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.

From Travel Colours October 2018