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 unparalleled number one tourist attraction.
The popularity is not without its flip sides — once paradisical Kuta has degenerated into a congested warren of concrete, touts and scammers live on overcharging tourists, and the island's visibility has even drawn the unwanted attention of terrorists in 2002 and 2005 — but Bali has managed to retain its magic. Bali is a wonderful destination with something for everyone, and though heavily traveled, it is still easy to find some peace and quiet if you like.
The first Hindus arrived on Bali as early as 100 BC, so it's easy to understand why the island has had some time to develop its own culture. Divided among a number of ruling rajas, occasionally batting off invaders from Java to the west and making forays to conquer Lombok to the east, the island was finally captured by the Dutch in a series of brutal wars from 1846 to 1849. Many Balinese chose death over disgrace and fought en masse until the bitter end, known as puputan. Victory was bittersweet and afterwards the Dutch largely left the Balinese to their own devices.
Bali joined the new republic of Indonesia in 1948, but was again largely ignored by the Java-based Sukarno and his cronies, leading to the spread of Communist thought on the island. This led to disaster after the failed 1965 coup d'etat, when the rivers ran red with the reprisal killings of suspected Communists — estimates of the toll vary from 50,000 to 200,000.
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, although Balinese Hinduism is so far removed from the original Indian variety that the casual eye will be hard put to spot any similarities. Every aspect of Balinese life is suffused with religion, but the most visible signs are the tiny offerings (sesajen) of flowers, glutinous rice and salt in little bamboo leaf trays, found in every Balinese house, restaurant, souvenir stall and airport check-in desk. They are set out and sprinkled with holy water no less then three times a day, before every meal.
Balinese dance and music are also justly famous. As on Java, the gamelan orchestra and wayang kulit shadow puppet theater predominate. Dances include:
There are an estimated 20,000 temples (pura) on the island, each of which holds festivals (odalan) at least twice a year, meaning that there are always festivities going on. Funerals are another occasion of pomp and ceremony, when the deceased are ritually cremated in extravagantly colorful rituals.
There are some large festivals celebrated islandwide, but their dates 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.
Nyepi is a very special day to the Balinese as this is the day that they have to fool all evil spirits that no-one is actually on Bali - hence the need for silence. If this can be achieved, then it is believed that the evil spirits will go looking elsewhere for their prey and leave Bali island alone for another year. Balinese people are very religious and life is full of ritual - Nyepi is one of the most important days in their calendar. Police and security are on hand to make sure that everyone abides by this rule.
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!
All national public holidays covered in Indonesia also apply, although Ramadan is naturally a much smaller event here than in the country's Muslim regions.
Bali is always warm, humid and tropical. The April-October dry season and November-March rainy seasons are only relative, with plenty of rainfall around the year, but the Balinese winter is cloudier, more humid and with a higher chance of thunderstorms.
A more important consideration is the tourist season, as Bali can get packed in July-August and again around Christmas and New Year's. Australians also visit during school holidays in early April, late June and late September, while Indonesians visit during national holidays. Outside these peaks, Bali can be surprisingly quiet and good discounts on accommodation are often available.
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. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travelers should pack an adapter for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Bali.
Balinese is linguistically distinct from Bahasa Indonesia, although the Indonesian lingua franca is spoken by practically everybody. In touristy regions English and some other foreign languages are widely spoken.
See also: Indonesian phrasebook
Most visitors will arrive at Denpasar's Ngurah Rai international airport, which has extensive domestic connections as well as direct flights throughout Asia and Australia. In the low-cost carriet set:
Note that if you are flying internationally out of Ngurah Rai, you are then subject to the airport tax (100,000 Rupiah as at Jan '06) which you would need to pay for in Rupiah so save some bills for the trip out. ATM machines are available at Airport Departure Lobby which accept Cirrus and Plus cards for withdrawals. The domestic tax is Rp. 30,000.
Some hotels organize transfer from the airport. Approximate price for getting from Ngurah Rai to Legian is 40 000 IDR
There are direct bus services to Bali from all major cities on Java as well as Lombok, which use the ferries to cross over. These are cheap and easy, but slow.
Bali's a fairly big island and you'll need a method to get around if you plan on exploring more than the hotel pool.
Metered taxis are very common in southern Bali up to Denpasar but not available elsewhere. The starting fee is Rp 5,000 for the first two km and the meter ticks up Rp 2,000 per kilometer afterwards. Waiting time is Rp 20,000 per hour. Trips outside southern Bali will incur an extra charge of 30%, as the driver has to go back empty — if day-tripping, it's often cheaper and more convenient to arrange for your driver to wait and take you back.
You may also rent a car with a driver for half a day or for the whole day in order to travel around the island. You pay appr. 375 000 IDR for the whole day and tell him what you want to see. The price is fixed and to be discussed before your trip.
Bemos, basically minivans which serve as a flexible bus service, are Bali's "traditional" form of transportation, but they have largely given way to metered taxis in the south. Fares on shared bemos can be very cheap, but drivers will often insist that foreign tourist charter the entire vehicle, in which case they'll usually ask for taxi prices or worse.
By car or motorbike
Car and motorbike rental is available, but may not be safe for drivers used to more formal traffic rules. Consider hiring a car and driver as you can relax, be safe, and not get lost.
Travel by bicycle is quite possible, and provides a very different cultural experience to other means of transport. You should bring your own touring bike, or buy locally – there is at least one well stocked bike shop in Denpasar, but with a racing/mountain bike focus. While traffic conditions may appear challenging at first, you can acclimatise after a few days, especially once you escape the chaotic heavy traffic of southern Bali.
Bali's best-known attractions are its countless Hindu temples. Even the smallest villages usually have at least three, but the nine directional temples (kayangan jagat) are the largest and most important. Uluwatu, at the southern tip of Bali, is easily accessed and hence the most popular, with Tanah Lot a close second. However, for the Balinese themselves, the "mother temple" of Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung is the most important of all.
Bali has a huge variety of cafes and restaurants, serving both Indonesian and international food; see Indonesia for a menu reader. Try the smaller local restaurants rather than touristy ones, the food is better- and cheaper.
Actual Balinese food, however, is comparatively rarely seen, and it has made few inroads in the rest of the country due to its emphasis on pork, which is anathema to the largely Muslim population in the rest of the country. Notable dishes include:
Not being Muslim, the Balinese have nothing against a drink and alcohol is widely available.
Indonesia's most popular beer Bintang is ubiquitous, but local brand Bali Hai is nearly as popular. Both are rather bland lagers, so if you want some taste in your beer look for the Bali-brewed microbrew Storm, available in several different flavors. Beer is, however, relatively expensive: at Rp. 10000 and up, a small bottle costs at least the same as a full meal in a “local” eatery.
Bali produces its own wines, with Hatten being the most popular brand, available in white, red, rose (most popular) and sparkling varieties. Quality can be inconsistent, but the red is usually OK and at least it's cheaper than imported wines, which can easily top Rp. 100,000 per bottle.
Bali's traditional drinks are arak, a clear distilled spirit that packs a 40° punch, and brem, a fermented rice wine sold in gift shops in attractive clay bottles that are much nicer than the taste of the stuff inside.
Tap water on Bali is not drinkable, but bottled water is universally available (Rp. 3000 or so per 1.5L bottle) and restaurants usually use purified water for cooking. "Filtered" water shops are also common, providing on-site treatment of the mains water to a potable standard. These shops are much cheaper than retail outlets, selling water for about Rp 5000 per 11 litre re-usable container, and avoid the waste created by plastic bottles.
Very cheap (app. 10 000 IDR) are fresh juices or their mixes (it can be water-melon, melon, papaya, orange, lime, banana or any other possible juice).
Bali has, without a doubt, the best range of accommodation in Indonesia. Backpackers tend to head for Kuta, which has the cheapest if also dingiest digs on the island, while many (but not all) five-star resorts are clustered in Nusa Dua. Seminyak, Sanur and Jimbaran offer a fairly happy compromise if you want beaches, nightlife and some quiet, while Ubud's hotels and resorts cater to those who prefer spas and cultural pursuits over surfing and booze.
Bali has been the scene of lethal terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, both waves of attacks targeting nightclubs and restaurants popular among foreign visitors. Security is consequently tight in obvious targets, but it is of course impossible to protect fully against terrorism. If it is any reassurance, the Balinese themselves — who depend on tourism for their livelihood — deplore the bombings and the terrorists behind them for the terrible suffering they have caused on this peaceful island. As a visitor, it is important to put the risk in perspective: the sad fact is that Bali's roads are, statistically, far more dangerous than even the deadliest bomb. It is still prudent to avoid high profile western hang-outs, especially those without security measures, and the paranoid or just security-conscious may wish to head out of the tourist enclaves of south Bali to elsewhere on the island.
Bali is increasingly enforcing Indonesia's harsh penalties against importation, exportation, trafficking and possession of illegal drugs, including marijuana, ecstasy and heroin. Several high profile arrests of Westerners have taken place in Bali since 2004, and a number have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms or execution. Even the possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use puts you at risk of a trial and prison sentence if searched.
The midday sun in Bali will fry the unwary traveller to a crisp, so slap on plenty of suntan lotion and drink lots of fluids. However, don't carry liters of water as you can buy a bottle virtually anywhere. The locals tend to stay away from the beaches until about two hours before sunset, when most of the fierceness has gone out of the sun.
Boat services run regularly to Lombok, Flores, and islands further east. Combined bus and ferry service will take you to Java destinations such as Yogyakarta, though the trip can be long on winding jungle lined roads.
Less than one hour, at the south-east of Bali lies Nusa Lembongan. From Sanur a ferry service can take you to this small and beautiful island. This island is a good place to go one or two days, if you want to get out of the touristic area from Bali. Along the beach you can find many small and cheap Homestays. Be aware you get wet feet getting in or out the ferry. And the island doesn´t have a Money Machine or Bank. Many people on this island live from farming seaweed. And the acres with the different coloured seaweed, just under the sealevel, makes a beautiful view.