For travellers with a soft spot for sun, sand and spirituality, Bali is about as close to paradise as it gets. Among the Indonesian island’s primary draws are the warm waters, warm weather and breath-stealing beaches.
Though all are beautiful, the countless beaches that line the island’s edges are actually rather diverse. Some are wild surf hangouts with frothy, wind-whipped waves; others are sunbathing and swimming hotspots surrounded by shelter-providing rocky headland. Some are lined with high-end resorts, others are entirely undeveloped. Some are frequented by families, others are backpacker hangouts. Some have bright white sands so fine they would flow through a sieve like water, others have earthy black grains the colour of coal.
As key as they may be to Bali’s appeal, beaches are far from being the island’s only appeal. It’s also loved for its undeniable spiritual vibe and deep-rooted and distinctive culture. Temple-hopping, learning about local myths, observing traditional dance and music performances, and admiring the work of local artisans in the mountain town of Ubud are all key to the Bali experience. Visitors also cite the Balinese people as another major draw, praising their warmth, generosity and welcoming nature. Away from the coast, the island’s lush, mountainous interior, studded with rice paddies, coffee and tea plantations, is fabulously photogenic.
Magical as Bali may be, it is but one of many fantastic destinations in Southeast Asia. If you are looking for a brand new adventure, consider a trip to one of these alternative destinations.
If you were smitten with Bali’s sun, surf and verdant interior landscapes, Sri Lanka will have you swooning too. This island off the south-eastern coast of India is 10 times the size of Bali, but still small enough to feel intimate and manageable to explore. The larger area means there is enough space to accommodate more visitors and the beaches are typically uncrowded. Because of its recent tumultuous history – large parts of the coast were devastated by the 2004 tsunami and the country’s bloody and long-running civil war only came to an end in 2009 – the tourist industry in Sri Lanka has been slow to grow and has yet to see the level of development or congestion as Bali.
Sunny day at Hikkaduwa
Sri Lanka is blessed with innumerable beautiful beaches. “Surfing and sun tans are what tourists crave on Sri Lankan beaches,” says Dinesh N. Perera, CEO of Blue Lanka Tours, a holiday and tour operator that specialises in travel to Sri Lanka. Among the island’s many spectacular beaches is the surf-friendly Arugam Bay on the east coast. “It is a moon-shaped stretch of clear and wavy waters with soft white sand that is loved by locals and tourists alike,” says Perera.
Although Arugam Bay is probably the country’s most famous surf break, the majority of beach-bound tourists head for Sri Lanka’s west coast, where floury strips of stand extend both north and south from the capital, Colombo. Between April and October, surfers are drawn to the consistent swells at Hikkaduwa. For longboard-toting adventurers hankering after the low-key, hustle-free Bali vibe of yesteryear, Ahangama and Midigama further down the coast are good options.
If you are more of a wade-in-the-shallows and lounge-on-the-sand type than a thrill-seeking wave rider, try the adjoining Kalkudah and Passekudah beaches on Sri Lanka’s east coast. Here, you can walk out into bath-warm waters, which stay waist deep for quite some distance. Nilaveli Beach, meanwhile, on the west coast, is prime vacation brochure cover material, with its swaying palms, sparkling golden sands and tie-dye aqua waters. As a bonus, there is some fabulous snorkelling at the nearby Pigeon Island National Park, which can be reached by boat in just 15 minutes.
Culture is also something Sri Lanka has in spades. “Sri Lanka has a long history and much of the ruins depicting its history are preserved in cities like Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Galle,” says Perera. In fact, the island possesses an impressive eight UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites, including the dramatic Sigiriya rock fortress, which towers dramatically over the flat surrounding plains, and Polonnaruwa, where ruins from a 12th-century garden city still stand.
As in Bali, temples abound here, though in Sri Lanka, the vast majority are Buddhist rather than Hindu. Among the most notable are those in Dambulla, namely the Golden Temple, an attention-grabbing modern build crowned by a giant golden Buddha, and the Royal Rock Temple complex, where five cave temples are stocked with some 150 Buddha statues and other religious artworks. The city of Kandy, meanwhile, (a city Perera describes as the “cultural capital”) also promises heritage galore, most famously the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is said to contain one of Buddha’s own teeth.
Away from the beach-covered coast, Sri Lanka has a verdant, mountainous interior. Tea plantations, rainforest-carpeted hills and emerald forests abound in Sri Lanka’s rolling highlands, where there are ample ways to get back to nature and escapes the stresses of everyday life, whether hiking, biking or tasting delicious hot drinks at colonial-era tea plantations.
Another string to Sri Lanka’s bow is its wildlife-watching opportunities, which outclass those available in Bali. Though West Bali National Park is bird-watching territory par excellence, it can’t hold a candle to Sri Lanka’s superb safari-suitable national parks. “With about 27 national parks in Sri Lanka, there is plenty of access to wildlife at your convenience,” explains Perera, whose company operates jeep tours to the likes of Yala National Park, where leopards, sloth bears, deer and even elephants can all be seen. Herds of elephants roam around Kaudulla and Minneriya national parks, while the Sinharaja Forest Reserve plays host to species ranging from leopards to pangolins to mongooses.
If you were bewitched with Bali, there is a good chance you will also fall head over heels for one of Thailand’s tropical islands. On paper, Thailand’s most popular vacation islands – those in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Siam – have a lot in common with Bali, most notably, ample beaches, ample sunshine and ample tropical ambiance. The other thing they have in common is their cost. If you’re flying from Australia or Southeast Asia, both are a natural choice for a cheap beach break. Of course, both Bali and Thailand can cater to tourists across the budget spectrum, so it’s possible to do shoestring or blow-out vacations in either.
Size-wise, many Thai islands would cover just a small fraction of Bali. Koh Phangan, for instance, would fit into Bali 46 times over, while Koh Samui would fit in 25 times. Bali could even accommodate 10 of Phuket, Thailand’s largest island. Still, you don’t have to worry about exhausting your activity options on any of the Thai islands. If you want to explore more of Thailand, simply hop on a boat. Inter-island travel is extremely common here. The Thai islands are, like Bali, well-geared towards incoming tourists, which means you won’t have trouble finding operators and tour guides to take you on excursions.
If you are enamoured with the charm of the Balinese, you are probably going to quickly warm to the ever-hospitable and famously tolerant Thai too. Young kids can expect to receive as warm a welcome in Thailand as they would in Bali. Indeed, you may even find yourself fighting off Thai restaurant staff who are known to fawn over knee-high guests. If you want the kind of large-scale family-oriented attractions that you get in say, Kuta, you may want to consider Phuket, which has an abundance of child-suitable day out options, including amusement and theme parks.
If you were enraptured by Bali’s beautiful puras (Balinese Hindu temples), you’re probably going to enjoy Thailand’s wats (Thai Buddhist temples). Thailand has an estimated 40,000 of them. If you are staying on Koh Samui, you won’t want to miss the dazzling Wat Phra Yai temple complex, which is presided over by a 12-meter-tall, cross-legged golden Buddha. Even Koh Phangan, famous around the world for its rowdy monthly full moon party, is sprinkled with glorious hushed temples that provide the ideal setting for moments of serenity and reflection.
Thailand offers a myriad of ways for travellers to shake away tension and shrug off stress with countless spas, yoga centres and wellness clinics. Underwater adventurers are also well catered for on islands such as Koh Tao and Koh Phra Thong, both of which present seemingly endless scuba diving opportunities. If overland adventures are more you thing, Koh Tao is threaded with hiking trails, while Koh Phra Thong’s tiny and quiet jungle-smothered neighbour, Koh Ra, is Nirvana for wildlife enthusiasts. More than 100 species of bird as well as monkeys, boar, anteaters, slow lorises (of viral video fame) and other captivating creatures, are all crammed into this two-kilometre long islet.
Thailand also has some worthy counterparts to Bali’s much-hyped mountain village and beloved expat hideout, Ubud. The country’s northern high-altitude cities Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are set amid lush highland surrounds and have a relaxed, easy-going vibe. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are perfect for travellers who want to recharge and relax, enjoy slow-paced strolls along quiet streets, hang around cafés and get acquainted with the local way of life.
If you are keen on surfing, Thailand also has some options. You can find instructors, board rental spots and suitable waves on Phuket’s west coast between April and October. Swells of up to three or four metres can often be seen on Koh Lanta’s Klong Dao Beach too.