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Bali is well known as being a tropical paradise and a hub for digital nomads, with great co-working spaces and relatively easy visa renewals. While I’m grateful for the experience, it wasn’t all beaches and Bintangs.
My initial plan had been a 3-week stopover in Bali before heading to the Philippines. I’d then hop over to the rest of SE Asia for a few months. However, within a few days of hanging around by the pool, sunsets on the beach, and easy access to wifi for work, I realized it might be a great long-term option. I’d just picked up a job with a fashion app and was beginning to freelance as well. And while backpacking is incredible, it is a lot more work than a regular vacation. I wanted to spend some time finding my footing in this new digital nomad life I was creating.
So I decided to come back to Bali for a few months after my adventures in the Philippines.
Here are some struggles I faced during my 3 months on the island.
Along with the major rise in tourism, there has been an unchecked rise in the amount of rubbish produced, specifically single-use plastic products. I knew this was an issue in this general region, but I wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw. There was rubbish floating in nearly every waterway, strewn about the shorelines, scattered along the sidewalks, and piled up burning between shops or in rice fields. Indonesians historically used banana leaves as dishes, therefore throwing them out was easy, as they were biodegradable. Plastic products (obviously) are not.
Bali is severely lacking the proper infrastructure and education to handle this surge of tourism over the last several years. This means they don’t know what else to do with their rubbish, other than burning it. It is, of course, illegal, but it is either too expensive to have the rubbish handled and taken away, or they are just lacking the knowledge regarding the effects of openly burning these products. Maybe both.
Thankfully, there are many advocacy groups throughout the community trying to change this. Plenty of restaurants refuse to use plastic straws and will provide you with a bamboo version instead. Hooray!
It’s well known that the local taxi drivers do not like apps like Uber and Grab, but it is so much worse than that. Grab (used widely in this region instead of Uber) won’t even pick you up in many areas due to the risk of harassment by the local taxis. Even when you do get someone to agree to a ride, you’ll be bartering prices regardless of the price listed on the app. Usually, they will try to triple the price stated in the app, so expect to agree on something in between. Still cheaper than the local offerings, but I’ve gone through 6 drivers before finding someone who would agree on a fair price.
I’ve had Grab and GoJek drivers tell me their stories of being chased by the local drivers, stopped, and their passenger info taken from them, just to be picked up by a local driver instead. Many had to drive a different car than listed in the app, just to avoid these kinds of scenarios.
It’s honestly an exhausting process to go through every single time you need to get anywhere.
Tourist Hot Spots
Bali is well known for being very ‘instagrammable’. There are heaps of trendy shops and cafes, and plenty of places to go have a drink, but so many of these popular places felt very like ‘see-and-be-seen’ kinds of crowds. I didn’t come to Bali to rock booty shorts with a full face of makeup and go on Tinder dates with an Australian surfer I’ll never see again. (If you did – more power to you girl, it’s just not what I had in mind for my trip. Also, how in the hell did you even get your makeup to stay on in that humidity?). But that is exactly what I saw at most of the ‘hip’ bars, and its just not my thing. Maybe it just means I have gotten old.
What bothered me even more than that was visiting a place like Titra Empul. This Balinese temple has a spring of holy water where you are meant to wash away your sins in a purification ritual. But when we got there, this incredibly holy site was filled mostly with foreigners. Or Tanah Lot where it is jam-packed with tour buses. Or the water temple in Canggu where a girl climbed up in her bikini (you’re meant to dress very modestly at temples out of respect) and did a handstand in front of it. I know this sounds harsh – but it felt like people were here to ‘do yoga and drink green juice’ but really just doing it all for the ‘gram. And it got really old really quickly.
Maybe they really are here on their own beautiful Eat Pray Love journey, but I found it disappointing, and more often than not, quite disrespectful in many ways.
Violence Against Women
I have traveled solo for most of my trips. I’ve stayed in a dorm with 5 drunken German guys in London. I have had a few too many glasses of wine with a group of strangers in Italy. I’ve taken tricycle rides home by myself after dancing the night away in the Philippines. And I have NEVER felt more unsafe than when I was in Bali.
I had joined several of the local FB groups for digital nomads and expats, and it seems like every single day I’d read a new story of a woman being harassed. A young woman trying to get a taxi home from the bar was chased by a group of local men trying to force her into a different car. 2 different women were stalked and strangled on their morning runs. And many, many drive-by gropers.
This is what happened to me twice walking home from the bar, not even alone, but with other women. They come by on their scooters, slow down just enough to grab at you, then speed off laughing. The first time it happened, a nearly shoved the guy off his bike, but he, unfortunately, got away. Fight or flight mode I suppose. My friend was grabbed just a few nights later when we were on that same road.
I rarely went out after dark at all for the following six weeks.
Bali wasn’t all bad, although I know I probably just made it seem that way. I definitely understand how and why some people would absolutely fall in love with this place.
Here are a few things I did love about Bali.
Drive-by groping aside, the locals I had a chance to chat with were incredibly lovely. Hostel owners, cab drivers (once you agreed on a price), café staff, and even strangers at the bar were super friendly. They wanted to know where you were from and what all you planned to do while you were here. You’re greeted with big wide smiles and belly laughs, and they are happy to give you suggestions on where to go.
These are the people I want to associate this island with.
If you can see past the surrounding rubbish, this place really can be quite gorgeous. There are endless rice fields, a plethora of beautiful temples, and sunsets that only dreams are made of. You’ll find jungles and monkeys and waterfalls and every color of flower you can imagine. Uluwatu and Canggu do have some really lovely beaches if you’re willing to search for them. But again, if you want that white sand and turquoise water, head out to the smaller islands.
Digital Nomad Friendly
Bali’s towns rank as some of the top places on Nomad List, and for good reason. There are heaps of cute cafes with great wifi, plenty of nomad groups to join, and some of the best coworking spaces around. If you’re really committed to it, you’ll probably love the community in these kinds of places. My problem was that I couldn’t decide which part of the island I wanted to settle into. Therefore, I never actually committed to a co-working space. I did enjoy working at new cafes all the time or taking a break from my air con workspace to take a dip in the pool.
(Watch out for my post about the cafes I loved to work in!)
There are plenty of things I didn’t do while I lived in Bali. I never made it to Nusa Penida or the Gilis. These are the islands where you’ll find the most incredible beaches in the area. I also never made it very far East or North. Of course, I realize there is plenty more to see, and that maybe I would have very much loved another area of the island.
I can’t wait to go back and visit more of Indonesia. Places like Sumatra, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Lombok are all on the list.
So I have no doubts that I will travel to Bali again. I just don’t ever see myself wanting to live there.
More on Bali coming soon (the good stuff!), so stay tuned!