Real Talk About Bali
Bali has been a dream destination of Erin’s for many, many years. When we were narrowing down our locations for this trip, we started by each coming up with our top 5 travel wish list and of course, Bali was right at the top of Erin’s. Over the years she’s seen photos of the beautiful temples in Bali, the beautifully colourful and healthy food, stunning sceneries, and some of the most amazing vacation photos. The reality of Bali was a mixed experience for both of us.
We both share the same ideals about traveling and immersing ourselves into the culture, we are mindful of our actions and want to respect the hosting country’s traditions and customs. From the moment we got off the plane, we saw other tourists exhibiting a blatant disregard for Balinese culture and customs; one woman had her breasts practically falling out of her dress in the immigration line. Our first stop was Seminyak and we quickly realized that the disrespectful, scantly clad tourist was nearly the norm. Because of the booming tourist industry in Bali, the island has become more liberal. However, that’s liberal in comparison to other religious states; as a woman you can get away with showing your shoulders or your ankles (and a reasonable portion of your legs) as long as you’re not in a temple. Many of the tourists were showing a lot more than that though, and you could see on the faces of the locals that while it was common to see, it was no less scandalous to them. The Balinese are too polite to tell you when you break their customs so it’s up to you to research before hand or, at the very least, pay attention to the reaction your wardrobe is eliciting from the local people.
Though Bali is a small island, the vibe changes a lot between the various towns. Once we left Seminyak, we got some distance from the disrespectful tourists who gave zero shits about the culture and were only there to party on the beach. We spent a few days in Canggu, which is a town filled with surfers, hippies, and digital nomads. We found we were able to relax into the atmosphere a bit more in Canggu.
We met some very friendly, open hearted people, ate a ton of delicious food, and found the most INCREDIBLE gluten free croissants (seriously, you’d never know they’re gluten free), thank you Made’s Banana Flour Bakery! We got away from the bumper to bumper traffic and though it was still very busy, Mark felt comfortable enough to learn to ride a scooter. We enjoyed our few days in Canggu but the surfer scene was still not quite what we were looking for. Plus, the beach party is slowly starting to make its way up the coast to Canggu. Thus, after a few days here, we were more than ready to move on and discover a new town with, yet again, a whole different vibe.
A week into our Bali adventure, we arrived in Ubud. It was here where we finally felt that we escaped the beach party, probably because there was not a beach in sight. It was also here that we started to feel some freedom from one of the most frustrating aspects of visiting Bali, the transportation. When visiting Bali, particularly Ubud, you cannot walk for 5 minutes without being asked if you want a taxi about a half dozen times. Daily, we would walk past a group of guys and have the first of the group holler at us “taxi?!”. After we replied with, “No. Thank-you” (like good Canadians), the next in the group would ask, and the next, like we would suddenly change our minds from a second ago and now need a taxi. Mark often joked that just once we should reply “okay” to the third or forth guy down the line, if only to see the reaction from those who had asked before him. The reason for the prevalence of these “side of the road” taxi drivers is that there is no public transportation on the island, the rules around taxi, Uber, Grab, etc. are complicated (we could, and might still, write an entire post about transportation in Bali), and once you’re in Ubud, your options for transportation are limited to walking, driving yourself around, or hiring a driver. Around the Ubud area, there is a lot to do and see but you do need to have a mode of transportation, aside from your own two feet, if you’re going to see much. Thanks to Mark’s innate scooter riding ability (which Erin grossly lacked), we were able to rent a scooter for $3 a day and drive ourselves around while we stayed in Ubud. Having a scooter gave us the freedom we needed to enjoy our time and allowed us to take some day trips, which would have cost us $30-50 if we’d hired a driver.
Of all the places we visited in Bali, Ubud was the town that brought together everything Erin had imagined when Bali was nothing more than a dream destination. However, we quickly discovered the impact of the tourist driven economy and found, for us, it somewhat tarnished that bright, shiny dream.
The dream: stunning, intricate Balinese temples
The reality: when visiting these beautiful temples, you’re surrounded by tourists, most of whom are only there to snap a few Instagram worthy photos and move on, without taking any time to consider the significance of the place they’re in. Because of this, the most well known temples felt so commodified, commercialized, and removed from their religious foundation that the significance of these sacred sights seemed to have been lost to the tourism boom. We did however, discover a couple lesser known temples which were less touched by tourists and where we could still feel the presence of the local culture and religious significance.
The dream: beautiful, healthy food
The reality: this food is found in restaurants run by expats and frequented by tourists. You don’t see locals dining in these places, you only see them working there. This is a reflection of the overall atmosphere on the island; the boom in tourism has created a number of jobs for locals, which is excellent but it also means all the interactions we had with locals were commodified. The food itself is amazing, nourishing, and so incredibly delicious. The fact that restaurants are owned by expats catering to tourists means that you can drink the water they bring to the table and not worry about ice cubes. You are still in Asia so it’s not entirely risk free but during our 3 weeks there, we did not meet anyone who had experienced any issues with Bali belly.
The dream: the most amazing vacation photos
The reality: the most “Instagramable” spots are well known to locals and are often the top recommendations if you do a Google search of what to do and see in Bali. Thus, the reality is that obtaining the amazing photos is definitely going to cost you money and may also cost you a significant amount of time. It honestly doesn’t matter what it is, if tourists can be charged for it, they will be…seriously, we paid to see a waterfall! When we did our research on Pura Lempuyang and the Gunung Batur sunrise hike, what we found was that both involve a lot of queuing; with wait times of 1-2 hours just to get a photo at the “Gates of Heaven”, one of the most iconic sights on the island. After our disappointment with our first “must-do” experience at Uluwatu temple, the thought of queuing just to get a photo and then leave was enough to deter us from going to many other famous spots no matter how many people told us we couldn’t miss them.
The dream: nature and beautiful landscapes
The reality: Bali really is a beautiful island! The landscapes are diverse and the nature is integrated into the towns of Bali in a truly unique way. During our time in Ubud, we were mesmerized by the beautiful nature that seemed to be all around us whether it was sitting in a restaurant next to a wall of trees that made you feel like you were in a rainforest or driving to the grocery store through a tunnel that made you feel like you were in the jungle. The disappointment for us was in the amount of trash and pollution. However, this one we probably should have expected. Most Asian countries share these challenges and the tourism boom has exacerbated the issue in Bali.
The dream: the island attracts a lot of yogis, spiritual seekers, and generally open-hearted people
The reality: this was the one that really made our experience in Bali. We truly met some of the most open hearted, warm, kind, and all around lovely people during our time in Canggu and Ubud! In our Ubud Airbnb we met Lynda, a body worker and spiritual counselor with the most contagious positive energy. Right away, we knew she was our people and we spent many hours talking about our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our struggles; all the good, juicy bits of life. At Seniman Coffee Studio, our FAVOURITE coffee shop in Ubud, the bar became our favourite place to sit. Not just because the baristas would give us so many coffee samples, but also because it allowed us to strike up conversations with the people sitting next to us. In this way, we met the sweetest fellow Canadian, Stephanie, with whom we shared a few delicious meals and many laughs. Of course, since Bali is a place that attracts a lot of yogis who are privileged enough to travel, we also met a lot of self-righteous, “I stake an unhealthy amount of my self worth on the most contorted yoga posture I can do” types, and so many people would start their introduction with “I’m a yoga teacher”, that we wanted to start pretending to fall asleep in response to this sentence. Even if you’re travelling with a partner, we’d encourage you to strike up a conversation with the people next to you, maybe you’ll find your people or maybe you’ll just exchange a few pleasantries, either way, taking a moment to reach out and share a moment of connection with a stranger will probably be among the most memorable parts of your day.
If you’re contemplating Bali as a travel destination, we think there are a few things worth taking away from our experience.
First, skip Kuta and Seminyak, unless you’re seeking a beach party, then these are your places. If you’re a surfer, spend a few days in Canggu, it is a really nice town. However, there’s not a lot to see here and most of our time in Canggu was spent eating and it could’ve easily been a day trip. If we were to go back, we would get to Ubud as quickly as possible and just take day trips from there.
This leads to our next takeaway: transportation is key. There is a lot that is worth seeing around Bali. However, it requires transportation. If you are comfortable with the idea of driving a scooter in highly congested traffic, rent a scooter and drive yourself around (just make sure you get an international driving permit before leaving home, otherwise the rental companies will not give you a bike). The alternative option is to hire a driver. You can expect to pay $30-$50 CAD per day for this option which, in comparison to car rental is not terrible and we’ve heard if you’re hiring the driver for your whole stay, they do charge you on the low end of that range. The driver we used on the few occasions when we did hire one was excellent and we can highly recommend him (Dodik at Baik Baik Bali Tour).
Though there were a few things we didn’t love, in the end, it was worth it. We met incredible people, ate delicious food, found beauty among the chaos, and drank so much amazing coffee. The reason people love Bali is that it’s a place where you can really pamper yourself. It’s a destination where you can so easily unwind, indulge, and reconnect without breaking the bank. Aspects of Bali are a dream but there is a reality of the experience that often no one talks about. If you’ve been dreaming of Bali, we hope this gives you a more complete idea of what to expect.