Bali for Beginners
My first trip to the Indonesian island of Bali was with my Dad when I was about 10 years old. My parents told me it was a reward for learning to swim – in reality, Dad probably wanted some time out and was granted a getaway if he took one of his four young children. I was so excited, having heard about all the wonders of this exotic place. The famous Waterbomb Park, haggling with street sellers and all the different Fanta flavours. Oh, and room service!
I had an incredible time but it was more than 15 years before I returned. Honestly, Bali wasn't attractive. Hoards of Australians were going there thanks to the advent of budget airlines. The thought of spending any holiday surrounded by people from my home country was unappealing, especially if they're wearing ripped singlets, swearing, and snapping their fingers at local workers. But with a permanent job and not much annual leave, in 2012 I decided to give Bali a go. I booked a four night trip with my boyfriend, sister and best friend and you know what? Bali exceed all expectations!
Massages, sunshine, some stunning beaches and top quality dining - I couldn't believe I'd had Bali on a blacklist for so long! I've since returned twice with my boyfriend and once for a family vacation. With Bali only a three hour flight from Perth and airfare deals from AU$150 return, it's an affordable and rewarding destination for a short break.
If you’re considering a trip to Bali, here's my advice for first-timers:
1. Where to Stay
Bali is really diverse. You can stay by the beach, in the middle of a forest or right next to nightclubs. The most popular tourist areas are Kuta, Legian and Seminyak which are all beachside and close to the airport, along with Ubud which about an hour inland. For a first-time visit or short break I'd recommend staying in Legian, especially if you're with a group or on a budget. For romance or food, Seminyak is best but rest assured, it's only a short AU$1-2 taxi ride to get from one to the other anyway. If you have a week, you could spend half your time in Legian or Seminyak and then head to Ubud for total relaxation.
Here's a bit more detail about each area:
Kuta & Surrounds:
- Kuta: is the most touristy part of Bali. Plenty of bars, nightclubs and cheap accommodation.
- Legian: slightly north of Kuta. Still touristy but fabulous proximity to the beach and decent nightlife.
- Seminyak: is renowned as a place for couples or those who want to relax. It's foodie heaven, full of private villas and boutique shops too. It's the most chilled of the three tourist areas but a little more expensive.
- Canggu: is further north still. It's less developed but getting more tourist attention, with restaurants and beach clubs popping up.
- Ubud: the most popular inland destination. There's no beach but it's ideal for retreats, culture and nature-lovers. It's also home to the famous Monkey Forest (pictured above). About an hour's drive from the airport.
- Nusa Dua: is more exclusive and up-market, about 45 minutes from the airport. This is where you'll find most of the top hotels and resorts. I'm yet to make it to Nusa Dua, but hope to try the all-inclusive experience one day.
There are other areas in Bali I haven't covered such as Sanur, the Gili Islands and Jimbaran Bay. But this is Bali for beginners! More on those in future editions.
You can spend as little or as much as you like in Bali. Accommodation is plentiful, mostly cheap and the service is wonderful. Many hotels include a free buffet breakfast with toast, cereal, fresh tropical fruits, some Indonesian food such as nasi goreng (fried rice) or noodles and an omelette/pancake station. Choosing accommodation as a first-timer can be overwhelming, so things to consider are:
- Which area is most appealing?
- Do you want to be walking distance to the beach?
- Is there a pool and how much sun does it get?
- Is breakfast included?
- What do other travellers say about the hotel?
I consistently find third-party websites such as Expedia and Agoda are cheaper than booking direct, but check the hotel's website for special offers. However, don't fall for promotions such as a free welcome drink or massages. These are cheap and readily available around Bali, so they don't represent great value. Think of them as a bonus, not a motive for your booking.
I've stayed at U Paasha in Seminyak and Ananta Hotel in Legian with my boyfriend, and at O-CE-N Hotel (now FuramaXclusive Ocean Beach) in Legian on a family holiday. I highly recommend all of them for value, location and amenities. I've also stayed at Amadea Resort in Seminyak. Service was excellent but it was half hotel, half villas and it felt a little intrusive walking past a long line of enclosed properties to reach our hotel room. The pool area was also average. It was fine - but I'd rather explore other properties.
3. What to Do
If you're only in a Bali for a few days, this is probably your main focus! Grab a book, sit by the pool, and enjoy a cocktail. Go for a walk along the beach or take a local yoga class. If you need a break from the sun, unwind in your hotel room with the mini-bar at your side. It'll be well-stocked and affordable, with a Bintang or Heineken beer only costing AU$4 or so.
I get a massage every day when I'm in Bali. Seriously! Plus a facial or two, and my nails done. In the tourist areas, you'll find spas right outisde offering full body massages from AU$7 for an hour, while a manicure and pedicure will set you back about AU$8 -$15 for both. The surroundings aren't flash, service can vary from highly professional to giggling teenagers, but the establishments are hygienic enough and treatments are reasonable quality too.
Want to splurge (by Bali standards)? Check out BodyWorks in Seminyak, where an excellent 60 minute facial cost me AU$20. A massage at Jari Menari, also in Seminyak, is out of this world with a rhythmic, artistic style that's almost like art. I had a 90 minute, "Perfect Massage" which cost about AU$50. So did my boyfriend, but he actually preferred the one he got at BodyWorks (AU$27).
You WILL NOT starve in Bali! Food is everywhere, ranging from cheap bars/cafes serving $2 Bintangs alongside pizza, burgers and some Indonesian dishes right up to world-class dining. There are so many options I'll do a separate blog post on Bali Eats in coming weeks, but until then, here are a few tips:
- Seminyak's informally named 'Eat Street' is a foodie heaven. Whether you want Italian, Indian, Thai or Moroccan, it's all here. I've never had a bad meal! Walk along at night and browse the menus, stepping in where ever takes your fancy. My latest favourite is Batik, where I had a perfect tofu red curry (AU$4) and wine ($8) with a view!
- Mozaic in Ubud: is one of the best dining experiences I've ever had in my life. Six, glorious courses where every mouthful made my jaw drop because there was so much flavour. It was exceptional.
There are plenty of convenience stores too where I stock up on Indonesian snacks specialties like chilli nuts, seaweed potato chips, cassava chips and BEER. If you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, there’s plenty of soy milk in Bali too!
Chances are your hotel will have a mini-bar, a bar by the pool and a downstairs bar too. Bintang is everywhere and really cheap (think AU$4-6 for 700ml at mid-range places). On my trip to Bali last month, my boyfriend and I drank beers with another couple by the beach for about four hours. The bill? AU$100 and that included a pina colada and some fries too! I go crazy for cocktails when I'm in Bali, not just because they're cheap but because they're packed full of fresh fruit. Wine drinkers be warned: your options are limited and it's expensive. Bring a bottle with you, if you must.
If you need a break from the massages, mojitos and noodles, there's plenty of places to check out around the island. Consider the Monkey Forest in Ubud (AU$4 entry) and exploring the local area, or hiring a driver to take you to Jimbaran Bay and watch the sunset at Ayana Resort's Rock Bar before a romantic dinner. My boyfriend went on a dive trip to U.S.S. Liberty Shipwreck and recommended it. I've never made it to the Gili Islands, but several friends have raved about them too!
Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Some will happily use the meter, others will want to negotiate a price before you ride. My preference is metered taxis but for those who prefer haggling, go for it! Tip: ask your hotel for approximate fares beforehand, so you have a rough idea.
It’s easy to walk around Bali too, although footpaths are uneven and not always wide enough for two people. Streets aren't well marked either, so download or screenshot Google maps before heading out or note the name and address to ask for help along the way. If you want to hire a private driver for the day (such as a trip to Ubud), your hotel can help out. Rates are reasonable.
As for the airport, it's about 20-30 minutes from Kuta/Legian/Seminyak and costs around AU$10.
Indonesia's currency is the rupiah ("IDR"). AU$1 = 10,000 IDR and US$1 = 13,300 IDR.
Prices are commonly abbreviated to 10K, 130K and so on. A trick that helps me convert to Australian dollars is to just mentally put a decimal point before the last number. For example 10K = $1.0, and 130K = $13.0. Other times, prices are written in full. Just ignore the last three digits then put a decimal before the last number. Or just download XE Currency.
Taxes usually aren't included in prices, indicated by "++" after the price. Be warned: they can range from 12.5% up to 21%! Credit cards are widely accepted but if you need cash, ATMs are common too. I've never used a money changer but I do keep some Australian dollars in case of an emergency.
I learnt Indonesian at primary school, meaning I'm actually qualified to write the following paragraph. Indonesian is pronounced exactly as you read it, except the letter “c” is pronounced “ch”. Here are some basics:
- Selamat pagi – Good morning
- Terimah kasih – Thank you
- Bagus – good
- Ayam – chicken
- Ikan – fish
- Daging sapi - beef
- Daging babi - pork
- Nasi goreng/ mee goreng – fried rice / fried noodles
- Tempe – Tempeh (fermented soy bean cake)
- Warung – local café
Dress codes are really relaxed. I bring swimwear, shorts, a few t-shirts and a couple of dresses for five days, along with one pair of flip flops and a nice pair sandals for dining out. A maxi dress with flat shoes is perfectly acceptable attire, even for more expensive restaurants. As mentioned, Balinese footpaths are uneven so wedges and heels aren't advised! For men, boardshorts and singlets are fine during the day and at plenty of bars at night too. Think 'resort casual' if dining at fancier places. My boyfriend's never had a problem in a short sleeve, collared shirt and shorts.
No visa is required for Australians visiting for up to 30 days, but check the latest government advice just to be sure.
And that, in about 1000 words, is my best advice to first-time visitors. As mentioned, I'll do a separate post on Bali Eats in coming weeks because the food scene is huge, ever-changing and delicious!
QUESTION: What's your advice to first-time Bali visitors?