Should you take your young kids to Bali? Like so many other factors when it comes to travel, much depends on the nature and ages of your kids, your time, resources, interests, and what you hope to get out of the journey. This post explores some of the options available to young families in Bali, discovering some amazing destinations and activities, but some challenges too. I hope you find it useful.
The Resort Experience.
Bali is a beach-and-coconut-tree escape, the chance to relax and recuperate during the holidays. Dozens of island resorts are designed and catered for visitors to drop’n’flop, and we sampled one of the better ones, the Hotel Nikko in Benoa Beach. Airy and relaxed even in high season, the resort makes life a little easier for young families with spacious family suites (think tall bunk beds and rubber ducks in the oversize tub); an inclusive kids program with toys, books and more importantly, staff to look after the kids; family-sharing options on the menu at their outstanding Bali Luna restaurant; inclusive buffet breakfasts; and of course, a terrific pool and white sand beachfront. This is all young kids need really – sun, sand and freshly squeezed juice! Raquel beamed when I raced her along the coastline on a jetski, taking advantage of the discounted watersport rates offered for hotel guests. There was even a family spa– easily a highlight on our Asia adventure – in which Ana and I got a gentle Balinese massage while Raquel got her nails painted, and Galileo was head-massaged into a blissful slumber. The day culminated with a sensational outdoor bubble bath, and later that evening, dancing to the songs in the piano bar off the lobby. We didn’t want to leave the Hotel Nikko, which would be just as well, given Bali’s transportation challenges.
The Transportation Woes
I have never seen traffic anywhere as snarled, choked and unpleasant as Bali’s Uluwatu Road in the late afternoon. I’ve never seen taxi drivers as unscrupulous as those preying on tourists in high season Bali. A simple drive to Ubud 46 kilometres away took us over 3 hours. A simple drive to the airport 9 kilometres away from our place in Jimbaran took nearly 90 minutes. Even with GrabTaxi (SE Asia’s Uber equivalent) and a similar local service called Go-Jek, drivers frequently tried to double or triple the agreed-upon price in the app, and randomly cancelled rides if something better popped us, leaving us stranded. Winding narrow back roads and some terrifying driving all but ensured at least one kid would throw up in the car. Taxi drivers physically accosted us on arrival at the airport – definitely arrange a driver to avoid this – and some Grab drivers told us that the taxi mafia physically threaten them or in some cases have beaten them up. It’s horrendous and an unpleasant symptom of overtourism. Unless we braved the roads on our scooter with both two kids, going anywhere proved to be an immense challenge in terms of patience and nerves. By the end of our month-long stay, you could have offered us the world up north and we would have gladly declined to avoid the frustration of getting there. If Bali were a resort bubble island, this would be OK, but there’s so much to see and do and so much culture to explore. I suggest you pace yourself with the activities, keep it local, budget extra extra time to get around, and keep a towel handy if your little ones turn green in the backseat. Note: Bali’s roads are notorious and scooter accidents are all too common. It is not uncommon to see tourists hobbling on crutches and wrapped in bandages. Insurance is rare and expensive for bikes, more than double what we paid for the bike itself. We picked up helmets for the kids, and my comfort level and experience riding gave me confidence to explore the island with them on the scooter. I do not recommend anyone doing the same without knowing and accepting the risks.
Balinese art and sculpture is extraordinary. Huge statues of Hindu folklore greet visitors at intersections, temples are built of polished black volcanic stone, ceilings and doors are painstakingly crafted out of wood with incredible attention to detail. Easily the most jaw-dropping of all is the 121-metre high statue that towers over the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, transforming the skyline of south Bali. The world’s second tallest statue took three decades to complete, and fortuitously we arrived at its unveiling. On scooter, I discovered back roads to get up close, and took the kids to the opening night party to see hundreds of performers entertain dignitaries beneath giant bronze statues of Garuda and Vishnu, and between looming cliffs carved from limestone. Even though the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour, the bright costumes and passionate dances were sensational. The Balinese beamed their wide smiles at the kids, sweeping them up and tussling their curly hair. We’ve found our young kids get treated like royalty in Asia, and Bali was no different. Locals were fascinated with Raquel’s corkscrew locks, and Gali’s naughty smiles. We braved the Transportation Woes of Uluwatu Street to get to the namesake temple, perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking waves smashing into the coast. Somehow navigating the chaos of crowds that gather here each sunset, we got tickets for the famous kecak dance – inspiring me ever since I saw the film Baraka – and a spirited performance of Hindu folklore. It would have been a perfect evening if we could have got home without the taxi saga (this one drove off with our stroller and never returned it). One more reason to have your own driver, if you can afford it. On scooter, Raquel and I stumbled into stunning temples, explored Nusa Dua and Seminyak, while Ana and I visited a fantastic art museum in Ubud. Still, the statue of a golden-crowned Vishnu riding the mythical eagle-like Garuda will stay with us forever, a symbol of Bali’s art, culture and ambition.
Bali has no shortage of beaches, although with kids I suggest you find the one that works for you and stick with it to avoid the Transportation Woes. Our local beach was Jimbaran, which is famous for the many seafood restaurants that lay out tables and chairs on the sand each evening. It’s truly a magical sight: hundreds of candlelight dinners under the stars, stretching all the way down the beach, and soundtracked by the sound of waves. We ate a sunset dinner on Jimbaran four times, choosing the restaurant at the far end so the kids could play with their toys in the beach sand. It was always fabulous, and fortunately close enough for us to scooter in and out without tarnishing the experience. We also learned to sit a little higher up as the tide often came in causing some hasty reseating for the front row tables. Unfortunately, Jimbaran by day revealed washed up plastic and garbage. Resorts keep their beachfronts clean, but on a large public beach, Bali’s pollution problem is on full display. The first (and last) time I took my daughter into the surf in Jimbaran, sticky threads of rotting plastic wrapped around our legs. We had much better luck at the Sundays Beach Club, where Raquel relished her first true sea swim, playing in the turquoise waves. The beach was gorgeous and the kids had a blast with free toys provided, as well as the steep funicular to get to the sweet infinity pool on the cliff edge. Sundays was terrific, but as often found in Bali, the good stuff came with a price - both in terms of dollars, and the frustration of finding a way home (the taxi driver tripled the top rate the friendly concierge told us we should pay, scowling and speeding when we refused). We also visited Dreamland and Padang-Padang, but found them overcrowded with tourists, and the surfer-friendly waves not particularly kid friendly.
After Thailand, we figured we’d reached the peak of Asian cuisine, and then we discovered the joys of Indonesian street food served up in eateries known as warungs. The price discrepancy between tourist restaurants and warungs is enormous: the same delicious nasi goring picked up at our favourite warung for $2 might cost $16 at a restaurant. Aware that Bali Belly lurks in the shadows, we were hesitant at first but quickly found two fantastic neighbourhood warungs that made culinary artistry with the local dishes. Our kids have been eating chicken, rice and noodles in some configuration for months already, so it speaks volumes that they (and we) never got tired of our dishes. Sweet soy sauce chicken, gado-gado ayam, tempe stews, and yes, French Fries too. We cooked a fair bit at home but it was usually cheaper and easier to hop on the bike, pick up food at the warungs and bring it home. Groceries from Cocomart and Pepito Express were fresh if a little pricey, juicy tropical fruit was available from street vendors and markets. Some things are more expensive than what you’d pay in Australia or Canada (milk, cheese) and some things a lot cheaper (beer, fruit). Be aware that the Balinese love sweet things, and sugar is everywhere! Just about every place we visited used bottled water for drinking and cooking. We did get a mild case of Bali Belly when we visited a more western-styled warung...but we really should have known better considering the name of the place: Stop Makan Yuk!
Activities for Kids
Given the weather and the rough state of some of the beaches, waterparks are a popular option for families visiting Bali. Waterbom in Kuta draws big crowds, but we found Splash Waterpark in Canngu far better suited for little ones. Part of the Finns Recreational Club – think of it as sort of a country club – the deck chairs are arranged around a large kiddie waterpark, and the rides are just the right balance of scary, safe and fun for everyone from young kids to teenagers (and yes, us parents too). The huge family size pizza, served to us poolside with cold beer and freshly squeeze watermelon juice, is a thing of beauty. Surf schools are also popular for young kids, and resorts offer the various watersport activities. A good tip for those on a budget is Klub Jimbaran, which has kid-friendly pools and menus. Near to our neighbourhood we found the drop-in Blue Dolphin Playskool incredible pricey and geared towards expats. Better luck was found at a new outdoor play area called Jungle Play, which was opposite our favourite work-and-eat- spot called Café Kul Kul. It cost around $6 per kid at Jungle Play (although there were frequently specials and half-price days), and the staff were absolutely lovely. Also nearby was a day-care-like facility called Hompimpah, where our kids were more than happy to play with the huge range of toys in air-conditioned bliss (about $6 for three hours and half price on Mondays). We signed up Raquel for their weekly ballet classes, while Galileo was content to just visit the cows that lived in a field around the corner from us.
We lived in Bali for a month, renting a house in an area called Puri Gading, and exploring the southern part of the island as best we could. Without our five and two-year-old, we undoubtedly would have seen and done more. Travelling with kids definitely limited our options, but it dramatically expanded our family bonds, and the emotional richness of our experience. Getting around was certainly our greatest challenge, but there were plenty of magical moments. Being in a position to contrast our experiences of long-term family travel in Bali, Chiang Mai and Hoi An Vietnam, I’d honestly recommend Bali for a family resort holiday, and Thailand and Vietnam for the convenience, cost and lifestyle.
Walk, em... Squeeze through Medieval Gates in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is in the news. Since I visited as a backpacker (and Vancouver Sun travel columnist) in 2005, Croatia’s walled medieval city has become a magnet for mass tourism, fuelled by an onslaught of cruise ships, the success of Game of Thrones - Dubrovnik is a key location - and countless articles detailing its many wonders, written by travel writers just like me. The result today is crowds so thick you can’t see feet for cobblestone. The infrastructure is choked, there’s notorious price gauging, increased pollution, and Disneyland-esque line-ups outside attractions and businesses barely able to cope. This is the curse of Overtourism, a word that travellers are going to be hearing more and more often. Tourism is an industry of growth. More tourists = more hotels = more restaurants = more tour operators = more money = a better economy. Rampant growth has little concern if roads or sewerage pipes or the food supply chain or ports or museums or hotels or attractions were never designed to accommodate it. Hence, Venice is a disaster each summer. Hence, the reality of Paris is so shocking to Japanese tourists seduced by its image they can have psychotic breaks (Google Paris Syndrome). Hence available accommodation is limited, Air Bnb has soaked up what’s left and locals can’t afford to rent a place in their own city. Hence finding and keeping talented staff is impossible, and transient employees are exploited under the table. I encountered this end game on full display in high season Bali, where crowded beaches were covered in garbage and the roads were choked with snarling traffic. I encountered it in the Masai Mara with Landrover traffic jams and aggressive guides dangerously jostling for position to get a glimpse of a lion, the beast quickly retreating from the cacophony of camera clicks. Of course you won’t see this reality in the marketing paraphernalia produced by advertising agencies for tourism promotional boards. Videos and brochures depict dreamy sunsets and isolated beaches, candlelit restaurants and goosebump-inducing landscapes - miraculously captured just out of view of the tour buses and line-ups, the pushy hawkers and the tourists bewildered by ticket prices with more hidden fees than your last bank mortgage.
Overtourism never used to be a big thing, because mass international tourism never used to be big thing. Travelling abroad once signalled great fortune and privilege. With cheaper flights, online tools and the growth of personal wealth, well over a billion people travel abroad each year. The masses are inspired by advertising, by television shows, by books, by online Top 10’s, by travel writers promoting bucket lists. Oh yes, they’re inspired by people just like me, enthusiastically promoting destinations and activities that make life worth living. A destination’s prosperity brings more exposure, which brings more in-bound tourism, and the developers to build resorts and hotels to accommodate them. We may as well stick in a zipline, or a waterpark, or an open-top bus tour, and let the good times roll. And indeed, they have. Mass tourism has been a boon for everyone. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism generates over 10% of the world’s total GDP, supporting over one tenth of all the jobs in the world economy. Beyond the economic benefits, travel brings people together, inspires, enlightens, informs. I don’t need to write about why travel is good. Yet, when tourism is allowed to grow unchecked and without care, when greed and profit drive growth, there is an end game. I saw it on full display in Bali, and I’m not the only one. Two decades ago the place was paradise. But all that garbage has to go somewhere. All those buses have to use the same narrow road. All those tourists want to see the same show at sunset at the same temple. And all those taxi drivers know they can feast on post-show “I just want to get back to the hotel” desperation like overfed hyenas on the Serengeti. The End Game of Overtourism is not a pretty place. It keeps us behind the safe walls of the resorts that protect us from the mayhem, and ensures we’ll never go back. It inhibits meaningful cultural interactions. It rewards the unscrupulous, the unethical, and the corrupt. And it sends tourists packing for somewhere new, which, in turn, might gradually grow to become its own overtouristed nightmare.
Overtourism has been on my mind because of the jarring contrasts between Bali and Hoi An, Vietnam. After 5 weeks renting a villa, my family couldn’t wait to leave Bali, and after five weeks renting a villa, we didn’t want to say goodbye to Hoi An. Oh, tourism is exploding here too. The word is out: Hoi An represents a country and its people at its most loveliest: welcoming, beautiful, friendly, affordable. And yet I’m hesitant to spread that news. Because not far away from our villa, they’re building dozens of mega resorts all along the coast to Danang, 45 minutes away. One resort has over 8000 rooms, built to serve one exploding market in particular, China. And all these tourists will want to experience Hoi An like we did, and how could this small ancient town not become a Dubrovnik? How could the main in-bound road of Cua Dai not become the choked nightmare of Bali’s Uluwatu Street? And still, how could I not rave about this wonderful destination without contributing in no short part to the overtourism problem? Lots of questions to slurp back with my rice noodles.
Maya Beach, Thailand
Overtourism is changing and will continue to change the world of tourism. Some authorities are dealing with it, making world headlines in the process. In Thailand, they recently closed Maya Beach for six months to allow the famous cove - the setting of the film The Beach - to recover from years of tourist onslaught. After assessing the extent of the damage, they closed the beach indefinitely. Great for the environment and its surroundings, terrible if you own a local business and need tourists to put food on the table. With overtourism, by the time you recognize the problem, it’s too late. When an experience eventually becomes so negative that tourists shift their focus somewhere new - a new ancient city, a new island, a new beach - they leave a path of environmental and economic devastation in their wake. Will Dubrovnik shut its ports to turn down the millions of dollars cruise ships inject into the economy? Would any city? Not likely. Will I stop writing about inspiring places, which puts food on my table too? Not likely either. And there in lies the rub. To stop the grotesque trend of overtourism, great sacrifices will need to be made. Profits need to be pushed aside, the greater good must be pursued with long term vision. Apply the same approach to the myriad of issues facing the planet, and then look at the leaders who have been elected to face them. It’s not very promising, is it?
I don’t mean to and yet probably sound jaded, the dreaded word that haunts any self-respecting travel writer. Because as much as overtourism is a thing, so is Responsible Travel. We can choose to travel with companies operating with sound ethics and impressive policies, and visit places that genuinely appreciate our interest, not just our credit card. When authorities do use quotas and restrictions - as with gorilla encounters in Central Africa or in Peru’s Macchu Picchu - we can respect them as opposed to putting our own interests above all else. Give Iceland or Barcelona a break, consider Finland and Lisbon. And, yes do the research as to what a place will be like when you visit, as opposed to how incredible it was when the travel writer visited it back in, say, 2005. As for myself, I believe that, however small the impact, my work has inspired the world, and has made a tiny yet positive difference. I’ve always believed that travel is so personal. Just because I didn’t enjoy it, who I am to write negatively about any place or activity, and what gives me that right? I’ve always believed there’s enough negative reporting in the world. Well, my recent encounter with Overtourism in Bali has taught this old dog a new trick. If I don’t starting telling everyone it how it is – warts and all - I’ll continue to be part of the problem, as opposed to part of the solution.
Perhaps like you, I first heard about kopi luwak in the film The Bucket List. In fact, I first heard of bucket lists in the The Bucket List (a film which never quite matched its cultural influence with its box office earnings). Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly character explains that kopi luwak is the world’s most expensive coffee, with beans gathered from the excrement of a civet – a type of wild cat - found in Indonesia. The beans are collected, cleaned, packaged, and sold for up to $70 per 100g. Yes, this is a thing. In fact, kopi luwak is one of the first things I sought out after arriving in Bali, where “Wild” and “Organic” kopi luwak sells for about $15-20 per 100g. In the throes of high tourist season, I quickly learned that the Balinese are experts in the Art of Separating Tourists from Money, especially the taxi drivers, who are the worst shysters I’ve encountered anywhere. Balinese cunning might explain why stories abound of poor civets being kept in battery cages and force fed coffee berries like geese on their transition to fois gras. Today’s civet suffers greatly in order to meet both tourist and international demand for the bounty of their bowel movements.
The story also goes that the Asian palm civet carefully chooses only the finest coffee berries to eat, the epitome of natural selection. After consumption, the berries receive some rare biological gift in the civet’s digestive tract, are pooped-out whole, and are scooped up, processed and marketed as the world’s finest and expensive coffee. Having procured 100 grams of Organic (says the bag) and Wild (why would they lie?) luwak from a souvenir shop, I reviewed several sites as to the best method to prepare the coffee. We used the French Press we’ve been carrying around the world with us, and prepared the press with the same care the wild civet must have taken when it squeezed the beans out its anus. Gently raising the cup to my nose, it smelled exactly like… coffee. Putting my lips to the black elixir, it tasted exactly like…Angels Singing with Harps in Heaven. Nah, just kidding, it tasted like coffee. Actually, it tasted worse than our regular coffee. A little too thin, a little too complex, and a little too obvious that the only remarkable thing about this coffee is the words written on the package in which it came. Plus, I felt terrible drinking my cup of Joe. I couldn’t help but picture an abused cat trapped in a battery cage, force-fed coffee berries by steely-eyed, clove-smoking men with big sticks. Despite the reassurances of “Wild” and “Organic” providence on the vacuum-sealed baggie, the amount of times I’ve been ripped off in Bali made me question the veracity of the packaging. Taxi drivers doubling the agreed upon rate; meals suddenly costing more; paying to park; paying to relax on the sand; paying to use a floatie by the pool; paying extra; paying more; paying “special price for you.” Can’t really blame these folks, given that tourism accounts for 80% of the island’s economy, bringing in 3.5m people a year, with the Chinese – those bastions of cultural sensitivity – leading the charge, and Australians drunk on the island’s cheap beer and anarchy not far behind.
Prized for its unique rarity, when a peak experience jumps the shark, there’s nothing unique or rare about it any more. Rather, it quickly becomes the domain of the unscrupulous cashing in on a phenomenon. This is the case with the luwak or the kecak dance in Bali, and it is the case worldwide (see: every tourist trap you’ve ever been to). Meanwhile, those poor civets in Indonesia must deeply regret the bloke who first discovered that coffee beans extracted from their faeces taste delicious. They probably wonder why the guy didn’t just eat the coffee beans, crap them out himself, and give that a taste. Perhaps the human digestive tract would have added an extra layer of smoothness too. It certainly would add a layer of complexity to impress the coffee connoisseurs, the same ones that have rated kopi luwak poorly in several blind tastings.
It is my opinion, therefore, to leave the poor civets alone, and release kopi luwak from its dubious claim to be the world’s best cup of coffee. Let the cats live in peace, and let's ignore the bright red coffee berries shining within their scat. A steaming cup of kopi luwak is certainly a unique culinary experience, although is probably better described as a steaming pile of something else.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.