The real Bali still exists but you need to travel beyond the main roads and tourist hubs to find it.
Jalan Raya Campuan, the main street that threads through Ubud, is jammed with a heaving bustle of vehicles. It’s hardly recognisable to people who remember Bali’s peaceful mountain paradise from a decade before, let alone the dozy artist colony that it was in the 1990s. Ubud now echoes busy Kuta and Legian, with its crush of boutiques and bistros, souvenir stands and bars, but if you take a few steps away from the main thoroughfare, it’s still possible to find the calm that is old Bali’s most seductive trait.
Leave the traffic behind and weave down a narrow concrete path to reach The Suris at Ubud. Keep walking a few hundred yards, past small rice paddies, dense stands of coconut palms and shaky huts ringed by sad mongrel dogs, to reach an idyllic two-level villa that sits calmly in the rural landscape. It’s elegant without being ostentatious, built and owned by Udi, who left Bali for several years to work the cane fields of north Queensland. He saved money that has transformed part of his family’s rice paddy into a mini-resort that now includes three modern suites and a plunge pool overlooking the surrounding farms and jungle.
“I like our guests to see how farmers still work the land,” Udi says. “This is our Bali life. Yes, there are big resorts, but there is also what we have here.”
The further you drift from traffic choking the main roads, the closer you get to Bali’s gentle heartbeat. Drive 50km east of Kuta and you’ll find peace in the small fishing village and diving centre of Pedangbai, nuzzled beneath the hulking grey basalt monster that is Mount Agung, an active volcano that has belched angry smoke plumes in recent years.
To stroll the palm-fringed, white coral beach of Pedangbai, you’d hardly know the mountain has caused such commotion. Life in the town slides along at a languid tempo, with most local work attached to a busy harbour ringed by pristine coral reefs, and tourism operations being careful not to upset the uncrowded landscape.
This includes Bloo Lagoon Eco Village, a nest of a dozen villas fashioned into a forestry conservation zone high on a craggy clifftop that provides a deliberate alternative to mainstream hotels. Created by British architect Tony Gwilliam and his wife Marita, Bloo Lagoon has a small environmental footprint and embraces sustainability principles that include water catchment reservoirs, recycling grey water through artificial ponds to irrigate fruit trees and vegetables (used in the resort café menus), and bountiful gardens that are shared by a mix of vacationers and permanent residents.
“We don’t want this place to ever become degraded or overrun,” says Eric Henry, one of the resort’s private villa owners. “There are abundant birds, monkeys, butterflies. They are the living signs that we can share this space with the animal life that belongs here.”
Bloo Lagoon’s recreational activities reinforces this, preaching strong environmental care and sustainability messages during snorkelling tours in the crystalline waters surrounding the Pedangbai headland.
The intoxicating music of the ocean is even more pronounced at Sunset Bay on the small island of Nusa Lembongan, an idyllic haven located 12km east of Sanur. Rolling surf crashing onto the rocks is within earshot from your daybed in the compound of Villa Kori Private. It’s one of more than a dozen modern villas available for rent in this secluded hideaway (each with a private pool, airy entertaining area and sleeping pavilions). Locally caught reef fish is the daily special, best enjoyed with a frozen coconut daiquiri.
But this small piece of paradise is also changing, swiftly. In the wake of the neighbouring region’s devastating August 2018 earthquake, a young generation of determined party people who would have headed to Gili Air island are now coming to Lembongan. These hard-drinking revellers populate a thumping techno bar that was a sleepy warung only two years ago.
Additionally, a growing fleet of fast ferries is depositing swelling processions of mostly Chinese daytrippers, herded around the island for brief photo opportunities at a series of vantage points before being whisked back to Sanur in the late afternoon. More get dislodged onto an expanding flotilla of party pontoons, moored just beyond the coral reef that surrounds the island. An impatient scrum of motorised craft that now swarm to the best snorkeling vantage points suggests that an ugly aquatic accident is just waiting to occur.
When all these boats retreat to the mainland, Lembongan seems to exhale and resume its more restive tempo – but you get the sense that it will become increasingly necessary to head further along Bali’s backroads if you want to find the peace and stillness that was once this travel destination’s natural state.