Editor’s note: like Sam, I find myself wanting to choose destinations where my dollars make the most impact, hence my being in Puerto Rico currently. Unlike Sam, I have never been to Bali, so I am excited to be able to share his experience with all of you! For more of Sam’s adventures – and beautiful writing – click here to visit his index page.
When picking a place to travel, I often think beyond just where would be the best place to visit, but also, where would benefit the most from me visiting? It was with this mindset that I plan to visit Puerto Rico next month, which I chose to visit in part due to their need of assistance in their recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Places that are in desperate need of visitors are those that rely solely on tourist dollars as their primary source of income. For that reason, a place that has always been high up on my list of favorite places that I have been and could use tourists in the next couple years is the Indonesian island of Bali.
Every person I know who has been to Bali considers it the closest thing to paradise on Earth. For that reason, this tiny island, which is roughly the size of Delaware, welcomed more than 6 million international tourists in 2019. Sadly, due to Covid, last year Bali was only visited by a mere 45 tourists; yes, you read that correctly, not 4.5 million, 450,000 or even 45,000. 45 tourists, less than the amount that would typically come on a single plane. This island desperately needs people to visit once it is safe to do so, and so let me tell you why it should be at the top of your list of destinations to visit.
Bali is one of Indonesia’s more than 13,000 islands, but it is unique in many ways. While Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on Earth, Bali’s inhabitants are predominately Hindu. Everywhere on the island that you go, you will see beautiful Hindu temples that are different than the types that one would see in India, as Balinese Hinduism is unique in its own right. Likewise, the island is dotted with shrines, and every morning when you walk around, there are tiny offerings to various Hindu deities in front of shops and homes and that are often cast off into the Indian Ocean. It makes complete sense that the film Eat, Pray, Love was partially filmed in Bali as wherever you go, you will feel the spirituality. And one of those places where you should go is the town of Ubud.
Despite my introduction to Bali decrying their lack of tourism, the town of Ubud, when I visited in April 2017, was highly touristy and has many wonderful upscale modern and fusion restaurants. Also in the heart of the town is the Monkey Forest, a forest that is completely overrun by macaque monkeys that tourists are eager to feed. (I advise against this as the monkeys get aggressive and I saw a number of tourists get bit, which means they have to go on antibiotics.) Regardless, it is still a cool experience to see thousands of monkeys overtaking a part of town. Ubud is a place for those seeking to get in touch with themselves to find some inner peace, and you can do this by taking advantage of the many yoga and meditation classes that are offered throughout the town for people of all experience levels, including folks like me who had never before taken a yoga class. Classes, which often cost under $10 for an hour, gave me the opportunity to turn my brain off to all the stresses back at home and find a calm that I had not known in quite a while.
From Ubud, there are numerous sights to see. I made a tremendous mistake of renting a car; Bali’s streets are not car friendly and drivers are a bit erratic there. Rather, do what others do and rent a moped scooter, but do be careful! However, I somehow managed to get around the island in my dinky rental car despite blowing out a tire and having Waze tell me to literally drive off a cliff. For one of the most beautiful sceneries that you will encounter anywhere on Earth go to the Tegallang terraced rice paddies and watch them cascade down the hills that are the brightest green that I have ever encountered. Be sure to go for a hike through the rice paddies and enjoy the beautiful bamboo grasses and palm trees shooting up around you. In the outskirts of Ubud there are numerous temples and historical sites to visit. While there are so many places to visit, here are my top three temples in the Ubud area that everyone should check out. First is Gunung Kawi, which are presumed to be 11th century royal burial tombs carved into the side of a mountain with a beautiful river running through it. Second, check out the Goa Gajah, which means “Elephant Cave”, a 9th century cave that has an elephant carved over the entrance and carvings of guards protecting the cave. Finally, the Tirta Empul, one of the holiest temples for the Balinese Hindus, which has active springs where the faithful bathe themselves and pools that are home to thousands of koi, leaves an impression on any visitor.
Beyond Ubud there are many more impressive attractions to see in Bali. An hour north of Ubud, the terrain becomes mountainous and the flora switches from tropical to looking more like the forests of my native Pacific Northwest. In this region, called Bendugul, you will find beautiful lakes that come with breathtaking Hindu temples right on top of them. Another must visit site is Mount Agung and the Temple of Besakih, an hour east of Ubud. Mount Agung is a highly active volcano and a holy place for the Balinese; shortly after my visit it began a 2-year eruption period, ending in June of 2019, creating havoc on the island. Placed dramatically at the base of the volcano is the Besakih Temple, a sprawling 18-temple complex that takes hours to explore, even though certain areas are only for Hindu visitors. Besakih is the holiest temple for the Balinese Hindus and is always filled with pilgrims; when visiting this site, it is well worth getting a guide for a tour. Please be respectful when visiting the Balinese temples and dress modestly; wearing a sarong over your legs is required for men.
However, what drives many to visit Bali are its pristine sandy beaches, incredible nightlife, and world class surfing on the Indian Ocean (I took a surfing class, which ended with me swallowing half the ocean and dry heaving on the sand). Many young tourists go to the main nightlife spot of Kuta; however, I was warned that crime was high, drugs were rampant, and litter was everywhere here so I avoided it and went to the backpacker haven of Canggu. Although I broke my arm there, I loved this town; its beaches and beachside restaurants were the best I have experienced anywhere, and the vibe was more relaxed than I experienced in other beach towns in Southeast Asia. At sunset, be sure to go about 45 minutes north of Canggu to Tanah Lot, a Hindu temple built into a rock a couple hundred feet offshore. There are many cafes and restaurants serving Balinese food where you can sit and relax while watching one of the world’s best sunsets.
In case this article for some reason has not convinced you to go visit Bali, let me share one more reason to go: it is insanely cheap! Sure, it takes longer to get there and my plane ticket was a couple hundred dollars more than a plane ticket to Hawaii, but once you get to Bali, everything is insanely affordable. In Ubud, I stayed in a four-star hotel overlooking a rice paddy in a suite where I had an entire floor to myself and fresh fruits for breakfast for $32 a night. So why go spend all your money in Hawaii when you can have a cheaper, more exotic vacation with the same quality beaches but a heck of a cultural experience in Bali? Go visit! It will be the trip of a lifetime for you and they greatly need your support.
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