Honest Review: Bali Instagram Tour
Even if you're not on Instagram, it's hard to escape the pristine beautiful images of digital influencers on the beaches and swings of Bali. Whether in newspapers for 'quitting their jobs to travel the world' or accusations for selling inauthentic experiences.
You cannot escape it. Yet thousands of us have bought flights and rushed to recreate these moments ourselves.
Bali alone has seen something like a 400% increase in tourism in the last few years alone. From the couples looking to recreate Instagram pictures to lads/ladettes' holidays filling the bars to families filling resorts and beach clubs.
I loved Bali - or rather, bits of it - but it was honestly like walking into the experience of the photos you see online. If you got an ick feeling looking at it from your phone, you'll feel ick seeing it in person...
When I originally booked my trip, I had never planned to take a tour. My plan was to stay put in Canggu then Seminyak to try and really get an authentic feel for being present in one place.
Which, I 100% felt, but after hearing some stories and with a voucher in my hand (thank you icelolly.com) I decided it would be silly to come all this way and not venture out for a day. Ubud is high on my list, but just like Canggu, I wanted to wait until I had some real time to spend there and I wasn't super bothered about the many sporty tours on offer.
A part of me sort of hates myself for picking this tour, but the nerdy curiosity got the best of me (remember the industry I work in!) and I booked myself an Instagram Tour of Bali.
7:30am - my guide picked me up and we took a two drive east of Canggu.
It felt very boujie having a car to myself and having the guide open and close the door for me, but overall I'm so thankful we had this car for reasons you'll read more about as we go on. Reason number one though: I could take a power nap in the back of the car and not worry about anything. Especially as we ended up being stuck in traffic due to religious celebrations.
Going east and away from resorts however meant that you could experience the real Bali though. Traffic stopping for people dressed all in white to pay their respects to their gods and spend time with their loved ones. It was lovely to see - and highly unlikely we would have seen this if we'd been in a coach.
10am (ish) - we arrived at Lempuyang Temple.
After a steep climb - which the 4x4 struggled with even on tarmac - my guide dropped me in front of the famous Lempuyang Temple, while he went further up to park the car. The handy thing about having a local guide and having booked a tour was he was able to tell people why we were there and not to charge me (they paid for everything) for entry until he got back. So while he parked the car, the temple staff got me ready for entry to the temple. This consisted of making sure my shoulders were covered and tying colourful fabric around my waist, over my skirt.
Once the guide returned, he paid entry and took me in - making sure I had read the rules ie ladies, did you know you cannot enter if you're on your period?
Famous for the Gateways of Heaven, it's another steep walk up the side of the temple to get in. Some opt for a scooter ride, but that seemed a little dramatic. When we made it to the entrance, you were greeted and have to get a number for your photo.
On the trip over, my guide had mentioned that you could be waiting at least two hours for the photo and when we arrived and saw the small crowd around the photographer, I thought he had been mistaken. Until he showed me the crowds of people waiting in the shade around them. They weren't there to pray, they had been there early (some since 6am) to take the one famous shot between the gates.
We were given ticket 271 - and the line was at 140 at the time. So we snuck a couple of photos from a different angle and moved on.
The trick is to get just enough in front of the camera crowd from the side while hiding the people actually in the arch. This was my guide's tip and before we knew it, we had the shot and we were out.
It felt such a shame to come all this way and not take the time to see it properly, but obviously visitors don't come for the information as there was none that I could see to read.
On the flip side, I am super impressed with the locals here though, as they have obviously been savvy enough to capitalise on visitors' Insta-habit.
As you come out the temple and head back down to the entrance/exit, there's actually a second platform where they ask for IDR 10,000 and you can take photos in a bird's nest, a swing and a small stage with one of Bali's volcanoes in the background.
Waiting for my guide to bring the car down, meant I had time to watch people coming and going. Some were happy to comply with the clothing rules. Others, shockingly, kicked up a fuss about covering up their cleverly crafted Insta-outfit. Sure I hadn't done my research, but I'm perfectly aware that Bali is big on respect and hospitality. I knew that much and it's a BIG thing to keep in mind. They have no trouble barring you from entry.
11am - back in the (delightfully air conditioned) car, we made our way to our next stop: Taman Tirta Gangga
Royalty used to inhabit this beautiful water palace and gardens, but is now open to the public to view, swim and pass the time. It really is stunning.
Once you walk past the line of people queuing on the pond for that photo in front of one of the water features, you can see the fresh water pools visitors can swim in - that the king once swam in - the many gardens and winding paths and view points.
But apparently not many people choose to go further than the first pond, as my guide was surprised I wanted to stop at all. He had a couple of facts and that was it. But it was just so beautiful I couldn't quite understand why you wouldn't. Sure there was the occasional Instagrammer round each corner, but the scenery was just too wonderful to miss.
I won't lie to you though, I felt a bit ill that so many people seemed to have travelled from Europe (I heard you my fellow Brits), Australia and other parts of Asia, to queue in one tiny part of a beautiful garden. That means SO much to the Balinese people.
1:30pm - after an hour long drive to a beautiful lunch spot in front of a volcano and rice fields (called Maha Giri), we took another half an hour-ish drive to Tukad Cepung Waterfall.
This is not for the faint-hearted! To get to this beautiful spot, you have to walk down (and back up) sets of steps with a 45 degree decline. It's like those tall climbing frame steps when you were a child.
Then you have a meandering walk along a path for about ten minutes and then another set of very steep steps with a safety rail that's not very safe... So maybe lean to the rock face rather than that.
Once you do make it down to the bottom though, it is well worth it, even with the groups of people getting in the way of your photos and taking their sweet time to take theirs.
Hide all crucial gear for the walk to the waterfall because you will get pretty damp wading through a stream that turns into a river and ducking under huge boulders with slippery sides.
The main waterfall is hidden in an enclosed, half open sort of cave and is so stunning. It was fascinating to watch the different kinds of Instagrammer go one sometimes two at a time in front of the waterfall. From the girls holiday taking their spiritual enlightenment memories to the 'fitness guy' influencer flexing and taking his sweet time while his girlfriend got just the right shot of his guns. (Yes, I really didn't like this guy). To me, a lone communications weirdo doing the only insta-pose I know how in these situations: leg out, head up into the light trickling in from the waterfall while my pseudo-Instagram husband-guide did his best to take photos. I say did his best because they turned out awfully...
It's a strange experience not only being stood in the photos that you see on Instagram, but being watched by the crowds recreating them. I've been stared at by strangers taking my photos before, but something about being in Bali and creating these photos came with a little extra pressure.
As this is my professional site, I won't be posting my photos here. My one little tip for people visiting this place though is to get to know your phone in your camera in the dark before you go. Try as he might, my guide didn't listen to me explaining how my phone works and about 98% of the 100s of photos taken there were blurry and not 'gram worthy at all.
Depending on your outlook, if you're looking for a waterfall with better lighting - or for more chuckles like I did - head to the right of the stairs. There's a smaller waterfall on the side of the gorge and it is gorgeOUS.
If you want to take a photo here though, be prepared for the several couples who will be taking photos not only together but of each other individually, multiple times. It's really like deja vu after the third couple's been.
Moving my bitter self on, this site is worth it though if you are in the Ubud area, but maybe come down earlier so you can catch the light better/spend more time alone getting some more creative shots.
Another upside to booking a private tour was, after the hefty walk back up to the car, my guide had an ice cold towel for me to put on my face and neck and, honestly, it was that one thing I didn't even know I needed at that moment!
Back on the road, around 3:30pm, I had told my guide that I like coffee and he told me a little of the different types of coffee available in Bali. Like avocado coffee, ginseng, chocolate, you name it. And it's not syrups. This is actual avocado-infused coffee. So he actually took me to a nearby coffee plantation - an added bonus that was not originally on the tour itinerary. Where I was greeted by another guide and she gave me a tour, explaining the process from bean to roast to drink.
To keep things brief, I did try Luwak (mongoose) poo coffee. It's honestly some of the best coffee I've ever had, why? Because these animals can smell the best bean and because of their low metabolism, it comes out 'the other end' perfectly preserved.
Aside from the group of elderly Indian women who thought they would be sitting with me for my complimentary coffee and tea tasting, it was one of my favourite places to drink caffeine. Even with the low clouds, just being in total silence with only rainforest buzzes and tweets was just magical!
Around 5pm, we were back on the road and my guide told me that the Bali Swing would be closed now. Undeterred I still asked to see it - not realising that my guide hadn't realised it was part of my paid tour.
That is until I asked if there was any way I could get on one of the three swings there and he asked if it was part of my tour. To which he then rushed to see if he could get a ticket for me. Luckily for me and a couple of other late tours, a couple of people stayed late for us stragglers and we got to experience the swing - going forward and backward.
It might have been as magical as the photos make it look, if it hadn't been for the tourists shouting about s****ing themselves on the zipline across the rice fields below. Or the punk rock music blaring out on the tannoy system. Or the bloodcurdling screams of the girls on the swings - who were blatantly going to post on social media about feeling free as a bird later...
Or it could have been the fact that you could rent the long dress with the extra train for a lovely IDR 200,000 (just over a tenner).
(And once again, I had about two in focus photos that I could salvage from the collection my guide took).
The swing was fun for the two minutes you are on it, but even at the end of the day, it wasn't particularly worth the wait - or possibly I just need an Instagram Husband...
Was the overall experience worth it?
As a social media nerd, I'm happy I went. Like any hobby or curiosity, I was intrigued and would have probably kicked myself if I hadn't done this - or picked a more 'normal' tour.
If you want to see some key photo spots of Bali with the help of a guide and from the comfort of a private car, then go for it! Personally I would never have gone to Lempuyang Temple on a scooter or to the Water Palace at all on my own/without local guidance.
If you're looking for a local, authentic Balinese experience, I would probably avoid one of these as it's got the exact same vibe as peak Eiffel Tour/Trevi Fountain/other tourist photo hot spots.
I would love to encourage anyone who has read this far to dig a little deeper on the internet - or ask a local - for some more untouched, unique areas for their photos - and places to explore.
Bali is such a beautiful country with a beautiful culture so if I would prefer for you to get outside the Instabox and get creative for some truly authentic content. If that's your bag anyway.
Having met and been surrounded by creative people at various points on my trip, I would say they are not lacking in spots to choose from. There must surely be a more unique way to grow a Bali lifestyle personal brand without going to these tourist traps.
I love to create content, but these places see hundreds of me's every day - and on such a tiny island, it's a good but real problem. While great for the local economy (supposedly), what are the environmental effects in local areas that come from encouraging this sort of tourism? What about the pollution from planes - and importing. What about the mental health effect?
It's very sobering to be stood in these beauty spots and experiencing the rush of people getting their photos, the need to look good, no real care or attention to their surroundings. Have we considered the effects had on people who come looking for a quick fix and maybe don't get it? Thanks to filters and good storytelling?
Is that something we in the industry should be promoting?
Interestingly, after following the tour on my Instagram Stories (which you can still find the highlight for on my profile), I asked my followers if they would be tempted by this tour. The majority said no. Whether due to being given the reality or not, I wonder if the majority would buy into the Instadream if actually educated about the destination? I mean, really, why invest so much for a risky return?
Kind of like the Instagram Tour. Would you want to book one?