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When Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love in Bali in Eat, Pray, Love, many of us developed our own love affair with the island. Offscreen, the unedited product does not disappoint. A shell of magnificent beaches and coastline encapsulates a vibrant Hindu culture, welcoming Balinese population and lush tropical jungles that float above a turquoise sea. At first glance, however, you may not see what sets this island apart from any other paradise. Here are 10 lesser-known tips to ensure that you have a heavenly stay on the Island of the Gods.
1. The Magic of Ubud Lies Beneath the Surface
Ubud was the center of Gilbert’s spiritual journey, as it is for many transplants from around the globe. Thankfully, there are no storefront healers with neon signs selling hourly sessions like a fortune teller, so you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find its true spirit. There are daily events and workshops that span the full spectrum of spirituality and self-growth, including talks, workshops, contact dance, cacao ceremonies, tantra, healing and meditation.
The best way to learn about these events is from an Ubudian. So at a local vegan cafe, strike up a conversation with the guy next to you sporting a mun and a beard or say hi to the lady who just ordered a spirulina smoothie and dresses like your high school friend who goes to Burning Man. Chances are they can connect you with an event or coach to begin your journey. You can also check the Facebook pages of local venues and restaurants such as Paradiso, Alchemy or Akasha. At Akasha, all of those dreamcatchers have been successful — you almost expect to see Tinkerbell bouncing around this fairytale setting — which makes it the perfect space for chasing your dreams.
2. Quality Massages Cost Less Than $10
While massages at resorts and some upscale spas can still run $100 or more, streets in tourist areas are lined with massage parlors offering much cheaper alternatives. You’ll sacrifice a bit in ambience, but you can find a comparable massage for 90% less. Quality can vary, so research masseuses on TripAdvisor or get an expat recommendation first. That’s how I found Boreh Pijat Salon and Sauna in Ubud. A one-hour massage followed by a Boreh treatment — a traditional Balinese herbal healing scrub — and 30 minutes in a wood-fired sauna cost me all of 160,000 IDR (~$12).
3. Some Beaches Get Polluted in Rainy Season
Bali is home to many beautiful beaches, but during the rainy season (October to April) the tourist hotspots of Kuta Beach and Seminyak Beach may not be among them. When rainfall is heavy, trash and pollution from the nearby and densely populated Denpasar area is carried into rivers that drain directly into the ocean, producing beaches that resemble the contents of a Shop-Vac. Kuta is still the heart of the island’s nightlife and Seminyak has great dining and shopping year-round, but if you’re looking for a pristine oceanfront vacation, try Uluwatu or the beaches near Padang Bai. Or you can escape the main island to Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan or the nearby Gili Islands.
4. You Can Stay in a Real Balinese Family Compound
Many Balinese families live in compounds that follow an ancient architecture in which everything is strategically placed and aligned according to the laws of Balinese Hinduism. These walled karangs can hold several generations of families and have one small opening toward the street. Immediately past the entrance is a decorative wall to cast off bad spirits. Once inside, you’ll feel as if you’ve entered a palace. The houses are covered in intricate carvings and colorful, ornate doors. Each compound features its own temple and sculptures while impeccably kept lush gardens complete the grounds.
Many of these compounds rent out a few rooms or bungalows for much less than a hotel or resort. Some are listed on Booking.com, but for many of them, you’ll have to just walk right in and ask if anything is available. For 250,000 IDR (~$19) per night, I stayed at the Savira Bungalows in Ubud, which came with a pool, simple daily breakfast and the nicest host family you could ask for.
5. Monkeys Are Nothing But Thieving Pests
A sideshow perhaps as appealing as the primary attraction are the packs of monkeys that patrol Uluwatu Temple, Monkey Forest Sanctuary or the summit of Mount Batur. To most Westerners, monkeys are adorable animal cousins that make great Instagram pictures. To the monkeys, however, humans are unwitting food hoarders — these guys aren’t here to pose for pictures, they’re scheming up ways to steal your food. Zippers are no obstacle, and they’ll snatch food straight out of your hands or pockets — one even stole a bottle from my friend’s baby! If you do fall victim, just let that bag of chips go — they’ll bite to get it if they have to. But if you leave your snacks at home or packed away in bags that aren’t left alone, you can still enjoy these highly intelligent and entertaining bandits without having any issues.
6. Rice Fields Are Best Explored by Motorbike (or on Horseback)
For most Balinese, motorbikes are the primary form of transportation — a form that hardly resembles the rigidity of American roadways. Driving is on the left, but the real trickiness — or, I would argue, beauty — is in the unwritten rules of the road. Lanes are fluid: At any time, someone may turn or merge in front of you and you are responsible for gracefully weaving around them. The horn is used to communicate, but not as profanity — road rage and vehicular egomaniacs do not exist here.
If you’re up for it, a full-day rental costs less than $5 — pay a little extra for a helmet if you have to! — then cruise over to the remote Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. A bus tour would drop you at a couple of nice viewpoints with all the other tourists at the terraces in Tegalalang, but the scenic motorbike ride out to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Jatiluwih — where every turn offers a new perspective, picture and postcard — is worth the effort. If you’re not cut out for the biker life, try a tour on horseback with Ubud Horse Stables instead.
7. Yoga Class Passes Can Get You a Lot More Than Yoga
Bali has become a modern-day capital for yoga, but studios in Ubud are much more than a spot to build some core strength or loosen up a tight back. The Yoga Barn offers roughly 15 classes a day, including various forms of meditation, acro-yoga, capoeira, kirtan, breathwork, tai chi and ecstatic dance (but show up an hour early to queue!), in addition to the traditional types of yoga you’re probably familiar with. A single class with mats provided costs 130,000 IDR (~$9) but can get as cheap as 70,000 IDR (~$5) as part of a shareable 20-class pass.
8. Uber Is Legal But Can Be Risky
Though Uber is legal in Indonesia, you’ll see many signs throughout the island indicating it isn’t. These may be the product of questionable local ordinances or taxi drivers themselves making their own rules. Be assured the Uber app does work here and you can hail a ride from anywhere.
What’s going on is that taxi drivers, accustomed to charging tourists inflated rates, are now competing with the much cheaper rideshare product. Rather than offer a fair price, many taxis combat Uber through intimidation directed at the drivers — this is especially severe at the airport and in popular tourist areas like Seminyak and Ubud. If you decide to use Uber, do it discreetly and ignore nosy taxi drivers. Be aware that your driver may contact you with a pickup location that he knows to be free of taxi-driver hassling. If you do go by taxi, use a metered Bluebird taxi and make sure the meter is turned on. Also, follow the route on offline Google Maps and let the driver know you are doing so to avoid taking an unwanted scenic route.
9. Co-Working Spaces Are Available All Over Bali
As the push continues to allow workers to work remotely in many business sectors, co-working spaces are popping up in places you might not expect, Bali being one of them. Outpost and Hubud host the large expat crowd in Ubud, but co-working spaces are available all over the island. You won’t forget you’re in Bali, however, so leave your shoes at the door and grab a seat on the balcony overlooking the lush jungle, or maybe even poolside. Some even offer 24-hour access in case you need to be available during US working hours. Or if you are trying to take your project or business to the next level, Outpost offers a four-week productivity course called CREW, where you’ll find as many coaches as students in this community, making it highly conducive to growing your business.
10. Dive Shops Don’t Volunteer Recent Ocean Conditions
Bali has world-class diving — including Manta Point for manta ray sighting, Crystal Bay for seasonal spotting of giant sun fish, and the USS Liberty wreck, accessible as a shallow shore dive. Unfortunately, dive shops aren’t very forthcoming regarding recent dive-site conditions or success rates in reaching them. I contacted seven on mainland Bali that had trips scheduled to Manta Point, yet none of them mentioned that the sea had been too rough to reach it for weeks. Rather than risk losing a customer, they’ll book your desired dive, attempt the crossing, then take you to an alternate site if it’s unreachable.
When making a booking, ask the dive shop specific questions like, “When was the last time you successfully reached Manta Point?” “When was the last time you spotted giant sunfish at Crystal Bay?” and “What was the visibility like on your last dive to the USS Liberty?”
Dive shops will be very quick to point out conditions are never predictable, but swells tend to last for several days, rainy season can impact the ocean for weeks and many fish migrations are seasonal. Knowing recent conditions allows you to set your expectations accordingly and choose dive sites wisely.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Bali? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of the Akasha Restaurant and Juice Bar. All other images by the author.
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