The following article is a guest post from Sarah from Damai Lovina Villas.
If someone were to put a pin in a map of Bali for each noteworthy attraction, you would quickly see a pattern very different from the spread of tourism on the island: most pins would be in North Bali, and it is indeed here, not in the south, that the traditional heart and mind of Bali lies. Just a few hours from the airport you feel light years away from the crowds and ready to experience the true Bali.
The main Northern city of Singaraja is a busy provincial town with 400.000 people going about their everyday life with hardly a thought to discoteques, hair beads, watersports or any tourist activities. It is a charming city, cleaner than most in Indonesia, and the wide, shady avenues lined with pretty white houses betray its colonial past. The city we see today was built by the Dutch as their government city, but already before their arrival, this was the island’s capital. The city’s name means ’The Lion King’ and once all of Bali’s kings paid tribute to the king in Singaraja. Today the powers of the kings are mostly ceremonial, but it is possible to get a glimpse into the world of the past. By special arrangement with the royal family in Singaraja, the small boutique hotel Damai Lovina Villas nestled in the jungle clad hills, can arrange special tours in the former royal palace, where members of the royal family will tell the stories of when the last kings ruled here.
Most people arrive to Singaraja by the winding road leading through Bedugul, Bali’s cool and fertile mountain highland. Vegetable, spice and flower farms line the road and in the busy market you can sample the produce and also get a taste of Balinese country living.
Temples and monasteries
The North is also where you find most of Bali’s most important temples. The most photographed of them all is probably Ulun Danu, the heartbreakingly beautiful water temple lying in serene splendor on Lake Bratan, one of the holy lakes of the Northern highlands. A visit here is surprisingly peaceful and uncrowded, despite the temple’s importance. The North is also the homeplace of Besakih, the Balinese Mother Temple on the slopes of Mount Agung, the largest of all Balinese temples. But most telling of the richness of history and culture in the northern region is perhaps an unassuming little clay monastery on the road leading up to hotel Damai in Lovina. No mention is made of it in any guidebook, most tourist pass it by, totally unaware of its existence, and even the immediate neighbours might have difficulty in explaining what the little temple with pretty clay domes actually is. In reality the building is a carefully made reconstruction of a small buddhist monastery built
by chinese traders in the exact same spot in the 7th century, perhaps as a small sister temple to the famous nearby temple in Banjar.
Villages and culture
Most hotels in the North are found in the area of Lovina, a stretch of small fishing villages and beaches along the North coast, mostly famous for their laid-back tropical charm and the dolphins that gather in the bay at sunrise. But just a few kilometers away the small village of Tigawasa harbours another cultural secret. The village is a ’Bali Aga’ village, the Aga people being ’Bali’s Aboriginals’, the people that was already inhabiting Bali when the hindu Majapahit culture, the present day Balinese culture, migrated here in the 15th century. The religion here is a mix of Balinese hinduism and animist beliefs which shows in the distinctly different carvings and offerings found here. The most prized secret here is the 1000-year-old stone sarcophagus from an ancient king, tiny because the king was tiny, hidden somewhere in the village’s hinterland.
A short drive from Tigawasa you experience the Balinese culture at its most charming. The small mountain village of Munduk grows some of the islands best coffee and only few tourists have discovered the joys of having a quiet cup while you enjoy views of amazingly beautiful rice terraces, perhaps with a traditional dance class for the village children just nearby.
Much more dramatic is the mountain village of Kintamani, balancing on the edge of a vast volcanic crater overlooking the stark beauty of Lake Batur. Her Bali’s volcaninc past and present is very obvious. Inside the volcanic crater a new volcano is slowly rising, literally a volcano within a volcano. And experiencing the mist-shrouded temple here will enrich any Balinese holiday.
Nature and landscape
North Bali is rightly famous for its natural beauty and varied landscapes. The region is home to the National Park, that sprawls over almost the entire north-western tip of the island. The park also extends beyond the island itself an includes the island of Menjangan which calm and crystal clear waters are recognized as the islands best dive and snorkeling site. The Botanical Gardens in Bedugul is a stunningly beautiful park, but in many ways the nature outside the park is just as beautiful. But like with the cultural attractions, many of North Bali’s finest natural sights are hidden gems, that still waits to be discovered. One example is the waterfall of Ambengan. It is just as tall, and perhaps even more beautiful, than its more famous cousin, the waterfall at Git-git. Hidden at the end of a winding jungle path, a 30-meter waterfall cascades into a cool mountain lake. On some mornings, monkeys come to play in vines around he lake. And unlike Git-git there will be no tour buses filling the parking lot in front. In fact there is no parking lot, only a local farmer, who is delighted to talk to people coming to visit him from far away and welcome them to the true heart of Bali.