventually, you sometimes even get angry). I thought our time in Bali would be one of our typical relaxing beach vacations (or as relaxing as the Staves can ever be), but I felt stressed and anxious for a lot of the time. And, I felt like I was always getting ripped off. It’s hard to describe the feeling of not being able to walk down the street without someone bothering you solely for your money, particularly when you’ve traveled so far and spent so much money and just want to experience their culture on your own terms. And then when you finally are interested in making a purchase, you’re constantly in fear that you’re paying more than you should, or not getting what you thought you were getting. That pretty much sums up our entire time in Bali.
The past few days here have been pretty eye opening for me. I kept thinking of the line from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy says, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” That’s exactly how I felt. We’re not in Thailand anymore (or any of the other similar countries we’ve visited). We’re in Indonesia and it’s been very different so far. I’m hoping that once we’re off the tourist track, we’ll experience a different side of Indonesia that we haven’t seen yet. A more local side – stay tuned to find out!