Let’s dive right in.
There are a few ways to get to Bali, but from the U.S. the easiest is to fly into Dempasar. Flights from the west coast stop mostly in China, Taiwan, or Singapore. Though there are airports on multiple islands in Indonesia, the main 2 are Jakarta and Dempasar.
I planned my trip pretty last minute and because it was the low season wasn't too concerned about not having a place to stay, though ended up booking everything the week before through AirBnB (really positive experience!).
Most guidebooks recommend you to spend your time in South Bali because of the proximity of it to the airport and other ports. For that reason I opted to spend a night in Kuta, as my main destination for the week was the Gili Islands and the fastest way there from that area was from the Sanur port. Kuta had a beautiful swath of sandy beach and perfect waves for surfing. However, as someone who doesn't really party (and as a solo female traveler), the debauchery and festive atmosphere brought on by vacationing Aussies wasn't really my scene. But I can see why people have a great time there! There is a lot of shopping and comfortable western arrangements, you could probably forget you were in Indonesia altogether.
Doing the Gilis:
With only two weeks to travel, I opted to do 1 week of leisure and 1 of exploration. It can be incredibly exhausting to be touring aggressively in the heat and humidity, as I learned from time spent in India and Vietnam. Which is unusual for me, as I am not usually a lie-by-the-pool vacationer, but sometimes nothingness is a good thing.
I booked a fastboat to the Gilis online in advance, but you can technically get tickets the day before, which are probably way cheaper, from scalpers around town. However, in the high season, if you are particular about getting somewhere on time it might be worth it to buy in advance. Boats only travel between Bali and the Gilis in the mornings because the afternoons have seas that are too rough. Boats go from a number of ports in Bali. I opted to go from Sanur, which though is a longer journey (2.5 hours), was easily accessibly from the Kuta region. Some people go from Amed in the east of the island, as the journey is only 45 minutes, but you make up the time by car on land. So, pick your poison - car sickness or sea sickness!
Gili T is the most popular Gili Island, and is the most developed. All boats stop there, and some carry on to the other Gilis, Air and Meno. I opted to stay on Gili Air as it is less developed than T but more developed than Meno, so I could be comfortable but not inundated by tourists. The appeal of all the Gilis is their serenity - quiet islands with no motorized vehicles, with nothing to do but scuba dive and sit by the beach!
I stayed on the North side of the island, which is less developed than the harbor on the south or the hotels on the east side. However, the island is only about 3 miles in diameter (woke up and ran the whole thing one morning), so nothing is so far away. People get around on bicycles or by walking. I opted for a bike one way and walking the rest, as I found bicycling through sand (there aren't really "roads" on the island) pretty difficult.
I am not sure what I thought I was going to do everyday in the Gilis, but it ended up being some combination of sunrise walk/run + pool + scuba diving + food + more scuba diving + walk around the island (repeat). There is nothing to do and lots to do at the same time. You could scuba 3 times a day everyday and not break the bank, and see new things at the many dive sites around all the Gilis. There is also yoga, stand up paddle boarding, and other water sports to enjoy. Truly, the Gilis are like heaven, and I probably could have spent a solid 2 weeks there and been perfectly content.
Next, I was back to Bali on the fast boat. I took the next 2 days to explore South Bali. Some highlights:
1. Tanah Lot: a beautiful sea temple on the coast of the Indian Ocean, Tanah Lot is an hour drive from Seminyak. It is pretty touristy so don't expect to have a religious experience, but the temple is beautifully framed upon the ocean. You can't actually go up into the temple, as it appears reserved for actual Hindu worshippers and priests. There are a few kitschy things to see there though, including a holy spring and a holy snake (all for a price of donation, of course!). The big time to be there is for sunset. Make sure you have car arrangements in advance, as it can be hard to get back to town afterward.
My lack of transportation actually ended up being a delightful addition to my trip. I ended up getting a cab from a hotel, and my driver, Putu, spoke fantastic English so I convinced him to be my tour guide in Uluwatu the following day. In general, there seemed to be a lot of people offering to drive me places, but you have to be careful and trust your gut to see if you are willing to give your money and get in the car with someone unfamiliar.
2. Uluwatu: For some reason, most people opt to stay in Kuta or Seminyak when they are on the south side, but the truth is, Uluwatu is the most beautiful. Cliffside beaches, soft sandy beaches, caves and hidden beaches, you name it, Uluwatu has it. Some things to do in the area include the Wishnu Garuda Cultural Center, where you can catch some artistic dance and gamelan playing. They also have the largest Vishnu and Garuda statue in the world.
3. Abandoned Aircraft - This one I found out about through some strange "abandoned objects of Bali" website, but it turned out to be a unique tourist stop. There is just an abandoned airplane in a field, apparently brought there by someone trying to build a restaurant with it. You can't get too close without trespassing, but the photos are still awesome - straight out of ABC's Lost.
4. Green Bowl Beach - This beach was also on one of those "off the beaten path" lists from the internet, which proved to be an amazing find. This beach is about 300 steps down from the road, and you can lay your towel out against the cliffs to get some shade. There is a temple nearby so there is also some idols placed in a cave by the sand. The water is clear and calm and uncrowded. Both this site and the airplane were unknown to my driver/guide, so if even the locals don't know about it, you know it's good!
5. Blue Point Beach - this is a surfer's haven, and you have to walk through winding alleys of shops and restaurants to get to the sand. Once there, at low tide you can hop around and explore the tidal pools while watching the surfers do their thing.
6. Uluwatu Temple: This is the main attraction on Uluwatu. The temple is similar to Tanah Lot, but there is an evening performance with fire dancing and chanting as the Ramayana is explained. It is a major tourist point but personally, I wouldn't put it on the top of the list for anyone planning on visiting.
It is also important to note you have to shell out cash to park at each of these attractions, use the restroom in most cases, and pay for the performances. They aren't free!
1. Taman Ayun Temple - on the way to Ubud from the south, stop off at the Taman Ayun Temple to catch some interesting architecture and motes. There are also Luwak (like a possum) coffee plantations all around which can make for a nice break.
2. The Green School - I received a very nice tour of the Green School, outside of Ubud, by my cousin who is a student there. It is an incredible complex in the jungle along a river, with open air classrooms made of bamboo. The curriculum is green friendly and environmentally aware. For example, students learn how to build a hydroponic farm, build bridges, and care for animals.
3. Mt. Batur - If I had more time in Bali I may have considered the sunrise Mt. Batur hike. However, I have heard some negative things about it, particularly the cost and the general "touristyness" of the trail. Trekking in Indonesia is highly regulated, unfortunately. However... you can do a wonderful bike trip which starts at an overlook of the volcano in the distance, and that is what I opted for. The bike trip takes you through villages, rice fields, and on backroads, so you really feel like you are seeing the land.
4. Sacred Monkey Forest - In central Ubud, this park holds thousands of monkeys who are fearless around humans. They will approach you if you have food or something else that they want, but in general are not there to bother you. It is like walking through an enclosure at the zoo, without the walls, which is pretty amazing. There are a number of paths to choose from that circle around the temples and streams that run through the sanctuary.
5. Tampak Siring Water Temple - This water temple has spigots that represent different wishes you might have of the gods - and you can go through each, doing the appropriate dunking for the hindu ritual. It is a beautiful complex but I recommend finding a guide who can tell you what to do so that you are acting appropriately.
We ventured by car to the north side of the island after our time in Ubud. It should be noted that though the island is very small, it takes hours to get anywhere as the roads are narrow and the speed limit only about 30-40 miles an hour. To get to the north, you have to drive through the mountains, which is an incredibly scenic approach. We stopped at some lakes in the mountains on the way up - the weather was much more pleasant there than the rest of the island. If I go back, I definitely want to spend more time there!
We weren't on the north side for long, but enjoyed a short hike to a waterfall as well as a day of snorkeling at Menjangan Island, off the coast. From that side, there are great views of the volcanos on Java, another destination for another trip.
Just book the damn ticket.
I have a tendency to run when I am not feeling great. I recognize it about myself now. Paired with a deep sense of wanderlust, I turn to traveling to make myself feel better. I think this is because of a few things, the first being that I feel brave when I travel somewhere new and different, especially when I am by myself. There is something transformative about stepping out of everyday experiences into something more challenging or uncomfortable. The second is that I regain an appreciation for everything anew when I go somewhere new - not just the new place, but the old, regular places too. I have yet to find any other experiences as part of daily life that can make you feel that way - present, and mindful.
So when I felt the itch I just went with it, and was fortunate to have the flexibility of work and financial obligations to go for it.
It is amazing how very simple it is to buy a plane ticket to anywhere on the planet. You could travel almost anywhere tomorrow if you really wanted to (and had the time, energy, funds, and visa allowances to do so). Just knowing that this could be done was refreshing in and of itself.
I would be lying if reading Eat, Pray, Love many years ago didn’t at least start my ping of interest in the country. Not to go find some far flung love, but just to see the beauty of it. Indonesia felt like one of the farthest reaches of the earth which I could travel to, and indeed it was - over 20 hours of travel and 14 hours of time difference. I also really love Southeast Asia. Despite the heat, the dirt, the crowds of people (in a lot of places), the smells, and the sounds, it is so beautiful and it feels so raw. I imagine if the world had a beating heart that is where it would live, as it just seems so alive and so close to true humanity.
I have always loves traveling by myself, ever since I bought a ticket to Italy after my freshman year of college and went and explored Rome by myself. I just wanted to see it, on my own terms, and I did. It was so refreshing, and I have been enjoying solo travel ever since. So I didn’t think twice about going to Indonesia on my own either, though later was incredibly relieved when my boyfriend joined me for the second week.
All and all, Indonesia made for an amazing quick trip - an indulgence in culture and food, paired with beauty at every turn. If I go back, I hope to spend a week in Java, and maybe some time in Borneo or Sumatra. The world is just so big, with so much to see!