Bali, Indonesia is one of those glittering bucket list destinations that every backpacker dreams of visiting. But that dream seems a lot less attainable if you happen to live in the Americas: it took us 24 hours to fly to this island paradise, versus our friends in Australia who are able to hop up to Bali for a long weekend (I guess they also have to deal with enormous man-eating spiders all the time, so it only seems fair).
Still, we wanted to befriend monkeys and live our backpacker dreams, so this summer we took 2 weeks to go see what the fuss was all about. It was our first ever trip to Asia and we didn’t know quite what to expect, but we had that kind of excited anticipation you get when you’re about to explore a brand new continent.
When we bought our plane tickets for Bali, we were afraid that it might be one of those places that’s all hype and no substance. We were afraid that Bali’s popularity would result in overly crowded tourist traps and contrived “authentic” cultural experiences that are all for the benefit of visitors with no real substance. We were afraid that Instagram had lied to us, that Bali was one of those places that look good in pictures on and movies, that everyone raves about because they stay in fancy resorts and enjoy luxury treatment and read “Eat Pray Love” by the pool, but which aren’t anywhere near as fun if you’re a backpacker on a tight budget or seeking a deeper and more meaningful connection than drinking pretty cocktails in front of a tropical background. But we’re SO glad we ignored our concerns about Bali and went anyway!
To our delight, Bali has NOT been ruined by tourists – in fact, it’s been a popular tourist destination for so long (we’re talking like, my dad was giving me tips on what to do in Bali from his days backpacking there IN THE 1960’s) that it seems to have figured out how to maintain its culture and authenticity while balancing the hordes of excited vacationers that flock to its beaches and forests every year. We were thrilled to find that Bali is actually worth the hype. And it’s accessible to backpackers, too!
Here are 25 things nobody told us about Bali before we went.
Table of Contents
Things Nobody Tells You …
1. There are roughly 1 million monkeys in Bali, by our unofficial count. They are both adorable and terrifying, vicious little hellions. Monkeys are a sacred and protected animal in Bali, so nobody is able to HURT them – the closest anyone gets is shaking a stick at them threateningly.
And after years of not being disciplined for their behavior, these suckers are spoiled AF. They’re like fuzzy little toddlers: they’ll take whatever the heck they want, courtesy and personal space be darned. Have a shiny cell phone, or a watch? No you don’t, a monkey just stole it. Carrying a purse? It belongs to the monkeys now.
We went from “awww, how cute are these monkeys?” to “GET AWAY FROM ME YOU ADORABLE MINIONS OF SATAN” within a day of arriving in Ubud.
2. Although most of Bali is affordable for a backpacking budget, Ubud is much pricier.
In Ubud we found ourselves paying prices closer to what we’re used to back home in San Francisco. Sure, you can avoid the avocado toast and the fancy coffee, but you still have to eat, and Ubud food prices are WAY more than what we paid in the rest of Bali. Our accommodation wasn’t “expensive” by any means, but it was far more pricey than everywhere else we stayed. The 5 days we spent in Ubud was by far and away the most expensive part of our trip.
That said, Ubud was also our favorite destination. It’s lush and green, filled with great food and amazing coffee, full of beautiful azure pools that you can swim in for cheap (psst, here’s an Ubud pool guide), the WiFi is strong, and we could totally see ourselves holing up as Digital Nomads in Ubud for a few months… if we weren’t so in love with our couch, that is.
… About Balinese Culture
3. Everything looks like a temple. Everywhere you turn it’s like, is that a temple, or a Walgreens? Bali is truly the land of 10,000 temples. Our minds were blown by how beautiful Balinese architecture is! Even the most basic structures were crafted with these little upturned corners and flourishy roof thingies (that’s … probably not the technical term for them).
What we learned is that we were actually seeing a lot of households and their shrines. Balinese households are designed using the same principles as Balinese temples, including shrines – some of which, depending on the wealth of that household, are so incredibly large that they are, actually, small temples for private use.
We took this cooking class at a private home in Ubud, for example, and there was a courtyard filled with shrines and GIANT large family temple, decorated with intricate carvings and even painted in gold. It was jaw-dropping – and we were amazed that this was a private temple built just for the family compound’s use!
4. You won’t need to go searching for culture: it is everywhere! We thought we would have to go out of our way to find temples and other examples of Balinese culture, but we were thrilled to find that they were absolutely everywhere, especially in Ubud – it’s the cultural center of Bali.
Everywhere you look you’ll find Balinese architecture, which draws from Balinese Hindu principles governing things like balance and space; chanang offerings and altars lining the sidewalks; and during our visit, intricately decorated penjor poles towering overhead and lining the streets, swaying in the breeze. It is stunning. Bali: you’re freakin’ gorgeous. The hype is real.
5. Be careful not to step on the offerings lining the sidewalks. “Chanang” are small, square woven baskets made from cut coconut leaves and filled with flowers and other gifts for the gods, topped with a single smoldering stick of incense. And they are EVERYWHERE in Bali, particularly in Ubud. Each home may have anywhere from 10-30 different chanang placed around their house!
While the incense is burning, the essence of the gifts is still ascending to heaven, so be very careful not to step on anything. After the incense is out, what you essentially have is a tiny, beautiful pile of compost every 3 steps.
6. There are, er, Nazi symbols – but don’t worry, they’re not actually Nazi symbols! You’ll the symbol carved into temples and other sacred cultural spots, but don’t worry – they’re not meant to espouse hate. They’re symbols of peace and love, part of a Hindu and Buddhist symbolism that, along with many other cultures, used these symbols for centuries before the Nazis turned it into one of the most horrifying and recognizable symbols worldwide.
7. You’ll see a lot of group cremations. We actually didn’t realize that the groups of people in traditional dress congregating near the temples or walking in processions down the road past us were performing group open-air cremations until one of our drivers explained it to us. He told us that the Ngaben ceremony is the traditional Balinese Hindu funeral ceremony, and cremation is releases the soul for rebirth.
But soul-releasing is not cheap: the cremations are so pricey that families bury their dead the same way that we do, and then spend YEARS saving up for the actual cremation ceremony. Group cremations, too, are a cost-cutting measure. In our two weeks of backpacking through Bali, we saw probably 10 group cremations or more.
…About Getting Around
8. Everyone rides motorbikes in Bali. Everyone. Kids, babies, women, men, the elderly, monkeys, everyone. So of course, we rode them too. I mean, hey, we’re used to moto-taxis from South America, how hard can it be to actually drive them?
Spoilers: it is not as easy as it looks, you guys. The good news is that we only got in one wreck. The bad news is that we got in one wreck.
It was in the middle of the night on a windy, hilly, thin pathway running alongside the Monkey Forest in Ubud. Jeremy was going too slowly to make the hill (because we were both low-key terrified) and we sort of just … lost speed and fell over. Which wouldn’t be so bad unless the path wasn’t a TERRIFYING CLIFF. Luckily, there was a tree to break our fall (yay?) so Jeremy ended up with his leg trapped between the scooter and a tree.
Meanwhile, I was screaming my head off, because of course I was, when it suddenly dawned on me that we were next to the freakin’ Monkey Forest full of angry, aggressive, spoiled toddler monkeys who would probably not be thrilled to wake up to my screams.
So I stopped screaming and instead did like a quiet, guttural growl thing and some really heavy breathing, which sort of helped. We walked the bike all the way back to our accommodation, cleaned up Jeremy’s leg, and agreed to never, ever drive the thing in the dark ever again. Jeremy now has yet another motorbike scar to add to the giant burn on the back of his leg that we got the very first week of our year-long honeymoon.
My advice to you, beloved reader who I do not want to get into a motorbike accident, is this: if you have little to no prior experience driving a motorbike, please wear a helmet and maybe avoid driving at night and maybe also avoid hills. Er, and try not to wake the monkeys.
9. There aren’t many big roads or highways cutting through Bali. Most of the roads you’ll take will be 2 lane roads with no shoulders. Which means there is a lot of traffic everywhere, and you’ll need to allow yourself a lot of extra time to get even a short distance.
10. The streets are chaos. There are motorbikes zipping in and out of traffic, down one-way streets the wrong way, and generally following absolutely no road rules. There are no clear lanes, so it’s actually unclear where cars belong and what the road rules might actually be, or whether perhaps there are no road rules at all? Roads are small which means lots of traffic, there are no shoulders which means cars stop in the middle of the roads, and there’s no passing lane which means cars are constantly going into oncoming traffic just to get through. And then there are people, tourists and locals and monkeys alike, all crossing the road whenever they feel like it.
It is chaos. But honestly, if you close your eyes when you’re in the wrong lane (unless you are driving a motorbike, don’t close your eyes if you’re driving) and just trust that your drivers Know What They Are Doing, it all somehow … works.
11. Public transportation is less common than we expected. We found ourselves taking taxis and hiring drivers absolutely everywhere. And we – along with everyone else – rented a scooter to drive around in each town we visited.
12. Don’t rely on Google Maps for to estimate travel time. We live and die by Google’s estimates here at home, but in Bali, they were NEVER accurate. Whether it was the traffic, the general slowness of the windy 2-lane roads, or just a general sense of time moving more slowly here, we always ended up at our destination several hours after Google said we would.
13. Everyone is a driver. Seriously, everyone. Need to go somewhere? Someone willing to drive you is already within a 3-feet radius, even if you don’t know it yet. You’ll frequently be asked “where are you headed” and “how are you getting to your next destination” and you’ll think they’re just making small talk, but actually, they’re trying to offer you their services as a driver! You gotta respect that hustle.
One night in Ubud we watched a cultural dance at the Royal Palace (probably one of the coolest things we did our entire trip, ngl) and afterwards we headed out to find a scooter to take us back to our accommodation. Our driver ended up being one of the royal drummers! He had all kinds of stories about touring all over the world with his dance troupe and living in different countries. And here we were, paying him a couple bucks to drive us around town on a scooter in his band uniform and listening to his stories. Unique, yeah?
… About Balinese Food
14. The tempeh in Bali is truly next-level. Neither of us are vegetarian, but I rarely found myself ordering meat in Bali – the vegetarian meals are just SO GOOD! Bali actually invented tempeh, and there is something incredibly delicious about a good tempeh curry. Their tofu is great too, but the tempeh is where it’s at. Guys, who am I? I was Paleo for like 3 years. All I ate was meat and vegetables. Now I’m waxing poetic about tempeh?!
We actually took a cooking class in Ubud and were thrilled to learn that preparing tempeh is incredibly easy: you just fry it in coconut oil. Seriously, go buy a package of Indonesian style tempeh, chop it up, fry it in coconut oil – really go heavy with the oil, here, just because it’s sort of healthy doesn’t mean you can’t deep fry it into something unhealthy – and add a sprinkle of salt. Let it dry and it will be a crispy, delicious snack ready to throw onto a salad or into a curry – if you can keep yourself from eating it all on its own, that is!
Psst: taking a cooking class in Bali is one of the top bucket list items to do in Bali, according to Kelana by Kayla who has an epic list!
15. Order food at a restaurant? Bring a book – it’s going to be a while. There seems to be no rush to get food from the kitchen to the table in Bali. The first time we waited for an hour after ordering food before eating, I was enraged – or more likely, hangry – and vowed never to return to that restaurant. The second and third time, I started to realize that it wasn’t the restaurant.
By the 4th and 5th time it happened, I learned to head to dinner BEFORE I got hungry/hangry, and to bring a book to read, podcast to listen to, or some other form of entertainment. Or, I don’t know, I GUESS you could talk with your travel companion/life partner, or whatever. I suppose that works too.
16. There are lots of reusable and compostable straws. This made is so happy! We’d been reading up before our trip about the worrying amount of trash on Bali’s beautiful beaches, and we were fully prepared to turn down straws along with using our collapsible cups and re-useable water bottles and and other zero waste travel gear, but we didn’t have to: Bali is already on it.
From restaurant to coffee shop, we were given reusable glasses, silverware, and plates instead of disposable or plastic ones. And we were delighted to see reusable steel and glass straws and even compostable bamboo and paper straws too. Some places, like Bali Eco Deli in Nusa Lembongan, are actually spearheading recycling programs and no-plastic movements in Bali. It’s fantastic to see!
17. It’s hard to figure out if a restaurant will be good or … not. We kind of got into a San Francisco thing with the coffee and avocado toast and excitedly attempted to use Yelp to find a restaurant: womp womp, there’s no Yelp in Bali. Trip Advisor also wasn’t fantastically helpful here: we found it inaccurate much of the time. And wandering into random warungs based on judgements like “seems divey, could be legit” or “oooh it’s so pretty” didn’t actually work out well for us either. None of our usual tricks worked!
But yes – there IS lots of amazing food in Bali, it’s just not necessarily the easiest to find. We found most of our favorite restaurants in Bali through word of mouth.. And yes, we wrote down all of our spots, so keep an eye out for our other Bali blog posts, coming very soon 😉
18. There are a lot of flies and they get uncomfortably close to your food. I know, ick, right? We think it has to do with the chanang, which are essentially free fly food after their incense sticks have burnt out. Most restaurants in Bali are primarily open-air, and we noticed that a lot of restaurants kept food covered or would send servers out with large leaves to fan at the air, so we weren’t too bothered by the occasional fly hovering hopefully nearby.
… Except in Nusa Lembongan, that is. For whatever reason, the flies in Nusa Lembongan were a LOT more ballsy than the flies elsewhere in Bali. We developed a habit of waving our arms over our food constantly while we ate and learned to sit as far away from the morning’s chanang as possible – it seemed like the later in the day it was, the more flies there were feasting on the delicious offerings.
… About Balinese Coffee
19. There is excellent coffee in Bali, but traditional Balinese coffee is not our favorite. Oof, that sounded harsh – but it’s true. Traditional Balinese coffee is made with the grinds still in the cup. Think of it like a pour-over, except without a coffee filter, so you end up with a mouthful of grit after every sip.
That said, don’t confuse the shade we’re throwing at traditional Balinese coffee with a distaste for Balinese coffee beans! Balinese coffee beans are delicious, and when prepared well – like at Seniman Coffee in Ubud, where we drank an embarrassing amount of delicious coffee during all-day-long work sessions – it is truly delicious and incredible! Just … no grinds, please.
20. Kopi Luwak Coffee is overhyped and actually kind of terrible. I hate to burst the fun “I drink coffee that was pooped out of a cuddly, adorable animal!” bubble (yes, that’s actually what Kopi Luwak coffee is, and people drop bands to try it) BUT the industry has taken a turn towards animal cruelty in order to keep up with tourist demand.
Traditionally, coffee berries are eaten by a wild, adorable civet (think like, a cat plus a racoon mixed with a coati, but cuter) who safely passes the beans through and… well, poops them out. I guess then there’s sort of like a fun game of “find the poo” and then once you’ve gathered enough of it you can go and make yourself a nice cup of joe. Which, I mean, with all that poo finding, no wonder the coffee is so expensive, right?
But now that everyone in Bali is welling to shell out an arm and a leg to try poo coffee (it just … like, I don’t get it) coffee farmers have resorted to capturing wild civets and holding them in captivity. You’ll see them around Ubud in little stalls tied up on leashes or in cages set out on display, which is doubly horrifying because civets are nocturnal.
We did try Kopi Luwak coffee – we were on a tour, and someone else REALLY wanted to order it, and we were like “well what the heck we might as well taste it if it’s in front of us,” and I can now officially and without a doubt say that it is absolutely not worth it. And this is coming from two extreme coffee snobs. Like two coffee snobs who will un-ironically sit around and discuss the notes of like, lemon meringue and blueberries in a cup of coffee. Kopi Luwak coffee doesn’t have notes of poo, which is nice, but it also just tastes like coffee. Except coffee that passed through an animal that was captured and held in a cage against its will and forced to be awake when it should be sleeping. It is resoundingly not worth it. Just say no to Kopi Luwak coffee!
…About Backpacking Bali in General
21. There are rocks in the shower. All of the showers in our various accommodations had rocks places at the bottom, to help absorb water, I think. Don’t worry: they’re smooth and they won’t hurt your feet, unless you’re clumsy like me and you keep slipping off of them and falling over, which is partially my own fault and partially the lack of a platform or tile or something so I didn’t have to balance on slippery rocks while I’m trying to wash my hair. To be fair: most of our accommodations had tiles or platforms, and only one did not.
22. Sometimes you can’t flush the toilet paper in the toilet, and sometimes you can, and it’s hard to tell which is which. After 4 months of throwing toilet paper into the trash can in South America, we were actually pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to go back to our old habit in Bali!
Except sometimes we did. And it wasn’t always super clear when we were able to throw toilet paper in the toilet, and when we weren’t. Like sometimes there was a sign, and sometimes you had to use your deduction skills to figure it out. We ended up relying on clues like “trashcan within arm distance” or “has a bidet attached to the toilet” or “no trash can OR bidet to be found” but it was mostly unclear and we are very anxious people and so I’m still low key haunted by the fear that I did something horribly wrong half the time.
23. The smell of burning trash wafts through the air throughout much of Bali. Despite the rosy, environmentally friendly picture I just painted for you, there is still a severe trash problem in Bali. They have begun the long journey to changing it, but it’s still there.
Trash litters the sides of the roads, beaches, forests, and fields. And wherever we travelled in Bali, we saw workers collecting the trash into piles (yay!) and burning them (noooooo). I suppose this is one method to help alleviate Bali of its trash, but it’s not … really a good one. Burning trash fumes are toxic, and can be dangerous, particularly to children. And it’s really everywhere – you’ll get used to the smell of burning plastic and rubber during your trip to Bali.
Concerned about the fumes? Consider bringing along masks to wear when driving past or staying in particularly smelly places. These are the masks that we wear when the Californian fires send smoke our way – they block airborne particles, but may or may not actually help with fumes. For what it’s worth, we just tried to hold our breath and move out of the area when the fumes got bad.
24. Things don’t actually open when it they say they open. Things move a bit more slowly here and generally on a nice, leisurely delay. Which we’d normally be used to because it’s the same thing back home in the Bay Area, but in this case, it interfered with the most important meal of our whole day: coffee.
The lesson we learned here is not to schedule anything for early in the morning because you will end up hungry and coffee-less. No, YOU’RE caffeine deprived and cranky.
25. Bali is huge, with destinations spread out all over the island and plenty of “off the beaten path” spots to discover. During our two weeks in Bali, we visited only three places: Ubud, Amed, and Nusa Lembongan. And like … WOW is there so much else to see! Bali is an enormous island with so many incredibly destinations that we’re dying to go back and explore. From jungles to beaches (there are so still many more beaches in Bali we have yet to visit!) to tropical islands to volcanoes to temples to cities to towns to rice terraces and more, we can see why so many people visit Bali again and again. There’s still so much we want to explore – so I guess we’ll just have to come back!
Have you ever visited Bali? Did any of these ring true for you? Tell us what surprised you about backpacking in Bali in the comments below!
We’ve got more content from our trip to Bali coming very, very soon. If you’re looking for some practical information to help you plan your trip to Bali, we love this incredibly informative guide to Bali created by Glo from The Blog Abroad, who spends a lot of time in Bali (and whose stunning video collab with Dakota Adan may have singlehandedly caused us to want to visit).
If you’re looking for some reading material, here are some of the other things that nobody told us about:
- 32 Things Nobody Tells You About Long Term Travel as a Couple
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Your Job to Go Travel
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About San Francisco: A Mildly Helpful Local’s Guide
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