On the far western tip of Bali sits the last protected area of the island, still relatively unspoiled and serene. This is the home of West Bali National Park, an area that covers 158 square kilometers, or approximately 5% of Bali’s total land area. On its north side, the Park includes a 1,000-meter beach, a reef and Menjangan Island. This area is a popular dive destination and many say it offers the best scuba and snorkeling sites in Bali.
I had been wanting to visit the Park and my chance came with a visit from my dear friend, Annie Weiss. Annie flew over from Boston for a week in Bali, and we decided a trip to the island’s one and only national park was in order. After a day to acclimate, Annie and I left first thing for a 3-hour drive across Bali, arriving in Pemuteran in time for a late breakfast. Pemuteran is about a 15 minute drive from the Park and offers lodgings for Park visitors. Our hotel, we discovered, was a lovely seaside oasis; here are the pool and beach that welcomed us:
After breakfast, we grabbed a bemo, or public minibus, to the entrance of the Park. There we were greeted by Putu, an official guide who offered to take us into the Park on foot. We discussed different routes and decided on a hike that started on the beach and then turned inland along a stream, ending at a local temple.
As we started out from the beach and snaked our way along the edge of a mangrove forest, we were saddened to see piles of trash scattered along the shore and caught in the roots of the mangroves. We asked Putu how this could happen in a National Park. He explained that the rivers of Bali empty their waste into the sea, and that this is carried back to shore on the tide. He also pointed to Java, which we could see quite clearly to the west. The Balinese often blame their trash problems on the Javanese, but in this case, with Java so close, it did seem possible that some of the trash might have migrated across the narrow strait that separates it from Bali.
As we turned inland, the trash gradually disappeared and we found ourselves hiking through groves of sheltering trees and twisting vines:
Our trail took us back and forth across this shallow creek:
Along the banks wandered bands of long-tailed macaques, among them this mother and baby (the baby appears to be sporting a miniature mohawk):
While the Park is a haven for many forms of wildlife, including flying foxes, leopard cats and wild boar, the only other evidence of creatures we saw were deer footprints and this large, harmless millipede:
After a few hours of hiking up and down through a mix of meadow and forest (with some good views of Java and nearby Menjangan Island), we ended up at a temple dedicated to a star-crossed couple, Jayaprana and Layonsari, often called the Romeo and Juliet of Bali. As the story goes, Jayaprana was the foster son of a local king during the 17th century. He fell in love with a humble but beautiful flower seller named Layonsari and they planned to wed. The king, however, had fallen in love with Layonsari as well and arranged to have Jayaprana killed. Layonsari learned the truth of Jayaprana’s death in a dream and killed herself rather than marry the king.
The temple dedicated to this tale is a strange affair, very unlike any Balinese temple I’ve ever visited. The grounds were decrepit and had something of a junk-yard feel. We entered a large, run-down building with a big old t.v. blaring and several older women watching it. Behind the t.v. we noticed the priest napping on a mattress. We approached the actual shrine to Jayaprana and Layonsari, an inner sanctum one can peer into but not enter. Peeking in, we were met with this garish vision, the doomed couple at the center of the tableau:
Leaving this surreal place, we made our way back down to the Park entrance and said our goodbyes to Putu, our guide. As we left, we came across these darling girls out for a joy ride:
After a swim and a good night’s rest, we set off the next morning for a day of diving and snorkeling (Annie dove; I snorkeled). We visited several reefs off the coast of Pemuteran and also explored the “biorock” reef that is part of a large reef restoration project located in the bay right in front of our hotel.
The biorock method involves using low voltage electrical currents run through steel structures that are sunk into areas where the reef has been destroyed or is dying. Corals spontaneously settle on these structures and grow quickly. This restores compromised reefs and also reverses beach erosion. The biorock method produces healthy and resilient corals that can survive the stresses (rising temperatures, pollution) that are killing many reefs today. The biorock project in Pemuteran is the largest in the world, with 56 structures installed in the bay over the past decade. Here is Annie in a biorock structure being prepared for installation:
And here is one of the ways the project raises money:
After seeing a great variety of fish (and one huge, scary jellyfish), we returned to land and took a long walk along the little lanes that make up Pemuteran. Along the way we passed a group of men playing cards and drinking a local brew called arak. The host of the party came out to the road and tipsily invited us to join them, an offer we gently declined.
A few houses down the lane, we came across what is today a rare sight (but still common when I first came to Bali in the 60’s), a topless woman. Today, it is only old women who practice the disappearing custom of going bare-breasted:
And everywhere, there were children, in this case a gang of boisterous boys chanting “Bule, Bule” (the slang for foreigner, literally “albino”):
The next morning we returned to Sanur, which seemed very tame, touristy and crowded by contrast. I really felt like I had gone back in time during our visit to Pemuteran and the Park — to a slower, gentler pace and to a side of Bali that is all too rarely glimpsed these days. I’ll write again soon and am sending lots of love to you and the family in the meantime — Katherine