Mon, 14 Aug 2000

Amed and the developing coast of East Bali

By Brant Connors

Three hours from the crowds of Kuta and the traffic of Denpasar, East Bali beckons the traveler in search of peace and serenity. The east end of the world's most magical island cradles beautiful stretches of farmland, rich religious cultural history, world-class diving and snorkling, and a glimpse at village life that is quickly fading as development approaches.

Amed, perched on the coast north of Mt. Seraya and east of the majestic Mt. Agung, still clings to its roots as a fishing village. Colorful fishing boats, called jukung, rest on the sand shore. Crude wooden stills and designated stretches of muddy beach use traditional methods of evaporation and drying to harvest cooking salt from the abundant seawater. The roads are rough and crowded more often with lazy brown cows than fast- moving cars.

The quiet fishing village is changing. Hotels and upscale bungalows dot the sandy coves. Dive shops and restaurants draw in the small but growing number of tourists. In the early hours of morning, a teenage boy walking along the road may head to work at a cottage hotel rather than follow his father to the sea.

Amed has long been known to scuba divers, but until recently has attracted relatively few tourists. A lack of electricity, phone lines, even decent roads have prevented development, but as more tourists have flocked to Bali, hidden flowers have started to bloom in the island paradise. Unspoiled pockets of serenity such as Amed continue to become viable travel destinations.

Each morning off Amed's shores, the coming day stains the skies red and outlines Lombok's Mt. Rinjani in purple and orange just before the fireball sun itself roars above the gentle waters. East Bali springs to life immediately and without hesitation. Children run to the water to swim as sun-stained men push off in search of tuna and mackerel. Tourists stroll toward the shore to enjoy some of Bali's best snorkling in Amed's sheltered coves where bright fish and clear waters gently hypnotize curious swimmers.

Tulamben, to the north, boasts one of Bali's favorite scuba destinations, the wreck of the U.S. cargo ship Liberty. In 1942, the armed ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Today, divers explore the skeleton of the lost vessel and the marine life that calls it home. Dive teams regularly travel to Tulamben from Kuta and Lovina, but Amed's PADI-certified dive shops get divers into the water earlier for a chance to explore the slumbering soldier in solitude. A small Japanese warship also lies dormant under the water off Amed's coast as well. Though no nearly as large or attractive as the Liberty, it remains a curiosity for snorkelers.

Less fertile than inland Bali, the island shadowing Amed's coast and the cape of East Bali does not hold the terraced rice fields than can be found just a few kilometers into the island. Instead, wild palm and banana trees thrive. Grapes are also grown for Bali's Indigo brand wine. Traveling south along the coast, the black and white sand beaches of Amed soon become dry and rocky, offering a dazzlingly different climate than the lush verdant Bali of the picturesque beauty. Even the locals disappear along the rugged path south of Mt. Seraya, but the adventurous can enjoy a chunk of Bali all to themselves with an afternoon trek in this beautiful, lonely landscape.

Local history and culture is easy to find on the way to Amed. Caged fighting cocks line the roads in front of houses. Powerful arak (homemade Balinese liquor) is sold to passersby, and Hindu temples remain aspects of daily life to East Bali's people. Shrines may not be always visible, but remain close at hand for those willing to investigate.

Along the main road back to Denpasar, the Tirta Gangga water palace is both mystical and accessible. Built by the last king of Karangasem in the 1940s, Tirta Gangga (Water of the Ganges) is a tribute to the late king's ingenuity and fascination with water. Cold mountain water flows through several stone fountains and bathing pools high on a hillside that provides panoramic scenic views and abundant hiking opportunities. Surrounded by rice terraces and decorated with curious statues and carvings, the royal bathing pools were built on the site of a holy spring. Tirta Gangga is aging quickly but is still popular with tourists during the day and local children who come to swim on a hot evening.

The Kertha Gosa Old Court Hall in Klungkung was formerly part of the Semarapura Royal Palace and is now open to visitors. Used as a justice hall until the mid-20th century, the open-air pavilion is decorated with stone sculptures, flowery wood carvings and traditional Kamasan-style paintings of Hindu torments and punishments. Nearby is the site and museum of the 1908 Klungkung Heroic Battle fought against the Dutch. Both sites give a vivid description of Bali's recent history.

Amed may not stay quiet for long. Development eyes its serene coastline, vibrant waters and breezy hillsides, and Amed itself seems eager to accept its destiny. In the restaurants, local children drag westerners onto a dance floor to move to the choppy music of the rhythmic gamelan. On the main road children gripped by stone-faced mothers wave to travelers. A wave back draws shrieks of laughter from the children and sudden, enormous smiles from the strong faces of the appreciative mothers. Photo opportunities jump out from every hillside both along Amed's coast and during the drive back to Denpasar past leafy forests, terraced rice fields and curious villagers eager to know the impressions of their visitors.

The best time to see East Bali in bloom is November through February; but like all of Bali, it is a carnival of life all year round.