Bali is an enigma of a destination. It is an island of contrasts. The serenity of the secluded jungles clashes with the chaotic city streets. The violent roar of its waterfalls eventually simmering down into the still and quiet rivers. The majestic, centuries-old temples contrasting with the middle-aged tourist with her selfie stick. Because of those contrasts, it is hard to answer the question often posed “is Bali still worth visiting?”
The answer truly depends on each individual, because as widely diverse each individual is, so too, is Bali. You can find yourself trapped in the day-to-day tourist lifestyles of cafe-hopping and beach bumming. Or, you can find yourself amidst the local rice paddies, cycling through isolated villages that Starbucks or Australia has yet to spoil. Bali is the ultimate travel destination, yet in some ways, it feels like nothing more than just a playground for tourists.
There are a lot of harsh realities that face travelers when they arrive in Bali. I remember reading about this strange type of depression that affects travelers who go to Paris and end up being so disappointed that it actually emotionally destroys them. Just like the city of love might not be what you fall in love with, the Island of the Gods might also turn out to be a false deity. Setting your expectations high can lead to disappointment, and I was more than guilty as well. Upon my arrival in Bali, it didn’t even take me two days to harshly denounce the island as an over-touristic disgrace.
The island has grown on me since then, not necessarily because it is my favorite place in the world but because one can be sympathetic to the island and all of its enigmas. At the same temple that girls in flowing dresses wait in line for hours to strike a pose, you can find thousands upon thousands of Balinese worshippers. The streets overcrowded with motorbikes will spontaneously clear the way for a procession of Balinese women carrying boxes of offerings on their heads. The behemoth luxury resort is an architectural feat rivaled only by the intricate 7-layered burial tower paraded through the streets during a cremation ceremony.
What I’m trying to say is, Bali is what you make of it. If you want it to be your luxurious island getaway, then lounging on the beach, chasing the occasional waterfall, and slurping up smoothie bowl after smoothie bowl is perfectly acceptable. If you come to Bali expecting to immerse yourself in traditional life and local culture, you might have to dig a little deeper but it is still very possible. Bali is one of the largest islands in the world. The majority of tourists congregate in the southern tips of the island, hardly ever going further north than Ubud.
That leaves a whole lot of island to still be discovered. The more time I spend in Bali, the more I hear about some of these places. Munduk, Amed, Medewi, Sidemen and many more. Bali is one of the largest islands in the world, and thankfully, most of the over-development is contained to a relatively small part of the island… for now.
A new international airport servicing the northern part of the island could change everything. It almost feels like an arms race between international developers who can snag as much land as possible to build the newest Instagram-worthy luxury resort or restaurant. The rapid rate of development on the island is only getting faster and faster. The number of businesses that popped up on the street I was staying on during three short weeks in Canggu was alarming. An entire spa got built pretty much from the ground up in two weeks. We went from guessing what the building was going to be to getting foot massages in the span of a few days. It is crazy how fast Bali is developing.
It might not be that long before larger swathes of the island become touristic resort-worlds. Especially as frequent visitors branch out further and further to discover new places since their old stomping grounds have been turned into strips of organic cafes and hipster restaurants.
On the flip side, the development of Bali has posed many benefits. It is one of the pioneers of environmental consciousness and modernity in Indonesia. It sometimes feels like a weird mix of all the best that the Western world has to offer on an exotic paradise island. It may not be local or authentic, but Bali has some of the best food, best cafes, best hotels, best restaurants, best co-working spaces, and best everything in the world. That’s looking at the positive side of over-development. It’s great for us tourists since it makes our lives a whole lot easier. But it might not exactly be the best thing for Bali or for the 4 million locals that are slowly losing their island to tourism.
Final Verdict: Is Bali Still Worth Visiting?
For me, the answer is absolutely. Now more than ever. Bali is an incredible destination and the best time to visit is sooner rather than later. It may only continue to grow more and more unrecognizable from its traditional roots. One example would be the Tegallalang Rice Terraces, a beautiful expanse of rice paddies stacked upon one another. The first time I went, having coffee at a locally-owned cafe overlooking the fields in the early morning was an experience unlike any other.
A year later, I was back in the same spot and it was nearly unrecognizable. Swings and nests and weird statues had all popped up for the sake of Instagram opportunities. There was even a heart-shaped “I Love Bali” sign with a bucket of random planks with cheesy sayings on them to hold up for your pictures. It came complete with a rusted, vintage bicycle just because apparently beat-down bicycles have become a sign of trendiness in recent years. Yeah, Bali can be grossly over-touristic.
Towards the end of my second trip to Bali, I decided to venture a bit further out of the way than the usual tourist destinations. After injuring my leg in a scooter accident where a van gave me the ol’ hit-and-run, I was unable to go on too many adventures for the latter half of my six weeks in Bali. My final weekend, I tried fitting a lot in. The highlight was a ride up to Jatiluwih, a UNESCO site and home to another of Bali’s stunning rice terraces.
It was a stark contrast to Tegallalang, which being only 20 minutes from Ubud had become overwhelmed by tourism. Jatiluwih took me nearly two hours of focused driving through the Balinese midday heat, but it was worth every drop of sweat. Hardly any other tourists were around and I was free to roam endlessly amongst the fields, only stumbling into a local farmer or a cute cow every now and then.
Like I said before, Bali is entirely what you make of it. It does suck that many of the best things to do and see in Bali are overwhelmed with tourists. It does suck that the influx of influencers and Instagrammers make for an almost mind-bogglingly shallow culture surrounding a vacation to Bali. But Bali itself does not even remotely suck.
It remains an island rich with culture and natural beauty. You just have to get used to sharing it with a lot of other people.