I just got back from my first trip to Bali. Huzzah! It was not at all what I expected—thanks to cursory Google image search, I had white sand and sheer blue skies on my mind. And though some of the beaches are swell (keep scrolling), there is so much more to Bali than screensaver-worthy shores.
It’s a mixed bag of Indian and Chinese cultures, making for beautiful architecture and drool-inducing grub. And what’s more, every neighborhood has its own character; some travelers swear by Seminyak with its posh infinity pools and boutique shopping; while others love the temples, jungles, yoga retreats and mystique of Ubud. Personally, I fell hardest for Uluwatu, which is a quiet escape from some of the traffic and crowded corners of Bali’s more touristy sites.
Here are few must-do experiences for any first-timer.
- Bike through Ubud
One of the best ways to experience Ubud, commonly considered the cultural center of Bali, is to take a peek at the area’s backroads.
What Balinese folks may consider quotidian day-to-day routines in the rice paddies and tiny villages is visually striking for those who never get these kinds of landscapes.
Coming from Hong Kong, it was refreshing to simply see miles of greenery. Turn after turn, our three-hour bike ride took us past countless rice paddies and pagodas.
Book: Bintang Tours ((+62) 361-981-699, www.balibintangtour.com)
- Eat ‘Dirty’ Duck
One thing you can absolutely count on is awesome food. Round every corner, you’ll find an assortment of roasted and fried meats, fresh fruits and plenty of seafood. One of the best meals we had was certainly the heaping plates of fried duck at Bebek Bengil, aka Dirty Duck (Jalan Hanoman, Ubud, (62) 361-975-489, www.bebekbengil.com).
Not only was the food awesome, but the big, spacious pagodas overlook rice paddies. If it’s not too crowded, walk all the way towards the back of the restaurant and head to the second floor for the best views.
- Tour the Temples
You’d be surprised just how many temples there are in Bali. More than there are coffee shops in Manhattan, that’s for sure. Some of the most striking are in Ubud, so be sure to hit up the Water Palace and the Ubud Palace, which are just a couple blocks away from each other.
Along the way, you’re sure to pass by some personable statues, as well, like this jolly character.
- Hang with Monkeys
Before heading to Bali, I heard mixed reviews from friends and coworkers about the Monkey Forest. Some said it’s not worth the measly IRD20,000 (US$2) entrance fee while others warned of aggressive monkeys.
The easy path around the forest is, indeed, swarming with implausibly hungry monkeys (they must eat 100 plantains a day!) but they only bother you if you have something of value (read: bananas!). As I am scarred from a brutal monkey attack when I was 10 years old (as I remember it, I was pummeled by a mama monkey; but my parents insist it was just one foul smack), I opted to forgo the fruit and keep my distance.
My friends were much more optimistic, resulting in a couple harmless pictures and only one menacing snarl. With or without the monkeys the park has a very spooky aura about it; definitely worth a visit in my book.
- Head South
The most popular areas to stay in Bali seem to be Ubud (for obvoius reasons), Seminyak (for comfy luxe abodes), Nusa Dua (pretty but artificial resort and Kuta (God knows). Instead, venture down to Uluwatu, which is at the tip of the souther peninsula. It’s about an hour’s drive from Seminyak; two from Ubud.
Here, you can swap hectic crowds, stifling traffic and sub-par beaches for cliffside resorts and quiet surrounds. It’s a mix of culture, with picturesque villages peppered throughout, and luxury, with high-end resorts such as Banyan Tree, Alila and Semara setting up camp.
Don’t miss the Uluwatu Temple while you’re exploring; and it’s best to hire a driver for a few hours unless you’re comfortable renting a motorbike.
- Catch a Sunset
We stayed at the Anantara Uluwatu for a night, which is perched atop a cliff overlooking Impossible Beach. It’s called “Impossible” because of the rocky shores that jut out far into the surf. When the tide is low, you can see all of the rocks beneath—not so great for swimmers, but apparently it’s one of the best coves for surfers. In any case, it makes for a lovely backdrop for a sundowner.
- Binge on Seafood
It’d be an absolute shame to leave such a seafood paradise without tasting the catch of the day. Everyone I talked with recommended Jimbaran Bay for a great seafood and sunset combo, particularly Menega Cafe (Jalan Raya Senggigi 6, (+62) 370-6634-422, www.menega.com). An obvious hotspot come late afternoon, this place was packed with people.
Even so, we just had to wait about 15 minutes for a table with a view of the sunset. There were tanks of fresh fish, shrimps and squids to choose from, which are then grilled in the smokey kitchen and served piping hot.
- Find a Beach
If you’re staying in Seminyak, then you are in a for a big disappointment when it comes to the beaches. There are only a handful of acceptable surfs, perhaps . The area makes up for this with cool beach clubs such as Potato Head, but if you want the real thing then it’s best to hang in Uluwatu.
There are a couple of good options: Nusa Dua, where the waves are tame and the sand is fine and Padang Padang, made famous by “Eat Pray Love.” The latter is indeed a beautiful little cove that you access via a cave, but the swarms of tourists snapping pictures seem to have spoiled its original ambience.
There’s also Balangan, which is popular among the surfer crowd, and Pandawa Beach, which costs IRD5,000 (US$0.50 ) to enter due to the elaborate statues carved into the cliffs. The beach itself is quiet and calm, with lounge chairs for rent and plenty of dining options.
Of course, you can also get your sunny fix at one of the awesome beach clubs; for example, Finn’s Beach Club at the Semara Hotel. If you spend IRD250,000 (US$22) on drinks and lunch, then you can hang at the club all day for free. It’s an awesome experience: you take a funicular down to the ocean, where there’s a beachside resto, lounge chairs and ocean for as far as you can see.
Ahhh. That’s more like it.
- Devour Pork
Not a fan of seafood? Not to worry, Bali is famous for its incredible pork selections. Whether you want roasted pork, fried chops, suckling pig or juicy ribs: you can find it here. Here are two staples:
Naughty Nuri’s: It’s the king of ribs in Bali. Admittedly, the surrounds are more than a little westernized, and there’s a hell of a lot of pervy Miss Piggy memorabilia, but the food is just bang on. Try the signature ribs, with a corn on the cob and a side of mashed potatoes. (+62) 361-977-547, www.naughtynurisbali.com
Ibu Oka: The popularity of Ibu Oka exploded after Anthony Bourdain made a visit, but this spot totally deserves the fanfare. We ate at the Ubud branch, which sits in a village-like setting with temples strewn all around. Try the daily special (IRD30,000; US$2.64 ), which includes a bit of suckling pig as well as fried pork, rice and the secret sauce. Get there for lunch before 1pm, as the resto stops serving suckling pig as soon as soon as it runs out. Jalan Tegal, (+62) 361-976-435.
Where to Stay: I’d suggest at least three nights in Ubud, a night or two in Seminyak and the rest in Uluwatu. One way to score an inexpensive yet baller villa is through Airbnb. I traveled with five friends, and we each paid about US$150 total for five nights in a three-bedroom, three-bathroom villa with a pool. Not too shabby.
When to Go: Though Bali is reliably sunny all year round, with some monsoon spells from October to March. Generally, May through September is considered the best time to visit.
Currency: US$1 = IRD11,363 (Indonesian Rupiah), which means US$5 is about IRD56,818.
Any Bali experts out there have any other must-do’s for first-timers? Let me know in the comments!