A sprawling green landscape of dramatic shelves staircased into the hills as far as the eye can see – Indonesia’s rice terraces are the first picture that comes to mind for many people when thinking about Bali. Or Ketut – the wise old medicine man in the blockbuster sellout Eat Pray Love that drew travellers to flock to Bali in their thousands. So is it as idyllic as the paradise painted in Gilbert’s much loved adventure, or has the attention it’s received since damaged the serenity of the atmosphere and cultural authenticity?
Eat, Pray, Love
I’ve wanted to travel to Bali ever since, as clichéd as it is, I read that book all those years ago. It spoke to me at a time when I’d been through a heavy break up and decided that travel was the answer to heal my broken heart.
But in the time that passed before I booked my flights, its popularity boomed, and inevitably so did the idea that it was now overrun by tourists. However, that is also said about Thailand, where I did manage a trip a few months earlier and found it more authentic and peaceful than the lurid images of incapacitated teenagers and sordid sex industry you often see on television. There are two sides to every story.
Bali has also increasingly been known for a more gentle form of tourism – the ecotourism and associated yogis, vegan travellers, and peace-loving nomads. So after months of looking at pictures, flicking through Lonely Planet and idly dreaming, I booked my tickets.
Ubud is the obvious hub for most travellers and a beating heart of culture. It’s known for its artists, musicians, writers, and cool cafes. The climate is much cooler here than in the rest of the island, making it much more comfortable to stroll around. The culture is also much calmer. It’s not known as a partying destination, and although you can check out live music and chill vibes at spots like the Laughing Buddha or the shisha lounge at night, you’re unlikely to see white teenagers vomiting all over the streets in the early hours of the morning. I’d also strongly recommend checking out a traditional Balinese dance show, which run most nights of the week.
If you want to do a spot of yoga, there are more shalas than you can wave a stick at. The Yoga Barn is the most popular, but there are also free classes run around the city, or are often included in many hostels or hotels. It’s a haven for vegan food, and you can see what I ate here.
Ubud is also the hub for all of the most popular activities in Bali. It’s a short cab ride from the Tegallalang rice terraces, where you can hike up and down through the paddies and breathe in the warm, wet, earthy tropical atmosphere and take note of exactly where you are.
The Monkey Forest is a very popular spot. I was unsure how I felt about the idea of animals being entertainment, but our day there turned out to be one of the most fun. While I disliked the way the keepers would taunt monkeys to get them to jump on tourists for better photos (they do this sometimes anyway), on the whole they ran – and jumped – and scrambled – freely around the forest without a care for anyone watching. If you’re a photographer it’s a great chance to get some shots.
The Bali Swing is also a fun trip and a chance to swing out over the jungle, albeit a bit pricey, but it does make for some good insta photos.
One of my favourite ways to connect to a culture is through its food. I would recommend taking cooking classes wherever you travel if you can. Not only does it help you to learn how the food you’re eating is cooked and try new ideas, it also connects you more to the natural habitat of a place when you are cooking with ingredients that are fresh and local – not like anything you’d find in Sainsburys. I really enjoyed my trip to Pembulan Cooking School where we harvested our food before cooking up a five course vegan feast.
If you’re exhausted by the city and want to come to Bali for a chill beach hangout, Canggu is a little surf town where you can unwind and read a book all day without disturbance. It’s also home to even more vegan hangouts than you can shake a stick at. And if you do want to party, this is the place to do it, particularly in the high season.
Craving more of a peaceful vibe, I spent a few days at Serenity Eco Guesthouse. A yoga hangout with an all vegan restaurant on site and a huge pool, this place is an idyll tucked away just a minute’s walk from the beach. The yoga schedule is impressive, but given the comparable heat in this part of the island, I stuck to the early morning classes, spending the rest of the day on the beach.
Canggu might not appeal to everyone because it’s extremely westernised. For those who fancy some time by the sea but with less of that sea being made up of white faces, I’d recommend heading to one of the smaller islands off Bali.
Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida
You can easily get to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida from the otherwise unexciting town of Sanur, a short ride from the airport. Boats run a few times a day and tickets can be bought at the dock. It’s notably less developed than the main island, but for that reason retains more charm and authenticity. Here you can catch the little bench bus taxis or just stroll about unencumbered to take in the dramatic cliff views or watch locals going about their work.
There are lots of beautiful beaches and if you can hack the heat, I’d recommend hiking about to see them, or if you can ride a scooter you can zip through the hills. It’s a great spot for photographers, with the dramatic landscapes of the Devil’s Tear and the Blue Lagoon.
It’s also known as a spot for divers. Although it can be a little rough, manta ray are very common in the area. For those (like me) that are a bit nervous of the deep-sea stuff, it’s also possible to book a very affordable snorkel tour around the island. Sadly we didn’t see mantas, but the array of brightly coloured fish and healthy coral, as well as a better view of the coastline made this a must-do on my trip and one of my favourite memories.
So is Bali spoiled by tourism?
There were certainly times when I became frustrated by the gaggles of tourists blocking the roads. Ubud in particular is overrun and as charming as it is, the ratio of tourists to local people is uncomfortable. Similarly in Canggu, while it was a peaceful spot and most of the tourists were the kindly yogi kinds, you did get a sense of an uncomfortable picture of white people being served by Indonesians and few Indonesians themselves on holiday. That said this did change during the Ramadam festival when people from other islands came to rest out on Bali. The smaller islands were certainly much quieter, and if this isn’t your vibe, I’d suggest going there instead.
Travel mindfully and favour ethical choices
There is a hypocrisy in describing places as unpleasant because they’re overrun with tourists when you yourself are contributing to the problem and part of that stat. I think the most important thing is to travel with respect, to enjoy a place for it’s scenery, cuisine, and people, and try to leave as minimal a footprint as possible.
On the whole, I’d say it’s still very worth visiting Bali. The landscapes are phenomenal, the food is to die for and less commonly known about, particularly for vegans. More than anything though, the people are amongst the kindest and most gentle you could imagine.
Indonesia is a country that has been through numerous natural disasters and many of its people live in extreme poverty. The tourism in Bali has made it one of the more affluent islands, but people still live a humble existence. Go to Bali, and be mindful of where you put your money. Favour local, family run hotels like Raka House over international complexes. Try to eat at local warungs as well as the cool hippie hangouts. And talk to people. Taxi drivers in particular are always up for a chat.
Would I go back? Sure. But next time I might visit one of the quieter islands or opt for a boat trip between a few of them. Indonesia has a culture and ethos I really enjoyed, and as conflicted I feel about it, I’d love to view more of it without the heavy haze of intense tourism.