How did a solo travelling woman of a certain age find herself staying in a faded surfie haven, with no shops or entertainment other than the wild sea and some warungs – and loving it?
This was my fifth visit to Bali, and I’d hit the major compass points; from the popular beach hangouts and the hills of Ubud, to towns in the east and north. Was it possible to find somewhere new?
After putting my wish list out amongst Bali-loving friends, I took the punt on five days in the Wild West.
Balian ticked all the boxes:
- Local food
- No hawkers
- Comfortable accommodation
- Near water
If you’re not a surfer, you mightn’t have heard of Balian Beach. It’s a village on the West Coast with seemingly little to offer. There’s a strip of black sand beach, with a strong current and good surf.
The 700 metre narrow road, from the turn off to the sea, has a few local shops dotted around the top. On the corner of the main road, there’s a small market, money changer (cash up before you get here as no competition means it’s rarely a good exchange rate) and at mealtimes some Bakso and chicken carts. But heading down to the beach, there’s only accommodation and cafes.
If you don’t have a motorbike, I suggest you stay in the main village, near the beach end on the west side of the Balian river. There are a lot of choices.
Cruising Airbnb, for such a small area, there’s a surprising number of places to stay with many bargains on offer. No huge resorts or super luxe. Nothing over two floors high. Both old school homestays (for as little as AUD$26/night) and modern villas with plunge pools.
I chose a villa which at just over $100/night, was on the pricier end of what was on offer. I didn’t want to be surrounded by families or canoodling couples. Basically, I didn’t want a pokey little room inside to be my only option if I wanted to be on my own, so a private courtyard was appealing.
Inside, my modern villa came complete with a kitchen, table, comfy sofa, large bed and bathroom. In the small, walled courtyard was a plunge pool, two sun loungers, outdoor shower and the all-important rack to hold surfboards.
Breakfast was included at the adjacent café, which according to google serves the best espresso in town. At night a security guard hung out in the closed café, and was there to let me in to my villa when I initially checked in after dark. The need for ‘security’ was a little curious as the town was quiet and felt incredibly safe. But as a solo traveller, it felt like a bonus to have him not far away each night.
I’m not a surfer, so what did I do for five days?
I wanted to rest, walk, write, reflect, be in water and eat local food. While the waves and rip could be wild on the beach, the warm waters of the Balian river, flowing into the sea, was deep enough to swim in.
Craving some simplicity, and habitually waking early, I got into the rhythm of walking at sunrise along the beach and up the hill if I wanted to stretch my legs further. Heading back to the café just as it opened, I’d grab a coffee to take back to my villa, cool off in my little plunge pool and write for a while.
Before dusk I’d walk the beach again, and stop at a bar (often the Bamboo bar right on the beach) to watch the sunset.
In between, it was a case of creating my own amusement.
If you want a bigger pool to swim in, the two larger ‘resorts’, one right on the beach and another at Secret Beach, are usually happy for you to lounge and use the facilities if you order food and drinks.
The spa that’s not a spa
I love massages and scoped out the Gajah Mina Beach Resort. It’s a bit of a wander up and down the hills from the main village. This fading ‘resort’ sprawls over the headland that can be viewed from the main Balian beach. In fact, the idyllic small pavilion on top of the hill is actually the “spa”. Ok, the inverted commas come from the fact the so called spa is just one room. It’s a bit basic, with a bath, toilet and two massage tables. But what a view. No music plays, as the sound of the ocean crashing on the rocks below is a hypnotic soundtrack.
The actual treatment was pretty average, but for less than $30, the two hour scrub, massage and flower bath was certainly a bargain and filled in the time.
The main street had a few ‘massage’ signs but rarely with anyone around. On one sunset walk I found a door open at one and asked for a foot massage. I was ushered into a shabby little room, overlooking the family compound. The treatment was rather painful, and nothing calming or luxuriating.
Over all my visits to Bali I’ve had some amazing massages, from cheapies in shalas on the beach, to expensive five star hotels. And everything in the between. After these two experiences, I gave up the desire to keep on searching for a decent massage.
Food is cheap and not particularly flash. Old school warungs tend to offer a mix of surfie food (burgers and western dishes) and traditional Balinese nasi goreng, noodles, chicken and occasionally fish. Surprisingly the best food I ate were in the most unassuming places.
I ate mainly in the main village on the west side of the Balian river. But there is a smattering of warungs and accommodation on the eastern side. It seems there are two ways to get there – a circuitous motorbike ride to the top of the village, hang a right on the busy main road and another right once over the river.
Or wade through the water.
On my first crossing, the river was nipple high through the calmest water. Later I went through the swifter, slipperier sea end where it was only to the top of my thighs. I’m not very tall! For me on my own, it meant exploring in daylight, in bathers, carrying my sarong, phone and money in a sealed plastic bag. And hoping like heck I didn’t slip!
But it was worth it to eat lunch at the Balian Surf Camp and Canteen – barely a minute’s walk across the sand, through the river and a few steps around the beach on the other side. This delightful beachside café with sea views is incredibly cheap, with the best nasi goreng in the village. Even better, it trains local young people in hospitality and puts any profits back into the community.
Another other surprise was the Bamboo bar. While the little bar is the obvious place to sip a Bintang and watch the sun set in the west, it mightn’t be the most obvious place for good food. But it turned out that Putu made the best gado gado of my trip. It’s a friendly, quiet little spot where I felt fine hanging out as a woman on my own.
The most expensive meals I ate were at Pondok Pitaya, the small ‘resort’ right on the beach. One of the few places with tax and service charge but still a main meal with a drink was barely AUD$15. It was there I spotted another Balinese favourite – vegetarian nasi campur, which was generous and tasty. Though I came back a second night and had their ‘most recommended’ vegetarian dish – a tempeh burger, which was rather tasteless.
Be aware most warnings only take cash.
As tourist demographics go, I’m an outlier. Not a surfer, I don’t like shopping and am not after luxe experiences. I can make my own fun.
The lack of entertainment wasn’t an issue. Without a motorbike, it could become a very limited place to stay. But if you want to rest and have a peaceful, hassle-free break, Balian is worth considering.
Balian is the antithesis of towns like Seminyak. So, if you go to Bali for wall to wall shopping, western style bars and restaurants and poolside selfies with an exotic cocktail in hand, don’t go to Balian.
The water is quite wild, and the current makes swimming in the sea quite risky. The beach, like so many these days, has a lot of plastic litter. Though periodically locals appear to clear it. They also bundle up the drift wood to sell.
But perhaps the major downside to this otherwise idyllic spot, is getting there. The only route is via the main Java to Lombok road that traverses the island. This narrow, two way road is clogged by trucks and buses, both of which are prone to do some crazy over taking heading into oncoming traffic. Drivers on both my journeys to and from Balian, complained about how much worse this road is during Ramadan. Note to self, if travelling West, plan to either avoid that time of year or allow extra time on the roads during those weeks.
The journey is even worse if heading to or from the airport, which necessitates negotiating the Canggu to Kuta traffic as well. While google maps may estimate a ninety minute journey. In reality it’s optimistic to plan on less than three hours, sometimes four. Be patient and take your time!
While staying in Balian I pondered that eternal traveller’s dilemma, what is responsible tourism?
For the height of the tourist season, it was unusually quiet according to some of the locals. Before it became known as ‘the most secluded surf beach in Bali’, it was a traditional village relying on subsistence agriculture. Now most of the paddy fields are gone, with only a few cleared patches of land with the odd cow and ‘for sale’ signs. The arable land has largely been converted to tourist accommodation.
But where are the tourists?
While there were a few younger European surfers, the predominant group were Aussie blokes in their 40s and 50s with a few mates, or young families, there to catch some waves.
Where is the next generation chasing the surf right now? Costa Rica, Portugal, Sri Lanka? There are a lot of other places in the world with cheap beer, food and accommodation. I get the feeling that tourism in Balian has peeked; to survive it might need more for the non-surfers to do and that would inevitably at the cost of what makes this village so charming – a slice of relatively undeveloped, traditional Bali.