Bali: Finding its true nature beyond the beach scene

Villages set in rice paddies, secret volcano hikes and islets where cliffs drop to wild Indonesian sands – Alex Robinson biked beyond Bali's busy beaches to find a more traditional and timeless experience

7 mins

Andy was slipping into a trance. Eyes half-lidded, he was silent and statue-still. I could see my friend’s mind was journeying, drifting with the intricate steel-band psychedelia of the gamelan angklung orchestra, playing in the outer courtyard of the pura (Hindu temple). Incense swirled around him, carried on the sea breeze, rising over the sugar-palm-thatch roofs and dark brick of the tiered meru pagodas, sweeping out over the temple towards the distant cone of Mount Agung.

When the pemangku (priest) began to chant I could feel myself following Andy. I was losing track of time, slipping into the deep sea of the subconscious. The niggling cramp of kneeling on stone flags faded, and anxiety I didn’t even know that I had ebbed. Senses brightened – the vibrant gold of our udeng headdresses, the balsamic scent of the joss sticks – I closed my eyes. Thoughts thinned, time dissolved into the present moment, which danced in intricate gamelan patterns like waves on a single ocean. I drifted into that ocean’s depths, floating for who-knows-how-long, and then falling back into consciousness with a splash: of water, thrown by the pemangku from sprigs wet from a sacred spring.

When I opened my eyes the light was lower. Next to me Gede, our guide, was smiling. He beckoned us out of the temple and onto the vast black sand beach: at Watu Klotok, in eastern Bali.

This wasn’t my first visit to the island. A few years before I’d booked the standard seaside holiday: days in the sun on bar-crammed Seminyak beach were punctuated with day-trips to Mount Batur volcano, to rice paddies and to Ubud village – where Julia Roberts came to Eat, Pray, Love. But that Bali was tired and Torremolinos-touristy. I left with all my books finished and determined not to return. But without thinking much I bought a paperback in the airport shop: Island of Bali by Mexican anthropologist, Miguel Covarrubias, who had lived here in the 1930s. It would pass the time, I thought. But it did far more. The book filled me with excitement – Covarrubias had been changed by Bali. His walks in the bird-filled forests that shrouded the volcanoes, his temple visits, his time with locals had filled him with a sense of the miraculous. It seemed so far from the Bali I’d visited. “Could it still be there?” I wondered.

Back in Bali

Bali's beautiful rice paddies (Shutterstock)

Bali's beautiful rice paddies (Shutterstock)

So some years later I flew back to find out, and to meet an old friend who’d spent his life in search of the miraculous in Asia. While the rest of us had gone to university, Andy Axelrood had gone to Beijing to study Chinese medicine and then to Thailand – nominally to teach English, but really to spend years exploring Bagan and Angkor, Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars. He’d be the perfect unofficial guide for my week-long trip to find Covarrubias’ Bali, taking me up its volcanoes, to empty beaches and little-visited villages. “I’ll meet you in Denpasar,” he’d told me. “Pack light. And use a rucksack.”

The Andy who met me off the plane was a touch thinner on top than I remembered. But the big smile, warm welcome and the fact that he was the only Westerner wearing a sarong assured me that little else had changed, and that this visit to Bali would be a thrill. I didn’t know the adventure would begin right away. No wonder he’d asked me to pack light. We were travelling by motor scooter. Before I had time for questions, Andy was whizzing out of the airport, out of the city.

Within half an hour we were in a countryside of palms and paddies, winding through wooden villages where local women carried baskets of flowers and fruit on their heads. I recognised those from Covarrubias’ book – they were pura offerings – left in shrines and temples during Balinese rituals. After a couple of hours we reached Capella, Ubud, our hotel for the next few days – nestled in a steep forest-filled gorge that dropped to a tinkling stream and a small, ancient shrine. “You’ll want to rest,” said Andy. “Tomorrow we wake early. To climb a volcano.”

Westward to Catur

A temple in Tirta Empul, Bali (Shutterstock)

A temple in Tirta Empul, Bali (Shutterstock)

We were back on the bikes before dawn, going slowly on the narrow roads in the half-light, dodging sleeping dogs and scythe-carrying farmers on their way to work. The sun rose as we reached Tegallalang, glistening orange over paddyfields that dropped in stepped terraces down narrow valleys.

As I stopped to take a picture, Andy promised me coffee and a treat: we would take a detour to Tirta Empul village. In the café he handed me another surprise – a bag containing a white shirt, a sarong and sash and an udeng ceremonial headdress. “Change in the loo,” he said, heading there himself. “We’re going to take a bath.”

The bath was inside the local temple, where we spent half an hour under powerful jets of mountain spring water, which gushed from mossy spouts into a huge brick tank. I emerged caffeine alert and buzzing with life. I was glad of Andy’s surprises. We retraced our route and then cut across Bali’s central flatlands, riding for an hour or so out to the west.

“We’re going the wrong way,” I said when we stopped for water, pointing back the way we came to the distant smoking cones of Batur and Agung, Bali’s famous twin peaks.

“That’s where the crowds go,” Andy replied. “Which is why we are going in the opposite direction.”

Another half an hour’s ride brought us to a dirt road and a trailhead where a young Balinese local, Kadek, was waiting for us with a smile and a pre-packed breakfast. There wasn’t another tourist in sight.

“Make sure you eat the chocolate,” Kadek said as we unwrapped breakfast. “Mount Catur is a tough trail.”

Bali’s other volcano – set in the centre of the island seemed easy at first. The walk was idyllic. A well-cut path sloped up through rich rainforest. Peacock swallowtail butterflies floated in front of us, magpie-robins chirruped in the trees. All was tranquil and Eden-like. Then the way narrowed and climbed steeply. Before long we were clambering over huge boulders, heaving up rugged slopes, gripping roots and vines. After two hours I was dripping with sweat and panting. After three, we’d reached the cloud line and the boulders and tree trunks were wrapped in blankets of moist moss. The forest thinned and we entered what looked like a clearing.

“Careful here,” Kadek warned. “There’s a sheer drop just beyond those bushes.” We shrunk back into the trees and then climbed on, eventually reaching the summit just as the mist began to thin and then dissipate, revealing a shrine of stupas and a spectacular view. Below our feet, shimmering in the early afternoon light was a giant caldera lake. Kadek pointed to a temple huddled on its southern shore. A terracotta village spread around it in grids of streets, and a mountain ridge rose steep above it, flanked by forest-covered cones. Beyond was the Pacific Ocean, ribboning into the two-kilometre wide narrows of the Bali strait. Ijen and Raung, the giant, sulphurous volcanoes of east Java, loomed grey and serrated in the distance. The walk, the view, the mountain itself were exhilarating. I felt alive, the wind whistling in the pines had my skin tingling, the presence of the mountain itself was palpable and it somehow seemed focused in the tall temple meru-pagodas around us.

Andy and I joined Kadek as he laid a little garland of flowers on the central meru. All our moods were lifted… until we discovered plastic bottles and bags strewn around the shrine’s back end. “Left by tourists?” I asked. “No. Tourists don’t come here,” responded Kadek, clearly angry, “This was left by Balinese. But not Bali Aga – by Balinese who don’t respect our traditions and culture.” “Bali Aga?” we asked. But Kadek didn’t respond. We helped clear the litter.

On the way down the mountain Kadek was more forthcoming, explaining to Andy why tradition meant so much to him. “Everything in Bali is balance,” he said, explaining that temples are laid out with precise harmonic orientation. “In pura temples, we Balinese meet with our ancestors and with nature itself. Pura are like a giant tuning fork for the spirit,” Kadek laughed. “Pura concentrates purity!” “Litter, noise, waste… all these bring disharmony,” he told us. “We call it sebel. When nature is unclean, we are unclean – tired, depleted – without inspiration or energy. We need to puras to purify ourselves.”

Out to Atuh

After the mountain – and a few days rest at Capella – we decided to try and find unspoilt ocean. It would surely be an impossibility. Bali’s beaches were crowd-crawling. Andy assured me otherwise and had chosen Nusa Penida, a small island in the Balinese archipelago just to the south-east of Bali itself and easily reached by ferry. We would avoid Penida’s backpacker-busy western beaches, he said, and head for the island’s far east at Atuh.

The 40-minute boat crossing from Bali was rough. The road out of the port was rougher still, turning from asphalt into broken paving and then steep shingle, where we skidded frequently. Villages gave way to abandoned farms where dry tropical forest was regrowing – a rare sight in South-East Asia.

Driving through a quiet stretch I stopped suddenly, when I saw a black-and-white bird, perched in a branch. “It’s a Bali starling!” I shouted to Andy, sending the bird into the trees. “They’re critically endangered!”

We were both shaky when we finally arrived at the clifftop look-out, after a hairy, two-hour drive. But Atuh soon had us spellbound. The cliffs spread in front of us – Dover-white and twice as tall, crumbling to a long beach of talc-fine sand. Turquoise waves crashed along its length, and as the late afternoon sun sank, it burnished the scene in buttery-yellow light. I saw monkeys in the trees. An osprey soared on thermals overhead.

South-eastern serenity

Candidasa, Bali (Shutterstock)

Candidasa, Bali (Shutterstock)

We spent two days at Atuh, seeing only intrepid backpackers and enjoying pure sea and starry sky. Then we returned to the mainland ever more determined to spend our final days here in search of traditional Balinese life.

We decided to base ourselves by the sea in Candidasa on the south-east coast – a quiet, laid-back alternative to Kuta and Sanur. Bali would show us the way, we figured, and it did. When we visited a temple set on a cape to the east of Candidasa village, a local young woman, surprised at seeing visitors wearing temple gear, asked us about ourselves. “You’re looking for the real Bali? Ring this man, Gede,” she said. “He will help you.”

Even Andy was amazed by Gede. He took us to places where Balinese life seemed little-changed since the time of Covarrubias – the sleepy, rural Sidemen valley, huddled under the bulk of Agung mountain, and Tenganan Pegringsingan – a hamlet tucked into the hills above Candidasa itself. In his hushed tones Gede told us that in Tenganan we would meet Bali Aga. “Who are they?” we asked. “The true Balinese”, he said. “Those who preserve our original culture. This is one of a handful of true Bali Aga villages.”

Tenganan was as beautifully tended and as true to its roots as an Anglesey hamlet – little flower-scented cottages with gorgeous gilt-wood doors; a peaceful temple set over a groomed, green lawn. The men wore sarongs, the women decked out in beautiful hand-woven lace tops. They greeted us with warm smiles but no one tried to tout for business. They were more intent on catching up on local gossip, chatting with each other on the steps of the beautifully manicured temple at the heart of the village and in the doorways of their cottagey homes. These, Gede said, were Bali Aga. He led us to a teak-wood house – one of several in the village where Bali Aga kept the old traditions alive. We watched a sinewy old man hand-engrave a Balinese book from reeds smeared with charcoal, while his daughter crafted textiles on a loom. Sure, they were for sale, Gede said, but they also made for local people – just as they had been for centuries.

On our final evening Gede took us to Watu Klotok. Here Andy and I, again donned in our temple sarongs and udeng head dresses, were invited to take part the ceremony and lulled by incense and gamelan into a trance. Sat on the beach afterwards, we felt as if the tension of life had been taken by the surf and the wind. Our minds were quiet. Every moment seemed to hold so much more: senses were brighter – the gold of the sun dipping into the ocean, glistening off the wet black sand, the calls of terns rising over the rumble and hiss of the waves. Gede came and joined us. He felt closer to us somehow, united by this timeless Balinese experience. I thought Covarrubias would have approved.

“Maybe you begin to understand Bali,” said Gede quietly. “Our rituals, our pura, how they call nature to clean our hearts, clear our minds, sanctify our souls. Tell people about this when you leave.”

Essential information

Mount Batur (Shutterstock)

Mount Batur (Shutterstock)

The author travelled with Audley Travel, which offer a 7-night adventure in Indonesia staying at the Capella Ubud, Candi Beach Resort and in Sidemen, all with breakfast. Price includes return flights with Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow to Bali via Kuala Lumpur, transfers and a guided hike up Mount Catur.

When to go

Bali is equatorial, so it’s tropically warm all year round with average temperatures in the mid twenties.

October-March is the wet season the wettest months. December to February are the wettest months, with as much as 35cm of rain falling in January. November has high humidity with temperatures hitting an average maximum of 31°C. April-September is the dry season, with occasional tropical showers. September is the driest month, with around 46mm of rain.

Related Articles