Sandalwood incense scents the humid air as we cycle under curving arcs of bamboo decorations interwoven with frangipani and palm leaf. The 12-foot-tall flowered decorations wave like flags at every street corner of every village we pedal through.
We’re a bit off the tourist track, visiting Bali’s southwest coast from the gloriously remote Alila Villas Soori.
It’s the first day of the lavish Galungan festival, celebrated every 210 days.
Villagers are heading to their local temples.
Women in rainbow-hued skirts and white lace blouses gracefully balance baskets of fruit and flower offerings on their heads.
Men, resplendent in loose white tunics, ride by on scooters. Children are everywhere. Bells tinkle.
And everyone greets us with face-splitting smiles and a cheerful “Good morning!”
If you visit during the Galungan festival, be sure you include simply soaking it all in when planning your top things to do in Bali.
Why visit Bali?
Bali – the “island of the gods” – and its friendly people have fascinated visitors ever since European artists first made this remote tropical island world-famous in the 1930’s.
So what are the top things to do in Bali now?
Today, sporty types come for its epic surfing and scuba-diving.
Luxury devotees are lured by its five-star resorts and awesome spas – can you say “indulgence”?
The Kuta Beach area, shunned by many as over-crowded and noisy, is sought out by others for its miles-long beach and throbbing nightlife.
Yoga fans find mantra heaven gazing out over Bali’s terraced rice paddies.
And then there’s Bali’s traditional village life, art, dance and festivals.
The island’s unique culture valuing balance and harmony is a chief attraction. Experiencing this rich culture is high on many a visitor’s list of top things to do in Bali.
Balinese traditions – infused by beliefs that spirits inhabit the sacred mountains, trees, animals and all living things – are embedded in daily life. Tiny palm-leaf tray offerings, sprinkled with flower blossoms and a few grains of rice, greet us daily outside every shop, house and temple. And colorful, Javanese, Hindu-based festivals like the Galungan are celebrated year-round.
Get thee to Ubud
Located inland in lush rainforest, Ubud is Bali’s cultural heart.
Remember Eat Pray Love? Publicized by the romantic flick starring Julia Roberts, Ubud town now buzzes with activity.
Locals zip by on scooters along Ubud’s narrow, winding cobblestone streets.
International visitors throng its designer boutiques, open-air craft markets, antique shops and art galleries. They gawk too at the host of yoga, meditation and healing arts options on offer, and like us, stop in at little coffee shops, funky warungs (modest eateries) and charming garden restaurants serving up exquisite Indonesian delicacies.
But Ubud is still the best place to experience how the Balinese way of life is beautifully expressed in dance and music, in stone carvings and paintings, and in temple feasts and festive ceremonies.
Watching Balinese dance
Our first evening, we happen upon a dance performance at the Ubud Palace. Under a starlit sky, two young women perform the classic “Legong” dance, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra’s xylophone rhythms.
Wearing glittering headdresses, the dancers move in perfect stylized sync, emotions vividly expressed only by darting eyes.
Then a whole cast of actors in fantastic costumes, including girls dressed as golden deer, enacts the Hindu “Ramayana” love epic.
We’re so enthralled that over the next few evenings, we take in several other performances during our stay in Ubud – including the “Barong” lion dance and the “Kecak,” where 100 men chant in a trance-like state and a fire-walker in a horse costume dances barefoot on blazing coconut husks.
Visiting art galleries and museums
More Balinese dancers are immortalized in many of the paintings in art galleries around Ubud town.
We visit some of the art galleries – so chock-full, original oils and acrylics lean in piles against the walls.
Growing rice on the island traditionally allowed the Balinese plenty of spare time, so painting became part of daily life. Out in the countryside, simple artist-owned stalls sell original art works in a wide range of styles – paintings, drawings, sculpture, wood carvings, even intricately painted eggs and masks hand-carved from bamboo – much of it good and cheaper than in Ubud’s galleries (some original works go for as little as $100 USD).
Keen on the art, we spend some enjoyable hours at the Neka Art Museum. It houses more than 400 Indonesian works of art in a cluster of colonial buildings.
The history of Balinese art is laid out here, from early puppet-style canvasses onward. Some later styles were inspired by Bali-mad European artists like Walter Spies and Adrien LeMayeur – lured to Bali in the 1900s by the beauty of Bali and its people.
In town, we’re sorely tempted by an enormous impressionist-style oil painting. But while it can be rolled in a tube for transport, we don’t have a wall back home large enough to display it.
Like other visitors, we also can’t resist the “monkey business” at Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest. Whether or not monkeying around here is one of the “top things to do in Bali” is debatable – but we enjoyed it :-).
Over 550 macaque monkeys scamper about three 11th-century holy temples in a protected forest reserve on the edge of town.
We’re warned not to wear watches or shiny jewelry, as the cheeky rascals will steal anything they can eat or play with.
And we hear lots of laughter as the monkeys jump up on people who’ve brought them bananas. Shutters click continuously as people snap photos of the long-tailed felons. And the tiny almost-hairless babies suckling from their mothers are adorable.
Hit the beach, baby!
And what about Bali’s beaches? Swimming and surfing are also among the top things to do in Bali.
Perhaps the best beaches and top surfing spots on the island are found on the Bukit peninsula on Bali’s southern coast. Surfers first discovered this beautiful arid island-teardrop (Bukit to its friends). For big fast surfing waves, head to Uluwatu Beach right under the cliff-hanging Uluwatu Temple, one of Bali’s oldest temples.
The Bukit peninsula is also home to Nusa Dua.
This planned five-star resort community is where you find long stretches of swimmable gold sand beaches and manicured lawns with beach chairs and umbrellas for the St. Regis, Westin, Melia and other brand-name resorts, and private beach clubs for smaller boutique hotels like Kayumanis Nusa Dua.
Cycling along its stone beachfront path, Nusa Dua reminds us a little of a fancy Hawaii resort area, only more exotic with its stone statues of Garuda sun birds and Hindu gods guarding beach resort entrances. At sunset, we reach a public park with huge Ramayana stone statues, where locals and tourists alike are strolling and jogging.
There are other beaches in Seminyak and Kuta.
In truth, though, these are too crowded or littered for our tastes – the beaches aren’t the reason we’ve come to Bali anyway. (But we do like retreating for a few days to a couple of luxurious home-away-from-home villas in Seminyak – the WiFi is super fast and we can catch up on emails!)
More top things to do in Bali? Get a Balinese massage
We treat ourselves to massages too.
Balinese massage uses a combination of thumb and fist pressure, long kneading strokes and gentle stretching to create waves of relaxation.
Massage costs are far less than in North America, and many spas top the pleasure meter with luxurious add-ons.
Take the Four Seasons spa at Sayan (near Ubud), where we cross lotus ponds to reach a private indoor/outdoor spa villa for our couples treatment. After our feet are gently cleaned and perfumed, we’re rubbed with a warm poppy and rose oil scrub. Then we luxuriate in an outdoor bath strewn with rose petals, while served a soothing rose elixir. A deliciously skilful massage follows. Talk about 150 minutes of bliss!
And after biking through the Galungan-festive villages from Alila Villas Soori, we’re ready for our “Balinese Beauty Ritual” in the Alila’s candlelit, black marble spa.
First comes the massage. Next we’re slathered with a body mask of ginger, cinnamon and rice, then wrapped up like mummies and pampered with facials.
Our skin feels so soft after we act like honeymooners who can’t stop touching each other.
But for us, it’s the festivals that really capture the welcoming spirit of the Balinese. There always seems to be something to celebrate with a merry feast or the banging of cymbals during a noisy parade or procession.
One day walking to Sayan village, we stumble across preparations for an evening temple festival.
Men huddle in groups over charcoal fires in the ground, chattering away as they grill bamboo skewers wrapped with shredded pork, ginger and coconut. They invite us to share some – delicious! Women weave palm leaf baskets for offerings, which they pin in shape with bamboo slivers and fill with flower petals.
It’s all so peaceful, so happy, so serene that we’re hard-pressed to tear ourselves away and return to our own lives.
Our magazine article on “The Many Faces of Bali”
You may know we contribute travel features to several North American magazines and newspapers. This post is adapted from our story “The Many Faces of Bali,” recently published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine, which also highlights some of the top things to do in Bali. (Click on the image below to see a PDF.)
Have you been to Bali? What’s on your list of top things to do in Bali?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.