The Indonesian island of Bali is one of Southeast’s Asia’s most well known tourist spots. It often has praise heaped upon it and can be marketed as a paradise. This creates expectations that aren’t always achievable! But look beyond those and there are some great places to explore here. In this post I look at my experience backpacking Bali solo. I will look at both the positives and negatives and give my honest views.
The first thing to make clear is that Bali is a large island and there a lot of places that cater to tourists here. I didn’t see them all but I did visit a few that had attracted my interest whilst doing my own research. Bali attracts all kinds of different visitors. Personally I was backpacking Bali as part of a longer trip in Indonesia and the wider region. This gave me time to see a few places on the island, but there were plenty I didn’t get to. This is why I want to talk in this post about my own experience’s backpacking Bali, rather than try to do a catch all post and fall short. However I will also mention other places that people backpacking Bali have told me about. So you can do further research if you think you will have the time to visit them.
What I liked about backpacking Bali
One of my big highlights of backpacking Bali was the local culture. The main religion here is Hinduism, and I found it really interesting to see how it had developed locally. The local culture here is quite distinct, especially as Bali has remained Hindu despite the rest of Indonesia officially following Islam. The history of the place is important in this, when Sumatra and Java were turning to Islam in 14th century CE Bali became a stronghold for Hindu’s. This led to the development of the unique Balinese culture, and they still maintain their traditions.
In particular the Balinese temple sites were great to visit. I saw so many awesome statues and Balinese Hindu designs. There was a really nice variance between the temples too. I found the temples were sufficiently different to teach other to make it worth visiting several. Compared to the other Hindu temples in the Southeast Asia region the ones in Bali definitely have their own unique flavour.
The scenery (outside of urban areas)
A with the rest of Indonesia I enjoyed the scenery here too, particularly the volcanoes. Of course as specified in the heading above by ‘scenery’ i’m talking about areas away from the towns. The countryside in particular, but also some of the coastline.
After visiting Mount Bromo on Java I was keen to see another here and Mount Batur was fun to visit. And whilst it was shut for visitors to get up close, to be able to admire Mount Agung from afar was great too.
And the rice fields did not disappoint, despite being over touristy in some areas! They do look very nice, particularly the terraces. It was also good when driving long distances (particularly from Ubud to Amed) to see how green the countryside was. There were some fantastic views to be had out of the mini van window!
The food across Indonesia is nice and enjoyable. And even though Bali has lots of western influence there is plenty of great Asian style dishes to be found. I thought the food I had here was generally a good standard. Particularly in Ubud, there are some great restaurants there. The Earth Cafe in Ubud has a really awesome variety of plant based food to choose from. And in places like Amed and Sanur I ate at some really good beach facing restaurants. It was nice to enjoy the food with a Bintang, the Indonesian beer that is sold pretty much everywhere.
What I didn’t like about backpacking Bali
Taxi Drivers dominating the island
One of the main things I really did not like about backpacking Bali is just how much I was hassled by taxi drivers. It seemed that in Ubud I literally could not walk more than 5 meters without being asked if I needed a taxi. And it was pretty bad elsewhere too. All the hostels will tell you to order taxi’s by Grab to save money, but there are so many ‘no go’ areas for Grab in Bali that you end up having to pay (unofficially) them extra anyway. The ‘no go’ areas are because the local taxi drivers will force them out if they see them. If your unaware, Grab is basically the Southeast Asian Uber.
It grew frustrating because it felt like every time I wanted do go anywhere I would have to deal with the taxi drivers, even if I wasn’t planning to take one. They basically presumed that if you were walking you needed a taxi, and would honk or shout at you.
Too much traffic
Particularly in the south of the island Bali has a big problem with traffic. There seemed to be a never ending stream of cars and motorbikes in many parts of the island. This was really disappointing to see. Obviously this can be issue across much of Southeast Asia. In big cities like Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur they have this problem too. But the difference is they are big cities of millions of people so you anticipate that. I know Bali’s capital Denpasar has close to a million people so I expected a lot of traffic around there. But it seemed to spread out across the rest of the island too. It was difficult to get away from it and that’s why it was so noticeable.
No doubt part of it is linked with the amount of Taxi drivers as alluded to in my previous complaint. Public transport and mini vans seemed to be in short supply. If they could develop their public transport infrastructure more, it would go along way to helping clear up the traffic on the island.
The attitude of some other backpackers was disappointing
Another thing I didn’t like was the attitude of some of the other backpackers. To be clear i’m not talking about everyone, but a noticeable minority. Some of it was about how party focused some of the backpackers were. Similar to Southern Thailand and Cambodia there seemed to be areas where other backpackers were far more interested in drinking and laying around in the sun than exploring the area. Whilst that in itself isn’t the problem there does tend be tendency amongst these types to be disrespectful to other backpackers that don’t follow the same mould. As someone more interested in exploring nature and culture it was disheartening to see a minority of others being dismissive about that.
Honestly this was expected due to the fact the island is home to Kuta. That place is infamous for its drunken tourist behaviour. Still it was just disappointing to experience. There are of course plenty of nice people who visit the island too. This criticism shouldn’t be seen as judgement of everyone! Its specifically about those who are disdainful of anyone who isn’t doing the same as them.
Unsustainable tourist growth
Finally I didn’t like how unsustainable some of the tourist industry is here. As with many other places in Southeast Asia there is too much focus on short term gain rather than long term sustainability. There is a general lack of understanding amongst local business people that if they over build then they actually damage the attraction of a place. And of course the environmental impact is disturbing! I feel like there needs to be more focus on sustainable tourism, and less on building big hotels.
Obviously as a visitor myself I’m not telling them to stop tourism. That would be rather hypocritical. My point is that if they keep building at this current rate what appeals about Bali will be lost in a swam of concrete. There need to be more long term solutions found that will protect Bali’s natural environment. They need to develop different methods, not relying on huge resorts but more environmentally friendly buildings.
Where I went whilst backpacking Bali
My main focus when I was backpacking Bali was to see the cultural highlights, as well as some natural beauty. I’ve listed here the places I visited and what I though of them. I’ve also given some advice should you be planing to go backpacking Bali yourself.
Arrival (and departure)
I came across the Bali by ferry from Java. I took this from Banyuwangi. It docks at Gilimanuk, the crossing time is pretty short. The boat journey was pretty rocky, in fact the ferry actually bumped into another whilst trying to dock. I caught a bus straight to Denpasar which was thoroughly unpleasant due to how crowded it was. I’d actually boarded the bus at the harbour in Banyuwangi. If your doing this yourself I recommend you find a bus before you go into the harbour terminal. That way you can actually get a decent one and not just whatever they have to offer! It took about 3 and half hours. From Denpasar I took a taxi to Ubud. Taxi is the main method of transportation on Bali, though hostels and guesthouses offer some shuttle van services too.
Leaving Bali I flew from Ngurah Rai International Airport. I actually came through here three times. The first and second were for domestic flights to and from Flores to explore the Komodo Islands. The final was an international flight to Malaysia. I felt the airport is really impressive. The organisation for the domestic flights was rather confusing, but internationally it was spot on. The reason was the domestic flights was so confusing is because they are constantly delayed. This appears to be nationwide issue, and a common one at that. If your flying domestically yourself be aware they kept kept changing the departure date too. Keep alert to where you need to be.
Ubud – Bali’s cultural hub
Ubud is generally regarded as the cultural centre of Bali. It is a good base for doing tours around the surrounding area too. Its popular with tourists as a place to experience Balinese arts and traditions. And when I say its popular I also means its very busy. The streets are full of tourists day and night. And the surrounding sites that you can visit are usually busy too.
I actually found the town centre a bit unpleasant at first, as previously mentioned tourists get a lot of hassle from taxi drivers here. And all the pavements were dug up and there was traffic everywhere. To be honest given the peaceful harmonic reputation Ubud has I was rather shocked at how chaotic it was! But I did like the temples and restaurant inside the town area, which helped balance it out. And generally seeing all the Hindu statues and artwork dotted around. The area has a lot of cool places to see. Taking a day tour was a definite highlight. We were showed different types of temples across the region. And the Tegallalang Rice Terraces are beautiful, even if you do have to pay to go and take photos.
Generally i’d say the centre of Ubud town requires some exploration to find it’s nice parts. The first impression can be a sour one but it improves from then on! And the area as a whole is a good one to explore. So overall my view of the Ubud area is a positive one, although the town centre itself was a bit of a let down.
Climbing Mount Batur
This popular trip from Ubud can be done in a morning. I have listed it separately here from the above as it is actually quite far out from the Ubud area. You leave Ubud around 2am and be taken to the volcano site, where guides will take your group up for sunrise. An alternative way to visit is to Kintamani and then take a tour from there. You have to go by guide, the locals will prevent you from trekking it without one. This volcano is active so make sure you check before you go that it is safe to do so. The hike is reasonably demanding for the average person. So be prepared to sweat and put the hard work in.
After sunrise you can look around with your guides. You can check out the crater here and also get a good view over Lake Batur and the Black Lava field. This is the legacy of a previous eruption. For me this was really cool and interesting to see.
This trek was a big highlight of my experience backpacking Bali and I definitely am glad I did it. Whilst in Indonesia I also visited Mount Bromo which I had enjoyed as well. The nation is famous for it’s volcanoes and it was great to be able to visit two of them.
Amed and taking a boat to the Gili Islands
The north east of Bali contains a row of villages collectively known as ‘Amed‘ This is a good place to relax for a night or two before catching a boat to the Gili Islands. I really appreciated it after being in the very busy Udud. It has a much more relaxed feel to it. The Amed beach itself is a black sand/pebble one. Whilst this may not make it as attractive to some I personally liked its charm.
I enjoyed spending some time walking along the beach and relaxing before heading on one of the fast boats to the Gili Islands. There are 3 in total. It was Gili Air that I visited, taking a boat directly there. I booked this boat from one of the agencies in Amed. There are several and it can be hard to figure out which one is offering the best deal, so shop around a bit. The Gili islands are a really nice place. I would definitely recommend anyone backpacking Bali sets asides some time to visit the Gili’s.
The Uluwatu temple is the main attraction in this area and is really worth a visit. It has an awesome setting on a cliff edge. These coastal views are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Its popular to see a Kecak Fire Dance here at sunset. These dances are a cultural highlight of Bali and I felt this temple was a great place to see one. Ubud is another area which is popular for them and I thought about attending a show there. But i’m glad I went in Uluwatu instead because the cliff edge setting made it extra special.
The other thing here to watch out for is the monkeys. They are notorious for their ability to barter. By which I mean they steal sunglasses and other items and only return them in exchange for food! I saw it happening several times in the evening I spent here. Never underestimate a monkey.
As well as the temple there are some great beaches here. Its a popular place for surfers with some of the islands best waves. I visited Padang-Padang and Thomas beach here. The walk between the two gave a good opportunity to see some of the views across the cliffs. It was cool to see, the cliffs are so steep in this area. It was awesome to watch the surfers too. There are plenty of other beaches in the area too. So if you have the time and want some beach relaxation this is a good place for it.
Tanah Lot and Taman Ayun Temples
These 2 temples on the western side of Bali were great and I enjoyed visiting them. Tanah Lot is a popular one, due to it’s setting and location. The temple rock is actually just off the coastline in the sea, so is spectacular to look at. It’s not far from the Kuta area and gets a lot of visitors. Taman Ayun is a bit more quite and I found it quite peaceful. These 2 temples are definitely good ones to combine into a day trip. You could do it from close by such as Canggu or Seminyak , or further out like Ubud or Denpasar. I did this from Canggu, though all I really saw there was the beach at sunset.
These 2 temples really impressed me and i’m glad I decided to see them together as a day trip. It as much the location for each that attracts tourists to them as it is the temple features. This is one of the things that impressed about the temples on Bali in general. A nice variety of locations meaning each temple had a different feel to it. I know some backpackers complain about getting ‘templed out’ whilst exploring Southeast Asia,. There is a lot of temples after all. But not me, I love how varied they are across the region. So the great variety of temples on Bali were a real highlight for me.
This part of Bali is generally regarded as being for an ‘older crowd’. What this means in reality is that it’s aimed at families and older couples, not younger backpackers who want to party all night. They have the Kuta area for that. It essentially is a long coastal strip which has many restaurants and hotels along the beach side. The pace of life is pretty slow here. Though i did frustrated as locals trying to sell me things at particular points along the beach side. One woman was actively trying to get me to go into a certain restaurant and visit her shop afterwards. I had to tell her to stop following me and leave me alone. Most of the others accepted no for an answer. A couple were more persistent though, so I just had to ignore them and walk onward.
This was my last stop backpacking Bali and it was a decent place to relax. I was heading to the big city of Kula Lumpur in Malaysia next so I wanted to enjoy some quite time. It was nice to sit in the restaurants looking out towards the sea and enjoy some food and a beer. There wasn’t much else to do other than that. I did a lot of reading! Truth was I was fed up of dealing with all the traffic and taxi’s elsewhere. So it was nice just to go sit for a few hours with a sea view. And when I got to Kula Lumpur i was raring to go and do lots of tourist stuff, so it definitely helped me recharge.
What I missed (and why)
I deliberately skipped Kuta and Seminyak when I was backpacking Bali. Kuta is particularly known as a hardcore party spot and that wasn’t something I was interested in. Seminyak is just north of Kuta and maintains some of it’s party vibe. When I was looking through hostels here they largely seemed party orientated or aimed at digital nomads. I didn’t think it was worth a visit when I just wanted to relax so opted for the slow pace of Sanur instead. To be honest though understandably Seminyak would be attractive to most people backpacking Bali to socialise and meet people. And if i’d had more energy for that I probably would have opted for a couple of nights there. But I was more in the mood to see some culture and chill out before I headed to my next destination, so gave it a miss.
Lovina in the north is somewhere I will check out if I ever find myself passing through Bali again. Its known for its black sand beaches and opportunities to see dolphins. Munduk as well, the Tamblingan Lake and surrounding countryside are supposedly very nice. I just didn’t have the time to get up there.
I also didn’t get to visit Nusa Penida or Nusa Lembongan. These two island are just off Bali’s east coast. The former is particularity popular with those backpacking Bali at current. Particularly for its scenic views. I didn’t visit as I felt I would have been quite rushed and I preferred to recharge before I headed to my next country. One of those situations where I knew I was missing out but needed the relaxation time. So again if I travel to this part of the world in the future I would want to get across to these 2 places.
Social media and Bali
In my post about Ubud I have written about the negative impact of social media in terms of expectations about Bali. In that post I talked in particular about the Ubud area but the same can go for Bali as a whole. Unfortunately social media can often over glamorise places in travel. The images that are shared are not really reflective of the reality there. This is of course is a world wide phenomenon. But I think Bali in particular suffers from it a lot.
What I feel the problem is that so much of what is shared about Bali is of the expensive resorts and hotels. These places are really for those with a lot of cash to spend, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that it doesn’t really reflect what the island is actually like. Other images tend to show glorious sunsets, empty beaches/temples and pools in the jungle. This just isn’t the reality of whats actually there. They are normally choreographed pictures, i’d suspect a lot taken very early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
If your backpacking Bali expecting to see the kinds of things that come up as the top images on Instagram your going to be disappointing. To be clear I have no problem with people posting these photos. People should post what they like on Instagram. Its just the other side of Bali doesn’t seem to get much attention online. I just feel that if you go Bali expecting its to be all sunsets and beautiful beaches then you will be in for a shock. A good deal of time spent backpacking Bali involves negotiating with tax drivers, sitting in traffic jams and pushing past crowds to get a good photo.
My mixed views on solo backpacking Bali
Its rather pricey (compared to the rest of Southeast Asia)
I found Bali to pretty expensive compared to other parts of Southeast Asia, and not necessarily any ‘better’. When your a solo backpacker budget does often feature and I don’t think Bali is as worth it as other Asian locations. Don’t misunderstand me – I still think it’s a nice place to visit. It was just a bit frustrating to be paying double or triple that of what you would elsewhere for the same kind of quality. Even within Indonesia itself Bali is probably two or three times more expensive than the majority of other tourist areas.
Whilst I normally don’t let the price of things bother me after awhile in Bali it was starting to get me down a little. This is no doubt because of the amount of time I’ve previously spent backpacking other parts of Asia. I’m sure for many who visit Bali it isn’t a problem at all. And to be honest I shouldn’t of really let it bother me. It was mainly sparked by endless negotiations with taxi drivers! It can be quite draining to spend so much time haggling over what is supposed to be a set price.
Its not really set up for solo backpackers
I felt that Solo backpackers weren’t as common in Bali as in other parts of Southeast Asia. So to me that had an effect on the feeling of the place. Where as in say Vietnam or Malaysia there is a big solo backpacking scene I felt in Bali it was more appealing to couples or groups. I did meet several other solo backpackers and it was good to socialise with them. But whereas in other Southeast Asian countries it’s common to make plans and do activities with other travellers you meet this didn’t really seem to happen for me in Bali. Doing tours together was a good way to hang out. And I did get food together with people sometimes. But other than than that it seemed people mainly stuck to their own paths. The groups in particular didn’t seem to have that openness to others that I’ve experienced elsewhere.
Taxi’s again were a frustration here to. In fact general lack of transportation options were. In many other parts of Southeast Asia there are an abundance of mini vans and buses that will get you where you need to go. But for those backpacking Bali these are rather limited and often taxi is your only option (unless you rent and drive a motorbike yourself). These taxi prices are always by car as well, so solo backpackers end up paying more than those in a group. I did take mini van options when available but that was probably only around 50% of the time. I definitely spent more than expected on taxi’s.
But it’s still a cool place
These things wouldn’t stop be recommending Bali to anyone. It’s a cool place to visit. I just feel I don’t have that love for Bali that so many others proclaim. I did enjoy it though, especially spotting all the Hindu imagery everywhere. That was very fun and made going around the island enjoyable despite all the traffic everywhere. I wasn’t too impressed by the beaches but I did find the volcanoes and the countryside were amazing. They definitely made up for what I found lacking beach wise. Though I fully admit i’m not so much a beach person, so perhaps you would think different!
What I recommend for any backpacking Bali trip
In general I would recommend about 2 weeks for seeing Bali and the Gili islands.
- Start off in Ubud and spend around 4 to 5 nights here. Do a day trip around the local area and join a sunrise trek up Mount Batur
- Head over to Amed for a night and enjoy a stroll along the beach at sunset
- Take a boat to the Gili islands. Gili Air is a good place for 3 nights to relax
- Head back to Bali and go down to Uluwatu for 2 nights
- Take a trip to the west coast for 2 nights. Take a day trip to visit to Tanah Lot and Taman Ayun
- Pop over to Sanur to relax before you depart. If you get the chance (and have the energy) visit Nusa Penida
Obviously this is based on where I visited when backpacking Bali. I’ve mentioned I didn’t make it up north so perhaps if you are planning your own trip that is somewhere you could consider.
For me this gives a good mixture of culture and nature. By all means take longer and get up north to see the places I didn’t get to! Personally I was doing this trip as part of a 1 month tour of Indonesia. For me priorities also included Yogyakarta and Mount Bromo on Java. And the Komodo Islands off of Flores. If your backpacking Bali as part of a wider Indonesia trip be sure to research first to maximise your time spent here.
Overall would say I enjoyed backpacking Bali. I don’t think it lives up to the hype. But I don’t think it’s really possible for it to do so. Overall the positives outweighed the negatives. So pushing unrealistic expectations aside, it’s a fun island to explore with a great culture and some nice scenery. As a fan of Southeast Asian temples there are some really great ones here. Mount Batur was awesome to visit and the cliffs at Uluwatu were breathtaking.
If the opportunity arose to visit again I would do so. Though I wouldn’t want to specifically come just to see Bali, it would need to be part of a trip across the wider region. I would like to see more of the north and get across to Nusa Penida for sure. These won’t be at the top of my global bucket-list, or even my regional one. But they do interest me.
I would to say that if you are on an extended trip throughout the Southeast Asia region then you may wish to limit your time on Bali. It’s definitely worth some time but there are other parts of Indonesia that just as fun (if not more!). For example the city of Yogyakarta is full of culture with access to the two amazing temples, and is a lot cheaper than Bali. Perhaps a better way to phrase this is that I would recommend including Bali as part of a trip exploring Indonesia but not as the main focus. Its a great island but Indonesia as a whole is a great country, and Bali is no more deserving of a visit than several other places here.