Bali is someplace I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. It conjured images of tropical bliss: green rice fields, black sand beaches, warm blue waters, friendly local people. When we planned this trip to Southeast Asia we knew we must go to Bali, and it seemed like the perfect place to wrap up this 99 day odyssey.
We arrived with high hopes and expectations. Our plan was to go to the highly recommend town of Ubud, a famed shangri la of good cuisine, all day yoga marathons and blissful living. After five days in Ubud we were headed to Nusa Penida, a group of Islands approximately 30 km (20 mi) off of Bali, to explore its stark coastline. We were then going to spend the last few days of our trip relaxing near the beach (location was still TBD).
Unfortunately our search for Bali Bliss didn’t start well. Our arrival in Denpasar sucked. Ubud was a disaster. I could rant for pages regarding how rude the people were, how thick and awful the traffic is, how we HATED Bali and wanted to leave after our Ubud experience. I wrote the pages, but decided to spare you the details. Here’s the bullet point version:
- We were harassed by the taxi drivers upon arriving at the airport and had to threaten physical violence to keep them from pulling our luggage away from us.
- We hated our short walks into Ubud on Bali’s narrow over crowded streets that were thick with suffocating motor pollution and aggressive unemployed taxi drivers.
- We were threatened by local people for trying to hike up Mount Batur without a guide which almost lead to another altercation.
- Our yoga sessions were drowned out by revving engines and honking motorbikes outside the studio.
These experiences and people interactions stick out as the worst in all our travels through eight countries and 23 cities. They also stood in stark contrast to everything we’ve heard from other travelers: Bali is great! So despite a very bad start, we pressed on with our quest to find Bali Bliss. We went to Nusa Penida and loved our adventures, but still saw first hand the ugly and rapid transformation that tourism brings (you can read all about our Nusa Penida adventures here: link), or just watch the video below…
We left Nusa Penida and went to Canggu (pronounced Chang-goo), a beach side bohemia for expatriates located in the convergence zone between the tourist-centric urban sprawl and majestic countryside rice paddies. Our Canggu AirBnB was over the top, and a short 3 minute scooter ride to a nice black sand surfing beach and surrounded by great looking (but only so-so tasting) restaurants.
After two weeks here we can report that Bali was once blissful. However, this island is straining under the weight of so many visitors. The narrow streets in and around Denpasar and anywhere within a 10-15 km radius of the airport were intensely crowded with honking cars and motorbikes that created a smog filled din that made you neurotic.
Perhaps we are also skewed by our experience traveling through Southeast Asia. Bali is probably a great place if you want to go on a “vacation” to bake under the tropical heat and have all of your western amenities nearby. After three months we were no longer tourists, we were explorers on an adventure. We wanted something unique – to see the local people, eat unique local food and experience a foreign culture. We wanted authentic experiences, not the canned ones where you pay $25 per person to be chauffeured through “a local village”. We bristled as soon as we felt like a number being processed through the tourist machine.
After searching and scratching for the better part of two weeks, we finally started to make progress in the closing days of our trip. We ventured west from Canggu to meet another traveling family that we had met on Instagram (@6explorerz). They had rented an AirBnB far to the west of Canggu so we set out on scooters for a day adventure. As we drove west paralleling the beach the traffic went from gridlock, to flowing, to relatively empty. We soon found ourselves on narrow roads gliding through rice fields and winding through local towns and villages. The farther we went the more remote it got: the townspeople were preparing for their lunar new year; freshly cut rice was being dried on tarps in the street; and kids played happily. We knew we had escaped the tourist bubble because the locals started staring at us like we were lost (which we probably were half the time) instead of haggling us like we were their meal ticket. We had FINALLY gotten off the beaten tourist path and started discovering the true Bali. These people were so friendly and generous. Their lives were so simple and beautiful.
Thankfully we had these experiences, but unfortunately it was at the very end of our Bali stay. It did validate that Bali is not dead and gone. You just need to work much harder to get what you came for – or at least what we came for.
Ellis summed Bali up best by comparing it to the many meals we had while on the island: they all look great, but the taste is just OK.
Recommendations for fellow travelers: What you do on Bali depends on what you want out of your Bali experience. If you are going to “vacation”, there are tons of towns (e.g. Ubud and Canggu) and resorts which will repackage your western world into a Balinese experience. It’s easy to have your smoothies, yoga and thin crust pizza. We even ate mexican food, which was a first on our trip. All of these places are located within 10-15km of Denpasar.
If you are looking to see the real Bali, then you will need to find a place outside the tourist bubble and travel further afield. While we barely scratched the surface, we saw enough to validate that there are still many traditional villages that serve local fare such as mie ayam siomay for 14,000 IDR ($1USD). Anything west of Tanah Lot is a safe bet.
If you are looking to get off the beaten path altogether, then look at going to East Sumatra or Lombok Islands, or even further down the island chain (e.g. Komodo Island). We did enjoy our stay on Nusa Penida and recommend you read that blog post for details (link).