I’ve been traveling to Bali for as long as I can remember. If I were to hazard a guess, at least 20 times. In the 80s when I was only a few years old, my parents and I spent our summers (German summers, not Australian summers) in Indonesia, and we always made a stop in Bali. We stayed in a Rp 20,000 inn, also known as a losmen in Indonesian. Our regular losmen was Kedin’s Inn nestled in Kuta’s Poppies Lane. It actually still exists to this day, though not for Rp 20,000. That was including breakfast in the 80s and 90s – seriously crazy. My memories at Kedin’s Inn are punctuated by a basic room with a bed, a fan and lots of cold showers. As well as eating jaffles or black rice with bananas for breakfast. Now the losmen has even been upgraded with a pool.
Fast forward 20 years and Bali has a changed completely in my eyes. Kuta is infested with drunk, insufferable Australians in Bintang singlets (soz Aussie friends, I love you but it’s getting pretty embarrassing in Bali). Ubud is now traffic-ridden. I’ve gotten scammed at a dodgy money exchange in Legian even though I speak Indonesian fluently. Despite all this, it doesn’t stop me from going back to Bali. Even after the Bali bombings. Even after the 1998 riots. With every tragedy Bali took a while to bounce back. And despite its bittersweet history it still has a very special place in my heart.
Here’s the low-down on some of the Balinese spots I’ve visited in my life.
My favorite spot in Bali (now that I’m all old and stuff) is Ubud in Central Bali, where it’s quieter, it’s abundant with lush rice paddies, and there’s the opportunity to absorb a bit of culture. There’s also some great food in Ubud: head to Ibu Oka for some fantastic babi guling (spit-roasted pig) with crackling. Bebek Bengil is an institution, too – it’s expansive and so popular that you often have to queue up before you’re allocated a table. Bebek Bengil means dirty duck in Indonesian, so make sure you order the duck. It comes with three types of chilli, all of which I adore.
Other than eating delicious food and maybe shopping in some of the small boutiques, you can watch Balinese dance performances. There tend to be shows on every night – find out from your hotel what time and where. I always love the Kecak or Legong. The Barong freaks me out a bit though – the creepy masks and long fingernails have scared me since I was a kid.
I highly recommend The Yoga Barn if you’re a yogi. It’s a huge estate, including a cafe and even some guestrooms. There are a handful of yoga studios, and the open-air studio up top has a fab view of the leafy, green surroundings. It completely trumps the closed-up studios in Australia. There’s just nothing better than being at one with nature while you flow through a vinyasa.
The Monkey Forest is a must. I’ve gone numerous times, and it doesn’t really get old. The monkeys are hilarious, but make sure you’ve packed everything away in your bag because the little suckers like stealing stuff.
De Ubud Villas is my favorite place to stay in Ubud, but that’s potentially because it was the most expensive and therefore the nicest. I’ve otherwise stayed in budget-friendly hotels that average around the 50 AUD mark per night. A lot of Ubud hotels look the same, adopting the Balinese design that I love. If you can, stay at a hotel with an outdoor bathroom or with views of rice paddies to get the true Balinese experience.
Warning: Most recently I stayed at the Putri Ayu Cottages, but I got bed bug bites there, and even brought them back to Australia, so I don’t recommend staying there.
The downside of Ubud: There’s no beach nearby and it can get really hot because it’s lacking that coastal breeze.
I loved staying in Kuta when I was young, when it wasn’t swarming with a million tourists. Instead it had a small-town feel to it; tiny lanes were dotted with offerings and friendly shopkeepers would befriend us instead of hassle us.
Now it’s a place I avoid. The streets are lined with grotty bars and clubs like Bounty where I remember one night a few years ago there were so many Australians that the DJ started chanting, “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi”. Cringe. Next door there’s a reggae bar called Apache if you wanna chillax a bit more.
I still have a soft spot for the Hard Rock Hotel ideally located opposite Kuta Beach, where I stayed for spring break (the equivalent of schoolies here in Australia) and a few other times. The pool is the main drawing card: there are bookable cabanas with stairs and ladders leading straight into the pool, a water slide, and even a faux beach in the middle complete with beach volleyball. Note that I haven’t been there in the last decade if anything has changed.
Otherwise I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed staying at Poppies Cottages, an upmarket Balinese-style hotel featuring cottages with decorative wooden doors. The restaurant there is also quite well-known. One of my favorite memories is back in 2009 where I was laying by the pool, drinking a cocktail in a coconut that had been carved into a Balinese mask. It’s the little things!
On Poppies Lane, I still return to have a quick meal at Kedin’s Inn restaurant and I still have fond memories of the Bamboo Corner, a cheap and cheerful warung. The place is far from fancy, but you can get fed for as low as two bucks. Stick to Indonesian items whether it’s a kangkung stir-fry (water spinach) or staples like nasi goreng.
As Kuta’s neighbor, Legian is a slightly better alternative to stay. There are a few fancy hotels along Legian Beach like the Padma and Legian Beach Hotel. Legian isn’t as packed as Kuta, and the beach is also a tad quieter. It’s also closer to Seminyak, so getting around is quite easy.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum, I’ve stayed at Tune Hotel (by Air Asia) or Puri Naga. Tune Hotel is actually perfect if you don’t care so much about big rooms – it’s clean, it’s small and it’s super-affordable in a great location.
Legian Beach is flanked with a bunch of restaurants and bars, so getting a good feed isn’t difficult here. And you get bonus sunset views. There’s a famous bakso cart (meatball in soup) at Double Six Beach near Zanzibar, where there’s often even a line-up. It’s served with a spoonful of chilli – watch out; it’s pretty dang spicy.
Generally I recommend staying in Seminyak as it’s littered with solid accommodation, wonderful restaurants, cocktail bars, boutiques, and beach clubs. It’s also centrally located, so getting around is a breeze. Seminyak is teeming with villas which is ideal if you’re in a bigger group – I’ve stayed in Arman Villa which was very nice, as well as De’Bharata Villa which wasn’t quite as nice.
There are a bunch of good restaurants in Seminyak like Ultimo and La Lucciola serving decent Italian food. But if you’re more interested in Indonesian food head to Made’s Warung – a bonus is that every night there’s a Balinese dance performance or live music.
The nightlife is much more polished in Seminyak with a plethora of cocktail bars and even a champagne bar to choose from. Head to Ku De Ta for sunset cocktails. Potatohead is a beach club by day and a restaurant/bar by night. I’ve actually only ever been there in the evenings, but I hear during the day it’s pretty fun, too.
Still located in South Bali, but further up north from Seminyak is Sanur, a quieter, beachside resort area. It’s generally popular with older families. Getting to restaurants in Seminyak or Kuta takes a 30-minute ride though – watch out for traffic, too. I’ve stayed at the Putri Santrian a few times, which has a nice, relaxed vibe about it.
South Bali is where most people end up when visiting Bali, and while Kuta or Seminyak are probaby the most popular, in Nusa Dua the selling point is the abundance of lavish resorts. The beaches have a golden tinge to them, and there are plenty of water sports and activities here. I’ve never done resort-living in Bali (like I did in Fiji), but staying in Nusa Dua has its down-sides because it’s a bit more difficult to get anywhere else due to its southern peninsula location. The same goes for Uluwatu or Jimbaran.
Check out Jimbaran Beach for a fabulous seafood feast at sunset. I’ve been to both the expensive side and the cheaper side, though I wouldn’t actually be able to tell you how to get to either. Both times I’ve arrived there in a car. If you’re taking a taxi, it’ll most likely take you to the expensive, fancier side, where the beach restaurants are adorned with table cloths. On the other side, it’s all plastic tables and chairs. But you’ll be getting a good seafood fix either way.
If you’re interested in a sleepier village, Padangbai in East Bali is the place to be. Instead of luxury resorts or villas, homestays and inns are the norm here. It’s a great place for snorkeling and diving. A snorkeling trip on a long tail boat is reasonably priced. We were able to go on a private trip, which beats going on a tour with a bunch of strangers who take up all your snorkeling space. (If you haven’t figured it out already, I don’t like people).
For some beach action, head to Bias Tegul Beach. You’ve gotta walk a bit to get there, but it’s worth it. It feels small and secluded; the sand is white; the water is clear.
Padangbai has a good amount of budget-friendly restaurants serving good local food. And if you’re game for street food, there are also street-side vendors.
If you’re also planning to visit neighboring island Lombok, it could be worth doing a stop in Padangbai because it’s a ferry port to Lombok, including the Gili islands.
Amed and Tulamben are fishing villages in East Bali that are great for diving. Because my dad was an avid diver when I was a kid, we often stayed in dive spots. The unfortunate thing is that there’s not much else to do in these areas. But if you’re into diving or snorkeling it’s worth a go. There’s even a ship wreck that you can access as a snorkeler because it’s so close to the shore – I still remember snorkeling there when I was young, bringing along bananas that the fish would nibble on. In Amed I’ve stayed at Hotel Uyah Amed Spa & Resort, which is also where my dad and stepmom got married.
Up north the beaches are laden with dramatic black sand. I’ve stayed in Lovina which is known as a good spot for diving and snorkeling, as well as dolphin watching in the early mornings. I’ve also shacked up in Pemuteran, which is close to Lovina but technically located in West Bali. If you’d rather chill on white sand beaches though, stay south.
We didn’t hike up Mount Batur, an active volcano in north east Bali, but we stayed in the area. I’m not really into hiking, but if you are – consider doing the trek up (maybe not in the rainy season though). It’s much cooler here, which is quite an odd vibe for Bali. The landscape is lovely and we also checked out Batur Natural Hot Springs, which are pools filled with natural thermal mineral waters that are at a balmy 38°-39°C. There’s a small, shallow pool hilariously named Floating Sunburn – though when we were there it wasn’t sunny at all.
As a general rule here are some things you should order if you see them on a menu:
– juice: they’re almost always freshly juiced, and they’re especially good when made of tropical fruits like papaya, mango or pineapple
– lassi: the same thing applies with tropical fruit lassis
– black rice pudding with coconut milk and banana: this was a breakfast staple for me when I was little; it’s not as easy to get anymore, but if you see it on a menu, order it! Also works as a dessert.
– banana pancakes: also a breakfast staple! The Balinese pancake is something halfway between a crepe and a pancake. Thicker than a crepe but not fluffy like American pancakes. Slices of banana (sometimes also pineapple) are inside the pancake. They’re usually served with Indonesian honey, which can have sour notes.
– nasi bungkus: it’s a local specialty of rice and chicken and other good stuff wrapped up in banana leaves and paper, held together with a rubber band. This might be hard to find though because you’d general get it in warungs.
Visit Tanah Lot, a temple that’s on the water. Go white water rafting at Telaga Waja River. Get into water activities like parasailing, banana boating or jetskiing around Nusa Dua. Shop for sarongs or other Indonesian souvenirs (always, always bargain: my rule of thumb is that you can often go as low as half the price they first throw at you; only go up incrementally; you can even try the walking away method if they’re refusing to lower their price: you walk away, they’ll yell ‘okay, okay, okay’ and give it to you at the price you suggested). For ultimate relaxation, head to a spa. Get reflexology on your feet or get a typically Balinese manicure with flowers.
It’s still my dream to stay at one of the cliff villas at the Alila in Uluwatu. I’m also yet to explore the amazing white-sand beaches down south like Dreamland. Also on my wishlist is Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the southeast coast, known for its clear, turquoise water.