Whenever you go on a long trip, you return home with many new travel stories. Our two-and-a-half-week-long trip to Bali was no exception. The stories about all of our experiences and numerous travel tips can’t possibly fit into one or two blog posts, so I’ll write about our Bali experience in a couple of separate posts. In this post, I’ll talk about Bali as a travel destination in the broader picture including experiences from our honeymoon in April 2023.
Did you already read the post about the background story and the planning stage of our Bali trip? (Coming later)
This blog post is also available in Finnish. You can read it here.
Arrival in Bali
We arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport late in the evening. The flight from Istanbul took around 12.5 hours, and the total travel time from Finland was a whopping 20 hours. Such a long journey was a rather large undertaking at the end of a workday.
The flights were on time and everything went smoothly, but the last part of the flight was arduous. You know, when the passenger sitting in front of you keeps their seat reclined as far back as possible for the entire 12 hours. Due to the reclined seat and the lack of space, you can’t even pick up things from the floor. That was the reality for both of us during the last flight. Eventually, the constricted space caused such anxiety that it was difficult to catch sleep. Being as tired as I was, I couldn’t read a book or watch movies. Next time, we will change the plane somewhere closer to the destination to have two medium-length flights instead of a short and a long one!
After finally landing and exiting the plane, the first thing we felt was the overwhelming hot and humid air. Hence, the first layer of clothing had to be removed before reaching immigration. I had applied for the visas in advance online, so we were able to go straight to passport control. You can purchase the Indonesian tourist visa at the airport upon arrival as well. However, the visa desk quickly became congested and the queue moved rather slowly.
The queue for passport control didn’t move any swifter. We waited in line for about 30-40 minutes, even though there didn’t seem to be many people before us. While we were waiting, I had some extra time to figure out my internet connection. I had purchased an e-SIM in advance, but for some reason, it just didn’t start working. Fortunately, the airport provided free wifi, although the network was slow and disconnected from time to time. Somehow I managed to send a message to our pre-booked driver and let him know we were on our way.
At passport control, the travel documents and visas were checked. The clerk wanted to see our plane tickets for the return flight and also inquired about our accommodations. We then moved on to pick up the bags, which were merrily circling on the luggage belt who knows how many times. The official part by no means ended there.
Next, we filed the customs declaration for the phones and computers we were importing. Finally, after waiting in line to present the customs tickets, we were able to leave the international area and enter the arrivals hall. I texted our driver who facetimed us on WhatsApp to help find us in the crowd. Pretty fun first touch with local customs!
Ngurah Rai is a relatively large airport if compared to, for example, the Canary Islands or some destinations in the Mediterranean. Like most public spaces in Bali, the airport is also partially open-air, which felt funny as a Nordic person. (Like, the snow will get inside in winter, right?!) The floors overlap a bit and you can exit from different floors to different street levels. Fortunately, the driver came to pick us up from the lobby. Otherwise, we would have been very lost.
Of course, I had read all kinds of things about Bali in advance. Oftentimes I came across warnings from bloggers and other travelers about the Balinese traffic. Read, I was already a little terrified about whether we would survive the Asian traffic alive and unharmed. I guess the reality was a little bit what I expected, but still a strange combination of mild shock about the local customs, and awe about how the traffic didn’t seem so wild after all.
Left-hand traffic and other twists
Indonesia, including Bali, has left-hand traffic. I.e. people drive on a different side of the road than in, say, Finland or the US. There are hardly any highways or other similar high-speed roads. The narrow streets spiral steeply up and down the slopes of various hillsides and valleys in the jungle. In residential areas, on the other hand, the alleys are labyrinthine. In some places, the streets are so narrow that even the smallest cars cannot pass through.
Wherever there is even a little bit more space, the drives will speed madly. Meaning, a speed of around 80 km/h (50 mph) at the highest in a dense suburb-like area. While speeding, the cars will overtake scooters sometimes in the middle of the road, sometimes through the roadside. Whatever is most convenient to squeeze the car through.
The road network is not in quite as good condition as, shall we say, what we are accustomed to in Western countries. I swear I will not complain about the condition of Finnish roads – or even American roads – ever again! Sometimes in Bali, the traffic seems to stop completely. Eventually, turns out that the slowdown was caused by a pothole in the middle of the roadway, deep enough to fit the whole car tire inside. Or, just a dog taking a nap right on the street.
There are heck-loads of scooters in Bali. Practically anyone can ride a scooter, including young children. Four children under the age of 10 packed on one scooter, a young mother with a baby in her arms and a toddler standing in the foot space, furniture delivery, three adults riding a shared vehicle, a grandma with a large fruit basket, a live pig bound on the back seat. You name it. Everyone rides scooters, hardly anyone wears a helmet.
Cars in Bali
By looking at the condition of the local infrastructure, you can quickly tell why there is not a single sports car in traffic. Nor even a stiff-based European, or a high and mighty American car. A short trip to a grocery store in Bali would be too much asked from a BMW’s ability to stay together. Of course, the local income level and the better supply of Asian-manufactured cars have a heavy influence on the range of car brands seen in Bali. You can notice a lot of relatively new cars in the traffic. At least all the taxis we used, had efficient air conditioning meeting the Nordic standards. I had to carry a long-sleeve shirt for taxi rides only.
Unbelievably, it doesn’t take long before the whole chaos somehow becomes normalized in the mind. Quite quickly we just laughed together with the locals about how we could never drive like that in Finland. They were very amused by the stories about the orderly Finnish traffic. In some miraculous way, the locals navigate Bali’s chaotic traffic with remarkable smoothness. Disturbances to the traffic are mainly caused by tourists driving scooters dangerously and oftentimes unaccustomed to the local practices. The taxi drivers politely try not to curse them.
Weather and climate
Bali has a tropical climate, which means the weather is constantly hot and humid. The temperature is constantly +30 degrees Celsius (90 F) all year round. The amount of rain varies depending on the season. In terms of the weather, April was a great time to travel to Bali. It was right at the end of the rainy season. Maybe we were just lucky, but during the two-and-a-half-week trip, it rained only twice during the daylight hours. Although, it rained several times during the night. In the morning the sky usually was clear again.
The reality of the tropics
Neither of us had been to a tropical climate before. We couldn’t imagine what was waiting for us. In my opinion, since +30 C (90 F) in Finland is very comfortable summer weather, I thought that it would be a relaxing holiday temperature in Bali as well. Nonetheless, I figured that because the sea is near, it would cool it down nicely, right? I could not have been more wrong. The sea cools down the temperatures at home in the North. At the equator, the humidity rising from the sea increases the heat constantly. The thermometer indicating +30 C (90 F) easily turned into real feel of +36-39 C (100 F). Especially when the humidity reached 90-100%.
To be honest, it was very hard for us to physically get used to the tropics. I love warm weather, but this was something completely different than just a regular summer day. Perhaps it was due to us emerging into the hot and humid climate towards the end of the long, cold, and dry Finnish winter.
It seemed to be quite a shock to the body to go from one extreme to the other. A slight feeling of dehydration troubled us all the time, no matter how much water and minerals we had consumed. As a result, I constantly had a feeling as if I went on a marathon the day before. In other words, we were completely exhausted after just chilling at the pool. During one day trip, I even got symptoms of heat stroke. When we got back to the hotel that day, I slept with a migraine headache for 12 hours with the air conditioner at full blast. I blame my Northern genes – the trip itself was undoubtedly worth all the suffering.
In Bali, nature is present all the time and everywhere. You could say that Bali does not have nature, but Bali is in nature. Different types of habitats can be found on different parts of the island. The vegetation is mainly tropical rainforest. You can also find savanna-like areas in the mountainous regions, and mangrove vegetation further in the South.
Neverending growing season
Due to the warm tropical climate and the fertile volcanic soil, the plants grow without a break. There are no particular growing or resting seasons. Every morning at a hotel, a group of gardeners works around the property. They are scrubbing the mossy surfaces, shortening the foliage, and plucking the sprouts penetrating between every stone. This procedure is probably practiced for the sake of Western tourists because you really can’t see American-style lawns outside of the resorts.
In the streets, roots pierce through the cracks in the asphalt. Piles of strange-looking tree branches lie on top of the power lines. Plants seem to passionately embrace everything that man has decided to build amid nature. You won’t find a pristine rainforest in popular tourist areas, but densely growing, abundant tropical trees create the feeling of a jungle even in urban areas.
In Bali, there are naturally all kinds of animals out in the wild. The panic we practiced in advance regarding the wildlife turned out to be in vain. Honestly, I was slightly disappointed. In our experience, there were no snakes to be seen, nor were there aggressive monkeys lurking around every single corner, either. Instead, small to middle-sized lizards skitter here and there. Sometimes these harmless creatures can get lost indoors. Hence, by their “gecko” utterings they might harass some of the sensitive travelers to the verge of a minor panic attack.
The potentially disease-spreading mosquitoes have to be taken seriously, obviously. However, from a Nordic perspective, it’s hard to take any kind of mosquito hype seriously. In Bali, the mosquitoes are mostly active during the rainy season. Even then they won’t come out during the daylight, rain or wind, or by the sea. As the locals say, the mosquito time is in the evening around 6 PM – 8 PM. That’s when the waiter brings mosquito spray to the table in a restaurant.
If only the mosquitoes in Finland were so precise about their appearance times! Compared to any normal summer in Finland, there were next to no mosquitoes in Bali. Even during the golden hours of mosquitos, you just cannot compare it to the swarmings that we are used to in the Nordics. Tropical mosquitoes are significantly smaller than their Finnish cousins, and maybe I just imagined, but I think they were also less bloodthirsty. On the other hand, there are plenty of beautiful, big dragonflies everywhere in Bali!
Although Bali is part of Indonesia, the island has its separate ethnic population group, as well as its own cultural and religious identity. Elsewhere in Indonesia, the main religion is Islam. However, the Balinese practice a distinct type of Hinduism. Balinese Hinduism has its unique features, different from mainstream Hinduism.
Curiosity and open-mindedness
The legislation in Indonesia is based on Islam, so innately it concerns the laws in Bali as well. Otherwise, the cultural features are heavily influenced by Hinduism, rather than Islam. According to the locals, the Balinese are more tolerant compared to the rest of Indonesia due to religious factors. Therefore, tourists from other cultures are welcomed in Bali with a smile and an open mind. There is no looking down on anyone based on external or ideological factors.
Balinese are proud of their open-mindedness and unique culture, expecting reciprocity from tourists as well. The locals are happy to tell stories about Bali and then ask questions about the tourists’ homeland. A taxi ride often includes a spontaneous comparison of cultures with in-depth views of the Balinese way of life.
Daily life with rituals
Religion is an integral part of the everyday life of Balinese people. This can be seen in the infrastructure as there are countless temples and statues of Gods all over the place. You don’t have to look very far to see numerous small offerings left around. Every day, the Balinese make an offering consisting of flower petals, small fruits, and incense on a small platter folded from a banana leaf. While making a gift and lighting the incense, a prayer to the Gods will be delivered. These small beautiful works of art can often be seen in front of homes and shops, at temples, at the foot of statues, on the street, and even on the dashboard of a car.
Nature as a part of faith and culture
Balinese culture encloses a great appreciation for nature. It is reflected in the infrastructure and people’s mindsets in many ways. Religious festivals and special days related to nature are celebrated several days a month. For instance, the full moon and the dark moon have their particular ceremonies. Nature and natural phenomena are a significant part of religious practices because, in Bali, nature itself is perceived to be a great Godly power of its own.
The Balinese new year with its preceding six-day festival, Nyepi – the Day of Silence, will be celebrated in March. On the first day of the year, according to the Hindu lunar calendar, the entire island shuts down for 24 hours as the locals focus on fasting and meditation. Because of Nyepi, even the airport and the whole airspace of the island are fully closed. The locals say that Nyepi gives nature a break from all the stress humans put on it. Nature enjoys a day of rest while the people focus on connection with God through silence and meditation.
Read more about the unique Balinese culture on Bali.com!
Attractions and activities
There is so much to see in Bali that it would take several weeks to visit all the places worth visiting. Bali is a relatively large island, and you cannot drive around it in one or two days. Fortunately, I had made research on the matter before our trip and I thank myself for believing what people wrote online. The bloggers were right. There are plenty of attractions in different parts of the island. If you want to get a full picture of the destination, you really shouldn’t spend the whole trip in just one area. At least you should leave the beaches for a day or two to travel inland and visit the Ubud area, which is considered the cultural center of Bali.
Otherworldly natural attractions make the Bali experience worthwhile
The top nature attractions worth visiting include waterfalls, volcanoes, jungles, and various natural formations. Just to name some. Agriculture is another important source of income for the Balinese besides tourism. Rice fields start to appear in the landscape as soon as you move from the coast towards inland. Some of the rice farms can be visited for a small entrance fee, and the experience is not to be missed. Tourists will be also tempted to visit Kopi Luwak coffee plantations. However, for animal welfare reasons, you might want to think twice before visiting.
The beaches in Bali are absolutely incredible. The crystal clear water is pleasantly warm and shimmers in a delicious turquoise color. The glittering waves crash on the white and black sand beaches. There is a wide selection of beach clubs in the touristic areas, yet it is possible to find a lot quieter beaches further away. Huge waves attract a lot of surfers to Bali. You can find surfboard rentals with or without instruction on almost every beach. However, it is very unfortunate that the sea is not quite as clean as you would hope for in a place like Bali. All kinds of plastic and other garbage float in coastal waters, especially at low tide.
There are countless magnificently decorated temples and shrines in Bali. The most interesting temples can be found in various natural environments. Some of them being on mountains, at waterfalls, and in the middle of the jungle. One of the most popular temple destinations is the monkey forest and the temple area in the midst of it. The monkey forest is home to thousands of wild monkeys. It may seem scary due to all the warning signs and cautionary tales told online, but it turned out to be a great place to visit.
Trips to smaller islands
The locals recommend taking a day trip to the neighboring smaller islands, which also provide a lot to see and experience. Ferries depart from the port of Bali several times a day to islands located 0.5-3 hours away by sea. Several of the most popular attractions and Instagram-famous beaches are actually not located on the island of Bali itself but on the neighboring island of Nusa Penida. We took a day trip to Nusa Penida, which, despite the intense heat and a wild boat ride due to wavy conditions, was worth all the effort.
Do not expect to find any real shopping paradise in Bali. Local products can be found in small shops and huts here and there. Western branded stores are located mostly in shopping centers and the price level is close to the same as in Europe. I think it was only a positive thing. In Bali, the unsustainability of Western consuming habits in terms of nature becomes concrete. Hence, you can only appreciate the lack of impulse shopping-focused holiday activities. The locals in Bali tend to rather encourage tourists to enjoy different cultural, culinary, and nature-related experiences instead of buying things.
However, it does not mean that you cannot find anything to buy in Bali. Vice versa. There are souvenir vendors with their booths around every corner. Unlike many other tourist traps, in Bali, it is not at all difficult to find authentic and locally made products instead of plastic junk. The artisans sell locally manufactured wood carvings and statues, macrame, batik works, rattan works such as bags, silver jewelry, paintings, and art, as well as various clothes. You might even be able to buy items directly from the person who made them.
From a Western perspective, the price level in Bali is very reasonable or in some instances even crazy cheap. The most expensive part of the trip is the plane ticket. Certain Western amenities cost the same as in Europe, but the basic price level is otherwise very low. If you are looking for the cheapest options, you can find something for even the smallest budget. On the other hand, if you are willing to pay a little more than the cheapest possible option, you can find wonderful luxury in Bali for at least half the price of what the same would cost in Western countries.
The effects of the general income level on prices
The average monthly income of the Balinese people ranges from 140 to 500 USD. It means that at the lowest, the locals’ earnings are less than 5 euros per day. Thus, the low price of essential products and services is not a surprise. Large bottles of water cost around 0.40-0.50 euros at their most expensive, local beer around 2 euros a can, and one liter of petrol around 0.50 euros. Redbull and Coca-Cola are more expensive imported products, so they also cost around 0.50 euros.
Knowing the local income level, in some instances we felt rather bad to pay such a low price for products and services. It felt almost like a robbery on our part. Therefore, we ended up paying a little extra for almost everything. We also tipped the people who served us using the American formula (i.e. we tipped a lot) every time. Despite that, we easily stayed within our budget.
Transportation is affordable even at its most expensive
Due to the low gas prices and the low pay level, getting around in Bali is very affordable, regardless of long distances. A half-hour taxi ride between the airport and the hotel costs around 6 euros. You can hire a personal charter driver with a car for a 10-15 hour day trip for about 30-50 euros, depending on the total kilometer amount.
I looked at the rental car prices before our trip and thought they were shockingly expensive, around 100 euro per day. We paid the same price for a rental car in Iceland! After arriving in Bali and experiencing the traffic myself, I understood well why car rentals for tourists cost double the price of a personal driver. The insurance fees must be sky-high! Westerners undoubtedly are unwanted in Balinese traffic as most car crashes are caused by tourists.
Luxury for the wallet
In five-star luxury hotels, a standard room costs around 100 euros and you can get a whole lot more luxury for only around 200 euros per night. The most affordable accommodation would be in homestays and hostels for less than 10 euros per night. You can find all kinds of different Airbnb apartments within a range of 7-1000 euros. I would say that if you are willing to pay the average “European hotel rates”, you can have a truly outstanding luxury vacation in Bali for that money.
All food tastes incredibly good in Bali. Almost everything is grown locally and the ingredients are therefore always fresh. Due to the continuous growing season because of the climate, there is no need to preserve food. A new harvest is available all year round. Balinese cuisine uses a lot of local vegetables, eggs, and rice. The most common meat products are chicken and pork. Beef is not a part of the Hindu diet. However, you can find steaks on the menu in hotel restaurants.
For vegetarians, Bali has a lot to offer. In many restaurants, you can find several meat-free options. There are various tofu and Tempe options instead of meat. Although, for some reason, the word tofu is not widely used in Bali. A tofu-like product is called soya cube. These soya cubes can be cooked in any shape or form, and they certainly taste much better than the organic German tofu we cook in an air fryer back at home.
Before the trip, I had already gotten excited about Bali’s vegan food options, which were hyped by various bloggers. I try to follow a whole vegan diet and keeping that in mind I was slightly disappointed. As an example, many meals classified as vegan, included eggs after all. Of course, you can always request altered versions without eggs. However, oftentimes you’re already halfway eating the meal, when it turns out that the portion does not meet the Western definition of vegan. I have noticed in general, that it tends to be a cultural perspective, whether eggs are considered as an animal product or a plant-based product.
In addition to fresh vegetables, Bali has a ton of different local fruits to offer. I tasted so many new fruits that I don’t remember even half of their names. I also found my new favorite fruit, besides mangoes. We are talking about the interesting-looking and tasty snake fruit. The dry-ish skin of the fruit looks like snake skin, while the meat of the fruit tastes mildly like pineapple. Bali is also famous for various smoothie bowls made from local fruits. The most well-known is the pink dragon fruit smoothie bowl.
What to drink?
There is a great variety of different fresh juices available in Bali. You can even buy a fresh coconut and drink the coconut water with a (non-disposable) straw. However, my absolute favorite drink is the local Javanese coffee! I cannot come up with any other place where you can sip any cup of coffee knowing it will turn out to be a little piece of heaven, instead of Russian roulette. Bali’s specialty is the world’s most expensive coffee, kopi luwak. Yet, the ethics of kopi luwak are disputable. Neither did we try the local Arak liquor. We decided to have an alcohol-free honeymoon. I think our decision only had a positive impact on the trip considering the constant feeling of dehydration. There were plenty of delicious non-alcoholic drinks to taste, anyway!