26 July 2021
A paradise on Earth...
Bali - just one of Indonesia’s 17,500 islands - sits in the Indian Ocean, at the very eastern tip of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Just 8 degrees south of the equator, Bali is paradise on earth, boasting 12 hours of sunshine a day and an average year-round temperature of 27°C! At 5,780 km², this sprawling archipelago is home to 4,362,000 people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in Indonesia. In fact, its population density is beaten by only three other areas in the country: Ternate, Java - which we’ll be exploring in a future edition of Culture Curious - and Tarakan. With so many souls to call this one island home, you’d think Bali would feel crowded, but that isn’t the case... This is an island of contrasts, and while most live in the vibrant urban areas of the isle, Bali’s paradisiacal rural areas are the perfect escape from its buzzing social scene.
The Balinese are renowned for their friendliness, and my time in Bali and the surrounding islands definitely confirmed that. Whether it was simply striking up a conversation, sharing their food, or going out of their way to make sure I saw the best sights, the locals were a huge reason for why I loved this place so much.
What makes Bali, Bali?
1. Temples on temples on temples
It’s often said that in Bali, there are more temples than there are houses - some even estimate as many as 50,000! I remember thinking this MUST be an exaggeration, but boy was I wrong... It didn’t take long on the island to notice the sheer volume of temples - from the more elaborate ones like Uluwatu, right down to the tiny ones I saw in sleepy rural villages.
But why are there so many temples in Bali? The short answer is that - contrary to popular belief - the Balinese are not simply Hindu. The islanders follow a mixture of three practices: a Balinese tradition known as 'respect your ancestor', as well as Buddhism and Hinduism. The three form one unified religion: Bali Darma, or Balinese Hinduism, and the abundance of temples and ceremonies across the island serve to honour all three aspects of the religion.
About 25km from buzzing Kuta sits the serene temple Uluwatu. One of the island’s most famous temples, archaeological finds at Uluwatu suggest that it is of megalithic origin, built around the 10th century. Among the locals, it’s rumoured that this temple serves to protect Bali from evil sea spirits, with the monkeys who call the nearby forest home thought to guard the temple (just as they guard the temple, be sure to guard your belongings from their sneaky fingers!).
If looks are anything to go by, there’s no denying there’s something divine about this place... From the moment I arrived, a scenic pathway snaked from the entrance to the temple, offering breathtaking views all along the way. In Balinese, the word “ulu” means tip, or “land’s end”, while the word “watu” means “rock”. It’s a fitting name for this temple which sits perched on the plunging Bukit Peninsula cliff tops, along the island's southwestern tip - one of Bali’s best surf spots. Its magnificent clifftop setting offers dramatic views of the ocean waves as they crash into the cliff face below - a sight I only came to love more as the sky and sea were lit up by the magical glow of the sun setting.
Pura Tanah Lot
One of Bali’s most sacred sea temples, Pura Tanah Lot was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Set on a rocky islet surrounded by crashing waves, it is thought to have been inspired by the priest Nirartha, who asked local fishermen to build a temple here after spending a night on the rock. It is said that each of the sea temples - Pura Tanah Lot, Pura Luhur Ulu Watu, and Pura Rambut Siwi - were intended to be within sight of the next, forming a chain along Bali’s southwestern coast. From Pura Tanah Lot, you can usually see Pura Ulu Watu perched on a cliff top far to the south, and the long sweep of sea shore west to Perancak, near Negara. This is also a favourite location for watching the sunset - with throngs of tourists and locals alike weaving through a labyrinth of lanes lined by souvenir shops to witness it.
Pura Lempuyang Luhur
Popularly known as the Gates of Heaven, the Pura Lempuyang Luhur is a major tourist attraction in Bali. A hotspot for influencers and travel bloggers, you’ve probably seen the endless photo ops of carefree travellers standing between the gates in colourful sarongs, with gleeful faces reflected in a pristine reflective lake. But, as beautiful as the pictures are, they are not what they seem and the temple has sadly been turned into a tourist fad. Turns out, there is no stunning lake at the base of the stone monoliths; it’s actually an illusion created by a mirror held beneath the camera lens. This is one of Bali’s oldest and most highly regarded temples, but sadly, we seriously recommend leaving this one out of the itinerary. As much as I loved learning about the local culture in Bali, the rich history and beauty of this temple is somewhat lost in the hordes of tourists practising their IG poses all over the grounds.
Good to know: If you’re planning to visit any of the temples in Bali, you should dress modestly - a sarong and sash are customary. Tourists can only enter temples with permission from the village or local priest. Finally, women are not allowed to enter a temple while menstruating. This might seem sexist, but the reasoning behind the rule is that no blood - from any source - is allowed to be spilled in a temple. If you’re a woman, you’ll be asked before entering a temple whether you are menstruating - this is a normal practice in Bali and you will not be treated any differently if your answer is yes.
2. A whole new world (of wildlife)
Easily one of my favourite things about Bali and the surrounding islands was the wildlife. As a Londoner, pigeons are about the closest thing I ever get to nature, so I loved seeing all the unique animals when I was in Bali. In fact, probably my favourite part of my visit was a 4-day boat trip from Lombok to Komodo Island. The destination itself, Komodo National Park - home to the fierce Komodo Dragon - was exciting enough, but the journey made it even better. I went snorkelling with shoals of brightly coloured fish and ended up swimming right next to a huuuuge sea turtle! I saw dolphins swimming alongside the boat, and we even spotted a shark in the distance! Probably my biggest regret was leaving a day early, because I missed the opportunity to swim with manta rays. My friend who stayed a little bit longer said the rays were literally bigger than her - an absolutely insane experience that I can’t wait to try on my next visit!
Komodo National Park
By the time I arrived at the national park, I genuinely thought nothing could top the experience I’d just had over the last 3 days, but I’m not complaining that I was proven wrong... The national “park” is actually a whole island, designated a global conservation priority area thanks to its unique wildlife both on land and underwater. The island itself is of volcanic origin, which makes for some insane contrasting landscapes - from savannas to tropical forests; brilliant white sandy beaches and coral-filled blue waters to rugged hillsides and thorny vegetation. It was unquestionably one of the most dramatic landscapes I saw on my trip.
It’s no wonder, then, that the park attracts such a diversity of wildlife - including its namesake, the Komodo Dragon. The last of an ancient population of large lizards that once lived across Indonesia and Australia, the Komodo Dragon is the largest and heaviest of the world’s lizards, and it has the attitude to match! From the moment we arrived on the island, our guide instructed us to steer clear of these ferocious lizards, named for their aggressiveness and dragon-like appearance - and it wasn’t long before we saw why. A different guide - having gotten too close to a Komodo Dragon - expertly fended the creature off as it lunged at him... My heart skipped a beat, but he seemed completely unphased! Just a day in the life of a Komodo guide, I guess...
Fun fact: Komodo Dragons are venomous! On top of their immense speed and power, they're notorious for their venomous hunting strikes, similar to that of venomous snakes - now there’s an experience you DON’T want!
Ubud Monkey Forest
If reptiles aren’t really your thing, Bali is definitely not lacking in furry wildlife - in fact, I’d even go as far as to say monkeys are Bali’s pigeons! They’re everywhere, and if you’re not careful, they’ll rob you - so keep your wits about you when you’re near one of these sneaky thieves. Despite their kleptomaniac tendencies, it’s rare that I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t absolutely love these mischievous little creatures. If that sounds like you, you’ll love the Ubud Monkey Forest located just a 10 minute walk south of the town centre in Ubud.
Used to research macaque behaviour, the forest is interspersed with temples where you can observe monkeys close up. It feels almost mystical as you follow paved pathways that lead through thick forests of giant banyan and nutmeg trees, where moss-covered statues and ancient temples loom through the dense foliage. On the southwest side of the forest is one of three temples found here, the 14th-century Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal, where hundreds of monkeys swing through the trees and clamber over the walls. Meanwhile in the northwest of the forest, an ancient bathing temple, Pura Beji, nestles next to a cool stream and makes a beautiful backdrop for watching the monkeys' antics.
3. Landscapes galore
When it comes to Bali, if there’s one thing I can say with confidence, it’s that the entire island (and all of its surrounding islands) are a true feast for the eyes. From tall mountain ranges to stunningly clear waters, pink-hued beaches to jungle-like forests, Bali has a unique diversity of landscapes that constantly stunned me.
Mount Batur is something that I, unfortunately, missed out on. I had too much fun sampling the bars of Kuta the night before, slept through the pre-dawn wake up call for the trek, and instead listened enviously as my friends told me all about it. This sacred active volcano, based in Bali’s Kintamani District, is probably the part of my trip that I looked forward to the most. It’s 1,7000-meter summit is a 2-3 hour trek in the dark, but despite finding it difficult, my friends said that watching the sun rise over the misty mountains was all the reward they needed for their efforts. Views at the top stretch across the Batur caldera, the surrounding mountain range and beautiful Lake Batur - the island’s main source of irrigation water. I missed this insane sight, but I’ll definitely be back to see it one day!
If you’ve taken any interest in Bali before now, you’ve probably seen many pictures of the picturesque rice fields there! If you want to explore how rice is grown and harvested in Bali, and see some amazing natural beauty while you’re at it, the Tegallalang rice terrace is a must-do! Just a 30 minute drive north of Ubud, Tegallalang is one of the most famous rice fields in Bali. It’s not hard to see why - it’s beautiful emerald-hued pastures are stunning! Balinese friendliness shines through here, as local elders who own and cultivate the land invite visitors to sample their green coconut drinks.
Fun fact: Tegallalang and Jatiluwih - both Balinese rice fields - use a traditional water management cooperative called "subak," a UNESCO-recognized irrigation system that dates to the 9th century.
4. A culture of contrasts
Ubud Art & Culture
The centre of Balinese art and culture, Ubud is where the modern art movement in Bali was born. Set among royal palaces and temples, the majesticism of Ubud is undeniable. Explore local museums, galleries and collections all housed within traditional Balinese buildings, surrounded by serene tropical gardens. Discover the Agung Rai Museum of Art and the Neka Art Museum, where you’ll find works ranging from traditional to contemporary - including kris (ceremonial daggers), photography, and classical wayang (puppet-figure) paintings.
When you’re done exploring all the exhibitions Ubud has to offer, head to the Art Market - a labyrinth of colourful stalls teeming with carvings, sculptures, jewelry, sarongs, paintings, and homewares. This is one of the top tourist attractions in town, and the perfect place to find your souvenirs.
Opposite the market, you’ll find the Puri Saren Royal Ubud Palace, where you can attend a traditional Balinese dance performance during the evening. If you prefer more hands-on exploring, sign up for an art workshop at a local village, which can include traditional painting, mask-making, and jewelry making.
Good to know: It is not rude to haggle in Bali! In fact, bargaining is essential, and a good rule of thumb is to counter with half the asking price and barter upwards from there.
The Social Scene
As a woman who generally travels solo, I don’t tend to explore the party scene in many places - it’s a shame but hey, better safe than sorry! Since I was travelling with friends this time around, I was super excited to finally get to experience nightlife on my travels - and Bali did not disappoint… From beach clubs to bars, fancy cocktails to your run-of-the-mill beers, the island had everything I’d been missing. Bali takes its nightlife very seriously, with clubs opening around midnight and revellers partying until the early hours of the morning - I saw the sun rise more times than I could count on that trip (and yet, I still missed that Mount Batur sunrise...) But beyond nightclubs, probably my favourite thing about Bali was the beach clubs! I’d never been to a beach club before this trip, and the combination of stunning scenery, great music, and flowing drinks left me feeling absolutely starstruck.
5. The island dream
I spent half my time in Bali on the main island, and the other half exploring the smaller, surrounding isles. These tiny islands - most walkable on foot - are an absolute must-do if you’re heading to Indonesia!
The Gili Islands
Floating in crystal clear waters and fringed by coconut palm-lined white sand beaches, the Gili Islands were my very own paradise in Bali. Just an hour and a half journey by boat from Bali, they were the perfect getaway from the slightly more “happening” scene on the main island. What I loved most about the islands was their simplicity... I stayed on Gili Trawangan which is actually known for being more of a party island, but with cars and motorbikes banned from the island, it felt incredibly peaceful - so don’t worry, it’s definitely no Ibiza! One of my favourite things about Gili T was that the island housed a mosque - hearing the azaan in the morning was beautiful, and not something I expected from this predominantly Hindu side of Indonesia!
Nusa Penida is basically a miniature Bali. If you ever find yourself wondering what Bali would be like without Western influence, head to Nusa! Largely undisturbed, the slow paced living on this island makes it a really great place to just explore and relax.
Padar Island was one of my favourite stops on the 4-day boat trip to Komodo Island that I took. I’ve seen a lot of crazy views at the end of many hikes, but the summit of Padar Island is just unmatched. The unusual shape of the island - made up of three-crescent shaped beaches - made it one of the most satisfying views I’d ever seen. And standing on top of the island’s tallest mountain, the sunset over this strangely shaped island was just beautiful!
Fun fact: Padar Island was once home to Komodo dragons too! But lack of food and hunting drove them away from this island.
Good to know
Uber wasn’t a thing when I was in Bali, so make sure to download Go-Jek - the Balinese equivalent! They even do deliveries - just like UberEats!
Do not drink the tap water in Bali! You can brush your teeth with it, but that’s about it. We care about the environment, so consider buying a water purifier, or a reusable water bottle to fill up at restaurants!
The Hepatitis A vaccine is highly recommended for travel to Bali and Indonesia, as well as an up-to-date Tetanus shot (no more than 10 years)
Do not do drugs in Bali! We’re sure most won’t be tempted, but just in case... On nights out - especially in Kuta - I was offered magic mushrooms countless times, but Indonesia has some of the strictest anti-drug laws in the world and you never know who’s an undercover officer...
Beware of super cheap drinks! They’re usually made with arak which is a local moonshine known to contain dangerous amounts of methanol. As little as a teaspoon of methanol can cause blindness, so be careful!
"Just happy to be here"
The entire time I was in Bali, my friend and I could not stop saying to each other “we’re just happy to be here!” It became a bit of an inside joke, but it really reflected how I felt about the place... Every experience felt so wholesome - even the messy club nights! There was such an atmosphere of togetherness wherever we went, and the new experiences - whether they be food, landscapes or animals - left me feeling really satisfied with the trip.
James and Ed, two of the founders of Journee have also explored (and feel in love with) Bali! It remains a firm favourite amongst the Journee team, and is very much one of the places we might end up matching you with...