Its been 17 years since we last visited Bali, so we were way overdue for a repeat visit. Since we both had to do visa runs and flights from Saigon to Denpasar were surprisingly reasonable, a week long adventure to Bali became a reality. We were joined by several members of our Vietnamese family which was an adventure in and of itself! It was a gamble planning to visit Bali during rainy season (October – April, with February being one of its wettest months), but we lucked out weather wise. Highlights of our week long getaway were: Gunung Kawi rock temple, Tirta Empul water temple, Tegalalang rice terraces, Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave), kecak and fire dance at Uluwatu temple for sunset, Ulun Danu temple at Lake Bratan, Jatiluwih rice terraces (phenomenal), Batukaru Temple, Tanah Lot Temple for sunset, gorging on seafood at Jimbaran’s fish market, relaxing on Nusa Dua’s pretty beaches, stumbling upon Bali’s abandoned Boeing 737 planes in random places, and exploring the island’s haunted amusement park at Taman Festival Park in Sanur. Bali did not disappoint, but we were saddened to see how much the island has changed over the years. Traffic is a nightmare, tourists overcrowd the island’s petite sights, and costs have risen exponentially. Yet, we still adore Bali and its people and will definitely be back for some SCUBA adventures on a future trip.
Random details from our 14-22 Feb trip to Bali, Indonesia.
Flight: Malaysia Airlines. ($217 USD round trip from SGN – DPS – SGN, incl taxes and 2 check in bags up to 30 KG)
A couple of weeks after booking the flight, we got an email informing us that the return segment via Kuala Lumpur was cancelled, so we’d have an overnight in Malaysia and fly onward to Saigon the next day. Not a big deal as long as Malaysia Airlines took care of free accommodations. Thus we got schooled in the STPC (“stopover paid by carrier”) process. Airlines try to minimize STPC to save costs…if you don’t ask for it, they won’t offer it. In this case, our other recourse was to hang out at the airport for almost 15 hours. Not gonna happen! So we had to crack the code on getting a free hotel from Malaysia Airlines. Called the USA toll free number (1-800-552-9264) but was told to email STPC@malaysiaairlines.com to request an overnight complimentary stopover. Did as requested and were told we had to call and verbally accept the flight change first before they would approve our request. Called the USA number again and was informed they couldn’t assist. They referred us back to the head office in Kuala Lumpur. Visited the Saigon branch of Malaysia airlines who also said they couldn’t assist but recommended we email firstname.lastname@example.org. After getting the runaround, we finally bit the bullet and called the main Malaysia Airlines office (+603 7843-3000). We had to accept the flight change, get new tickets reissued and email the STPC folks again. Then viola, 2 painful weeks later, our overnight accommodations were approved! It wasn’t a simple or straightforward process but now we know to bypass everyone else and only deal with the main office in Malaysia!
Taxi from airport to Kuta: Blue bird taxi, use the meter. Avoid airport touts who will try to rip you off. To catch a blue bird taxi, exit out the airport and go to the main road. Hail a taxi from there…it will be betweeen 40K-60K for a ride into Kuta, much cheaper than the 140K that we were quoted.
Hotel: Cempaka 3 Inn in Kuta. Since we were paying for the gang, we opted for the cheapest hotel we could find (besides a hostel) and this Kuta central hotel was perfect for our needs. Cost was $5 a person per night (double room, fan only) which is dirt cheap considering there is a lovely swimming pool and free wifi. The helpful staff helped us rent motorbikes (60K per day which dropped down to 50K/day when we opted for 4 days). They also allowed us to self cater in the kitchen which was nice! Unbelievably, the staff even allowed us to bring in and gorge on durian, which most hotels in SE Asia forbid! After spending 8 nights here, we recommend it, but if your budget allows, consider getting a room with AC. The fan-only rooms were uncomfortably hot at night!
ATM: A quick google search will show you that Bali is known for its ATM scams. One of the biggest ones most visitors fall victim to is the ATM at the international airport (insert your card, enter your PIN, ATM doesn’t do anything but spit out your card…however, when you check your statement later, money will have been debited). We read horror stories urging everyone to bring cash only, avoid ATMs like the plague, etc. Happy to report that it is not all doom and gloom in Bali. We only used BCA ATMs. These were reliable and we can recommend them. One thing to be aware of in Bali: all ATMs only dispense a maximum of 25 notes per transaction. This will limit how much money you can withdraw, so look for ATMs that have a sign indicating “100,000 notes” if you need to pull a large amount of money. The max you can withdraw in a single transaction is 2,500,000 IDR and BCA allows you to withdraw up to 10 Million IDR per 24 hour period. The international airport does not have a BCA ATM but we walked over to the domestic terminal and were able to take out 10 Million just minutes after arriving. Later we realized that ATMs dispensing 100,000 notes are few and far between. Most ATMs in town will only dispense 50,000 notes (hence the max per transaction is 1,250,000 IDR).
Tours: Since there were 8 of us, we wanted a large van for our day tours. Bali Made Tour (www.balimadetour.com) responded quickly and gave us a decent quote. We definitely could have gotten a much better deal with only 2 of us shopping around, but we had to pay a premium to find a comfortable van for our large group. We customized our tours (2 full day trips) and asked to do the following:
Day 1 *long day, about 13 hours*: Gunung Kawi, Tirta Empul, Tegalalang Rice Terraces, Goa Gajah temple, Uluwatu (sunset & Kecak fire dance)
Day 2 *about 12 hours*: Lake Beratan for Ulun Danu Temple, Jatiluwih rice terraces, Batukaru temple, Tanah Lot (sunset)
Cost was 1.3 Million for 10 hours, and an extra 150K per hour over that but our guide wasn’t too strict on charging us for the extra time. Not bad value at about $12.50 per person for each tour, considering most tour agents were quoting over $20 per person for a full day tour. Back when we visited Bali in 2002, entrance fees were nominal (if any). The big change now is you get charged for everything! Want to use a toilet, cough up 2000 IDR. Want to walk through a rice field, that’ll cost you a hefty 45,000 IDR. Temple fees ranged from a reasonable 15,000 IDR to an extortionate 60,000 IDR on top of parking.
Motorbike Rental: Asked around Kuta and were quoted a ridiculous 100K per day. Best price we negotiated was 60K per day, which was a far cry from the 30 to 40K we had read about online prior to arrival. Our hotel staff coordinated bike rentals for 60K per day which dropped to 50K per day when we agreed to rent for 4 days. The price would have been even cheaper for a longer rental. We read beforehand that the police will target foreigners for fines (30 to 50K) for minor infractions or driving without a Bali license. We had our ASEAN motorbike licenses handy but never dealt with the police so can’t comment on if they are as corrupt as reputed to be. Common sense stuff: wear your helmet and don’t drive drunk or wrong way on a one way street, which are plentiful in Kuta by the way.
Weather & beaches: February is smack dab in the middle of rainy season and is one of the rainiest months in Bali. We lucked out…one morning with torrential rain for an hour and a couple of light showers, the rest of the time was perfect beach bumming weather. Use sun screen…it is hot, hot, hot in Bali! One thing we didn’t realize about rainy season is that means dirty beaches. In fact, Kuta has nicknamed it “trash season”. One look at its beaches and you’ll know why. The beaches are disgusting, filled with garbage and trash. Our jaws dropped when we first rocked up to the beach in Kuta on our second day in Bali. Where was the beach we experienced back in 2002? Long gone and our Vietnamese relatives suspiciously eyeballed us and wondered why in the hell we had raved about Bali’s beaches. We quickly discovered that trash/garbage only accumulates on the west side of the island (something to do with ocean currents and winds). The clean beaches are on to the south and east. Thankfully we explored those later in our trip which redeemed the horrible first impression of Kuta’s pitiful beach.
Jimbaran Fish Market: If you are a seafood lover, do not pass go! This place has an amazing selection of fish, shrimp, squid, crab, lobster, etc on offer and best thing is you can have your selection grilled right there on the spot for you. We liked it so much we visited it twice and bought over 8 KG of seafood each time. Much cheaper to ride a bike here, select your own food and pay a nearby kitchen to prepare/barbecue your seafood meal for you. We saw busloads of tourists gathering at sunset for their Jimbaran candlelit dinner and shudder to think of what they paid. Our Vietnamese clan swore the seafood prices here were better than in Vietnam…they give Jimbaran 2 huge thumbs up and so do we.
Nusa Dua Beach: A lovely beach to spend a few hours. Its on the east coast (hence it is clean), has excellent facilities, is the perfect place for a beginner to learn how to surf, and most importantly, is free for visiting/parking. We liked it so much we spent 2 days here. It is very popular with tourists and has corresponding prices to boot. Renting a surfboard for 2 hours is a pricey 150K, which dropped down to 100K when Anh Long played the Vietnamese card. The staff didn’t keep a strict eye on the time so we weren’t charged anything for the extra hours of usage.
Bali airport: A great place to check out the planes landing, especially at sunset. We pulled over on the side of the road and watched as a plane roared by mere meters from the “highway”.
Abandoned airplanes: There are two (possibly more) Boeing 737 planes parked in random places on Bali. No one has a clue about how they got there or what their purpose is. One is next to a Dunkin Donuts on Bypass Ngurah Rai and the other is in a limestone quarry about 1 km north of Pandawa Beach. Definitely worth checking out.
Taman Festival Park: This place would make an awesome horror movie set. Opened in 1997, the park was only open for 3 years before it closed for good in 2000. No one knows who the owner is or what the future plans are and locals claim it is haunted. Touts will demand 10K for an admission fee but the park doesn’t belong to them so we refused to pay. Lots of cool photo opportunities here…check it out if you are into abandoned, creepy, overgrown parks.
Outlet malls: Name brand (Rip Curl, O’Neill, Rusty, Billabong, Hurley) surf gear for sale on the main road linking the airport to Jimbaran. Super cheap bikinis ($3 – $5) on the discount rack.
Kuta Beach: Avoid during the rainy season because of the trash/garbage. We were shocked to see how many tourists flocked to this beach throughout the day, despite the dirty conditions. We went for sunset (lots of beach bars) while drinking cheap beer and had a lovely show. Tons of cheap souvenirs nearby.