The famed Island of the Gods, with its varied landscape of hills and mountains, rugged coastlines and sandy beaches, lush rice terraces and barren volcanic hillsides all providing a picturesque backdrop to its colourful, deeply spiritual and unique culture, stakes a serious claim to be paradise on earth. With world-class surfing and diving, a large number of cultural, historical and archaeological attractions, and an enormous range of accommodations, this is one of the world’s most popular island destinations and one which consistently wins travel awards. Bali has something to offer a very broad market of visitors from young back-packers right through to the super-rich.
- South Bali (Kuta, Bukit Peninsula, Canggu, Denpasar, Jimbaran, Legian, Nusa Dua, Sanur, Seminyak, Tanah Lot)
The most visited part of the island by far, with Kuta Beach and chic Seminyak.
- Central Bali (Ubud, Bedugul, Tabanan) The cultural heart of Bali and the central mountain range.
- West Bali (Negara, Gilimanuk, Medewi Beach, Pemuteran, West Bali National Park) Ferries to Java and the West Bali National Park.
- North Bali (Lovina, Singaraja) Quiet black sand beaches and the old capital city.
- East Bali (Amed, Besakih, Candidasa, Kintamani, Klungkung, Mount Agung, Padang Bai, Tirta Gangga) Laid back coastal villages, an active volcano and the mighty Mount Agung.
- Southeastern Islands (Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan) Quiet offshore islands in the southeast, popular for diving activities.
- Denpasar — a bustling city, the administrative centre and transport hub of the island but not a major tourist destination
- Candidasa — a quiet coastal town, the Bali Aga and gateway to the east coast
- Kuta — surfer central, by far the most heavily developed area in Bali. Lots of shopping and night-life and the centre of lower-end party culture on Bali
- Jimbaran — sea-side resorts, a nice sheltered beach and seafood restaurants south of Kuta
- Legian — located between Kuta and Seminyak; also the name of Kuta´s main street
- Lovina — beautiful black volcanic sand beaches and coral reefs
- Padang Bai — a relaxed traditional fishing village with some touristic options. Great place to enjoy the beach, snorkelling, diving and eating fish.
- Sanur — sea-side resorts and beaches popular with older families
- Seminyak — quieter, more upscale beachside resorts and villas just to the north of Legian, with some fashionable upscale restaurants and trendy designer bars and dance clubs
- Ubud — the centre of art and dance in the foothills, with several museums, the monkey forest and lots of arts and crafts shops
- Amed — an area of peaceful, traditional fishing villages featuring black sand beaches, coral reefs and excellent diving
- Bedugul — nice lakes in the mountains, a golf course, the botanical gardens and the famous Ulun Danu Bratan Temple
- Bukit Peninsula — the southernmost tip of Bali, with world class surfing, great beaches, and the can’t-miss cliff-hanging Uluwatu Temple
- Kintamani — active volcano Mount Batur, great mountain scenery, cooler temperatures and fruit growing
- Mount Agung — highest mountain in Bali and the mother temple of Besakih
- Nusa Dua — an enclave of high-end resorts and a long, golden sand beach
- Nusa Lembongan — good diving, snorkelling and surfing and a great place to relax
- Nusa Penida — wild, rugged and untamed and as off-the-beaten-path as you will get in Bali
- West Bali National Park — trekking, bird watching and diving in Bali’s only substantial natural protected area
Bali is one of more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and is located just over 2 kilometres (almost 1.5 miles) from the eastern tip of the island of Java and west of the island of Lombok. The island, home to about 4 million people, is approximately 144 kilometres (90 mi.) from east to west and 80 kilometres (50 mi.) north to south.
The word “paradise” is used a lot in Bali and not without reason. The combination of friendly, hospitable people, a magnificently visual culture infused with spirituality and (not least) spectacular beaches with great surfing and diving have made Bali Indonesia’s unrivaled number one tourist attraction. Eighty percent of international visitors to Indonesia visit Bali and Bali alone.
The popularity is not without its flip sides— like many places in the island’s South, once paradisiacal Kuta has degenerated into a congested warren of concrete, touts and scammers extracting a living by overcharging tourists. The island’s visibility has also drawn the unwanted attention of terrorists in 2002 and 2005; however Bali has managed to retain its magic. Bali is a wonderful destination with something for everyone, and though heavily travelled, it is still easy to find some peace and quiet, if you like. Avoid the South of the island if you want a more traditional and genuine Balinese experience.
A consideration is the tourist season and Bali can get very crowded in August and September and again at Christmas and New Year. Australians also visit during school holidays in early April, late June and late September, while domestic tourists from elsewhere in Indonesia visit during national holidays. Outside these peak seasons, Bali can be surprisingly quiet and good discounts on accommodation are often available.
The first Hindus arrived in Bali as early as 100 BC, but the unique culture which is so apparent to any current day visitor to Bali hails largely from neighbouring Java, with some influence from Bali’s distant animist past. The Javanese Majapahit Empire’s rule over Bali became complete in the 14th century when Gajah Mada, Prime Minister of the Javanese king, defeated the Balinese king at Bedulu.
The rule of the Majapahit Empire resulted in the initial influx of Javanese culture, most of all in architecture, dance, painting, sculpture and the wayang puppet theatre. All of this is still very apparent today. The very few Balinese who did not adopt this Javanese Hindu culture are known today as the Bali Aga (“original Balinese”) and still live in the isolated villages of Tenganan near Candidasa and Trunyan on the remote eastern shore of Lake Batur at Kintamani.
With the rise of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago, the Majapahit Empire in Java fell and Bali became independent near the turn of the 16th century. The Javanese aristocracy found refuge in Bali, bringing an even stronger influx of Hindu arts, literature and religion.
Divided among a number of ruling rajas, occasionally battling off invaders from now Islamic Java to the west and making forays to conquer Lombok to the east, the north of the island was finally captured by the Dutch colonialists in a series of brutal wars from 1846 to 1849. Southern Bali was not conquered until 1906, and eastern Bali did not surrender until 1908. In both 1906 and 1908, many Balinese chose death over disgrace and fought en-masse until the bitter end, often walking straight into Dutch cannons and gunfire. This manner of suicidal fighting to the death is known as puputan. Victory was bittersweet, as the images of the puputan highly tarnished the Dutch in the international community. Perhaps to make up for this, the Dutch did not make the Balinese enter into a forced cultivation system, as had happened in Java, and instead tried to promote Balinese culture through their policy of Baliseering or the “Balinisation of Bali”.
Bali became part of the newly independent Republic of Indonesia in 1945. In 1965, after the failed coup d’etat which was allegedly backed by the Communist Party (PKI), state-instigated, anti-communist violence spread across Indonesia. In Bali, it has been said that the rivers ran red with the reprisal killings of suspected communists—most estimates of the death toll say 80,000, or about five percent of the population of Bali at the time.
The current chapter in Bali’s history began in the seventies when intrepid hippies and surfers discovered Bali’s beaches and waves, and tourism soon became the biggest income earner. Despite the shocks of the terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005, the magical island continues to draw crowds, and Bali’s culture remains as spectacular as ever.
Unlike any other island in largely Muslim Indonesia, Bali is a pocket of Hindu religion and culture. Every aspect of Balinese life is suffused with religion, but the most visible signs are the tiny offerings (canang sari, or sesajen) found in every Balinese house, work place, restaurant, souvenir stall and airport check-in desk. These leaf trays are made daily and can contain an enormous range of offering items: flowers, glutinous rice, cookies, salt, and even cigarettes and coffee! They are set out with burning incense sticks and sprinkled with holy water no less than three times a day, before every meal. Don’t worry if you step on one, as they are placed on the ground for this very purpose and will be swept away anyway (But you better not step on one on purpose, because – as Balinese believe – it’ll give you bad luck!).
Balinese Hinduism diverged from the mainstream well over 500 years ago and is quite radically different from what you would see in India. The primary deity is Sanghyang Widi Wasa (Acintya), the “all-in-one god” for which other gods like Vishnu (Wisnu) and Shiva (Civa) are merely manifestations, and instead of being shown directly, he is depicted by an empty throne wrapped in the distinctive poleng black-and-white chessboard pattern and protected by a ceremonial tedung umbrella.
The Balinese are master sculptors, and temples and courtyards are replete with statues of gods and goddesses like Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and fertility, as well as guardians and protecting demons like toothy Rakasa, armed with a club. These days, though, entire villages like Batubulan have twigged onto the tourist potential and churn out everything imaginable from Buddhas to couples entwined in acrobatic poses for the export market.
Balinese dance and music are also justly famous and a major attraction for visitors to the island. As on neighbouring Java, the gamelan orchestra and wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre predominate. Dances are extremely visual and dramatic, and the most famous include:
- Barong or “lion dance” — a ritual dance depicting the fight between good and evil, with performers wearing fearsome lion-like masks. This dance is often staged specifically for tourists as it is one of the most visually spectacular and the storyline is relatively easy to follow. Barong dance performances are not hard to find.
- Calonarang — a spectacular dance which is a tale of combating dark magic and exorcising the evil spirits aligned with the witch-queen Rangda. The story has many variations and rarely are two calonarang plays the same. If you can find an authentic Calonarang performance, then you are in for a truly magical experience.
- Kecak or “monkey dance” — actually invented in the 1930s by resident German artist Walter Spies for a movie but a spectacle nonetheless, with up to 250 dancers in concentric circles chanting “kecak kecak”, while a performer in the centre acts out a spiritual dance. An especially popular Kecak dance performance is staged daily at Uluwatu Temple.
- Legong Keraton — perhaps the most famous and feted of all Balinese dances. Performed by young girls, this is a dance of divine nymphs hailing from 12th century Java. Try to find an authentic Legong Keraton with a full-length performance. The short dance performances often found in tourist restaurants and hotels are usually extracts from the Legong Keraton.
The Day of Absolute Silence
Nyepi also serves to remind the Balinese of the need for tolerance and understanding in their everyday life. In fact, Hinduism on Bali is unique because it is woven into and around the original Balinese animistic religion. The two now have become one for the Balinese – a true sign of tolerance and acceptance.
There are an estimated 20,000 temples (pura) on the island, each of which holds festivals (odalan) at least twice yearly. With many other auspicious days throughout the year there are always festivities going on.
The large island-wide festivals are determined by two local calendars. The 210 day wuku or Pawukon calendar is completely out of sync with the western calendar, meaning that it rotates wildly throughout the year. The lunar saka (caka) calendar roughly follows the western year.
- Funerals (pitra yadnya) are another occasion of pomp and ceremony, when the deceased (often several at a time) are ritually cremated in extravagantly colorful rituals (ngaben).
- Galungan is a 10 day festival which comes around every 210 days and celebrates the death of the tyrant Mayadenawa. Gods and ancestors visit earth and are greeted with gift-laden bamboo poles called penjor lining the streets. The last day of the festival is known as Kuningan.
- Nyepi, or the Hindu New Year, also known as the day of absolute silence, is usually in March or April (next on March 31, 2014). If you are in Bali in the days preceding Nyepi, you will see amazing colorful giants (ogoh ogoh) being created by every banjar. On the eve of Nyepi, the ogoh ogoh are paraded through the streets, an amazing sight which is not to be missed. There are good reasons to avoid Nyepi as well, but for many visitors these will be outweighed by the privilege of experiencing such a unique festival. On Nyepi absolutely everything on the island is shut down between 6AM on the day of the new year and 6AM the following morning. Tourists are confined to their hotels and asked to be as quiet as possible for the day. After dark, light must be kept to a bare minimum. No one is allowed onto the beaches or streets. The only exceptions granted are for real emergency cases. The airport remains closed for the entire day, which means no flights into or out of Bali for 24 hr. Ferry harbours are closed as well. As the precise date of Nyepi changes every year, and isn’t finally set until later in the year before, flights will be booked by airlines for this day in case you book early. When the date is set, and as it gets closer, the airlines will alter their bookings accordingly. This may mean that you have to alter your accommodation bookings if your flight has been bought forward or back to cater for Nyepi day.
All national public holidays in Indonesia apply in Bali, although Ramadan is naturally a much smaller event here than in the country’s Muslim regions.
With its truly unique culture, Bali has inevitably been the subject of much attention from anthropologists, both amateur and professional. At a more informal level, much has been written about the island by interested visitors and artists in particular, some of whom made Bali their home. The following is a short list of such reading that would benefit any visitor before and during their visit to the island.
- Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light on the Morning of the World (Orchid Press, 2010), Jonathan Copeland and Ni Wayan Murni. The most up to date and comprehensive book on Bali. 60 chapters on Balinese life, religion, festivals and offerings, architecture, music, dance, textiles, dress, carvings and paintings, masks, manuscripts, meals and much, much more.
- Island of Bali (Periplus Classics Series), Miguel Covarrubias (author), Adrian Vickers (editor). When the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias wrote his outsider’s impression of Balinese life and culture in 1937, he surely could not have imagined that well into the next century his work would still be considered the most authoritative text on the subject. Absolutely vital reading, and it is astounding how little has changed in Bali since the time this book was written. More on Covarrubias’ time in Bali, including his wonderful paintings, can be found in the coffee table book Covarrubias in Bali (EDM Books) by Adrian Williams and Yu-Chee Chong.
- A Short History of Bali: Indonesia’s Hindu Realm (A Short History of Asia series), Robert Pringle. The history of Bali from pre-Bronze Age times to the start of the current millennium, and an examination of Bali’s importance and relevance to modern-day Indonesia.
- Bali Raw: An Expose of the Underbelly of Bali, Indonesia (Monsoon Books), Malcolm Scott. An Australian author, who lived in Bali for almost a decade, reveals the darker side of the island – the sometimes violent nightclub scene, rampant prostitution, the prevalence of AIDS and drug and alcohol-induced Western hooliganism.
- A Little Bit One O’clock: Living with a Balinese Family (Ersania Books), William Ingram. A whimsical, insightful, and at times very touching account of an expatriate American living with a Balinese family in the 1990s.
- The House of Our Ancestors (KITLV press), Thomas Reuter. Probably the most thorough (and readable) study of the Bali Aga, the pre-Majapahit indigenous Balinese.
- A House in Bali (Tuttle), Colin McPhee. A classically trained musician who was spellbound when he heard a recording of Balinese gamelan music, McPhee traveled to Bali in the 1930s and wrote this superb insight into local music, life and culture. Still very relevant reading.
Daytime temperatures are pleasant, varying between 20-33⁰ C (68-93⁰ F) year-round. From December to March, the west monsoon can bring heavy showers and high humidity, but days are still often sunny with the rains starting in the late afternoon or evening and passing quickly. From June to September, the humidity is low and it can be quite cool in the evenings. At this time of the year there is hardly any rain in the lowland coastal areas.
But be aware of flood along the beach from Tuban to Melasti (Kuta) because the drainage is not sufficient anymore in line with the development of occupying the land. The flood is not come in every year, but please don’t stay in the ground floor, because the one to two hours flood can reach your knee on the road in front of your hotel.
Even when it is raining across most of Bali, you can often enjoy sunny, dry days on the Bukit Peninsula which receives far less rain than any other part of the island. On the other hand, in central Bali and in the mountains, you should not be surprised by cloudy skies and showers at any time of the year.
Electricity is supplied at 220V 50Hz. Outlets are the European standard CEE-7/7 “Schukostecker” or “Schuko” or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 “Europlug” types. American and Canadian travellers should pack a voltage-changing adapter for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment (although a lot of electronics with power adapters will work on 220 volts, check your equipment first).