I recently spent a month visiting Bali and the surrounding Indonesian islands. I visited during April-May, during the dry season, but before the peak tourist season in July and August. I based myself in Ubud and organized many excursions as day trips but also spent time visiting several of the islands close by. Based on my trip and the questions I've been asked by friends and followers, I have created a list of some helpful tips and suggestions for those planning their own Bali Adventure.
Practical Tips for Bali Travellers Before Leaving Home
Visit a travel medical clinic
Bali is a tropical location that is likely to have very different public health concerns than your home. There are recommended vaccines and medicines that can prevent or treat various illnesses. Consult with a travel medicine clinic about getting boosters for Hep B & C, various vaccines, and antidiarrheal medicines.
Buy Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is cheap peace-of-mind -- if you choose a policy that suits your needs. In a previous post, I discussed what you should be looking for when purchasing travel insurance. Read the fine print to find what is defined as "high-risk" activities. You may be surprised to find driving a motorcycle could be considered "high-risk" and provide the insurer an opportunity to deny a claim.
Get some strong insect repellent
The major tourist areas get sprayed regularly to control mosquitos but the climate and geography of Bali is perfect for mosquito breeding. Jungles and rice-fields often include standing water where using insect repellent and wearing long sleeves can prevent most bites. Malaria is not considered a concern in Bali but there are other serious mosquito-borne illnesses such as Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever. Even if you're not worried about the illnesses, no one needs to be itchy and scratching.
Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Most sunscreens include chemicals that are harmful to coral and reef marine life. Sunscreen can be bought in many locations but much of what is available is not official reef-safe formulas. If you are going to be snorkelling or diving bring enough from home.
Get an e-SIM
Most new phones accept e-SIMS. These are easily pre-installed at home. Once you arrive simply connect to the airport WIFI and activate. Having consistent access to WhatsApp and your mapping programs will prove to be invaluable. I used Airalo with no issues. The cost for the e-SIM was much less than anything my home provider could offer.
Pre-install useful apps
WhatsApp is used for all text and voice communications. The Gojek and Grab apps are ride-hailing apps for cabs or motorbikes. Drivers will also pick up and deliver food and other retail items. The apps are similar but can differ in price and driver availability, so having both can be convenient. I often used these apps when haggling with drivers about fares.
Research Visa Requirements
Check if you need a visa for Indonesia by visiting the Indonesian government website. Most nationalities are able to get a ‘Visa-Free Travel’ upon arrival in Bali. This is a single entry 30-day visa which is not extendable. If you want to stay longer than 30 days, you need to apply for a different type of visa. Follow the dates on your visa. According to the official website, those overstaying can be fined 1 000 000 IDR (about $100 CAD) per day. Those who overstay their visa by more than 60 days can be imprisoned for up to 5 years. I did the visa process online at home. I sailed through the arrival line-up at Denpasar when virtually everyone else on my plane were lined up at the Visa desk, filling out forms.
Packing Tips for Bali Travellers
You will want light clothing. When I visited, temperatures were consistently hovering about 30 C with 80% or higher humidity. Include one set of warmer clothes if you are planning on trekking in mountainous areas, especially any sunrise treks. A long-sleeved shirt and pants or a strong DEET-based insect repellent will help prevent mosquito bites when visiting jungle areas and rice fields. A hat will help protect against heat stroke. You'll also want some more modest options for visiting temples and sacred places. While the locals wear flip-flops, you will be thankful for some sturdy footwear for the stair and trail climbing that is required to visit many waterfalls and beaches. Even though I was visiting during dry season, there was a fair amount of rain. There was some rain almost every day. There were a couple of big storms complete with thunder and lightning. The rain episodes were often a short cloudburst surrounding by light rain. During the worst of the rain, I just stopped for coffee. During the light rains, I carried on, finding the rain quite refreshing. The sun would soon return and the clothes I wore dried very fast in the heat. I didn't feel the need for a waterproof jacket but others may disagree.
If you are planning moving around to multiple locations (especially if you will be visiting other islands), I suggest under-packing. Many boats have little room for luggage -- which will be stored on top of the boat. The crowded boarding process will make moving large or multiple cases a nightmare. I had a very generous luggage allowance of 2 large checked cases, a carry-on and a personal item but chose to take just my 20" hard-sided case and carry-on. I congratulated myself when watching others struggle with their luggage.
If you forget or lose something, you will likely be able to find a replacement. Bali has been influenced by foreigners. International favourites (especially from Asia and Australia) are widely available. Clothes appropriate to the climate are available in markets and shops at low cost.
Drop & Dash Launderettes are everywhere in Bali. In Ubud, there was at least one on every block. It is very affordable and is usually ready by the following day, clean, carefully folded, and smelling wonderful.
Apoteks (pharmacies), herbalists, and large supermarkets sell all the toiletries you are likely to need. Ubud also has many organic and health food stores, such as Bali Buda, that specialize in products made from local natural ingredients.
Bring Type C or F power adaptors. This is the same style plug that is used in Western Europe. I have quite a collection of adaptors so I packed several that I already own. If you are buying new, I urge you to look for one that accepts multiple inputs, including USB options. More traditional guesthouses and homestays may have limited outlets. I needed to rotate charging my laptop, fitbit, phone, and camera as there were only 3 outlets inside my room, with only one that was easily used. I found myself unplugging the mini-fridge and using outdoor outlets when my charging needs were heavy.
It's also a good idea to bring some toilet paper for touring around. While there is sure to be a "bum gun" (a water spray nozzle) it is much less certain that paper is provided. When using a toilet, look around. If there is a rubbish bin beside the toilet this is where the used paper goes. There are areas on the island where using paper will block the toilet. That's an experience you really don't need.
Bring, or plan to buy upon arrival, a reusable shopping bag and a refillable water bottle. The disposal of plastic is a huge issue on Bali and the surrounding islands. Recycling programs are extremely rare and inadequate. The majority of residences outside the main city have no garbage collection. The tap water is not potable and you will need to buy water. Buy the biggest size possible and refill your own bottle. Most supermarkets do not offer bags with your purchase.
Cultural Tips for Bali Travellers
Bali is different than other Indonesian islands
Indonesia has 6 000 islands, Bali is just one. One of the most noticeable difference is that most Balinese are Hindu. While the belief system is the same as India's Hinduism, the rituals of Balinese Hinduism are unique. Sidewalks are littered with offerings, try to avoid stepping or kicking them while walking. Most residential homes are compounds with a wall surrounding several buildings that include serve different purposes (cooking, sleeping, etc) as well as a family temple. There are literally thousands of temples in Bali from the small household temples to the grand temples such as Uluwatu and Ulan Danu Beratan.
Take some time to learn a bit about the history and traditions of Bali and Indonesia to help you to appreciate the culture. Learn a few words in Indonesian and some simple ways of showing respect. Give and receive using your right hand. Dress modestly in temples and sacred places to create positive connections.
You will not be able to visit every temple in Bali, there are simply too many. While each is unique there are also many features which are consistent to all. For some, temple fatigue is real. You might want to choose one or two temples where you will spend a good amount of time. Take time to notice the details and intricacies while asking lots of questions. Appreciate fewer but with greater attention.
Tourism and a thriving ex-pat community have influenced much of Balinese society. Bali has embraced some "western" standards, making it more comfortable for many visitors. English is widely spoken almost everywhere on the island. The Balinese are comfortable with foreigners and tourists. Tourism is a huge part of the local economy and most of the major attractions are very touristy, with hordes of social media models. The most touristy areas, not surprisingly, are the areas where tourists outnumber locals, like Kuta, Seminyak, and Canggu and any of the places that are hugely popular on Instagram. Try to go to popular places first thing in the morning. Not only will you avoid crowds but the early morning light is often stunning. Ask locals which beaches, waterfalls, restaurants, or services they visit.
There are many choices for accommodations from eco-resorts and yoga retreats to luxurious resorts and backpacker hostels. To get a real feel for authentic Balinese life, consider using a homestay guesthouse. These safe family compounds usually include large and comfortable "bungalow style' rooms with plenty of privacy, excellent breakfasts, great locations, and strong and secure WIFI. Many also have pools, motorcycle rentals, and will help organize tours and make local recommendations.
Bali is cash-based
Cash is king in Bali. Many smaller shops, markets, and restaurants only operate in cash. Many homestays and guesthouses do not accept credit cards. Any service that does accept cards will usually add a 3% surcharge to your purchase. Small cash-only fees are charged to visit beaches, for parking, and as entrance fees to tourist sites. Private drivers only accept cash. Smaller bills are most convenient for many purchases. Taxi drivers may claim they don't have change for larger bills.
Tips are expected for most personalized services such as tours, massages, and drivers. Many restaurants will add a service charge to your bill. Check before adding another tip. Private day drivers are usually tipped plus it is expected that you will pay for their lunch.
Almost every retail price can be negotiated down to at least 50% of whatever is quoted. In the markets, you may be able to haggle it down to 24-30% of the original price. When there are fixed prices, that is usually made very clear. Services can usually be negotiated down but only 10-20%. ATMs are widely available on the island but only use the ones located outside a bank. Most will not allow large withdrawals and charge a significant additional fee. When heading to more remote areas, get cash before leaving the urban area to avoid any issues.
There are no public transportation options. If you do not rent a motorcycle or car, you will need hire a driver. There are many private drivers available (contact Jai at Bali Kevala-Instagram for one of the best) as well as taxis and ride-sharing options. If you choose to self-drive, the official law requires an International Driver's License, although no one that I spoke to was asked to show theirs.
Plan on every journey to take longer than expected. Traffic, road conditions, and routing affect every journey. From central Ubud to the Denpasar airport is a mere 37 km but that trip will take at least 1.5 hours in "light" traffic.
Bali is one of the safest Asian destinations for travellers but some vigilance is still required. I travelled as a retired, solo, female traveller and never experienced feeling unsafe. The Balinese culture values being good to others and avoiding conflict but that doesn't mean that there is a lack of crime.
Tourism brings in a lot of money and that attracts all kinds of bad actors looking for easy opportunities. Theft is the number one crime against tourists. Stealing valuables from hotel rooms, especially in tourist centers, and pickpocketing are becoming more common.
When crossing streets, you will likely be dodging between cars, trucks, and scooters. Do not assume traffic will make room for you. Watch for motorcycles that will swerve around stopped traffic by going into the opposite traffic lane, weaving between larger vehicles, or will even hop up onto the sidewalk
Bali is an island surrounded by incredible beaches and unpredictable surf conditions. When arriving at a busy beach always look for a flag. A red flag is put out when conditions are dangerous and swimming is prohibited. A green flag indicates the surf is safe and a lifeguard is on duty. Even with these flags, many beaches get sudden undercurrents. Swim in the designated areas marked with yellow flags. Quieter beaches will not have flags or lifeguards. Be cautious and aware of your ability to recognize dangerous swimming conditions. If you aren't a strong swimmer, stick to protected coves and avoid strong surf.
Don’t do drugs in Bali
Drug possession and usage is treated very strictly in Indonesia. Possession of drugs, (including marijuana and mushrooms) can result in 5 to 15 years in prison. Bringing drugs into Bali is a death penalty offence. Drug laws include prohibitions on most narcotics and opiates. Check the restrictions if you require these for medical conditions. You will need an official letter from your doctor and approval from the Indonesian embassy prior to arrival
Follow local laws, even if the locals don't
Corruption amongst police is not uncommon. Do not give them a reason to give you attention. If driving, follow the laws, not the common behaviour. If you do rent a motorbike, wear a helmet and have a proper motorcycle license to rent a vehicle over 150cc. Locals seem to get away without using helmets and many motorbike rental services will rent smaller motorbikes and scooters and never ask for your license but the official law is that an International Driver's License is required. If you do get stopped by police, you can be fined with payment demanded on the spot.
Hopefully these tips will help you to plan a smooth and comfortable trip to Bali. Be sure to check out my other Indonesia posts to get ideas on places to visit and experiences to enjoy. For those who have travelled to Bali, I'd love to know what tips you would add so let me know in the comments.
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