Bali on a Budget
Tegalalang rice fieldsWhen it comes to a Bali vacation, “budget” is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Words you likely think of instead: exotic paradise, far away, honeymoon, or even “that 'Eat Pray Love' movie.” (The “love” part of the movie is set in Ubud, Bali). But after you shell out the initial chunk of cash on airfare (I paid $1100 from Los Angeles for October, the shoulder season), Bali is actually a dream for a girl (or guy) on a budget -- you can eat, drink and sleep for unbelievably cheap.
The first stop for my friend and me was Ubud, the cultural and artistic capital of Bali nestled in the center of the island.
The best way to save money in Ubud is to stay in a traditional home stay or guesthouse B&B. Although the lower-priced homestays can admittedly get a bit dingy, the slightly higher-end guesthouses -- which are still very moderately priced -- look and feel a lot like intimate hotels, with pools, canopy beds and complimentary, made-to-order breakfasts.
We delighted in our stay at the lovely Mawa House, a gorgeous guesthouse compound with private terraces, a pool and luxe rain showers -- an incredible value at just less than $30 per night.
Ubud is a must-do in Bali, and I’d recommend staying at least a few days in this lush, vibrant town. The air is permeated with the smell of incense, and colorful offerings are ritually laid outside each doorway for the gods (Bali is the only majority Hindu province in Muslim Indonesia).
We enjoyed getting $5 hourlong Balinese massages, playing with macaques in the Sacred Monkey Forest, taking classes at the sprawling Yoga Barn (just $11 per class), filling up on mie goring and nasi goring (fried noodles and fried rice) for less than $4 a plate, and hopping on the back of mopeds to get across the city for just $1.
We also took a quick trip from Ubud up to the Tegallalang rice fields, an endless sea of green. Ubud is packed with cheap activities: if we had more time, we would’ve also taken a jewelry class and cooking class here. Fair warning, though: if you stay a little outside the Ubud city center, you’re likely to be awoken at the crack of dawn by the incessant chatter of roosters, birds, monkeys and stray dogs. Hey, it’s all part of the experience, right?
The most expensive activity we partook in was a sunrise hike up the Mt. Batur volcano, but it was a priceless experience. You’ll need to hire a driver to get you to the mountain and a guide to take you up (a guide is required even if you think you can do it yourself). We paid approximately $50 per person for the bundle, and it also included a sack breakfast. Armed with just a flashlight and the promise of a spectacular sunrise, we strenuously scaled the steep volcano in the pitch of night.
Seeing the glittering night sky was itself a reward -- every star seemed to be out and shining. But the true piece de resistance was, of course, the sun slowly breaking over the mountain, illuminating a jaw-dropping panorama of the mountain and glittering lake in the distance.
Following Ubud, we ventured to the Gili Islands (above), a postcard-perfect archipelago of three tiny islands just off the northwest coast of Lombok (Bali’s neighboring island). The journey by taxi and fast-boat to our island of choice, Gili Trawangan, took about three hours from Ubud. We chose Gili Trawangan as it is the largest and busiest of the three islands (the other two are Gili Meno and Gili Air), and known as the “party island” of the Gilis. Despite it being the “largest,” you can still bike around the island within an hour.
To stay on our budget, we slept at Gili Hostel, the island’s only hostel, for $12 per night. Due to its huge, budget-friendly rooftop bar as well as young tenants, the hostel is a very popular meet-up point and pre-party spot on the island. Despite the islands being Muslim, alcohol flows on the tourist-heavy Gilis, except during Ramadan. A really unique feature of Trawangan is there is a designated party every other night of the week at one bar, and all of the island’s visitors descend upon that bar on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Because everyone goes to the same place, it’s almost unavoidable to meet people and make tons of friends on this island.
Other memorable things we did on the Gilis included a $10 snorkel trip encompassing all three islands, on which I spotted a baby shark and several sea turtles; lots of relaxing on the beach on bean bags; and a cooking class, in which we learned how to make and scarf down a four-course Indonesian mea for just $30 per person.
Our last stop was Legian/Kuta, a loud, rambunctious, tourist-fueled area on the south stretch of Bali. Taking advantage of a Travelzoo getaway, we concluded our trip at the luxurious and immaculate The Stones resort, and wrapped up our vacation getting beach manicures, doing lots of souvenir shopping and indulging in more $5 massages.
My 10 days in Bali barely made a dent in my bank account, proving that once you’re there, a buck in Bali can go quite far.