A No Bullshit Guide to Bali For First Time Travellers

guide to Bali Nicole Leigh West

When you’re walking in sweltering heat, dodging ‘death by motorbike’ on a footpath and grimacing at the next guy trying to sell you stuff, bullshit is, sometimes, the best word to describe a visit to Bali. Unfortunately, given that so many visitors only see a fragment of the island, it often suffers from negative reviews, a barrage a bad media and Bintang beer-induced rants.

On the flip side, read a glossy magazine travel feature and you’ll see luxury resorts, pools glistening on ocean-side cliffs and the lush, peaceful rice terraces dreams are made of. Really, the island encompasses both versions…and neither. To those of us who’ve fallen in love with the ‘Land of the Gods’, it’s the very contradictions that make it so special.

I’ve traversed the world and I rarely visit the same place twice, because who has time to do that, in just one lifetime? I can’t ignore the call of Bali though, and have found myself there nearly every year at some stage, over the last 10. This is a land of peaceful Hindu rituals, smiles, scrumptious Nasi Goreng, emerald rice terraces, awe-inspiring coastlines, innovative art, culture and outdoor showers. I could literally live in the outdoor showers.

This no bullshit guide to Bali is designed to give you some basic tips and tricks, debunk a few myths and help you make the most of what is one of the most raw, confounding and spectacular holiday destinations in the world.

Kuta, Legian and Seminyak. Which one should you choose?

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You know all those stories about drunk, beer guzzling Aussies causing mayhem, teenagers overdosing on methanol-laced drinks and bike-bandit bag snatchers? Though often over-hyped, this can be the downside of tourist-central Kuta. Having said that, with international resorts, designer shopping and pavements you won’t twist an ankle on, it’s much more civilised than you may have been lead to believe.

To ensure a thoroughly tourist-driven experience, access to raging bars at all hours and a huge range of Western dining options, stay here, close to the beach. The thing is, if you’re a keen walker like me, Legian and Seminyak are accessible on foot. It takes about an hour on the beach to walk into the heart of Seminyak from Kuta and you’ll find shops, bars and restaurants the whole way. Hire a pushbike and transport is even easier.

The closer you get to Seminyak, the less you’ll see of inebriated travellers (though you won’t escape that in this region, which is great if you want to join in). In any case, choosing to stay in Legian or Seminyak gives you the best of all worlds. Seminyak, in particular, is packed full of top-of-the-range restaurants, unique boutiques and luxury villas hidden from the crowds.

In terms of accommodation, the world is your proverbial oyster here. Book a top-end international resort with private beach access, hire a family villa with your own plunge pool or try a homestay for budget luxury.

Don’t be overly concerned by booking cheap accommodation, as most offer the tropical, traditional vibe you’re seeking, even if they don’t have TV’s. Just sit on your balcony and watch the action on the street – no reality TV show can compete.

A word on the beaches here though, they don’t compete with the beauty of other coastlines on the island. They are, however, exciting, full of people-watching opportunities and perfect for admiring the orange sun sinking into the sea after a long day of trekking.

Where to stay in Bali, that’s better than the hot spots?

Who’s to say what’s better, when we all have so many different travel preferences? Having said that, yes, there are hundreds of options to have a sublime Balinese  experience – and they are, arguably, better. Here’s a tiny sample.

Sanur – best for a taste of Bali with all the comforts of home

Sanur is on the southeast of the island, with a calm stretch of ocean perfect for safe swimming and relaxation. It’s the kind of place where you can dine on seafood, jump in the water and sit back on your bean bag ready for the next round. The main street is an organised stretch of fine-dining, traditional warungs, excellent shopping and supermarkets.

Stay at an ocean-front resort in style or an inland bed & breakfast for fantastic rates. Hire a push bike or a scooter for easy transport, or walk from spot to spot. On the beachfront pathway, dragonflies escort you to your next destination. Life really couldn’t get much easier, or the vibe more laid -back. It’s not a place for all-night party animals – it’s more suited to families, couples looking for a romantic atmosphere and seniors. However, if you want nightlife, you’ll find it at Casablanca or an array  of restaurants with live music.

Nusa Dua – best for luxury lovers

When you drive into the gated estate that is Nusa Dua, it’s easy to forget you’re in Bali. For a long time, I was convinced this was a travesty. However, friends with children have stayed in utter luxury, for amazing prices, with perfect pavements, manicured gardens, easy entertainment options and security, and loved it. If you need to push a stroller and you don’t want any inconvenience, this might be the place for you.

All-inclusive resorts take the stress of travel away, combined with a shopping centre that’d be well suited to Los Angeles. Along with stress, any sense of the ‘real Bali’ isn’t really on display here. However, if you want to escape life and experience luxury with a hint of the exotic – without the huge price tag of most tourist destinations – you can most certainly do it here.

Ubud – best for new age seekers

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A friend once said to me, “Ubud has more Yoga schools than you can downward dog to”. It’s a funny statement, and oh so a true. When you’re looking for spiritual healing therapists, organic restaurants, natural beauty products or crystals, you’ll find them on every corner. Though it’s seemingly consumed by the New Age movement, you can feel the reason for it, when you’re there.

It is, quite simply, a purely magical place, though you can’t quite put your finger on why. Other than ferdant jungles, monkeys, rice terraces, traditional villages and an eclectic jumble of people from all over the world bringing a vibe that’s truly invigorating. The main strip is crowded, full of tourist buses and awful on a really hot day. Just walk up any side street though, to find oasis-like restaurants, homestays, unique boutiques and rice paddie walks that melt the most well-travelled hearts.

By all means, stay at premier resorts to experience the full force of nature at its best. Rushing whitewater rivers, pathways swarming with butterflies and villas overlooking valleys where leaves drift across the air like softly falling snow, await. Not to mention infinity pools tipping on the edge of ravines, private butlers and gourmet dining for ridiculously cheap prices.

But, it’s in the small village homestays that visitors experience the traditional experience, with chickens running free, children bathing in canal systems and local villagers with a ready smile for everyone. I spent a month in Lotunduh, just a short 10 minute scooter ride from town, in a charming Airbnb within these surrounds and could have happily spend three lifetimes there.

Uluwatu – best for surfers, hippies and serious sun worshippers

Home to the perennial popular Single Fin Bar and Restaurant overlooking a famous surf break, Uluwatu is the ideal playground for ocean-loving souls. For the most part, it’s a chilled out region, where you can ride your scooter across peaceful, tree-lined roads to beaches so beautiful it hurts to leave.

You won’t find much peace at Padang Padang beach, made famous in the movie Eat Pray Love, but it’s worth a swim in the aqua seas. Balangan Beach is off the beaten track, with secluded, shimmering coves to seek at low tide, ramshackle warungs and dedicated surfers.

Bingin Beach is a favourite of expats, with charming laneways lined with luxury villas. To get to the rock-strewn sand, it’s a steep climb down stairs dotted with warungs and homestays. Once there, seafood restaurants and pristine water welcomes you, along with afternoon sunsets of extraordinary beauty. It’s a little world unto itself, populated by yoga-lovers, bohemian souls and, of course, surfers.

Pemutaran – best for divers, eco-friendly vibes and chilled-out holiday-makers

If you’re willing to get off the beaten path and go on a five or so hour drive from the main tourist precincts, Pemutaran and the surrounding region up north, is worth the journey. It’s refreshingly eco-friendly, with a community-driven reef restoration project well underway. Divers use Pemutaran as a base to discover the coral gardens and marine life of Menjangan Island.

This isn’t a party place by any means, but cocktails and bintang flow at beachfront restaurants and warungs, with Bob Marley tunes for vibe. The water is calm for relaxing swimming under the dramatic cliffs of West Bali National Park and you can explore monkey-filled temples for a culture fix.

Going to the Gili Islands

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It’s easy to get to the paradiscial Gili Islands if you book a tour from your hotel. However, it’s generally cheaper to head to Padang Bai with a private driver and go from there. You’ll be inundated with offers for fast boats and if you want to narrow down the options, pop into the Patagonia office along the harbour. It’s a fast and comfortable service I recently experienced, with plenty of chairs on the deck, comfortable air-conditioned seats inside, and food and drinks available.

For relative peace and quiet, choose Gili Air or Gili Meno. You’re likely to find stretches of sand to yourself, with enough restaurants and bars for variety. Gili Trawangan, or ‘Gili T’, as it’s affectionately known, is a hotspot for parties, especially along the main harbour strip. If you stay here, you’ll hear late night music as far as five or six streets from the beachfront.

No traffic pollutes the pedestrian streets, however bike-riders, horse and carts and a throng of holiday-makers create an exciting buzz at all hours. Further north, you’ll find serene hotels and white-sands to lull you into blissful rest, without the tide of tourists. Whichever island you choose, it’s worth the trip for tropical surrounds

Should you worry about  ice in drinks or eating salads?

As a travel writer, I feel a strong sense of responsibility, in that, yes, of course you should be careful about consuming ice and salads washed in the local water of any country, of which you can’t drink. These days in Bali, there aren’t many tourist establishments that are going to serve you undrinkable ice or salad that’s going to result in the dreaded ‘Bali Belly’. It’s just not in their best interest to do so. What does this mean? You don’t need to worry about it too much, in most places that caters to tourists.

Some bars even have, ‘don’t worry about the ice’ signs. Ask staff, if you feel you need to, if the ice is made from filtered water. They may or may not tell the truth.Then, come to your own conclusion as to whether or not it’s OK – use your intuition. In all my travels I’ve had very bad food poisoning just once, from an ‘All-American’ hot dog in a popular, very expensive restaurant in New York. Not in Bali, or Korea, Africa or even India – New York. You just never know, so don’t presume the worst, based solely on pre-conditioned ideas.

What about transport?

Transport is a point of contention for many first-time travellers to Bali, mainly due to the rigorous haggling involved. You can always just jump in a taxi or take the first offer you get from a private driver, if you can’t be bothered and money isn’t an issue. Many holiday-makers take trips with the same driver for the whole time, which is easy and you’ll know the price upfront. Typically, drivers will quote about $30 – $40 upwards for a drive of about 60 minutes and they’ll also act as your very own personal guide to Bali.

To save dosh though, bargain for the best price with a few drivers in the vicinity. In low season, you’ll definitely succeed. Uber and Grab operate throughout Bali and offer the cheapest rides. Whether your driver will show up or not can be hit or miss though, as the services are staunchly opposed by Bali’s so-called ‘taxi mafia’.

If you already ride a motorbike and are pretty comfortable in crazy traffic, this is the best option and costs about $7 a day to hire one, on a short term basis. Though it’s tempting not to, wear a helmet to avoid getting pulled over and ‘bribed’ by police, especially in main tourist districts. Plus, well, safety and all that.

A guide to Bali, final note

guide to bali

As far as a simple guide to Bali goes, go and have a luxury experience that’s so easy, luscious and inexpensive, you might find it hard to match. Or, delve into the organised chaos and emerge with insights into life you wish you could experience at home. The thing is, even if you’re staying in a six-star resort, you’ll eventually come across the angry bark of a stray dog, an ant-infested corner in the bathroom or an inconvenient blackout. It’s a place where everything goes and you’re best to expect to unexpected. 

Travel writer and regular Bali resident, Paul Walters, once described the Bali lifestyle to me as one with precious few ‘rules’. Coming from Australia, I mentioned that just riding a push bike without a helmet offers welcomed relief for me, from unnecessary restrictions.The restrictions in Bali are of a different kind, but only if you’re a stickler for Western-style organisation and bug-free environs. I say, give me an outdoor shower beneath the shade of a frangipani tree any day.

I’ll happily make friends with the bugs, for the privilege alone.

Thanks for sharing!

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