How to describe Bali in a few words? Imagine a crystal clear sea filled with colourful coral and tropical fish, white sand beaches surrounded by lush vegetation, intricately carved doors, roofs and furniture, endless rice terraces, world-class surfing, friendly people, ancient culture, volcanic mountains and dense jungles teeming with monkeys and hidden stone temples calling out for exploration. There’s nowhere in the world quite like it.
It’s no wonder Bali has been crowned the world’s favourite destination. And it’s not just for teenaged Australians and gap year back-packers (avoid Kuta like the plague), but also for honeymooners and those in search for Maldivian style luxury for a fraction of the price. And ever since Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love, Bali is now also filled with spiritual yogis who came ‘to find themselves’ and never left.
Yet, despite the mass tourism that Bali attracts, there are a few untouched and unspoilt areas off the beaten track that don’t attract any of the above. Perfect for those who, like me, can’t imagine anything worse than loud, throbbing nightclubs, teenagers vomiting in the streets, overcrowded beaches or smug spiritual hippies posing for their Instagram.
With a mother-daughter trip long overdue, my mum and I were umming and ahhing over where to go. That’s when one of her dearest friends mentioned she would be returning to Bali to spend time at an ashram she visits regularly, and suggested we go with her. It was perfect timing, and the perfect person to travel with – Bali was like her second home; she speaks the language, knows the people and knows the island like the back of her hand. We couldn’t have wished for a better tour guide.
Before we knew it we arrived at Denpasar airport and were greeted by the friendly staff from Gedong Ghandi Ashram who drove us to the ashram in Candidasa.
Without going in to too much detail about the whole trip (we packed a lot in!), here’s a list of the 8 best things you should do if you’re looking to avoid the tourists and experience unspoilt Bali.
1. Stay at an ashram
Staying at the Gedong Ghandi Ashram was the best base for the week. They offered affordable and charming accomodation, freshly cooked, healthy vegetarian meals three times per day (at set times), three yoga lessons per day in their pretty pavilion, and they even organised a few local excursions to boot – including a night-time visit to a temple burried deep in the jungle. Walking through dense vegetation in pitch-black night whilst monkeys screached, animals grunted and the locals chanted their prayer was quite the experience!
Everyone has their own little hut, and mine was on the far end, with a view of the water lily filled pond where the locals would wash in the mornings, and cool off in the afternoons.
The ashram’s private beach is made up of mountains upon mountains of washed up dead coral, each one unique and beautiful. With my hut right on the edge of the beach, I decorated it with the ones I loved most.
They were so stunning, and slowly being ground up back into sand. I wish I could have taken them back with me!
Coral was used for everything here – the ‘gravel’ path leading between the main house and the huts was made up of coral, as were the walls and doorways.
2. Go for a bike ride
On one morning, we decided to skip the yoga and take a taxi up to Kintamani, from where we hired mountain bikes and cycled down a volcano, through the depths of jungles, past countless rice fields and through small, remote villages all the way to the outskirts of Ubud.
It was the most incredible insight into daily life. I saw a man riding his scooter with chickens tied to both legs (live chickens), met teenagers who were building a temple for their family out of volcanic ash, met a bride and groom wearing gold headdresses and elaborate costumes with flip flops, saw people cock fighting and a disappointed-looking man who was carrying his dead and defeated cockerel back home – having not just lost the fight but no doubt also a bet, as it is their way of gambling (apparently it’s not uncommon for people to gamble with their cars and their homes).
Lunch was a coconut that had fallen onto the jungle floor, then we met women working in the rice fields, old and frail women carrying mountains of leaves on their backs, and met talented artisanal families working in the middle of the jungle – from whom I bought a yellow pineapple and a wooden flying frog (because who doesn’t need a flying frog in their life).
3. Spend a day on a paradise beach
We hitched rides on the back of scooters (another must) about 5km north east from Candidasa to Virgin Beach, also known as White Sand Beach – although the locals call it Patir Putir.
This beach is a bit of a secret. Beautiful sand, and cocooned in a small bay, with lots of coral and fish for snorkeling. The beach is framed with coconut trees and fishing boats, and there are a few bars and restaurants dotted around selling fruit smoothies and fresh seafood.
After a full day of snorkeling, I left with five shark teeth, a dead crab and a bad sunburn on the backs of my legs.
4. Take a guided tour through an ancient village
We drove to an old Bali Aga village called Tenganan, an old traditional Balinese village buried deep in the jungle, still wonderfully untouched and unspoilt by modern society. You have to pay a small fee to enter and can only walk around if you’re guided by a local, which we were more than happy to do, as we got a very informative tour by one of the few residents.
No one can move to the village, and so everyone who lives there was born there and grew up in the depths of the jungle. It was a bit like stepping back in time, or onto the set of an Indiana Jones film!
One of the ways the village makes money is through hand weaving beautiful Ikat fabrics. It can take a skilled worker several days to produce just one Ikat tablecloth or bed sheet!
5. Explore Rice fields
During our trip we also drove to the rice fields at Tengalalang (you’ll spot lots of amazing furniture and homeware shops on the way – be warned!). Here you can explore the rice fields by foot, taking in the most mesmerising views. The best time to go is first thing in the morning, before the tourists arrive from Ubud.
6. Take a fisherman boat and go snorkelling
Our ashram introduced us to a local fisherman who took us out on his fisherman boat to some big rocks where you can find the most amazing snorkeling.
Similar to Virgin Beach, we spotted lots of colourful coral and countless tropical fish and starfish. We got caught in a little storm, but it only made it more fun!
7. Local market
We visited the market in Amlapura one market, hitching another ride on the back of some scooters.
This was very much a local’s market, selling mostly local produce and Balinese traditional dress.
There was everything from snake-like cucumbers…
… to other unusual and exotic fruits, herbs and spices
They were selling fish by the bag load!
I couldn’t resist taking a picture of this beautiful little old lady, selling flowers in her ‘Hard core’ jumper. Very rock ‘n roll?
8. Stock up on Ikat and homewares
The one thing I absolutely couldn’t resist was the incredible fabric market (what Ikat dreams are made of – needless to say I stocked up) at Klungkung, near an ancient temple. Although the temple was of course ancient and beautiful, I spent more time pouring over the wonderful fabrics at the market. So many hand-woven fabrics piled high on top of each other, row after row after row.
Even better were the furniture and homeware shops on the outskirts of Tengalalang and Ubud. Here you’ll find everything from intricately carved headboards and doors to sculptures, bowls, pots and vases. It’s paradise.