Bali on a budget

Bali on a Budget: A Backpacker’s Paradise

Bali is one of those rare places in the world that can pass as both a backpackers destination and a honeymooners paradise. Everyone knows about Bali’s pristine sandy shores,  beach bungalows, and the luxurious resorts. All inclusive packages are **cheap**. By resort standards, not my standards. But in America, the budget travelers appeal to Bali is relatively undiscussed.

The island is full of beautiful beachside hotels and villas that rent for 20$ or less per night. Add to that street food and an abundance of free activities to keep you entertained for weeks. It’s basically a backpackers paradise. Especially if you are a beach bum like myself. I’ll walk you through my 4 week-long Balinese adventure. And how you can save some serious cash and still get the dreamy beach vacation.

Canang Sari: Traditional Balinese offering to the gods.

Transportation

Flying into Bali you’ll begin your journey in Denpasar. I recommend making the southern tip of the island your first stop after landing. Geographically, this just makes travel easier. For the duration of the trip you can work your way North around the island. Strictly budget speaking this is a good idea too. Because it can be difficult to get around the southern regions of Bali. Transportation ends up being a major part of your overall trip cost.

The reason it’s difficult to get around is the taxi “mafia”. Bali has several ride-share apps comparable to Uber (Grabcar is the most convenient). But, unfortunately, the taxi companies intimidate drivers from these companies and won’t allow them to pick up tourists. Then knowing you can’t find another ride, will charge you whatever they want $$$.

The secret is persistence.

Keep requesting a driver on the app and when one accepts meet them at a non-touristy location like a nearby circle K. You can also bribe them with a tip, most drivers will take the risk and pick you up.

As far as lodging goes, we only booked our first night in advance. We found this super cool treehouse Airbnb called “The Alchemist”. Each “hotel room” was its own open-air treehouse bedroom with an outdoor shower. Surrounded by the jungle was the perfect way to wake up day one in Bali.

The South

Our first stop down south – Uluwatu. Uluwatu is a cliff-side region that houses an ancient temple renowned for its sunsets. We hired one of the taxi’s and he agreed to come and pick us up after we wandered the grounds. This is common among driver’s in Bali. And normally cheaper than trying to find a separate driver on the way to and from a location.

There are statues, monkeys, and stunning ocean views all for a couple of bucks. Absolutely pay the few extra for the nightly sunset performance of Kecak and fire dance. It’s a unique insight into the culture and delves into a lot of Balinese history. We took in the views and watched monkeys scaling the cliffs and playing on the shores below while the sun turned the sky pink and gold in the background.

We didn’t dedicate much of the trip to the south. Aside from an afternoon at Uluwatu, we explored on foot from our hotel and managed to find a beautiful surfer beach to spend the day. Be sure to grab a Bintang and watch the sunset on the waves at one of the beachside restaurants. To avoid blowing our budget out of proportion right away we headed north to get away from the taxi traps.

Jimbaran Bay

Jimbaran can be explored in a few hours and the city itself wasn’t my favorite. This was where we learned that accommodation was best booked on the spot. It’s just cheaper and you can guarantee that you’ll be staying close to the sights you want to see. The place we booked turned out to be in the middle of nowhere. With no easy way to get to Jimbaran Bay or any tasty street food. Had we simply been dropped off at Jimbaran Bay and walked to the nearest hostel we would have gotten a better rate in a more convenient area.

That being said one of my favorite days of the trip was spent walking the beach along Jimbaran Bay. I got so sunburnt in the heat of the day I’m fairly certain I shed my entire skin. But I cooled off in the waves and that stretch of white sand seemed to go on forever. 

Jimbaran Fish Market

Fishermen just off the shores were hauling in the catch of the day and delivering it to a HUGE outdoor fish market on the beach. The market consists of rows and rows of buckets filled to the brim with EVERYTHING under the sea. Come hungry and then let the bargaining begin. If you buy a fish (lobster, shark, shrimp, you name it) they throw it in a bag for you (literally). Then you can bring it to a local who was grilling it up Balinese style on a massive homemade BBQ. He will slather it in an unknown but delicious seasoning, grill it up on the spot, and serve it to you at a small table in the sand.  In total, our entire seafood dinner for two cost us less than 15$ USD including Bintang and fresh young coconut.

This was one of the best meals I had in all of Indonesia. So go hungry and splurge on a huge meal because this seafood is 100% worth it.

Kuta and Seminyak (Tourist Zone) 

Seminyak and Kuta were next up on our list of destinations and are undoubtedly the most touristy areas of Bali. Kuta is worth a night of partying but think of it like the Las Vegas of Indonesia. The drinks are sugary but strong. The clubs are overcrowded and the people are making questionable decisions but everyone is there to have a good time.

If that is your cup of tea I won’t judge you for it. But we had about all the fun we could handle after one night out. Alcohol in Indonesia is priced much like the United States for the most part. Keep in mind that it’s an island nation and all the alcohol is imported (all the good stuff anyway). We bar hopped, explored the super touristy shops that lined the streets, got way too drunk, held a massive python, and met lots of Australians downing 1$ shots of Arak.

**WARNING** Avoid all of the Arak in Kuta. Arak is the bootleg liquor made in Bali and many tourists have been hospitalized or died from overindulging. Nice bars have Arak that is found in some of the craft cocktails which is perfectly safe to drink. (Like Potato Head Beach Club) Just be careful drinking cheap unregulated liquor because there is a reason it’s so cheap.

A Foodie’s Dream

Seminyak beaches are beautiful. But it’s really the food that makes it worth a few days. Bars in this resort region make craft cocktails packed with local fruits served in decorative shell cups. Restaurants go above and beyond to highlight the local cuisine. As an added bonus most of these restaurants have beachside views!! Have an amazing dinner with drinks at Ku De Ta overlooking the sunset on the beach. Where we got to try seared palm tree and oxtail soup! We are big foodies’ so we planned on splurging in this area and taking advantage of the AMAZING local cuisine. By splurging I mean 70 USD for a 5-course tasting menu with drinks!!! 

La Laguna is another restaurant I highly recommend. It’s probably one of the most photographed restaurants in Bali because of the unique gypsy bohemian vibe. It’s covered in antique wood and has a very eclectic mismatch decor that I loved. You can check it out on La Laguna’s Instagram.

Exploring by foot in Seminyak we quickly realized…there isn’t a whole lot to it aside from big resorts. We decided to give up walking circles in the 95-degree heat and cool off in Potato Head Beach Clubs pool. They have a swim-up bar with AMAZING cocktails and an infinity pool that stretches toward the sand…need I say more.

Potato Head Beach Club

We spent an entire day swimming and working our way through the cocktail menu. Sampling Arak, beet juice bloody mary’s, and blended drinks made with every fruit imaginable. If you have the time you should also check out Hotel Mexicola for late night drinking and dancing. Then Circus Circus for lunch and coffee the next morning.

Most of the resorts had free access to their beachside pools and restaurants even for non-guests. So consider that before you buy yourself that 200 USD room.  

Tanah Lot

Leaving Seminyak we headed toward Tanah Lot another seaside temple that is best viewed at sunset. Seriously, make the effort to be there for sunset. This patch of pink and blue cotton candy sky was by far the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed to date. We got there just as the sun was sinking behind the ocean temple and somehow managed to get a secluded rock to ourselves away from the crowds.

After exploring the temple grounds we were approached by a group of Javanese school children and their English teacher. They wanted to take photos with us and have an opportunity to practice their English. In traditional Indonesian fashion, the instructor invited us to his home in Java and offered food and a guided tour of the island for his “new friends”. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to run off to Java on this trip but we promised to find him if we ever made it to the island.

Ubud

From this temple we had our taxi driver shuttle us directly to Ubud. Everything in Bali is close together which makes transportation a breeze. We never had to ride more than 2 hours and using Grabcar it always cost us less than 10 USD. The drive to Ubud takes you through winding jungle roads and past beautiful rice terraces. At one point of the journey, a parade of locals dressed in white robes carrying bejeweled crates crowded the roadway. Our driver informed us that it was a traditional funeral procession for someone who had recently passed away in the village.

Bali on a budget

Bali is tradition.

From the Canang Sari (Daily offering baskets made of palm leaves and filled with an assortment of flowers, incense, and food), to the temples and purification rituals the Balinese people always keep with ancient tradition. My favorite driver we hired in Ubud spoke to us about Balinese schools. He explained that an entire day of Balinese children’s school week is devoted to learning about the history and traditions of their people.

Fun fact: Balinese children go to school 7 days a week, 6 for traditional schooling and 1 for Balinese culture.

Back to Ubud.

This is known as the cultural center of Bali with amazing markets selling everything from traditional Balinese masks to intricately hand-woven baskets to silver jewelry. This is where your haggling skills will really be tested.

A budget travelers tip: get there early. It’s a bad omen in Balinese superstitions if the first customer walks away without a sale. So they will offer you the best deals of the day right off the bat.

We rented a motorbike to get around this area thinking that the rural streets were going to be a piece of cake to navigate…but we were very very incorrect. The streets of central Ubud are PACKED with people and filled with confusing one-way streets. And for someone who had a very basic grasp (barely) on driving rules in Indonesia, it was not an easy endeavor. Nevertheless, somehow we walked away without an accident after several VERY close calls. And were free to explore some of the beautiful rice terraces and jungle areas that wouldn’t have been as accessible. My personal highlights of Ubud weren’t in the city center but in the nature surrounding it.

Mt. Batur

Mt. Batur is an active volcano still smoldering and if you do one thing I recommend in Bali, it should be this. Pay for a guided sunrise hike to the top. You sign up with your hostel in Ubud and they pick you up at 1 AM to shuttle you into the mountain villages where you meet your group and village guide. They provide you with coffee and a basic breakfast of bread and a hard-boiled egg to get you going.

Our guide was a 17-year-old girl who blasted Ed Sheeran and Kygo the entire dark fumbling trek up the side of the volcano. Just as the sun was coming over the opposite volcanic peak (Mt. Agung, which recently erupted) we arrived at the top. The view over the valley was breathtaking. The valley is the result of a major eruption years previously and now has some of the most fertile soil on the island for cultivating crops. Walking around the summit we found numerous small craters that were spewing volcanic steam hot enough to light a locals cigarette.

I could have stayed up there forever.

The peacefulness that settles over the valley as the sun rises and bathes the island in golden light is indescribable. Other than the fact that I was freezing. Even on a normally 90F degree day, it was chilly at the top for sunrise. Make sure to bring a long sleeve at the very least. We followed our hike up with a 90 min full body couples massage for a whopping 12 dollars and then just about melted into our hostel beds.

Sacred Monkey Forest

Depending on your tolerance for monkeys (my second favorite animal) spend an entire day exploring the Sacred Monkey Forest. Buy the snacks, feed the monkeys, take lots of pictures, and most importantly try not to get bit. These monkeys are wild and they will likely try to mug you for all you have so don’t bring anything you aren’t willing to lose and whatever you do don’t try to hide food from them…if you bring it into the sanctuary it’s already theirs.

Bohemia

This little hippy two-story restaurant called Bohemia is located just outside the sanctuary and it was delicious. Every night it was packed with the expat community drinking Arak cocktails and trying to fend off monkeys who were sneaking out of the sanctuary for some late night snacks. The wall murals alone make this place worth a look but the second story open-air portion of the restaurant was my favorite because we could watch the monkeys while we lounged around.

Temple Exploring

On our last day in Ubud we were eager to see some rural temples. But we weren’t too keen on the idea of motor-biking this area anymore, so we hired a driver for around 10 USD for the day. He took us to temple after temple and waited while we explored to our little heart’s desire.

At Goa Gajah, the elephant cave temple, we were fortunate enough to meet a Balinese woman who blessed us with the traditional Sanscrit prayer and placed holy water and rice on our foreheads for good fortune and prosperity. This is a common sight in Bali, locals will proudly wear the grains of rice on their forehead all day long after cleansing for good spirits as a symbol that they have prayed.

Kopi Luwak

After getting the full temple tour our driver offered to take us for an afternoon pick-me-up and he dropped us at a Kopi Luwak coffee plantation. My first experience with Kopi Luwak had not been positive. This coffee is made from beans that have been fermented inside the intestines of a “Luwak” (which resembles a cat or weasel).

The coffee itself is some of the most expensive and prized in the world, but many farmers in Bali make it themselves and in the process collect luwaks and confine them to small dirty cages for their entire lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch them pace back and forth in a cage barely big enough for them to stand up.

THIS plantation, however, changed my entire outlook on Kopi Luwak.

It was run by student volunteers and took great strides to be eco-friendly. The luwaks had a HUGE enclosed area, a variety of food, and looked very happy playing with one another.

This plantation had 20 or so locally grown tea that you could sample as well as watch the entire process of harvesting the Kopi Luwak beans. As someone who drinks their coffee with cream and sugar, I was immediately surprised how much I liked Kopi Luwak black. It’s a rich earthy flavor balanced out by a surprising sweetness that I can only assume comes with the fermentation. Any driver in the Ubud area will know what coffee plantation it is and also…the entire experience was free!

Elephant Safari Park

One more adventure to try in Ubud…The Elephant Safari Park.  Elephants are my number one favorite animal in the world and I jump at any opportunity to get up close and personal with them. It cost 100 USD for entrance which is likely the single most expensive thing you will do in Indonesia but the money goes to their care and to the mahouts. Caring for their elephant is a 7 day a week-10 hours per day job. The elephants are rescued from Sumatra work camps and many of the mahouts have been with their elephants for 10-20 years!!!

**As someone who cares for animals deeply I would never advocate for anywhere that caused them harm. That being said this park wasn’t perfect, as they do allow tourists to ride the elephants, but the number of people allowed in per day is limited. I saw no use of a bullhook or other signs of abuse and the mahouts all seemed to care for their elephants properly. **

Ubud can get to be a “pricey” destination if you do it all, but it’s worth it.

I promise. Take a yoga class above the rice field terraces, eat Babi Guling (whole roast suckling pig) and crispy duck, watch a traditional Balinese dance, get massages, and hike the volcano because all of these experiences are one of a kind to Ubud. With the cheap prices of hostels (most include breakfast) and food Bali gives your budget plenty of room for activities.

Padang Bai

The next stop of our journey brought us East to the coastal town of Padang Bai. We hired a driver and talked Balinese politics and religion as well as explained to him the bewildering western philosophy of “vegetarianism” as we drove.

Padang Bai is a snorkeler and divers paradise. 

The town itself is small and to be honest a little dirty for a seaside village but something about it was pure magic. For starters, it costs 3 USD to rent a set of fins and a snorkel/mask for the day on blue lagoon. You can easily spend an entire day getting lost in the undersea world of coral, parrot fish, sea crates, and moray eels. When you tire yourself out in the waves there are numerous beach restaurants slinging  Bintang Radler’s and the catch of the day.

Finding Jungle Beaches

Another entire day can be spent walking through the jungle to find “white sand beach”. While we were here the waves were HUGE so we couldn’t actually indulge in any swimming but the shimmering white sand was perfect for relaxing and quite a view. We then set out with our map to find “black sand beach” (yes, these are the official names) and after an hour trekking through the middle of nowhere jungle roads, we gave up and headed back…. and just like that we found the beach.

We stumbled upon a completely empty patch of black volcanic sand that stretched as far as the eye could see, after sunbathing (nude beach?) awhile we were joined by a local family building a boat on the shore. As with most of Bali the best sights aren’t “destinations” but places you stumble onto unexpectedly while exploring.

Interested in getting PADI certified?

Padang Bai is a great place to get PADI dive certified if that is something that interests you. I didn’t do it but I plan to somewhere along the way in my travels. If you are extending your vacation into the Gili Islands like we did there are even more options to get certified there. Padang Bai is also an amazing stopover town for the Gili’s as well as Nusa Penida so if you are interested in exploring these stunning islands, cheap boats leave from here daily. Always opt for the slow boat whenever possible, it’s what the locals use and an experience in itself. The fast boats are catered to tourists and cost 20 times (sometimes more) as much. 

Sanur

The final two destinations we checked out (after returning from the islands off the coast of Bali) were Sanur and Canggu. They are on opposite coasts but less than an hour drive apart so if you have time to stop at both I would. Sanur is a resort-friendly windy beach town renowned for its kites and kite surfing. The kites are handcrafted and intricately designed. Many are so long that they take 5 or 6 men to get into the air and then 3 to keep it there. Sanur has some really tasty street food vendors along the beach as well as an open-air market and countless people selling beach massages.

Canggu

Canguu, on the other hand, is a grungy surfer town filled with beach bars and beach doggos. Old man’s bar was our favorite with a mixture of tourists and locals watching the sunset on the surfers. Canggu was also one of my favorite towns to explore on foot. Wander through the rice fields and rural town roads and you’ll stumble upon some absolutely stunning scenery.

We wandered the beaches looking at painted murals on old slabs of concrete and long abandoned beach shacks. We actually walked for so long munching on street corn and young coconut that we ended up back at Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak! So naturally, we had to stop in for a drink before making the long walk back to Canggu along the water. The energy in this little beach town was so relaxed and welcoming, it was a perfect way to send off our Balinese vacation.

***Money-saving tip: Tanah Lot temple is in Canggu area. If you plan on going to Canggu just save that excursion for when you are in the city. We were winging all our destinations and hadn’t originally planned on making it to Canggu (but are very thankful we did) so we went to Tanah Lot out of geographical order.***

Ready to plan your trip?

Everywhere is Bali is captivating, serene, and cheaply explored. We didn’t plan out our route ahead of time, didn’t pre-book any hostels or beach villas, and relied on word of mouth when it came to finding fun activities and it couldn’t have gone smoother. Go with the flow and settle into the carefree spirit that carries Bali and I can guarantee you a magical time.

Question? Comments? Let me know here!