bali versus sri lanka: where to head next

This year, Porter and I were lucky enough to get the chance to spend just about a month in Bali (in April) and Sri Lanka (in February). These two countries are in no way identical or interchangeable from a cultural or geographical standpoint, but they do have a lot of similarities, which meant that on more than one occasion we got to talking about what we preferred about each one.

 

We thought we’d share the list that grew out of those conversations so that those who might be deciding between the two could make a better guess at which one to head to. Here it goes:

 

^ a rice paddy in Ella, Sri Lanka

^ Bukit Cinta, looking out at Mt. Agung, Bali

1. Location

 

For American travelers, if you’re heading from the West Coast, Bali is closer by about seven hours. If you’re from the East, Sri Lanka is by about the same. Ultimately, both countries are a hike from the U.S. (what’s another dozen hours in an airport when you’re already on hour seventeen, though, am I right?). Don’t let the distance deter you from traveling to either! Long travel days might stink, but ultimately, they’re just that: days. They too will pass.

 

It’s important when talking about location to also throw in how many other countries are readily available for you to travel to on your way there (or back) or hop around to during your stay. When Port and I went to Sri Lanka we stopped in Dubai for about a week before heading to the Maldives for nearly 2. For twenty-somethings, both those countries don’t come cheap, so we’d have to say that Bali wins out on accessibility to other countries that are more wallet-friendly.

 

You could head to India from Sri Lanka, too, but we want to devote an entire month or so to India somewhere down the line, so we decided to hold off.

 

From Bali, every Southeast Asian country (not to mention, the 7,000 or so other islands in Indonesia) are readily accessible. Perth in Australia is only a 3 hour flight, too, and Sydney is just barely 5. We stopped in Sydney for a week on the way to California and were jumping-up-and-down happy we did (more on that later).

 

Location Winner: Bali

 

^ Lake Koggala, Sri Lanka

^ Nusa Lembongan, Bali

 

2. In-Country Travel

 

You don’t realize how bad you are at being able to compare the geographical size of two countries until someone says, “quick, which state is a similar size to France? (answer: Texas) or Ireland? (answer: Maine). For some reason, I think being American makes us worse at this, which means you can head to Bali and really have no clue whether driving across the country will take a week or a dozen hours (answer: the latter).

 

Sri Lanka is way, way bigger than Bali. After all, Bali is just one island in the Indonesian archipelago, and Sri Lanka is its own country. Because of this, Bali is a whole lot easier to travel within.

 

Going to Sri Lanka, you’re going to have to choose which areas you want to explore and which ones to save for a later date. Driving days can stretch to five or six hours if you don’t plan correctly. In Bali, the worst drive we had was just about three hours (to the far north early one morning). Also, Sri Lanka isn’t nearly as developed as Bali once you get out of the cities and tourist hotspots. If you want to cover a ton of ground, it’s undeniably easier in Bali.

 

In-Country Travel Winner: Bali

 

^ Nusa Lembongan, Bali

 

3. Wildlife

 

Bali might have monkeys along the roadside and tons of colorful fish, whale sharks, and rays, but Sri Lanka has all that and more. Elephants, leopards, sloth bears, wild boar, all kinds of birds in electric colors, it’s an animal-lovers haven. You can be on the beach one day and out on safari the next. Sri Lanka is the clear winner here.

 

Wildlife Winner: Sri Lanka

 

^ Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

^ Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

 

4. Diversity of Activities

 

Again, Sri Lanka wins out in this department. In Bali, you can hike, swim, boat, dive, surf, bike, but in Sri Lanka you can do all of those things plus a handful of others.

 

The safari element definitely gives Sri Lanka a leg up on Bali in the activities department. There are even opportunities to volunteer at elephant rescue centers (you come across those occasionally in Bali, too, but in those cases the elephants were at one point brought into Bali from another country for tourism, in Sri Lanka, they’re indigenous).

 

Diversity of Activities Winner: Sri Lanka

 

^ Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

 

5. Environmental Responsibility

 

Unfortunately, as one of the most polluting countries in the world right now, Indonesia isn’t tough to beat in the environmental responsibility sector. Sri Lanka might not be perfect, but you won’t have to worry about large volumes of trash floating past you at the beach, or stepping over bottle after bottle on the shoreline.

 

Environmental Responsibility Winner: Sri Lanka

 

^ Lake Koggala, Sri Lanka

^ Santani Wellness Resort, Kandy, Sri Lanka

 

6. Food

 

When it comes to the local cuisines, I’d say it’s a tie. The curries you’ll consume in Sri Lanka and the nasi and mie gorengs (my favorite) you’ll have in Indonesia are both dynamite most of the time. When it comes to the availability of western options, though, Bali undeniably wins. There’s a much bigger “foodie” presence in Bali that Sri Lanka doesn’t come close to.

 

In Bali, you can get acai bowls, poke, tacos, and top it off with Italian for dinner. In Sri Lanka, it’s typically fine cuisine at nice hotels (think classic French dishes) or Sri Lankan food. Less diversity, but still delicious.

 

Food Winner: Bali

 

^ Puri Beji Bed & Breakfast, Canggu, Bali

^ A dragon fruit, one of many fresh fruits endemic to the island of Bali

 

7. Price

 

Because it’s a bigger country to travel within that’s becoming more and more of a business hub, Sri Lanka is pricier than Bali. Don’t get us wrong, a tuk tuk ride will still barely cost you three dollars to go across town, and eating local dishes can keep your dinners below ten bucks, but the level of cheap Bali can be is tough to top. One of my favorite dinners in Indonesia was four dollars for both of us, and we hired a private car one night in Bali to take us to a couple of different shooting locations and the five hour fee was just under seventeen dollars. There’s a reason people retire to Bali and can still live like kings.

 

Price Winner: Bali

 

^ Seaweed farm on Nusa Lembongan, Bali

 

8. Nightlife

 

If partying is what you’re after, Bali is the natural choice. It’s partially what the island is known for, and Sri Lanka just doesn’t have that kind of scene for tourists just yet.

 

Nightlife Winner: Bali

 

^ Ella, Sri Lanka

 

9. Safety

 

We felt incredibly safe in both these countries. The people are kind, the transportation is reliable (we used go-jek in Indonesia (their version of Uber) and hired a driver in Sri Lanka) and there’s very little “sleaziness” in either place (men don’t typically holler at girls, and there’s a general level of respect present you might not even get in European capitals).

 

Safety: Tie

 

^ Bingin Beach, Bali

 

10. Unspoiled Beauty

 

While both countries are beautiful, and I think the word “spoiled” is a little bit harsh, Bali is dealing with just about as much tourism as it can bear. If you’re going to anywhere “touristy” it will be crowded, there will be lots of people vying for the same photo, there will be locals trying to sell you everything from water to selfie-sticks. This just doesn’t happen in Sri Lanka unless you’re at one of the top 5 most touristy spots.

 

Also, hate to bring it up again, but Sri Lanka is cleaner, a lot cleaner, which means that most of the beautiful places you’re heading to won’t be riddled with trash along the walk there (which is unfortunately often the case in Bali).

 

Unspoiled Beauty Winner: Sri Lanka

 

^ A rooftop by the sea in Galle, Sri Lanka

 

11. “Discoverd-ness”

 

Bali receives more tourism than any other country in Southeast Asia. On the “discovered scale” it is very much discovered. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere that hasn’t been seen and shot and shared dozens of times. The upside of this is that getting to those places and seeing all those beautiful things is a road well-travelled. Taxi drivers will know where you want to go and guides are available to take you anywhere.

 

This isn’t the case in Sri Lanka. While there’s definitely a long list of places to hit up that you’ve scrolled through on your Insta screen, head out to Kandy or Ella or way up north, and you’re likely to stumble into some of the most stunning never-before-seen locations. For creatives, it’s hyper-stimulating, and the best part is, you won’t be fighting other tourists for that perfect shot. You’ll be blissfully alone, able to take in whatever you’ve come across with a picn
ic lunch, a couple of monkeys, and the occasional local passerby. Sri Lanka wins in this realm.

Discovered-ness Winner: Sri Lanka

 

^ Santani Wellness Resort, Kandy, Sri Lanka

 

12. Friendliness

 

Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka will leave you wondering why you don’t smile more often. The people in both of these countries are joyful, content, kind, and quick to stop you and ask where you’re from, or even practice their English. Warm is the word that comes to mind for me for both populations, and casual conversations with locals are some of our fondest memories from both places.

 

Friendliness: Tie

 

^ Lake Koggala, Sri Lanka

^ A Balinese “edelweiss” field

 

Take Away: Overall, Porter and I adamantly prefer Sri Lanka. It’s a country we’ll most definitely go back to, and our preference in large part relates to the reality that we’re photographers and prefer our travel destinations to be a bit more off the radar. Our biggest “beef” with Bali truly is the impending-disaster level of pollution there, but if you can put your blinders on and see beyond that, it too is an undeniably incredible place that will make an awesome backdrop for all kinds of adventures.

 

Again, all of these things are just based on our opinions, and we don’t want to offend anyone who’s from either Sri Lanka or Bali with our comparisons. If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that everyone who travels is after something different, and defines a successful trip by their own personal set of metrics. These are ours, so try and sieve everything we’ve said through how you know you like to travel and go from there…

 

We’re sharing a big announcement on here and on Instagram this week about what’s ahead for us, so stay tuned!

 

And as always, thank you for following along…

 
 

xx

Anna Lisa & Porter

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