Coming off 18 hours in airplanes over a two-day span from the US, Bali’s thrumming pace will stimulate even the most wooly-headed, jet-lagged traveler. From its non-existent speed limits, to its world-famous Luwak coffee (endorsed by the movie The Bucket List), once you land on Balinese soil prepare to be mowed down by the island’s pulsating charm.
With close to 4 million people in an area smaller than the state of Delaware—according to the 2010 census—nearly everyone in Bali who’s driving age owns a scooter. In Denpasar and Kuta, city hotspots jam-packed with nightclubs, restaurants, and shops, it’s not uncommon to see a family of four out for a joy ride on a single banana seat. If there’s a traffic jam, Bali’s irrepressible drivers will create their own lanes by speeding through the middle of the road or along the shoulder.
Out in the island’s countryside, roads open up to breathtaking vistas of rice paddy fields dotted with moss-covered, thousand-year-old villages. On my recent trip to the only Hindu island in the Indonesian archipelago, excitement was tempered with long walks on its dazzling black sand beaches, and memorable spa treatments finished with flower-petal infused soaks in enormous porcelain tubs.
If you’re looking for adventure coupled with real Southeast Asian hospitality, here’s a list of dos and don’ts to make the thrill ride all it can be.
- Take a tour with a local guide. You can cover a lot of ground with an insider who serves double duty as a cultural ambassador (and you don’t have to drive). One guide took us traipsing through one of the terraced rice paddies, where we bundled clumps of rice shoots with an obliging farmer. In between attractions, you can use the time to discuss anything from the island’s colorful religion to its politics (two out of three of our guides spoke English very well). Language tip: Indonesian is taught in Bali’s schools, but locals speak Balinese in their homes and with their friends, so we wished we’d brought a Balinese phrasebook instead of an Indonesian one.
- See the Balinese dancers at Batubulan Village. Good versus evil is explored in the sacred Kecak and Fire Dance, embodying highlights of the Hindu epic Ramayana, which tells the story of the bold prince, Rama, who leaves behind his comely princess, Sita, to hunt a golden deer. The evil King, Rahwana, kidnaps her, placing her fidelity under suspicion. One guide told us it would take him a month to do justice to all the Ramayana’s gripping sub-plots and allegorical splendor. We did discover that the ending is tragic, as in all really good love stories.
- Have lunch in mountainous Kintamani village. Area restaurants serve Indonesian cuisine al fresco, in middle-American, all-you-can-eat-buffet style—the volcano of the same name serves patio diners to a stunning backdrop. Though occasionally venting steam, the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1994 (according to a local source), so you can eat with all your typical gusto.
- Visit Ubud’s Monkey Forest. This nature reserve is inhabited by moss-covered temples and monkey-god stone carvings, and the whole is steeped in a mythical, otherworldly charm. Vendors sell bananas so visitors can feed the numerous macaque inhabitants that litter the ground and shrubbery with simian abandon. If you don’t want a monkey to jump on your pant leg, it’s recommended that you don’t feed them. Even so, the directive is no guarantee against curious climbers. This place is not for the faint of monkey heart.
- Take a surfing lesson on Kuta Beach. For roughly $10 ($100,000 rupiah, the Balinese currency), you can hire a local expert to provide a brief tutorial, and then take you out on the beach’s beginner-sized waves. They’ll loan you a longboard and a shirt that magically keeps you warm. When you’re out in the surf, the instructor will hold your board steady as you navigate each prospective wave as it begins to curl. If moderately athletic, you’ll move from wannabe to waffler in less than an hour.
- Bicycle through Bali’s scenic back roads. Halo Bike Tours will pick you up in the company van, drive you first to a coffee plantation (where you can taste Luwak coffee and buy it by the cup or bag), and then by bicycle through neighborhoods and along the Balinese countryside. Villages are surrounded by centuries-old stone walls, as Hindus believe these protect their homes from evil spirits. Walls are fronted by canals, a gift from Dutch colonialists (according to our guide), which irrigate crops and serve as a bathing and laundering source. Locals are identified by the villages where they are born, and certain neighborhoods are known for particular crafts (artisan skills being passed from generation to generation). When asked what would happen if a son or daughter refused to learn how to carve wood or dye fabric for batik, for example, the question was met with a blank look—familial rebellion apparently unheard of here. The tour ends with a lavish lunch in the home of the company owner whose wife is the chef. The family is personable, their conversation steeped in the Balinese penchant for sharing personal stories.
- Go snorkeling on Nusa Dua Beach. While the speedboat ride offered up refreshing, glass-bottomed visuals, there were very few fish thanks to the churning, outboard traffic. The air reeked of exhaust, and coupled with the ocean’s rocking sensations, we were green with something other than envy.
- Visit Turtle Island. A sixty-year-old turtle was lifted by its fins to serve as a prop for tourist photos, which seemed hardly dignified for such a gorgeous animal. Hanging from a tree nearby, a fruit bat (an enormous, fantastical creature with eyes like a cat and just as big, if not bigger) served as petting zoo fodder for a queue of tourists. This struck the absurd chord, though the megabat did seem to enjoy being handled by a family of Japanese “flying fox” enthusiasts.
- Go shopping with western expectations. In Bali, browsing is a different experience than you’ll find in the more industrialized world. Expect a degree of vigor from the island’s salespeople that you don’t see in the US, as tourism is its largest industry. Do bargain, as the Balinese expect you to. The rule of thumb is that tradespeople will accept 30% less than the asking price in the artisan shops, and 50% less in the tourist centers (found in Kuta and Ubud, where the quality of the merchandise is considered to be lower). Start low (without being insulting), and be prepared to walk away when they throw you a curve ball (one Balinese painter told us we could only have the price we’d agreed upon if we bought a second painting—when we started walking away, he instantly caved). The high jinx is all meant in fun and should be taken that way.