As Bali reopens, here's where to eat, party and soak up culture in the 'Island of the Gods'

PHOTO: Reuters

Bali is gearing up for an influx of foreign travellers now that the Indonesian government has reduced quarantine requirements for international tourists.

Now, all foreigners and Indonesians returning from abroad who have received at least three shots of a World Health Organization -approved Covid-19 vaccine need to quarantine for three days, down from five.

They will still have to undergo a PCR test and stay in their pre-booked accommodation until they get their test result. Those with only two shots must quarantine for five days and those with only one shot must quarantine for seven days.

Jakarta’s main goal is to lift the quarantine requirement for all foreign arrivals to the country, preferably by April. Direct flights to Bali have been operating since February 4, and the island’s airport has recently been welcoming a handful of flights daily from Singapore and Japan.

The requirement for foreign travellers to quarantine was lifted in Bali on March 7 and the government now plans to roll out a similar programme nationwide in the near future, if the island’s quarantine-free trial is deemed successful.

To attract tourists, Indonesia is marketing the required quarantine as a “warm-up vacation”, as visitors can leave their rooms in the pre-approved hotels and take part in activities or mingle with the group that they came with in a designated bubble area in the hotels.

Between February 4 and February 26, more than 1,600 foreign tourists visited Bali and stayed at the “bubble hotels”, which cost an average of 3 million rupiah (US$209) per night, according to the government’s data.

Tourism contributed nearly 70 per cent of Bali’s economy and provided about a million jobs to its residents before the pandemic. Jakarta has been trying for a while to revive the island’s economy, which has been battered by the pandemic and contracted 9.33 per cent in 2020. Last year, Bali’s economy posted another, smaller contraction of 2.47 per cent.

The restaurant Locavore in Ubud. Photo: Handout

For those planning a trip to Bali, here’s what you need to know:

Bali has a plethora of fine dining and street food options to choose from, though some well-known places are either still closed or have cut down their menu and opening hours to save operational costs.

Vegan restaurants are also abundant on the island and generally affordable, which may put Bali’s first-time vegan tourists’ minds at ease.

Across the island, there’s typically no longer a capacity limit for indoor dining, and, unlike in restaurants in Jakarta, there are no Plexiglas partitions dividing patrons’ tables, either. Temperature checks are usually voluntarily imposed by restaurants.

The island boasts a high vaccination rate – second only behind Jakarta nationwide – and most hospitality industry staff in Bali are fully vaccinated. A booster programme is ongoing on the island. Many businesses display a “no mask, no entry” warning sign on the doors, but that rule, too, is often not enforced.

Some famous tourist spots remain closed despite the island’s reopening, such as the Sky Garden nightclub in Legian, as well as the backpacker haven Poppies Lane in Kuta and the shopping strip of Monkey Forest in Ubud.

Other prominent names were able to survive – or refused to close to protect the livelihoods of their Balinese staff – such as Casa Luna and Locavore in Ubud, Indonesia’s only restaurant to have been featured multiple times on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Ubud is also home to Nusantara – not to be mistaken with the name of Indonesia’s new capital in Borneo – which is arguably one of Bali’s most authentic Indonesian restaurants. Its menu includes classic and lesser-known Indonesian dishes, using fresh local ingredients in a casual environment.

In the Nusa Dua luxury resort, Koral Restaurant offers an aquarium dining experience at The Apurva Kempinski Bali headed by award-winning chef Andrea Astone. The restaurant is open, but capacity is limited.

Vegans looking for a plant-based dining experience can head to Tanaman, a restaurant in the sprawling Potato Head Village in Kuta. It reopened last week after shutting in March 2020.

Another new vegan spot that was established during the pandemic is Kood in Sanur, a self-service, affordable plant-based canteen, where the most expensive dishes cost only 35,000 rupiah (US$2). In Ubud, landmark vegan establishments such as Zest and Alchemy remained operational throughout the pandemic. Alchemy has also recently opened a yoga centre, across from the restaurant in Ubud’s Penestanan street.

Roast suckling pig from Warung Babi Guling Pak Malen. Photo: Resty Woro Yuniar

Many local favourites in Bali have been able to navigate the prolonged pandemic, including Warung Babi Guling Pak Malen on Seminyak’s Sunset Road, selling the island’s number one dish, roast suckling pig, typically served with white rice, vegetables, pork satay, spicy Indonesian sambal, and crispy pork skin.

Another legendary food joint is Naughty Nuri’s, famous for its barbecued pork ribs and martinis – dubbed by the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as the best he’d ever had outside New York City. Another renowned local dish, bebek betutu, or steamed Balinese duck seasoned with a special spice mixture, can be tried in Chandi in Seminyak.

To get your daily coffee intake, head to Revolver Espresso in Canggu and Seminyak, or Seniman Coffee in Ubud, which offers speciality coffee from around Indonesia.

BBQ ribs from Naughty Nury’s. Photo: Resty Woro Yuniar

Hindu-majority Bali earned its title as the Island of the Gods due to its abundance of Balinese temples, called pura in the local language. Among the famous temples are the iconic Tanah Lot, located on top of a rock some 300 metres offshore, in Tabanan district. Other noteworthy places of worship include Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang in Karangasem, which in recent years has become a popular Instagram destination for visitors who typically strike a pose stood between the temple’s gates, in front of a pristine pool of water that reflects the sky. Visitors now often refer to them as the “gates of heaven”, such is their popularity.

Besakih Temple is another must-visit destination, as it is one of the most important and holiest temples of Balinese Hinduism. The locals call it “mother temple”. A complex of at least 86 clan temples and shrines, Besakih is perched nearly 1,000 metres up on the southwestern slopes of the sacred Mount Agung.

Those looking to soak up West-meets-East culture can head to Ubud’s Yoga Barn, which regularly holds “ecstatic dances” every Friday night and Sunday morning. Bali Comedy Club also still has its stand-up comedy shows every Friday night at Deus Ex Machina in Canggu, and the club recently expanded its shows to Ubud’s Laughing Buddha restaurant and bar on Sunday nights.

In some parts of Bali, it’s almost as if the pandemic never happened and the parties never stopped. Live music, night clubs, and the overall dance scene remain very much alive on the island .

Thriving clubs include La Favela, in the heart of Seminyak; Da Maria, also in Seminyak; the posh and sprawling beachfront villa-club Morabito in Berawa; and The Velvet Room, which recently opened within the SVA Bali complex, also in Berawa. Savaya day club in Uluwatu is also still crowded with dancers, offering views of sunsets and limestone cliffs. The overall Canggu area, which is popular among surfers, crypto investors, and digital nomads, offers a wide-array of entertainment options, including villa parties that are not limited by usual opening hours.

If your memories of Bali include relentless offers of “taxi, mister!” from men sitting on the roadside, then you have not been in a while.

Such offers are becoming rarer now, as Bali is now open to online ride-hailing applications such as Grab and Gojek, which connect passengers with drivers of both cars and motorcycles.

Ride-hailing apps were heavily restricted on the island before the pandemic, but now, since many drivers are out of work, they have been openly embraced by both visitors and residents.

Many restaurants, bars, and minimarkets have also listed their businesses on apps such as Grab and Gojek, which offer food delivery services.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.