Bali is a misunderstood island. People in the United States think of it as a highly exotic, mystical destination bordering on fantasy. In Southeast Asia, many think of it as overly touristy, especially in recent years (thanks a lot Eat, Pray, Love.) The rich and famous in Asia think of it as their private get-away, where they retreat to their massive 5 star resorts- never to discover the soul of Bali. The Balinese think of it as a wonderful home, but also as a place many of them never get the chance to leave. What we found, was an incredible culture overflowing with ceremonies and traditions. An island filled with people that are always willing to talk to an eager stranger, and offer insight into what life in Bali is really all about. People without the social nuances and strange coldness that so many westerners seem to guard their conversations with. There was a level of genuineness that was refreshing, and it’s something the Balinese seem to possess instinctually.
One of my favorite aspects of travel is its ability to destroy stereotypes; many which I often have no idea I withhold. Mine are rarely negative stereotypes, but prior to the experience, I do tend to have a certain level of expectation for what it will be like. More often than not, my ‘imagined destination’ and the ‘real destination,’ are drastically different, which has taught me my most important rule in traveling: don’t expect anything.
I headed to Bali with this mindset, and was unbelievably blown away. That said, to get the most out of your Bali trip, you need to have the right approach, or you can end up stuck in the tourist traps and never discover the soul of this beautiful island. There was so much we didn’t get to do which we would have liked to (the result of a short window away from work for our trip), but here’s our three-step tried and tested approach to visiting Bali.
1. Get out of your resort (even if it is really-ridiculously-amazing!):
Trust me, I know, the resorts are super-duper nice. But don’t forget, Bali is a big island, and there is a lot to see! We’re lucky enough to stay at outstanding Secret Retreats properties when we travel, and believe me, we enjoy them. But we use them as a base: we relax at the end of a long day, we indulge in the cuisine, we take early morning dips in the pool, and if we really want to splurge, we get massages. But that still leaves basically the entire day to get out and explore. There are temples, markets, active volcanos (highly recommended), monkey forests, white water rafting, yoga classes, cooking classes, and of course, surfing. Depending on how much time you have, the sky is the limit on what you can do in Bali. The culture you’ll soak in and the relationships you’ll make with the Balinese are experiences no resort in the world can replace, so don’t be a hermit crab and stay in your room.
2. Talk to the locals:
I’ll admit, at some destinations this is difficult: Bali is not one of them. The people are smily, open, and friendly. Many speak English due to the tourism boom, and they are excited about sharing their stories and culture with you. We learned the Balinese family naming system (there are essentially only 4 names given), traditions associated with the holiday that was going on, and how Bali had changed in the past ten years: all on the way to our hotel from the airport! Morale of the story- the Balinese are not a shy, withdrawn group of people. When we first arrived in Bali we felt incredibly lucky that we arrived while ceremonies were occurring. “What a great chance to see the culture!”, we thought. It was, but luck wasn’t really the answer. We quickly discovered that in Bali, rarely a day goes by in which their is not a ceremony or tradition being practiced. They are some of the most devout Hindus on the planet, and truly a remarkable group of people to witness and interact with.
3. Eat & Drink Balinese Style:
This one is kind of a no-brainer, as I try to practice “eating like a local” no matter where I go. However, Bali is one of those places that it’s not only worth doing to experience the culture, it’s also flat out delicious! The entire experience is fun and delectable. Balinese cuisine tends to offer a range of smaller dishes, which for a wanna-be foody like myself is perfect, because you get to try a wide range of cuisine in a single meal. Sweet, savory, spicy; it’s all their, and it’s all amazing. Please, and I mean PLEASE, don’t go to Bali and order a burger! I will have to officially take away your Lifetime Adventurer Card.
There it is, our Three-Point Bali Rule Guide. Trust me, there is so much more we wish we could have done, but even if we’d have had a month in Bali, we still would have only scratched the surface.