The best things to do in Bali for us aren’t the things you gawk at in tourism ads or highlight in travel guides. In keeping with our preference for the slow, the local and experiential, they’re as low-key and laidback as strolls through rice paddies and learning to cook Balinese food.
We loved the side of Bali that we experienced when we settled into a beautiful villa in a sleepy village with serene gardens, a swimming pool, a dog named Dina, and a cook called Desak. Taking time to absorb the local rituals, connect with the villagers, and get a taste of everyday life in our neighbourhood was more satisfying than fighting off the monkeys at the tourist sights.
Here are the best things to do on Bali — the things that we love to do on Indonesia’s beguiling island:
Best Things to Do in Bali
Meet Balinese People
“Hello! Hello!” I remember two skinny little kids calling out to us from behind a dilapidated brick wall, a short distance down the lane from where we stayed on our first trip to Bali. “Hello!!!” we shouted in response and they smiled shyly back. Opposite, at the entrance to another home, a young woman looked up from sweeping her courtyard to smile generously. Chickens sprinted across the yard behind her where an elderly man, dressed handsomely in a batik sarong and headband, placed an offering at a shrine, before waving to us. Moments later, an old lady twinkled her eyes and gave us a toothless grin. By the time we reached the end of the lane, we had been greeted by a handful of people and we would be welcomed by two dozen more by the end of our stroll a couple of hours later. Bali must be home to some of the world’s friendliest people and one of the best things to do in Bali for us is simply meet Balinese people. Read more about our encounters amongst the rice paddies and click through to meet our Local Knowledge expert, Kiki.
Surf Mythical Waves
Bali has always been a mythical destination for surfers around the world, Terence included, and that was one of the reasons why we finally went to Bali in 2010 after putting off a trip for years. Some surfers settle into Bali for months on end, knowing that during the time between April and September when the trade winds blow offshore, the swell is as persistent as a sarong seller on Kuta Beach. The famous surfing spots of Uluwatu and Padang Padang on the Bukit Peninsula are legendary and even the tamer surf spots of Kuta Beach and Canggu, near where we stayed, turn on classic surf for much of the winter. That combined with the beauty of the beaches make it a surfer’s paradise. Surfing is definitely one of the best things to do in Bali for Terence and it was one reason he was keen to return to Bali last month. Click through for more of Terence’s images of Bali’s legendary waves.
Delight in Lush Landscapes
Bali’s rural landscapes are bucolic, so make an effort to get out into the countryside for a drive. The island’s narrow country roads are lined with towering palm trees heaving with coconuts, banana plants bearing bunches of the sugary fruit, and lush terraces of rice paddies. In the rice fields, workers shake mechanical contraptions that stretch convolutedly above the green fields, making a pretty tinkling sound that’s intended, along with the ubiquitous scarecrows, to frighten the birds from the crops. In the late afternoons and on weekends, children fly kites high in the sky. From sunrise to sunset, workers tend their farms, helped out by their neighbours. For me, getting out of the cities and into the countryside to savour the picturesque views is definitely one of the best things to do in Bali.
Absorb Village Life
Bali’s diminutive villages are worlds away from crowded Kuta and busy Seminyak, as you’ll discover if you go for a drive, stop the car in some out-of-the-way village, and take a wander. Villages are dotted with warungs, simple wooden stalls and eateries selling local food, and shacks boasting little more than basic groceries, a fridge of cold drinks, and a table with a few stools that serves as a meeting place for locals. In between the warungs are temples decorated with stone carvings and flowers growing out of the cracks between bricks. Walled family compounds house moss-dappled pavilions, their yards hosting a motley collection of animals. Everywhere there are people, whizzing by on motorbikes and scooters, doubling two and three and four family members or friends, and riding bicycles laden with sacks bursting with freshly harvested crops that spill onto the bitumen as they cruise past.
Watch Ceremonies and Festivals
There is a ceremony or festival somewhere on Bali every day. Hanging on the wall of our villa kitchen and almost every home in Bali are Balinese calendars, consulted by locals on a daily basis. No Balinese person would hold a ceremony — or do pretty much anything — without first studying the calendar to select an auspicious date. While Balinese make offerings and perform temple-cleansing rites on significant dates such as the Sasih New Year, there are many local ceremonies where dates are chosen from the calendar due to their auspiciousness. There are times when it is best to meditate or socialise, marry or divorce, bury or cremate. Watching ceremonies and festivals, large of small, is easily one of the best things to do in Bali, so ask a local to consult their calendar to tell you the best date and time to visit a temple. That was how Terence was able to photograph a Royal Cremation Ceremony during our stay. Otherwise, if you serendipitously happen upon a ceremony or festival, do stay and watch. As long as you are modestly dressed and behave respectfully, the locals won’t mind at all.
Observe Rituals and Offerings
Life on Bali is imbued with rituals — spiritual and social; complicated and simple — from the religious events marked on the Balinese calendar to the daily tributes made at home and at Hindu temples. Every day Balinese people make offerings to please the gods and appease the demons, around their compound and at their temple, where they place woven palm baskets — which the women of the household probably woke at dawn to make — that they fill with fruit, frangipani, piles of bougainvillea petals, and incense. The offerings or banten is the only demonstration of Balinese spirituality that most visitors will witness and it’s wonderful to be given the privilege to watch — from the respectful placement of the offerings on a shrine to the lighting of the incense sticks and wafting of the fragrant smoke, it’s a considered gesture that invites us to stop and focus for a moment on the little things that matter. I learnt to make offerings one day with my mum up at Ubud.
Cook Balinese Food
While Balinese food shares some characteristics, dishes and influences with the cuisines of other Indonesian islands, and other Southeast Asian countries with which it shares history, it is also distinguished by distinctive dishes traditionally eaten for feasts that were part of religious rituals and ceremonies, such as bebek betutu (marinated duck wrapped in banana leaf) and babi guling (suckling pig), which you’ll now see everywhere from roadside stands to fancy restaurants. Another dish that is special is Bali’s version of satay, ayam betutu, consisting of mince pounded together with basa gede, the same sauce that’s used to marinate the meat, and shaped around ‘skewers’ of lemongrass or bamboo. Our villa cook, Desak, with whom Terence traded cooking lessons, provided us with a wonderful introduction to Balinese cuisine and some delicious recipes. Learning to cook Balinese food is definitely one of the best things to do in Bali so if you don’t have access to a local cook, sign up for a Balinese cooking class when you arrive on the island.
Take Home Balinese Crafts
Bali has long been a centre for traditional arts and crafts and almost every visitor returns from a stay on the island with a suitcase crammed with carvings, masks and textiles. Every town boasts a market and Ubud’s Market is one of the island’s best. For the finest quality mementoes, however, visit fair trade shop Threads of Life for authentic, exquisite Balinese textiles, handicrafts and prints. The traditional weavers that Threads of Life works with live in villages too remote to benefit from tourism, so you can leave knowing that you’ve known only bought some very special mementoes, but the makers of these special things have benefited from your purchases.
Take in Arty Ubud
The artistic and cultural heart of Bali for centuries, Ubud‘s streets are lined with galleries, handicraft shops, boutiques, and cafés. There’s no denying the town is commercial and it does get crowded with tourists, but amongst all the shops selling tacky souvenirs, there are beautiful stores specialising in traditional textiles, crafts and original art. Art lovers should visit Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA), Museum Puri Lukisan and Neka Art Museum. A major centre of learning, Ubud makes a wonderful base for the experiential travellers. You can learn almost anything, from Balinese painting and woodcarving to dance and drama. ARMA has a popular program of cultural and artistic workshops. While I learnt to make offerings there, Terence had a lesson in playing the gamelan. Also see our itinerary for a perfect day in Ubud.
Don’t Take Cheek from Bali’s Monkeys
Okay, so I was meant to be suggesting the best things to do in Bali that are alternatives to the tourist attractions where you need to fight off the mischievous monkeys intent on taking your stuff. But let’s face it: monkeys are adorable. They’re also sacred to Balinese culture and meandering Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary to see the cheeky Balinese long-tail macaques tops most travellers’ to do lists. Visit any Balinese temple or museum and you’ll notice that the monkey features prominently in the architecture, sculpture and performances. The sanctuary is home to about 300 macaques and if you stroll through with food, you’ll quickly be befriended by a monkey or five. They are cute — until they attempt to steal your backpack or handbag.
Savour Sublime Sunsets
One of the best things to do in Bali is savour a sublime sunset. Whether you’re photographing the postcard-perfect sunsets at Uluwatu Temple, perched atop a 70-metre cliff, set against a vast expanse of ocean and sky, or you’re capturing the big ball of fire sinking behind the silhouette of the tiered temple on the rocky outcrop at the sacred Hindu site of Tanah Lot, Bali’s sublime sunsets are worth the effort. Personally, I prefer to take them in from a comfy spot by the sea with a cocktail in hand, whether it’s at a breezy lantern-lit bar by the beach, such as Woo Bar or Ku De Ta, or slap bang on the sand in bean bags at La Plancha at Seminyak. Because as much as we love going local, nothing screams “I’m on holiday in a faraway place!” more than sipping a heady cocktail as you watch the sunset with your toes in the sand.