Bali travel guide and tips: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors

We already know about the things that shouldn't happen in Bali: excessive drinking, tourists exposing way too much flesh on the beach and blatant ignorance of the island's culture. But that's not the real Bali. Beyond Kuta there is plenty that will surprise, and delight, the first-time visitor to the Island of the Gods.

1. They know it's your first time

The first time I visited Bali my then-boyfriend was chased down the street by around 30 vendors after we went for our first walk outside our hotel. One brazen Javanese woman tied a leather bracelet around his wrist and demanded payment. You're pale, you stop to look at what they're selling and you mistakenly ask how much. They know. 

2. You'll sweat like there's no tomorrow

Forget your jeans, or that heavy jacket; Bali is hot year-round with an average temperature of 32 degrees. Pack cotton fabrics, kaftans and open-toe shoes. You will live in your swimmers. May to July is considered the best time to visit Bali. You may even be able to walk down the street without leaving a puddle of sweat – but then again, don't count on it.

3. Bali's beaches are nothing on Australia's

It shouldn't really come as a surprise given Australia has some of the best beaches on the planet, but the first time you take a dip in Bali it can be disappointing. The water at many popular beaches is generally not clear, and you mightn't see anything of note while snorkelling. There are exceptions. The beaches of Ungasun, where many hip beach clubs are located, look like the Amalfi Coast, but beware of strong currents and dumping waves. What the beaches lack in aesthetics they more than make up for with happening beachfront clubs and incredible sunsets.

4. Culture is everywhere you look

The true Bali, with its rituals, festivals and ancient culture, is everywhere you look from small offerings sitting outside shops to thousands of temples that reside everywhere from hotels and resorts to by the roadside. Everywhere you look, you will see ceremony, ritual and sacred offerings. The Balinese carry out their religious obligations with pride and everyone takes part from the youngest child, through to grandparents, all dressed immaculately for the temple.

5. You'll need to pack a sarong

Speaking of temples, if you plan to visit one you are required to wear a sarong and a sash. You can hire them if you forgot to pack one, or buy them relatively cheaply. Both men and women need to cover their legs below the knee with a sarong, while the sash should be worn around the waist. 

6. The drinks are incredible, and cheap

Bali sure knows how to make a fab cocktail. Some of the best can be found in bars, beach clubs and restaurants in Seminyak and Legian but I've had delicious lychee martinis in the middle of nowhere. Beer is also cheap. Be wary of inexpensive and nasty bootlegged alcohol and avoid drinks that appear too cheap even by Bali standards. Avoid drinks labelled as arak. Wine, compared to spirits, is extremely expensive. 

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7. The shopping's amazing, but not the bargain it once was

The markets are fun for first timers, and haggling is expected. However shopping in Bali is now incredibly sophisticated, particularly in Seminyak, Legian, Canggu and Ubud. Amazing boutiques, high-end home ware stores, silver jewellery and antiques can al be found.  Many of the items cost what they do back home, so hunt around for sales. 

8. Kuta is really that bad, but it's not the real Bali

Kuta is seedy, tasteless and full of tourists who find that sort of thing appealing, but don't judge the whole of Bali on it. It'd be like visiting Surfers Paradise during schoolies and writing off the whole of Australia. Some Balinese who've had the dubious pleasure of mixing it with Australians on holiday in Kuta think we're all like that. Show them it's not true. 

9. You can get a decent coffee

Once upon a time Bali was a desert for caffeine lovers. Not so anymore. Try the two outposts of Revolver in Seminyak, Butter Cake and Coffee Shop in Canggu and Seminen and Anomali in Ubud. With free Wi-Fi at most cafes, you may consider becoming a digital nomad.

 

Hello old friend @revolverespresso

A photo posted by Sheriden (@sheriden_rhodes) on

10. You don't need to wear a helmet, but you'd be mad not to

Lots of tourists hire motorbikes and drive around without helmets, in shorts and thongs – throwing caution to the wind. Don't do it. Falling off hurts even more when you don't wear protective gear. There's no public transport to speak of but Bluebird taxis are metered, super cheap and clean.

11. You no longer need to have cash ready when you land in Bali

Australians are no longer required to pay $US35 for a visa on arrival in Bali. Under a visa waiver program Australians are granted free entry into Indonesia for up to 30 days.

12. There are a lot of Ketuts

All Balinese share the same four names - Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut – whether they're male or female, and are named by order of birth. If a family has a fifth child, they will start again and call him or her Wayan.

13. A lot of people smoke, and cigarettes are cheap

Both the locals (mostly men) and every second tourist smokes, so it'll be a shock for those who love our tobacco-free public spaces. It's not surprising to see young boys smoking and small children selling cigarettes either.  

14. You will get sick of nasi goreng but you should try it 

Balinese cuisine is not world-renowned, but it's tasty and inexpensive. You should at least try the babi guling (suckling pig), nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and sate lembat. Double-Six Seminyak room service delivers a knockout nasi goreng. Bali's restaurant scene is world class, with some of the most incredible food you'll find anywhere in the world.

15. You'll be there before you know it

There's a reason Bali is so popular with Australians; it only takes five-to-six hours to get there and fares are cheap, except in peak season (July-August and Australian school holidays) when airfare and accommodation prices soar. Before you know it you'll be kicking back with a Mojito watching a Balinese sunset. Unfortunately nearly all flights home are at night, so you won't get much sleep. 

 

Afternoon music lesson @alilavillassoori @alilahotels #bali

A photo posted by Sheriden (@sheriden_rhodes) on

16. You can't drink the water

Drink bottled water only, and brush your teeth in it too. Bottled water is cheap and many hotels and resorts provide complimentary water. It's advisable not to have ice in your drinks either, unless it's a reputable hotel, restaurant or bar. Better be safe than suffer Bali belly, which unfortunately does happen – particularly to first timers.

17. There's truly gob-smacking scenery

Get out of the main tourist areas, and see Bali's World Heritage-listed rice terraces, watch a farmer herding his flock of ducks, see a woman perched sidesaddle on a motorbike on her way to the temple. Take a walk and meet the locals.

18. You will feel like a millionaire

The exchange rate means $AU100 is equivalent to about 1 million Rupiah, so your wallet will be as fat as the local bookmakers. There are money changes everywhere (ask your hotel for a reputable one) and you can get money out at ATMs on your credit card, but be careful. Mine was swallowed up in a local convenience store and when I got home multiple things had been charged to my card. 

 

What a pool overlooking Impossible Beach @anantara_hotels

A photo posted by Sheriden (@sheriden_rhodes) on

19. Tips are not expected, but you still should

The Balinese people are lowly paid, and yet extremely generous and hospitable. If you receive good service, a small tip goes a long way. If you're with a group throw in a couple of bucks each, and learn to say thank you: "terima kasih". The locals appreciate you learning a few Indonesian words.

20. You will be back

Once Bali gets under your skin, don't be surprised to find yourself returning again and again. Some Australians holiday there annually: others never come back home (Bali is full of Australian ex pats). There's something magical, ethereal and beautiful about Bali. Be sure to get out beyond your hotel and find it.  

See also: Australians to get visa-free entry into Bali
See also: Bali: The top 20 things to do beyond Kuta

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