We spent a week in Indonesia in November 2016. A week is not long enough to fully explore and assimilate the culture, but we were able to get a taste of the diversity and beauty of the country. We visited ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, cycled through farmland and quaint villages, hiked up an active volcano, got lost in rice fields, sipped on fresh tropical fruit juices, sampled Luwak Coffee, watched expert artists working on Batik painting and lost ourselves in the crowded streets of Yogyakarta. It was love at first sight!
Bali is filled with tourists (especially Seminyak and Ubud), but we got out of the crowded areas by opting for above-average amounts of walking and hiking. Central and Eastern Java is full of history, stunning landscapes and extremely friendly locals.
Day 1 — Arrival in Denpasar, Bali
Our flight reached Denpasar at 7:30pm and the first warm breeze as we stepped out of the airport doors was amazing. We caught an Uber near the airport, got to our hotel in Seminyak, grabbed dinner and went to sleep. The exhaustion from 24 hours of air travel was real. We chatted with Michael, our Uber driver, on our way to the hotel and learned that he was a private tour driver who did Uber on the side. We instantly made a booking with him for the next day and arranged to meet at our hotel at 8AM.
Day 2 — Rice Terraces, Luwak Coffee, Batik Painting, Uluwatu Temple
We woke up early and enjoyed a delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. We took a quick walk around Seminyak that morning. We walked over to Double Six Beach, found an ATM nearby to withdraw some Rupiah (IDR) and walked into a grocery store next door to buy some bottled water. We met Michael back at the hotel lobby and set off on our Bali tour.
Our first stop was at Tegalalang Rice Terraces near Ubud. The drive there was two hours long and the roads were pretty good. Tegalalang requires a bit of hiking to truly enjoy the place, but 100% worth it. At 10AM, we had the place mostly to ourselves. The rice fields belong to a group of farmers and some of them stop you on the way and require “tips” before you can keep walking. The US Dollar goes a long way in Indonesia, and all our generosity only cost us ~$10 total.
We had a lot of fun here and stayed for nearly two hours. By noon, it was extremely hot and humid, and we were glad to be getting back to an air conditioned car. We got lunch at Bebek Tepi Sawah and continued on to a coffee plantation tour. We got to see some coffee plants up close, and learned about the process of cultivating and processing Luwak Coffee. They gave us a complimentary sample of different types of teas and coffees, and we also had a chance to try some Luwak Coffee. We’re not big coffee drinkers, but the novelty was fun!
We made a quick stop at a Batik factory where we saw artists working on Batik painting. We didn’t spend too much time here, and continued on to Uluwatu. The humidity of the morning translated into thunder showers in the afternoon. The drive to Uluwatu was extremely stormy and the road conditions made me a little nervous. Uluwatu is at the Southern tip of Bali, and there’s a beautiful temple right on the cliff. There’s a Ramayana (Hindu mythology) dance performance in an outdoor amphitheater every night with the ocean and sunset as the backdrop. The rain cleared up right before the show and we got to watch the traditional Balinese Kecak dance.
Day 3 — Yogyakarta, Merapi Cycling, Prambanan Temple
We took a domestic flight at 7am from Denpasar to Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogja locally). We took a cab to the hotel we were staying at, dropped our luggage off at the lobby and made some local phone calls to arrange for a cycling tour from Merapi to Prambanan. I found Jogja Signature through a quick Google search and Iva was very responsive on WhatsApp. I had a plan in mind and she was able to arrange everything within 30 minutes — super impressive! We got picked up at the hotel and drove to Merapi, about an hour away from the city. We rented a pair of mountain bikes there and set off on a cycling adventure. We passed many idyllic villages with friendly faces waving at us. Greenery everywhere and fresh air, I liked the countryside so much more than the cities.
We returned our bikes at Prambanan and grabbed a quick lunch before heading to the Prambanan temple complex. This is one of the oldest temples I’ve ever been to (built in the 9th century) and the architecture was stunning. There were three main temples — one each for the principle Hindu Gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — and smaller temples for various other Hindu deities. The original idols were still inside the temples, and the artistic detail in the sculptures was phenomenal.
Day 4 — Borobudur, Punthuk Setumbu and Yogyakarta
We woke up at 3am and left the hotel at 3:30 to catch sunrise at Borobudur. The drive took an hour and a half, and we got there comfortably early. It was a foggy morning and it was pretty magical to see the Stupas rising through the morning mist.
We got some tea and snacks at Manohara Hotel, and headed to Punthuk Setumbu to explore some more. This was way less touristy compared to Borobudur, and the morning walk through the mountains was fantastic. The greenery and the fresh mountainous air got me pumped. The trail leads to a strange building called the Chicken Tower — it actually looks like a chicken. You can climb up to the head of the chicken for a gorgeous view of the surrounding landscape. There are no trail markers, but we managed to get help from local people in the area for directions back to the trailhead.
After the hike in Punthuk Setumbu, we headed back to Yogyakarta. We took a quick nap in the afternoon, and headed out in the evening to Malio Boro, one of the famous shopping streets in the city. We found a vegan restaurant (Loving Hut) nearby and got some delicious dinner before walking back to the hotel.
Day 5 — Train ride to Bromo
The next morning, we hopped on a train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya. The train ride was very comfortable and there was plenty of legroom. At the train station in Surabaya, we met our driver who was ready to take us to Mount Bromo. The train ride and the drive from Surabaya took up the bulk of this day, and it was around 5pm by the time we reached our hotel in Cemoro Lawang.
Day 6 — Mount Bromo
We boarded the 4WD Jeep at 3:30am and set out to Gunung Penanjakan to get a glimpse of the first rays of sun falling on Mount Bromo. The ride to Penanjakan was an adventure in itself. It was pitch black outside and the roads were bumpy, narrow and windy. Thankfully, our driver was from the nearby Cemoro Lawang area and knew the terrain like the back of his hand. We arrived early and waited an hour for sunrise.
After sunrise, we rode in the Jeep to the “sea of sand” surrounding Mount Bromo (the smoky crater in the picture above). We hiked for about 45 minutes from the car all the way up to the rim. We didn’t see many hikers along the way; some people chose to ride a horse from the car park. The fresh morning air, the uphill climb and the views from the top were so refreshing. After the hike, we headed back to the hotel for some hot breakfast before starting the drive back to Surabaya. We took an afternoon flight the same day to Denpasar, Bali from Surabaya.
Day 7 — Ubud
Bhuwana Ubud is a little piece of paradise on Earth, surrounded by manicured gardens, fruit orchards and rice fields. We spent a few hours that morning at the monkey forest in Ubud. I loved the experience here, and think it’s a must-see for anyone in the area.
Day 8 — Bali Tour
We planned for a half-day tour this day because we wanted some down time that evening before leaving Bali. We started off with Tegenungan Waterfalls and then continued on to the temples of Goa Gajah, Gunung Kawi, Tirtha Empul and stopped for lunch at Kintamani.
After lunch, we visited a coffee plantation again and tried various coffee and tea blends. On the way back to Ubud, we got to witness a village temple ceremony. There were people playing musical instruments and others in procession carrying paraphernalia required for the Hindu rituals. It was so fascinating to park our car to the side and observe passively!
In the evening, we relaxed in the hotel pool for an hour or so before heading out to get dinner. We packed up our bags and slept early that night to prepare for another early morning flight out of Bali.
Trip Planning Tips for Bali/Java/Indonesia
- Yogyakarta/Borobudur Tours — I highly recommend Jogja Signature. Reach out to Iva on WhatsApp +62 813–2633–3020
- Mount Bromo Tour — Ary Antonio had very reasonable prices and went above and beyond our expectations for customer service. Phone +62 821–3999–1150
- Most restaurants and tour companies are cash only. ATMs are easy to find in cities, so we topped up every couple of days to avoid carrying too much cash.
- It’s very easy to find English speaking drivers in Bali. Booking tours online ahead of time is ~3x more expensive than booking locally once you’re in Bali.
- Cellular data on your phone will make your life significantly easier — Google Maps, Uber and WhatsApp were life savers every step of our way. Thanks to T-Mobile, we get free international roaming data!
- Vegetarian food is super easy to find in Bali. There are tons of vegan/vegetarian cafes in Ubud and Seminyak. There were fewer options available in Java, especially in the smaller villages near Merapi, Prambanan and Bromo. Our staples for the week were these two dishes — Nasi Goreng Vegetarian (Fried Rice) and Mie Goreng Vegetarian (Fried Noodles).
- There are many tour companies who offer packaged all-inclusive tours in Bali and Java. We considered booking with Backyard Travel (recommended by a friend who had used them) and based on our interactions via email and Skype, their local knowledge and customer service was top notch. If you’re looking for someone to take care of A — Z during the trip, you can consider this option. But it's a lot pricier than if you were to book everything yourself (very much an option).
- We ended up booking everything ourselves (hotels on Expedia and local tour companies for day trips) because I enjoy trip planning and the opportunities to figure things out on the go in a foreign country. We didn’t haggle down prices very much, so the breakdown below will give you a sense of what to expect if you were to just show up.
Our Budget for our Trip
Despite staying in luxurious hotels and splurging on touristy activities (e.g. Borobodur Sunrise and Mount Bromo Tour), the entire trip cost us only $675 per person (not including flight tickets) as you can see in the budget spreadsheet screenshot above. After traveling to relatively expensive places in New Zealand, Iceland, Western Europe and North America over the last few years, the power of geographical arbitrage really hit us in Bali.
Enjoying cost of living differentials while vacationing is only the beginning of frugal travel.
Would you be willing to pack your bags and move to a cheaper city if it gave you financial independence?