DOs and DON’Ts for Your First Trip to Bali

saraswati-temple-ubud

Ubud’s Saraswati Temple

Bali is one of the most tourist-friendly destinations that I’ve traveled to in Asia. Usually, when traveling it helps to expect things to go wrong—that way you are better prepared to handle the situation when something does inevitably go not as planned. When planning a rough itinerary for a week in Bali, I jokingly added “visit hospital to take care of monkey bite” as a way to keep this in mind. But I must say, Bali was a pleasant surprise in that very little went wrong and I met with very few hassles at all. Still, it helps to be prepared, so I’ve come up with a list of some DOs and DON’Ts for anyone who might be planning their first trip to the island.

DO have $35 cash for Visa on Arrival

The cost of a 30-day Visa on Arrival for passport holders from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries was very recently increased to US$35 up from $25. To make sure you have no problems, have the exact amount ready in bills of good condition.

Edit: As of July 2015, passport holders from 45 nations (including the US, Canada, and most of Europe) are now allowed to visit Bali visa-free for 30 days. Great news!

DO keep 200,000 Rp for the Departure Tax


The Departure Tax for Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport (aka Denpasar Airport) was also increased recently. As of August 1, 2014 the tax is now 200,000 Rp (the previous price was 150,000). Most international airports these days include the departure tax in with the price of the ticket, but Bali has decided to not keep up with the 21st century in this regard. A good idea is to set aside the money for the departure tax right away when you change money the first time so that it’s waiting for you at the end of your trip.

DON’T exchange for Indonesian Rupiah outside Bali

At first, I was considering purchasing some Indonesian Rupiah in Thailand so I’d have enough for the trip and wouldn’t have to waste any time exchanging money while there. But as soon as I saw the exchange rates, I realized this was a bad idea. The differences between the buying and selling rates for IDR outside of Indonesia are ridiculously huge, so you are losing out big time no matter which direction you exchange in. Exchange your money when you get to Bali or use ATMs to simply withdraw cash in local currency there.

DON’T exchange any Thai Baht for Indonesian Rupiah

Related to the point above, I recommend getting your hands on some brand spanking new US $100 bills for exchange purposes. They want to get there hands on US dollars, not regional currencies such as the Thai Baht. Logic would tell you that you lose a little bit of money each time you exchange currencies. However, if you’re coming from Thailand you’ll end up with much more IDR if you change your Baht to Dollars in Thailand and then change those Dollars to Rupiah once you land.

DON’T get confused by all those zeros on the money

The exchange rate was hovering around 12,000 IDR to 1 Dollar while I was in Bali. So if you’ve ever wanted to know how it feels to be a millionaire, all you need to do is exchange $100. Seeing all those zeros on the bills can get a little confusing and make you feel like you’re dealing with Monopoly money. I found myself mentally subtracting 3 zeros from all the bank notes and any prices I saw on menus, etc. A fair number of shops and restaurants also cut off the last 3 zeros from their list of prices to make it cleaner to read.

DO pay very close attention when exchanging money

Money changers on Bali are notorious for sleight of hand tactics to leave you with less Rupiah then you’re supposed to get. When exchanging money don’t take your eyes off the bills that the seller has counted out for a second, and don’t let them leave your hands after you’ve counted them out yourself to double-check.

DO head straight to Ubud

Ubud is considered the cultural heart of Bali, and it makes a good place to start off your trip. The taxi ride there from the airport takes about an hour, but will only cost you around $30. The roads in Ubud (and Bali in general) are hopelessly to narrow to accommodate the amount of traffic they see. Therefore, I’d recommend staying somewhere near the center of Ubud so you can walk around on foot to see some of the sights. There are a number of very pleasant “home stays” run by local families located down tiny lanes running off the main roads. (Click here to read reviews on accommodation in Ubud). Even though the main roads are a constant stream of traffic, by just going 50 meters out of the way you’ll feel like you’re in a small village.

bali-home-stay-ubud

The Bali style accommodation at Ubud’s home stays is quite impressive. You’ll really feel like you’ve landed somewhere full of local gods and the artists who bring them to life.


DON’T step on offerings

Speaking of local gods—they’re everywhere apparently. You can’t help but notice local women leaving offerings to the local spirits all over the place, including right on the ground in front of their home or shop. The small coconut leaf dishes are filled with a variety of offering items such as flowers, food, and incense and left on the ground are easy to accidentally step on if you don’t always pay attention to where you’re walking. Common sense tells me that stepping right on top of an offering dish is bad luck, but they must get stepped on pretty often because they’re everywhere.

DON’T get bit by a monkey

One of the most popular tourist activities in Ubud is to visit the Monkey Forest where you can buy a bunch of bananas and feed the band of wild monkeys that live there. I had no interest in going anywhere near the Monkey Forest because I’ve already been bitten by a monkey once in my life and don’t need to go through the experience again. Monkeys might look cute, but they have some serious canine teeth and can be quite nasty. They can also carry rabies, so if you happen to get bit by a monkey you need to get to a doctor ASAP and get a series of rabies shots. It’s important to do this right away before any signs of illness because once symptoms of infection appear, rabies is reported to be 100% fatal.

DO take in a dance performance

barong-costume-bali

Barong lion costume

Ubud is a great place to take in a classical Balinese dance performance. Every night there are dance shows held at a number of different venues in the city. One of the most popular and atmospheric spots to see Balinese dance is Ubud Palace, but i don’t think it matters so much which venue you see a show at. What does matter a little is the style of dance being performed. I was most interested in seeing the Legong dance with its quirky hand movements and facial expressions. Another popular one is the Barong dance which depicts the triumph of a mythical lion over an evil witch-demon. The colorful costumes are definitely the highlight of the Barong dance, which is traditionally performed at village temple festivals. One dance that is promoted quite a bit—but one that I wasn’t so interested to see—is the Kechak “fire dance”. This form of dance is not actually an authentic classical Balinese art form. Rather it was developed in the 1930’s under the influence of German artist Walter Spies by adding narrative elements to a trance ritual performed by a group of men chanting in a circle around a fire.

DO treat yourself to a spa package

Going to a spa to indulge in some type of massage/facial/body scrub, etc. package is admittedly a kind of girly activity. But it’s actually a pretty fun and relaxing way to spend a couple hours. Guys, if you go as a couple with your girlfriend or wife you won’t feel nearly as out of place. There are a bunch of spas scattered around Ubud. Each one has their own menu of various treatments and packages available. Most are very affordable and give you a chance to try out all sorts of different skin treatments using ingredients such as green tea, sandalwood, turmeric, honey, yogurt, and seaweed.

DON’T leave a tip

I don’t mean to say that you should never leave a tip on Bali, but check the menu and the bill carefully first. Most restaurants add a 10% tax and a service charge of anywhere from 3-10% to the bill. As a matter of principle I don’t leave a tip at any restaurant that adds a service charge. A lot of Americans have a habit of over-tipping when they travel in Asia because they’re so used to doing it at home—where it’s a necessity to compensate for the below minimum-wage cost-of-labor loophole that the restaurant industry has created for itself.

DO expect to be surrounded by smokers

If you’re a cigarette smoker, then you’ll probably find Bali to be a paradise. If you have an aversion to tobacco smoke, on the other hand, you’re going to quickly get annoyed at all the smokers you’ll likely encounter. Between the tourists and local Balinese men, it seems like just about half of the people you come across are lighting up. Walking down the street in Ubud, you’ll see plenty of shop owners and taxi drivers sitting around at the edge of the sidewalk puffing away on clove cigarettes.

DON’T worry about finding transportation

You can’t walk more than 10 steps in Ubud or other major tourist cities in Bali without having someone ask if you need “transport”. Since the majority of English-speaking tourists to Bali are from Australia, I can’t help but wonder if the word “transport” is used more commonly there than it is in the US. For me as an American, hearing repeated calls of “Transport? You need transport?” just sounded funny. But in any case, there are plenty of potential drivers just sitting around waiting for customers almost everywhere you go.

DO hire a driver for a day

Hiring a driver for a day is a great way to take in some sights in different parts of the island. Ubud is a good central location that allows you to visit many spots in other parts of Bali pretty easily on a day trip. One thing to keep in mind though, is that your driver will probably get a commission at each place he takes you to where you end up spending money. So if you want to experience real local food instead of lunch at an overpriced restaurant, you’ll need to be clear about this with your driver.

Tirta Empul holy spring temple

Tirta Empul holy spring temple

 

DON’T trust anyone at the Bisakih Temple

The Bisakih Mother Temple is the largest temple on Bali. It is an impressive place to visit, but it also suffers from its popularity with tourists because of the many unofficial guides who can make the visit a less than enjoyable experience. In my case, a gang of youths who called themselves “temple guardians” were blocking the main entrance at the top of the flight of stairs. They were insisting that it was not possible to enter without having one of them along as an escort. The easy solution was to just walk around to the side entrance.

Bisakih Temple

Bisakih Temple

 

DO bargain hard for souvenirs

If you want to buy any souvenirs from one of the countless shops that sell them, you’ll want to bargain hard. The first price that a seller offers could very easily be 4 or 5 times what they’ll be willing to sell an item for. The best tried and true tactic is to start walking away after initially showing interest in something. The seller will almost always offer a much lower price at that point. For example, my girlfriend was looking at some fruit dishes and asked how much it would be if she bought four of them. The seller said they were 80,000 each, but she would sell us 4 for 200,000. As we started walking away she quickly dropped the price to 150,000 and then to 100,000 when we didn’t stop. When we passed by the same shop later, the seller remembered us and gave a final offer of 4 dishes for 80,000, which is how much she originally wanted for just one of them.

DO rent a motorbike to get around

Renting a motorbike can be a great way to get around on Bali, especially in the southern area if you want to drive around to see different beaches. Traffic on the island can be pretty horrible, but this is mostly because the roads are just too narrow to accommodate the number of cars using them. The good news is that the roadsigns are easy to read and finding your way around between any of the major tourist spots is fairly simple.

DON’T stop your bike for the police

 


You are technically supposed to have an international driving permit to be able to legally drive on Bali. A driver’s license from any of the other ASEAN member nations will also work. Since most tourists who rent bikes don’t have the proper driving permit, the traffic police on Bali have turned this state of affairs into a nice little money maker for themselves. They will typically stop tourists on motorbikes, ask to see an international drivers permit, and then accept a small payment to let the offending party be on their way.

Since I have a valid motorcycle driver’s license from Thailand I could drive legally in Bali. In theory, if the police stopped me I should be able to pass after showing them my Thai license. I was, however, skeptical that they wouldn’t just come up with some other excuse why they need a bribe paid. And so, the one time that I saw a couple police at the side of the road attempt to wave me over to stop, i simply looked straight ahead as if I didn’t notice them and just kept driving at a steady speed. They didn’t do anything.

If they were in front of me and blocking my path, then of course I’d stop. But otherwise—the best way to avoid paying a bribe to the cops is to just not even talk to them.

DO visit Kuta beach for sunset

My cousin and a coworker both warned me that Kuta Beach is best avoided. They said it’s basically the place to go if you are a 20-something Australian tourist looking to get drunk, it’s crowded, and it’s full of annoying hawkers. So while Kuta Beach isn’t going to be the best place to stay if you want to experience the cultural side of Bali, it is actually a really nice stretch of sand and a great place to take in the sunset. Grab a beer or a fresh coconut from one of the beach vendors, sit back, and enjoy the view—the people-watching is only beat by the sight of the sun sinking into the Indian Ocean. If the party hard scene is what you’re into, however, then check here for reviews of hotels near Kuta Beach.

kuta-beach-sunset

DO take part in a sea turtle release

On our visit to Kuta Beach, we just happened to luck out and come across a release of newly hatched baby sea turtles into the sea. Nothing could be more cute than seeing a bunch of baby sea turtles flapping their way across the sand on their way towards the ocean. Their survival rate in the wild is incredibly low, so just helping them get to the water safely is giving these turtles a good head start. For more information, you should check out the website of the Bali Sea Turtle Society, who organized the event.

DON’T drown

If you don’t have any experience swimming in the ocean, you need to be cautious going out into the water at Kuta or most of Bali’s other beaches. It is easy to underestimate the power of the rip current and get pulled far out from the shore.

DO visit Nusa Dua for a nice swimming beach

The beaches on the East coast of Bali’s southern peninsula are better suited for swimming due to the existence of some protective offshore reefs that help break up large waves. Nusa Dua is one long stretch of beautiful golden sand that is almost completely occupied by posh 5-star resorts. There is, however, an area accessible to the public called Geger Beach. You have to pay a small entrance fee to enter the beach area, but you can park a motorbike for free, rent a beach chair and umbrella all day for about $5, and enjoy some surprisingly cheap food at the beach restaurant and cafe.

geger-beach-nusa-dua-bali

Geger Beach

DON’T expect to find fruit shakes on the menu

Maybe I’m just spoiled by living in Thailand, but I’ve come to expect that any place in the tropics should have a variety of cool and refreshing fruit shakes on the menu. But this is not the case. In Bali the only shakes I saw on any of the menus were chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry flavored milkshakes. They seem to have plenty of options for fresh fruit juice available, but it seems that the idea of blending fruit and ice hasn’t occurred to anyone there yet. This isn’t so bad because some of the fresh juices are quite excellent—just not as cool as a shake would be.

DON’T get stung by a jellyfish

Nothing kills the fun of swimming in the sea quite like getting stung by a jellyfish. My girlfriend was stung by a little plum-sized jellyfish at Geger Beach, so just be aware that they could be in the water there. Within a few seconds of being stung the skin on her arm began to bubble up in two places. Luckily the staff at the beach restaurant has seen this before and knew what to do. They quickly gave us some vinegar to apply to the sting, and the swelling subsided soon after that.

DON’T miss your flight

As I mentioned earlier, the roads on Bali are just simply too narrow for the number of cars using them. It is also quite common for streets to get blocked by religious processions for any number of local ceremonies or temple festivals. The unpredictability of getting from point A to point B within a certain amount of time means that you need to plan on leaving for the airport well ahead of your flight time. For this reason, I’d also recommend staying at one of the southern beach areas close to the airport on your last night on Bali.

DO try the snake fruit

The Salak, otherwise known as “snake fruit”, that grows in Indonesia is a tasty treat, and it’s much easier to peel than the related fruit that grows in Thailand. Pick up a kilogram—you won’t be disappointed.

snake-fruit


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