With its pounding surf, emerald-green rice terraces and exceptionally artistic culture, the small volcanic island of Bali – population 3.1 million and the only Hindu society in Southeast Asia – has long been Indonesia’s premier tourist destination. Although it suffers the predictable problems of congestion and commercialization, Bali’s original charm is still much in evidence, its distinctive temples and elaborate festivals set off by the mountainous, river-rich landscape of the interior.
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Bali’s most famous and crowded resort is Kuta, an eight-kilometre sweep of golden sand, with plenty of accommodation and the best shopping and nightlife on the island. Surfing is fun here too, but experienced wave-riders head for the surfing beaches on the Bukit peninsula and along Bali’s southwest coast. Sanur is a fairly sedate southern beach resort, but most backpackers prefer the tranquil island of Nusa Lembongan, the beaches of peaceful east-coast Amed, Candi Dasa and Padang Bai. Immensely rich sea life means that snorkelling and diving are big draws at all these resorts. Dolphin-watching is the main attraction in Lovina on the north coast, while Bali’s major cultural destination is Ubud, where traditional dances are staged every night and the streets are full of organic cafés and arts-and-crafts galleries. In addition, there are numerous elegant Hindu temples to visit, particularly at Tanah Lot and Besakih, and a good number of volcano hikes, the most popular being the route up Gunung Batur, with Gunung Agung only for the very fit.
Transport to and from Bali is efficient: the island is served by scores of international and domestic flights, which all land at Ngurah Rai Airport just south of Kuta, as well as round-the-clock ferries from Java, west across the Bali Strait from Gilimanuk, and from Lombok, east of Padang Bai. Pelni ferries from ports across Indonesia call at Benoa harbour.
Brief History of Bali
Bali was a more or less independent society of Buddhists and Hindus until the fourteenth century, when it was colonized by the strictly Hindu Majapahits from neighbouring Java. Despite the subsequent Islamicization of nearly all her neighbours, Bali has remained firmly Hindu ever since. In 1849, the Dutch started to take an interest in Bali, and by January 1909 had wrested control of the whole island. Following a short-lived Japanese occupation in World War II, and Indonesia’s subsequent declaration of independence in 1945, Bali became an autonomous state within the Republic in 1949. But tensions with Java are ongoing and there is concern about wealthy entrepreneurs from Jakarta (and the West) monopolizing the financial benefits from Bali’s considerable attractions, with the Balinese fearing they may lose control of their own homeland. These tensions were horrifically highlighted when Muslim extremists from Java bombed Kuta’s two most popular nightclubs on October 12, 2002, killing more than two hundred people and sending Bali’s tourist-dependent economy into severe decline. A second attack, in October 2005, came just as the island was starting to recover. Reprisals and religious conflict have not ensued, however, due in part to Bali’s impressively equanimous Hindu leadership; by mid-2008, tourist numbers were healthier than ever, though it will take a lot longer to redress the hardships caused by the bombings.
Kuta, Legian and Seminyak
Crammed with hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, tour agencies and shops, the Kuta–Legian–Seminyak conurbation, 10km southwest of Denpasar, is Bali’s biggest, brashest beach resort. The beach itself is one of the finest on the island, its gentle curve of golden sand stretching for 8km, and lashed by huge breakers that bring experienced and novice surfers flocking. Be wary, however, of the strong undertow and always swim between the red- and yellow-striped flags. Everyone else comes to shop and to party, fuelled by a pumping nightlife that ranges from the trashy in Kuta to the chic in Seminyak and Petitenget, though drugs, prostitution and gigolos (known locally as Kuta cowboys or mosquitoes because they jump from woman to woman) feature all over. Although the resort’s party atmosphere was shattered in 2002, when Islamic extremists from Java bombed Kuta’s two most popular clubs, and again when Kuta Square was attacked in 2005, the good-time vibe has resurfaced. A Monument of Human Tragedy now occupies the 2002 “Ground Zero” site.
Accommodation, shopping and restaurant options broadly fit the same geographical pattern, with Kuta the destination of party-going travellers, Legian the choice for families and couples, and Seminyak favoured by those with style and/or money. Kuta stretches north from the Matahari department store in Kuta Square to Jalan Melasti, while its southern fringes, extending south from Matahari to the airport, are defined as Tuban. Legian runs from Jalan Melasti as far as Jalan Double Six (Jalan Pantai Arjuna); Seminyak goes from Jalan Double Six up to the Oberoi Hotel, where Petitenget begins.
Nicknamed “Snore” because it lacks the clubs and all-night party venues of Kuta, Sanur is a sedate resort popular with older visitors, and has a distinct village atmosphere, a fairly decent, five-kilometre-long sandy beach, and plenty of attractive budget accommodation. It’s also a major centre for diving and the main departure point for boats to Nusa Lembongan, plus it’s only 15km to Kuta and forty minutes’ drive to Ubud.
Though the sea here is only properly swimmable at high tide (a big expanse of shore gets exposed at low tide, and the currents beyond the reef are dangerously strong), there are lots of inviting restaurants along the beach and you can walk or cycle the entire 5km from the Inna Grand Bali Beach in the north to Hotel Sanur Beach in the south along a seafront esplanade.
Southeast across the Badung Strait, encircled by a mixture of white-sand beaches and mangrove, the tiny island of Nusa lembongan (4km by 3km) is an ideal escape from the bustle of the south. Seaweed farming is the major occupation here, supplemented by tourist income from surfers, snorkellers, divers and anyone seeking attractive beaches, a bit of gentle exploring and an addictive somnolent atmosphere.
Ranged along the west coast for over 1km, the low-key beachside village of Jungutbatu has plenty of losmen and restaurants. Coconut Beach, Chelegimbai and Mushroom Bay (Tanjung Sanghyang) to the southwest and Dream Beach on the south coast offer more upmarket accommodation, and Mushroom Bay is the destination for day-trippers from the mainland. This can disturb the peace in the middle of the day but does little to detract from the idyllic white sand and turquoise waters.
You can walk around the island in three to four hours. Motorbikes and bicycles are widely available for rent in Jungutbatu, though you will have to dismount and push your bike up some of the very steep hills.
Three surf breaks, aptly named Shipwrecks, Lacerations and Playground, are all reached from Jungutbatu. You can paddle out to Shipwrecks from the northern end of the beach, and to the other two from Coconut Beach around the cliffs to the south of Jungutbatu, but if you are staying further away you can charter a boat. There are several sites for snorkelling accessible by rented boat around the island. Further away, the Penida Wall and Crystal Bay, close to the neighbouring island of Nusa Penida, are also popular. World Diving also take snorkellers, if there’s room on the boat and the site is suitable. The area around the islands is popular for diving, although the sea can be cold with treacherous currents so it is important to dive with operators familiar with the area. Manta Point off the south coast of Nusa Penida is renowned for mola mola – although sadly during high season this generally means you can’t see any that do turn up, due to the huge crowds of divers surrounding them.
Pura Tanah Lot
Dramatically marooned on a craggy, wave-lashed rock just off the coast about 30km northwest of Kuta, Pura Tanah Lot is Bali’s most photographed sight. Framed by frothing white surf and glistening black sand, its elegant multi-tiered shrines have become the unofficial symbol of Bali and they attract huge crowds of visitors every day, particularly around sunset. Unfortunately this has brought all the joys of tourism with it, and now the temple sits against a background of stalls and over-enthusiastic hawkers. The temple is said to have been founded in the sixteenth century by the wandering Hindu priest Nirartha and is one of the most holy places on Bali. Only bona fide devotees are allowed to climb the stairway carved out of the rock face and enter the compounds; everyone else is confined to the base of the rock.
The major tourist draw in the east of Bali is undoubtedly the Besakih temple complex, situated on the slopes of Gunung Agung, the holiest and highest mountain on the island.
Besakih is the most venerated site on Bali for Balinese Hindus, who believe that the gods occasionally descend to reside in the temple, during which times worshippers don their finery and bring them elaborate offerings. The complex’s sheer scale is impressive, and on a clear day, with Agung towering dramatically behind, and with ceremonies in full swing, it’s beautiful. However, Besakih has also evolved the habit of separating foreign tourists from their money as quickly as possible, which can make for a frustrating experience.
The complex consists of more than twenty separate temples spread over a site stretching for more than 3km. The central temple is Pura Penataran Agung, the largest on the island, built on seven ascending terraces, and comprising more than fifty structures. Start by following the path just outside Pura Penataran Agung’s wall, and then wander at will: the meru (multi-tiered shrine roofs) of Pura Batu Madeg, rising among the trees to the north, are enticing. Pura Pengubengan, the most far-flung of the temples, is a couple of kilometres through the forest.
Unless you’re praying or making offerings, you’re forbidden to enter the temples, and most remain locked unless there’s a ceremony going on. However, a lot is visible through the gateways and over walls. The rule about wearing a sarong and sash appears to be inconsistently applied but you’ll definitely need them if you’re in skimpy clothing; sarong and sash rental are available, with negotiable prices, but it’s much easier to take your own.
There are huge numbers of local guides at Besakih hoping to be engaged by visitors, but you don’t need one to explore the complex; stick to the paths running along the walls outside the temples, wear a sarong and sash, and you’ll be in no danger of causing religious offence. If you do hire a guide, you should use one who has an official guide badge and is wearing an endek shirt as uniform, and always establish the fee beforehand. If you’re escorted into one of the temples to receive a blessing from a priest you’ll be expected to make a “donation” to the priest.
At the eastern end of Amuk Bay is Candi dasa, a relaxed resort that appeals mostly to older visitors, with a wide choice of accommodation and restaurants. A good centre for snorkelling, diving and exploring the east, it makes a nice change from some of the more frenetic resorts in the south of the island. The main beach has suffered serious erosion in recent decades due to over-construction in the area – the offshore coral reefs were harvested to provide lime for building tourist resorts in the 1980s – but there are several small pockets of white sand along the waterfront where hotels have created artificial beaches.
The pretty lagoon in the centre of Candi Dasa, just across the main road from the temple, is a useful landmark. Most of the accommodation in Candi Dasa is spread about 1km along the main road running just behind the beach both east and west of the lagoon. East of this central section is which Forest Road has some quiet guesthouses.
The group of tiny islands lying just off the coast (Gili Tepekong, Gili Biaha and Gili Mimpang) offer excellent sites for experienced divers (currents can be strong), including walls, a pinnacle and the dramatic Tepekong Canyon. All the operators also arrange trips further afield to Padang Bai, Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan, Amed, Tulamben and Gili Selang.
For fantastic views over the coastline, follow the headland trail that forks off the road leading east in the direction of Amlapura. Beyond the headland there are some pretty beaches, with wide stretches of sand.
The reef along the coast is gradually rejuvenating and there is some decent snorkelling just offshore, stretching for about 1km westwards from the area in front of Puri Bagus Candidasa hotel. Take care not to venture too far out and be aware of your position as the currents can be hazardous. You can also go on snorkelling trips to more distant spots with local boat-owners, and dive operators also take snorkellers along on dive trips; always be clear whether or not equipment is included in the price.
Watch out for jellyfish, especially at dusk. Places that are totally harmless during the day are suddenly home to jellyfish sporting massive tentacles (3m long tentacles, in fact, courtesy of the blue jellyfish) that whip you and leave you oozing black poison from painful lumps. Ultimately they don’t do any damage but travel with antihistamine and avoid swimming at sunset, no matter how romantic it might seem at the time. The tiny red jellyfish that float about during the day do little more than give you a weird electric-shock sensation.
Amed, Jemeluk and the Far East Coast
The stretch of coast in the far east of Bali from Culik to Aas is known as Amed although this is just one village here. Accommodation is mushrooming along the 11km stretch from Amed to Aas, as people come here to enjoy the peace and quiet, the clifftop views of the glorious coastline and black beaches, and to take in the stunning underwater attractions.
Access to Amed is from the small junction village of Culik just over 9km north of Tirtagangga on the Amlapura–Singaraja road. In Amed, 3km away, life centres on fishing and salt production, which you can see at close quarters. A kilometre east is the hamlet of Congkang, then Jemeluk, 6km from Culik, which attracts divers and snorkellers for the offshore coral terrace leading to a wall dropping to a depth of more than 40m. There’s a high density of fish, with sharks, wrasses and parrotfish in the outer parts. From Jemeluk lies headland after headland: the beaches and villages of Bunutan and Lipah Beach are the most developed areas, though they remain low-key, leading on to Lehan Beach, Selang, Ibus, Banyuning and eventually Aas, almost 15km from Culik.
As well as at Jemeluk, there’s excellent diving at a wreck at Lipah Beach and a drift dive at Bunutan, with the chance to see schools of barracuda and giant barrel sponges. Advanced divers can explore Gili Selang, the eastern tip of Bali, where a pristine reef, pelagics and exciting currents are the draw. Good snorkelling spots include Jemeluk, the wreck at Lipah Beach and a Japanese wreck near the coast at Banyuning.
Gunung Batur and Danau Batur
The Batur area, the most popular and dramatic volcanic scenery in Bali, was formed thirty thousand years ago when a gigantic volcano erupted. The rim of this vast crater remains clearly visible and it is the views from here that are the main draw. Confusingly, the entire area is sometimes referred to as Kintamani, although this is the name of just one of many villages. The highest points on the rim are Gunung Abang (2153m) on the eastern side, the third highest mountain in Bali, and Gunung Penulisan (1745m) on the northwest corner, with Pura Puncak Penulisan on its summit. Rising from the floor of this huge crater is Gunung Batur (1717m), an active volcano with four craters of its own and Danau Batur lake nestled beside it. Many visitors come to the area to climb Gunung Batur, usually for the sunrise.
There’s an admission charge to the area. The ticket offices are just south of Penelokan on the road from Bangli and at the junction of the road from Ubud and the rim road.
The crater rim
The villages of Penelokan, Batur and Kintamani are spread for 11km along the rim of the vast ancient crater and virtually merge. The views across the stark volcanic landscape from Penelokan (1450m) are majestic. Danau Batur lies far below, while Gunung Batur and Gunung Abang tower on either side of the lake. The hordes of day-trippers who pass through Penelokan attract an entourage of hawkers. The only way to avoid the circus is to come early or late, or stay overnight.
About 4km north of Penelokan, Pura Ulun Danu Batur (admission by donation; sarong rental available) is the second most important temple on the island after Besakih. It’s a fascinating place to visit at any time as there are usually pilgrims making offerings and praying, and the mist that frequently shrouds the area adds to the atmosphere.
Climbing Gunung Batur
Batur remains active so check the current situation for climbing at wwww.vsi.esdm.go.id – it’s mostly in Indonesian but it is clear if a mountain is on alert. Climbing Batur is best in the dry season (April–Oct).
There’s a choice of routes up Gunung Batur. If you have your own wheels, the easiest route is to drive to Serongga, off the Yehmampeh road, west of Songan. From the car park, it’s thirty minutes to an hour to the highest peak and largest crater, Batur I.
The most common walking routes up to Batur I are from Toya Bungkah and Pura Jati. The path from Pura Jati is shadeless and largely across old lava fields. From Toya Bungkah, numerous paths head up through the forest (one starts just south of Arlina’s guesthouse) and up to the warung perched on the crater rim. Allow two to three hours to get to the top from either start and about half that time to get back down.
A medium-length trek involves climbing to Batur I, walking around the rim and then descending by another route.
In daylight, you don’t need a guide from Toya Bungkah or Pura Jati if you’ve a reasonable sense of direction, but you shouldn’t climb alone and you should let somebody responsible know where you are going. If you climb in the dark, which most people do to reach the top for the fabulous sunrise views, you’ll need to leave around 4am and a guide is vital.
Lovina stretches along 8km of black-sand beach, the largest resort in Bali outside the Kuta–Legian–Seminyak conurbation. While the peak season (June–Aug & Dec) is busy, Lovina is a whole lot sleepier than the southern resorts, although there’s some nightlife and activity centres on the beach, with snorkelling, diving and dolphin-watching as diversions. It’s also an ideal base for exploring the whole of the north coast and the volcanic areas inland.
Beginning 6km west of Singaraja, the resort encompasses six villages, from east to west: Pemaron, Tukad Mungga, Anturan, Kalibukbuk (including a side road, to the east of the centre, known as Banyualit), Kaliasem and Temukus.
Kalibukbuk is the centre of Lovina and full of accommodation, restaurants and tourist facilities. East of here, in Tukad mungga (where the beach is known as Pantai Happy), the small fishing village of Anturan and along the Banyualit side road Jalan Laviana, 1.5km from the centre, it tends to be quieter despite the development of losmen and restaurants. West of Kalibukbuk, restaurants and accommodation line the roadside in the villages of Kaliasem and Temukus. Road noise is the enemy here; only consider accommodation set far enough back to block the noise out.
Lovina is famous (or infamous) for dawn trips to see the dolphins that frolic off the coast; opinions are evenly split between those who think it’s grossly overrated and those who consider it one of the best things on Bali. It’s pretty much the luck of the draw: some days there is little to see while on others the dolphins cavort around and under the boats in a grand display. Book directly with the skippers on the beach or through your accommodation.
The skippers also know the best spots on the local reef for snorkelling, and dive operators will take snorkellers on dive trips further afield if they have space; this is more expensive but offers greater variety.
Situated between the main north-coast diving areas, Lovina is an ideal base for diving, with fun dives in the Lovina area and further afield at Pulau Menjangan, Tulamben and Amed all available, though you will have to drive for at least 1hr 30min to reach each of these sites. The local reef, perhaps unfairly, has a reputation as being uninteresting, though there’s an excellent range of fish, and tyres, an old car and a small boat have been placed on the reef to encourage coral growth.
Top image © Cocos.Bounty/Shutterstock