Returning to Bali felt strangely like coming home, there was an almost instant feeling of comfort when we stepped off the speed boat onto the coarse black sand of Amed beach. This little town on the north-east coast turned out to be the perfect fit for us. With tarmac roads only arriving in 2007, this previously difficult to access region has maintained a slow, harmonious spirit that is hard to find in over-saturated South Bali. Amed strikes the right balance with plenty of cultural sites nearby, ample opportunities to explore the ocean and plenty of places to lounge about.
Lempuyang Madya Temple
On our first day we waited out the worst of a biblical deluge before grabbing rain jackets, renting a scooter and heading inland towards the famous Lempuyang Temple. It’s no surprise that an island that is often referred to as the Island of Gods or the Island of a Thousand Temples is ram packed with places of worship. Every nook and cranny seems to be filled with the ornately carved stone structures and shrines. What sets Lempuyang apart is its cool highland setting, the triple dragon staircase and, of course, the magnificent Heaven’s Gate overlooking Mount Agung. On this wet, overcast day, Agung was obscured by a veil of dewy mist. We were however lucky enough to witness the locals genially enjoying a meal after a session of praying.
One of the most interesting things we learned from conversations with the Balinese related to their burial and cremation practises. It is believed that the spirits of the deceased can only make their journey to the spirit world after cremation of their earthly body. However, the majority of people, who can’t afford such ceremonies, opt instead to temporarily bury their loved ones. Once the family has saved enough or enough members of the village have passed away for a joint service, the bodies are exhumed and a grand ritual is performed. Such funeral services differ greatly from the black, sombre wakes observed in western cultures. Instead, entire villages partake in loud, colourful, celebratory processions. To help carry the spirits of the deceased to the next realm the bodies are held in chests that resemble various mythical animals such as winged lions.
On a side note: although Hinduism is their dominant religion, the Balinese practise a unique form that combines influences from Buddhism and Animism which predate its arrival in the region. The Animism roots are prevalent all over the Indonesian archipelago and make fascinating reading. For anyone interested in how these beliefs are weaved into rural Indonesian cultures, I highly recommend reading Man Tiger by Javanese Pulitzer nominee Eka Kurniawan.
Tirta Gangga Water Palace
Just down the road from Lempuyang is the famed Tirta Gangga Water Palace. The garden complex was originally built in the mid forties by the King of Karangasem but had to be later restored following a 1963 eruption of Mount Agung. The landscaped garden hearkens back to the opulence of a bygone era when various Raj ruled Bali. It takes you through carp filled ponds, a series of water features, and even offers a bathing pool (shame we forgot our swimwear). The grounds are decorated with a phantasmagoria of statues and ornamental features derived from Hindu mythology including a tiered fountain representing Mount Meru. It is no surprise that it is a place of reverence for the local population. We enjoyed our visit but we wouldn’t describe it as an essential stop, especially if you’ve been to other water palaces in Bali already.
The Best Snorkelling
Snorkelling in Amed is amazing. Even more amazing is how accessible it is. All we had to do was walk out a couple of metres into the bay. Once in knee-deep water it was time to start floating or risk standing on coral. We spent hours observing the flourishing marine life in the calm waters. Closer to shore, the reef lies just inches away giving the chance to observe these complex ecosystems up close. In the slightly colder, deeper waters, an array of bright coloured tropical fish surround you. The really curious ones like to take little (painless) nips! Our highlights were a moray eel curving through the coral and, in a scene straight out of Finding Nemo, a pair of clown fish parents protecting their babies.
With half of Amed’s accommodation situated on the high ground of a small coastal cliff, there’s no shortage of excellent views available. We were lucky enough to have a private sun terrace attached to our room at Titi Sedana Homestay. Needless to say that a lot of our time was spent shade bathing whilst watching the horizon. We had it on good authority that Blue Diamond was the best spot in town to catch the sunset. After Tirta Gangga we weren’t too sure what to do, so headed there a few hours earlier than sunset (if five counts as a few). This turned out to be a great choice because the upper floor was completely deserted and strewn with inviting yoga cushions. We spent the afternoon reading and playing games with the staff, until other customers finally showed up to admire the sun sinking past the horizon, flanked by the grey shadow of Mount Agung.
Blue Diamond also had delicious westernised takes on Asian meals, including nasi campur. As you’d expect from a tourist oriented place like this, the food doesn’t come cheap by local standards but the quality was impeccable. We always like to balance out visits to western owned places with frequent trips to much cheaper and more authentic street merchants. It was tough to find one in Amed, but right near the western tip of the town, on the ocean side of the road, you’ll find a lovely lady selling nasi campur for just 10,000 IDR (55p). They were more simple but every bit as delicious as the Blue Diamond take and far easier on the wallet.
Epic Scooter Trip to Gunung Batur
On our last full day in Bali we decided to head out on a scooter trip to check out more of the island. We got a little carried away and ended up taking an epic route up to Mount Batur and back around along the coast. It took about 5 hours and definitely wasn’t comfortable after the first – scooters are not designed for long trips. Thankfully, the scenery provided ample compensation taking us through bustling cities, past lush rice terraces, through flower plantations and up into surprisingly chilly highland forests. This is where we stopped to check out Lake Batur and the surrounding valley before deciding to continue through the town and up the side of Batur. It probably would have been smarter to turn back and return the way we came. Our old haggard scooter could barely make it up the mountain and the breaks were no match for the descent on the other side. We had to walk the scooter down for several stretches or risk skidding on the sandy surface. In the end it was worth it because we found puppies, friendly villagers and incredible ocean vistas.
The following day we bid farewell to Bali. We’d love to come back to Amed one day to try our hand at free-diving and visit the old Japanese shipwreck nearby. We highly recommend adding this location to your itinerary, especially if you love marine life and want a change of pace from the frenetic atmosphere of South Bali.