Bali beyond the bustle

18 October 2017

The beautiful island of Bali is home to over 4.5 million people yet escaping the crowds and going green is still easy – if you know where to go.

Central Bali’s bustling city of Ubud, less than two hours by metered taxi from Denpasar airport (hot tip: book your cab before you leave the terminal to avoid the touts) is famous for its yoga and meditation retreats. It also teems with tourists, especially in the high season from July to September. You’ll want to experience its vibe for a day or two, but with an alarm clock and a $7-a-day hire motor scooter you can easily make an escape to a tranquil paradise.

Ubud is home to several grand temples including the water lily temple of Saraswati. Start your sightseeing early in the day to avoid the crowds. Photo: Diana Noonan

Pick up the scooter the night before your getaway and set your alarm for 6am. School traffic rush hour cuts in half an hour later, lunch time is chaos, and your return to the city should avoid the 3 – 5.30pm mayhem.

To discover a world of silence seldom found in Bali, head north along Jalan Raya Keliki for 12km then zip off any side road that takes your fancy. Suddenly you’re in a landscape of ridgeline rice paddies, swaying coconut palms, doe-eyed cows, swooping swallows and iridescent butterflies. Park your scooter at the side of the road and follow trails that lead through fields to hidden temples, farm houses and the everyday lives of the rural Balinese.

The region of Keliki, just 12 km from busy Ubud, is a quiet rural haven. Photo: Diana Noonan

When you’re ready to return, scoot back to the main road at midday and put your lunch money where it counts by ordering a nasi campur (a medley of rice and whatever’s on offer) at one of the tiny owner-operated food stalls along the way. We tried Warung (food stall) Medan and can highly recommended it for vegans and vegetarians.

At midday, the main Keliki-Ubud road is the place to pick up an authentic Balinese meal from an owner-operated food stall or cart. Photo: Diana Noonan

Back in Ubud, don’t be tempted to ditch the scooter too soon because a visit to even the best-known attractions becomes a unique experience when you set out early. At 7am you’ll be the only tourist at Tampaksiring market at the turnoff to famous Gunung Kawi Temple. While you chow down on a breakfast treat, don’t be surprised to catch sight of kids kicking off the school day with an early morning jog between the rice paddies.

School children balance their way through the rice paddies during an early morning PE class. Photo: Diana Noonan

While most travellers stick to south and central Bali, the drier regions of the north offer a quieter, greener experience of the island. The sheltered bay of Pemuteran on the north-west coast is home to one of the world’s growing collection of biorocks. These environmental projects aim to repair the damage done to corals and to stimulate their growth through the mild electrification of surrounding water. It’s a win-win situation for many of the locals who once fished the bay using cyanide poisoning and explosives, and who now benefit from the tourists who come to dive and snorkel.

Biorock projects, many of which include artificial structures, bring new life to damaged reefs and previously empty bays. Photo: Reef Seen.

The best results can be seen off the beach on a trip with Reef Seen, a local dive establishment and haven of philanthropy. In a generous sideline, it acts as a sanctuary for injured sea turtles, and a collection point and hatchery for turtle eggs that might otherwise end up at the local market. Visitors are welcome to view the turtles for a small donation. Reef Seen is also the meeting place for local children training in traditional dance, many of whom go on to become professional performers. The public is welcome to sit in on the rehearsals and to watch the weekly performance.

Pemuteran’s sheltered bay makes for excellent snorkelling, especially in front of local diving establishment Reef Seen, where safe access points to the water helps protect the coral. Photo: Diana Noonan.

When you tire of the coast, take any of the narrow lanes which lead past Pemuteran’s homes in the direction of the hills. Pigs, goats, chickens and the occasional horse will cross your path, and if you’re up early enough, you’ll meet the locals fetching back fodder (all carried on their heads) for the cows.

In Amed in the far north-east of Bali, the village of Jemeluk is so laid back it pays to carry a torch when you wander out at night to the sunset viewing spot atop the closest headland. The snorkelling in this quiet bay is just a few metres from the beach and clouds of tropical fish and sightings of stingray, octopus and lionfish are an everyday occurrence. Visitors are encouraged to keep it that way by forgoing flippers (which damage the coral on the shallow reef) and wearing sandals instead

Just fifteen minutes east of Jemeluk along the coast by motor scooter is the turn-off to the village of Bangle, and beyond it, the mountainous jungle hamlet of Sega. This untouched river valley is quintessential Bali at its best. Thatch-roofed, woven-walled dwellings, idyllic rice terraces, forest-clad hills and cascading waterfalls create a scene you are unlikely to forget – and it’s all viewable from the narrow but recently sealed road.

The road leading to the village of Bangle offers views of Bali as it once was. Photo: Diana Noonan

When it’s time to head back to Denpasar, catch your breath at Udayana Kingfisher Eco Lodge perched high above the city. Surrounded by its own 10 hectares of regenerating native forest, it’s a haven for butterflies, art groups and environmentalists. Ian Wilson and his wife Meryl are the driving forces behind this sanctuary, the mothership to a truly green and philanthropic chain of eco lodges scattered throughout Indonesia.

Bali may be a tourist mecca but when you know where to find its quieter, sustainable side, you’ll soon be side-stepping the crowds.

Diana Noonan

Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-loved and most prolific writers for children. She lives on the remote Catlins Coast of the lower South Island.