Where to even begin with Bali.
My travel list is about a mile long, but I can’t say Indonesia had ever crossed my mind. It seemed impossibly, unreachably exotic; just the thought of Bali evoked a playground for the rich and famous a half a world away. Too far, too expensive, too removed from my own life to ever become a part of it. And yet.
The majority of the travel I’ve done in my life has been of my own volition; study abroad and spring breaks and summer camps I applied to without my parents’ knowledge. But my mid-twenties has made solo travel less of a pipe dream and more of a necessity, as shifting relationships and work schedules and – most insurmountably – money means that travel partners have become scarce. As independent as I’ve always been, I’ll admit that the idea of traveling solo paralyzed me with fear for months. Could I manage as a woman in a foreign country alone, unfamiliar with the language and local customs? Would I be safe? Would I enjoy myself? As time ticked by and I felt myself growing increasingly frustrated by a lack of opportunities to travel with others, I realized it was high time to create my own, and finally settled on what promised to be a perfect compromise for my travel needs: a group tour.
I’d toyed with the idea of a group tour in the past, thanks to an acquaintance who’d visited China and Peru and other far-flung places through one of the many companies that offers guided treks with set itineraries on virtually every continent. It took some convincing: would I feel confined by set schedules, overwhelmed by sharing so much time and space with people I didn’t know? Would it be worth the money? And, on a more personal level, would I be judged or pitied for choosing to travel without friends or a significant other? I researched endlessly, consulted with friends and family, budgeted and saved, and eventually realized there was only one way to know for sure whether group travel was right for me: to go do it.
With a swath of companies, destinations and itineraries to choose from, the world was my oyster – albeit a slightly overwhelming one. I could throw a dart at a map and go anywhere. I knew I wanted to visit Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, and after the past year of my life, I was in a particularly Eat, Pray, Love state of mind, yearning for some soul-searching and detox from my daily grind. With its white sand beaches, serene rice terraces, yoga retreats and strong sense of spirituality, Bali certainly fit the bill.
Though I’d initially planned on traveling with a group my own age, I ultimately chose G Adventure’s Classic Bali tour, an all-ages option, as it most aligned with my budget and the itinerary I wanted. And so it was decided: eight days in Bali, with an extra day tacked on to the end so I could spend my 25th birthday on the island. With my flights booked, vacation days approved, carry-on suitcase stuffed to the brim with sundresses and mosquito repellant and a first aid kit that initially concerned my mother but eventually served its purpose (more on that later,) there was nothing left to do but wait for the summer to tick by. Because in September, on the other side of a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong – the longest I’ve ever endured – and another 5 hours to Denpasar, the adventure of a lifetime was waiting for me.
My first stop in Bali was the coastal city of Sanur. Having spent the past 24 hours in transit, and by now a whopping 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles, I was feeling surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I arrived at our hotel. I was the last of the group to join, and was greeted enthusiastically and instructed to quickly drop my luggage before being herded into the back of a seatbelt-less van heading into town for dinner.
In many ways, my initial observations of Bali were not so different from many other countries I’ve visited; driving can be quite treacherous. Tap water is not to be drunk. Beer is cheap, anyway. We were told by our guide that women are expected to dress conservatively, but the heat deemed this impractical, and as Bali is one of the few islands in Indonesia that is not predominantly Muslim, shorts and tank tops and the like are not culturally frowned upon (aside from at holy sites such as temples, where sarongs are required.)
Bali is home to plenty of expats, and most locals speak English, so it can easily be navigated without a guide – but it was immediately clear that having one would be invaluable. Our guide, Hans, was a local, a G Adventures veteran, and one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever met. In addition to Hans, we were provided with a driver for the entirety of the trip, and bright and early the next morning, we were whisked off by bus to our first stop: the lush Jatiluwih rice terraces.
We visited on one of the only days during our trip that the weather was less than ideal – September and October mark the beginning of the rainy season in Indonesia – but it suited the location perfectly. The rice terraces, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are breathtaking; vivid green against a backdrop of misty, indigo mountains. Our guide explained to us the process of growing and harvesting the rice, and also pointed out other crops, including corn and jackfruit trees. I knew Bali was famed for its coffee and rice terraces, but I was blown away by just how robust the island’s agriculture is. During my trip, we encountered locally-grown eggplants, chilis, bananas, cocoa beans, and even vineyards for wine. We lunched at a restaurant overlooking the terraces, and I was introduced to my first of many Indonesian buffets, which typically consist of rice, fried noodles, tofu, tempeh, chicken, and vegetables. Much to my relief, as a vegetarian I had no problem staying incredibly well-fed – and caffeinated – during my time in Bali.
From the rice terraces, we traveled to the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a lakefront temple that’s easily the most famous in Bali (it’s even depicted on the 50,000 rupiah bill.) The complex houses Hindu and Buddhist temples, and is also neighbored by a mosque. We were fortunate enough to visit just prior to the Islamic New Year, and so were able to witness religious ceremonies underway.
The temples, and landscape, are stunning, but bear in mind that this site is something like a holy Disneyland, with overflow parking, an admission (and even toilet) fee, and throngs of tourists absolutely everywhere you look. While some of my fellow travelers were disappointed with the crowds, I don’t think a trip to Bali would have been complete without paying a visit to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – just don’t except much in the way of peace and serenity.
From Lake Batan, we traveled north to what was ultimately the selling point for the tour itinerary I chose: Mount Batur. Hiking an active volcano at sunrise was an experience I knew I wanted to have in Bali, and in talking to a friend who had visited the island, it was the one thing he regretted not having done. Even the drive up to the mountain, which took about two hours from our last stop via a road so windy I became impossibly carsick, underscored just how invaluable having a local guide and driver in Bali ended up being to the experience. Had I been traveling solo, or even with a group of friends, getting to Mount Batur, and then actually up the mountain, would have easily seemed daunting. Even with a mountain guide – which is absolutely imperative – the trek was challenging, overwhelming and unlike anything I’d ever done before, in the best way possible.
We arrived at our lakefront hotel as the sun was setting, allowing just enough time for showers, dinner, and attempting to turn in for the night before a 2 a.m. wake up call. After a few short hours of rest, shivering and sleep-deprived, we piled into vans that drove us through the pitch blackness to a “basecamp” for a breakfast of banana pancakes (more like a crepe, and very popular in Bali) and coffee under the stars. From there, we made another short drive to our actual basecamp, where we were introduced to our guides and offered walking sticks, flashlights, and – mercifully – warm jackets to be rented for a small fee.
Finally, there was nothing left to do but hike – for about two hours, through thick woods, in complete darkness. It was all very Blair Witch Project, but thankfully not particularly strenuous, though the trails were at times made perilous by loose rocks and crumbling dirt. Fortunately, we were accompanied by a few stellar guides, who make the trek up and down the mountain every single day. One in particular, Ratna, was close to my age and befriended me quickly. She became my biggest motivator to get up the mountain and checked on me throughout the hike, and when I told her I was visiting Bali for my birthday, even presented me with a bright purple flower plucked from the trail.
After about an hour and a half of darkness, the sun finally began rising a blood red, silhouetting a mist-ringed Mount Agung in front of us. As we ascended, the sky shifted from black to crimson to orange and then pastel pinks and purples all bleeding into each other. Night gave way to day, and soon we could see not only the lake, but the ocean on the other side of it, emphasizing the feeling that we had somehow reached the very edge of the world. It was frigid at the top, and windy, too, the coldest cold I’d felt in quite a long time. But somehow, after a dark night of wandering through wilderness that felt untouched by civilization, at the mountain’s top there were dozens of people chattering excitedly, and huts emitting smoke, where our guides used steam from the volcano to hard boil eggs and make us piping hot cups of coffee to warm our frozen hands.
Watching the sun rise, sipping black Balinese coffee, surrounded by new friends who were just as in awe of the natural beauty this world has to offer, I was immeasurably grateful to be there, in that moment. To have a body healthy enough to carry me up that mountain, and a mind healthy enough to have made my way to Bali, to this beautiful, warm, intoxicating island, half a world away from the life I knew.
Though I returned to the hotel exhausted, but exhilarated, the hike confirmed the fact that I vastly prefer an active style of travel. While I’d enjoyed the days before Mount Batur, I was definitely growing a bit bored with eating, lounging, and being bused around, and was craving something to get my blood pumping. I’m certainly not a lay-on-the-beach-all-day kind of vacationer, and in fact, I find myself waking much earlier while traveling than I do in my everyday life, determined to make the very most of every minute I’m spending somewhere new.
Sleep deprived, covered head to toe and dust, and aching all over from the hike, our next stop in Ubud was perfectly timed. Known as the arts and culture hub of Bali, Ubud is the closest you’ll get to a bustling city on the island, home to high-end shopping, luxe spas, ritzy restaurants and posh art galleries. We stayed in a gorgeous resort right in the heart of Ubud, just down the street from the famed Monkey Forest. It was a welcome breather after days of a set itinerary and shifting locations every night; here we had two days of relatively free time to lounge by the pools, take advantage of much-needed $8 massages, shop for souvenirs, and explore the city.
Initially, I relished the thought of some free time to myself, but soon found that I chose to spend it with others in the group anyway, going out to dinner, taking in a traditional Balinese dance, and even rafting along the Hindu carving-lined Ayung River. As an animal lover, I was particularly excited for the Monkey Forest, a sanctuary where the Balinese long-tailed monkeys roam freely; swinging from trees, snacking on mangos, and picking fights with one another – and with tourists. While adorable, the monkeys are also whip-smart and mischievous, and though visitors are instructed not to bring in any food or drinks, we still witnessed multiple people having plastic water bottles and other items snatched right from their hands.
Even outside the walls of the sanctuary, near our hotel pool or along the shop-lined streets of Monkey Forest Road, these cheeky little primates were seemingly always waiting in the wings, poised to steal scraps of food or some loosely-guarded object. I even awoke in the middle of the night to a spat between several of them outside our hotel room. Despite their cute faces and small stature, the monkeys can scratch or bite if provoked – and you should never look them in the eyes or bare your teeth – so you shouldn’t make contact with them unless it’s okay-ed by a sanctuary employee (as was the case in my photo below!)
When visiting Ubud, be sure to leave ample time for shopping, whether at the the high-end boutiques or the bustling open-air marketplace, where you can find stall after stall of locally-made jewelry, incense, wood carvings, purses and other trinkets to take home. Ubud also boasts some pretty diverse dining options, eclectic bars, and sleek coffee shops that made me feel as though I’d never left LA.
Speaking of coffee, you may have heard of one of Indonesia’s most headline-grabbing exports; Luwak coffee, colloquially known as cat poo coffee. To be clear, there’s no cat poo in the coffee itself. Rather, the berries are eaten by the civet cat, then digested and, well, pooed out, at which point the berries are cleaned and the coffee beans harvested and roasted. And voila – cat poo coffee! It’s something of a delicacy, and in other parts of the world can be quite expensive. Locally, it’s expensive by Bali standards; about $5 per cup, and around $15 for a package to take home. Our guide took us to a coffee plantation specializing in Luwak coffee, where we were able to see how the beans were roasted, try a flight of their various coffee and teas, and, of course, sample the famed cat-poo coffee. It’s traditionally served “Bali style,” that is, pitch black – exactly how I like my hot coffee.
Said to be the best coffee in Bali, the Luwak beans produce a very rich and very bitter taste, and while it’s a damn good cup of coffee, I have to admit that it’s nothing life-changing. It is, ultimately, a bit of a gimmick (albeit a fascinating one,) but to that end, be sure that any Luwak coffee you drink or coffee plantation you visit is an ethical one. When the Luwak coffee first gained international attention, many producers kept the civet cats in cages, where they were treated inhumanely, so do your research and pay a visit to a plantation (as we did) where the civet cats are cared for and able to roam freely.
Our final stop on the tour was the sleepy beach town of Candidasa. At first glance, it’s not exactly a destination, and in fact seemed to have been chosen as our end point solely because it is normally also the starting point of the Lombok week of the tour (which was canceled due to the recent devastating earthquake there.) There’s just one main road lined with souvenir shops, spas, and restaurants, and while Candidasa still hums with traffic and tourism, in many ways the east side of Bali felt … wilder. The sunlight seemed to sizzle on my skin, glistening in the humid air. Clusters of mysterious bites formed on my arms, and my legs were scratched bloody and raw from coral after a snorkeling expedition. The local alcohol – arak – can kill you if made incorrectly. We took our lives in our hands darting across traffic, and traveling by car felt just as treacherous. The sunsets burned, burned, burned; purple and indigo and streaks of orange and red painting the sky for as far as the eye could see.
On our last night as a group, we practically took over the dive bar across the road, downing mojitos spiked with arak and an endless supply of Bintang beer as our guide plied us with savory, vegetable-filled martabak, a fried bread treat that’s common street food in Indonesia and is sublime paired with sweet-and-hot chili sauce.
As the night wound down, we found ourselves spilling outside the bar, chatting beneath a crescent moon about what had brought us here, half a world away from the mundanity of our everyday lives, most of us having traveled alone, to share with strangers in a life-affirming experience that would never be done justice by photos and words for the people back home.
The moon was a sickle that night, and Mars burned orange in the endless black sky, studded like a string of diamonds with Venus and Jupiter, too. It was impossible to forget in that moment that I was on the underside of the world as I’d always known it, looking up at a different sky, a different hemisphere. I was not running from my problems, but I was not taking them with me, either. I was simple existing here; breathing, tasting, talking, learning, living.
As we headed back to the hotel for one last moonlit dip in the pool, nursing our beers and trading stories about our travels, about scuba diving in the Maldives and river rafting in Costa Rica and how to survive a long layover in the Singapore airport, I found myself startled by the thought that I would likely never see these people again. Already melancholy over an experience that hadn’t yet ended – always the double-edged sword of being elsewhere, like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.
On my last full day in Bali, the rest of the group departed early for sailing and scuba diving and further treks around Southeast Asia, save for a girl from England who was my age and also traveling alone. Free to choose our own activity, we decided to take advantage of the hotel’s offer to hire us a driver who would take us around the island for the day. We were able to visit Tenganan, one of the oldest traditional Balinese villages, where people still live and produce handmade goods, including the beautiful ikat weaving. From there, we paid a visit to Pura Lempuyang, or the “Gates of Heaven,” a highly Instagram-able temple at the top of a hill. The photo was breathtaking, but be prepared for a scene that is less than serene; after paying for a shuttle, a mandatory sarong, and admission, you have to hike up even further and wait in line in order to take a photo in front of the Gates of Heaven. Our wait ended up clocking in at about an hour, on a very humid day, but it was quite honestly the first line I’d encountered during my entire trip in Bali, and as with many tourists traps, a bit of patience is the price you pay for a once-in-a-lifetime photo.
After the wait, my travel companion and I decided we’d had our fill of waiting in lines and battling crowds and decided to make a break for the white sand shores of the Virgin Beach. While it’s not how I’d choose to spend an entire vacation, an afternoon of lounging at a cabana, sipping a beer, and staring out at the turquoise Bali sea was the perfect way to end my whirlwind adventure.
More than its white sand beaches and ornate temples, the Balinese people are the island’s main draw. I have never felt so at home so quickly anywhere. I have never experienced the kind of warmth and generosity from total strangers that I did in Bali. I have never laughed so hard.
Ultimately, I loved traveling with people of all ages, from all countries and walks of life. There was always someone interesting to talk to, eat with, or buddy up with for an activity, and by the end of the tour we felt a lot like a family. I never felt as though I was alone in a foreign country, because I wasn’t. While I had planned to escape for my 25th birthday, fully embracing the notion that it would be solo, I found myself surrounded by new friends and overwhelming warmth from people I didn’t even know at every turn. All around me were signs that I belonged, and reminders that I mattered.
There was a moment during my trip, walking along one of those beaches in Bali alone, that I felt freer than I have ever felt in my life. The stresses of my daily life, worries about money, fruitless concerns about the opinions of others, they melted away like sand being pulled out with the tide. Suddenly it dawned on me that everything I had viewed as an obstacle to getting here didn’t matter at all. That I was finally free to choose my own adventure.