An East Bali Adventure
A world away from the tourist hotspots, discover hidden beaches, tranquil fishing villages and panoramic views above the clouds. Driving up Jalan Ida Bagus Mantra, the highway that hugs Bali’s eastern coastline, you’ll eventually hit a point where everything just seems to… slow… down.
Somewhere just past the port of Padang Bai, traffic eases and the wide dual carriageway tapers oﬀ into a shady single-lane avenue that more or less follows the shore, winding leisurely through sleepy towns and quiet coconut groves. Elderly Balinese ladies line the roadside selling fresh ﬁsh, while rice farmers go back and forth, to and from their terraces, on ancient pushbikes. Temples dot the mountainous countryside, which is blanketed in dazzling shades of green; and the sublime Mt Agung is ever-present, standing watch over the landscape as it has done for millennia.
It might sound like a cliché, but this really is what most would call ‘the real Bali’ – a world away from the ever-growing southern tourist hotspots. Having lived on the island for over a decade, I’ve worked my way around most of it, but this part – essentially the regencies of Gianyar, Klungkung and Karangasem – is the area I never get tired of.
Pulling into the quaint seaside strip that is Candi Dasa is always a pleasant experience. Low-key shops and restaurants ﬂank each side of the main drag, while the enormous lily pond in the centre is ideal for a leisurely amble around. On the seafront, you’ll ﬁnd satay and bakso sellers cooking up tasty morsels for just a few thousand rupiah. Keep an eye out for the colourful wheeled carts selling barbecued, sweet corn on the cob (jagung bakar), grilled to perfection and slathered in chilli butter.
Just a few miles further on from Candi
Dasa, over a gorgeous winding mountain road with marauding monkeys and views out over the Lombok Strait, sun worshippers are in for a treat at Pasir Putih. Also known as ‘White Sand’ or ‘Virgin Beach’, this hidden gem is easy to miss, but well worth the eﬀort to ﬁnd. Think fresh coconuts and chilled sunbathing, not to mention calm waters that are perfect for a refreshing dip. True to its name, the beach here is more of a coral white, a contrast to the sparkling volcanic black sand found throughout the rest of the area.
For a glimpse of some fascinating Balinese history, head inland to the ancient Aga villages of Tenganan, Trunyan or Penglipuran. Bali Aga is the name for the ‘original’ Balinese – communities that have existed on the island since long before the arrival of Hinduism, and their way of life has changed very little over the centuries. Locals tend to stay rooted in the village and are not permitted to marry outsiders or get divorced, meaning these traditional communities are incredibly tight-knit and noticeably diﬀerent in their beliefs, architecture and culture from other Balinese. Bamboo etching with charcoal and the famous double ikat weaving can be observed here, not to mention fascinating ceremonies like Mekare Kare, known as ‘the blood ritual’.
Back down by the sea, the tiny village of Jasri is known for its picturesque black-pebble beach, swaying coconut groves and, on the occasions when the swell’s up, excellent waves for the surﬁng crew. A short walk north up the beach, you’ll ﬁnd Charly’s Chocolate Factory, where you can purchase locally made dark chocolate and natural soaps, before hopping on a huge swing suspended between two tall coconut palms.
Like Pasir Putih, ﬁnding your way to the beach here is all part of the fun – roads aren’t well signposted and often there are no directions at all, so it’s a good idea to organise a driver to make sure you ﬁnd the way, or, alternatively, rent some wheels and enjoy getting happily lost, perhaps stumbling upon your own deserted stretch of beach along the way.
The black-sand volcanic beach running along from Taman Ujung Water Palace through to Seraya is dotted with traditional wooden jukung ﬁshing boats and is wonderfully empty for a serene stroll. Alternatively, the stunning Water Palace set just back oﬀ the beach provides a great place to poke around on its ﬂoating bales and ornate bridges. Built by the royal family of Karangasem in 1909, it’s a popular attraction yet still feels well oﬀ the beaten track.
From here, the coastline meanders dramatically around to Bali’s northern shores to the long strip of ﬁshing villages known as Amed. As with the rest of East Bali, there is a glorious sense of peacefulness, accentuated by the charming atmosphere, pretty ﬁshing ﬂeet and sensational sunrises. The colourful sails of the outrigger boats, lit up by the afternoon light as they sail past the headlands, are a stunningly beautiful sight – as are the sprawling coral gardens below the surface, which are a big drawcard for divers.
Dominating the horizon to the north of Amed, Mt Agung rises up. For adventurous types, a climb to the summit of Bali’s highest volcano should deﬁnitely be on your bucket list. There are a few diﬀerent routes to the top starting from either Besakih Temple or Pasar Agung, but be prepared for a steep, challenging climb from wherever you begin. A high level of ﬁtness is essential, as is an experienced guide who knows the route. The climb is only worth tackling if you have plenty of time, some decent shoes and a few days to rest up achy limbs afterwards.
Most treks leave around midnight and take about ﬁve hours to reach the top for one of the most incredible sunrises (and well-earned rests) imaginable. To be above the clouds looking down at the Island of the Gods on one side and the distant peak of Mt Rinjani in neighbouring Lombok on the other is truly one of the most mind-blowing experiences in the world. Don’t get too comfy, though: it’s another gruelling ﬁve to six hours back down.
Skirting the foothills of the volcano and heading away from the coast again, you’ll eventually hit the busy provincial town of Amlapura – home to one of East Bali’s best local markets. Piles of fresh produce are stacked up before dawn ready for the morning rush, so it’s a good idea to visit early in the day to experience it at its most bustling. Haggle over fruit, vegetables, ﬁsh and spices before taking home some local treats like natural sea salt, wild honey and all manner of other souvenirs.
With so much to oﬀer, East Bali is simply a delight to explore. There are of course countless other highlights to discover, so make sure to put it on your next itinerary – you won’t be disappointed.