Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrSituated between Java and Lombok in the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is perhaps the country’s most famous tourist island. Combining beautiful stretches of beach and rugged cliffs, emerald rice paddies terraced down lush mountain sides, and world-class diving and surfing on its doorstep, it is easy to see why people flock here from across the world.
Unlike much of Indonesia, Bali is predominantly Hindu and is dotted with impressive temples and sacred sites, as well as being home to unique traditional Balinese arts and culture.
HistoryIt is believed the island has been inhabited as far back as 2000 BC by people of Austronesian descent, with the current Balinese culture evolving from around the 1st century AD under the influence of Hinduism, Chinese and Indian cultures. In the 15th century Bali saw an influx of artists, writers and philosophers when the Hindu Majapahit Empire on Java fell into decline, visible in the rich artistic history of the island today.
The Portuguese are believed to be the first Europeans to make contact in Bali in 1512 but it was the Dutch who first established their authority across Indonesia with the Dutch East India Company from the early 17th century. They used their influence to manipulate Balinese kingdoms into rivalry and exploit the instability which resulted.
During World War II the island was occupied by Japanese forces who easily captured Bali due to a lack of Dutch troops. During this period the Balinese established a ‘freedom army’ which rose up against the Dutch when they returned following Japan’s surrender. The Balinese did not, however, receive their independence until the Dutch colonists recognised Indonesian independence in 1949 and Bali was included within the ‘Republic of the United States of Indonesia’.
The idyllic tourist paradise found today has not been without conflict, however. Economic and political turmoil erupted in the 1950s and ‘60s with widening social divides and challenges being made to the traditional caste system across Indonesia. It is believed that around 80,000 Balinese were killed when the military launched violent anti-communist attacks throughout the archipelago during this period. Stability was returned when Suharto came to power and Bali’s tourism economy was allowed to flourish once again.
UbudThe rice paddies which surround Ubud create a stunning landscape, but it is the rich artistic heritage that is the real draw to this town in the centre of the island. Visit the ‘Purl Lukisan’ museum which has an extensive collection of Balinese art, both modern and dating back hundreds of years, throughout a number buildings set around a beautiful courtyard. In addition, the town is home to the galleries and studios of a number of working artists, both local and expat. The town’s higher altitude and cooler climes has made it a center for alternative therapies and yoga and it’s a great place to pursue a course, or indulge in a traditional Balinese massage. Don’t miss the opportunity to go walking in the surrounding countryside which traverses emerald green rice paddies, or visit the Ubud Monkey Forest with its cheeky inhabitants.
Bukit PeninsulaThis stretch of coastline is home to a number of beautiful beaches, many of which have been heavily developed but a few which still retain their natural charm. Most of the resort areas which inhabit the region have their own unique style and market, whether catering to budget surf crowds or upmarket chic, so you are bound to find an atmosphere that suits you.
Tanah LotSituated on a rocky outcrop on Bali’s southwest coast, Pura Tanah Lot is a sacred Hindu temple which has been transformed into one of the island’s most popular sunset destinations. While you have to run a gauntlet of souvenir vendors and tattoo artists to get to the temple itself, it still is an impressive site in silhouette against the sinking sun.
Pura BesakihNestled on the slopes of Mount Agung, lies the Mother Temple of Besakih, the largest and most holy of all Bali’s temples. It comprises three main temples dedicated to Shiva, Brahma and Wisnu, together with 18 temple sanctuaries. Set against the lush greenery of the mountain, it is a beautiful site and especially vivid during Odalan celebrations.
Terraced rice paddiesA trip to Bali is not complete without experiencing the incredible landscape formed by the island’s terraced rice paddies. The drive between Candidasa and Amlapura is particularly stunning, while the Tegalalang Rice Terraces also offer fantastic views and photo opportunities. Don’t forget to stop in the nearby villages which are home to different artisan groups.
KintamaniHome to the impressive Mount Batur , as well as spectacular mountain scenery, the area of Kintamani is ideal for exploring Bali’s great outdoors. Mount Batur is one of the island’s holiest mountains and embodies the female spirit. From the viewpoint at Penelokan you have an incredible vista across the lava fields, crater lake and lush green slopes, while the nearby hot springs at Toyobungkah are the perfect place to ease your muscles after a long day hiking.
Remote northwestWhile Bali’s southern beaches and central Ubud are the centre of the island’s tourist action, the lesser-known northwest coast is home to some spectacular black sand beaches and fantastic diving. Away from the crowds and party atmosphere of the south, the beach vibe here is more laid back and the surrounding countryside beautiful to explore on the back of a motorbike, dotted with tiny villages and temples. With fewer divers in the water, the reefs are in better condition than those in the south and the macro life is particularly impressive.
Sekumpul WaterfallsLocated a short walk from Sekumpul Village (around two hours drive from Denpasar), these are considered one of Bali's most impressive waterfalls. While the highlight of the region is a twin waterfall, cascading over a steep cliff face draped in greenery, the beautiful, surrounding forest is home to a number of other, smaller waterfalls which are also worth visiting. You can explore the area on your own, but guides are also available from the parking area for a small fee.
Tirtta GangaLocated in the east of Bali, not far from Amed,Tirta Gangga is a former Royal Palace, built in the mid-20th century by Gusti Gede Djelantik, who was in line to become the King of Karangasem. The palace features beautifully landscaped gardens and carved statues, as well as large spring-fed pools with impressive fish. The area surrounding the palace is also worth exploring, with beautiful terraced rice paddies to hike through, all under the gaze of Gunung Agung.
Banjar Hot SpringsNestled near the village of Banjar are these sacred hot springs, revered by the Balinese for their healing properties. Set within beautifully landscaped gardens, the sulphuric water pours from the mouth of dragons carved in stone, and is believed to alleviate all manner of ailments, including skin problems. The water is around 99 °F and the ambience of Banjar, together with a pleasant on-site cafe, make it one of the most popular hot springs on the island.
Uluwatu TempleAlso known as Pura Luhur Uluwatu, this temple, perched spectacularly on top of a cliff top on the Bukit Peninsula, is another great sunset location. The temple is believed to date back to the 10th century and is guarded by a gang of monkeys in the forest on its landward side. It is a sacred location for the Balinese who believe that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva became one here, and the temple helps to protect the island from evil sea spirits.
Ubud Monkey ForestOne of the highlights of a trip to the beautiful town of Ubud is a visit to the Ubud Monkey Forest, home to a large number of grey long-tailed macaques. Situated just on the edge of town, this area is also home to around 115 different species of trees and has become an important research area for both the flora and fauna which resides there. The forest park is dotted with temples, such as the 14th century Pura Purana, making it a site of cultural significance also. The park is open daily between 8am and 6pm and is within easy walking distance from the centre of Ubud.
Seminyak BeachSeminyak is Bali's playground for the chic - a beautiful stretch of sand backed by upmarket restaurants and designer boutiques. Locals and expats alike have set up creative businesses here and it is a great place to spend a day perusing the shops and sipping on cocktails at rooftop bars.
Nusa LembonganLocated off the south east coast of Bali, Nusa Lembongan is an idyllic island paradise with a much mellower vibe than the southern beach resorts of its northern neighbour. All of Bali's favourite pastimes - snorkeling, diving and surfing - are available but without the hawkers, traffic, or loud partying all through the night. Don't miss the stretch of cliffs known as 'Devil's Tears' where the mighty force of the ocean is at its most vivid. There are daily speed boats from Sanur and Padang Bai to Nusa Lembongan and plenty of budget-friendly accommodation is available.
Goa GajahGoa Gajah's Elephant Cave is an archaeological site near Bedulu Village, not far from Ubud in the centre of the island. Dating back to the 11th century this spiritual meditation site features stone carvings of idols, a large 'wantilan' meeting hall and a recently excavated pool. While now quite commercialised with souvenir stalls and snack vendors, the site itself is a peaceful place of importance to the island's Hindu population and of historical interest for the Hindu and Buddhist influences in its structures and carvings.
Lake TamblinganLocated near the village of Munduk in the north of Bali is this beautifully serene lake, surrounded by mountains. With motorised transport banned by the local government, it has retained its natural charm and hiking around the lake is a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. The nearby lakes of Buyan and Beratan are also worth visiting, with Mount Lesung as a backdrop.
Mount AgungThe climb to the summit of Mount Agung, Bali's highest mountain, is a challenging trek, including a rock scramble at the top, but the views across the island of Bali and beyond are worth the effort. Most treks depart from Pasar Agung in the south and take around three to four hours, although there are alternative routes departing from Besakih in the west and Duku Bujangga Sakti in the north. The sunrise trek is one of the most popular times to visit to watch the first rays peek over the horizon, but make sure to bring along a good head torch to help you with the nighttime ascent. Because Mount Agung is a sacred place for the Balinese it is often closed to trekkers during religious festivals and celebrations.
WeatherBali experiences two distinct seasons - the wet season which stretches from October to May, and the dry from April to September. In the rainy season the south, in particular, experiences regular downpours while the mountainous regions get quite cool. Temperatures are surprisingly chilly on top of the mountains in the pre-dawn hours so pack warm layers if you are heading up for sunrise.
The dry season has slightly warmer temperatures and less rain is to be expected, although be prepared for the occasional shower. This is the busiest tourist period on the island and you can expect slightly inflated hotel rates and crowds at many of the island’s most popular beaches.
People and CultureBali is home to around 4 million people, more than 80% of which are Balinese Hindus. This is a stark contrast to the predominantly Muslim make-up of the rest of Indonesia. Their religion is a combination of both Hindu and Buddhist influences with strong animist beliefs and a caste system. Objects, both natural and man-made, can house the energy of spirits which can do either good or evil upon those around them.
The artistic legacy of Bali is prominent throughout the island, with beautiful batik designs produced and traditional carving on display, most notably in the temples. Painting, sculpture and handicrafts all have strong legacies on the island and purchasing a genuine piece of Balinese art makes for a unique souvenir. Today art galleries in the tourist hub of Ubud exhibit work of both past and present local artists, showing the evolution of styles and tradition.
Performing arts also hold a prominent place in Balinese culture and shows are presented in most major tourist hubs if you are interested to see this traditional art form. Unique Balinese ballets feature sections of the Hindu epic the ‘Ramayana’, accompanied by a traditional percussive gamelan orchestra.
Today, Bali is also home to Indonesians from across the archipelago, particularly Lombok, Java and Sumatra, and this is reflected in the wide-spread use of the Indonesian language, rather than solely the local Balinese dialect. The island is also home to an estimated 30,000 expats, many from Australia and parts of Europe, who have set up tourist businesses and English is also commonly spoken as a result.
CuisineBalinese cuisine is a blend of both Indonesian influences and local traditions. Rice or rice noodles feature in almost every meal due to their extensive cultivation, and is usually accompanied by some form of meat or fish, as well as vegetables (although beef is rarely eaten in keeping with Hindu beliefs). The food is often spicy, using a spice paste composed of different quantities of chilli, garlic, cumin, turmeric, ginger and shrimp paste.
Nasi campur is a common dish served up on a banana leaf and features rice with some form of protein, fried or steamed greens, a vegetable curry, and a chilli sauce. Lawar is another traditional dish featuring pork and shredded young jackfruit, while gado gado is a salad generously spread with a spicy peanut sauce.
Most tourist restaurants feature less-spicy versions of traditional favourites, such as nasi goreng and mie goreng, but if you look for street-side vendors or warungs where locals are eating you should be able to find more authentic cuisine. Festivals and religious celebrations are the best time to witness the diversity of Balinese cuisine when special dishes are prepared or offered to the gods.
EconomyBali’s economy relies heavily on tourism with an estimated 80% of GDP related in some way to tourist activity. Local art and handicraft production is linked in with this and the island sees certain artistic trades begin centred in different villages across the island. Before the tourist boom, agriculture was the main source of income for the Balinese and this still serves as the island’s major employer. The dominant crop is rice which can be seen growing across the island in the beautiful terraced paddy fields, as well as fruit and vegetables to serve mostly the domestic market. Today the growth of arabica coffee beans has seen a lucrative niche for Balinese farmers, particularly in the highland region around Mount Batur, and you can taste the results in the boutique cafes springing up across the island.
Tourist transportationMost people arrive and depart from the Ngurah Rai International Airport located near the capital, Denpasar. It is just a short taxi ride from the southern beach resorts and set-price taxis operate from outside the terminal. There is a coastal ring road which circles the island, together with major roads which traverse the centre, and most are in reasonable condition. Due to its small size, it is possible and relatively economical to hire taxis to transport you across the island, particularly if you are two or more people, but tourist buses also serve all the major tourist destinations. While these have more inflated prices than public buses, the convenience of the pick-up/drop-off locations, together with reduced journey times justify the cost. However, if you want to travel with the locals and like a local, then opt for the public option.
Many tourists hire a motorbike or moped to explore the island which are both cheap and convenient. They can easily be rented across the island and your local driver’s license will suffice.
FestivalsBali’s rich cultural traditions mean that festivals form an integral part of the island’s life, adding to its allure. The Balinese calendar is marked by celebrations to recognise their religious gods, to make offerings, and to request good health and prosperity for the future.
Nyepi, the Hindu New Year, is celebrated by a parade of sculptured monsters which are later burned to drive away evil spirits from the island. The following day is marked by island-wide silence when people are encouraged to stay at home and reflect away from the commotion of life. This falls on the day after the new moon on the ninth month of the Balinese saka calendar.
The festival of Saraswati is dedicated to the Goddess of Knowledge, Art and Literature, Dewi Saraswati. It is marked by the blessing of books and manuscripts and offerings are made to the god in return for knowledge and wisdom.
The ten day Galungan festival is an island-wide feast when the Balinese gods are believed to descend to earth to help celebrate the victory of virtue over evil. The Balinese place a decorated bamboo pole on the right side of the entrance to their homes and wear their finest clothing. The final day of the festival, Kuningan, is a day of prayer and ritual ceremony for the spirits of Bali’s ancestors.
Every year the island hosts an Arts Festival from mid-June to mid-July which celebrates the distinct Balinese artistic traditions. The festival draws tourists from across the globe and includes the famous Kite Festival, recognising this favourite Balinese past-time and the work which goes into producing the elaborate kites.
Travel tips and safetyBali has become known as a cheap holiday destination, particularly amongst Australians, and the southern beach resorts have become increasingly developed and ‘westernised’. If you are seeking the culture-infused beauty of Bali then you may be disappointed if you decide to stay on one of these beaches. Both drug use and sex tourism have escalated amongst the party-going atmosphere which prevails. Be aware that drug use and particularly drug trafficking have heavy consequences within Indonesia, including the death sentence, and locals supposedly offering drugs on the street may be part of police drug ‘stings’ and you could wind up in jail. While Bali is predominantly Hindu, it is governed by Muslim Indonesia so tourists are encouraged to cover up when away from the beaches to avoid causing offence.
The traffic in Bali is notoriously busy and chaotic, making things difficult for both pedestrians and tourist-motorists, and road rules often seem non-existent. If you are hiring a motorbike or moped, make sure you wear a helmet and know your rights as an international driver - police have been known to demand fines or bribes for road impediments that don’t exist.
Petty theft is not particularly common, but if you need to carry your valuables or identity documents, use a money-belt inside your clothing. Otherwise, make use of hotel security boxes throughout your stay to be on the safe side. The monkeys tend to be more of a problem when it comes to stealing shiny objects from tourists so keep your wits about you, particularly within Ubud’s Monkey Forest.
While Bali’s beaches may be beautiful, they can also be dangerous with strong currents and rip tides and, if so, are marked with red flags as a warning. Always remember to wear lots of sunblock so you don’t end up being one of the many sunburnt tourists left to tend their sun-inflicted wounds in the hotel room.
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Author: Pip Strickland. Last updated: Apr 21, 2015