Bali may be one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, with thousands of tourists flocking to its tropical beaches every year. However in no way that does not mean that it should be overlooked by those who prefer their holidays a little more “off the beaten track”. As long as you are prepared to do a little research, then there are still plenty of amazing lesser-known places in Bali just waiting to be explored. Bali’s combination of excellent tourist infrastructure and more rugged and remote areas make it a high starting point to exploring the less luxurious, but more rewarding side of travel.
Bali off the beaten track: where to go and what to
As a general rule of thumb, the further south you are in Bali the more ‘touristy’ you will find it. If you are dead set on avoiding crowds at all costs, you will want to cut out some of the more recognised places such as Kuta, Seminyak and Legian as they are always busy. As you travel north, the character of the island starts to change, becoming a lot less urban. Along the coast, you begin to find more sleepy fishing villages, and inland the countryside begins to open up into some of the famous rice terraces you will have seen on a million postcards before finally turning into the mountains of the central highlands. There are some exceptions to this rule.
One such is Ubud, the biggest town in the highlands which has become a lot busier in recent years, although it still has a friendlier vibe than some of the tourist hotspots in the south; more art galleries and health cafes than nightclubs and cheap cocktail deals. Another example of this is Canggu, a once quiet, rice-field town, is now one of Bali’s most bustling hot-spots with trendy bars and nightclubs, gourmet restaurants and cafes, yoga studios, gyms, large villas, surf schools and more.
Here are my recommendations for the best places to visit in Bali off the beaten track.
1. Stay in Munduk
If you want to explore the central highlands while still beating the crowds, try staying in Munduk rather than the more popular Ubud. This is a small village, consisting of a single, not particularly impressive, main road – don’t be fooled by the simple looks though as the buildings, one side, hide some of the best sunset views in Bali and, on the other, some of the best sunrise views. You find won’t many big hotels around here, but there are a few guesthouses and homestays that will offer you excellent quality accommodation, for a great price, as well as the chance to sample a few local delicacies. The surrounding countryside is attractive for hiking as it is filled with waterfalls, paddy fields, coffee plantations and traditional villages. If you fancy something a little more adrenaline-inducing, then check out Munduk Wilderness, an adventure company that runs mountain biking / Fin Komodo (a type of ATV) tours and Land Rover safaris.
2. Discover the Nusa Islands
Three islands lie just off the coast of Bali, Nusa Lembongan. Nusa Penida and Nusa Cengingan all of which are worth a visit. Boats leave every day from the mainland and take about 30 minutes to get out to the islands. Nusa Lembongan is the most popular of the three, but even so, it depicts as being like Bali was thirty years ago. The beaches are beautiful, and there are some great opportunities for diving, snorkelling and surfing. Nusa Ceningan is joined to Lembongan by a footbridge and is famous for its dramatic coastline. There are plenty of opportunities for cliff jumping and a famous lagoon over which you can zip line. Nusa Penida is by far the largest of the islands, and it is also the most remote. This is a great place to go trekking and also has a couple of the best dive spots in the whole of Bali, most notably Manta Bay.
3. Explore Lovina in North Bali
Lovina is one of the most famous towns (actually a collection of several villages that have merged) in the north of Bali. Now, this is not exactly an unpopular place; you will run into quite a few other tourists while wondering around the town but stick with me. First of all, I would recommend staying just outside Lovina. There are some great value villas and resorts set back in the mountains just behind the town, many of which have fantastic ocean views. Secondly, the atmosphere in Lovina is very much more laid back and relaxed than you will find in the south – this is not a party town. There are some excellent restaurants and a few quiet bars, but that is about the extent of the nightlife. Sightseeing highlights include the black sand beach and the chance for a dawn trip on a traditional outrigger to see the local pod of dolphins.
The main reason for staying here though is that it is a perfect base from which to explore the rest of Bali’s north coast. There is a great coast road which makes travelling between the different points of interest easy – you could quickly drive the length of the north shore in a day, not that you would want to because there are so many exciting places to stop and see. From the regional capital of Singaraja, with its royal palace and Chinese temple to the West Bali National Park with plenty of sleepy fishing villages and beautiful scenery in between, it’s difficult to see why this part of the island is often underrated. My particular recommendations would be Pemuteran (great for diving and snorkelling) and the Buddhist temple in Banjar.
4. Visit Tenganan ancient village
The Bali Mula (often known as the Bali Aga, although this is a slightly derogatory term) are the surviving remnants of Bali’s original population, and their culture predates the arrival of Hinduism on the island. They are now limited to a few villages in the mountains, some of which are open to visitors. Tenganan is the best for outsiders to visit and a trip there provides a fascinating insight into a culture that has changed very little over the centuries.
5. Go to Gunung Kawi Temple
One of Bali’s many nicknames is the “island of a thousand temples“. Hinduism plays such an important role in Balinese culture; its influences can be felt through all aspects of life on the island, that it would be a crime to visit without having a look at at least one of the island’s major religious sites. The most famous temple is probably Tanah Lot but, while the temple itself is undoubtedly beautiful, there are so many souvenir stalls and bars/cafes that it is now practically a small town. My pick of temples to visit is always Gunung Kawi. Located in Tampaksiring, this fantastic site is hardly unheard of, but, if you go at the right time of day, usually the early morning, you can avoid the crowds and, with a bit of luck, may end up having the whole place to yourself. You may need to take your sarong if you visit outside regular hours as you might not be able to rent one and they are mandatory for temple visits).
The place has been of religious significance for more than a thousand years and the essential part of the complex, a cliff face with ten massive rock-cut shrines, dates back to the 11th century. Beware, the temple is at the bottom of a valley, and there are a lot of steps to reach it, but, you will be walking through some fantastic scenery as the path winds its way through terraced rice fields down to a swiftly flowing river at the bottom. On a clear day, there is also a great view of Mount Agung in the distance.
6. Climb Mount Batur
Mount Batur is one of the highest mountains in Bali, rising to a height of 1717m. This is a hike, rather than a climb and it is doable by even those who don’t consider themselves ‘hikers’. It takes about 3 hours, and the path does get very steep, but, as long as everyone is in reasonably good shape, there shouldn’t be any problems. Just remember to wear good shoes and bring a light jacket, a few snacks and some water.
You will need to hire a tour guide to take you up the mountain. Most tours leave in the early hours of the morning, aiming to get you to the summit in time to catch the dawn. Watching the sunrise from high up above the clouds, on top of a Balinese volcano will be an experience that you will not soon forget.
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Lovina photos – via Blonde Seashell
Nusa Penida: paolo-nicolello-748200-unsplash
Munduk – via Salt In Our Hair
Mount Batur: frankie-spontelli-571290-unsplash