First-timers guide: 20 things to do in Bali

ALL TOGETHER: Villagers take part in a ceremony in Bali.

ALL TOGETHER: Villagers take part in a ceremony in Bali.

Across the lush valley high above the raging Ayung River, the resonant call of the drums beckons the villagers to the temple.

The sweet smell of incense and frangipani fills the air as slender Balinese men and women work the fertile rice fields. 

Sweet-eyed cows graze contentedly as the setting sun casts a golden glow over the centuries-old rice paddies.

By the side of the road, before a small temple, a Balinese man sprinkles holy water over his head, presses a flower between his fingertips and bows his head in prayer.

Here, far from the madding crowds, I am reminded why I first became enamoured with this enchanting island where travellers come in their thousands for the sun, the surf and the charming Bali smiles. 

Despite the spate of sensational reality series on the seamier side of Bali earlier this year, which dismayed the Balinese and many travellers who genuinely care about the island and its culture, Bali is, and always has been, so much more than cheap accommodation, binge drinking and sunburnt and freshly tattooed tourists. 

The true Bali, with its rituals, festivals and ancient culture, remains firmly intact. Restaurateur, author and festival director, Janet DeNeefe, said while development on the Island of the Gods has been rapid, the real Bali can still be found. 

DeNeefe, who moved from Melbourne to Ubud 30 years ago, said what appears to have changed the most is the young traveller; engulfed in celebrity culture and drinking beer and cocktails by the pool. 

She laments those who visit Bali for nothing more than cheap drinks. "I'm not sure they see what's going on around them and if they do, it's maybe through blurred vision."

Many yoga devotees who flock to Bali's cultural capital, Ubud, choose not to engage with the locals but instead seek out other yogis and hang at the same cafes, bemoans DeNeefe.

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"I'm not sure they even try Balinese food; a tragedy. Perhaps in their older years they will return, open their eyes and see the charm and wisdom in local life."

Mary Justice Thomasson-Croll, resident editor of the Luxe Bali guide encourages visitors to participate in the island's  ceremonies by sourcing an invitation through your resort or villa or through a new-found Balinese friend.

"You must wear a sash and sarong so as not to offend which is basically your invitation to attend," she says. "Remember that [the word] 'ceremony' in Bali is often just a word that replaces party so the more the merrier."

For those wanting to get more out of Bali, our list of experiences is designed to help travellers reconnect with the island's culture and experience, some of which made the destination so popular in the first place. 

It's still possible to lose yourself in the beauty of the emerald rice fields, see elegantly attired Balinese make their way to the temple, awake to the screech of the majestic crested serpent eagle or cleanse your soul by bathing in spring-fed pools or holy waters.

The real Bali is out there - literally just beyond the walls of the resort, the hotel, the villa - just begging to be explored.


The Dancing Fingers School in Seminyak specialises in the signature Jari Menari rhythmic massage technique.

On Tuesdays you can learn the nine-step sequence, participate in a yoga class and enjoy lunch. Some claim the all-male staff deliver Bali's most blissful massage. See


Join a reception including a Balinese banquet and dance show at Prince Ajoaes' Tabanan Palace – a restored 17th-century royal Balinese compound.

Guests are welcomed by torchbearers and dancing. Following dinner, a performance of both Joged Bungbung and Tektekan dance is held. See


Learn about healing herbal and spice remedies, or catch and cook lunch at Bali Asli, Australian Penny Williams' extraordinary school, based at the foothills of Mount Agung. See


Gain an insight into a day in the life of the Balinese people, starting at one of Bali's most important and ancient temples, Jagasari.

An experienced guide escorts participants through temples and terraced rice fields rarely seen by tourists. En route, visit an authentic Balinese family compound, and take a swim in spring-fed pools. See


Take a sunset sail aboard a traditional jukung. Located on Bali's north-east coast with its stunning black sand coastline, the Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali's tour often encounters frolicking dolphins as the sun slips beneath the waves.


Given its remote location, Bali's north-east coast is also an ideal place to experience the brilliance of the night sky.

"Starlight Gazing", complimentary to Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali in-house guests, invites you to lie on a floating platform taking in the enormity of the universe while listening to a specially selected soundtrack. See


Explore the simple and creative process of batik painting with teacher, Ketut Sujana.

Ketut guides participants in this ancient art form – considered meditation in action – to create individual, contemporary designs, which participants take home. The experience is offered as part of Bali Goddess Retreats. See or Nirvana Batik Courses. See


Join a guide at Sanak Retreat Bali for a trek though spectacular rice fields to the virtually unknown Bedugal Waterfalls.

The trek takes you via a school, past farmers' huts and homes where cheeky children rush out to say hello. Wear your swimmers for a refreshing dip in what the locals consider to be holy water. See


The lush, jungle-clad slopes surrounding these sacred hot springs make it one of the island's most popular.

Sulphuric water, believed to cure skin disease, spills from the mouths of stone-carved naga – mythical, dragon-like creatures – into three pools at an inviting temperature of 37 degrees Celsius.

You can access the pools through the village of Banjar, or as part of a tour with Sanak Retreat Bali. See


BAMBOO-CLAD INTERIOR: The John Hardy workshop and jewellery showroom. Photo: Supplied

Visit the idyllic John Hardy workshop. See talented designers and skilled artisans conceive and create the pieces, explore the organic farm and visit the bamboo showroom to peruse displays of handcrafted jewellery.

Visitors can stay for a communal Balinese lunch served under a banyan tree. By appointment only. See


Submit your body to therapists at the gobsmackingly beautiful Maya Ubud Spa on the Petanu River.

Inspired by traditional Balinese remedies, the boreh treatment detoxifies and warms the body using a mixture of powered cloves and cinnamon.

With the rushing river flowing beyond the open window of your treatment room, no soundtrack is required. See mayaubud.comz.


Take a fascinating tour through World Heritage temples and monuments that trace the creation of the Balinese Hindu religion.

This day-long tour of Bali's most sacred temples starts with ginger tea at the private home of Bapak Anong Ishmail, the curator of the Sukarno Museum and leading expert on the recently World Heritage listed Pakerisan River area.

Highlights include a visit to Bali's first Hindu temple and a trek to a 10th-century meditation temple hidden in a lush valley where ancient chambers are carved into moss-swathed rock. See


The boutique Sanak Retreat Bali in North Bali offers teak bungalows and a three-bedroom villa surrounded by terraced rice fields.

It offers a paddy to plate restaurant, chemical-free day spa, bespoke experiences and strong community ethos – giving travellers the chance to experience the real Bali. See


Take a gamelan class with master musicians at Arma Museum in Ubud. Learn about the history, watch a demonstration and learn a short piece.

You can even hire your own gamelan orchestra, at a reasonable rate, to perform for you at your villa or resort. See


A pioneer of Bali's contemporary restaurant scene, this much lauded fine diner – considered one of Indonesia's finest and one of the best French restaurants outside France - offers degustation menus by talented chef Chris Salans in a romantic, garden setting beautifully lit by night. See


Take a meandering walk and enjoy the bucolic Ubud scenery. Be rewarded with lunch at an organic warung set among rice fields. The open air Sari Organik offers affordable and delicious vegetarian cuisine in a stunning paddy setting. Subak Sok Wayah. No website, phone +62 361 972 087.


HEALING WATERS: A visitor joins the Balinese at the Pura Tirta Empul. Photo: Supplied

For centuries, Balinese worshippers have been drawn to Pura Tirta Empul, the Temple of the Holy Water, whose sacred spring is said to have healing properties.

Today the tradition continues with the Balinese bathing and praying in the holy water. A clearly marked sign north of Tampaksiring, via Ubud, leads to the popular holy springs. See


STEEP TERRACES: A farmer looks across rice fields. Photo: Getty Images

Marvel at Bali's United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage-listed rice terraces and water temples that date from the  9th century at Jatiluwah.

Hire a car and driver to take you there or book a full-day tour with an English-speaking guide through Bali Res Centre. See


Former Melburnian Janet deNeefede Neefe's famous Casa Luna Cooking School takes an in-depth look at Balinese cuisine.

The day starts with an early-morning visit to the bustling Ubud market, followed by a hands-on cooking class in an open-air kitchen. The relaxed class ends with a communal lunch featuring all of the dishes cooked that morning. DeNeefe is also the founder of  the acclaimed annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

See; see


Nyepi Day – Balinese New Year – is a day of silence that occurs only in Bali. Two days before   there are cleansing ceremonies in   most villages and streets, while on Nyepi eve a huge procession takes place of village-made characters meant to scare  away the evil spirits for another year.

On Nyepi everyone must stay inside (hotels and villas still have food and beverage outlets open). It is a day of reflection, with no noise, and no lights in houses. Next year Nyepi falls on March 21, 2015. See


Avoid touching people's heads The Balinese believe that the head is the most sacred part of the body.

Dress and act modestly when entering temples This means covering up for both men and women with usually a sarong or a scarf. Bring a sarong with you as not all temples have them to loan. 

Watch your step On the streets you will see tiny fragrant parcels made from palm leaves and adorned with flowers and incense. The Balinese usually put them in front of their doorways or on the pavement as gifts to appease the gods.  

When eating, receiving or giving something, always use your right hand  Using your left hand is generally considered disrespectful. It is better to use both hands.

Shoes must be taken off before entering a house or some cafes.It's considered impolite not to do so


Expat residents in Bali provide their advice on how to, respectfully and responsibly, get the most out of a holiday on the island.

BRETT MORGAN Umalas, near Keroboken, based general manager, Private Concierge Bali and VW Limo Bali.

When in Bali do Finish the day on the edge of a rice field or watch the sunset while you chat with local people away from the tourist areas.

When in Bali don't spend your whole holiday in a bar with other Australians; it's a waste of the airfare.

The most overlooked experience is a trip to the Pakerisan Valley, with historical temples and monuments dating back to  the 8th eighth century. 

JANET DENEEFE Ubud-based chef, restaurateur, author, festival director.

When in Bali do walk off the beaten track into the rice fields or across the Tjampuhan ridge in Ubud to inhale village life. Buy a green coconut juice, talk to the locals and witness another world. 

When in Bali don't drive!  Pay a few dollars and get a driver to take you everywhere. The visitor who says there are no road rules in Bali (I hear that all the time) should never get behind a wheel here.

The most overlooked experience is Nyepi or Balinese New Year. On Nyepi eve there's the  most thrilling, dynamic procession of enormous homemade ogres along the main road with gamelan and young people brandishing torches of fire. The next day, Nyepi, the entire island turns off the lights and shuts down. I don't think there is anywhere on the planet that does this. 

SEAN BRENNAN Uluwatu, regional vice-president south-east Asia, Alila Hotels and Resorts.

When in Bali do surf, even if you have never tried it before.

When in Bali don't ride a motorbike without a shirt or shoes (it hurts when you fall off) and never disrespect the Balinese culture.

The most overlooked experience is Sidemen  Valley by bicycle. Start at the craters' edge (a great photo opportunity), ride down the side of Kintamani, through villages and rice paddies and finish up in the beautiful  Sidemen Sideman Valley for lunch at the foot of Mt Agung. A perfect way to see the true Bali.

SEAN COSGROVE Petitenget, Bali, Restaurant and bar owner, Petitenget restaurant and Old Man's bar, Canguu. 

When in Bali do   remember to relax. Eat well, get a massage, and swim. Take time to get out and see Bali proper. Some favourite areas that are worthwhile seeing are Jasri, Munduk, Lembongan and Bingin. 

When in Bali don't get impatient. It's all designed to slow you down.     

The most overlooked experience is cycling from Kintamani to Ubud through dozens of villages. Kids can do it and it's even more fun if it rains. 

ROBERT MARCHETTI Hospitality creative director, Double-Six Luxury Hotel, Seminyak, chief executive of Marchettico, when in Bali I live in Canguu. 

When in Bali do experience the flourishing restaurant scene with flavours from all over the world at your table. Seminyak Italian Food, the first restaurant within Double-Six Luxury Hotel, is a must.

When in Bali don't be shy. Try different foods and experiences. It's easy to order a burger from the room-service menu, but you'll miss out on so many amazing food experiences if you do that. 

The most overlooked experience is riding in the mountains on a motorbike through the rice paddies. A simple but life-changing experience. It really is a beautiful Island.

The writer was a guest of Private Concierge Bali, Double-Six Seminyak and Sanak Retreat Bali. See;

Sheriden Rhodes first fell in love with Bali after seeing Ubud's emerald rice fields. She returns at least annually to feed her addiction to the island's mystic charms.


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