By Zoe Denenberg
The island of Bali is famed for its white sand beaches, luxurious resorts and crystal-clear sea. In 2017, Trip Advisor crowned Bali the World's Best Destination of the year, highlighting the island's diversity of tourist experiences and richness of culture.
Although tourism composes a large sector of Bali's economy, this small Indonesian island is much more than a dreamy vacation destination. In its 5,630 square kilometers of land, Bali houses over 515 different species, making it one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.
From lush mountains to jungle and sea, discover all of the extraordinary experiences that this natural paradise has to offer.
1. visit the temples
A majority of Bali's population still practices Hinduism, and Bali is one of the only places containing exemplary remnants of ancient Indonesian Hinduism. The "Pura," a Balinese Hindu temple, follows the tradition of Balinese architecture, with several internal pavilions and pagoda-style shrines.
In the 16th century, a religious figure named Nirartha built a chain of "pura segara," or "sea temples," along the coast of Bali. Meant to to honor the gods of the sea and provide spiritual protection for the island, these sea temples were incorporated into the island's natural landscape, often floating directly on bodies of water. One of the most famous water temples is Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, which was built on the banks of Lake Bratan.
The six holiest temples in Bali are called the "Sad Kahyangan," or the "six sanctuaries of the world." These temples act as Bali's spiritual pillars and are located at key points around the island. One of the six sacred temples is Pura Uluwatu, which is a sea temple located on the tip of a cliff.
At the cliffside Uluwatu Temple, visitors can watch the Kecak fire dance. In this ceremony, masked figures dance in a ring of fire, a practice which originally served as a means to communicate with the gods or the spirits of ancestors.
Be careful not to enter Uluwatu with food – the temple is inhabited by monkeys, who mercilessly swarm visitors to steal their snacks.
Tanah Lot, one of Bali's most famous temples, sits on a rock that overlooks the Indian Ocean. The sea temple honors the Hindu water god Baruna and is connected to the mainland by causeways; however, these paths are only accessible at low tide, so plan the timing of your trip accordingly.
Over the years, the temple's rock has been severely eroded by waves. Preservation efforts have kept Tanah Lot standing, but one third of the rock is now artificial.
2. observe the local traditions
In Bali, dance is a multipurpose genre of expression and communication. Dance performances occur in a variety of settings and convey corresponding messages – some sacred dances are performed during religious rituals, while other artistic dances are merely performed for entertainment.
In religious dances like Sanghyang Dedari, young girls dance in a trance with the intention of combatting negative forces. Yet some dances are performed purely for the spectacle, like the Balinese dance of Legong. Legong originated as a royal court performance and is now performed at public festivals across Bali. The dancers are typically young girls, who symbolize angels, with the performance meant to showcase their grace and agility.
The Gamelan orchestra has been an integral part of Hindu-Buddhist culture since its earliest days. Gamelan performances often accompany dances or puppet shows, and the music is intimately connected with Balinese poetry. The mainly-percussion orchestra uses instruments such as metallophones, bamboo flutes and cymbals, all of which are beautifully decorated with intricate gold and red designs.
Mud bathing, known as Mebuug-buugan, is a traditional practice in the rural areas of Bali. The goal of mud bathing is to cleanse the body and mind of negative energy. The ceremony is held the day after Nyepi, the Balinese "Day of Silence," which occurs every new year.
3. tour the rice terraces
The practice of terracing is one of the most sustainable farming techniques, and has supported many Southeast Asian civilizations for 2,000 years. Farmers build "terraces," or levels, out of natural hills, thereby reducing erosion and runoff while maintaining the geological integrity of the landscape. The method of terracing is ideal for growing crops that require heavy irrigation, such as rice.
Rice terracing also happens to create gorgeous, panoramic views, making these farms tourist attractions. Tegallalang is the most popular rice farm in Bali, but Jataluwih, Bali's oldest rice terrace field, offers equally breathtaking views.
When you visit a terrace farm, you will likely come across shrines to Dewi Sri, the Goddess of Rice. Balinese farmers honor the goddess, who they believe is present in each stalk of rice, by only cutting a few stalks at a time so as not to scare her.
4. get to know the wildlife
In Bali, you can get close to many kinds of animals, from monkeys to elephants and sea turtles. The Monkey Forest in Ubud is a highly frequented tourist destination, allowing visitors to mix and mingle with free-roaming monkeys.
According to the Monkey Forest's website, "The village's residents view the Monkey Forest as an important spiritual, economic, educational and conservation center for the village."
The Elephant Safari Park is another tourist hot spot, where visitors can navigate the jungle landscape on the back of an elephant. The park is committed to conservation and care of endangered elephants. The park's original 27 elephants were rescued from government camps in Sumatra, and since then, four elephant babies have been naturally born at the park.
If you are lucky, you may see an elephant honing its artistic skills along the way.
Bali's Java Sea is home to a great diversity of marine life, including endangered sea turtles. The Balinese people are closely connected to the natural world, so the island has become a center for the protection of these majestic creatures. Tourists can visit a sea turtle conservation center in Bali, where they can "adopt" a baby sea turtle and watch it run into the ocean for the very first time.
5. learn how to make textiles
Weaving is an art that has been passed down through many generations of women in Bali. Learning to weave is a rite of passage for many Balinese women; they first learn to make simple designs, such as stripes, eventually graduating to more intricate patterns. It is the responsibility of the senior weavers to teach young girls the trade, ultimately providing them with their own profession and source of income.
The weaving process is completely natural – weavers even grow their own dye plants to color the thread. Visitors can see how it's done at weaving shops in many of Bali's smaller villages, such as Tenganan.
Another form of wearable art in Bali is Batik, the original Indonesian textile. Batik is made by historically female artists, who hand-draw traditional designs onto fabric with hot, liquid wax. Each Batik design is unique, though they include similar natural and religious motifs.
Modern artists have made this cloth more versatile and commonplace in Bali. Batik cloth used to be worn exclusively for religious rituals or as a sign of high status, but today, Batik can be used to make casual or formal clothing. In Bali, you can take a batik workshop to learn this art from a seasoned professional.
6. explore the underwater world
Bali is known for its incredible scuba diving sites, its most legendary dive being the USS Liberty shipwreck. The American ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo in 1942 and beached near Tulamben. Over time, the sunken ship has turned into a mini underwater ecosystem. Bali's waters house over 500 species of reef-building coral, so this shipwreck is the perfect place to see some spectacular marine life.
Bali's pearl farms are another underwater sight worth visiting. These underwater farms harvest over 300,000 pearls each year and employ thousands of local pearl technicians. The pearl-growing process takes anywhere from five to 20 years – the longer the oysters stay underwater, the larger the pearl grows.
7. taste the cuisine
The Gianyar Night Market is one of the best places to get traditional Balinese street food. It is a top destination for locals and tourists alike, offering a selection of Indonesian delicacies, including grilled fish and roasted corn.
One of the must-try dishes in Bali is "sate," or satay. This dish is often cooked over an open flame, giving it a nice char-grilled flavor, and sold on the street for extremely low prices. The skewers can be prepared with different types of meat and a variety of spices.
Another signature dish in Bali is "nasi goreng," which is the Indonesian version of fried rice. This stir-fry is seasoned with ingredients like sweet soy sauce, chili and tamarind and is topped with prawns or chicken; for an alternative protein, some varieties will include "ikan asin," or salted dried fish. Nasi goreng is often finished with a perfectly fried egg.
The popular beach area of Jimbaran is Bali's seafood destination. After a day in the sun, stop by one of the beachside restaurants for some grilled lobster and prawns. You will not be disappointed.
The Balinese also take immense pride in coffee, locally sourced from Ubud's fields. The island's coffee widely differs from the rest of Indonesia's because of its unique production method. Bali's coffee is "wet processed," which means that the fruit is removed from the bean while still wet, giving the final product a lighter flavor.
Most of Balinese cafés and restaurants offer full flights of coffee and tea, allowing you to sample many different varieties.
8. shop at the ubud markets
Experience all that Bali has to offer by visiting a variety of its markets. The main Ubud market sells an abundance of items, from fresh produce to temple offerings. The paths are lined with wicker baskets full of fruits and flowers, where speedy sales occur right on the sidewalk.
If you are in search of handmade clothing or souvenirs, don't miss the Ubud Art Market. One of Bali's signature souvenirs is a carved wooden mask, reminiscent of those worn during temple ceremonies.
Julia Roberts filmed a scene of "Eat, Pray, Love" at this traditional market, skyrocketing its popularity among tourists.
Almost all of Bali's markets are adorned with heaping baskets of colorful flowers alongside the food and souvenirs. In the Hindu religion, flowers bear great significance -- the Hindu worship ritual itself, "puja," directly translates to "the flower act." During religious ceremonies, garlands of orange marigolds are placed around statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, like Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom. The marigold is also considered a love charm and is often used in weddings.
9. climb an active volcano
Climbing an active volcano may sound dangerous, but if you are in search of an adventure, the summit of Mount Agung provides an unparalleled view of Bali's natural landscape. If you begin the climb up Mount Agung around 2:30 AM, you will reach the top just in time to watch the sun rise over Bali's mountains and lakes, with your head (literally) in the clouds at the mountain's whopping 9,944 feet (3,031 meters) of altitude.
But be warned: Although this active volcano has not erupted since 1964, it is rated one of the most likely volcanoes to have a massive eruption in the next 100 years.
If you are looking for a slightly easier hike, climb Mount Batur. At 5,633 feet (1,717 meters) above sea level, this active volcano only takes about two hours to summit and still provides a fantastic view.
10. relax and rejuvinate
After long days of exploring temples and rice terraces, you deserve some rest. Bali is world famous for its luxurious resorts, complete with stunning ocean views and pristine beaches. Take a dip in a scenic infinity pool or enjoy a peaceful massage.
Up next: a bloody war rite
Every year, men go to war with each other in Bali's ancient village of Tenganan. Their weapon of choice? A batch of thorny Pandan leaves. Learn more about the traditions behind this bloody war rite in tranquil Bali.