It is likely that during your daily Instagram scroll you've come across an image of Nusa Penida - an infamous Balinese coastline - or maybe a trendy cafe with an Instagram model holding her vegan and gluten free smoothie, complete with straw hats and modern bohemian decor. Or maybe you've seen the countless 5 bedroom villas with private pools that go for no more than $200 a night, or the infamous rice patties with dream-like light rays through the palm trees that may or may not be photoshopped or drastically enhanced...or maybe it really looks like that?
I know I have seen these images, and I would be foolish not to admit that those posts sparked my initial draw to Bali. Like many popular travel destinations I see on social media, I wanted to experience it myself. I wanted to know what that vegan smoothie tasted like, or what those villas would actually be like staying in (because lord knows I won't be staying in one of those in South Beach Miami). So, we went, thinking we knew what to expect. Little did I know that this little Indonesian island due south of the equator would give us an experience so much deeper and more rich than we'd ever imagine.
Before I dive into this journal entry, I want you to know that the moments that were some of the most enlightening and meaningful were actually moments I didn't really capture. They were the moments of humanity; passing, fleeting interactions that would be impossible to capture in that split of a second. However, I will provide you with the eye candy that is the lush jungles and epic coastlines of Bali, all while describing why it is you should visit this place, and what you really need to pay attention to. Stay tuned until the end where I share my final thoughts.
I know I don't do this every journal, but I figure it'd be useful to tell you how we actually got over there, financially. We used credit cards points from our travel credit card (Chase Safire Reserve - 3x the points spent on travel and dining AKA what we spend our money on anyway) to fly there via London Heathrow to Dubai to Denpasar. It was 100,000 points for both of us rountrip, which equaled to about $600 roundtrip each. We chose two cities to stay in, Canguu and Ubud. The Airbnb's were about $185-$230 a night, split between two couples the first Airbnb and three couples the second. To rent a vespa was about $10 a day. Average meals were no more than $10 per person, and taxi to and from the airport were about $20. We spent no more than $1000 total, for the both of us, on this trip.
My initial impressions upon landing in Denpasar, Bali's capital, was strikingly similar to first landing in Mexico. Hot, humid, and chaotic with virtually no traffic laws, run-down buildings with lined laundry, and roundabouts filled with mostly vespas. Ketut (yes, like the medicine man from Eat, Pray Love, about every other man you'll meet is either a Wayan or Ketut) happily drove us to meet our two friends in Canguu. What would normally be a quick 20 minutes took about an hour with traffic, but it was hardly noticeable when you're getting a massive sensory overload.
When picking places to stay in Bali, note that the most popular are Seminyak, Kuta, Canguu, Uluwatu (more south), and Ubud. Each have their own vibe, but generally, Seminyak and Kuta are more crowded and party-central. Canguu is much like Seminyak (about 25 minutes north of it), but a tad less party and a little more aesthetic and luxury. Uluwatu is where you go for a more laid back, beachy vibe with ocean views (we plan to go there next time), and Ubud is still touristy yet a remains more quiet, yogi and more traditional, and is nestled in the jungle up north. If you have only about 8-10 days as we did (I would not go less than that if you can help it), I would choose two destinations within the island and split it evenly. Everywhere I listed is foodie and surf central, but generally up north is where all the adventurous activities reside, so pick one of the southern cities to chill, eat a ton of healthy but delicious food, beach/surf, then head up to Ubud area for all the exploring.
As we approached Canguu, buildings started to look slightly newer, and people started to look whiter and blonder. Glass windows displayed overpriced bikinis and macrame wall art. It wasn't quite as stark of a difference from downtown Cancun to a 5 Star Secrets Resort, but it was noticeable enough to realize we had definitely entered the most Westernized part of Bali.
We met up with friends Meghan and Cole, fellow Air Force fam stationed in Japan. Enter in Airbnb number one, and we got a taste of what kind of luxury you can live with little dollars. Our own pool, open concept living room and kitchen, air conditioned bedrooms and bohemian-influenced decor.
It is no question that the best way to get around this island is by motor bike or vespa, given you have experience driving one (seriously, if you don't, don't do it. It's wildly unsafe and the number one cause of injury and death amongst tourists). We had one per couple, and the moment we set our bags down in the Airbnb we were off exploring. I can't really describe the excitement of actually riding around the bumpy roads of this foreign place that I've dreamt of for so long. My eyes and heart were so happy that we finally made it.
An absolute must is The Lawn. We went there the first night and again on our last. It's an epic place to watch the sunset, have a cocktail and cheap, good food. I miss this place.
Our time in Canguu was mostly for eating, beaching and chilling, as it should be, but we did head to Pura Tanah Lot, a popular sea temple that is nested on a little island just off the coast. It's gorgeous, but really crowded. It's about a 45 ride from Canguu.
The many fruit stands headed out there are a must. Nothing better than fresh, weird, and colorful fruits for a healthy snack!
Ok, I must admit, I am the WORST at taking food photos. I would be the worst food blogger. When I go out to eat that is my time to eat. So I rarely snap photos. However, I did manage to get a few, specifically at the MUST go - Cafe Organic. A popular Instagram hub, this place was among the first of many incredible cafes we ate at. I cannot even hype up the food in Bali enough. You will be shocked at the freshness, price, quality, and how health-centered it is. I'll link all of the places we went. Let me reiterate: we did not have one bad meal the entire time we were there. Let me also note that a lot of them prioritize a vegan, vegetarian lifestyle, though meat is still available at most places. Don't let that fool you, though. Everything was divine.
TO EAT/DRINK: CANGUU
Milk & Madu
Finn's - day club for music and cocktails. A little pricier for Bali but worth it in my opinion
Peloton Supershop, Canguu
La Laguna - super quirky, gypsy-inspired property perfect for dinner/lounging
With happy tummies and day partied out, it was time to head to the jungle.
The difference in ~vibes~ from Canguu to Ubud was noticeably different. The Traditional Market and numerous temples right in the town immediately felt more Balinese, and the tourists that were there were for sure living out their inner Eat, Pray, Love, with yoga mats on their backs while journaling at the local vegan cafe. It's crowded yet somehow quieter, and the lush jungles complete with rice patties and palm trees had me already favoring this area slightly more than Canguu. The 10 degree cooler in temperatures also helped.
We headed into the main city and I was immediately inspired to capture some of the locals amongst the hustle and bustle.
I've gotta say, when we checked into our Ubud Airbnb, I was in literal heaven. I've never been more stunned by how unique and beautiful our villa was. At just $62 per couple a night, it's hard not to be.
The next day we set out for our first adventure, which was unforgettable. We trekked a little over an hour to Nungnung Waterfall, and the drive out there was honestly the best part. It was our first real peek into local living, where we saw rice patty workers, more run-down villages, numerous women walking with loads of baskets on their head, stray dogs, children playing in the streets, people using the bathroom in the nearby creeks. It was our first peek into the poverty-stricken part of Bali. Since we were just passing through on our motor bike, I didn't get to capture much of the these locals, but you can head to my Instagram story highlights for some videos on our trek out to the waterfall.
One major takeaway from the ride to Nungnung was how many locals depicted such contentment in seemingly harsh conditions. More on that in Final Thoughts.
Arriving at Nungnung was magic. It's a hike down a ton of stairs (that you later take back up - killer quick workout), through lush jungle and honestly not many people at all. This is one of the lesser known waterfalls yet still very accessible from Ubud.
We took about 8432908532904 photos of this beautiful beast. But here are some of my faves:
We thought we got the shot, then the sun decided to glare through the mist, creating legendary, warm and dreamy light rays, so, naturally, we had to capture it.
After a day full of waterfall exploring we headed back to meet another couple who had joined us after their honeymoon. Tegalalang Rice patties (complete with a swing and Luwak Coffee) and the Ubud Monkey Forrest were on their bucket list, so that's what we set out to do over the next day.
These activities are very touristy, but it's still 100% worth seeing and not over the top. We didn't feel like a bunch of sheep being heard around and enjoyed it all thoroughly. I highly recommend going to the rice patties as early as you can, and maybe you'll be lucky enough to capture those sun rays. We didn't get to see them fully, but did benefit from less people to roam around.
TO EAT/DRINK: UBUD
LUXE Grill & Bbq - the perfect place for a last night, fancier meal. This was the food highlight of Ubud.
Melting Wok - we went here twice for lunch. More traditional Indonesian. SO GOOD!
Kismet - all vegan/vegetarian but seriously really, really good. They turn jackfruit into a pulled pork-like goodness. CMON!
...and many more. I'll say it again. It is very, very rare to have a bad food experience in Bali.
Behind the lens + Final Thoughts
Here's the deal: Bali's tourism is booming, almost to a fault. It is heavily westernized because westerners (mainly Australians) are coming to the island to open businesses such as resorts, restaurants and stores. While this is beneficial in that it employs many locals, it's also a catch 22 because poor farmers are being driven to sell their land due to being unable to provide enough resources to, say, 5 star resorts. So while tourism is good for the overall economy, it's quite detrimental to those 36% who live below the poverty line. This puts the Balinese government in a tight spot, and did make us question the overall impact of our visit.
That said, we would go back to Bali in a heartbeat. We WILL go back. But simply being aware of the backend of tourism and learning about the less glamorous side is enough to be a conscious traveler. Sure, stay in the villas, as many are managed by locals (however many are not owned by them), but think about volunteering at a local charity. The coast of Bali is also some of the most trashed and polluted in the world, so participating in beach cleanups is another idea we'll consider when we go back. Stray dogs populate many of the beaches and streets, many starving. There are also several non-profits that help these dogs find homes. When we go back, we're looking in to one or more of these nonprofits and their mission, and I highly encourage you to do the same, even if it's just for a couple of hours!
10 Charities Doing Amazing Work in Bali
Despite the struggles of many Balinese, one thing remains certain: they are some of the most warming, friendly, grateful individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. While riding through the very rural and poor villages, every human I made eye contact with smiled and waived and children played with stray dogs in the overly trashed streets, not to be bothered by any smell. Our neighbors in Ubud rented us our motor bikes, and Ryan's got a flat tire. The women took the bike from him (not letting him drive it as it was unsafe), and we followed her to the shop that we discovered to be closed. She then let us take her motor bike, rode home with her friend, and the next day they delivered our motor bike to our door all fixed up. It took us a few tries to give them money, with the exchange rate was a mere few dollars for us. This is just one testament to the Balinese.
Our taxi driver to the airport told us that he has never left the island of Bali, despite watching Westerners take off in giant planes every single day. He's surely curious about the world out there, but will likely never know due to lack of income. But, when asked if he's happy, he said yes. He loves his family and the island, and they are grateful despite it all.
Why is it that almost every 3rd world country I've visited, the people are the most at peace with themselves and their life? The answer, I think, is the ability to be grateful for the simple.
The Balinese, like many people who live in poor environments, are grateful for the "small" stuff because they have to be. They don't know what it's like to fly first class, or fly at all. They don't know what it's like to stay in a 5 star resort, but they don't NEED to know. The Balinese have every reason to be bitter towards the some 3 million privileged westerners that travel to their little island annually, but they're not. They live a life of gratitude for the seemingly minuscule things in life, allowing them room to be enthusiastic for the bigger things. I think we have a lot to learn from them.
Shoutout to this crew for an unforgettable adventure.