5 DAYS THROUGH THE BALI COUNTRYSIDE
The most surprising thing we found with Bali was how dichotomous travelers’ opinions seem to be. We had many family & friends rave about their experiences in the famed island, while others simply stated it was overhyped. To be honest, after Philippines we didn’t know what to expect - it was going to be hard to beat the serene waters of the south China Sea. Much like where the Philippines’ white sand beaches and turquoise waters instilled a sense of peace, the fog, forrest and local fare in Bali created a sense of calm.
A COUPLE THINGS WE NEVER KNEW ABOUT INDONESIA
It’s the 4th most populous country in the world. Anyone else just completely stunned by that fact?? I definitely was.
Indonesia is the largest island nation in the world and is comprised of over 17,000+ islands. Having been to both the Maldives and the Philippines, my mind was blown by this fact.
It has the single largest population of Muslims and is home to about 13% of the world’s total Muslim population. It is followed by Pakistan and then India.
“Indo” refers to the location of the archipelago in the Indian Ocean and the name “Indonesia” wasn’t truly popularized until the early 20th century.
Bali itself is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia with more than 80% of its residents practicing Balinese Hinduism.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING THROUGHOUT BALI
The easiest way to get around the island is via taxi/cab, hiring a driver or renting scooters. Grab (which is their version of Uber) is not allowed in many places in an effort to support the local economy and local cab drivers.
Although the island is small in size, don’t underestimate commuting time. Often times there is only one lane and it gets slowed down severely by transport/industrial trucks. Because roads are narrow and don’t have sidewalks, it is pretty hard to pass other vehicles/people while still being mindful of the roads (which are pretty curvy).
Peak travel season in Bali starts in July and continues through August. We visited in late May thinking this would be a great time to visit - we were stunned at how packed Ubud was. It felt like I was in Mumbai.
Credit cards are accepted at most newer restaurants, however the cabs, drivers, attractions and entrance fees, etc do not accept card. There is a currency exchange in the airport but you can definitely find better exchange rates throughout Ubud, Seminyak, and Depansar.
IS BALI VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY?
Absolutely. Because of the large Hindu population Bali is probably one of the most vegetarian-friendly places I have ever visited. Its definitely up there with the UK, Italy, and the US, with India probably being the most vegetarian-friendly country in the world. I honestly didn’t feel like it was even an issue in Bali, which was such a relief. I think this made the trip even more enjoyable because I was never hangry - which I’m sure the Hubs appreciated 😂.
Some of our favorite spots we ate at were Ibu Susu and Roti Daal. Ibu Susu has an entire vegetarian menu which came highly recommended from friends. We couldn’t wait to try it. Each of their dishes were delicious but our favorites were the Hoisin Tofu & Thai Basil steamed bun and the Fresh Spring Roll (both pictured below). The Quesadilla is only ok - idk why I always try Mexican outside the US and Mexico…I think its a mix between curiosity and hope that it will be great.
After weeks of eating pasta, pizza and Asian dishes, I was really starting to crave Indian food so we decided to check out Roti Daal. Being Indian myself, I tend to be disappointed with the flavors when I travel, but this place came recommended...by other Indians! Yay! We were pleasantly surprised when we got there - its Thali style. You basically choose how many subji's (veggie casseroles) you want in your thali (plate) and then choose which ones you want. The dishes are premade which is awesome because you can try them before you order. The only set back is that they can run out of dishes. Notable dishes were the kadai paneer, yellow daal, the tofu was actually surprisingly good, and the pigeon pea dish too. Some of the subji's were clearly untraditional but the flavors were still pretty solid. Yea, its not like eating paneer in India or my mom's kitchen BUT it was pretty good. Definitely hit the spot.
Lastly, the luxe Bikini restaurant - yea, the name is a little curious, but the reviews were stellar with several mentions of how veg-friendly the menu was. Whenever we travel, we like to experience both local and fusion fare - this restaurant was an upscale dining experience in the heart of Seminyak with an eclectic mix of fusion Indonesian and Asian fare. The menu is comprised primarily of tapas meant for sharing, with the exception of the “mouthfuls” which are literally one bite. We ordered pretty much everything vegetarian on the menu and left completely in awe of how artfully each dish was prepared, presented and tasted. These were the most unique dishes we had ever tried! I would definitely recommend checking out this spot to anyone planning on visiting Bali! The experience was phenomenal. Oh also there is a rolled ice-cream shop across the street in Seminyak Village called XOXO that was hop-a-flight-to-Bali-now incredible! Get the matcha, lychee rolled ice-cream with puffed rice. It was the best ice cream I have had. Ever.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING BALI
Bali itself is not very big. It takes about 10 hours to do a loop around the entire island. That being said there are some notable regions when visiting, namely: Denpasar, Seminyak, Ubud, and Nusa Penida. We divvied up our stay into two parts: Sideman & Ubud.
Sideman (pronounced “seed-a-men”) is in the Eastern portion of the island - close to Tirta Gangga, Lempuyang, and the Ujung Water Palace, so we thought it made sense to stay on this part of the island while we explored those attractions. We found this stunning guesthouse and knew we HAD to stay there. It gets booked up pretty fast so we were lucky they had availability. The rooms are gorgeous, spacious, clean and come with spectacular views. The on-site restaurant was pretty good and had a couple vegetarian options. Additionally the chef was willing to modify dishes for us which is always awesome. Our stay included an excursion to the local rice fields where we got to meet and be fed by a local Balinese woman and the Villas offer a free 15 minute welcome foot reflexology gift when you arrive. This was easily one of the best places we have ever stayed at during all of our travels, in part because the boutique hotel felt luxurious and the views were incredible, but also because the staff was so welcoming and helpful! Also, apparently David Bowie and Mick Jagger have stayed here.
Oh, and on a completely different note - had we stayed one more day, we would have gotten to see Mount Agung erupt (the big volcano in the background of the pictures below)!! We missed it by literally 24 hours. *Sigh*
Where Sidemen was serene and peaceful, Ubud was bustling with tons of tourists, locals, and honking. We were fortunate to find this quaint AirBnB that was just enough tucked away that we didn’t feel like we were in the middle of all the noise. Located in the middle of a small rice field, this beautiful home was just a quick 7-10 minute walk to so many great restaurants (including Ibu Susu and Roti Daal), the Monkey Forest and many other Ubud attractions. We really can not say enough great things about this place. The host was so warm, inviting and accommodating. The rooms were impeccably clean - even the outdoor shower was spotless! The WiFi was really fast and her fried rice that she makes for breakfast was delicious. We would definitely recommend staying here for those that prefer a quieter stay without sacrificing accessibility.
THE BEST SITES TO SEE WHILE IN BALI…AND WHICH ONES TO SKIP
TEGALLALUNG RICE FIELDS: NOT A MUST SEE
The first thing you will notice when traveling through Bali is the presence of “subak” fields throughout. A UNESCO world heritage site, the subaks refer to Balinese paddy fields and natural irrigation system. Apparently rice is one of the country’s biggest crops, but it does not make enough to export. These rice fields can be found pretty much everywhere but Tegallalung is probably the most famous. Its expansive size and depth is pretty magnificent, just note that its far less stellar when its cloudy and rainy. Also its extremely slippery during the rainy season so dress accordingly. I just about fell like 10 times (note I was NOT wearing appropriate footwear 😂). Also be aware of the locals here - they can be pretty demanding if they help you take pictures.
THE UBUD MARKET - CONGESTED AND OVER-RATED. SKIP.
We were pretty excited to check out the famed Ubud Market while we were traveling. We were hoping to find some cool pieces to bring back home with us, but were pretty disappointed to see the same square bamboo basket bags pretty much everywhere. Honestly, the small shops throughout Ubud are way better than the market. The market however is a good place to look for souvenirs for family and friends. The one-of-a-kind pieces are better sought after elsewhere.
TAMAN TIRTA GANGGA TEMPLE - DEFINITELY WORTH SEEING!
This beautiful water temple, features a couple serene koi ponds that you can walk through. There is a small entrance fee of 10,000 IDR and it opens at 7AM. Located on the eastern portion of the island, we decided to visit this temple along with Lempuyang, and the Ujung Water Palace. All three are within 20 minutes of each other (roughly) so it was pretty convenient to hop from one to the next. We got to Tirta Gangga at 7:30 and pretty much had the place to ourselves for about 20 minutes. It seems most of the early birds arrive around 8AM. I definitely fell in love with this place, and loved feeding the Koi. There was just something a little magical about this temple.
UJUNG WATER PALACE - BEAUTIFUL
We really loved visiting Ujung Water Palace. Its beautifully manicured estate and gorgeous carved architecture was right up my alley. Built in 1909, this palace is open to visitors even though its still owned by royalty to this day. We really enjoyed just walking around but there isn’t a ton to do besides enjoying the view.
LEMPUYANG (AKA GATES TO HEAVEN) - SKIP
Arguably the biggest disappointment on our trip to Bali, Lempunyang, also known as the “Gates to Heaven” in Bali is a beautiful Hindu temple featuring two flanking Balinese gates that overlook Mount Agung. While the view is definitely spectacular there are SEVERAL confounds. First, the view is highly dependent on the weather. The temple sits on a hill at an elevation of around 2000 ft which means there can be quite a bit of fog. Additionally, Bali weather is pretty temperamental, with intermittent rains throughout. Lines for this view of Mount Agung start at around 4AM. No joke. We weren’t planning on visiting this because it seemed gimicky, but our tour guide suggested it so we figured why not. We arrived around 4:30 expecting to be the only ones there but at least 10 other couples were already waiting in line for the sunrise shot. We waited for 2 hours outside, in que, for the sunrise. By the time we left at 7 AM, there were easily 50+ people already waiting in line to take their picture between the gates. Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t a clear morning so the entire experience felt a little bit lackluster. I also was not aware that the reflection in the pictures is from a mirror, NOT water. Personally, these gates can be seen throughout Bali, so its not worth the wait, early morning wake up calls and drive to see this. The view of Mount Agung from our Airbnb was far more beautiful and we could enjoy it from the comfort of our home.
LOCAL RICE FIELD EXCURSION - AMAZING
While driving throughout Bali we saw the rice fields everywhere and were so tempted to stop every five minutes to capture their elegance. Thankfully to our surprise, our lodging in Sidemen, included an excursion through the local family rice field across the road. We both were so excited and the experience was even better than we could have imagined. We got to literally walk through the rice field and watch as locals harvested their crop. We even had a beautiful Balinese woman welcome us into her home, feed us the best coconut I have ever had (freshly harvested) and show us how to make our own “canang sari” or Balinese offering. Everyday in Bali, locals make this offering to give thanks to the Indonesian Hindu gods for giving peace to the world. It was such a beautiful moment to sit with her and practice a timeless tradition even when she didn’t speak an ounce of English. I guess its true that some of life’s greatest moments involve communicating without ever speaking a word.
During our mini expedition through this local rice field, we came across this beautiful, abandoned temple that sat atop a hill. Apparently most subaks have a temple like this at the highest point, where the natural irrigation system starts. Even though this little temple was not to be found on any Bali travel guide, I completely fell in love with its sun-soaked stone and rich mauve tones. The delicate degrading paint was an elegant homage to its weathered history. Thankfully the HUBS told me to pack along this dress for our day’s travels. A little side note, when I was working in NYC with designer Lela Rose, the design team was discarding this darling fraying number. I literally grabbed it from the trash lol and asked if I could take it home. For the past 5 years, I’ve been toting it around for the perfect spot to photograph it in. This temple could not have been more perfect!
TUKAD CEPUNG - GORGEOUS WATERFALL BUT EXPECT LONG LINES
Probably one of my most anticipated spots, Tukad Cepung is this stunning waterfall that is reminiscent of Antelope Canyon in some ways. After years of erosion, the waterfall cresses over a wall to fall into a beautiful canyon. Over the past few years this spot has become an social media starlet which means long lines. The path directly in front of the canyon is pretty small so people line up to take pictures. I wish we had gone earlier, like first thing in the morning so that we could enjoy the experience without the crowds but it just didn’t work with our schedule. My advice: visit before 9AM. I personally love photographing waterfalls so it was worth it regardless of the people to me. The “hike” into the canyon was down some steep steps, and could not have been more than 1 mile. If you do plan on visiting, wear appropriate shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting wet - you will wade through about a 8-10 inches of water at the end to get to the waterfall. Seriously though, this waterfall is quietly very pretty. Its not expansive but the rays of light coming in from the canyon can be quite breathtaking!
LAKE BERATAN - BEAUTIFUL IF WEATHER-PERMITTING
We were very excited to visit Lake Beratan and see Ulu Danu Beratan, the temple that seemingly floats elegantly in the middle of the water. It takes about two hours to drive to Lake Beratan from Ubud first thing in the morning. We left around 5AM because we wanted to avoid the crowds. When we arrived there was no one there. We had the entire place to ourselves with the exception of a few staff members.
Unfortunately for us, it was an incredibly foggy, cloudy morning. Lake Beratan is located in the middle of the Bedugul Mountains at an elevation of 1200 m. Consequently the climate is a little bit cooler (especially in the mornings) and very susceptible to fog. I imagine the views are spectacular on a clear day or furthermore at a clear time, we just didn’t have time to wait multiple hours for things to clear up. I guess it comes with the territory - tropical climates often mean unpredictable weather. The temple is still pretty none-the-less but this site is know for its views so when its foggy, its not worthwhile in my opinion.
THE MONKEY FOREST - EXERCISE CAUTION
Another top anticipated spot, the Ubud Monkey Sanctuary is this charming forest, literally in the middle of Ubud’s center. As you drive past it, often local monkeys can be seen hanging from the trees and even crawling through the city’s streets. We even saw one of the local monkeys get into a tif with a local pup! One of our close friends told us that the Monkey Forest was a must but that we should be cautious because the monkeys can be quite “frisky”. We both were surprised by this statement, but it was completely accurate. The monkeys have been conditioned to all the people and attention - so much so that they expect to be fed and will lift things from you. Anything that can be easily removed should be properly stored or simply just left at home - sunglasses, water bottles, phones, etc. One of the monkeys stole the HUBS’ water bottle from his pocket. Also, its important to note that these are wild animals so poking/prodding is NOT advisable. Its estimated that 120 visitors a day get bit by these monkeys in Ubud’s Monkey Forest. I was one of them. My dress had small embroidered holes in it, and a monkey that was passing my got one of its paws stuck in my dress. It was upset by this and started pulling on my dress. When I turned around and realized what happened, I instinctually said No! Like I was talking to my puppy. It in turn bit me. The entire thing happened so fast, it surprised me. I immediately visited the First Aid Center on site and cleaned my wound. Thankfully the bite was superficial and there was no blood, but the experience was pretty terrifying to be honest. I love animals and have never been scared before of a dog or swimming with dolphins. This definitely made me think twice. I was so ready to leave. I would not recommend this for people traveling with small children.