Bali beyond the beaches

Bali beyond the beaches.

We are going to Bali next week and although this is my seventh time I’ve been there I’m looking forward to discovering somewhere new. We are going to the island of Nusa Lembongan, which is a half-hour boat trip away from Sanur. There is so much more to Bali than Seminyak or Legian (which I’ve never actually been to). A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Voyeur Magazine (Virgin airlines inflight mag) about exactly that. Here’s the story…

With over two million tourists every year it’s not surprising that Bali that gets a lot of press, although recently it seems to be mostly about pushy touts and drunken yobbos. But travel away from the main towns and tacky souvenir shops and you’ll not only discover the authentic Bali, you’ll wonder where all those touts and tourists are.

The road out of Ubud is one big shopping strip selling huge stone carvings, woodcarvings, mosaics, brightly coloured paintings, ceramics, clothes and every other tourist trinket you could possibly think of – or, in some cases, hadn’t thought of. I was on a brand-new scooter that I’d hired in Ubud and heading north on a three-day jaunt through the mountains and volcanoes, and around the northern lakes, including Lake Batur and Lake Bratan. If you’re not game enough to jump on a scooter (although this isn’t Kuta and the traffic isn’t nowhere near as chaotic or scary), you can hire a car, or even hire a car and driver if you want to sit back, relax and take it all in.

Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be enough people in the world to buy all of Ubud’s giant stone lions, I suddenly leave the shops and workshops behind, hurtling past steep rice terraces so luminously green, it looks as if someone has turned up the colour setting on the TV.

The road climbs steadily up to the village of Penelokan, which means ‘place for looking’. It certainly is — the tourists have made it this far. Fleets of buses stop here to experience the view and the all-you-can-eat buffets in the monolithic restaurants that perch precariously on the edge of a crater. That suitably impressive view is over the glittering Lake Batur, flanked by the still-active volcanoes of Mount Agung and Mount Batur.

“When did they last erupt?” I ask the owner/chef/waiter at a small shack-cum-restaurant with a perfect view of the lake below — and away from the mega-buffets and sarong sellers. “Oh, in 1963,” he replies. “And in 1970… and 1994, 1998, 1999 and in 2000 a little.”

I finish my spicy beef skewer dipped in sweet soy sauce, take the ubiquitous panoramic photo and head down the road none of the top-heavy buses will venture on: a bitumen roller-coaster through black lava fields to the lake.

The fertile flanks of Mount Batur are filled with groves of oranges and passionfruit, and leafy fields of potatoes and chillies. The only traffic you’ll find is the odd bouncing truck piled high with vegetables and mopeds with school children in peach uniforms. Sitting on the western shore of Lake Batur is the small village of Toya Bungkah, about two hours drive from Ubud and one of Bali’s best-kept secrets. The village enjoys a majestic vista of the lake and looming mountains, and is home to natural hot springs, which are widely believed to have therapeutic merits. There’s also a black-sand beach and a luxe villa right on the water’s edge.

Toya Bungkah is the starting point of the popular Mount Batur sunrise climb, an early-morning trek to the volcano’s summit to catch the first few rays of sunshine slip over the horizon. The hike doesn’t require anything more than some decent stamina and a pair of sturdy hiking boots. Being an early-morning person helps, as you’ll need to get going from Toya Bungkah about 3am to reach the summit by sunrise. It takes just over two hours to get to the summit and, once you get there, you are served coffee, pastries and hard-boiled eggs cooked in the volcano’s steam vents. It’s a popular trek, so if you want to avoid the crowds, start the hike at 5am. You won’t miss the spectacular view, you just won’t necessarily be at the top to catch the sunrise. You can do the hike on your own too, but it’s safer to go with a guide from the Mount Batur Tour Guides Association — request information from your hotel.

For truly luxurious accommodation in these tranquil surrounds, The Ayu Kintamani resort doesn’t disappoint, being “a temple to blissful quietude and wellbeing”. Each of the resort’s 12 suites has a private pool with beautiful views overlooking the lake and, as you relax in the cool water, you couldn’t be further away from the bustle of Kuta or Ubud. Unwind in the two-person cabana suspended above a pond and accessed by a footbridge, or indulge in an Ayurvedic treatment in these tranquil surrounds, without leaving your room.

There are plenty of options to fill your time at Lake Batur, including bike tours, canoe hire and hiking tracks around the lake. The village of Trunyan on the eastern shore is worth a visit. Derived from the words teru (tree) and menyan (fragrant), Trunyan is inhabited by Bali Aga (traditional Balinese) who have a one-of-a-kind funeral ritual. Instead of cremating the dead, as most Balinese do, Trunyan residents leave the dead bodies to decompose naturally in a special cemetery. A huge teru menyan (fragrant tree) releases aromatic scent from its roots, which masks the smell. During my visit, I don’t see any corpses, and the smell certainly doesn’t put me off my dinner.

From Trunyan, a small road takes you around the southern edge of the lake and on to the village of Abang. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy a four-kilometre hike past fishermen huts (tiptoeing over fishing nets spread out to dry like huge spider webs along the way). There are plenty of places to sample the fruits of the fishermen’s labour in Toya Bungkah, from modest restaurants such as the one at Under the Volcano III hotel in Jalan Raya — where a dish of local lake fish with homemade sambal matah (a shallot and lemongrass relish) is a must-have — to resort dining at The Ayu Kintamani’s Flamboyant Resto & Bar (stick to the Indonesian menu, especially the Batur fried rice and fried local lake fish).

I dine at the Pacung Indah hotel and restaurant in a near-empty restaurant. The house speciality is tilapia, a small, sweet-flavoured local fish barbecued with onion, garlic and bamboo sprouts, and accompanied with “Batur sauce”, although the waiter isn’t sure what exactly is in it.

There are no bars in Toya Bungkah, so I join a few of the locals for a beer on the verandah of Tirta Yatra guesthouse, overlooking the lake.

“Is it always this quiet?” I ask Wayan, the owner of the guesthouse. “Yes,” Wayan says, grinning. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”

No need to shower the following morning. Only a short walk away is a hot springs complex housing pools, spas and showers. There are three hot springs on the lake with entry charges ranging from 50,000 to 150,000 rupiah ($6–$18). There are a few locals using the showers, but I have the pools all to myself.

Getting from Lake Batur to Lake Bratan involves a drive up to the north coast of Bali and through the town of Singaraja, then back up through the mountains. There is a more adventurous way, however, that really does take you off the beaten track: instead of going all the way to Singaraja, take the turn off past the village of Penulisan. It leads to 30 kilometres of winding, narrow roads with little or no signage.

I take the latter route and manage to get myself hopelessly and utterly lost. But I love it. I ride through verdant rice paddy fields with troops of monkeys cavorting and leaping between the palm trees, past tiny villages without a single mosaic shop in sight. The place to stop between the two lakes is the eco-village of Kiadan Pelaga, three hours drive from Toya Bungkah. It is perched on the slopes of Mount Mangu and surrounded by coffee plantations and terraced rice fields that stretch way into the distance. Most of the residents are farmers, who work in the ‘gardens’ that hug the mountain-side. Kiadan Pelaga is part of the Bali Village Ecotourism Network, which is managed by the local Subak community with local guides, food and accommodation, including villas at Bagus Agro Pelaga agricultural tourism development (Jalan Raya Puncak Mangu, Desa Pelaga). Set over 18 hectares, the resort contains four “luxury farm houses”, each with a pool, and an open-sided restaurant that serves up organic cuisine freshly harvested from your villa’s front garden. After all that clean mountain air, fresh food and a sore arm from waving at all the friendly locals, I was tucked up in bed not long after the sky filled with a million bright stars.

It’s only a short drive from Kiadan Pelaga to Lake Bratan. On the way you can stop at the Botanic Garden in the Bedugal region, about an hour’s drive from Ubud. Opened in 1959, the garden covers more than 150 hectares of the base of Gunung Pohen, a dormant stratovolcano. Lake Bratan’s biggest drawcard, however, is Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (Jalan Pancasari). It’s not only one of Bali’s most important Hindu-Buddhist water temples, it also has a starring role on the 50,000 rupiah note. The temple, which rises above the lake on a small island, was built in the 17th century and is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the goddess of the waters. When I arrive there, a ceremony is taking place on the lake shore, with a line of locals dressed in traditional white-and-gold robes sitting under yellow umbrellas. I ask one of the dressed-up men what the ceremony is about. “We ask for plenty of water for our fields,” he answers. “We make some offerings.” I watch as gifts are thrown into the lake, including baskets of food and even a live duck that inconveniently keeps swimming back to shore.

Afterwards, I hire a small boat and row out into the middle of the lake. Besides a few floating presents to the gods, it’s just me and the water, mist and mountains. I realise it isn’t that hard to get away from it all in Bali. For every resort and souvenir shop there are vast stretches of untouched Bali with traditional village life, roadside street food and friendly locals. And even the occasional incalcitrant duck.


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