Back in 2012 I traveled to nine countries in Asia. I’m starting to share all my adventures under the travel section. Want a cheap and beautiful destination? Head to Laos. Still trying to save up to travel? Here are a few tips! Also, several images from Bali are for sale digitally here.
Happy Monday! Last week, I shared a Seasoned View of Bali because exactly four years ago that’s where my little feet landed. What a magical week! Before going to Bali, I balked at the idea. I had thought of Bali as one huge resort. That’s just the vibe I got from the few times I heard about it. Well, I was hella wrong. Yes, there’s a couple overcrowded and commercialized areas on the southern tip of Bali, but other than that the island is my definition of paradise. I only had a week to explore Bali, so I headed straight for the heart of it, Ubud, and what I experienced captivated me. I haven’t stopped thinking about Bali since. I can’t wait to go back and explore the entire island (especially the northern parts) by motorbike. One day, one day, these are what my daydreams are made of…
I reiterate this every time I write a post on travel, so here’s the usual spiel: I struggle when it comes to writing travel guides and destination spotlights because the best thing about traveling is figuring it out for yourself. You land in a completely foreign space and you figure out what is right for you at that moment. You discover hidden gems and amazing advice from locals that I could never begin to explain or dish out in a post. I call it travel magic. Just go in with a great attitude, a smile and a small amount of trust in strangers and everything will work out perfectly. That’s the biggest travel secret – everything works out well and that’s why it appeals to so many. For this post on Bali, I’ll highlight some activities and the small slices of the island I visited, but obviously this is just a jumping off point, there is so much to explore, so get out there!
First stop, Ubud! When researching Indonesia, Saleem (my travel partner throughout Asia and an amazing photographer) and I were so overwhelmed. We knew we wanted to visit an island, but we had no idea which one. We needed an island with an airport because we had limited time, so we finally landed on Bali. After a bit of research, my Bali blues disappeared and I was dead set on visiting Ubud. I always thought of Ubud as central Bali, but it’s much closer to the southern edge of the island than I realized.
Ubud is far different than the tourist-packed beaches of the south. I think of it like a spiritual emerald. There are artists, yogis, and many devote Hindus living in Ubud. The land is covered in rice terraces and the town center is filled with historical sites, healthy cafes, and beautiful galleries. You can’t walk down the street without side stepping dozens of canang sari offerings and you can’t eat at a restaurant without finding dozens of vegetarian options on the menu. Every thing about Ubud evoked an essence of calm, simple, yet intentional living. The colors of nature in Ubud will have you thinking there’s a vivid filter in all your sunglasses, it’s a color of green I’ve never seen before.
Our time in Ubud was short and sweet. We stayed at the Bening Guesthouse and really we found it by accident. Upon arriving in each city, Saleem and I would scope out a place that appealed to us and then we’d ask about the price. This time was no different. Bening Guesthouse was so beautiful in that it was surrounded by water gardens and it overlooked a huge rice terrace in the back. Our room was on the second floor and we had a balcony all to ourselves. The clean white tiles, fresh sheets and complementary breakfast immediately had us dropping our bags in the first available room. We haggled a bit on the price and ended up paying about $6 each per night.
Upon arrival, Saleem and I bumped into three of our friends that we taught English with in Thailand. We all roamed the streets looking for something to eat. Bali closes shop a little early, but we found something edible (but unidentifiable) and then decided to follow the music that we heard blaring in the distance. The five of us wandered straight into the Bali Spirit Festival. Little did we know that The Bali Spirit Festival only takes place for five days a year and it brings yogis from all over the world to this one magical space in Ubud. All of us danced the night away while listening to world renowned artists and music makers. The energy of that space is something I can’t begin to explain, but I absolutely knew why throngs of people would plan for years to make this a part of their lives. If you practice yoga (not a requirement though!), make it a goal to attend the Bali Spirit Festival at least once in your life. You are bound to make powerful connections. At the time, I had no idea who Nahko (pictured below) was, but the energy when he play was powerful, now I can’t believe I had the opportunity to see him live!
Beyond the Bali Spirit Festival, there are amazing things happening all year round in Bali. Simply wandering around visiting galleries, museums, shops, and the market were enough to keep me entertained for a few days. Rent a motorbike and explore nearby villages, rice paddies, temples and historical sites. Visit one of many nearby coffee and tea farms, experience a tasting, and visit the farm’s civet. Feel free to seek these things out on your own – no need to go on an organized tour. As for eats, I highly recommend Atman Kafe. The space was comfortable and welcoming and the food was out of this world. I can clearly remember how freaking tasty it was. We went several times over the course of four days. Just check out this chocolate avocado smoothie.
Climbing Mt. Agung
The real highlight of Bali was our night hike to the top of Mount Agung, the highest point on the island and an active stratovolcano. Mt. Agung is actually quite a ways from Ubud, so you can access it from other parts of the island as well. A stratovolcano is also referred to as a composite cone. They are the most picturesque volcanoes as well as the most deadly. Their lower slopes are gentle, but they rise steeply near the summit to produce an overall morphology that is concave in an upward direction. The summit area typically contains a surprisingly small summit crater and if you look inside the crater you’ll clearly see composite layers. Mt. Agung dominates the surrounding area and highly influences Bali’s climate. Clouds coming from the west reach Agung, which captures their water leaving the east dry and barren while the west stays lush and green. Mt. Agung is a very spiritual space for Balinese people. They believe it’s a replica of Mount Meru the central axis of the universe. The most important temple in Bali, Pura Besakih, is located high on the slopes of Mt. Agung.
There are two routes up to Mt. Agung. We took the more difficult route because why not? We choose to hire guides for this adventure (about $40USD each) mostly because we wanted to hike in the dark to reach summit by sunrise and also because climbers have died in the past on this volcano. The weather turns fairly quickly and there is no available water on the route so getting lost could turn into a disaster. At the beginning of the route the trail is fairly easy to follow, but at the top, when the volcano starts to look like the planet Mars, the route doubles back on itself and get pretty confusing. Most hikers lose their way ending up in a small valley with a difficult route up and out. Our guides were great! They spoke little English, but were very sweet, motivating, nice, and they got us there safely by sunrise. Hire a guide! (Note that I usually shy away from organized tours, guides and porters, but I definitely recommend a guide in this instance.)
As a fairly experience backpacker, I will admit this hike was damn tough. We didn’t carry much weight, which was nice, but it was pitch black, extremely muddy, and generally disorienting. We all only got about three hours of sleep as well, since we had to leave a little after midnight. I was wearing tennis sneakers (I didn’t have boots with me) and I was slipping a lot. I had to lean forward almost on my hands and knees in order to not tumble backwards down the volcano. After a couple hours, we reached the steeper cylindrical part of the volcano, which was rockier and easier for my sneakers to grip, but even scarier than the initial decent because of the immense darkness – more on that at the bottom of this post. During the ascent, we stopped twice for snacks and tea. These two moments gave all of us the warmth, strength and motivation to push on. I will never forget laying back and looking up at the clearest view of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen, spotting my first satellite racing around the earth, and then glancing down on the tiny twinkling lights of the inhabitants of the island. At this elevation on an island, the stars blended in with the city lights below creating this all encompassing feeling of being in the center of the universe. Holy shit. Now that I type that I realize that maybe the Hindus were right, Mt. Agung is the central axis of the universe. Mind blown.
It wasn’t until we were ten minutes from the top of the volcano that one of the guide looked at me, shrieked and said, “Oh my! Miss! Your headlamp is not working!” and switched his out with mine. Apparently the reason I couldn’t see was because my headlamp was working at about a tenth of its capacity. I cannot tell you how amazing that last ten minutes of the hike was! I could actually see my hands in gripping the rocks in front of me. It was really spectacular. Of course, now I own three headlamps and I’ll probably never be caught in that situation again – now that I type that I realize I was in the exact same situation recently in Nepal because my headlamp broke three days prior to our climb up Thorong La. As I trekked up the highest mountain pass in the world, I grumbled in the dark, “It’s just like hiking that fucking volcano.” Hah!
Once we reached the summit, like the peaks of all mountains, it was fucking freezing. I was drenched in sweat from the climb as I hunkered down in my sweatshirt to protect my face from the winds whipping around me. I pulled my socks as high up as I could to protect my little shins as I waited for the sun to rise. During these times, you try to think about how amazing the warmth of the nearest star will be, but you can’t help wishing you packed thermals when traveling throughout southeast Asia.
Once the sun started to rise, I felt like weeping. It was the most beautiful view I had ever seen in my life at that point. There was absolutely nothing I could compare this experience to as it was my first volcano summited, first night hike, first time watching the sunrise from a peak, first, first, first, amazing, amazing, amazing and there were only a small handful of us there to enjoy it. It was everything. I could not recommend this experience enough. Waking up for sunrise in general is such a rare thing for me to do, but watching it from the highest point on the island, holy flippin’ shit.
As death defying as the hike up felt, the hike down was much harder. I always think downhills are tougher because my knees are little weaklings, but it seemed like everyone agreed with me. We had all been up for six hours, running on only three hours of sleep with tummies growling. Near the top of the crater, the hiking was so steep that we kind of just slid down on our butts. It looks like Saleem and Mina are resting or posing for a picture, but they had actually both just fallen on their asses when I took that shot. I can’t explain the fatigue we’ve all felt, but if you’ve ever hiked long distances, you know that point where you see the branch and the rocks, but somehow you still end up kicking them or tripping over them? That’s where we were at. Obviously even though our energy was low for the four hour trek down, our spirits were soaring. We had all just completed one of the most amazing hikes of our lives and you could feel the positivity and see the smiles all around.
After a few days in Ubud, Saleem and I wanted a little bit of Bali beach action. There was one problem though, everything we heard about the southern beaches seemed tacky and touristy. We didn’t want to party with a bunch of foreigners, we wanted to relax and experience authenticity, so we headed to a tiny island southeast of Bali called Nusa Lembongan. After a quick ferry ride, we were sitting with our feet up at a beachside restaurant and the best thing? We were the only ones there.
Nusa Lembongan is what my dreams are made of. It’s a sleepy little island where the main industry is seaweed farming. Saleem and I spent three days riding around on a motorbike, napping on beaches until the tide rolled in, and watching sunsets while locals collected seaweed from the shallow waters. Nusa Lembongan is also a popular surfing destination, so there was no shortage of rocky cliff vistas in which to watch the waves crashing below. We even found a ritzy hotel near Dream Beach that allowed you to use its infinity pool as long as you bought something from the bar. We both sipped our drinks as slowly as possible while we watched the sun sink into the ocean. The water is so clear and vivid around Nusa Lembongan that I actually desaturated these photos a little bit while editing so that they looked plausible! I promise. Crazy, yeah? Nusa Lembongan is best described by these images below. Like I said, our days were spent finishing multiple books, taking photo walks and rides on the motorbike, and sleeping for hours on various beaches. Nusa Lembongan is my version of therapy. There are spaces on this earth that I know I have explored fully, but still call my name often, and this is one of those places.
Bali’s Magical Moon
You may be thinking, WTF Sarah, isn’t Bali’s magical moon also the moon we see everywhere on earth? Well, yes, but no. Upon our return to Bali’s southern tip, Saleem and I, running out of money and ideas, decided to sit on the beach right where the ferry dropped us off. We were wasting time because our flight left at 8am the next morning and we had this genius idea of lounging beachside, getting a late dinner, and heading to the airport where we would sleep until our flight left. After spending a few hours on the beach and gazing lovingly over at Mt. Agung and watching the sunset, we noticed a really bright light in the distance. We were bewildered. What the hell is that? A boat? A cruise ship?! The sun (even though we both watch it set an hour before)?! We were dumbfounded, completely sober, and completely freaking confused.
It was after another fifteen minutes that we realized we were watching the moon, the brightest full moon we’ve ever seen, rising behind a thick layer of clouds. We sat there in utter amazement as the moon made its way above us, never dulling, and becoming even brighter as the clouds parted. I didn’t have the right equipment to take a proper photo, but you can see below just how luminous it was. From that day forward, I have never looked at the moon the same again. Anyone that really knows me also knows my enthusiasm for the moon. I love all phases passionately. The moon inspires me. I think of it as my true love.. it’s just something I can’t explain. It’s an intense emotional attachment. The moon is my muse. The gratitude and love I have for that chunk of space rock is just indescribable. I cannot put into words the feelings the moon evokes inside of me, but they’re as immense as the oceans.
Pivotal Shifts Brought About By Bali
There are certain times in your life when you notice a shift has taken place or a grand momentum has started. As I think back on my time in Bali, I realized a couple moments planted a seed that I still continue to nurture and grow. Skip to the bottom of this post for Bali budgeting if you could care less about all the mumbo jumbo!
This may come off as a bit shallow now, but for the better part of the night during the Bali Spirit Festival, I was entranced by this one young woman. She was wearing a beautiful outfit, face lightly painted, natural jewelry, belly showing, she was just glowing. I felt like everywhere I looked, she would appear. I had this feeling that I wished to resemble her. Not physically, she just seemed to embody all the emotions I wanted to portray. She seemed so free, loving and just beautiful from the inside out. She was captivating. At the time I was struggling in a long-distance relationship, I had gained nearly twenty pounds while living in Asia, and I was generally at a bit of a loss for what to do with my life. She seemed like she had it all together in this beautiful, I’m living life to the fullest type of way. I wanted that.
It was her that I thought of two months later when I came home to a boyfriend that immediately broke up with me (because he was already dating someone else) and left me feeling even more lost. At that moment I wanted to be back in Bali or at least Asia, but obviously didn’t have the means to so instead I channeled that mysteriously entrancing girl and I went to a yoga class. That was the real beginning of my yoga life and ultimately the path that led me to where I am today, a happy, confident, healthy, emotionally stable, sound minded girl. Someone that reminds me a little bit of that beauty dancing at the Bali Spirit Festival. Someone that knows who she is and knows where ever she is headed is the right place for her. I owe a lot to the randomness that brought me to the Bali Spirit Festival and to that vision I saw of my future self in that woman. I will never forget her even though I have absolutely no idea who she is. So thank you for giving me the gift of yoga Bali. I’m forever indebted.
Second, while climbing Mt. Agung in the darkness of night, absolutely terrified (as I said, my headlamp was not working, it was giving off about as much light as the screen of a flip phone) I thought about imminent death. I thought about my parents. I thought about their disappointment and sadness if I died while traveling, especially while doing something dangerous that I had chosen to undertake. It honestly seemed like a real possibility at that moment. I was really tired, I was basically bouldering up a steep ass volcano in the dark and where everyone else had the guides shining lights on the proper hand and foot holds I was feeling really defeated in the dark.
I choose to take up the rear because the girl directly in front of me was having a really tough time. She has never really hiked before. We convinced her to come with us and if there’s one thing I know from backpacking, it’s if you are really tired and basically ‘done’ hiking you don’t want to be in the back or you’ll fall further and further behind. So while I felt like I was doing a silent duty for the whole squad, I was doing myself a disservice because I was fumbling around in the dark on the what felt like Mars.
After two hours of this, my guide noticed my dimming headlamp (I didn’t realize how shitty it was) and he gave me his. It made a world of difference. I could see again. I wasn’t groping around. I was actually recognizing hand holds and ledges for my feet, I was enjoying myself, I was on the path towards life not death. I was no longer thinking about my poor parents. I was succeeding. It was during this tiny transformation, from dark to light, that I felt this immense wave of relief. We’re all headed towards death. It’s inevitable, but we’re also all headed towards life. We have this moment and the next and many more if we choose to live. I still continue to take risks and go on adventures that others have perished on, but those times make me feel more alive. What are we doing if we’re wasting our life before death? Are we living? Or are we slowly dying? I’m the third from the left. Notice that tiny light on my head? Whoops.
People are always curious about budgets and cost guestimates especially because most Asian countries don’t have prices written on things – it’s a culture that haggles – fortunately I took notes on every.single.thing. that I bought. Below is the 2012 Indonesian Rupiah price (unless otherwise noted) of everything I purchased while traveling in Bali. Keep in mind the guesthouse rates are divided by two as I shared a room with my friend. I just checked the conversion rate and NOW is the time to travel to Bali. The Rupiah is wayyy down although prices could be similar if inflation is up – go and then report back! How sweet is this Mt. Agung pizza below? Saleem and I played quizzo at an expat bar one night and we did horribly, but they picked a random name out of a hat at the end of the night and we won a prize! It was a gift certificate to a restaurant we couldn’t really afford. If I remember correctly, Saleem used his credit card to buy us an appetizer. Thanks Saleem!
2,268,700 Indonesian Rupiah = $252USD for seven days in Bali, Indonesia
Lunch and shake 90,000
Transportation & Guides for Hiking Mt Agung 350,000
Ubud Room 4 nights 180,000
Kuta Room 1 night 150,000
Nusa Lembongan 2 nights Room 80,000
Boat back to Bali 60,000
Airport exit fee 150,000 (<this kind of screwed me as the two airport ATMs were broken and I only had $5USD in my pocket. I’m sure the ATMs are fixed by now)