By Rooksana Hossenally
By Rooksana Hossenally
‘It’s just changed so much from when I was here 20 years ago… I hardly recognise it,’ a small Australian lady in her mid-sixties tells me, her white frail hand placed over her heart and tears welling up in her grey eyes as she steps out of the cab we shared. We’re parked outside her hotel, a small boutique Balinese affair brimming with traditional charm on the dry Bukit Peninsula at the southern tip of the island. Still shaking her head, she heads off, her very tall bushy-bearded husband carrying a suitcase in tow. Indeed, the island is ridden with luxury hotels, Kuta could be somewhere on the outskirts of Sydney and Ubud, its former cultural centre, is choked with traffic and tourists looking for something that sadly is no longer. Few actually venture further afield, but away from the madding crowds Bali subsists in all its majestic, natural and spiritual beauty.
A tiny Hindu enclave in Indonesia, Bali has always had its own very distinct identity. Here spirituality is at its purest, and is mirrored in the vast meditative landscape of volcanoes that swirl up through low-hanging cloud, lakes that reflect crisp blue skies, tumbling rice terraces that go on as far as the eye can see, and of course, its hundreds of temples.
Bali’s tourism boom may have changed things on the tiny Island of the Gods, but Balinese people, which make up 90 per cent of the population, still live a spiritual existence very much focused around clan culture, community and ceremony.
The bulk of tourism remains southwards on the Bukit Peninsula and crawls up the island’s arm through Jimbaran, Kuta and shopping socialite haven Seminyak. Away from the centre though, it’s still possible to find a soul stirring view and have it all to yourself – visitors just need to work a little harder to find it.
After topping up on some sun, sea and surf in the south’s Uluwatu and Balangan, meander the very touristed but ethereal site of Uluwatu Temple, which snakes along a cliff face looking out to the Indian Ocean all the way to the soothingly empty horizon.
Then brave the traffic and head north. The best way of seeing Bali’s real treasures is by hiring a car and driver as roads aren’t always sign-posted. Our guide is the wonderful Willy Gusti (see details below). He is often booked so plan ahead.
Make Ubud your next stop. With its myriad hotels, restaurants serving burgers and chips, and shops of made-in-China souvenirs, Bali’s ‘cultural capital’ certainly isn’t what it used to be. Even the Yoga Barn, a reputable haven for healing, yoga and self-development, has suffered the onslaught of tourists and is now more of a resort than a barn. However, look harder, look past it all to the surrounding rice fields and awe-inspiring verdant Ayung Valley. Its deep forested grooves with its river rushing through remains the highlight.
Lots of hotels have set up in the valley and have colonised its sloping sides, but the one that stands out for making guests feel completely at one with nature is the upscale retreat Shambhala Estate. Guests can descend all the way into the valley and crawl onto a wooden platform by the river and meditate for as long as they please completely undisturbed – rafting trips don’t pass through this section of the river.
Despite the throngs of tourists in the town centre, Ubud still retains some of its cultural heritage. For instance in the evenings it isn’t unusual to see Balinese in their Sunday best as they walk to their family temple, women carrying offerings of flowers and incense in baskets piled high on their heads. Also, although very popular with crowds of tourists, do see a performance of Kecak, a traditional folk singing and dance show – performed in communities, they are of varying quality. Make sure to see the show by the highly skilled Taman Kaja Community, which, with its huge cast makes for a deeply moving and utterly unforgettable experience.
‘Ubud used to be a village with just a handful of shops and the foreigners who came were seeking some sort of spiritual guidance from us,’ says Willy. ‘The villages of Selat or Sideman are more like Ubud was 10 years ago…’ We start from Ubud and spend a couple of nights close to the pocket-sized village of Sideman amid the rice fields growing in the shadow of the ominous Agung volcano, one of Bali’s most active. At more than 3,000 metres of altitude it stands as the island’s tallest and most sacred. A short drive away is below-the-radar meditation retreat The Hideout, where guests emerge positively reformed and glowing.
Before reaching the villages, make the detour to Gunung Kawi. Set along a river backed by rice fields, the 11th– century temple and funerary complex is among the most evocative on the island (ignore the strong of vendors that lead to it).
While in the east make sure to stop at Besakih temple, one of the largest and holiest of Bali. Note that the temple is known for very insistent local ‘guides’ who hound visitors and try to extort fees from them but the hassle is worth it. After a couple of hours soaking up the atmosphere here, head to Batur, Bali’s most active volcano, which sits on the lake of the same name. Reams of visitors like to do the two-hour hike up the volcano in time for sunrise, which boasts otherworldly views – do wrap up very warm though as it gets extremely chilly up there before sunrise.
Pass through Kintamani, a tiny village from which the views of the volcano and lake are second to none – make sure to stop at the Ulun Danau Batur temple while up here too. Have the large complex to yourself by going just before sundown when the mist sets in, giving the area a more heightened mystical feeling.
Heading west this time, through the heights of the thickly forested Munduk mountains, it’s worth spending a couple of days here hiking around the two lakes, Danau Taambkingau and Danau Bratan, the less visited rice fields at the foot of the mountains and up into the hills.
A few hours towards central Bali is one of the island’s most iconic sites. The Jatiluwih terraced rice fields. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012 for its complex subuk irrigation system, which dates back the 9th century, it’s a little touristy with a string of restaurants promising wonderful vistas, but it’s worth driving through.
From here explore west even if most people will tell you there’s nothing to see. There are fewer roads but the entire area is a national park of several smaller volcanoes. This part of the island sees the fewest tourists. Divers will be pleased to know that the eastern-most tip of Pulau Menjangan affords some of the most beautiful, relatively untouched underwater scenery of Bali.
Descend southwards along the west coast and stop at Tanah Lot, a small temple that looks like something out of an Indian fairytale – however, be aware that, like Uluwatu Temple, it is also one of the most photographed sites on the island.
After a week or two exploring the island indulge in some downtime. Head to the east coast to the very local village of Tabanan, where the sumptuously serene Alila Soori Hotel welcomes tired and drawn bodies to its incredibly tranquil setting on a volcanic beach. Although not the ideal spot for a swim due to the pounding surf, its wild natural atmosphere holds an irresistible appeal, especially early in the morning when the mists rise above the waters or at sunset when the locals all come to see the day out. Choose a villa on the first level (not on the beach) with its own pool. Lavish and extremely cosy, with wonderful sea vistas, the palette of grey and neutral hues of the hotel will rest and relax beyond expectation – and don’t miss out on a traditional Balinese massage at the spa, one of the best on the island.