We went to Bali and didn’t set foot on a beach. Here’s why.
It’s no secret that Bali is a sunny, beautiful and affordable destination. Millions of tourists from Australia, North America, Europe and all over the world flock there for its stunning beaches, warm waters, cheap beer, luxury resorts, and party scene.
However, being from the States there’s a lot of accessible options nearby for us to get a similar experience – places like Florida, California, and Mexico. So we decided to steer clear of the nightlife bikini scene around Denpasar in hopes of seeing the real Bali, not the manufactured resort island.
In search of a more authentic experience we started looking inland for places to stay, away from the resorts and crowds of tourists.
Where To Stay
After a few days of scouring hotel search engines and Airbnb, we finally found the perfect spot. We booked an Airbnb in Tampaksiring, a small village in the dead center of the island with no beach in sight.
The town has no hostels, no hotels, no bars, no nightclubs, no fancy restaurants and no travel agencies. Our Airbnb didn’t have hot water.
The remoteness of our location and lack of infrastructure was a little overwhelming at first, especially after I walked into a manhole in the middle of the street on the first day. Seriously, I have the scars to prove it!
But once we fully let go and just rolled with it, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Tampaksiring is the best place to stay in Bali to avoid the crowds and get a more authentic view of local life and culture.
The Airbnb was a traditional Balinese home, complete with a family temple, courtyard, and pet chickens. Our host, Aji, spoke minimal English and his wife didn’t speak any at all. Communicating was difficult at times, but we made it work.
Despite the language barrier, they were very friendly and made us feel at home. One evening Aji took us to the rice fields behind his home, which are beautiful at sunset, and we watched the fireflies buzzing all around us as darkness fell.
We got an early wake up call each morning thanks to the numerous roosters that roam the grounds. One of Aji’s hobbies is training the roosters for cockfighting. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s part of our culture.” I have a hunch he’s gotten more than a few shocked looks from visiting Westerners.
After the wake up call we would walk down the street to the town market to grab breakfast. The vendors set up along the street selling produce, grains, and pastries. After a few days they began to recognize us and started offering samples to try.
The Airbnb page is run by Aji’s adult son who now works in the tourism industry and lives with his family in another city. He organized an airport pickup to take us to Tampaksiring, which is about 1.5 hours away from Denpasar International Airport. The car was $20USD each way and the Airbnb was $11USD per night. Not bad.
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds and experience local life, this is where to stay in Bali.
What You Should Know Beforehand
Tampaksiring is in the rural uplands of Bali, so the infrastructure is not the same as western standards. The amenities are basic and there are only a couple “restaurants” in town (more similar to street food than a proper restaurant). You can also drive to restaurants in other cities or cook your own food purchased at the market.
Our Airbnb didn’t have hot water and the WiFi is very slow. The amenities are basic, so if you’re looking for a luxury experience, this is definitely not it. You will be trading comforts and luxuries for an immersive experience, living with a local family and learning about Balinese culture.
What To Do
Visit the Temples in Tampaksiring
There are three temples in Tampaksiring, all within walking distance. Many visitors will take day trips from Denpasar or Ubud to visit these temples, but you can avoid the crowds by going early in the morning.
This is especially important for both Pura Tirta Empul and Gunung Kawi, which can get really crowded with people coming in on tour buses from the city. Because we were staying in Tampaksiring, getting there early wasn’t a problem.
The first temple we visited, Pura Mengening, is less frequented by tourists. It’s hidden off the main road and tucked deep into the forest.
At the entrance there’s a basket where visitors can make a donation. I put in a couple dollars and a smiling old man handed Madison a sarong, as is customary at the temples in Bali where you must have your knees covered.
We descended the stairs into a lush oasis of waterfalls, greenery and sunlight shining through the trees overhead.
The serenity and natural beauty of it all blew me away.
We continued down the stairs to where the waterfalls converge into a pool at the bottom. There was an altar with burning incense as people were bowing and whispering prayers. Others nearby were bathing and relaxing in the water, enjoying a cool respite from the afternoon heat.
It was an incredibly spiritual experience. We began to appreciate the importance of water and nature in Balinese religion and culture.
Pura Tirta Empul
Water is also an integral part of the Pura Tirta Empul. The temple grounds include a cleansing pool, known as a petirtaan, where Balinese Hindus go for a purification ritual.
The ritual is performed by wading through the long rectangle shaped pool of holy water. Along one side there are several fountains about shoulder height. You stop at each fountain, submerge yourself under the water and recite a specific prayer.
The name of the temple comes from the ground water source named “Tirta Empul,” which supplies the natural spring water for the ritual.
We observed the purification ritual for a few minutes and continued on to the other areas of the compound. As we wandered around the temple grounds, our tired legs were ready to rest, but we couldn’t help but continue admiring the vibrant colors and structures.
At one point we began to hear the faint sound of beating drums, which slowly became louder and louder. We moved toward the sound and discovered a ceremonial procession that entered the temple.
A line of about 5 persons across, dressed in traditional Balinese attire, came marching into the temple playing music and singing. It included all ages, from young school children to elderly grandparents. A number of women brought in plates of food and placed it in the temple as an offering to the gods.
We never figured out what the celebration was for, but it was entertaining to watch!
Spread across both sides of the Pakerisan river, Gunung Kawi is a funerary complex built in the 11th century. The funeral monuments consist of 10 giant shrines cut into the side of a rock cliff about 20 feet high.
There is a restaurant at the entrance to the temple with amazing views looking out over the edge of the cliff. It’s tourist prices here because of all the organized tours that bring people in from the beach resorts. However, the food was good and the views alone are worth it.
The temple’s rock monuments are awesome, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It always amazes me the different artistic styles and mediums that one can find around the world. It’s like going to an art museum built into our natural environment, created a thousand years ago and still standing in the same spot.
It’s believed that these monuments were dedicated to King Anak Wungsu of the Udayana dynasty. He must have been one cool dude!
Explore the Rest of Bali
Another reason Tampaksiring is the best place to stay in Bali is because of its central location. There are a number of day trips you can do by scooter.
The neighbor next to our Airbnb rented us one of his scooters for $5 USD per day, which was a perfect (and cheap) way to get around the island. Two of our favorite trips were to the Mount Batur Volcano and the drive from Tegallalong to Ubud.
Relax in Natural Hot Springs
We filled up our trusty steed with two liters of petrol and headed north toward Mount Batur Volcano. It was about an hour and a half on the scooter and there is a small entrance fee to the park.
We stopped for lunch at a floating restaurant that sits on the edge of Lake Batur. As the only ones there, it was quiet and peaceful as we looked out over the lake, which creates a really cool looking reflection of the volcano. We finished eating and started off again toward the base of the volcano where the hot springs are located.
The Batur natural hot springs include several pools of varying temperature heated naturally by the volcanic activity. We had an entire pool to ourselves and spent several hours relaxing in the warm waters.
Take a Day Trip to Ubud
After living the quiet life in Tampsksirng, we opted for a change of pace and decided to do a day trip to Ubud.
Known as the center of traditional Balinese crafts and dance, this city was made famous by the movie “Eat Pray Love” where the main character played by Julia Roberts spends the “Love” portion of her travels.
Our route to Ubud went through the town of Tegallalong, so that we could check out the famous rice terraces. It’s about a 25 minute ride from Tampaksiring, and I had a great time cruising the winding roads while soaking in the scenery.
The rice terraces are spectacular.
I couldn’t resist taking a picture about every 5 seconds the entire time we spent there. You almost forget that there’s a functional use for the terraces and farmers are actually working the land.
Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy and bring small bills to make a donation. They asked for 10,000 IDR ($1 USD) when we were there.
It’s about another 25 minutes by scooter from the rice terraces to Ubud. The city is a bustling tourist center with lots going on so be alert while driving. We found a free parking spot for the scooter along one of the main streets in town.
If you’re wondering what to do in Ubud, don’t worry, there’s plenty of options. Here are a few:
- Play with monkeys at Monkey Forest
- Take a yoga class
- Walk around Ubud Palace
- Check out the museums
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Bali is during the island’s dry season between April and October. The temperature stays roughly the same throughout the year, between mid-80s and low 90s Farenheit. The rainy season is between November and March, so it’s best to avoid these months.
In terms of high and low season for tourism, July and August, the Easter Holidays and Christmas/New Year are the busiest times of the year.
I recommend visiting during the months of May, June, September and October to get the best weather and avoid the crowds.
Is it safe to stay outside the main tourist areas?
Short answer: yes. The people are extremely friendly and curious, and there is little crime around the island. However, use the same safety precautions as you would traveling anywhere else. Don’t go out alone at night, exercise caution while driving, protect your valuables, and beware of pick pocketers if you venture into heavily tourist areas.