The Republic of Indonesia consists of thousands of islands home to more than 267 million people – the fourth biggest population in the world. More than half of those people live on Java, the biggest island, but most tourists visit smaller Bali, with its rice paddies, beaches and culture.
You can see or learn something new every day in Bali, or you can just choose a beach and do nothing. The island is popular with surfers, digital nomads, honeymoon couples and yoga fans – there are more than 500 yoga centres on the island.
Most tourists first head for the southern part of the island, which offers something for every taste and budget. The busy town of Kuta is known for its nightlife and is often the first stop on a beach holiday. Family resorts and five-star hotels line the 5 km-long Kuta Beach. The towns of Seminyak and Canggu are north of Kuta. Here you’ll find stylish clothing boutiques and trendy cafés that serve smoothie bowls and vegan ice cream. In the late afternoon, the chic beach bars are packed with tourists drinking sundowners.
The south is where we went when we first visited Bali in 2016; this time we wanted to explore the north, where it’s quieter and the people live a more traditional lifestyle. In the north you can see ancient Hindu temples (known as puras), active volcanoes, waterfalls and terraced rice paddies.
We had taken the whole of 2019 off to travel. By September, we’d finished a six-month overlanding trip through southern Africa and we were excited for a change of scenery. We didn’t have a permanent home at that stage – it was cheaper to live in Bali than to hire a place in Cape Town!We also had plans to travel to Vietnam with friends in October, so Bali in September just worked.
It took about 24 hours in total to get from Joburg to Bali via Dubai. Bali is six hours ahead of South Africa – we touched down at Ngurah Rai International Airport at 3 am and walked out of the airport into the balmy, tropical night. Hello, island life!
Day 1–2: Ubud in the jungle
The airport is just south of Denpasar, the biggest city in Bali, but our destination was Ubud, the cultural focal point of the island. First we took a taxi to a hotel in nearby Kuta, where we rested for a few hours before catching another taxi to Ubud.
Ubud is in the centre of Bali. It’s where Julia Roberts met her new lover after she fell off her bicycle in Eat Pray Love. Rice paddies and tropical valleys surround the town – the humidity is so severe that your clothes cling to your back all day. The town is full of artists and wellness enthusiasts, and there are art galleries and vegetarian restaurants everywhere.
We arranged for accommodation in a traditional homestay. The Balinese people we met were friendly and generous. Cito, the owner of the homestay, went out of his way to make us feel welcome. Upon arrival, we each received a freshly cut coconut with coconut water to drink.
Although Bali is only about 80 km from north to south and 140km from east to west, travelling takes much longer than you’d think – the island is densely populated and traffi jams are common. The easiest and most affordable way to explore is on a scooter or motorbike. Cito arranged a 150cc Honda Scoopy scooter for us, which we dubbed Scoopy for short.
It was time to experience the culture. We walked to the Ubud market, about 800m from where we were staying. Incense is synonymous with Bali because you smell it everywhere on the streets. As a gesture of thanks, small offerings of food, colourful flowers and incense are placed on the ground in front of houses, shops and Hindu temples. You have to look where you’re going when you’re walking around!
In the market, we wandered past stalls selling fruit, art, woven baskets, jewellery and wood carvings. We haggled with some traders and bought incense and batik cloth.
Back at Cito’s homestay, we jumped onto Scoopy and left town in search of a café to have lunch.
It’s easy to travel in Bali on a budget, especially if you avoid Western-style restaurants and hotels. At the local restaurants, known as warungs, you seldom pay more than R80 for a meal for two. The lunch spot we ended up at wasWarung Bintang Bali, where we sat at a high counter overlooking a rice paddy and palm trees. We ordered gado gado, a warm salad with tofu, cooked veggies and a peanut sauce.
On our second day in Ubud,we rode Scoopy to Campuhan Ridge Walk early in the morning. Entrance to this short, lush trail is free – it’s like taking a walk along Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town as there are many walkers and runners out and about.
Ubud is like a retreat where travellers can rest and focus on their health. The name is apparently derived from the Balinese word “ubad”, which means medicine. There are plenty of yoga classes, spa treatments and meditation courses offered in town.
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