Bali offers a huge choice of must-see attractions from glittering temples to ancient wonders. And at just 5632km² in size, Bali is fairly easy to explore on a day trip from any of the beach resorts south of the capital Denpasar.
Some of the most compelling Balinese attractions include:
Theatre and dance is an integral part of Balinese culture. Weddings, birthdays and religious festivals are all occasions for dramatic dance performances that are inextricably linked with the Balinese religion and are often related to the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Some of the most enchanting Balinese dances include: the ‘barong’ or lion dance, a classic dance depicting the conflict between good and evil through the actions of Barong, a mystical long-tailed creature; the ‘legong keraton’, a classical dance of grace and femininity performed by young girls in colourful costume; the ‘kebyar duduk’ where a solo dancer interprets every nuance of the music in powerful facial expressions and movement; and the frenetic ritual ‘kecak’ or monkey dance.
Although the kecak dance was probably first performed in 1930, its origins go back much further. The chorus originates from the ancient ritual of ‘sanghyang’ or trance dance.
During the ‘sanghyang’ or trance-like state, it is believed that a person communicates with God or the ancestors. In this mesmeric dance, up to 100 bare-chested men sit cross-legged in tight concentric circles, swaying in unison and repeatedly chanting the phrase ‘ke chak ke chak’, as Balinese dancers weave in and around them using powerful facial expressions and movement to illustrating an ancient tale.
The haunting sounds of a Balinese gamelan orchestra is typically performed to accompany the ‘barong’ and ‘legong’ dances. Often up to 30 musicians play an array of instruments including native metal gongs, drums, chimes, cymbals and xylophones.
Bali offers an amazing array of temples and shrines. Here is a small selection to get you started:
Puru Besakih – Explore on foot Bali’s largest and holiest temple that sits on the southern slopes of Mount Agung, Bali's tallest mountain. The Besakih temple complex consists of 22 multi-tiered temples and numerous shrines.
Known as the Mother Temple of Bali and considered to be one of the eight ‘Chakra’ points of the world, Besakih is more than 1000 years old. Pura Besakih is located 40km from Klungklung. Note: Wear comfortable walking shoes to better cope with the countless stairs and passageways.
Gunung Kawi – Explore one of Bali's oldest and largest ancient monuments. Ponder the significance of the ten 7m-high candis or tombs, which were built in honour of an 11th century king and sit in sheltered niches cut into the cliff face. This fascinating early Balinese religious site is accessed by descending (then ascending) 300 stone steps, which are cut into the steep slopes of a lush green river valley. Gunung Kawi is located near Tampaksiring, around 15km north of Ubud.
Puru Ulun Danu – Discover this picturesque temple, a classical Hindu thatch-roofed meru (multiroofed shrine), which sits at 900m above sea level on a tiny island surrounded by the shimmering waters of Lake Bratan. Stroll through manicured gardens and past an impressive stupa to reach the lakeside temple. Or arrange to paddle across the lake at sunrise for an unforgettable sight. Puru Ulun Danu is located at the mountain resort of Bedugul.
Pura Taman Ayun – With its multi-roofed meru shrines and pavilions, intricately carved wooden gates, ponds and grassy courtyards all surrounded by a moat, 17th century Pura Taman Ayun is considered one of the most beautiful temples in Bali. Pura Taman Ayun is located in a beautiful park near the village of Mengwi in the south of Bali, around 8km southwest of Ubud and 18km from Denpasar.
Tanah Lot – Be anointed with ‘Holy Water’ by Hindu priests when you visit this stunning 16th century temple. Built on a lava rock 200m offshore and especially photogenic at sunset, Tanah Lot is only accessible at low tide. Tanah Lot is located around 45km from Kuta.
Pura Uluwatu – Visit this stunning cliff-top temple that is especially photogenic at sunset. Uluwatu is also the site of a village and cliff-top theatre where Balinese dancers perform the ‘kekak’ dance nightly from 6pm.
Uluwatu is located on the Bukit Peninsula and is just 30 minutes from Kuta. Note: Watch out for numerous monkeys who inhabit the temple area and are best known for snatching eyeglasses, bags, cameras and hats from unwary visitors.
To see and photograph emerald-green rice terraces dating back more than 2000 years, head to the river gorge north of Tegallalang village in central Bali and Sayan near Ubud. Other photogenic sites include Pupuan, Jatiluwih, Tabanan and Tirtagangga.
Take the challenging 5-hour climb to the summit of Gunung Agung (3142m), Bali’s holiest mountain and the highest point on the island. For an easier hike, try the lava slopes of nearby Gunung Batur (1717m).
Bali’s most active volcano sits at the heart of two concentric calderas and offers superb panoramic views. The large southeast caldera is known as Lake Batur, home of the picturesque Pura Ulan Danu, one of Bali’s most important temples. Note: Both Gunung Batur and Gunung Agung are active volcanoes, with eruptions as recent as 1997.
Bali’s centre for music, dance and fine arts offers the perfect opportunity to learn more about Balinese culture. Wander narrow streets crammed with arts and crafts shops, museums and art galleries.
Pop into the Puri Lukisan gallery on Jalan Raya Ubud, the Neka Art Museum on Jalan Raya Camuhan – the best place to learn about the development of painting on Bali – and see excellent examples of all schools of Balinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Browse market stalls, trinket stores and chic boutiques then cool-off with a cold drink at an open-air café and restaurant – try the beautifully sited Café Lotus, which sits in front of the Pura Saraswati temple and water garden.
In the evening enjoy a dance performance in the dramatic setting of the elegant Puri Saren Agung (Royal Palace).
Away from town, take an elephant safari through dense jungle at the Elephant Safari Park, watch feisty tree-swinging monkeys at the Monkey Forest and photograph the stunning lush green rice terraces in the Sayan valley.
Surrounded by lush green rice fields, ancient temples and towering coconut trees, Ubud is easily reached on a day trip from the beach resorts south of Denpasar.