Treasured Island: Bali

Back in 1985 when I last visited Bali as a young backpacker, it was on the cusp of change. The tranquil cultural centre of Ubud was little more than a single street with a few shops and even fewer cars.

The beach resort area of Kuta, although a hotspot for travellers, felt like a small village.

Today, those centres are awash with luxury hotels, villas and boutique shops, and the roads are often gridlocked. Even though I’ve changed too, I can’t help wondering: whatever happened to the Bali of yesteryear?

Thankfully, the answer is that it’s still there. The east-coast Karangasem area has hardly been touched, mainly due to the narrow, mountainous roads impassable for big coaches, and the black volcanic sand beaches that put off many sun-seeking tourists. Against the drama of this landscape, traditional pursuits such as fishing, weaving and woodcraft continue as they have done for generations. Life here still revolves around the temples and the simple warungs or roadside cafes.

From almost any vantage point along this coast, the towering profile of Bali’s largest volcano is visible, looming imperiously over the surrounding rice terraces. Mount Agung is the most sacred of Bali’s peaks and is still active, last erupting in 1963, causing widespread damage.

Sidemen is a secluded and picturesque mountain village — about 17 kilometres south-west from the foot of the volcano — threaded with water channels and surrounded by rice terraces. In the 1930s two expatriate artists, German Walter Spies and the Swiss Theo Meier, settled in the area. They exerted an important influence on Balinese artists, introducing the idea of more secular subject matter and painting in a colourful, primitive style.

It is still possible to stay in Spies’s original home, which boasts spectacular views of the volcano. Both Mick Jagger and David Bowie have been house guests. No wonder, it costs US$900 ($936) a night.

A less extravagant option is the hillside Patal Kikian homestay. Sitting on the covered terrace, you can watch the Sidemen valley drop into the river. On the other side, a tapestry of green is slowly claiming the lava fields back. Thumbing through an art book of Meier’s paintings, I’m stunned to see a landscape that looks as if it was painted from this exact spot. There’s the winding river, the same farmhouse and the monolithic blue mountain that makes everything around it look like toys.

Heading due east towards the coast takes us through Karangasem’s biggest town, Amlapura, which apart from possessing the closest ATMs and pharmacies, is worth a stop to stroll through the morning market. We squeeze down narrow, dark passageways — as the perfume of frangipani mixes with the pungent smell of fish — and are greeted with smiles and inducements to buy. From piles of papaya, rambutans, jackfruit and limes, we select some pink bananas that taste sweeter than any yellow variety.

A short skip south-east from Amlapura brings us to Jasri, one of the sleepy villages on this wild black-sand coast. It’s the location for Turtle Bay Hideaway, and only sharp eyes will see the sign. An extraordinary trio of ornate wooden houses lie in wait at the end of a dirt track. Originally built in Sulawesi — almost 1000 kilometres and two seas away — they were dismantled and brought over by their American owner, Emerald Starr.

Starr has lived in eastern Bali for many years and speaks Indonesian. He shows us his sculpture collection, some of which were owned by former Indonesian president Suharto.

Starr is also an enthusiastic organic gardener, and we are treated to a delicacy — palm heart salad — as a storm felled one of his trees the previous night. After a swim in the ocean-front pool with its yin and yang tiles, he points us in the direction of the local chocolate factory, run by another American long-time resident known simply as — what else? — Charles (he’s heard all the jokes).

In a series of extraordinary Bali-meets-the-space-age buildings featuring steeply pitched bamboo roofs and circular windows, his local staff extract beans from cocoa pods and turn them into handmade dark chocolate, adding only palm sugar for sweetness. Delicious samples are handed around. Having filled our bags with Bali Krunch and Narkabo Chocolate Nibbles, Charles insists every visitor has a go on his heart-stopping tree swing (accessible from an elevated platform) that sends riders sailing out above the ocean on a chocolate and adrenaline-fuelled high.

Although the east is one of the driest parts of the island, in summer’s wet season it transforms into a Garden of Eden. Ten kilometres north up the coast, we check into the Coconut House at boutique hotel Villa Flow to learn more about Balinese cuisine from Dutch owner, Serge van Zon. From lemongrass to pomegranate and avocados to eggplant, meals here are sourced mainly from the terraced organic garden and created for their health benefits as well as to stimulate the tastebuds.

In partnership with Australian Penelope Williams (formerly head chef at Sydney’s The Boathouse and The Bathers’ Pavilion) Villa Flow arranges cooking classes. They begin with a village tour, fishing trip, or a trip to the markets or rice fields to learn about the origins and cultivation of Balinese food. This is followed by a trip to Bali Asli, Penny’s exquisite cookery school.

If you want to embark on a day trip, a good option is the water palace at Tirta Gangga in Amlapura, built by the last king of Karangasem on the site of a holy spring. Carp-filled pools are crisscrossed with stepping stones and bridges, statues of Hindu gods and fountains spouting from the mouths of ornamental bulls. The top pool is a public playground and, on a sweltering day, is extremely tempting. Or, you can cool down with a mint-leaf juice with lime in the Tirta Ayu hotel’s restaurant overlooking the pools.

Our most northerly destination on this trip was Amed, which is not one but a chain of fishing villages strung out along the coast. Here, brightly coloured jukungs (outrigger fishing boats) crowd together on the pebbly beaches beneath a backdrop of precipitous mountain ranges. The most picturesque part of eastern Bali, Amed is also one of the poorest. Salt production augments subsistence fishing, although tourism is adding to the local economy with new beachfront bungalows gradually extending along this coast.

Most visitors come to this area to go diving. The US army-transport ship Liberty at Tulamben, 15 kilometres to the north, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in World War II and is accessible to snorkellers as it lies in shallow water. From the shore, we are escorted by crowds of bream. We then swim out of the plankton-rich gloom into a school of tropical fish and coral. We see idol, angelfish, stingrays and so much more — we are even treated to a visit from one of the giant barracuda that calls this ship home.

If water sports are of interest, Blue Moon Villas is the perfect option as it’s possible to snorkel directly from the beach. The ocean-front villas have their own outdoor showers to wash off the sea after a day in the sun. Sit back on the verandah overlooking the infinity pool and garden while the villa’s Balinese hippy co-owner Komang John, who presides over one of the best and most reasonably priced restaurants, prepares your dinner. Visiting bands add to the laid-back vibe — one that thankfully is still here to be discovered, if you know where to look.

Words by Amanda Woodard - Published in Voyeur July 2013
Quick Facts 
Time Zone GMT +8
Languages Indonesian, though English is widely spoken
Currency Indonesian Rupiah
Electricity 110/220 volts AC (50 Hz)
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