Bali is one of those rare destinations that smells as good as it looks.
You emerge from Ngurah Rai airport at Denpasar, and even before the stream of taxi drivers can approach you with the ubiquitous offer for ‘transport,’ there it is.
That subtle scent of incense and rice that seems to hang like the thinnest gauzy veil over what is arguably the most appealing isle in the Indonesian archipelago, and that’s saying a lot – the necklace-like nation is composed of more than 17,000 islands.
You’re a long way from home here, and it feels like it.
There are palm trees for skyscrapers. Volcanoes on the horizon. And everywhere you turn, someone is waving a stick of incense over an offering to the Gods in the form of a neat package of rice and flowers bundled into a banana leaf.
In Bali, the road rules seem like something from another much more relaxed planet. Busses, scooters, cars and bemos (the Indonesian minibus-moped hybrid) weave in and out of lanes. And pedestrians part the stream of traffic like a zipper that opens as fast as it zips shut.
Scooters can be rented for about five dollars a day, with cars going for around $10 per day. And if you dare to drive yourself, you’ll learn soon enough not only how to go with the traffic flow, but how to bribe Bali’s notoriously corrupt cops, too (five dollars is usually sufficient to send them on their way with a smile).
For most tourists, the first stop is Kuta Beach, a short drive from the airport. The former secret spot was ‘discovered’ by foreign surfers in the 1970s. Today Kuta Beach is to Bali what Cancun is to Mexico – a tangled, overgrown town that stretches along a fine beach. It’s packed with hotels, shops and restaurants catering primarily to western palates.
Home to a Hard Rock Café, McDonalds and even a Starbucks, Kuta is far from exotic. A favorite tourist pastime is to besmirch the town for its tacky overkill. Still, most visitors end up here at one point or another, whether to feed their need for wood-fired pizza and sushi, or to load their luggage with Balinese carvings and batiks before heading home.
When it comes to people-watching, Kuta is as good as it gets. Here you’ll observe a true world swirl, with everyone from honeymooning Australians to dreadlocked travelers hot off the Southeast Asia backpacking trail. You’ll also see the local Balinese go about their daily rituals, preparing their offerings and sweeping out their shops for business.
Rent a scooter or hire a taxi to escape from Kuta, and you’ll be immersed in a more serene Bali soon enough. School kids in starched uniforms parade along the winding, potholed streets that lead to the Bukit Peninsula, about 25 minutes from Kuta. The rugged area is home to some of the island’s best surf breaks and one of Bali’s most beautiful Hindu temples. Although Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Bali’s predominant religion is Hinduism.
At Uluwatu, on the Bukit, you can sip a stiff Balinese coffee while chilling at an alfresco table high on the cliffs. The Balinese make coffee by stirring the grinds into hot water, leaving a pile of syrupy sediment at the bottom of your cup. At a handful of ‘warungs’ (casual Indonesian restaurants), travelers from around the world admire the surfing prowess demonstrated below on Bali’s perfectly pitched waves. Nearby, on a wooden perch signposted ‘Locals Only,’ Balinese gather to repair their fishing nets. Here the hometown surfers show visitors from Brazil, New Zealand, California and beyond how to rip, Bali-style.
Around the cliff face, at Uluwatu Temple, a ramble of stone altars sits high above the sea. The Hindu temple is home to a band of resident monkeys that are quick to snatch your camera or sunglasses as a souvenir of your visit. On festival days, Balinese come from all over the island to make offerings. Clouds of incense rise from their gifts and float on the ocean breezes. At sunset, tourists gather to watch the nightly Kecak dance – a graceful Balinese art form, performed with the otherworldly backdrop of the temple and sea.
Another top sunset destination is Jimbaran Bay. Seafood warungs front the strand, with tables set right in the sand. Add to the image flickering candlelight on the tabletops and a molten Balinese sun that turns the sky into a scream of pink, and you’ve got all the makings for a romantic night in paradise. Select your meal from gurgling tanks and bamboo baskets full of flopping fresh snapper, lobster, crabs, clams and more. For less than ten bucks, a couple can indulge in a spread of fish and shellfish, flavorful greens and rice spiced with Balinese condiments like sambal – an Indonesian salsa of sorts that’s a fiery blend of garlic, lime and peppers. A Bintang beer washes it down. Luxury resorts line the beach of Jimbaran Bay, and the sheltered location makes it a calm place for swimming.
Bali is a spot to be spontaneous, and the island reveals itself to people who seek it out. Why sip a chocolate milkshake at a tourist restaurant if you can duck into a no-frills warung and find yourself savoring a favorite Balinese treat – an avocado milkshake, swirled with chocolate. Be adventurous here and you’ll be rewarded.
Take a shuttle from the coast about an hour inland to Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural center. There’s a Hindu temple around every corner. Terraced rice paddies are written into the hillsides like so many terrestrial fingerprint whorls. You can browse the scores of shops on and around Monkey Forest Road, the town’s main tourist drag. The more intrepid can rent a scooter to explore the countryside. A short detour off the main road gives you a window into village life. People bathe in the little waterspouts created by the draining rice paddies. Kids kick soccer balls in front of temples. Men sit in circles preparing their oily-feathered chickens for a cockfight. Women spread rice on plastic tarpaulins to dry in the sun.