There’s Bali, then there’s the real Bali. The Bali we know conjures screensaver worthy images of beaches, centuries-old temples, pampering villas and spas and maybe a healer or two. Those who have actually visited the island will argue that’s just scratching the surface. Bali is detox and spiritual quests, participating in a Hindu ceremony, rainforest trekking and learning local customs and language, and it’s a haven for gay travelers, especially with the thriving LGBT scene. Here’s our gay travel guide to Bali.
First, right off the bat, we should mention if you’re gangbusters explorative, you will inevitably (and perhaps unfortunately) discover the real “real” Bali. This includes the lack of a waste management system, giving locals no option but to throw garbage into the rivers, which carries trash into the ocean, monster waves spitting them back onto shore, sea water deemed so bad that skin disorders are a threat, particularly after monsoon season (Indonesia was listed as 2nd worst country with poorly managed plastic waste in 2015).
Threats are a reality with Al Qaeda’s objection of the 80 percent Hindu population and the Westerners who support the destination (while Indonesia is the largest Muslim community in the world, Bali is a predominately Hindu-practiced island nation). The 2002 and 2005 bombings still resonate with Americans.
Traffic-choked roads worsen as the rise of motorbikes create further chaos, road rage and destroy the environment. So, now… Bali. Paradise or trouble in Paradise?
Bali gets a lot of slack. While the island may be quickly developing, the infrastructure is not. And there are people like me who notice the buzzkill.
But like the rainbow that emerges after the Balinese rain clouds, Bali is slowly—very slowly—making adjustments. Indonesia is holding onto real democracy and change, a country reimagined after the collapse of the New Order in 1999. While some problems may take years to tackle, the current president Joko Widodo is aware. And he’s not the only one who wants to eat, pray and love Bali.
Hotels belonging to Bali Hotels Association practice sustainable ecological waste management, and traffic control is being explored. Furthermore, security checks are enforced at all resorts, popular restaurants and attractions, every vehicle as well as roster of guests carefully investigated. In fact, the search is so thorough security officials often check under hoods, under the cars and inside trunks, so safety is never questioned.
Thanks to gorgeous resorts, scenery and just pure fabulousness of Bali island life, the gay scene is burgeoning with international visitors. The gay strip— Dhyana Pura—is home to gay bars and gay friendly establishments, and the resorts, beaches, restaurants and attractions are unarguably paradise for the LGBT community. In fact, one doesn’t necessarily need a gay travel guide to Bali; it’s already pretty gay.
I also won’t hesitate to say Bali is one of the most exciting destinations I’ve visited. The dynamic street culture is infectious. Exoticism is rich from beach to rain forest. Centuries-old rituals are still practiced today and ancient temples are ubiquitous, as well as moss-covered stone shrines. The Balinese people are some of the most friendliest and altruistic people on this planet. Indonesian food—if you’re a fan of spice—gets high marks.
Reputable hotel groups have set up camp here due to the unforgettable, commanding landscape and influx of starry-eyed visitors. There’s so much to see in Bali—the size of Singapore with a population of five million—that the average time spent here (10 days) may not be enough. With that said, many visit and actually never leave, evident with the wealth of ex-pats drawn to the people, food and customs—and the fact it’s inexpensive to live there.Qatar business class Q Suite selfie
From the cultural point of Ubud to the sublime coast of Nusa Dua, each of Bali’s 8 regencies (some would equate to neighborhoods in a city) are unique, impressing those who like diversity with their one-stop destinations. Ultimately, Bali is hedonism, a place of soul-searching and finding it, whether with a romantic partner or yourself and no one will argue that’s the real Bali. Here’s our gay travel guide to Bali based on popular regions.
Ultimate Gay Travel Guide to Bali
While the island is sprawling with endless areas of interest, some are better equipped for tourism, one of which is Seminyak, the most visited regency in Bali, and with good reason. It serves as a hub of terrific hotels and villas, local boutique designer shops, miles of beach and easy access from the airport (about fifteen minutes). But don’t expect glam. The narrow streets are a traffic nightmare, cramped with speedy motorbikes and wandering dogs almost 24-7 and the beaches are trashy (and I mean this literally regarding the floating debris, especially at night).
Even walking along the street, the curbs and sidewalks are littered with flower offerings, small boxes or “boats” typically made from coconut leaves and filled with flower petals and the humidity tends to capture the days-old garbage. In fact, on my first outing, it felt as if there was a huge festival the night before and nobody bothered to clean up. It turns out, well, that’s how the streets look every day! Nevertheless, Seminyak does harbor some of the island’s best sunsets, hotels keep their beachfront tidy and the camp-fed “gay” street is novelty alone.
+ Looking forward to dinner at the delicious Sarong tomorrow evening. One of my favs. #Bali #permissionistriumph #Sarong pic.twitter.com/yPymzNlDI3
— Adriano Di Prato (@AdrianoDiPrato) January 15, 2019
Speaking of gays, they come to Seminyak in droves. You’ll find a healthy variety at Café Bali, a restaurant that looks like a colonial doll house of sorts with a large outdoor deck, or at Sarong, a trendy restaurant offering a modern approach to street food. It was nice to find Seminyak offered some cosmopolitan flair. I was impressed with the diverse clientele: I heard conversations in German, Japanese and the heaviest of accents (from Australia to the deep south of the states!) proved Bali is on the international bucket list.
In Seminyak, there’s a gay “beach” though it’s reputation of cruising precedes it (which is great if that’s how you roll!). You’re better off at Ku De Ta, a casual hangout favored by both hetero and homo alike, known for beachfront cabanas, a South Beach-style scene with lounge grooves and killer cocktails to boot. A newer option is Potato Head, just down the road, similar atmosphere, same concept. Both bars truly took me from the bustling streets to melt away with a stiff drink.
Legian is a suburban 7 beach area on the west coast of Bali just north of Kuta & south of Seminyak the area between Melasti & Dhyana Pura. pic.twitter.com/BFtP8f8eBx
— THE HAVEN Seminyak (@thehavenbali) March 6, 2017
The strongest indication Seminyak lures the LGBT community is the fact it’s the only place with gay nightlife in Bali. You’ll find the motherload on Dhyana Pura, a tiny street home to a string of small gay bars. Mixwell is the preferred watering hole as the staff is friendliest and the DJ seems to know what the crowd wants. My idea to rise early for the sunset was foiled when the bar really didn’t pick up until after midnight. Every fifteen minutes, a drag queen commanded the audience with American pop songs and local go-go boys strut on the bar in the skimpiest and campiest of outfits. So wrong it was just right. What makes this strip exciting is that the streetfront bars allow the patrons to flood out into the street, particularly on the weekends: tourists (both gay and straight) pause to socialize, flirt and get a nice dose of the free shows at the bars.
There’s no shortage of pampering hotels and villas in Seminyak and you’ll find a diverse range of accommodations, whether it’s the old-school queen of luxury at Legian or the new W Bali.
Physically at home, mentally poolside at @WBali. #WEscapes #Daydreaming pic.twitter.com/hnaOK7ESNS
— W Hotels (@WHotels) July 14, 2020
W managed to muscle its way onto the beach, bringing its signature amenities and design gays live for. The design is a contemporary approach to traditional Balinese, and it’s eye candy with fun amenities (oxygen-filled lounge, three-story beach bar).
I wanted to go medium local and stayed at Anantara Resort & Spa, a Thai brand that opened on the beach about a decade ago. The comfortably chic boutique is a three-minute walk to the gay strip so my stumbling walks home were short and sweet without having to hop on the back of someone’s moped for chump change.
Most of the 60 suites have fantastic ocean views but that was the least of my concerns considering the delightful amenities all the suites are equipped with, including a large outdoor veranda with private jacuzzi tub, large shower with various pressure settings, separate vanity with ample closet space and the cuteness of the welcome fruit inside a large birdcage. We can’t not include this hotel in our gay travel guide to Bali.
Jimbaran Bay, Pantai Nelayan Tersembunyi Di Bali Selatan https://t.co/iWT6rIhhEB #travelblog pic.twitter.com/xxSWT4Z0kf
— Fahmi (@catperku) June 21, 2020
Romance is completely amped up at Jimbaran Bay on the southern peninsula, only a twenty-minute drive from Seminyak. While it shares the same coast, I found the beaches substantially nicer here, and a pace that truly captured “island time.” The shore hosts a number of seafood restaurants, trademark “beds on the beach” and unforgettable sunsets. In fact, these are the three main highlights of the area, considering a shortage of healers, nightlife, rice paddies, jungle treks and money boys. It’s a compact paradise luring foodies to the bustling morning fish markets and surfers to the wealth of great waves, giving a more “retro” feel to the Balinese coast.
The scent of fresh seafood lingers in the salt-stung air, and the perpetual sound of crashing waves creates Zen. Even the two luxury resorts here are attractions in themselves, for both locals and visitors alike. It was the best detox from Seminyak, and I finally had time to crack open my beach book, Robinson Crusoe.
If you’re looking for sprawling and fab, Ayana Resort and Spa is a 200-acre, 368-room property that’s so tricked-out, you don’t have to leave the premises and, quite frankly, most guests don’t. I felt like a passing traveler in a self-contained village.
Do you know that sleep is key for overall health and wellbeing?
That is why our ultra luxurious villas are set on the scenic Jimbaran Bay cliffs amongst the lush tropical gardens, and offer world-class facilities and uncompromised privacy. #AYANAresort #Bali pic.twitter.com/hXTR5238tZ
— AYANA Hotels (@AyanaResort) April 6, 2020
There are five pools (both fresh- and salt-water), 12 restaurants and lounges, two glass-wedding chapels, a sliver of private beach, tucked away hales, award-winning, 236,000-square-foot spa (that includes a truly pampering, 12-course aquatherapy circuit) and a sports facility that includes fitness center, jogging path, yoga pavilion, tennis courts and 18-hole golf putting course.
If you think that’s enough to keep you busy, they throw in surprises. For instance, during my stay, guest yogi Jacqui Cooper, a medal-winning aerial skiing Olympian and certified instructor, taught a free outdoor class to fifty guests.
To really do Ayana right, splurge on one of the 78 free-standing, cliff-top villas. They start at 3,225 square-feet and include a 24-hour butler (you’re given a cell should you need anything), private infinity-edge plunge pool, sunbeds and gazebos and your own waterfall garden. If that’s not privileged enough, there’s a separate room entirely for the soaking bathtub, about the same size of the living area. I felt quite liliputian in such quarters but I also felt rightfully like a prince in my own kingdom.
Formerly the Ritz Carlton, the property became Ayana two years ago and repeat visitors will notice the sheer awesomeness of the year-old Rock Bar. An open-top bar—with cocktails created by Michelin-star F&B executive Marc Dobbels—is set on a cliff outcrop where crashing waves, 360-degree views and sublime sunset (happy hour is popular here) create an atmosphere challenging to duplicate. Don’t even get me started on the stargazing. It’s one of the main reasons we actually wrote this gay travel guide to Bali… it must have been in the stars!
The 147 villas at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay are modeled after typical Balinese homes (of the swankier variety), completely rustic with private plunge pools and views of the Bay. The resort is intimate and simple, understated elegance with a signature Beds on the Beach so fine-toothed you’ll think it was specially crafted for you. It includes pampering hale on the coast, a terrific degustation menu under the stars while torch-baring canoes roll out in the ocean before you.
Sonho de hoje: começar o dia com esse café da manhã em uma da villas privativas do @FSBali, em Jimbaran Bay. 📷: alexpreview (via IG) https://t.co/Fd6G3RMJtq#DreamWithFS #Indonesia pic.twitter.com/X46koUTfL8
— Four Seasons Brasil (@FourSeasonsBR) July 31, 2020
If you want to feel the “old-school” atmosphere of Bali, head to Balangan Beach, a hedonistic strip of sandy beach and home to surfer competitions, $20-a-room hotels on stilts and not much more. It’s wildly idyllic and bare-boned, with little shading so don’t forget your sunscreen. Visit Aluwatu, home of one of Bali’s biggest and most important shrines, and you’ll experience traditional choreographed dances at sunset. Like to ride waves? The breaks here have been named one of the best surfing spots in the world, so we just have to include it in our gay guide to Bali.
The Ubud Rice fields are just so peaceful and an amazing place to just sit reflect and meditate 🧘🏾♂️ — marcusmeetsworld via IG // Fam, what are some of your self-care practices during this pandemic? Let us know in the comments. #travelnoire #stayhome pic.twitter.com/zg94v6CH6z
— Travel Noire (@TravelNoire) April 28, 2020
Locals, including ex-pats, won’t exactly admit Eat, Pray, Love ruined Ubud but their eyes will tell a different story. The location for the blockbuster film is more overrun with tourists, which means longer lines at favorite haunts, cheesy tours and thrice as many roaring motorbikes. If there’s one redemptive note to the instant tourism boom in the small, inland village high in the foothills is that tourists truly fall in love with Ubud, and the small town itself hasn’t changed, which is why we need to include it in our gay guide to Bali.
Ubud is the heart and cultural pulse of Bali. There’s something so magical here, you’re bound to feel a wonderful sensation right away. It’s traditionally been known to inspire and incite artists, writers, hippies, the spiritual variety and, more recently, me. Retreats and ancient temples abound in unspoiled rain forestry. Winding roads are lined with decades-old art studios and old-school vendors while large, stringy root hang from leafy trees, creating a setting only found in fables.
So we tried Babi Guling at Ibu Oka (Ubud) because of an episode in Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
It really tastes good 👌 pic.twitter.com/2tIHC818y7
— Nirvana in Fire (@LinShu__) September 25, 2019
Most villas and resorts perch along the Ayung River, harboring views into the jungle, of rice terraces and gorges. 14th century temples in the Sacred Monkey Forest are home to hundreds of free-roaming, Balinese Macaques monkeys, known to be ubersacred (both the monkeys and the temple) in this neck of the woods. And culinary treats of all kinds—fresh juices, family-run Indonesian restaurants, outdoor BBQ and even suckling pig—make Ubud a fascinating foodie destination. Make a bee-line to Ibu Oka, which the late Anthony Bourdain declared his favorite suckling pig place ever. Get there early as seats fill up fast. Even at 11 am, I stood in line, waiting to work on my appetite on crispy pork skin and savory meat.
Mozaic marches to a more fine-dining beat. It’s touted as the best restaurant in Ubud, heck even all of Bali, thanks to chef Chris Salans (graduate of French Laundry), who opened ten years ago. Mozaic features a six-course tasting menu in a stylish, outdoor venue in the jungle.
A sunset pic we took @ the #Amandari resort, where we stayed for a few days last time in #Bali. Review: https://t.co/mgc0PEFmI9 @Amanresorts pic.twitter.com/EnXf7gRE2B
— TravelPlusStyle.com (@TravelPStyle) January 25, 2017
If you come to Ubud and see a temple, ride a motorbike, chill in a resort’s infinity pool and indulge in a streetside $5 massage then you haven’t truly experienced Ubud. To fully understand the culture, one must immerse himself by participating in pastimes, activities and attractions most hotels offer.
The chic, 30-suites Amandari was able to arrange a traditional blessing ceremony with a local priest for me. This ceremony is generally offered during an important day (birthday or wedding), a Karma cleansing, if you will, and was performed just outside Amandari’s main entrance. After the priest sang a variety of prayers, I was blessed by him, sprinkled with water and dry rice, and finally I made all sorts of offerings (canag) to the God, and was able to ask for wishes. One wish I should have made was to stop the rain, which comes every day in rainy season due to its location, but the random showers never last a handful of hours.
The 60-room Four Seasons Sayan, where Julia Roberts stayed during filming, is at the base of the river. The design of the resort is quite commanding (note the signature, disc-shaped lily pond roof) and botany lovers will appreciate the well-kept landscape chockfull of stag-horn ferns, thumbergia vines, herb and gardens and Banyan trees. Just imagine the invigorating, floral scents.
eat pray love
a primeira hora é tão chata que quase desisti, a segunda melhora um pouco mas nada espetacular. o que vale a pena é a elizabeth andando de bicicleta, comendo pizza e falando francês. pic.twitter.com/fcHTEpGI6F
— laura ミ☆ (@latinsroses) December 24, 2020
The resort pays tribute to the Balinese farmer by offering “Live Like a Local” excursion. After an hour-long, scenic trek in the jungle and village, I had breakfast in a bale by a sprawling rice paddy then planted some of my own. Don’t worry, it gets better. After a few hours of dirtying hands, I was whisked away to the spa villa to experience batukali (stone bathing ritual), which comprises a stone scrub and massage. It’s perhaps more posh than the way of the traditional farmer but thematic nonetheless. This was followed by a riverfront, nasi campur (mixed rice) lunch in a private bale and included a gorgeous scrapbook memento with nasi campur recipes and photos of the day’s journey.
COMO Shambala #Bali, adds a whole new dimension of opulence to your standard wellness retreat. http://t.co/PSEvD3BDHY pic.twitter.com/K2BrvTPjJj
— Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia (@TravLeisureAsia) May 14, 2014
Well off the beaten-path is COMO Shambhala Estate just on the outskirts of Ubud, reached by one road (as in, a one-way road shared both directions). The remote location reflects its level of exclusivity, high in the mountains, about 3,400 feet, right on the edge of a cliff that drops down to Ayung river. It’s home to a natural sacred spring bursting with holy water, creating a handful of pools for natural dipping (ancient texts indicate this is one of seven springs women have to visit before getting married).
There’s only 30 villas, most of which are always booked, thanks to its rustic-chic design (stone walls, thatch roofs, green grounds and most of the villas face a whole hillside of terraced rice paddies), personal butler attendant and holistic program that includes unlimited yoga and pilates classes from some of the world’s top experts. COMO is regarded as the best of the best for the best, as visitors have included Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Edward Norton. Don’t expect tacky guest speakers and group meditations as this is not that sort of retreat; the spirituality comes from within and it’s one of the reasons we need to include in our ultimate gay guide to Bali.
A perfect place to stay at East Bali is Amankila. pic.twitter.com/tO6o9xvwhj
— P O S I T I V I T Y (@RightDisplay) October 22, 2020
Visit the Karangasem regency on the east coast, and you’ll still see Bali pre-tourism boom. It’s chockfull of caged-up, cock-fighting roosters, rice fields, home-cum-“street”-front shops and arguably the most smiles in the entire archipelago. Karangasem is as old-school as Bali gets, and we’re talking a thousand years. In fact, the small village of Tenganan was the first to be settled in the 11th century and still retains traditions and customs that haven’t changed from the get-go.
Those who live in the village (about 200 families) never leave, and if they marry someone outside their ring, they must move out. Tenganan is also home to ecat, a type of tapestry that’s hand-woven and takes up to two years to make. This is the village that originally gave birth to ecat and is one of few places where production exists… and out of weavers’ shops for that matter. The art form is so intricate and difficult that no one has learned how to duplicate it correctly. Being that Tenganan was the first settlement in Bali, it’s also home to some of the oldest temples and shrines.
Winding pathways lead to secluded stilted suites at #Amankila, where the air is veiled with the tropical scent of frangipani and the magnificent three-tier infinity pool appears to tumble down to black sand beach below. https://t.co/I6Wh956tue pic.twitter.com/uvtLpyRwVa
— Aman (@Amanresorts) October 29, 2020
Tradition lingers outside the village. I was fortunate to visit Bali during Usabha Ketiga—meaning “the rituals of the third month” according to the Balinese calendar—where a celebration of dancing, offerings and drinking took place on the side of the street—literally. Cars and motorbikes actually dodged the festival on the edge of the street, the same exact spot where the festival had taken place for centuries, and the road was just an impediment. Visiting shrines and temples are de riguer for locals but tourists should plan to visit one during a celebration, which is much more moving.
A charming, oceanside resort town exists but affluent travelers will prefer the 30-year old Amankila resort. The 34 stilted, thatch-roof, free-standing suites (200 square feet) are bridged by raised walkways, completely removed in its own oasis. Aman groupies may recognize the resort by its signature, three-tiered, infinity swimming pool set into the cliff, facing the sea and flowing into the other down a stepped gradient, similar to terraced rice paddies.
#Amankila’s 3-tier infinity pool tumbles down to the beach below, as views across the Lombok Strait disappear beyond the horizon. Immersed in the beauty of these natural surroundings, Balinese dishes are served, created from locally sourced ingredients. https://t.co/I6Wh956tue pic.twitter.com/l5qW6AGXo9
— Aman (@Amanresorts) November 21, 2020
The streamlined staff enhance the atmosphere while the design is noteworthy in itself: tall, stone walls covered with fern and moss, angular structures and thoughtful composition, commanding views anywhere you stand, private cabanas (or bales) throughout the property. At the base of the cliff on which the resort rests is the Beach Club where myriad watersports are offered as well as another pool at a whopping 135 feet. After an exhausting, eight-mile bike ride throughout the regency (mountain bikes provided by the resort), there really wasn’t a better place to come back to than Amankila. Under the band of stars (the light pollution is low, thus constellations wildly pop from the sky), it’s an unrivaled experience, and one of the reasons we need to include in our gay guide to Bali.
What’s not to love @ConradBali with a lagoon access room, blue skies, giant swimming pools, excellent service, delicious food and hot weather. Will certainly be switching off for the next few days #hothotel #conrad #bali pic.twitter.com/8Mn6yDqjPE
— TheDesignAir (@thedesignair) September 22, 2019
If for some unearthly reason you have to get away from the belly of Bali, head to Nusa Dua, a self-contained, gated resort complex on the east side of the island. In all fairness, Nusa Dua was conceived in the late seventies as the first development specifically designed for tourism—it’s this region that put Bali on the map internationally!
Also, the best beaches of Bali are arguably here, should you need winning snapshots for your Instagram.
Like to hang at @HiltonHotels? These are the 52 best, including the Conrad Bali: https://t.co/ceZGanVcTL pic.twitter.com/UqGMOYXIhq
— ForbesLife (@ForbesLife) August 12, 2019
Resorts (most fit for large conventions or weddings) line the sandy coast, all considered high end. There’s also a small shopping center—Bali Connections—and a golf course. The best beach is probably at the base of St Regis, open only three years and still feeling quite new. While one would gripe that there’s no Balinese culture found within the property, most won’t turn down the chic pool with swim-up bar, 24-hour butler service and indulgent Remede Spa. Grand Hyatt recently went through a major renovation and Amanusa is still a luxury hotel junkie’s poison. Further up the coast, just on the border, is Conrad Bali, which has the biggest pools in all of Bali (the lagoon pool is 40,000 square feet).
The new Conrad Suites may be underwhelming with design but it’s the perks—private 2,000-square-foot pool, fee-free cabanas, free laundry and dry cleaning and 15% percent off all F&B—that matter.
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