Ah, Bali vs Sri Lanka – arguably the ultimate showdown between Southeast Asia’s exotic gems. These two are quite rightly up there with the most-visited countries in the region. They’re both known for their glinting beaches and surf breaks, their jungled hills and rich cultural traditions. But which should you choose this year?
That’s where this guide comes in. It’s all about helping you weigh up the fabled Teardrop of India against the Isle of the Gods, with detailed info on everything from the quality of the sand stretches to the nightlife scene that gets a-going after dark. We’ll also help out with some more practical things, like what a trip to each place will cost and how easy they are to travel to.
One thing’s for sure – it’s not going to be an easy decision. For us, Sri Lanka and Bali are two downright enthralling places. We’d say that they both deserve a spot on the bucket list of any traveler who likes tropical adventures and paradise shores, spicy food and temples the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. Let’s begin…
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Ease of travel
Because Sri Lanka and Bali are both up there with the most-visited places in Southeast Asia, you shouldn’t find it too hard to reach either. Arrivals by the air are the most common and that’s kept simple because each island has just one main airport. In Bali that’s the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar. It’s got oodles of flights on major airlines and is also well-served by low-cost carriers like Air Asia, who connect to Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations. It’s also possible to travel to Bali by boat, connecting from Java (the most populous island in Indo) and Lombok (Bali’s cousin to the east).
Sri Lanka’s major airport is in Colombo. It’s grown considerably in the last 20 years and is currently undergoing another big expansion project. That’s reflected in the now-diverse array of carriers that come here, including multiple Middle Eastern flag carriers. There are also loads of flights to Europe and beyond with the national name of Sri Lankan Airlines. It’s not possible to arrive into Sri Lanka by boat these days – the only passenger ferry is currently suspended.
Winner: Bali, the airport is bigger and you can get in by boat.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Beaches
If you’re traveling to either Bali or Sri Lanka, chances are you’re excited to hit the beaches. However, deciding which destination has the better beaches is no easy task. Both have miles and miles to check out, including some seriously striking, chart-topping sands…
The variety of beach landscapes in Bali is mind-blowing. Around the island, you’ll find sandy beaches tucked in protected bays, black-sand volcanic beaches, hidden surf beaches, and beaches with more clubs than you can shake a peanut satay skewer at.
As Bali has become an immensely popular tourist destination, many beaches have quality infrastructure and are lined with shops and bars. This is especially true in South Bali, including Kuta and Seminyak, where it’s not always easy to know where the restaurant ends, and the beach begins. Another famous but rather hidden beach is Padang Padang Beach. Known from Eat, Pray, Love, it’s the perfect spot to find your zen away from the crowds. The east coast around Padangbai, meanwhile, is much less busy and has snorkeling reefs. The north hardly looks pristine but it’s home to Lovina, the place to go to see dolphins!
With 1,340 kilometers of coastline, it’s no wonder that visitors come from near and far to indulge in the stunning Sri Lankan beaches. Much of the coast has splendid golden-sand beaches, perfect for sun-bathing and watching the waves crash in. The warm Indian Ocean waters are ideal for spending days between the sand and water, and the vibrant coral reefs make for great dive locations.
The southwest coast is particularly great for beach activities. That’s the home of horseshoe Hiriketiya Beach, where cruisy surf breaks peel towards leaning rows of coconut palms between headlands occupied by monkeys. You can also venture further south to Tangalle, a region known for its totally remote yellow-sand beaches. Nearer to Colombo, you also find more built-up beach destinations like Unawatuna and Mirissa.
Winner: It’s got to be Sri Lanka, because the beaches are just a cut above what Bali can offer.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Nightlife
Nightlife and Bali go hand in hand. No matter the night of the week, Bali’s many pubs, clubs, and beach bars will be buzzing with big crowds. This is especially true in south Bali, the epicenter of epic beach parties. For all-night parties with non-stop dancing, Kuta is your go-to. This popular tourist town is packed to the brim with clubs, and once midnight strikes, the laid-back surf appeal turns into a non-stop dance and drink atmosphere until the sun once again appears over the horizon. For a more upscale and stylish experience, Seminyak provides just as many venues, but you’ll find it draws an more mature, more monied crowd.
One of the best things about Sri Lanka’s nightlife is that locals enjoy the party scene just as much as the tourists. This makes for a diverse and always entertaining evening, where you can dance the night away or share laughter over good conversation. There are two or three towns that really stand out from the crowd here. First, there’s Mirissa. That’s been the party hub of the southwestern coast for some years. It’s fringed by a line of uber-boho beach bars that do bargain happy-hour deals. Second, you’ve got Unawatuna, a place that mainly draws package tourists on the hunt for sand-side parties. Then there’s Arugam Bay in the east, where summer surf crowds bring plenty of nightlife energy between May and October.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Culture
Besides picture-perfect beaches and stunning weather, many people travel to Bali to experience the warm and intricate Balinese culture. Everywhere you go, you’ll be surrounded by the culture; with temples, arts, handicrafts, and traditional Balinese architecture galore.
Balinese Hinduism is the primary type of religion and is ever present. This religion combines Hinduism with Bali’s native animism, which is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual soul. Some of the temples that you shouldn’t miss are the Monkey Jungle in Ubud and the Uluwatu Temple, where there’s a nightly fire dance that tells the story of ancient Hindu myths.
Unlike Bali, Sri Lanka’s culture has taken many twists and turns in its long history. Having been colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, Sri Lanka is a melting pot of different influences. Top that with modern elements, and you have the rich blend of cultures that you see today.
The folks here also have more than their fair share of festivals and public holidays. In fact, Sri Lanka has a whopping 30 public holidays throughout the year, one of the highest numbers of any country! These range from the classic Good Friday and Christmas to Diwali, multiple Full Moon days, and the Prophet’s Birthday. We’d say Kandy is the go-to place for culture lovers, since it’s home to the famous Temple of the Sared Tooth.
Winner: Sri Lanka – you can’t argue with 2,550 years of written history!
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Food
If you’ve had Balinese food, you’ll know it’s all about rice, specialty satays, and homemade peanut sauces. It’s delicious, flavourful, full of mouthwatering aromas, and the best part is that it’s cheap if you know where to look.
As Bali food gets a lot of influence from its indigenous traditions along with Chinese, Indian, and other Indonesian regional traditions, it’s slightly different from what you’ll find in other parts of Indonesia. As such, the best place to sample authentic Balinese food is at roadside stalls or traditional taverns known as warungs. If you’re not into rice and satays, don’t worry. With such a tourist influence, you’ll find cuisine from all over the world, especially in south Bali where there are hipster cafes that would look right at home in East London!
If you’re looking to get away from the rice, Sri Lanka is not the place for you. Just like Bali, it’s practically impossible to go a meal without rice finding its way onto your plate in some form or another. While many people associate Sri Lankan food with Indian food, you’ll quickly find that Sri Lankan food is much spicier than its counterpart.
The most famous dish in Sri Lanka, found at nearly every restaurant, is fish ambul thiyal, or sour fish curry. This local’s favorite is made with tuna sauteed in a blend of spices, including chili powder, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, curry leaves, and dried goraka. On top of that, there’s a big push towards vegetarian eating in these parts, with buffets that sell dal curries, brinjal, okra cooked in spices, and a whole load more.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Price
Unless money isn’t a factor, a deciding detail on your vacation destination likely lies in how much your trip will set you back. We looked at the average price for budget, mid-range, and luxury trips, and the prices may surprise you.
- Backpacker budget = US$30 per day for accommodation, food, and a few drinks
- Mid-range budget = US$70 per day for accommodation, food, drinks, and a few activities
- Luxury = US$250 per day for accommodation, food, drinks, and activities
Whether you’re looking to stick to a strict backpacker budget or are happy to splurge on a luxury five-star vacation, Bali will have the perfect options for you. Accommodation ranges from US$10 per night for a bed in a Bali hostel dorm room to US$500 for a private bungalow on the beach. However, the average mid-range accommodation price hangs around US$50.
Food is equally as diverse. If you stick to street-side food stalls and aren’t tempted by alcoholic drinks, you can get by for as little as US$2 per meal. On the other hand, sample Bali’s fine dining restaurants, and you’ll be paying up to US$50 per meal.
- Backpacker budget = US$25 per day for accommodation, food, and a few drinks
- Mid-range budget = US$60 per day for accommodation, food, drinks, and a few activities
- Luxury = US$200 per day for accommodation, food, drinks, and activities
If you’re looking for a place where you can stretch your pennies without giving up too many creature comforts, Sri Lanka is your go-to. A dorm room in a hostel will only set you back US$5 a night, meals can be as cheap as US$1 at local restaurants, and public transportation feels virtually free.
Even if you decide to steer towards fancier accommodation and eat at more touristy restaurants, your money will go a long way. Expect to pay around US$50 a night for a comfortable boutique hotel and a mere US$5 for a nice dinner at a more westernized restaurant. However, contrary to Bali, you won’t find as many high-end establishments.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: The surf
Both Bali and Sri Lanka are rated among the top surf destinations in Asia. They’re each powered by the big, pumping groundswells of the Indian Ocean and have some legendary breaks. Bali’s waves are nothing short of iconic. Come the summer dry season, the whole Bukit Peninsula gets rolling. That’s home to the heavy left handers of Uluwatu, and the barrelling pipes of Padang Padang, and lippy little Bingin. For beginners, there are mellower waves on offer along Kuta Beach.
Sri Lanka also offers oodles of surf. It’s generally smaller and more relaxed, meaning this island is the top choice for learners. The southwest is in season come October to March. Breaks include the uber-relaxed beach wave at Hiriketiya, the countless reefs of upcoming Ahangama, and the harder wedges of Ram’s in Midigama. When the monsoon hits that part of the island in summer, you can move across to the east coast, where Arugam Bay will start working, offering some seriously high-quality point breaks for regular-footed riders.
Winner: Bali, but only just. Sri Lanka is better for learner surfers and longboarders.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: Weather
It’s no secret both Bali and Sri Lanka are known for their superb climates, with pleasant temperatures all year, warm water, and seemingly endless sunny days. But which country takes the cake for the best weather?
As Bali is located a mere 8 degrees south of the equator, you can look forward to a tropical and warm climate all year round. Average temperatures rarely get above the mid 80’s and rarely drop below the mid 70’s.
The main difference throughout the year is the rainy season versus the dry season. While you are unlikely to see all-day rain any time of the year, November through March is considered the rainy season. During these months, you can expect daily downpours and rougher seas. Even so, you’ll still get plenty of sunshine during these months.
The dry season lasts from April to October. During these months, you’ll see very little rain however you can expect the towns to be busier and the prices to be higher.
Sri Lanka is located on just the opposite side of the equator, yet it does have different seasons than Bali. Instead of one rainy season and one dry season, Sri Lanka sees different weather patterns throughout the island.
In April and May, the south-west side and interior of the island will see an increase in rainy days, and in October, November, and December, the entire island sees more rainy days. Even so, it’s rare for all-day rain, and instead, you’ll notice a mid-afternoon downpour followed by perfectly blue sky days.
No matter the time of year, you can look forward to beautiful Sri Lanka weather with average temperatures in the mid 70’s to mid 80’s near the coast and temperatures in the low to mid 60’s in the highlands.
Winner: Draw – both destinations have options no matter the time you want to visit.
Bali vs Sri Lanka: The conclusion
The choice between Sri Lanka and Bali is a tough one. Both these islands are pretty awesome destinations. However, we think one – Sri Lanka – is a touch better suited to budget travelers, foodies, yoga travelers, and adventure lovers. It’s got wild mountains for hiking and one of the most tempting national cuisines in Asia, especially if you like coconut! Bali is better for those on the hunt for pumping nightlife and luxury hotels. It’s also got loads of culture in the form of mystical Hindu temples and some of the best surf breaks of anywhere on the globe.