If you are from the US, Bali may not be high on your list of travel destinations. But if you are in the Indo-pacific region, or a lucky enough American to visit, you need to know some things up front.
Bali is in Indonesia, but it’s a different society than the Muslim surrounding country. Bali is allowed to practice a version of Hinduism by the government. For what it’s worth, I found it to be very fascinating, but I still try to expose our family to Muslim cultures wherever possible as it’s most unlike the States.
The Island is surrounded by water, with the Indian Ocean to the South, and the Java Sea to the North. The most populace areas are in the South, near the airport in Kuta. Staying in Kuta, Seminyak, Canggu, Denpasar, or Sanur is likely very similar. These will be highly commercialized zones, with hit or miss beaches (beaches will be discussed later on in the post). Do not expect a truly magical experience in any of these spots. It reminded me of built up areas in Mexico–beautiful and fun, but not exotic or remote in the least.
Most of the beaches we saw were protected by a coral reef and therefore completely stagnant tidal pools. These areas were eventually quite boring for our 8 and 11 year old kids (and adults, frankly). The beach at Nusa Dua where we spent three days was better overall–more wild, better and closer waves, and seemingly better sand. I know that the surf culture goes gaga for Uluwatu and Padang Padang, but those are a bit tougher to get to with little kids and the surf can be quite heavy at times.
Ubud and Surrounding Areas
You need to be aware that Ubud is not walkable in any form or fashion. You will be taking scooters to and from your destinations, or cabs if you have your family. This was shocking to us and led to a sense of claustrophobia at times. If you can come to terms with this early on, your trip will be more enjoyable. It took me a while.
Otherwise Ubud was very pleasant. The deals on food were passable. Remember that food is cheap only if you go to Warungs (small family-run restaurants). Further, the great prices at first blush are brought back to earth by small portion size. So ultimately, there’s no “free lunch” here and the food is not all that cheap. The lodging is cheaper than the populated beach towns by about half.
Food and Drink
Whereas we ate tons of beef and drank tons of wine in France, we ate chicken and drank beer in Bali. There seem to be only two wine companies, with average wine at a high price. We ordered a burger once and it was a joke of a meal with beef likely imported from Australia. However, the chicken was terrific, along with the eggs. It seems this area has an abundance of chicken.
The main beer is Bintang, a slightly above-average pilsner. You should pay no more than $35,000 rupiah at a restaurant. If more than that, that is a good litmus test that they are either trying to rip you off, or have screwball pricing, neither of which is good of course. Don’t expect much beer variety.
Of course there is a lot of rice, like in all Asian countries, and it serves well as a filler for the kids and grownups. You should try some new things like teas, nasi goreng, ayam soto, satays, and other staple dishes.
You will get a 30-day VOA (Visa on Arrival) when you get to the Denpasar airport. This was $500,000 rupiah, or $35 USD for us per person. After the 30 days, you have an option of one 30-day extension. If you need to obtain this, don’t listen to people saying it’s “no big deal,” because even the airport agent made it seem like you can just show up a week before your visa expires. I would start two weeks before expiration of your current visa. Go to an agency (they abound in populated areas), and have them start the process. That will ensure you get your passport back before you have to leave somewhere–yes, they take your passport, so timing can be tricky. You also have to pay a much higher price if you are cutting it too close. The two-week rule is a good one, though no one mentioned that to us.
Should I Take My Family to Bali?
Bali has a lot of positives, and overall we enjoyed our time as a family. I was frustrated at times with the type of experience offered here. It seemed Bali has an identify crisis. Is it a luxury resort haven? A backpacker paradise? Or somewhere in between?
Personally, I would never come as far as Bali, with all the nature and decent deals available, and stay in some luxury resort. That makes zero sense to me on several levels. For one thing, you insulate yourself from genuine locals. Also, you are not getting good value relative to what you could be getting by staying somewhere more modest.
The same goes for glitzy beach clubs. These seem to cheapen the experience, though they aren’t cheap financially at all. For us, the interactions with real culture and people were far more valuable than having a really nice swimming pool and room service. But I guess if that’s your thing, knock yourself out. I think it’s crazy to go to Bali and try to have a luxury experience. Where’s the fun in that?