When I think of Bali, the first thing that comes to mind are the smells. The smell of incense burning in prayer offerings placed on the ground in front of every building; the smell of burning rice paddies, creating smoke clouds in the insistently humid air; the smell of peanuts, fresh fruit, nasi goreng wafting from warungs mixing with cigarette smoke.
It’s sensory overload in the best way possible. The smells, sunsets, and new experiences pass the weeks in a deeply satisfying blur. And it's easy. For as foreign as your first scooter ride through traffic feels, you’ll be haggling like a pro and cracking open fresh coconuts in no time. It’s a good first entry into a non-western country, because nearly everyone speaks English, the travelers are plentiful, and you’re mostly safe if you use your common sense.
Bali was stop #1 for me on a 3-month long solo jaunt around Asia. My mission was to pack light while packing in the most experiences. I wanted scuba diving, cocktails on the beach, jungle treks finishing with jaw-dropping waterfalls, and to eat something every day that I’d never tasted before. And believe me, Bali delivered.
YouTube: Indonesian Island time
I started in Seminyak, meeting up with two girlfriends and easing myself into the trip with a hotel and some familiarity. Bungalows and hotels are cheaper than you’d imagine in Bali, especially if split between friends and booked in advance (Booking.com and Agoda.com list most properties).
Ahi Tacos at Corner House, Seminyak
We lazed the days away at Alila Seminyak beach club, just south of Potato Head (the hotel’s pools are open to the public with less crowds and lower prices than Potato Head) and ate a lot of good food, although glitzy Seminyak mostly caters to the hordes of Australian tourists with flat whites and smashed avo abound. Where the area really comes in handy though, is for nightlife. Seminyak boasts its fair share of bars and clubs but is an ideal home base to reach other nightlife hubs, whereas Ulawatu is pretty far south and Canggu mostly requires a motorbike or driver.
That being said, more laid back, beach-oriented travelers would probably enjoy Canggu and Uluwatu better. Seminyak is startlingly developed and is geared more toward the spa, fine dining, and resort audience. Canggu is spread out, lending to its more relaxed vibe. It definitely still has epic bars—Pretty Poison, a dive with a skate bowl right out the back, and the ever-instagrammable The Canggu Lawn (honorable mentions to Black Cat Mini Mart and Old Man’s).
“It was all a dream” - Strawberry Fields Canggu
The drawback for Canggu is this same more spread out layout—it’s hard to get around without a scooter for those not comfortable or sober enough to ride one. Grab, southeast Asia’s Uber, is on the outs with the locals. When looking for accommodation locations in Bali’s touristic southwest coast hubs, it’s important to keep getting around in mind, but also consider what vibe you’re after.
Bali isn’t just its southwestern coast, though. Much has been blogged about Ubud, the island’s relaxed mountainous center where the locals frequently mention Eat, Pray, Love and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a yoga retreat. It’s certainly worth a stop solely for the excellent Paon Bali Cooking class; the strenuous, rewarding Mt. Agung sunrise hike and nearby rice paddies are also big draws.
Paon Bali Cooking Class, result and process
Craving more nature, from Ubud I went north to Lovina with a plan to see, and possibly dive the West Bali National Park. The lazy day’s drive that followed from Ubud to Lovina was easily one of the best of the entire trip.
LOVINA and SURROUNDS
We started the morning at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, jaw-dropping Hindu temple grounds situated on Lake Bratan, and from there stumbled onto the hidden gem that is Alam Sambangan. For $2 AUD, you can stuff your face with fried rice and fresh coconut and hang out in the lush, relaxing pool-restaurant situated deep in the mountainous jungle.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
Alam Sambangan - “The Secret Valley Club”
The waterfalls in this area are plentiful. Sacred and stunning Aling-Aling is close, and although it’s forbidden to swim in its waters, 3 more waterfalls and cliff-jumping spots are within walking distance just waiting to be explored.
Upon reaching our destination, we were greeted by the bizarre and rowdy party that is Funky Place Backpackers in Lovina. Locals and backpackers mingle in the tiny outdoor bar, making for quite a spectacle if I could remember more of the evening.
Lovina draws most tourists for its year-round population of dolphins that can be seen at sunrise— (Gabby at Boarding Call does a thoughtful article on this industry being potentially problematic) and occasional bioluminescent plankton that can be seen on the beach shores at night.
Aside from the dolphins, though, there’s not a whole lot happening in town and most use it as a base before further exploring northern Bali. After much debate diving versus snorkeling, I snorkeled the national park, which was beautiful, but not as spectacular as I’d hoped. It was time to head southeast in search of prime diving.
Reaching Nusa Lembongan from Lovina was no easy feat and not a task I’d recommend to anyone. The day-long journey cumulated in a very nerve-racking boat ride— Travel Fish’s writeup is worth a look for a breakdown of price point options of various boat companies and setting expectations. If you’ve got a dry bag, now is the time to use it to store your valuables. The porters will throw your luggage around but if you’d like to keep laptops, cameras, etc. safe on your person, there’s a high chance the bag and your clothes will get incredibly wet.
“Everyday is a Sunday in Bali” Warung storefront
Despite the harrowing commute, Lembongan is phenomenal. It’s easy to imagine that this is how Bali itself was 25 years ago— most streets are unpaved, children ride scooters barefoot, and everything takes twice as long as it does on Bali (including service in restaurants, but who’s in a rush in paradise?).
There’s little to no nightlife but the absence of it isn’t felt whatsoever. Days are better spent diving, surfing, or on any one of Lembongan’s beaches that all seem to be blissfully empty after the chaos of southwestern Bali. Sometimes the northern end of Lembongan will play host to a relaxed bonfire beach party, but the wildest my nights got here was getting to bed by 10 instead of 9.
A day trip to Manta Point on Nusa Penida gives you a unique from-the-water perspective of Kelingking Secret Point (“T-rex Beach”), arguably one of the most famous beaches in the world. If you’re a diver, you’ll want to stick around. The highest chance of seeing majestic, gentle manta rays or mola mola in Bali is around here.
In fact, my 2.5-day trip to Nusa Lembongan quickly turned into 9 days and a bit of a scramble to make my already scheduled flight. Lembongan’s slower pace, crystal clear waters, and “no worries no hurry” mentality make easy to fall in love with and easily my favorite part of Bali that I visited.
The manta rays of Nusa Penida
SE Asia (Bali) Packing List
Travel insurance. The first thing you should pack is insurance. I’ve heard and seen firsthand too many horror stories of the uninsured traveler to even consider this a “maybe” expense.
As an American, I used Squaremouth to find my medical/basic policies and a home property insurance to cover my gear which was admittedly a more complicated process. Seems like since less Americans long term travel, it’s harder to find comprehensive and inexpensive coverage.
For Australians, you’re in luck as there’s a wealth of travel insurance options available. Craig at YTravel writes a good overview on some.
Things you'll wish you brought
Hydrolyte - So essential for dehydration. And hangovers. Easy to pop into a glass of water and know that you’re getting some electrolytes for the day. The Indonesian version is called “Pocari Sweat” and is similar to Gatorade, also does the trick in a pinch but I found Hydrolyte more helpful. Pocari Sweat comes in satchet form and can be bought at most convenience stores.
Medications / stuff for upset tummies / etc. - It’s hard to get your hands on specific medications here and downright annoying, so if you know something works for you, bring it.
A dry bag - These bad boys are lifesavers, especially during rainy season around other parts of SE Asia. They’re reusable waterproof bags that keep your essentials dry. The smaller ones can double as packing cubes, compartmentalizing and organizing your bigger pack, but they’re also nice to throw in a day pack for your valuables in case you get caught in a sudden storm. You can pick up them up in camping sections of Kmart, Target, etc.
I also bought dry bag backpack which has been amazing for diving, hiking in the rain, any outdoor activity where I want to bring my camera / a change of dry clothes.
A spare camera battery - The heat will drain yours quicker than you’re used to, and it’s always good to have the backup.
An external battery - Same philosophy here, especially if you’re more of take-photos-on-your-phone type person. Good to maintain phone battery on bus/car/ferry journeys.
Earplugs + Eyemask - Planes are loud. Snoring hostel roommates are loud. Sleeping on buses in the middle of the day sucks. Essentials to help your sleep along.
MORE UNDERWEAR THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED! - I always find myself running out of underwear first and having to do laundry or hand wash some more pairs. If you can fit it, pack it.
For the gals - A day purse that’s big enough for camera/water bottles/etc. I only brought my dry backpack (which isn’t exactly the height of fashion), my main backpack, and a camera bag, and I wish I had lugged along a nice purse/backpack for walking around during the day.
Things to leave at home
Tolietries - Unless you are very attached to a specific brand of face wash/ conditioner/ etc., you can get everything here to lighten your load to just hand luggage. It becomes trickier to find western brands as you move into more remote areas of SE Asia, but stocking up in Bali, especially Seminyak/Kuta/Canggu, is easier than you think.
Clothes / shoes - I travel with two pairs of shoes; walking sandals and running shoes. I picked up a pair of $5AUD flip flops in Ubud to strap onto the front of my bag in case of mud and/or dodgy hostel showers.
I understand this is heartbreaking— I was over my wardrobe in all of 3 days, especially after being around my friends who were in week-long holiday mode and had brought options for going out clothes complete with 4 different pairs of heels. But you get over it. And you can buy cool local things and embrace your inner dirty boho. Remember, it’s not forever. You’re a backpacker and you’re gonna be dirty, so embrace it. Your nicer clothes are better left at home safe.
Books - So tempting, but so heavy. You can pick them up here for next to nothing. If you’ve got a Kindle bring that.
SIM card / any kind of phone plan - They are SO cheap in Indonesia and across SE Asia. Chuck your phone on airplane mode, find wifi to check in and send the obligatory “still alive!” text when you need to, and when that inevitably gets annoying, dig up the 10AUD necessary to buy a SIM card (do it outside of the airport, it’s cheaper). This website does a good rundown of the plans available.
Towels - Unless it’s a small microfiber one, skip it. You can buy them here for again, next to nothing and they’ll just take up excess room in your bag.
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