Riding into the sunset in undiscovered western Bali
By Pasty Yang
Southeast Asia is peppered with beautiful islands and there’s an large number of tropical hideaways for city-weary travelers.
Bali, though, remains one of the most enchanting. The Indonesian island has been a hot destination for decades because, although it is always in flux, it never seizes to amaze with its natural beauty and landscape.
Bali is memorable not only for its stylish beach resorts, but also for its signature paddy fields, the holy temples that dot the island and its welcoming, smiling locals.
In the world’s largest Muslim country, Bali is the only island that has retained Hinduism.
My first trip to the place commonly dubbed the “island of the gods” was in 2011. I was enormously curious to discover Bali’s rich heritage, but found many parts of the island rather chaotic and too touristy, leaving little sense of uniqueness.
What drove me on my most recent trip was the hope for an original experiences and the aim to reconnect with the simplicity of life, and so I tried to venture away from the hotel and the common tourist trails to delve into the surrounding community and landscape.
This time, I started my vacation in the quiet Kerambitan, Tabanan regency on Bali’s south-west coast, in the first luxury resort for miles on the undiscovered coast. Alila Villas Soori is not easily accessible to the main attractions yet has seduced many discerning city dwellers to stay in this worry-free environment. Sandwiched between the sparkling volcanic sand beach and the UNESCO’s World Heritage protected lush rice fields, each pool villa is a retreat beyond comparison.
Two types of travelers are attracted to this type of world-class retreat: For those seeking a holiday with nothing more than relaxation, wellness and good food, a three-day stay here would be an excellent choice.
However, I belong to the second type of traveler, the one who is looking for a combination of the very comfort and luxuries the resort offers and a genuine cultural experience.
Tabanan is considered the “rice-bowl” of Bali for it is blessed with such fertile volcanic land that it produces most of the rice in the island.
The beauty of the western region of Bali has been well-kept from the crowds, far away from the hustle and bustle of the island’s more common and developed areas south, like Kuta and Denpasar.
One of the many remarkable things about this area is the locals’ passion for preserving its natural assets and cultural heritage. Most people in this region work in agriculture or in traditional craft workshops as tourism hasn’t really reached this part of the island yet.
I signed up for the cultural “Journeys by Alila” excursion to gain a deeper understanding of what defines this destination. Intent on fully enjoying the nature, a Segway ride journey was an exciting experience that required certain skills and courage.
The route was breathtaking and picture perfect: I drove through the paddy fields, passing farmers at work, until I reached the deeply spiritual village. Here, every home has a family altar and some of them share a small temple.
The prominent features are old architectural styles dating from the 17th century, evident through palatial buildings forming the complex of the Puri Gede and Puri Anyar royal palaces in the center of the village.
The condition of the royal palace of Kerambitan, built in 1650, is well preserved. I wandered inside the complex, which is divided into several sections. Each of the sections has its own function and purpose. The first six sections were used to host various religious and traditional ceremonies, while the seventh section was used solely as a residential area for the entire Puri family.
Visitors flock here to see the traditional Balinese style architecture as well as the old and intricate pottery in the buildings. I was especially lucky, as the village priest was holding a special ceremony for the ascendants of the royal family the day of my visit. Intrigued by the real-life ceremony, I watched as colorful offerings were placed in the pavilion while the priest chanted mantras. Villagers then told me that the descendants of the noble family are still living in the area and are operating a stable that’s home to well-trained domestic and Australian horses.
Not far from the former royal palace, the traditional market is where you will get a chance to witness the tricks of the trade. It’s not a tourist market filled with unnecessary trinkets, but a real market where locals shop for their everyday necessities, from food specialties to colorful tropical fruits and vegetables and, of course, plenty of rice.
The Tabanan regency is also home to some of the island’s finest royal blacksmiths and terra-cotta workmanship. In Pejaten village the best terra-cotta tiles featuring abstract Balinese motifs can be found.
For those interested in the local rice culture, a full-day journey takes you on a learning expedition on how rice is cultivated, its religious significance and how rice culture is related to temple ceremonies. To the Balinese, rice is a direct gift from God, and consequently, it is treated with the utmost respect.
Over the next two days, I fell into a blissful retreat routine: a morning yoga class, a nearby relaxing stroll, a morning horseback ride on the beach, a sunset cocktail at the pool lounge, and a pre-dinner spa treatment.
I left Alila Villas Soori rejuvenated, full of bliss and impressed with all it had to offer. Building an economy while keeping the tourism experience authentic is a difficult balance to strike but it works here in Kerambitan. Locals here understand that the lack of commercial hotel chains isn’t a burden, but something they can rightfully be proud of.
After three blissful nights at the secluded resort, I head out into the cool and trendy town of Seminyak of the south of Bali. It may not be Bali’s most visited area but it is the uncontested leader when it comes to upscale accommodations, fine dining establishments, chic beach clubs and cool designer boutiques.
The social side of Seminyak can be a bit hectic, like Ibiza or St Tropez. Yet the truth is there’s a lot going on, and it’s all very chilled and without pretense. Despite its popular clubs like the Potato Head Beach Club, known for its hard and long parties, Seminyak has a small-town feel to it.
The latest addition to its pristine, 8-kilometer beach is the new Alila property.
Unlike the Alila Villas Soori, the Seminyak resort ensures that the accommodation dons an air of simple luxury. With a beautiful view of the sea, it is an ideal hub for those who want to dive into the lively part of Bali and the island’s legendary nightlife.
Guests will be tempted to spend their days lazily chilling at the resort’s pool side and getting pampered at the spa with Balinese healing arts, but exploring the area will definitely be worth it.
On my second day at Alila Seminyak, I was sitting in the back of a fully restored vintage 1980 Volkswagen Kombi Limousine arranged by the concierge. The limo is an attraction itself, fully equipped with WiFi, remote minibar, and a wide choice of music albums. It gives a retro glam to the half-day safari that will see you wending your way to some of the best-kept secrets in Seminyak and beyond. Cruising away from the main roads, the surroundings quickly became bucolic, with farms, small villages and vast paddy fields.
The limo arrived at the first stop, Mozaic Beach Club, located on the secluded shoreline of Batu Belig Beach in Kerobokan in the north of Seminyak. Kerobokan is gradually changing from a farming area surrounded by rice terraces into a real estate hub with large holiday villas. Mozaic, established in 2010 by chef James Ephraim is a popular hangout beach lounge for expat travelers as it provides ultra-chic pool side gazebos and beachfront daybeds for sun bathing. A few hours can be easily whiled away here by sipping tropical cocktails and grazing on tapas.
After a power frozen Margarita, I continued the limo cruise en route to visit a 17th-century fertility temple built on a rock in the ocean. The sense of peace and spirituality is palpable as you step inside Batu Ngaus Temple. The temple is related to the birth of Cemagi village and has been appreciated as a temple of prosperity and fertility every since. Built on a rock, Batu Ngaus is surrounded by coral reefs and crashing waves, and is usually not visited by tourists.
A short drive to Hotel Tugu in Canggu was an unexpected surprise. The hotel owner, Anhar Setjadibrata, a former medical student-turned lawyer, is the country’s biggest antique collector. Each of his hotels is also home to some of his beloved treasures. The highlight includes a private 1706 Kang Xi Chinese temple in Java that had been dismantled and reconstructed into a dramatic, deep-red dining room. Even if you’re not staying at Hotel Tugu, a visit and a traditional Indonesian lunch is an unforgettable experience.
The Canggu region, north and west from Seminyak and Kerobokan is the island’s fastest growing area. It is chilled, quiet and calm, with an undercurrent of cool. It is booming with new hipster hangouts, cool cafes and weekend markets ideal for the carefree crowd. Another hip spot to check out is La Laguna, a quirky venue complete with gypsy caravans located only a 15-minute ride from Seminyak Alila.
For the active adventurers, a cycling trip is recommended to explore the area of Pererenan on the western coast where you can observe farmers going about their daily routine.
One of Bali’s biggest draws is its cuisine and Seminyak is the center of the culinary discovery of bold flavors.
Balinese cuisine is considered special due to its intense flavors based on an aromatic array of fresh tropical island spices and ingredients. Lime leaves, lemongrass, turmeric, and wild ginger are commonly used as well as bird’s eye chili.
“Balinese cuisine is pungent and lively. So it’s different from the nearby Java, where sweetness dominates the palates,” Vivian Vitalis, chef de cuisine at Alila Seminyak, said.
Some of the most popular dishes here are Babi Guling (roast suckling pork), Ayam Betutu (Balinese roast chicken with spices inside), and Ikan Bakar Jimbaran (charcoal-grilled fish with red spicy paste).
“The authentic family recipes are carried on from generation to generation and you can still find these in the local warungs (cafes),” Vitalis said.
For authentic Balinese recipes, I recommend a trip to Warung Pak Malen on Jl Sunset Road in Seminyak, which is said to have the best suckling pig.
Most countries have a traditional liquor that is often homemade, especially in rural areas in Southeast Asia. Bali is no exception. Balinese arak is a sweet wine made from the coconut palm flower. Traditionally made in an outdoor kitchen, a licensed version can be bought in stores now, which also makes for a great souvenir.