Should experienced travellers go to Bali? A note from my own experience

Bail is one of the most popular destinations for Australian holiday-makers, and especially for people from Perth (my hometown) because it’s basically the shortest flight you can take to get anywhere holiday-ish (apart from a few places within Western Australia which are gorgeous, but way more expensive). Just look at this departure board from the international terminal at Perth airport recently:

Perth Departures to Denpasar Bali

A lot of flights from Perth to Bali on the board …

I don’t think this is especially atypical, especially for the holiday season – 12 flights listed, and six of them are to Bali. Yep, they are all individual flights, not code shares or something. All those other flights are likely to be stopovers for many of the passengers – Asia or the Middle East on the way to Europe, especially – but the Bali passengers are pretty much guaranteed to stop in Bali. That’s a lot of Perth people headed to Bali for just one part of a day, isn’t it?

For a long time (and in light of info like this, too) I thought I was one of the very few Perth people who had never been to Bali. I know some many people who go regularly, and some who have been literally dozens of times. But was I really the only one who hadn’t tried Bali on? I started asking instead of assuming, and discovered something interesting.

Many experienced Australian travellers have never been to Bali

It started off at the travel writing course I teach here in Perth, one aimed at travel addicts who want to learn about new ways to record their travels (for themselves and their families, rather than aiming to become professional travel writers). I surveyed the class on which countries they’d visited and was extremely surprised when only half had been to Indonesia (I didn’t specifically ask them about Bali – so some of the Indonesian votes might not even have been for Bali). Here I was with a room full of people who had usually been to twenty, thirty, some over fifty countries, and who’d spent most of their lives based in Perth, but a large proportion had never been to Bali. Interesting.

And when I decided to take this trip and wrote about being a Perth girl who’s never been to Bali, I had the same reaction – many of you commented on the blog and on social media to tell me you, too, were Perth people who’d never been to Bali. In fact, I tried to poll my Perth readers to prove that “most” Perth people had been to Bali – when I asked on the Not A Ballerina Facebook page, in the first couple of hours I had 22 Perth people who had never been and only 13 who had – I managed to even this up a bit by asking all my Perth friends (not just the blog fans) – but it reinforced for me that well-travelled people have a tendency not to visit Bali. Many of you made comments like “It doesn’t interest me” and other common comments were like this one:

Really interested to see if you like it. My hubby went years ago and he claims he will never take me. I’m too well travelled (he says) to like Bali. I won’t be impressed. So I’m keen to see what another traveller makes of Bali.

I was quite concerned about this issue before I arrived. My main worries were seeing too many “tourists behaving badly” (especially if they also happened to be Australians) and feeling that the tourism industry is too exploitative and it’s just one big playground for foreigners who might not respect the local culture.

Should experienced travellers go to Bali

My experience of Bali

I don’t mean to sound like a travel snob, but I think I can say that I have travelled quite widely, and I can certainly say that I’m not a fan of visiting places that are full of tourists and seemingly custom-made for tourists.

I expected Bali to be like this, and certainly the main tourist areas of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and even parts of Ubud were exactly like this. There were hundreds of shops that no local would ever step inside (and if they did, there is no way on earth they could afford to buy something there – and most of the shops appeared to be owned by foreigners, to boot), there was English language signs everywhere without even the Indonesian version, and also tellingly, every local you bumped into spoke decent or often excellent English – everything was set up to optimise the experience for tourists.

Feeling uncomfortable because the locals have such a lower income and lower standard of living (by our standards!) is nothing unique to Bali, but it seemed extreme to me here. Sure, the locals welcome the tourists, and in no small part because without them, they have little or no income. But – and I find it hard to explain this properly – it just seemed so contrived, and so far removed from what Bali must have been like before tourism hit. Well, More on tourism’s impact on Bali in a future post, but you get my drift.

However …  I was going to be there for a week, no matter what I felt, it was school holidays, I had my family with me, and I was staying at a really lovely hotel, so … there were times when I felt very angsty about the whole Bali tourism thing, and other times when I managed to completely forget it.

Yes, I’m not usually a fan of lying by the pool sipping cocktails, but you know what? It’s actually really nice to do that now and again. And while there’s a big part of me that felt like it was a “waste” of being abroad, that I should be out there getting to know the culture instead of sipping on said cocktail, there was also a part of me that did manage to relax and enjoy it.

Should experienced travellers go to Bali

Hanging out by the pool in Bali … not my usual travel style.

I’m also not a fan of seeing only the really touristy bits of a place, but in six days in Bali with a kid and without knowing a local really well, it’s not that easy. Even Google isn’t that much of a help because most of the information out there about going to Bali is aimed at the people who want to mostly hang by the pool!

I think that what makes stomaching the Bali-ness of Bali a bit easier is that the Balinese people are utterly delightful. If I was them, I’d feel kind of resentful towards all these millions of tourists who’ve (in my humble opinion) come in and destroyed their island. Perhaps they do, too, but they hide it well and every Balinese person I met was so kind, chatty and lovely that I felt much more relaxed being there – I felt welcomed, and so that made me feel petty about not quite being sure if I wanted to be there or not.

So: should experienced travellers go to Bali?

Oh, the thousand-dollar question. (It’s not a million-dollar question, because fortunately holidaying in Bali is relatively cheap, especially if you’re coming from Western Australia!) Should experienced travellers go to Bali? Or more precisely, will experienced travellers enjoy a Bali trip?

I think it all depends on the attitude. If you’re going with family and friends and plan to have some fun together, then that can work. If you’re happy to treat it as a relaxing break, without too much necessity to discover what you might consider to be the “real Bali”, then that can work too.

If you’re wanting to really travel, meet the locals, discover new things, and all that: then personally, I’d book a flight to somewhere else. Alternatively, at the very least, fly in to Denpasar as usual but then hightail it out to a less-visited part of Bali (I didn’t get there yet and can’t guarantee that works, but it has to be better than the main tourist beat).

Bali certainly wasn’t on my radar before the sponsorship opportunity presented itself. I’d often said I would probably end up there some day – my mothers’ group friends keep plotting a getaway there, for example – but it wasn’t a destination that really beckoned me. But in retrospect, I’m glad I went, and I know now what everyone’s talking about when they are off to Bali all the time. I still might go back with a bunch of friends; or return but go more off the beaten track, with a bit more Indonesian vocabulary to my list; but again, it’s not all that high on my agenda.

Comments

  1. I was in the same boat, I refused to go to Bali because I had too many images in my head of drunk Aussies loitering around Kuta making idiots of themselves. Eventually I got dragged there by my surf-mad hubby who just had to surf those amazing lefthanders and since then Bali has become one of my favourite travel destinations. There’s plenty more to Bali than Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud, I’ve been at leats ten times now and I’ve rarely come across the idiot Aussie that I was so afraid of and the Balinese have to be some of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever met. I think Bali’s a great place if you’re looking for quick tropical escape and a few days of inexpensive indulgence.

    • I so agree about the Balinese being such lovely people – that was definitely one of the things that really made the trip great. Definitely if I returned I’d be looking for some off-the-beaten-path spots to explore.

  2. I’ve been three time now after swearing I would never go. The first was after I won a trip and the second and third were work trips. The first time I hated it (and my travelling companion) so much that I ended up drinking myself into oblivion and gave $500 to a man to buy his horse (as it was being mistreated) thinking in my drunken stupor I would save it from a life of servitude. Not one of my finer moments. And luckily my less drunken companion pointed out that I was going to struggle to get it on our flight home the next day.

    MY second trip 20 years later and with children in tow was a very different and far more sober occasion. We stayed in the most beautiful five star resort away from the main tourist beat and actually relaxed. It was very much a “holiday” as opposed to travelling and we accepted it as that. But, we were also able to mingle with the locals at the local fish markets (we were the only tourists there and no one spoke English) and took the trip to an (admittedly touristy) temple. But we were lucky enough to have chosen a holy day so the bulk of the people were locals. It was here that I was finally sold on Bali when an older gentleman came over to us, pointed to my then 18 month-old daughter (who was being mobbed by locals wanting a cuddles), smiled and her and put his hands on his heart. Looking to us for permission, he picked her up and took her into one of the temples (where tourists are not allowed) and had her blessed by a priest. He then brought her back to us, hugged her goodbye and disappeared into the crowd. It was a perfect moment

    On our last visit it was Raffles who was mobbed by the locals. A group of Muslim ladies fell in love with him and swept him up for cuddles and pics on their iPhones…. thus treating the tourist as the attraction. And on our drives out of the main tourist areas (where I admit it is still chock full of shops and souvenirs aimed at tourists) we stumbled across several private local ceremonies (including a very sobering cremation) which were just happening when we past by (we didn’t stop or intrude). Amazing.

    It will never be my favourite destination but there is much to love and real culture to be found if we open ourselves to it. And my kids are begging to go back…

    • Aleney, your comment is a whole blog post in itself – what an amazing collection of Bali tales! I’m pleased I didn’t do as badly as you on my maiden voyage and didn’t buy anyone’s horse 😉

      I could imagine going back and knowing more about getting away from the touristy areas, like your 2nd and 3rd trips, and it’s true for sure that the locals are very welcoming (and love kids especially). But every time I think about that, then I also think, “or we could go somewhere similar but not Bali”! Of course the big attraction from Perth is that it’s so close, but so is a lot of SE Asia.

  3. We are very much in the same boat as you, we have no real interest to visit Bali unless it was purely accepted as a ‘holiday’ private villa style. But then, if we wanted this we would probably end up going to Malaysia or somewhere else in Indonesia! Having spoken to several Perth locals who go regularly, there are many beautiful, less touristy places off the beaten track in Bali. Maybe worth exploring?

    • I agree Jess, if I did go again I would put more effort into hiding out about the off the beaten track spots, because I’m sure they exist and other aspects of Bali (lovely people, close to Perth, good value) are obviously enticing. But then – yes, I’d probably rather go to Malaysia (I loved Penang and want to see more) or other parts of Indonesia. I guess only time will tell if I ever return to Bali!

  4. Hubby and I are NOT well-travelled at ALL and still have Bali well down the list of future destinations for this reason. We honeymooned in Thailand and while we spent half of it by the ocean and the pool, the other half we spent trekking. Hubby did go to Bali on a family holiday when he was younger, and has said he has no desire to go back.

  5. I have been to Bali twice – the first time was as my first ever trip overseas, I think I was 14 and I did it alone (aka no parents, but yes a chaperone) and loved it because it was my first travel experience. Then I went again recently for a wedding. I don’t like it. I don’t see the attraction. I don’t get why so many Aussies flock there every year over and over again. Sure it is cheap, but save up that money and go somewhere twice as nice.

  6. I’ve only been to Bali once but I have to say it wasn’t my favourite, for all the reasons you listed above. I spent a week at a sucky beach followed by an OK week in Ubud. I had a great time over on Gili T but when I returned I couldn’t get out of Bali quick enough. I was travelling solo and was constantly accosted by male prostitutes. It was horrible. I’d get knocks on my hotel room door from off duty hotel staff asking if I needed “company”. I’d get followed in the street and even touched by some men. According to an Aussie journalist I met there, a lot of middle-aged Australian women travel to Bali for sex!!!! And because I was slightly older than the young backpackers I guess I looked like a prime target. I really hated it! I couldn’t wait to get back to Thailand where the women were the hookers!

    • Ooh just saw this comment Bethaney – and ew!!!! That does not sound like a pleasant experience at all!! Had no idea this was going on there. I can see why you wouldn’t go back in a hurry. (Me neither, but not for such reasons thank goodness!)

  7. I love the very balanced views you’ve offered here and Bali is certainly getting a pretty bad rap in the news at the moment. Leaving politics aside, I think the people are generally lovely, especially those in the villages who are less touched by Westernisation and all the good and bad that ensues from that. Mass tourism in the more crowded places is encouraging it’s fair share of crooks and ne’er do gooders as any city might . I think it’s fair to say that much of Bali has lost its innocence and you need to stand on guard, unless you head to a beautiful five star hotel and don’t move for a few days 😉

    • Ah yes, current politics makes it even trickier, but yes, putting that aside, I think there have been better days. Although this is nobody’s fault but ours, really!

  8. Originally I went to Bali as a 20 year old, (nearly 40 years ago) with a girlfriend. As you can imagine it was quite different to what I imagine and have heard it is like nowadays. We spent about a month there before overlanding up to Jogjakarta.
    Marty and I went when we were 25 on the way back from 9 months in Europe. We flew in to Perth and stayed there for 2 years. We have fond memories of Bali and while I am keen to return and head off into the less travelled areas, Marty flatly refuses to go. He says he’d rather keep his good memories.
    On both occasions we stayed at Kuta and it was pretty laid back. There may have been a night club but we never went to it. We stayed in Losmens for 70 cents/night (first trip) and $5/night on the second trip. It was a beautiful relaxed island with friendly locals, traditional dancers, small laid back restaurants and nothing else to do but lay on the beach, surf or go to Ubud for a bit. Ubud had a few sarong weaving places and temples and not much else.
    I don’t think I will get back there unless I win a trip!!

    • Jan, I have to say, I think Marty is right – keep your good memories from the good old days! It’s funny you should mention the hotel prices – I assumed that the (very nice) hotel I was put up at was kind of pricey for Bali at around $200 a night – then I asked around at what others were paying for their resorts and it was all similar! I was shocked that somewhere everybody says is a cheap destination was nowhere near my definition of cheap at all! I wish I could have seen the Bali of 40 years ago. I’m sure I would have liked it much more.

  9. Bali is a travel destination for the majority of Perth locals due to the close proximity and relative cheapness of the destination – so true. However, Kuta is not all Bali or Indonesia has to offer in the same way Munich’s Oktoberest, Spain’s Pamplona or any other drinking fest doesn’t really represent what Europe has to offer.

    Sure there is plenty of drunken louts in Bali, but unfortunately that is becoming the norm in plenty of other places too, I spent one night in Earl’s Court hostel and I moved out the next morning vowing to never return. On the same token, they are pretty easy to avoid as they tend to congenerate around the same areas. The advantage of Bali is heading across to the island in the middle of a miserable Perth winter for some sun and surf, it is worthwhile sitting around the pool in the afternoon after diving.

    Once out of the main centres, the island has plenty to offer scuba divers or surfers on the north coast and while I wouldn’t consider Bali as my main holiday destination by any means, shooting across for a couple of days diving on an extended weekend away shows plenty of promise.

    • It sounds like you’ve done better at seeking out the more lovely parts of Bali, Jeff – I was just a bit disheartened when even Ubud was like a tourist trap. But I have heard from many that going further north or east or west can be very rewarding! Maybe one day … (and yes I do love that it is so close!)

  10. I’ve been to Indonesia – but not to Bali. I guess I’m a bit of a travel snob too. But now I have kids and a tight budget I think I’d give it a go, but be really careful about where I travel to and where we stay. I’ve heard so many bad and good experiences, I think it pays to do your research. I found the comment about women being pestered for sex interesting. I have several female Aussie friends who travel to Bali alone (or in groups) for shopping and spas etc, and they have had the same experience!

  11. I’d love to get in touch with you.
    I am a Canadian, mid forties.. and aching to travel. I’ll be travelling solo and it’s my first time every (traveling AND going solo).

    I have to be in Perth for part of my trip and would love to chat with you about Bali and Perth!!

    🙂

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  1. […] Should Experienced Travellers go to Bali? Amanda from Not a Ballerina always writes thoughtful travel articles which go beyond top 10 lists. She delves into the realms of a thinking persons travel. Bali is close to Western Australia, so she ticks ‘proximity’ and her local readers will all have an opinion about this Island which has been considered Australia’s playground. […]

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