Off-the-beaten path in Bali: 10 ways to see the island beyond the beach
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Multi-faceted and alluring in a multitude of different ways, there’s a reason Bali is known as the Island of the Gods. The island boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and staggering natural landscapes — however, thanks to the popularity of the island as a honeymooner’s escape and budget-seeking backpacker haven, these once peaceful landmarks have become a little overrun.
Just like its neighboring islands that have seen a surge in tourism pre-COVID, there are still ways to discover the island more intrepidly — far from the crowds of Kuta and deep into the misty hills around Amed, along the winding rice terraces of Mt. Agung and around the cozy villages of Candidasa.
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“Honestly, Bali has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, and if you’re not sure where to look, it can very hard to get away from the tourist spots,” said Maman Suryaman, an Intrepid Travel tour guide and born and bred Balinese local. “However, once you do, you’ll get a real sense of what real life is like in Bali.”
Here are 10 ways to explore the island, which is slated to reopen to travel in October, beyond just the stunning beaches.
Explore Ubud by motorbike
The island’s most notable city, and one of the most popular, is Ubud — but don’t let that scare you from exploring the charms of this cozy hillside city. Even though you’ll find that creature comforts abound in hilly Ubud, you can still explore away from the Wi-Fi signals, restaurants with English menus and cheaply made souvenir stands with the help of a rented motorbike.
“Ubud is still one of my favorite places in Bali. It’s is touristy but the locals still keep their cultures and tradition alive,” said Suryaman. “Not to mention there are so many choices for local foods!”
One of the best spots for local eats is Cafe Lotus, an institution for artists and hipsters. Named after the beautiful lotus pond it overlooks, the cafe is blanketed by beautiful flower trees and the Pura Sarawati temple with an eclectic menu offering everything from be-pasih goa lawah (turmeric marinated fish) to tuna carpaccio.
Raft along the Ayung River
The 6.8-mile Ayung River has become a mecca for adrenaline junkies and adventure enthusiasts for one reason: the rapids. Although they’re only a class two, the experience is enough to get your heart pounding and offers a glimpse of the area’s mystical rainforests and shadowy gorges. Some of the rapids are lighter than others, allowing you to take in the breathtaking scenery. Plus, the guides’ humor makes the trip even that much more memorable — encouraging you to splash and tackle the dips with some vigor and competition with neighboring rafts.
Explore the night market in Gianyar
Between the clamor of pots and pans, the sparkle and glare of the multi-colored lanterns and lights and the mouthwatering and (often) overwhelming assault of smells and sounds, the Gianyar Night Market. Located about 10 miles from bustling Ubud, it offers some of Bali’s best, and most authentic, eats.
This market, dubbed Pasar Malam Gianyar by the locals, turns into a one-stop-shop for all things food as soon as the sun goes down, with vendors slinging everything from basko meatball soup to melt-in-your-mouth roasted chicken to crispy deep fried tofu snacks and sweet palm sugar filled balls. Not only is the experience authentic, it’s cheap — most meals will only set you back 15,000 rupiahs.
Even though peak time to visit is about two hours after sunset, you’ll want to get there a little earlier to ensure you’re not completely consumed by the crowds. “If you want a true local experience, you go here. Sure, there will be tourists, but it’s more of a place the locals go to meet up with friends and buy their dinners,” Eko Nova Triana, another Intrepid Travel tour guide said.
Climb the Lempuyang Temple
Bali oozes spirituality, and no places brings you closer to enlightenment than the Lempuyang Temple, a mystical collection of over seven different Hindu temples. Located about 30 minutes from downtown Amed, this complex boasts both beautiful views of staggering Mount Agung (Bali’s highest peak) and a gratifying workout, thanks to the 1,700 steps it takes to reach the top. Depending on your level of fitness, the walk takes about three to four hours, but offers ample spots along the way to refuel and buy snacks from the highly stocked vendor stalls at each stopping point.
After about two and a half hours of walking, respite (and 360-degree views) awaits. At the top, you can choose to pray with the locals (who will show you the proper ways to honor the Hindu gods with respect) or take photos of the four-legged locals who will do just about anything for a banana.
Go fishing in Amed
Home to over 1,000 brightly painted junkungs, or fishing outriggers, bobbing to and fro along the pebble lined beaches of Amed, fishing is a way of life for most of the sleepy villages’ local residents (not working in tourism). Unlike Kuta, which is brimming with partying tourists 24 hours a day, the beaches of Amed are peaceful and quiet, making a 5 am fishing jaunt more relaxing than exhausting.
For 150,000 rupiahs, you’ll join a fisherman in his jukung boat — which looks a bit like a canoe with deep trivets along the sides — off the black volcanic rock of the beach and into the water. Don’t expect safety briefings or even a lifejacket, you’re going to be one of the locals, sitting in a patched-up fishing boat, throwing led and fish-speckled lines into the deep-water abyss.
Most fishermen come back around 7 – 9 a.m., depending on what they catch, but for a few extra hundred rupiahs, you can stay as long as you’d like. The fish you catch range in size but expect a multitude of rainbow-colored scales that taste as pretty as they look. If you want to eat your catch, simply head into town to one of the markets or ask your hotel/hostel if they’d prepare it for you.
Cycle through Candidasa
With its winding roads, staggered rice terraces and roadside villages, a cycle through Bali’s countryside will uncover a way of life most tourists never get a glimpse of. On Intrepid Travel’s Bali & Lombok Hike, Bike and Raft tour, you’ll join two local cycling guides who will take you around 20 miles from Candidasa to one of the island’s’ most local beaches, aptly titled White Sand Beach.
With a few stark uphill and plenty of sloping downhills, the ride can be tackled by anyone with a pulse. Once you arrive at the beach, you’d be remiss not to order a few large Bintangs (Bali’s local brew) at one of the many warungs, of cafes, scattered around the beachside.
There are plenty of guesthouses to pick from to rest your wary head shall you choose to cycle on your own, like the five-star Rama Candidasa Resort and Spa, which boasts a large swimming pool and peaceful beach views, or four-star Nirwana Resort and Spa, which offers cozy Balinese cottages surrounded by lush gardens and a beautiful sea view.
Dine with the locals in Sidemen
“Sidemen is one of my favorite places in Bali,” said Maman. “It’s got one of the best local village lives in the country.” Sidemen’s allure, beyond the sprawling collection of small village homes situated around the vast valley or the direct views of Gunung Agung, lies in connected village culture.
Sure, the town boasts guesthouses with Wi-Fi and plenty of restaurants and cafes, but they’re more frequented by locals than tourists. “The people and the culture here are really strong. The town offers one of the strongest local traditions I ever seen, both in ritual and religion,” said Triana.
To get a true welcome and taste of the village, book a local guide with Sidemen Tour and Trekking, who will take you rice paddy trekking, mountain climbing or simply village wandering.
Shop for duds in Seminyak
Seminyak, with its eclectic mix of world-class restaurants, also boasts a large collection of designer boutiques, international surf shops and lifestyle brand outlets along Jalan Lakshmana and several corners of Jalan Petitenget.
Although most flock to cheaper stores for suits and sandals for the beach, the real gems are the local boutiques that feature all hand-made items. If you’re in need of a suit, visit Thaikila — a locally owned shop that features brands from around Asia. For surf duds, stop into Drifter Surf Shop, where you’ll find a colorful array of handmade boards with splashes of art from independent artists. On the higher price range but a must-visit for true fashionistas is Magali Pascal, an island-based French designer who spins breathtaking island and everyday wear from local silks and imported fabrics from all around the world. The shop streams in that beautiful bright Bali light, and is worth a visit if only to window shop. If boho is more your vibe, visit Auguste the Label, an Australian-meets-Bali brand that features flowy silhouettes and brightly colored fabrics meant to withstand the island heat.
For a cocktail while you shop, visit Mrs. Sippy Bali, a pool-bar meets boutique that offers Indonesian made island dresses, high-end swimwear, hats, basket purses and everything in between. One of Bali’s most iconic brands, Lost in Paradise, offers all of the hottest trends at more affordable prices, including dresses, skirts, shoes, swimwear and the like.
Like all shops, be wary of the cheap, made-for-tourists shops and opt for the locally-made, high end stores instead. For the highest quality jewelry, visit spots like Rabia Bali, a New Zealand born designer who lives on the island and crafts bold, bright pieces.
Snorkel in Menjangan Island
Less than 6 miles from Bali and the crowds of the island is one of its crown jewels (and local favorite hangout) Menjangan Island. Although it’s a separate island from Bali, it sits in Bali’s only National Park, Bali Barat National Park, and offers pristine snorkeling.
A treasure trove of marine wildlife and striking coral, you’ll uncover everything from electric clams to scorpion fish to starfish. The island is only reachable by boat, and most snorkel outfitters (around $80 per day) will leave you at certain drop off points. If you can, swim a few feet away to uncover the reefs that are less touched by human interaction, including bright shoals of green chromis, colorful parrotfish, butterflyfish and Java spinefoot. Home to soft coral and more angelfish, this island boasts incredible collections of sea anemone and even the occasion green sea turtle.
Climb Mount Agung
Bali’s tallest stratovolcano, Mount Agung, is also the island’s most sacred spot — for both hikers and locals. The ascend is brutal, towering over 9,000 feet above sea level.
You’ll discover the spirituality of this mountain upon arrival, with two temples greeting you; Pura Besakih and Pura Pasar Agung. The latter is reachable by 900 steps and is where most visitors stop the trek. More intrepid climbers continue up. A high level of fitness is required, as the first part of the climb is through windy, thick brush and untamed forest. The second part requires a bit of bouldering, as you dodge large rocks which can be dangerously slippery to navigate in the rainy season. The last leg is done entirely in the dark and requires you to scramble up the mountain, sans harness or climbing equipment, on all fours to reach the peak.
The climb is done on almost no sleep since you begin the four-hour trek at 2:30 am so you can reach the top just in time for the breathtaking sunrise. Although anyone can climb this alone, we recommend a guide so you can navigate the mountain safest.
Featured photo by SasinT Gallery/Getty Images.
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