Our World Beyond Ubud: Getting back to the Bali of old

Bali isn't all celeb-chef restaurants and day spas: looking beyond the tourist hubs brings the rewards of subtler pleasures. 

Tegallalang. The name rings like a gamelan gong. In fact, travel around this region of inland Bali and inevitably you will hear a village gamelan orchestra, not to mention geckos, frogs and crickets.

With almost five million foreign tourists a year, plus millions of domestic visitors, it’s hardly surprising that Bali has seen massive changes. Beachside Seminyak is now flush with hipsters and celeb-chef restaurants, while Ubud is abuzz with eat-pray-love seekers instead discovering artisan cafes and day spas. Not that we Australians can object, with 1.1 million of us arriving last year to hasten Bali’s extreme makeover.

Amid all this cool but frantic upgrading, where did good old Bali go? For a glimpse, take a look in rural Tegallalang, 15 minutes and a thousand miles, so to speak, north of boutique Ubud.

“Rainforest is the true art of Bali,” reckons hotelier Subba Vaidyanathan, whose BeingSattvaa Retreat right beside a Tegallalang jungle gorge is surrounded by rainforest “art”.

The 10-villa resort specialises in vegetarian cuisine that’s at the non-ascetic end of the vego spectrum, plus yoga and meditation for guests so inclined. But this is no post-Gandhi ashram. With a fine pool and lush gardens, and even wine on the menu, Gandhi himself might have felt at home here if he’d renounced renouncing pleasure for a few days. There are butterflies, dragonflies and wi-fi in the air and, of course, a wickedly good spa.

Kadek, from the hotel front desk, leads me on a walk through the rice fields to find the unsung Telaga Waja water temple. So old (at least a thousand years) that it probably predates Hinduism on the island, the open-air temple sits deep in a forest gorge. Water cascades into its purification pools while moss and ferns cover the rock walls. The rest is silence.

Tegallalang is a realm of rice fields, villas, temples, ravines and villages. It helps to have transport but a great walk along its scenic Bukit Cinta (Lovers Hill) ridge takes you from Keliki village into central Ubud. My guide advises “The walk takes one hour for locals and 40 minutes for bule (foreigners)”. Why so? “Because you walk too fast.”

The manicured rice terraces at Tegallalang’s Ceking valley are inland Bali’s most-photographed panorama. I splurge a few million pixels on them before continuing to Warung Teges, a lunch spot my friend Bill, an old Bali hand, highly recommends. The menu is mostly pork except I can see no actual menu. Bill explains this is “a touch-screen restaurant” — you touch the display cabinet, pointing to your desired dish.

We drive to another unsung wonder, the huge Tegenungan waterfall that erupts down a cliff face like a breaking tsunami. The cataract lands in a pool where backpackers take its pummelling as a free shoulder massage.

Water is an inescapable force in Bali, a constant image in its art and a pulse that connects much of the island. Its ancient subak system of co-operative irrigation canals still functions, channelling water to villages and fields across Tegallalang.

It is fitting that my next stop overlooks a famous water temple, Sebatu’s Pura Gunung Kawi. 

The temple is in a valley well below the resort and I can look down into it while breakfasting on delicious black rice and Bali coffee so rich and thick I can almost chew it.

Puri Gangga resort is almost a throwback, with classic Balinese features from the time when carved stone and wood, alang-alang thatch, bamboo and a generous porch with a view were the style in resort design.

I sit on my balcony tuned to a soundtrack of temple gamelan, flutes and roosters and I can’t disagree with the resort’s self-description of “a home of living cultures.” 

Charlie Chaplin visited Sebatu village in the 1930s and loved it, noting among other things the beauty of the women. Two of the resort staff take me for a long walk through the kampung and fields, eventually reaching an ancient temple in another river gorge. Here, along with scores of Balinese, I get fully immersed beneath the waterfall during a purification ceremony. 

Lunch is a chef-prepared picnic of Balinese delicacies served in the middle of the rice fields. Beat that, Seminyak.

“The real Bali”, so they say, is just one beach away, one temple away — always just one chimera distant. Real Bali of course is always right at hand — a waiter joking with you, those endless Legian traffic jams, losing your sunglasses to larcenous monkeys at Uluwatu, challenging the padded bill at Echo Beach or catching a glorious Kuta sunset — and everything in between. 

All real, all Bali.

“So many Australians think of Bali only in terms of beach, shopping and package tours and don’t understand the wonders of its interior,” expat Samantha Cox says. My last stop in Tegallalang is a reminder of those wonders. A green-gold hillside of rice terraces faces Puri Sebali resort like a standing wave. Never breaking, it is there each time I turn around but ever changing with the day’s shadows.

Glimpses like these are perhaps what we still come to Bali for, not the hip eateries (kale and quinoa, Australian prices, Bali wages), future- regret tattoos or name-drop bars. My resort is a discreet bolthole of 18 pool villas and a good restaurant down a lane.

 One morning I walk its nearby paddy fields, with blue volcanic hills defining the distance and ducks all around, grateful there are places where one can still touch the fleeting hem of an earlier Bali.

Later I sit with the resort’s in-house painter and try my hand, ineptly, at Balinese art. Moving on, I surrender to a massage of such finesse I wish I could magically conjure the whole show — terraces, geckos, frog song and massage — at will, back home Even so, it would never be Tegallalang.

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