Anyone can tell you the best place to score a Bintang singlet or the latest reflective lens Ray Bans. And you can’t go too wrong bargaining for a massage or hair braids when we’re talking about a few measly dollars. But herein lies the real top tips for Bali. A guide comprising of everything I wish I knew when I first stepped onto the island I now call home, all those years ago.
So strap your bum bag across your chest, slip into your reggae-striped sandals, print out your top tips for Bali and get ready to take on the Island of the Gods like a seasoned local.
Top Tip for Bali #1: Arriving, staying, departing
A 30 day Visa on Arrival is available for many international travellers to Bali and will set you back $35 US dollars. Be sure to have your US Dollars ready (or your local equivalent) in cash. If you have forgotten this, do not panic – simply ask an usher to direct you to the counter offering credit card payment. [See Indonesian Immigration Website for all things official. They don’t take Visa misuse lightly, so neither should you].
On the other side of the airport immigration counter, you will find your luggage spilling out onto the carousels. You may be pleasantly surprised to find friendly porters who will grab you a trolley, carry your bags and help you with the heavy lifting as you head through customs. Even if you didn’t ask for this service, remuneration will be expected. If you don’t want to pay, you need to refuse their help.
Accommodation options are varied, and the spectrum ranges from budget surf stays to exorbitant beachfront resorts. Guest houses and losmans are probably the most cost effective option for stays of 30 days or more, but you can also nab yourself a relatively cheap mid-term villa. The quality of your accommodation will reflect what you are prepared to pay.
If you plan to stay a further 30 days, it is best to use an agent to process your extension. An extension will require a passport photo with a red backing (quite possibly the only red tape you may come across during your time here), and should set you back around 800,000 IDR (roughly $80 AUD/USD). For convenience sake, I use Channel One, located at the end of Sunset Road, Seminyak. Eko takes care of all the logistics for you and is available via Facebook messenger for advice. Because let’s face it, you will be far too busy living the dream.
Do not forget to set aside your 200,000 IDR departure tax, for when your time in paradise comes to a devastating end. I usually keep mine tucked into my passport when I first arrive so there is one less thing on my mental “to-do” list.
Always try to play it safe when it comes to departure timing. Allow at least 2 hours from your accommodation in South of Bali to the airport, and an hour extra if you are coming from Ubud. Bali traffic can be unpredictable, at times nightmarishly clogged, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you arrive early, there are airport lounges you can pay to access for a feed and a comfy chair to await your flight. Crisis averted.
Choosing where to stay in Bali…
Do your research. The area you choose will decide the type of experience you will enjoy. My basic rule of thumb? The further out from the tourist hub of Kuta you stay, the more peaceful and quiet your trip will be.
Areas like Kuta are great for family holidays with the kids, with direct access to tourist attractions, themed hotels, and central shopping districts. Spread out to Legian and Seminyak for a slightly quieter stay and access to private villas.
Move beyond these spots to Canggu or Uluwatu for rice paddies, losmans and surf breaks; Nusa Dua for water sports and all-inclusive resorts; or right out to Ubud for culture, yoga and peaceful serenity.
Top Tip for Bali #2: “All about the Benjamins baby”
The first matter of business you are likely to want to sort out is getting your money exchanged, or getting to an ATM for access to some Indonesian Rupiahs (IDR). Currency exchange can be found at every turn. I tend to look for one offering a decent rate with no commissions.
The most common denomination is the blue 50,000rp note (roughly $5 AUD/USD) or the red 100,000rp notes (roughly $10 AUD/USD). Try to get some smaller notes too. If store vendors do not have the correct change, your Rupiah may be subsidized by wrapped candies. Now this is an exchange my sweet tooth doesn’t quite mind!
Make sure you do not leave the ATM without your card. Many foreign visitors report leaving the ATM before their card is returned, as the sequence is different to what they are familiar with at home.
In Bali, you receive your money first, your receipt second, and are then prompted to either end your transaction or proceed with a further withdrawal. Unless you proactively end your transaction, the card is not returned. Using an ATM is an old habit for most, so always double check that you leave with your card. It doesn’t hurt to stash away a traveller’s cheque in case you find yourself stuck.
Top Tip for Bali #3: Staying in touch
The great news is that Denpasar airport offers complimentary WIFI. The lines through customs during high season and peak arrival times can be painful, so be sure to log-in to their free network and use your time in line wisely. You should have a good hour or so to spend on Facebook, reminding your friends back home that you’ve arrived in paradise, and they haven’t.
This WIFI access can be a great way to make contact with your driver, if you have connected before via email or Facebook, to give them an idea how long you anticipate you will be, and give them tips on what you are wearing. Bursting out from immigration to be greeted by a crowd of drivers waving pieces of paper can be enough to drive anyone to a Bintang.
It’s not a bad idea to grab yourself a Bali SIM card for your stay. They are cheap as chips and can be a godsend when it comes to connecting with drivers, tour organisers and friends and family back home. Have your driver take you to a local cell store and grab yourself a sim with about 100,000rp (roughly $10AUD) of “Pulsa” (credit).
Side note: If you plan to use your mobile for data (Facebook and the like), you should purchase a data “packet” separately. Again, around 100,000rp for a month of browsing should suffice. Most cafes, restaurants & bars offer high speed Wifi, so you shouldn’t need to access your own too often, it’s just handy for when you are on the move.
Now, you may notice that your phone from home is locked to your network provider. If this is the case, you can either buy yourself a super cheap, basic little Samsung phone, or take your smartphone to the RIMO centre in Denpasar, where jail breaking should cost you no more than around 500,000rp; a worthwhile investment if you plan to be here a month or longer.
XL and Telkomsel are the biggest and best mobile providers in Bali, but you may notice in some areas the coverage isn’t great. Ask the cell shop what the best provider is for coverage in the specific area you will be staying, and connect your mobile to that.
If you use a tablet, select a different network for that Sim card, and you are almost guaranteed to be connected at all times.
Top Tip for Bali #4: Getting Around
Between the airport and your accommodation, pre-arranging a driver it is by far the most convenient, comfortable and cost effective way to travel. Taxis are available, but be warned: they have paid a premium rental for the airport contract, so it is in their interest to try and recoup a premium fee from exhausted, can’t-be-bothered-haggling travellers. A driver can be arranged from back home, through email or Facebook, and will be awaiting your arrival with a cool bottle of water, a friendly face, and a fixed fee.
During your stay, the reputable Bluebird taxis are the best option for short distance trips, for example Kuta to Seminyak. Always ask for meters to be turned on to avoid unnecessary negotiations at the end of the journey. During peak times or late evenings, some drivers will try to refuse metered trips. In this instance, either barter a fair deal (bare in mind we are looking at a few dollars here and there for the convenience of a timely trip home), or consider scooter hire.
Now if you chose to use a scooter during your stay (generally not recommended unless you ride licensed back home, and generally not covered by insurance unless you are internationally licensed), always ensure you get a helmet with your rental – and wear it. The roads here are congested and the road rules are very loose. Scooters can be hired for around 50,000rp per day (roughly $5 AUD) or around 500,000rp per month (roughly $50 AUD). They can offer a speedy way of getting around, just be sure to drive cautiously, watching for others scooting up and down footpaths to avoid heavy traffic.
I took myself off to a huge grass oval for rounds and rounds of practice before hitting the road. Not a bad idea for first timers.
I can highly recommend central-Legian based operators Intan Car Rental. Headed by a young, tech savvy entrepreneur, Intan will arrange your airport pick-up, communicate with you seamlessly through her Facebook page and can even deliver a hire car or scooter to wherever you are staying. If you are around Legian, pop in to visit “Mama & Papa Bali” (husband & wife team, Wayan & Wayan); Intan’s mother Wayan will make you Bali’s best cup of Kopi (coffee) and her father Wayan will make you laugh. In true Bali fashion, it’s a one stop shop: water, mobile pulsa, some days even petrol or Kites. Head down Gang 3 Brothers No 5, which runs off Jl. Legian.
You can thank me later.
Top Tip for Bali #5: Smart Supplies
Whether you are staying in the cushy comfort of the W hotel, lapping up some villa opulence, settling in for a budget homestay or claiming a top bunk in a surf camp – there are some situations we all need to come prepared for.
To play it safe, stick to bottled water throughout your stay. It is cheap, readily available and the number one way to avoid any nasty bugs. Eco-warriors will be pleased to learn that re-usable stainless steel flasks are now available for purchase throughout Bali. See Bottles For Earth for stockists, and a range of fun designs (a Bintang bottle anyone?).
Refill at your hotel, most restaurants, or purchase a large bottle from a mini-mart & return the plastic container. They make for great souvenir – afterall there is only so many sarongs one can make use of.
Power adaptors make for an easy trip. Try to get one at the airport, with a built-in USB port, so that you can charge your mobile & laptop at once. If you forgot to pack one, most Mini Marts or “Circle K” stores will stock them, or ask your accommodation manager.
Mosquito repellent is your best friend in Bali. I prefer to steer clear of the super toxic, store-bought bug sprays like “Deet”, favouring natural concoctions like the “Begone Bug” by Utama Spice found at eco suppliers such as Bali Buda or Earth Café in Seminyak.
No matter how you chose to lay your head at night, you are bound to come across a public “squat” toilet during your travels. This can be a shock to the system at the best of times. Carry a small antibacterial hand lotion (such as Dettol) and a packet of baby wipes with you and you will feel back to normal in no time.
.. & Top Tip for Bali #6: A bonus “heads up” from a lover of everything Bali
Your trip to Bali will be whatever you chose to make of it.
By all means, recreate your own version of “What really happens in Bali” and get messy, let your hair down, and go home with a “Bali Tattoo” (the dreaded motorbike burn). My first few trips to Bali were probably quite the same (see The 5 Plagues of Bali.. a fun piece all about “those” types).
It wasn’t until I started to delve into the culture and form friendships with the local people that the beauty of Bali really started to unfold for me. If you get an opportunity to attend a ceremony – Grab a Kebaya and go! If you receive an invite to visit a traditional home – thankfully accept and bring a small gift.
Step off the beaten track. Boldly go where no “Bule” (westerner) has gone before. It is here that you will reveal the true beauty of this mystical place, beyond its superficial guise of Bintangs and beanbags.
Who knows? You may very well unravel a little truth of your own, reflected in what you see.