It’s hard not to describe Bali in hyperbolic terms like “paradise” and for good reason. One of 17,000 islands in Indonesia, this home of four million people is only 90 miles (east to west) by 50 miles (north to south) but infused with ornate temples, picturesque rice fields, and fresh organic food. Eighty percent of visitors to Indonesia visit Bali and Bali alone.
Bali gets quite crowded in July and August and again during the Christmas holiday. Outside these peak seasons, Bali can be supremely tranquil and soothe any city-weary traveler looking to get out of Dodge without a big hassle or big bucks.
What to See
A day trip from Ubud costs less than $50 USD for two people and includes a driver and village pass-through fees. Start your journey at the technicolor Tegallalang Rice Terrace, where you just may spot a bride-to-be posing for wedding photos.
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is exactly what it sounds like — a nature reserve and temple complex with more than 340 long-tailed macaques roaming freely. These entertaining socialites do not hesitate to climb on, steal from, and perch from visitors brave enough to interact with them. We thought all our junk was bolted down, but alas a furry, klepto-maniacal macaque lifted some trash peeking from our bag.
A stay on Bali is not complete without a visit to a majestic volcano like Mount Batur, the second largest on the sub-tropical island. It’s a relatively active volcano with a lava field punctuated by porous black boulders. A caldera lake that reminds me of Italy’s Lake Como beckons southeast of the mountain. Danau Batur was begging to be seen up close, so we convinced our driver to skip the next temple on the agenda and take us to lakeside hot springs, but not before we dined in the open air Grand Puncak Sari Restaurant. The extensive buffet lunch was hot and fresh with lots of veggies, spice, and fried foods, but of course, the best part is the view.
Everyone in Bali is just trying to get ahead. Literally. Riding in a taxi qualifies as a spectator sport, as your driver bobs and weaves through traffic in a hair-raising real life version of Frogger. As he dodges everything from motor bikes carrying families of three (and even four) to macaques to a hunter carrying a dog, you can’t help but brace for impact. Admittedly though, after 10 hours on the road we didn’t experience a single collision (I didn’t say there weren’t any scrapes). It’s telling that Balinese, with their quixotic rendering of tropical Hinduism, set up mini shrines at hairpin curves and blind intersections.
Contrast the fury with which Balinese drive to the languid charm of terraced rice fields, blackened temples, and impromptu gardens.
After our sojourn up the enchanting mountain, I was irresistibly draw down. A steep descent through charcoaled lava fields was rewarded with this stunning lake view and a spontaneous dip in Toya Devasya hot springs, which boasts an olympic-sized pool, three hot springs pools, a lakeside restaurant, and camping grounds.
Not for the faint of heart or flimsy of shoe, a visit to the idyllic Gunung Kawi temple in Tampaksiring (11 miles north of Ubud) requires descending 371 steps, which is fine until you realize there’s no way out but back up. This royal burial complex dates to the eleventh century.
As Balinese never miss a merchandising opportunity, the steps down to the temple are lined with fierce hawkers (watch out for the women) of sarongs, jewelry, and all the standard Balinese bric-a-brac. Whatever you do, don’t buy until you’re almost out of the place. The Balinese have what can only be described as a smell for consumers. One particularly feisty shop keeper grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go until I bought something (I didn’t). They are all intent on selling you a sarong to meet Hindu standards when temple-going, but a less cumbersome sash will do, and is provided with the cost of admission. Every second building in Bali is a temple of varying size, but it’s easy to see why this one is a sort of mecca for locals. A crystal clear stream runs through the center and a small waterfall is tucked in the corner. It looks like the set of “Indiana Jones” where some frightening ritual sacrifice might be performed, but alas devoted Hindus were offering the usual floral and incense basket which can be found in the millions around the island.
Where to Stay
Easy travel to the south of Bali brings many to Kuta, the backpacker’s dream with myriads of tourist shops and hip nightclubs. Families also vacation here enjoying the kid-friendly hotels with water slides and the fantastic beach. This is not the esoteric “real” Bali, but an unabashedly touristy spot. It’s also reportedly loud and dirty.
Just north of Kuta is Seminyak, an upscale coastal village with four-star villas and fashionable high-end restaurants, bars, boutiques and spas. I’ve heard good things from Dragonfly Furniture owner, Judith Mosley, about the 14-room Villa Bunga Hotel & Spa. Bunga means “rose” and the grounds include a peaceful garden and swimming pool. Starting at $50/night and traditional massage services at just $8, you will be treated like royalty without becoming a pauper to do so. But that basically describes all our accommodations in Bali — lots of bang for your American buck.
For the tranquility of rolling green hills and rice terraces, we chose to stay in Ubud. This is the place to unwind after living it up as a tourist in bustling Kuta. Perched on the placid slopes of the central mountains, a rich cultural experience is in store for visitors to this gentle countryside. Ubud is packed with historical sites and temples plus museums and art galleries.
Our Bali discovery started at the quiet and somewhat spartan Ubud Sari Health Resort, which caters to vegans, vegetarians, cleansers, and detoxers. A room sans phone, WIFI, and TV was just what we needed to unplug and download for a bit.
Our room at the resort was a detached tree house overlooking a waterfall. Ahhhhh. We spent four hours of pampering in the spa, from massage to body scrub to body wrap (hot!) to sauna and steam room, finishing with an hour-long facial.
For $100/night we had a private villa with exotic outdoor bathroom at Santi Mandala Villa & Spa, also in Ubud. There’s nothing as serene as sitting on your private deck gazing at a waterfall and watching the birds flitter by. The grounds are lush, hilly, and floral with lots of stone paths to explore on your spa day in, which you’ll need after pounding the pavement for a day or two. The excellent breakfast spread included pink crepes and a pool view.
There are no direct flights from Guam to Bali, so you may connect through Hong Kong, Japan, Manila, or Seoul. The shortest route is Guam to Taipei to Denpasar in about 11 hours, including connections, with fares averaging $1,100. Search online at sites such as Kayak and Expedia or check with your local travel agent.
The entry visa is $25 and is payable in U.S. dollars at the arrival airport. You must purchase the visa before you go through Immigration, so watch the signage because it’s a bit tricky. Keep $20 of cash for the departure tax. Beware of pushy porters who snatch your luggage then demand a tip as you exit arrivals into the cash exchange area. Taxi drivers will also be at your heels, but do your homework and definitely haggle until you settle on a decent price.