Bali is an iconic destination. An island with spectacular natural beauty and a truly fascinating culture, that even in the most popular tourism areas is very much alive. Still, romantic visitors might dream of experiencing Bali as it was before the tourists arrived. Luckily all it takes is a few steps off the beaten path…
North Bali, or Buleleng, as the region is also known, is home to some of Bali’s most famous attractions, as well as many hidden gems that has yet to make it into the guide books. No Balinese vacation would be entirely complete without experiencing some of the unique cultural and natural attractions that this region is so generously blessed with. From the serene beauty of the world famous Ulun Danu temple to the unassuming joy of witnessing a traditional dance class for Balinese children, this is ‘Bali as it used to be’. The area called Bedugul, Bali’s central highlands, is a region of stunning beauty. Even if you are just passing through, it is a truly memorable experience. The winding road takes you through a verdant landscape of jungle-covered volcanoes and serene mountain lakes. One moment you are driving in glorious sunlight. As you turn the corner you are literally driving through clouds. This region is Bali’s orchard – a rural Shangri-La with spices, vegetables, fruits and flowers growing in abundance in the rich volcanic soil. The local markets are exotic explosions of color and fragrance. The climate is cool and breezy and the valleys are often cloaked in an otherworldly mist. Singaraja, Bali’s second largest city has a proud heritage. Meaning literally “The Lion King”, Singaraja was Bali’s capital from the first days of the Majapahit Empire up till Indonesia’s independence in 1949. The kings that ruled Singaraja where the foremost kings of Bali, and even during the Dutch rule, when most of today’s Singaraja was built, the city retained its position as Bali’s cultural and administrative centre. Today Singaraja is a charming tropical city of 400.000 people with wide tree-lined avenues bustling with trade and activity. It’s many shops and craftsmen serves mainly local customers with hardly a tourist in sight. Besides offering a unique opportunity to experience authentic Balinese city life, the main attraction for tourists is the unassuming old royal palace with its impressive library of lontar – palm leaf – manuscripts as well as the area around the old harbour with its many historic storehouses. Moving West from Singaraja you arrive at the stretch of fishing villages known collectively as Lovina, a name coined by the last king of Singaraja. The villages are popular for their pleasant black sand beaches, and features many small local restaurants and bars. A highlight in Lovina is watching the outrigger boats venture out at sunrise to follow the dolphins and to fish for tuna. Damai is located in the hills just behind Lovina, in the charming farming village of Kayuputih, 10 minutes drive from Lovina Centre. The hills and the coastline has dozens of pleasant villages, fascinating temples and beautiful natural features. You can dive in Menjangan and Tulamben, search for secret waterfalls, explore the Bali Aga-village of Tigawasa, see a mini-version of Borobudur in the working Buddhist monastery in Banjar or just enjoy the charm and beauty of the quit Munduk village.
One of the smaller towers in Ulun Danu temple
Slice of life in North Bali: A family on their way to a ceremony
Many of North Bali’s finest attractions has yet to find their way into the guide books. Git-Git near Singaraja is the most famous waterfall in Bali, a beautiful sight that draws dozens of visitors daily. It is a stunning sight, especially in the rainy season. But just nearby, in the village of Ambengan is a waterfall, which arguably is just as nice. It takes a short trek to get there, but the rewards make it more than worth it. The Ambengan waterfall is 100 meters tall and ends in two crystal clear mountain pools, that are great to swim in. Remember to bring a towel. In the many years we have been visting it with guests, we have never seen other tourists – but sometimes groups of monkeys come here to play in the vines above the pools. The Ambengan fall is just one of several ‘secret waterfalls’ you can visit in the landscape around Bali.
Sekumpul Waterfall, near Damai
One of Bali’s many nicknames is ‘The Island of The Thousand Temples’. The name is a colossal understatement: everywhere you look you find temples. The Department of Religion has catalogued at least eleven thousand temples – small and large, local and regional. This figure doesn’t include the thousands of shrines the farmers erect on their fields, nor the many domestic temples, that are kept in the house of every Balinese family. The Balinese call a shrine palinggih, which simply means “place” or “seat” and refers to any sort of temporary or permanent place toward which devotions and offerings are made. Balinese temples are not closed buildings, but rectangular courtyards open to the sky, with rows of shrines and altars dedicated to various gods and deities. Each temple occupies its own place in the intricate hierachy of Balinese temples, with the Mother Temple in Besakih on top. The temple itself is not considered sacred, but exists as a residence for holy spirits – either ancestors or Hindu deities. The gods are not thought to be present in the temples except on the dates of the temple’s festivals, when the Gods and ancestors visit their human worshippers or descendants. On these festival days the congregation of each temple assembles to pray to and entertain the visiting deities. During the length of their stay, the gods and their companions are symbolically bathed, put to bed and entertained with dances and other shows. Meanwhile members of the temple come and go over three or more days to get their share of holy water sprinkled over them and their offerings during the collective prayers. Most Balinese families belong to a half dozen or more temples and devote several weeks of labor each year to maintaining the temples and preparing them for numerous festivals. Damai has half a dozen temples. You are welcome to visit them on any time of the day, or you can accompany one of our staff when offerings are made in each one. You can also visit the village temple in our village of Kayuputih.
The Mehru, the characteristic Balinese temple tower
Besakih Temple, the Balinese Mother Temple on the slopes of Mount Agung
It started with the fishermen. Every morning at sunrise they would head out in their traditional outrigger boats into Lovina Bay in search of tuna. Because the dolphins hunt the tuna too, the fishermen would scout for dolphins, knowing that when they find them, a school of tuna will be just ahead. When the first tourist found out he could join the fishermen, Lovina’s biggest attraction was born. You head out just before dawn. In low season there might be only a handful of boats. In high season there might be dozens. As the sun rises over Bali the boat captains stand to scout the surface, looking for a breaking fin. The more boats on the water, the higher the chance of finding the dolphins. You almost always find them in the end, but the sooner they are spotted, the longer time you spend with them. There are three different species of dolphin in the bay, but one of them is becoming very rare. The fishermen say they swim in deeper water now, and surface only rarely. On your trip you might follow a small pod of only a dozen, but just as often you find yourself surrounded by hundreds of individuals, one after the other breaking the surface to perform somersaults and other impressive aerial stunts.
A dolphin, jumping the waves
The Bali Sea features some of the region’s premier dive- and snorkling sites, and most of the most spectacular of all are found in North Bali. Most famous are the protected marine park Menjangan Island, which offers a wide array of dive and snorkling sites with incredibly varied underwater life, 20+ meters visibility and a stunning wall, perfect for both diving and snorkling. A favorite dive spot is the Graden of Eels. Above the surface the uninhabited island features pleasant white sand beaches – as well as a freindly population of Kijang, Bali’s unique species of deer. Also nearby is Tulamben, home of the famed Liberty wreck, one of the world’s top 15 dive sites. The 120m long wreck used to be an American supply ship, was hit by a Japanese torpedo during World War II. Miraculously nobody got hurt, but the American Navy’s plan to tow the ship to Singaraja harbour failed as the harbour was completely occupied, so the ship was intentionally stranded on the rocky beach of Tulamben, where it was unloaded. In 1963 Mount Agung erupted and the magma flow pressed the ship back into the sea where it presently rests at a depth of 3 to 29 metres. Since then, coral has coated the wreckage turning it into a new home for an extraordinary number of fish, coral and invertebrates. bump-head parrotfish, napoleon wrasse and barracuda are regularly spotted around the wreck. The reef in Lovina – our ’house reef’ – offers rich marine life, pleasant and comfortable snorkling, as well as accessible night dives.
Menjangan Island is a protected marine park that offers spectacular diving and snorkling and outstanding visibility, year round
Even non-golfers will understand why GOLF magazine ranked The Bali Handara Golf Club among the top 50 golf courses in the world. The spectacular 18-hole championship course, designed by British Open champion Peter Thompson, is placed inside the crater of a dormant volcano, surrounded by green mountains, crater lakes and lush highland rain forests, and every time you walk around a bend in the course a new fantastic view is displayed, shrouded in the mountain mists. The elevation of 1200 meters ensures perfect playing temperatures year-round around 20 degrees celsius, so every game will be a comfortable, as well as a memorable one. The visitors often combine their round with a visit to nearby Lake Bratan or the Bali Botanical gardens.
The magnificent entrance is shaped like a gigantic temple gate
Bali has four sacred lakes, all located in the highlands. Two are volcanic crater lakes – Bratan, the lake mentioned above, and the majestic Lake Batur, which is located in the crater of the Batur volcano. Batur is the largest of the four. The sheer size of the crater conjures up images of the massive eruption of the original Mount Batur that occurred thousands of years ago. The volcano is still moderately active today, and the Balinese still remember the great eruption of 1917, which claimed thousands of lives and destroyed many temples. On the far side of the lake, only reachable by boat, is the village of Truyan, a Bali Aga village. The Bali Aga people, Bali’s aboriginals, consider Mount Batur, not Agung, to be the holiest site on the island. The two remaining lakes, Buyan and Tamblingan, used to be just one body of water, but a landslide at the turn of the 19th century divided it in two. The beautiful lakes rarely see any tourists. They are home to a small population of fishermen, and a popular spot for picnics for Damai guests.
Lake Tamblingan, near Damai
The Ulun Danu water temple on the shores of Lake Bratan is one of the most magnificent examples of Balinese temple architecture. Built in 1633, the temple is devoted to Dewi Danu, the Goddess of the Lake. As one of the most important temples in Bali, it is often used for ceremonies and rituals to ensure good water supply to Beduguls many fertile farms. The temple complex consists of four main areas and is surrounded by a pretty park that is a popular destination for local families. The elaborately decorated eleven tier main temple tower, the meru, seems to float on the waters of the lake and symbolizes the World Mountain, Gunung Maha Meru. It is one of the most photographed icons in Bali.
Ulun Danu Temple is perhaps the most iconic of the Balinese temples
There are few societies in the world where religion plays as important a role as in Bali. The unique Balinese version of Hinduism is a vibrant religion that expresses itself not only in the lavish temple festivals, but in the countless simple rituals performed by the dutiful Balinese throughout the day. No opportunity is lost to worship God in a series of ceremonies that streches from birth to death, often involving whole communities, if not the whole island, in beautiful and exotic celebrations of religous life. Balinese Hinduism incorporates elements from Buddhism, animist beliefs and ancestral worship, that were picked up during the religion’s long journey from the Indian motherland to the Indonesian Archipelago. In Hindu Dharma, the one supreme God, Ida Sanghyang Widhi Wasa, with His three manifestations Brahma the Creator, Wisnu the Preserver, and Siwa the Transformer, presides over a pantheon of countless local deities and spirits. In this environment the Balinese try to achieve Moksha, religious purity, by living in accordance with their religion’s three guiding principles: Tatwa, the philosophies of God and the universe – Susila, the karmic moral codes and objectives of a rightful life on earth – and Upacara, the ceremonies and rituals performed by the dutiful worshiper. There are rituals for everything imaginable, from knowledge, cleansing machines to marriage and birth ceremonies – all of different types and levels. Rituals consist of calling down the gods and the ancestors for visits from their heavenly abode above the mountain. They descend during temple festivals and are entertained with dances and feted with offerings. They can also be called down through the entreaties of a priest. It is impossible, even for short-time visitors to Bali, not to meet and be fascinated by this devotion. On auspicious days of the 210 day Balinese ceremonial year all travel by road is sure to be interrupted by smiling and laughing Balinese dressed in their temple finest, on their way to a village or family ceromony – and even the airport is sometimes affected. As the only airport in the world, the Balinese Ngurah Rai airport closes completely once every year in deference to Nyepi, the day of silence that inaugurates the Balinese New Year.
A Hindu priest making blessings
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