Blessed with warm weather, beautiful scenery, great cuisine, and reasonable prices, Bali and Thailand are both fantastic destinations to immerse yourself in local culture, eat, swim, drink, and take a load off. That being said, there are some major differences between the two, particularly when it comes to beaches, food, nightlife, and culture (not to mention the fact that one is a country and the other is an island -- albeit one with a distinct culture from its other Indonesian neighbors). If you're trying to decide between Bali and Thailand for your next southeast Asian adventure, this comparison between the two destinations should help you narrow things down.
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Beaches in Bali and Thailand
Bali: If you like surfing and are good at it, you’ll find some of the world’s finest waves in Bali. Visitors can expect plenty of wide, sandy beaches, and although they aren’t always the cleanest, the island has been making concerted efforts to reduce waste; there’s even a ban on single-use plastic. However, strong currents and undertows can make swimming a daunting proposition here. That being said, if you’re after calm waters, some of the beaches on the islets of Lembongan and Penida off Bali’s southeast coast are ideal for swimming.
Thailand: If you like swimming and sunbathing, a Thai beach might be a better match, particularly one on the Andaman Sea side of the country. Thailand’s beaches tend to have white sand and clear, warm waters that take on a turquoise glow when viewed from the shore. The only real drawback is that these beaches are narrower than their Balinese counterparts.
Getting to Bali and Thailand
Thailand: If you’re coming from North America or Europe (or really anywhere outside of Asia), getting to both Thailand and Bali is a major commitment that requires at least one long flight, which can result in lots of jet lag. At first glance, Thailand is the easier destination to reach. There are considerably more flights operating through Bangkok’s two international airports, but there’s a catch. While getting onto Thai soil is generally easier, if you’re after an island vacation, you’ll likely have to take a second domestic flight to one of the hubs in the southern part of the country (such as Hat Yai or Krabi), followed by a taxi or bus ride to the local port, followed by a boat ride to your island of choice. You may even have to switch airports in Bangkok to do so (most international flights to Bangkok arrive in the larger Suvarnabhumi Airport, while many of the budget flights operate from the city’s older Don Mueang International Airport).
Bali: If you’re flying to Bali, you simply land in Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar, hop in a taxi, and head to your destination. However, flights to Bali usually require more layovers (unless you’re coming from Australia) and there aren’t as many options, so it can be the more expensive proposition.
Food in Bali and Thailand
Thailand: Most overseas visitors are going to be more familiar with Thai food, but note that the dishes here are often considerably spicier than what you’re used to back home. The portions also tend to be smaller, but heavy eaters will get the chance to try different dishes, many of which aren’t popular outside of Thailand. You’ll also find plenty of international food, particularly in Bangkok and other major tourist destinations.
Bali: Balinese food tends to be less spicy and is often sweeter, due to the heavy use of coconut and peanuts. Vegetarians and vegans will also find more options in Bali, as not everything has fish sauce and tempeh (Indonesian fermented soybean patties often used as a meat substitute) is widely available.
Local Culture and Activities in Bali and Thailand
Thailand: Thailand is home to numerous beautiful Buddhist temples, locally known as wats. While the northern part of the country (away from the beaches) is considered Thailand’s cultural hub, there are plenty of temples all throughout the south. Other popular activities include cooking classes, rock climbing (particularly in the Railay Beach area), trekking (especially in northern Thailand), and water sports (Thailand is a great place to get PADI certified).
Bali: Bali is a predominantly Hindu island, and worship is part of the daily life here (you’ll notice small offerings of palm fronds made in front of almost every store and home on the island). There are beautiful stone-carved temples everywhere, and the local arts and culture scene thrives. Visitors will have plenty of opportunities to check out traditional gamelan orchestra recitals, dance performances, and even shadow puppet shows. Many people come to Bali to study yoga; the island is also a great place to learn applied arts, such as silversmithing. While surfing is the main draw at the beaches here, visitors can try out everything from whitewater rafting on the Ayung River to paragliding.
Nightlife in Bali and Thailand
Thailand: Nightlife in Thailand is a big deal. While Bangkok reigns supreme with plenty of bars, clubs, and live music venues, even the islands offer a fair bit for those who want to party it up. It’s not uncommon to see cocktails sold in giant buckets (with multiple straws), and the Full Moon Party is legendary on the backpacker circuit.
Bali: Nightlife in Bali is centered around traveler hubs like Kuta and Seminyak, with plenty of bars, DJ nights, and even beachfront parties (mostly in hotels). You won’t find many renegade raves here, but you will find clubs that stay open all night long. And if you are trying to avoid nightlife, simply stay in artsy Ubud, where most venues are closed by midnight.
Lesbian and Gay Travel in Bali and Thailand
Thailand: Generally speaking, mainland southeast Asia is fairly tolerant of LGBTQ+ travelers, and the capitals of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam all have gay scenes that range from mild to wild. Thailand takes the cake, though, as it’s not just tolerant of LGBTQ+ travelers, but openly courts them. That’s especially true in Bangkok, where Silom Soi 2 and Silom Soi 4 — in the buzzing Silom district — are home to dozens of gay bars for all types, ranging from raunchy spots with live sex shows to outdoor beer bars and massive nightclubs like DJ Station. Likewise, the Thai islands are welcoming of gay and lesbian travelers, and you’re unlikely to encounter problems. LGBTQ+ lodging options are also available around the country, in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Phuket.
Bali: While Indonesia is becoming more and more conservative, and certain parts of the country are bound by extremist Sharia law, Bali is far more tolerant. Generally, it’s a safe destination for LGBTQ+ travelers where you’ll likely encounter zero hostility. Like Thailand, you’ll find guesthouses and hotels that cater exclusively to this clientele, and there’s even a bit of nightlife for the queer crowd (albeit, mostly gay men). That action takes place in Seminyak, along Jalan Camplung Tanduk. You won’t find the same diversity of nightlife as you would in Bangkok, but these small clubs can get rowdy. Keep in mind that if you are traveling onward in Indonesia, you should exercise more caution, as the neighboring islands are generally less tolerant of the LGBTQ+ population. In fact, in some parts of the country, gay and lesbian travel can be dangerous.
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