BALI & NEIGBORING ISLANDS
Unlocking the true beauty of Bali, Nusa Penida, Lembongang, Lombok and the Gili's
> More than 2 months across these islands to the West of Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara archipelago <
Indonesia, this world’s largest archipelago, is such a vast, varied and distinctive country, and yet, inside the Indonesia archipelago, one island stand out and differ from the rest: Bali! Almost everything differ: religion, language, dress, songs, stories, food, and the calendar are all uniquely Balinese. Out of all the Indonesian islands, Bali has become the most popular destination. Also for this reason, perhaps, a few people seem to think that Bali is an overrun fun-in-the-sun retreat, a cliché of a tropical island capitalizing on the tourist industry. This might be true for the travelers that only spend a few weeks here and don’t venture beyond the standard spots and hotels.
Obviously, Bali has wild volcanic beaches, many ancient monuments and hillside temples, beautiful rice fields and steep paddies, powerful volcanoes, and adjacent islands – of which many are remarkably secluded and off the beaten track. Also, Bali has some really good neighbors: Nusa Penida and Lembongang islands, Lombok and the three Gili Islands, which we - as keen divers and trekkers - found to be excellent playgrounds.
However, the true essence of Bali is its people and culture. We think that the real draw is its rich culture, which plays out at all levels of life, from the otherworldly music and dances to the dramatic funeral processions. Balinese are obsessed about their rich cultural ceremonies, and their spirits, sacred places, ghosts, demons and magic. The culture and spirit of people around the world is not always easily accessible. We have joined Muslim Sufi-ceremonies in Pakistan, Afar rituals in Djibouti, rites in the mountains of Guatemala, weddings in Jordan, celebrations in Kurdistan, and parties in South Africa’s Transkei, yet Bali’s spirit and culture remains one of the most accessible (and enjoyable) on this planet, perhaps only surpassed by India.
Inside the vast and unsurpassed Indonesian archipelago one island stands out and differs from the rest: Bali!
First impression of Bali: the three lakes in the central part, Danau Bratan, Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan. We immidiately fell in love with the cool, damp mountain country around these lakes. We did hikes to many interesting villages and highland areas, and saw several pilgrimages and cermonies on the lake shores, which are held to ensure that there is a supply of water for farmers all over Bali.
The central mountains in Bali
We spent one week in Ubud to explore the village and its sourroundings. Ubud is an extraordinary culinary place for those interested in Balinese art, craft, music and dance. We stayed in a garden bungalow at a family compound.
Around Ubud in central Bali are many smaller villages sourrounded by rice paddies. Many of these have managed to retain distinct identities. We did several walks through the paddy fields, and requently saw artists at work. This farmer had an open room and veranda where he was painting, and offered us a freshly picked coconut as we passed by.
In Northern Bali, during a jungle trek we visited this 40m waterfall and had a dip there. 2km further up the track after crossing a narrow bridge was several other waterfalls set in the verdant jungle. All of them was accessible for a dip.
We spent a few days in North Bali, which makes an interesting contrast with the south. The beaches around Lovina are washed-out grey and black volcanic sand, while the reefs offshore are excellent. We met many other backpackers in Lovina coming from a journey across Java, and they seemed to steer directly for the Lovina and Singaraja beaches on the north coast.
Most of southern Bali, especially around Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, and Sanur is stuffed with backpackers and tourits, so we did not spend too much time here. However, it was a good place to learn to surf, and hence we joined a surfing school for a few days in Legian. Kuta and Legian is THE surfers' hanout with access to several schools and bars showing surfing videos and tide charts.
We spent a full week on the northern shores of Nusa Lembongang, a small island in the Badung Strait between Bali and Nusa Penida. Off the northern coast of this island is a view towards the Shipwreck Surf Break with 3.142m Gunung Agung in the backdrop. It was great to relax and surf here, and prepare for the climb up Gunung Agung the following week.
The climb up mighty Gunung Agung is actually a quite tough one. You start quite low and most of the hike is through dense jungle and on quite steep rock faces. We started at 2 AM and summited around 10 AM. The smaller mountains in the backdrop are in the Taman Barat NP in Western Bali near Java. View more at our trekking page!
From the summit of Gunung Agung we had a splendid view towards Gunung Rinjani on Lombok - the island next to Bali on the string of islands in the Nusa Tenggara archipelago. We climbed Rinjani on a 4-day expedition a few weeks later.
There are ceremonies for every stage of Balinese life, but often the last ceremony - the cremation - is the biggest. The one we joined this time in Ubud was a royal one and thus extra colourful, noisy and exciting.
The body of the deceased is carried from home to the cremation ground in a high, multitiered tower made of bamboo, paper, string, tinsel, silk, cloth, mirrors, flowers and anything else bright and colourful. Ubud, Bali.
There were several priests halfway up the tower, hanging on grimly as it swung back and forth, and doing their best to soak bystanders with holy water.
Along the way to the cremation ground certain precautions must be taken to ensure that the deceased's spirit does not find its way back home, by shaking the tower, running around it in circles, spinning it around and throwing water at it. Ubud, Bali.
The body of the deseased was carried in a funeral sarcophagus, in this case in the shap of a bull for a Brahmana. Almost anybody from the higher castes will use a bull. A black bull for royals or a white bull for priests. Other sarcophaguses could be a winged lion for a Ksatriyasa or an elephant-fish for a Sudra. Ubud, Bali.
Finally, it all goes up in flames. Funeral tower, sarcophagus, and body.
From Padangbai we could sail to both Lombok and Sampalan on Nusa Penida. It has a relaxed ambience, added to by the main street's unpaved road and local children swimming at the end of the beach. Diving off-shore was pretty good especially around Blue Lagoon.
Tiny Lembongang island is totally free of cars, motorcycle noise and hassels of any form. The local population of about 7000 people live in two small villages, Jungutbatu and Lombongan. Most of them are involved in the seaweed industry. All over Lombongang island are spectacular views towards the towering Agung volcano on Bali.
The cultivation of seaweed is the primary source of income on Nusa Lembongang which has shallow waters that are particular suitable. Because rainfall is low, the seawater maintains a higher level of salinity, which is ideal for seaweed growth.
Small pieces of marine algae are attathed to strings that are stretched between bamboo poles. They look like underwater fences. Growth is so fast that new shoots are harvested every 45 days.
Afterwards, the seaweed has to dry in the sun. A sight and smell which we noticed everywhere as we strolled around the seashore at Lembongang.
This gorgeous little bay, named for the mushroom corals offshore, has the best beach on Nusa Lembongang. Snorkeling offshore was good, and Playground Surfbreak was also close.
From Jungutbatu on Nusa Lembogang a small boat continues to Toyapakeh on Nusa Penida. This island has several villages, but is right off the tourist track. Most come here to dive as we did, too.
The whole island of Nusa Penida is a limestone plateau with the best white-sand beaches on its north coast around Jungutbatu. Nusa Pendia has been a poor region for many years which can still be seen.
The south coast had limstone cliffs dropping staight down to the sea and a row of offshore islets, and seen in the picture. The whole scenery is rugged and specatular. On this dive we jumped right into three 2m manta rays, and later on we enjountered the fabled mola mola (sun fish) which lives in the narrow channel between Nusa Lemongang and Nusa. Pendia. In general, we saw several large marine animals, including turtles and sharks.
A trip around Nusa Penida can be completed in a few hours by motercycle. The road curves past several bays with rows of fishing boats and offshore seaweed gardens, small traditional villages, limestone caves and several charming temples. The culture is distinct from that of Bali, and the language is an old form of Balinese no longer heard on the mainland.
We were lucky to encounter another funeral ceremony in Lembongang island. Since a big cremation can be very expensive business, many locals take the opportunity of joining in and sending their dead on their way at the same time.