Feb 21, 2011

Bali: The Good, The Bad, & The So-So

Our time here in Bali is at its end and our overall conclusion of the island is a positive one.  There’s certainly plenty on offer here, from trekking, to diving to adrenaline sports like river rafting and mountain biking, to shopping, or to enjoy the cultural offerings although traveling with young children has certainly limited our options.  Nevertheless, we did thoroughly enjoy our time here, but for probably different reasons than most.  

After spending 28 days here, our daily average spend, including accommodation, food, bottled water, massages and purchases was just under $50 USD/day.  The car rental added another $18/day including fuel and 'donations' (see 'THE BAD:  Scams').  We stayed in some lovely places, many with sensational ocean or mountain views.  We either had 1 bed and the girls slept on their therma-rests on the floor, or we slept 2 to a bed in 1 room if it was available.  Often we had air con, or at least a fan, usually hot water, and always an ensuite bath attached with western-style toilets, and linen,  We also usually had a pool, sometimes had wi-fi on premisis and often breakfast was included.  We paid between 150,000-250,000IDR for all this, which was about $17-29 USD per night.  

We usually preferred to eat Indonesian food, except for at breakfast, where we usually ate eggs, toast, bacon,/sausages.  Breakfast was included with the room in many places or else could set you back 25,000-50,000 IDR depending on where you ate ($2.80-5.60 USD).  Standard Indonesian fare included Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Mie Goreng (fried noodles), Cap Cay (chop suey), sweet sour, or noodle soup.  What you paid depended on where you ate it.  The same dish could range between 10,000 IDR to 50,000 IDR ($1.05-5.50).  Along the coast, we also were spoilt with fresh fish parcels cooked in banana leaf (pepe fish), and fish curries, with mahi mahi, barracuda and tuna being the fish of the season.  Pancakes, often more like crepes, were a local favourite too, usually filled with either banana or pineapple.  In fact, pineapple, papaya and bananas were in abundance everywhere.

Pampering oneself is also somewhat synonymous with a trip to Bali.  While you can get fancy day-spa treatments, our experiences were more along the lines of a beach or pool-side massage, which usually set you back 50,000 IDR ($5.10USD) for a 1hr session.  Manicures, pedicures, foot scrubs, and waxing were other popular treatments.

Aside from the economic benefits that Bali has to offer, here are our other impressions, in no particular order:

The Good:  
Amed Accomodation--our bungalow on the left
1.   Good Economical Accomodation.  We usually paid between $17 and $28 USD for a simple room, with either 1 king or 2 twin beds, including linen, towels, fan (sometimes air con), hot water usually, ensuite bathroom, and sometimes even wi-fi, breakfast and a pool.  We had some amazing places, especially in Lovina, where for $26 USD/nt you got a 3.5 star room; Amed and Sengiku too were great as both were by the beach and we could hear the sound of the waves crashing from our bed.

2.    Tirta Gangga.  This is a very extravagant royal bathing pools built by the last Balinese King in 1948.  It is a very serene place, and very visually soothing with its many ornate fountains and spring-fed swimming pools.  We went for a swim and felt very invigorated.
Tirta Gangga

3.    Wi-Fi Hotspots.  In built up places like Sanur, it was virtually everywhere—in guesthouses, restaurants/cafes, and even in supermarkets (Hardy’s)—and it was all free for guests.

4.    The Flora and Fauna.  Due to its sub-equitorial position, Bali is lush lush lush.  Coconut palm trees are like pine trees to Canada, Coconuts lay in heaped piles on the side of the road.  Banana trees are almost as abundant.  Frangipani trees with their beautiful fragrant white , yellow or pink flowers grow like boganvaeillias in the Mediterranean.  This is now my new favourite flower!  Plants with colourful decorative leaves form beautiful hedges.  Butterflies twit from one tropical flower to the next.  It’s beautiful here.  The Balinese really know how to beautify their surroundings, including bringing nature indoors as exampled by the ‘Balinese Bathrooms’, which were attached structures to the dwelling, yet only partially roofed with the rest ‘open-air’.  This also allowed for a garden to be incorporated in the bathroom, with watering 
done naturally by the rain!

5.    Clear, Warm Sea.  Great for swimming in and for snorkelling to see colourful tropical fish.  The diving is meant to be amazing too.

Legong Dancing, Sanur
6.    The Culture.  Bali consists of 3 religious communities:  Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist.  While they each observe their beliefs and traditions, they also respect and participate in the other ones too.  This is something that they are all proud of, and which they believe help make them all part of the Balinese culture.  For example, on 5 March 2011, it is the Hindu Day of Quiet.  For a 24hr period, there is to be no noise and no electricity/power used so as not to wake/encourage the spirits.  Yet while it is a Hindu tradition, all in Bali, including tourists, must observe the requirement.  We also loved being able to sample some of the Balinese culture by taking in some of the beautiful dancing performances, which were widely available.  In Ubud, you could find a performance any night of the week for $9USD p/p.  

7.    The Climate.  Every day we were here, the temperature was the same—warm and humid (although not necessarily a fan of humidity).

Kechak Dancing in Ubud
8.    Laid-Back Coastal Towns: Sanur, Lovina & Amed.  We found Sanur to be a very convenient base especially if you have kids.  There are lots of restaurants to choose from, nice calm clean beach located within walking distance from most accommodation and good supply of other services such as supermarket, banks/ATMs, and abundant wi-fi (convenient for keeping in touch with concerned relatives!). Another favourite place of ours was Amed, due to its relaxed atmosphere.  Admittedly our stay there was punctuated by the great bungalow that we stayed in, with a resort-style infinity pool on the beach and our bungalow being located within a stone’s throw of both.  The kids loved the pool, which had a shallow toddler’s area, and we loved to be able to snorkel in the ocean in front.  As a bonus, as it was low season, we had the entire property to ourselves!  If you are travelling with kids to Amed, you should probably make securing accommodation which has its own swimming pool a priority as the beach itself really isn’t that appealing.  Lovina is also a lovely spot, more due to its laid back compact village with a good variety of restaurants, shops and great quality accommodation.

9.    Massages available most anywhere.  For little more than the price of a latte back home, you can get yourself a relaxing 1hr massage, often on the beach or in your room.  Very easy to get used to!
Jim having a massage poolside

The Bad:

1.     The Rubbish.  Interestingly in the tourist areas, not only can you find public waste bins, but also ones for recyclable matter too, and the beaches were relatively clean.  But as Bali is a developing country, their treatment of rubbish is quite typical of that found in similar countries especially in Asia.  The beach of Amed, recommended to us as a good destination, was littered in rubbish.  On the day that we arrived, the water close to the shore was covered in floating debris—very uninviting.  (Luckily this did clear up the next day.) 

Dogs at the Night Market, Sanur
2.    Threat of Rabies.  In the latter months of 2010 and early 2011, there’s been a few deaths due to rabies contracted through dog bites.  Most were to local villagers.  We found dogs who were wandering on their own to be a very common sight, especially in Sanur.  While the Balinese do have a rabies vaccination program in place for dogs, and those who’ve been vaccinated don a red collar, in reality this means very little as a) some dogs just may not be wearing them as some have a collar, but no red collar (they should have both), or b) they have a red collar, but you don’t really know for sure if they were vaccinated or c) they’ve been vaccinated but sometimes they are only given a placebo of water solution!  Travelling with young children (who haven’t received their rabies vaccinations) can be a bit stressful at times when there are so many stray dogs around, although we never encountered a menacing situation at all as most of the time, the dogs kept to themselves. 

3.    Scams targeting tourists.  Again, as a relatively poor nation, a few Balinese do set out to scam the tourist.  One popular one that we have heard first- hand accounts of involves the police targeting foreign scooter drivers.  They get pulled over and often a fine is issued for not having an International Driving License, or for some other minor driving infraction.  Usually the matter can be solved with a ‘donation’ to the officer.  We actually found ourselves in such a situation and it cost us $10 USD to ‘resolve’ the matter on the spot.  Another common scam that we were warned of was the money changer who offered better rates than elsewhere, yet when he went to count you your money, he’d find that he short-changed you.  Then he would offer to give you your money back, but at which point he’d swapped your original notes for counterfeits.  Or another one involving money changers was that the ones offering the extraordinary rates would pull a quick one and short change you, despite having seemingly counted the correct amount before you.  Stories like these can really make you wary of Bali.

The So-So:

The Temples.  We have been spoilt by visits to great temples all over the world, many of which date back to early civilizations such as the Mayans, and the Egyptians.  In contrast, the temples and palaces here in Bali, while very ornate, intriguing and beautiful in their own right, are not the best that we’ve seen and are surprisingly not so old either.  Nevertheless,  to those who have not had much exposure to the Hindu culture, the Balinese temples and shrines are a great start.

2.  The Beaches.  While we were in Padang Bai, we overheard a couple of travellers talking and they concluded that while Bali is good for diving and snorkelling, it’s not necessarily the best for hanging out on the beaches nor for swimming as many are surf beaches or the sand just isn’t that nice.  We would tend to agree.  We polled many people, including posting a thread on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum, for recommendations on nice beaches that were good for swimming in with preschoolers and that had a good selection of budget accommodation and food. Padang Bai, Candidasa, Amed and Lovina were the unanimous responses.  Unfortunately, after visiting each of them and spending at least a couple of days there, we really did not understand the hype.  Pandang Bai’s small bay was filled with boats and their lines; Candidasa didn’t have much beach access due to tidal erosion; Amed, while it had a nice relaxed scene, had an extremely ugly dirty beach (but the water was calm and good for swimming and snorkelling); ditto for the beach at Lovina, although the accommodation and the laid-back village more than made up for it.

3.  The FoodTraditional Indonesian Food on offer in Bali seemed a bit limited in its offering and a lot of it was cooked in a lot of oil, especially the Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and the Mie Goreng (fried noodles).  We did finally find a good local restaurant in Amalapura that had a lot more variety than we’d been experiencing, and at great local prices.  We ate there 2x.  Also, the coastal areas of Padang Bai, Candidasa, Amed and Lovina served delicious seafood at very inexpensive prices.  Our favourite was Mahi Mahi ‘Pepe Style’ (wrapped and grilled in a banana leaf in Balinese sauce) and Mahi Mahi curry, both which we found in lovely restaurant in Amed, for less than $2.50 USD each including rice and vegetables.  

4.  Bargaining for Goods & Services. In Bali, the prices for most goods and services can be negotiated, despite the ‘price’ that you are initially offered.  The exceptions are at supermarkets, metered taxis, and restaurants.  While not usually a fan of bargaining, here in Bali it’s actually kind of fun as the locals have a good sense of humour and most seem to enjoy the process too.  It’s amazing though how much they do try to get from you initially:  my dad was offered a starting price of 250,000 IDR ($27 USD) for a pair of sunnies in the market, and we eventually got them for 30,000 ($4 USD), which was a fraction of the starting price!  We’ve even successfully negotiated on our room rates at times, probably due to the fact that it is low season here at the moment, 

   The Driving. Driving in Bali is certainly an experience not for the feint of heart.  Posted speed limits are rare; even rarer are consistent signs telling you which way you should go to your destination.  We encountered many forks in the roads without having any indication of which way we should proceed. Traffic signals are tricky--sometimes there are small signs below the signals that say you can proceed even if its a red!  To make a right hand turn at a round about, you don't go through the round about first, but rather you cut through before it.  Other drivers, especially scooters, overtake from both the right side as well as the left, often all at once.  But once you get over all of this, and just go with the flow and 'when in Rome' drive as they do, then its manageable, except for the lack of proper directions.  We took the strategy of consulting other drivers/pedestrians along our way, doing many u-turns, and eventually we got there in the end
U Ubud. We found Ubud to be overly hyped and over-touristed, probably with no thanks to its recent staring role in Julia Robert's movie, Eat, Pray, Love.  Nevertheless, once we looked past the many many shops and flashy cafes, it did grow on you.  The rice paddy fields offered a nice quiet to the madness.

Bali has been an interesting experience and a great first stop on our 12-month trip.  It’s a pretty good place to travel to with young children as the locals love children and it’s relatively ‘safe’ although lack of playgrounds and the threat of rabies can be a drawback.  It’s been an easy place to ‘ease’ into the travel life, with lots on offer while allowing you to not spend a fortune.  You can really spoil yourself here, which is why it’s actually a candidate for our 
last stop on our trip in 12 months time.


  1. Great post full of practical info! I'm really glad you addressed the budget issue. That is one of the things I want to incorporate on my site, a monthly breakdown of costs. I think it is an important thing to include so that other families can see if a trip like this is affordable.

  2. Thanks Amy--I'm glad you find this information as useful as we do!

  3. let us know if you stop back again; might join u :-p