Many ferries depart from Kepatang to Gilimanuk, across the Bali strait – at the narrowest point only 2,4km separate the island from Java. Some kind of problem in the harbour leave us floating inside the ferry for an hour, right there, so close to shore. We are tired, sweaty and we stink of sulphur, and we can see the green hills and the turquoise beaches of the Bali Barat National park. The paradise is at our fingertips and we cannot access it. Ferries start to pile up and they circle one other, cradled by the waves, waiting.
Bali belongs to the archipelago known as the Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggara), and it is located between Java and Lombok. It has a surface of 5780km2 and around 4 million inhabitants, most of them Hindus– which is apparent. They call Bali the island of the gods and soon you realize it honours this name with temples, altars, offerings and Hindu themed sculptures – gods, demons, garudas… Note the monumental roundabouts with giant sculptures depicting mythological scenes. The doors of traditional houses, planned around a courtyard, look like temple doors – lined by two columns shaped like a step triangle on the outside – and there’s usually a divine figure over an altar at the entrance. Ganseha is pretty popular. In many houses we notice small private temples. Every morning the Balinese leave flower offerings inside palm tree trays everywhere, and the villages smell of incense. Here they speak Balinese although most of the islanders also speak Indonesian.
Ubud and the centre
The inside of Bali is mountainous and lush, with some peaks over 2000m and 2 active volcanoes, the Batur and the Agung, which will stay hidden under the clouds during our whole stay.
We choose Ubud as the base to explore the interior of the island. It is considered the cultural centre of Bali, a town of 30.000 inhabitants located among rice paddies. It is very, very touristic and busy, but also a magnet for artists. The two main streets, Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Monkey Forest are noisy, with an excess transit and devoted solely to tourism, with warungs, coffee shops, massage parlours and hipster-like places offering expensive organic products. Honestly, it is quite insufferable and feels fake. Luckily for us you just need to turn the corner toward some backstreet to get away from the crowds and the noise. The town is surrounded by nature and little trails crossing rice paddies and villages, ideal for an evening walk. We stay in a taman (a word that means an authorized lodging) in a quiet street, jalan Sri Wedari. It is a typical house around a courtyard. In the street there are a few warungs, a temple and a laundry – which also functions as bus and boat ticket selling agency and motorbike rental place. You can get one for around 3€ per day but you need to take into account that the interior is rainy and gets cold. The solution is a raincoat that you can buy at the market. And in regards of orientation, google maps works fine offline – you just need to remember to upload the route from a wifi before leaving if you don’t have a sim card and you’ll get anywhere without problem. The motorbike gives you freedom of movement, allows you to drive in narrow streets and back roads and to avoid cars – getting in and out of Ubud is a horror. The only problem is rain and distances (is not as fast as a car obviously).
Jumping to an island farther East means changing the time zone and now it gets dark an hour later, around 7pm, which gives us a little more margin to explore.
A must visit in Ubud is this sanctuary for Bali macaques located inside a lush forest at the entrance of the city – actually in Padangtegal. Its mission is the preservation of various animal and vegetal species following the Hindu principle of Tri Hata Karana – seeking the harmony between people, the nature and divinity.
Around 700 macaca fascicularis live in this space of 12HA among the vegetation (186 species of plants and trees), bizarre statues of divinities, demons and mythological creatures and temples. They have a peaceful life here, they are safe, they are fed, and they are also entertained by the crowds of tourists. They warn you not to look them in the eyes and, very important, not to bring any food with you. They can be real bastards, snatch your bag, grab you by the t-shirt o event pull your hair. You need to be careful and try not to annoy them.
Generally, though, they are peaceful and hilarious. You can see them grooming each other in groups, playing or just wandering over the walls of the temples and the statues – which make for great photos. Watch out for the mums with their tremendously cute little ones clinging.
One of the charms of Bali is to be able to combine cultural visits with their wonderful natural setting. Waterfalls are one of the most attractive features for tourists (you need to take into account that during the dry season the volume of water can be extremely low, or even zero in some cases). So, for our first motorbike outing we choose one of these combinations of nature and culture. First we head towards Tukad Cepung waterfall, hidden inside a narrow gorge that can be accessed down a flight of stairs. After a short walk, at the tip of the gorge we find the fall, lit by sunlight seeping through a hole in the ceiling. It is a dreamlike sight that lures many couples that come to take a romantic picture (as well as annoying instagramers posing in bikini believing themselves to be models and not realizing they are actually kind of ridiculous… and also forming quite a line of increasingly angry people). You need a good camera too, as the light is dim. I had my ISO at 1600 (f3.5, 1/60).
The waterfall is on our way to the most important temple in the island.
Pura Besakih, the mother temple
Perched 1000m high on the slopes of the elusive Agung, which insists on hiding behind a thick layer of clouds, Pura Besakih is actually a compound of 23 temples with their courtyards, stairwells and the characteristic Meru towers – the Balinese pagoda-like wooden structures sitting on a base of stone embellished with several roofs. All of the temples, that stand in different levels, are lined along an axis pointing towards the sacred mountain, with the purpose of aiding you to reach it, spiritually speaking.
The origins of the temple are unknown but the location has always been considered sacred. There are indications of its use as a Hindu worship site since the 13thC, when the first Javanese conquerors settled in the island. The Padmasana, the central lotus throne located on the main temple, Pura Penataran Agung, is from the 17thC. The lava of the 1963 eruptions missed the compound by a few metres, something the Balinese took as a miracle and a sign the gods wanted to preserve de monument.
Even under the heavy clouds encasing the volcano the place is breathtaking. The inner part of the temples is restricted to worshippers – although there are always some tourists pretending to pray as a pretext to get inside. No need (to be an asshole if I may say), really, you can see it perfectly from outside the door.
In 1948, the Raja of Karangasem had this palace, build, along with its spectacular garden, the main feature of which is water. Actually, tirta ganga means “waters of the Ganges” and the mystic religious element is really noticeable. It is one of the reasons why these gardens, the beautiful maze of ponds and fountains decorated with Hindu themed sculptures and surrounded by rice fields, are well loved by the Balinese – who rebuilt them from scratch after they were totalled by one of the eruptions of the Agung.
The most peculiar element is the tile path inside one of the ponds, made by a series of columns the same height of the water level, which create the effect of a floating path, that have you jumping from tile to tile inside the pond- carefully if you don’t want to end up swimming with the resident giant koi carps. The path zigzags among other decorative elements rising from the water.
You can swim in one of the pools of the compound for a low fee. Unfortunately for us, the weather is not very forgiving today.
The Jatiluwih rice terraces
Listed as Cultural and Natural Landscape Heritage by UNESCO in 2012, Jatiluwih, in the region of Tabanan, is the best example of rice terraces in Bali, and almost unreal vision of vast expanses of rice fields covering whole mountainsides, from foot to peak, and then spreading toward the sea, watered thanks to a traditional system called Subak. It is a very ancient irrigation method that has been passed from generation to generation since the 9thC and it is managed by villagers affiliated to cooperatives (every farmer is a member of one subak, which feeds the fields by means of a dam, and the head of the subak is elected by all members). The different subaks are associated creating a unique system – which includes the forests, that protect the springs, the rice fields – connected by canals, tunnels and dams- and the water temples, managed by monks following the Hindu principle of the Tri Hita Karana (that focuses on the harmony between man and nature, as I previously mentioned). The water that feeds the rice fields flows through temples and pours down from terrace to terrace. This system has carved the landscape for centuries. It is beautiful.
The Sideman road
More rice fields and more magnificent landscapes; the road that leads to the village of Sideman is a spectacular ride. All this inland area of Bali, and I can’t help but to repeat it again and again, is so luxuriant. When you get away from the conurbations and the busy roads of Ubud and Ginyang and you start climbing up to the mountains, the roads narrow and the traffic almost disappears – also the buildings, except in the villages. Everything is green, bucolic, peaceful – you need to be careful with the dogs wandering (sometimes even sleeping) on the road unperturbed by vehicles-, and there are temples everywhere, even among the rice fields. Altars; sculptures at the entrance of villages and bridges, on crossroads; little floral offerings here and there; rivers – carving deep valleys-; trails amid the rice paddies, and coffee and cocoa plantations; and trees, so many trees. Everything is green. The living image of paradise on Earth, the isle of gods shows itself more than ever around Sideman. It is the ideal place to get lost. It is also a good base to explore the Agung, the mountain the gods refused to show us, not even just for a second, during our stay in Bali. Maybe we angered them somehow.
Someone sure did. Big time.
Because the idea was to finish our trip in Lombok, we decided to start enquiring about the boats to the Gili Islands. The laundry place/motorbike rental/ticket agent from across the street of our hotel in Ubud was as good as any other place to ask (we trusted them with our clothes, after all). So we headed there, following our daily motorbike excursion to the rice fields. This was August, 5th, 2018, around 7pm. While discussing whether leaving on the 7th or spending another day in Bali as we waited for the previous customer to finish, someone screamed. My friend and travel partner Dani took me by the arm. ‘Don’t panic’, he said as he dragged me into the middle of the street. ‘Panic?’, I thought. ‘Why?’. I was puzzled. More and more people were gathering there, running out of their houses. But I didn’t realize what was happening until I stopped walking. Then I noticed. “Earthquake”, Dani said. Indeed, the ground was moving.
It was sort of a liquid movement under the surface, not a tremor as I would have expected – I had never experienced an earthquake before, so I really didn’t know. It lasted for a few seconds. It would not be until a while later, connected to the hotel Wi-Fi, that we knew. There had been an earthquake in Lombok, a 6.9, specifically in the Gili. We felt a replica moments later inside the room. This time it felt like a tremor, with the whole room shaking – we wondered if we should get out, we looked at the courtyard from the door, nobody seemed to be moving so, when in Rome… We stayed. Another replica would wake me up, my bed trembling, in the middle of the night. Funny enough I fell asleep again immediately. Actually, and weirdly, that would be the best I slept for the whole three weeks in the country.
But in the morning it was pretty obvious to us that we would need to change our plans. Lombok and the Gili islands were out of the question. After some consideration we decided to stay in Bali and head to the north coast.
The north coast, Lovina and Bali Barat National Park
We leave Ubud to head towards the quiet and relaxed north coast. The area known as Lovina is a group of fishing villages not destroyed yet by tourism – and let’s hope they never are. The seafront is shared by small hotels and narrow streets lined with fishermen’s houses, and the occasional temple, of course. Even though the main road is quite busy – we are not far from Singaraja, the most important city in the area – the rest is very calm. Unconnected dirt roads crossing rice fields and green areas, heading down straight towards the sea, beaches mainly occupied by traditional fishing boats, calm waters protected by a coral reef and outstanding sunsets over the sea of Java.
The main village of the area, the most touristic, is Kilibukbuk, where most of the action takes place, with hotels, restaurants, agencies offering dolphin spotting and snorkel trips and little shops. The tourists here are not the hard partying kind, we see families and backpackers (like us). We get a room in Anturan, a few kilometres east, in a nice cheap warung with a few spacious rooms on the ground level facing the garden, with the breakfast area under a pergola, located 30m from the beach on a quiet jalan. On the evenings we share the three warungs and the music reggae bar on the beach with around 20 other tourists and a few chickens running around among the fishing boats – fishermen sail out at sunset, with the changing light and the fire red sun sinking into the sea as their background. It is a good opportunity for backlight photos.
Once it gets dark, from the shore we can see their lights- they do not move far from the beach- as we dine fresh fish in a table on the sand under candlelight serenaded by the sea. The highest tide we get at 8 in the morning, when the water swallows the beach almost in its entirety. The lowest takes place at noon during our stay. When the water retreats the shellfish catchers take the beach. It is also the time for the flower offerings (and the occasional weird ritual involving the sacrifice of a chicken). The low tide is a great moment to take a walk on the beach.
Here in the coast it’s sunny and hot, a welcome change from the three days of dark grey skies and rain inland – where clouds get trapped between the mountains and the volcanoes. We go for a swim. The tide is still low so I entertain myself picking seashells and following the minuscule crabs that hide in tiny holes in the very sticky volcanic dark sand. My friend takes a nap under the nice shade of the sizeable trees growing in the seafront. I pick shells and dead coral but also plastics –dragged in by the tide I guess. So sad.
Close to Kilibukbuk we find the thermal springs of Banjar (Air Panas Banjar), by the namesake village, inland. In a volcanic island it would be weird not to get hot springs. In Bajar we find two big pools in two levels, with sulphurous water flowing at 37º from the mouths of a bunch of stone nagas (mythological snakes), and a third smaller one on the side. They are located on a forested slope and very atmospheric. The entrance is a little over 1 euro and they attract many tourists – it’s one of the highlights on the area. There is a restaurant by the pools but we prefer to have our lunch by the beach in Kilibukbuk – our daily crunchy squid.
Bali is part of the Coral Triangle, an area of great biodiversity. In an isthmus at the north-west tip of the island, surrounded by a ribbon of white sand and turquoise waters, stands the Bali Barat National Park. Founded by the Dutch in 1941 to protect the Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi) and the wild banteng (bos javanicus), an ancestor of the Bali cattle, it covers 19.000HA (a much smaller area than originally did). It consists of primary monsoon forest, mangroves, jungle and savannah and a marine reserve with sea grasses and coral reefs under the water. The Manjangan island is very popular for diving and snorkelling. The park is home to 175 species of plants – 14 of them endangered, like sandalwood (santanum album), golden shower tree (cassi fistula), Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) or candlenut (Aleuritas moluccana)-, 160 species of birds– like the aforementioned beautiful Bali Myha (Leucopsar rothschildi), emblem of the park-, and mammals like the Indian muntjac (muntiacus muntjak), the banteng (bos javanicus), the macaque, the Javan lutung (tracypitheus auratus), the leopard cat (prionailurus bengalensis), the hawksbill sea turtle (eretmochelys imbricata), the Sunda pangolin (manis javanica), the large flying fox (pteropus vampyrus), the black giant squirrel (ratufa bicolor) or the Asian water monitor (varanus salvator).
You can join different guided activities in the Park, like hiking, fauna spotting or diving. We get there in our motorbike (rented next to our hotel) and drive along a stony dirt bumpy road very uncomfortable to ride. The guard at the entrance warns us not to wander far from the main road if we are alone. We spend some time on the beach, before the tide gets to the lowest point and the turquoise waters disappear uncovering the rocky bottom. That’s when the macaques head down to the water edge to forage for food. They pick crabs and shellfish – you keep finding the empty shells on the trails and among the trees inland.
We’re back at the Bali strait (that we crossed by ferry from Java) and we can see the Ijen on the other side, hidden behind the clouds most of the time, except for a brief moment – that we celebrate with excitement. We are all alone for kilometres and kilometres of beach, except for some deer and the monkeys who steal our water. There is a tiny temple behind us, over the sand, among the trees. The only thing that tarnishes this wonderful park is the amount of plastics and rubbish piling up on some spots, dragged in by the tides – clearly the plastic waste problem needs to be addressed globally and mercilessly or we will all drown in them. On the other hand, the amount of shells and dead corals you can pick in the sand is astounding. I fill my backpack with them – my goddaughter is going to be delighted.
We head inland to check out the Pura Dang Kahyangan Prapat Agung Temple – of course there is one- on top of a small hill in the middle of the forest. On our walk there we come across some muntjacs and an elusive bunch of black monkeys – these are not so bold as the macaques and they try hard to avoid us, hiding high up the trees.
We also see plenty of macaques on the main road on our way back to Lovina. They wander the beaches during low tide.
The Pura Beji temple, from the 15thC, is located in the village of Sangsit, 8km east of Singaraja. It is devoted to the goddess of rice Dewi Sri, adored by the farmers in the area. It’s built in north Bali style, more decorated than the southern ones, with more floral and vegetal patterns, something only found here in the north. Traces of paint have been found on the sculptures, which show they were originally painted. There are also figures depicting demons and nagas. Several restorations have been required along the way to repair the damages produced by different earthquakes.
As a curiosity, the aling-aling (the structure that wards evil spirits off) in Pura Beji is decorated with the figures of two Dutchmen playing an instrument at both sides of a naga, an element not found anywhere else in the island, and certainly odd.
Kuta, the tourist and surfing centre in the south
Our visit to Kuta is purely accidental, as we never intended to come here, but the earthquake forced us to buy a new flight back to Jakarta – as we were originally flying back from Lombok and now we will fly from Bali. And the Denpasar airport is close to these coastal and touristic city, the opposite of Lovina: hotels, bars, discos and shops everywhere selling fake stuff (bags, sunglasses and the like). But even with all the negative vibe and the crowded beach full of bars, I’ll concede that, walking along the long beach of Kuta, looking inwards, the only thing you will see, mostly, are trees, a green wall. No towering hotels, no ugly apartment buildings. It is a big city and has grown excessively, indeed, but never upwards more than two stories. It still keeps its gangs with its losmans and some quiet corners. The high waves make it a surf destination –actually, swimming is forbidden almost everywhere on the beach. During low tide, though, a series of lagoons isolated from the waves emerge. There are people playing football, people flying kites, people doing all sorts of things – like sleeping it off. Kuta is a leisure destination for Australians – they are really close, unlike us Europeans. It is the life and soul of the party in Bali, although sometimes the stag party ambiance borders on embarrassment. Truly.
To get to Kuta the bus drives over a massive viaduct over the sea amid mangroves, offering some peculiar sights, like a ship junkyard. The Denpasar international airport is really close to Kuta and from the beach we can see the planes landing on an airstrip so tightly squeezed in that the planes need to take a weird turn before touching the ground. We are departing from the domestic flights terminal, as we are heading for Jakarta.
So that’s it, three weeks just passed so fast. We leave Indonesia sad about Lombok and its people. It is going to be our first stop when we come back to the Sunda Islands: Sumatra, Sulawesi, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Rinca, Flores… and some 17.000 more await. We’re going to be very busy.
INDONESIA: KALIMATAN, JAVA, BALI
Getting there and around
For us Europeans Indonesia is far. Very far. We flew from Barcelona via Abu Dhabi, which means a 6 hour flight to the Emirates plus another 9 hours to Jakarta.
The Lion Group – including Lion Air, Batik Air i Wings Air- covers all the islands with hundreds of domestic routes that allow you to hop from island to island. http://lionair.co.id/. It is not the only airline covering domestic flights in Indonesia but at least their planes are quite new and in flying conditions (except for the 737 MAX 8, but we better not get into that) – something that cannot be said of others. The Nam airplane that got us from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun in Borneo was literally falling apart. There was a leaflet with prayers for 4 different religions on the seat pocket and, believe me, I read them all!
For inland trips in Java the train is the most comfortable option – remember to buy first class and bring your coat.
Between Bali and Java there are many ferries connecting Petakang and Gilimanuk. It is a really short trip – unless there is some kind of problem-, and very cheap.
From Bali to the Gili the option is the Fast Boat from Padang Bai– unfortunately we couldn’t check their efficiency. You can get the ticket in Ubud, which includes transport to the harbour. You can also get a ferry to Lombok.
To travel in Bali, there are companies offering charter buses. We used Pemuteran Tours from Ubud to Lovina and from Lovina to Kuta.
Indonesia is one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel so it is perfect for backpackers. You’ll find all sorts of accommodations, from the luxury resorts to the 8 euros per night for the double room hotels. These are actually pretty decent and clean– the bathrooms may be in need of some updating in some of them but all things considered they are fine.
You will find warungs everywhere. Enjoy your nasi goreng (fried rice with meat and vegetables), one of the national dishes of the country, along with gado-gado (steamed vegetables), tumpeng (rice with side vegetables), soto (meat and vegetables soup), satay (skewered grilled meat) and rendang (spicy meat). You’ll find fish and seafood on the coast. Also Yogyakarta is famous for its street food, so be adventurous and give it a try.