For years I’ve used Bali guidebooks in reverse, an almost infallible way of avoiding places that have been sabotaged by their own success. If a travel publisher lavishes praise on a hotel, beach or locale, I hit the other direction. Using this time-tested method, I was irresistibly attracted to Tejakula in the island’s northeast. This faraway yet accessible coastal village facing the Java Sea had miraculously escaped the scrutiny of guidebook writers. Scant mention is made of it in the latest Lonely Planet guide even though its population is eight times that of Yeh Sanih, a small beach resort 30 minutes to the west, which gets three times the coverage.
Moreover, Tejakula had the additional draw of being a nice place to chill out during Nyepi, the Balinese holy Day of Silence. Realizing the futility of trying to explain to our four-year-old that Nyepi is supposed to be a holy day devoted to quiet solitude and inward contemplation, maybe we could even get away with romping on the beach a bit. Yet another bonus was that Buleleng was putting on an Arts Festival in Tejakula – the first of its kind – during the same week. So it was with eager anticipation that we packed the family up in the old Kijang and set out on the drive north out of Ubud. In a half an hour we broke free of the congestion of southern Bali, climbing up through the foothills via Pujung to the cool 1450-meter high village of Penelokan perched on the volcanic caldera of blackened smoking Gunung Batur, truly one of the most surreal and breath-catching sights in all of Asia. Over the top of the central mountain range, we corkscrewed down through clove and citrus plantations and emerged onto the north coast highway. The busy two-lane road east was filled with motorcycles, lumbering trucks, and melasti processions carrying puppies and ducks to sacrifice. Stern black vested pecaling monitors kept us moving around platforms jutting into the highway piled high with offerings.
Only one and a half hours by road north of Ubud – and one and a half decades back in time – the coastal community of Tejakula is not even included on many tourist maps. Traffic is light, the beach is quiet and clean, commercialization is nonexistent, and the population doesn’t even bother with motorcycle helmets. A measure of the region’s hold on tradition is the great number of native swaybacked Balinese pigs rooting happily in people’s backyards. In the town itself, you’ll find no other tourists, no hotels, no entertainment, no restaurants, no ATM machines, no parking fees. Definitely not the place if you’re looking for nightlife or surfing, it’s the quiet and peacefulness of the area which draw visitors, most of whom are Dutch and German. No bathers in bright swimsuits, beach chairs or powdery sand here, just a wide unspoiled black-sand beach lining a placid sea with just the sound of gentle waves flopping lazily on a rocky shore.
Tejakula was larger than expected, its red tiled roofs descending down to the sea and climbing into the hills on both sides of the street like an undulating red patchwork quilt. Along the narrow main street the townsfolk were busy putting the finishing touches on their ogoh-ogoh, cutting off low tree branches and mounting the giant fearsome puppets on bamboo platforms for a test twirl. In the middle of town by the old Kulkul tower, we turned down the road to the idyllic Bali Beach Villas located on a 100-meter-wide strip of manicured lawn along the sea. Before long we were ensconced in the spacious Bijou Villa, big enough to fit the whole family plus the maid. The kids bolted for the ocean while we unpacked. This pebbly coastal strip doesn’t offer many swimming beaches, but the kids quickly found a patch of sand and a castle was already under construction as we lazed on the veranda. The wavy mounds of uniformly round flat rocks were perfect skipping stones!
In the evening we were invited for gin and tonics by the affable American owners, Tom and Nancy Antoon. Six years ago the Antoons had pulled up stakes in California and settled first in Yeh Sanih. They liked the easy pace of north Bali so much that they decided to look for their own land, which could offer even more of the same but with greater control over their environment. Further to the east the Antoons found this strip of land occupied only by fishermen and it was for sale. At dusk we watched slow-chugging fishing boats put out, soon forming a long line of brightening lanterns across the horizon. Tom told me he often saw pods of dolphin, and even whales would sometimes come close the reef 100 meters offshore. “You can hear them blowing before you can see them,” he said.
Joining us on the hotel’s pavilion was a Dutch couple that had relocated to Bali from Holland. Hans, a stout kretek-smoking man in his sixties, was part of a tiny Dutch colony that has taken root along this coast. He looked like he had stepped out of a colonial-era Du Perron novel, but instead of wearing a pith helmet and dress whites, this Dutchman wore his heart on his sleeve. He and his wife seem focused on living an adventurous life while doing things for other people. Pak Hans, who engenders respectful clasped hands from the Balinese whenever he walks about the village, built a graceful seaside villa and has helped a few handpicked friends build equally handsome properties nearby. His crew of 23 tradesmen is able to lay a foundation in a single day. Helene, with the lithe figure of a dancer and a sunny smile, teaches young local kids interpretive dance in the long bale that they built for that express purpose.
It was Monday, the day before Nyepi, so we decided to take advantage of the free time before our forced confinement the next day. This high Balinese holiday is taken dead seriously in this orthodox region of Bali. To guarantee that the whole district adheres to a regimen of soundless immobility, the electricity was cut promptly at dusk. The following day was interminably long and hot with the windows and doors kept open all day. We tried to stay sane by playing cards and board games on the deliciously cool tile floor. That evening the houseboy gave us candles so we could grope around in the dark. Tired of being shut in all day, I walked out onto the beach later that night. With no village lights, a long wide bright river of stars swept across the sky amidst the unearthly silence except for the plopping waves. Just as I was feeling a deep communion with the universe, I felt tentacles of light stabbing the darkness. The beams of a village guard’s 12 Volt heavy-duty flashlight soon rousted me off the beach.
With the return of power the next morning, we were ready to burn some rubber and the day was given over completely to playing tourists. The first order of business were the horse baths for which Tejakula is famous. Turning in at the far east end of the village, we walked 500 meters north to this surprisingly large, elaborate, fort-like maze of spouts and troughs surrounded by a tall thick white wall. The structure was originally built to wash down horses and cattle but is now reserved solely for humans with the water gushing into separate sections for pria and wanita.
The next morning we could already hear preparations were underway for the Arts Festival set up like a festive pasar malam country fair just a 30 minute walk down the beach. A long row of hideous ogoh-ogoh lined the roadway into the grounds. Though lacking the artistic purity and sophistication found in the more ethnically homogenous south, the performances presented were more diverse and multicultural, enriched by Buleleng’s many ethnic groups from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds – Balinese, Bugis, Madurese, Javanese, and people of Arab and Chinese descent. Over the next three days we wandered in and out viewing performances of Janger Kolok, Gong Drama and Kebyar, Wayak Kulit, Balinese pop, Islamic poetry recitals, martial arts, traditional a cappella choirs, and Chinese-Indonesian gyrating in their colorful trademark Lion dance.
Walking up the beach to take a break from the ear-splitting music, we noticed some handsome bungalows set amongst tropical foliage and palm groves. The aptly named Gaia Oasis had an entirely different atmosphere – or “product” in travel industry parlance – from Bali Beach Villas at Tejakula, which is ideal for unabashed vacationers. This seaside resort is more attuned to soul-searching world travelers.
No telephones are found in the rooms, breakfast starts at a leisurely 8 am, and the grounds are replete with feng shui eco touches like water fountains, winding paths, and separate wastebaskets for paper, plastic and organic matter. Well suited for small groups, there’s a superb 140 square-meter meditation/yoga room and in the early morning guests can be seen practicing yoga positions on the lawns facing the sea. Each of the 10 pentagonal buildings was initially financed by a Westerner and each had a story to tell – the Javanese joglo built by an Italian, the German who married one of the housemaids, the Belgian who started the fancifully decorated wellness center, and so on.
Early in the morning on our fourth day we set off for Yeh Mempeh, reputed to be the highest waterfall in Bali. After driving for five km east of town, we turned south and climbed up to Desa Les and a parking lot (Rp25,000 domestic, Rp50,000 foreign) with a devilish ogoh-ogoh on one side and a restaurant on the other. We were told we didn’t need directions. The shady well-maintained walk at first followed a flue, spanned a river, then
wound up through banana, rambutan,
mango and coco
nut plots. The higher
we climbed, the wild
er and more forested
the environs became until we could make out through the trees a magnificent central cascade crashing down into a shallow pool below. Our reward was clambering over the wet rocks and catching the frigid spray. Back down on the coast, we stopped at the local gule joint – a ramshackle place yet serving a delightfully tangy and soulful goat soap and sate – and met American Emily Smith and her German hus
band Thilo Hammermeis
ter. Teachers living in
Germany, they were doing a round-the-island tour and had just arrived from Amed on Bali’s east coast. In front of the restaurant two exhausted young children slept in a Suzuki Karimun with its doors flung open.
“We first tried to swap our apartment for a villa in Bali for a month, but we ran our home exchange offer too early in the season and there were no takers. So we just found some cheap tickets on the internet and impulsively flew to Bali.” I asked them where they were going next. “Nowhere,” they said. “We’re staying right here in unspoiled Bali until we leave. This is exactly what we came for.”
Charging EU120-160 per night double, the Bali Beach Villas at Tejakula (www.balibeachrentals.com) has two villas separated by a wall of vegetation. Each sleeps 2-4 adults and boasts hand-crafted furniture, marble floors, king-sized beds, grotto-style bathrooms, library, safes, fridges and covered terraces looking out on spacious (73 are) landscaped grounds. Wireless internet access, stereo, multi-channel flat screen satellite TV, complimentary a la carte breakfast, hot drinks, midday snack, extensive Balinese and Western menu, delicious home baked breads, friendly and attentive staff. Located just 500 meters from the coastal highway, enjoy outside showers, open-air dinners of grilled fresh fish, gentle breezes, lovely sea views, snorkeling just 10 meters from the shore on a coral reef (equipment free). Airport transfers: Euro 60 for one or two people. Tax and service included in all prices. Accepts US, Euro, IDR and full or partial payment in advance via PayPal using major credit cards or bank transfer with any unpaid balance due in cash. For reservations, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most bungalows at the Gaia Oasis (www.gaia-oasis.com) consist of two double rooms, extra bed, outdoor garden bathrooms, fully equipped outside kitchenette, wide shady verandahs facing the sea. Open-air restaurant serves great buffet-style fresh meals and tropical fruit juices. Pool, wellness center and seminar house that holds dance, relaxation, meditation, yoga, and a large variety of creative, massage, personal growth and spiritual sessions and workshops for individuals or groups. Services include childcare, internet, laundry. Dolphin watching, beachcombing, canoeing, swimming, scuba, snorkeling and wind surfing all available. For bookings, contact mobile 08123853350, tel/fax (0362) 28428 or email: email@example.com. Single occupancy EU38, double EU53; full board EU16.60. All prices include 21% tax and service and free portage from parking lot. The entrance from the Singarja-Amlapura highway is half hidden; take the narrow road 250 meters to a canopied parking lot, then walk 10 minutes down a winding tree-shaded hobbit path. For those who prefer a more isolated retreat, five bungalows are set amongst organic gardens in the hillside village of Abasan just ten minutes away by road.