Les: Rescuing the Bali's Reefs

There’s more than meets the eye in the traditional fishing village of Les on Bali’s northeast coast. Driving along the narrow main road with its small, petrol bottle stands, small clothes retailers, motorcycle repair workshops, sole beauty salon and warung selling the barest necessitates, there seemed to be nothing to recommend it.

It wasn’t until we turned down one of its many shady lanes to the sea that we discovered that Les possessed just the right sweet spot that travelers hunger for before a destination is discovered by mass tourism: isolation, peace and natural beauty yet with enough comfortable accommodations, availability of good food and limited access to the outside world.

From its scrappy appearance, there was also nothing to indicate that Les is ground zero for vitally important environmental and community based eco tourism programs: the production of artificial reefs and the harvesting of ornamental fish, a sustainable, environmentally friendly industry supported by the fishermen of the village.

Yet other attractions are that Les is inexpensive with no double standard in prices, i.e. a local price and a bule (foreigner) price. Only home stay owners and staff speak limited English. The very few visitors walk unmolested on the main road or along the beach day or night without sellers bothering them. Though it is harrowing walking along the side of the busy north coast highway, everything is within easy reach.

With the sea lapping their front yards, several home stays are found along the coast at the end of narrow roads shaded by fruit trees and ornamental plants. The pace is slow, the overall vibe relaxed. Everyone you meet is smiling and friendly, and visitors chat with the villagers and other colorful characters as they drop in. Locals are quite open to taking foreign guests along to their temple odalan or family ceremonies. Definitely not for those seeking an all-inclusive resort experience.

Taking one of the village’s many paved winding lanes, we happened upon Segara Lestari Villa, a sleepy seaside home stay consisting of a row of four rooms with a large open-sided covered pavilion-cum-restaurant for relaxing, eating, socializing and hanging out. There I met Edgar Bernal – nickname Garri – a community development facilitator from the Philippines who has worked for years in the developing world and is now helping out Les villagers on a reef restoration project.

“We get a different kind of tourist here,” Garri confided in me. “These are quality tourists the government would like to attract. They aren’t the kind that shriek if a cockroach runs across the room but the kind that suggest what can be done and then help to get it done. Because they want to get a taste of true Balinese coastal life, they tend to stay longer, often two or three weeks at a time. They pitch in. If they don’t agree with what we’re doing, they suggest changes. They are a positive force in the village.”

A Bounty of Fish
The reef restoration project in Les, aimed at resurrecting the region’s traditional ornamental fishing industry, has served as a model for other extensive grassroots coral reef rehabilitation projects in Indonesia where reckless and destructive fishing practices and illegal unregulated fishing have robbed the nation of billions of dollars worth of marine resources over the past few decades. The village is attracting eco-tourists who are able to stay in the midst of a vibrant, welcoming community, all of whom are happy to show you around and even include you in the work if you’re interested.

Indonesia’s fight against cyanide fishing and efforts to change the method of catching fish which is not as damaging (i.e. net fishing) revolves around coral reef rebuilding as is underway in Les. These new reefs provide the natural environment for exotic reef fish to thrive so that they can be caught for export to aquarium owners around the world. The project has turned out to be so successful that fish have started to repopulate the reefs in great numbers, thus allowing ornamental fishermen to continue their trade in sustainable way.

Not only fish but also coral can be cultivated for the aquarium trade. This coral gardening (or coral farming) is actually a matter of growing animals. While a reef takes 100 years go grow, small corals suited for aquariums take only 7 months. About 10 years ago, several corporations built coral farms offshore. These enterprises ultimately went bankrupt, leaving behind their coral farms where today’s visitors are able to see what a 10-year-old coral reef looks like.

Because of the important work the villagers are carrying out, Les attracts scientists and students from all over the world who volunteer in various worthwhile and ongoing eco-projects and learn about sustainable ornamental fishing. This is the softest of soft tourism, not the “hard” resource-devouring resort tourism of south Bali. These visitors from Ukraine, Europe, Canada and just about everywhere else appreciate the fact that the local fishermen have such a deep knowledge of the marine environment and are deeply involved in maintaining the village’s precious natural resources.

Because of the locale’s still-wondrous seascapes, another big draw card for Les are its marine sports activities. As a result of its work in coral farming, Les has become a center for community based eco-friendly diving activities where PADI/SSI open water dive courses can be arranged and participants can become certified scuba divers in as little as four days. Snorkeling is also popular in the fringing reefs of Les and those of the neighboring villages.

Les is in the middle of Bali’s northwest coast, a great base from which to explore many of the island’s best-known underwater gardens. To the east, the sunken Liberty ship at Tulamben is 45 minutes; Amed’s coral reefs one hour; Padangbai 1.5 hours; Candidasa two hours. To the west, Lovina is just an hour away, Pemuteran’s Biorock Coral Project 2 hours; West Bali National Park and Menjangan Island dive and snorkeling sites 2.5 to 3 hours.

Travelers may also explore the morning market, observe traditional salt making, enjoy the sunrise over the sea, go out with fishermen for ornamental fishing or catch tuna by night, tour on foot or by motorbike the roads and paths climbing up into the mountain slopes behind Les to visit waterfalls, caves and forest reserves planted with rambutan, mango, coconuts, cloves and frangipani as well as the many beautiful temples of the area.

Highest Waterfall on Bali
At the main intersection in the middle of the village, we turned south and climbed up the gradually ascending road, which turned sharply to the right before a vast temple complex. Further on, we took a left (south) up a rubbly road leading to a big parking lot, office shack and warung with half a dozen motorcycles parked in front. From here it was a short walk to the start of the well-maintained pathway winding up 15 minutes (600 m) through fruit and garden plots to Yeh Mempeh falls. The higher we climbed, the wilder and more forested the surroundings become until we could make out the central cascade through the trees. Clambering over the wet rocks around the shall
ow pool, with the frigid spray, was our welcome reward.

When we returned to the parking lot, ticket taker Pak Gede Budi told me that work on the new road and path to the falls began in 2007 and is scheduled to be completed in 2015. Both had been built with the help of various donors and the government, but most of all by the residents and school children of the traditional village of Dusun Butiyang, two km further up the mountain. One of the purposes of the road was to increase access to the falls, one of the least visited on Bali, but which now gets around 10 foreign tourists and 15 domestic tourists per week. “Why so few?” I asked Pak Gede. “Too far from Denpasar,” he responded. “But the road helps us bring our produce to market and makes it easy for our kids to get to school.”

Though the main highway has no sidewalks, Les is very walkable because of its many tree-shaded village lanes down to the sea. It’s fairly easy to arrange motorcycle rental (Rp 40,000 per day) and guides, as well as other activities, at reasonable rates. Or hire an ojek (motorcycle with driver) where you can be taken anywhere within the confines of the village for Rp 10,000 or to neighboring villages for a negotiated affordable price. The most cost effective is to rent a motorbike on a weekly or monthly basis.

Segara Lestari Villa, Les, Buleleng, reservations Pak Gede Yudarta at HP 081-558-068-811. Four spacious cottages for Rp 310,000 including simple Balinese breakfast, basic clean rooms (except for the inevitable geckos) with comfortable queen size beds, private verandah, bath, hot shower, free drinking water. Though there’s air-conditioning, just leave the sliding door open for natural seaside breezes. Pak Gede’s wife, Made, a warm soul and a wonderful cook, will make you feel like part of the family.

Guests have access to the kitchen to do their own cooking. Fresh produce – fish, vegetables, seasonal fruits – are sold at the village market open every morning. Minimarkets open the whole day. Fresh coconuts and squid are for the asking. For serious shopping, the nearest supermarkets (including a Hardy’s/Carrefour) are in Singaraja, the capital of Buleleng, 45 min. to the west. Transportation can all be arranged punctually and efficiently. The pick up price from the airport is Rp 550,000 (3 hours).

Fall asleep to the sound of waves. The stony shore is literally in the front yard. For snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing, ask your host Pak Gede who is helpful and knowledgeable about the area and can even inform you about the medicinal plants growing in the vicinity. Learn how to make salt, teach English to local kids, take cooking lessons.

A decidedly upmarket alternative is Villas Agung Bali Nirwana (www.agung-bali-nirwana.com), at $170 per night ($140 per night min. four nights) for luxurious full-size beachfront villas (max. six people) with chlorine-free pool, is located in Sambirenteng 10 min. to the east of Les. For a villa of this standard, size, materials and furnishings, you’d easily pay $400-$500 per night in Jimbaran or Legian, but will not see leaping dolphins in the ocean as you will here.

Les and the neighboring village of Tejakula offers the usual warung serving Balinese and Indonesian food at local prices. The restaurants of secluded high end vacation villas in the area, such as Agung Bali Nirwana, Gaia Oasis and Alamanda, serve Western and Indonesian food and gourmet fish dinners at Western prices.

Entrance to Yeh Mempeh falls is Rp 20,000 foreign adult, Rp10,000 foreign child; children under 10 and babies free. Ojek (price negotiable) and guides (Rp 50,000) can be hired up and back to the waterfalls or Rp 100,000 to the upper waterfall area (two hours). For more information on the coral preservation and new coral creation project, refer to www.divodive.com.

Copyright  2014 Bill Dalton
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