Tucked away behind Bedugal, the temperate, ‘vegetable growing capital’ of Bali, there lays a mystical duo of lakes that are untouched by the touristic fingers of the South. I ‘stumbled’ upon them on Google Maps 3D, my new friend in research, replacing the old ‘finger on the map’ method of choosing a place to explore.
I was looking for the ideal birthplace for my next book Bootongs of Ducktopia, a family of ducks who are on a mission to save Bali and consequently, the planet. They have been given the mission of finding the fallen Kingdom where Cheeky, the hero, is to find a manuscript that prophesised the demise of culture and the environment across the planet. It provides a guide to help reverse the collision course it is on and restore a sense of connection back to our heart, mind and soul.
I needed to get out and explore more regions but their birthplace needed to be special.
So, I started at Mt Agung, which I have already climbed (I say in a kind of bragging, but ‘why was I so naïve’ kind of voice…it is the hardest physical challenge I have ever had!) Nope, that wouldn’t do, it was a bit too special, being the home of the Mother Temple, Besakih. I dragged my pointer across to Lake Batur and the tamer Munti Gunung, but the landscape is dry and harsh, albeit with lush pockets. Special, but the wrong landscape.
I scrolled west to Bedugal, where its temple is one of the island’s most popular, second possibly only to Tanah Lot.
I then noticed two lakes tucked away to the left of the populous town, which I was to learn form a caldera, made up of the three lakes (Danau) in the region – Tamblingan and Buyan, and the more popular Lake Beratan in Bedugal.
A caldera occurs when a volcano erupts. Instead of leaving a mountain with a crater at its top, the land around it collapsed downwards, forming a huge hole.
The lakes sweep in an arch. Until the 19th century there were just two, but a landslide between Tamblingan and Buyan divided them forever.
We took a sharp left, exiting Bedugal. A sheer cliff stretched up out of sight on our right, overgrown with jungle that sprawled down to the road. Monkeys jumped along the barriers at our left, which protected spectators from the sheer drop to Lake Buyan below.
The lake appeared shallow, lined with green habitation at its shores that from our elevated position, looked like moss. Circling around its top, we found a small warung for a break. Locals had made every bit of use of the beautiful view that greeted us, lining the road with concrete and wooden picnic tables with logs as stools. The road ran along a spear; on the other side it dropped away to jungle. Mist swirled around it, that within minutes changed it from a bright clear vista to a haunting landscape.
It was tempting to stop at every nook along the way. I was like a little kid, begging my husband who was driving, “Stop here!”…”No, here!”…”Here!”
We pulled into a little bay where a local warung had creatively set up an outside bar, complete with furry critters you could have your photo taken with. We declined. Although I live here, there are plenty of locals who can keep the family in business, posing atop a wooden stage with the backdrop of the lake.
A sign below a wooden statue of an angry little man warned visitors against urinating in the parking area. With no toilets apart from at the larger warungs, it limits the amount of liquid you can drink, but obviously the need has been too much for some. Majestic as it might be, streaming off into the jungle while admiring the view, I appreciated the thought behind the sign…it was not a smell I wanted pervading the fresh air of the mountains.
A small kulkul, which is a hollow wooden instrument of sorts that is beaten with a wooden stick to sound out messages to the village, instructs you that service is just a short tap away.
We skimmed around the top of the caldera, both blissfully chatting about how lucky we were to have ‘found’ it. Seeing an empty bay, we thought it would be nice to stop for a beer and admire the views. The large warung had plenty of dusty beer bottles, and mountainous tables of nuts and dried fruits, was sadly void of any beer. It was as though it had been a good idea once, but there must have been more money in the plastic bags of local produce…or maybe the situation with the cliff and streams of golden fluid had cut short the idea of a clifftop pub.
In a way, this was heartening. Tourism had not yet clawed its way to this magical place. Buses weren’t clogging the road with their foul fumes and hoards of shoot-check-in-and-leave tourists. In fact at this stage, if it actually was a lake without beer, perhaps this was most fitting, as it was a total turnabout from the beer-laden streets of the south. (Although, just one would have been a bit of a Sunday afternoon treat!)
We wound our way through the village of Tamblingan to the lake below. Locals went about their business ignoring us, apart from some children who typically Balinese, wanted to shout ‘hai’ at our car, waving so hard that they jiggled on the spot with excitement.
A huge car park sits beside the traditional brick village pillars, or “gates”, that signal the entrance to the lake. A parking boy explained it was okay to drive down to it along the cobbled narrow path, but we said no. We had our golden retriever with us and had promised him a walk and the laneway looked and felt like a path, not a road.
As we passed through the pillars, there was an immediate sense of stillness and quiet. The wind seemed to be holding its breath as we strolled hand in hand with Brodie running on in front, excitedly sniffing the varied grasses along the path’s edge. Above us, the canopy of jungle closed in, creating a cool tunnel to glide through down to the shores of the lake.
We passed by little huts. Women were busy working in the yard. A small temple on our left was covered in moss, possibly centuries old, but likely a relatively new addition in terms of the history of Bali. New structures in Bali have an uncanny way of looking old very quickly. Its position had possibly always been there, but the Banjar and government had invested in the lake and its surrounds.
A party of local motor-cross enthusiasts sped by us, their roaring bikes splitting the peace in two. They congregated in a bale that sat in the middle of an expanse of grass, waving as I clicked my camera in their direction. A fairly modern toilet block had been constructed, giving it a Balinese Botanical garden feeling – rugged natural beauty, rather than the carefully manicured lawns of the West.
The lake’s temple, Pura Gubug, is almost submerged in the lake, which laps around its perimeter filled with lush grasses. It is one of the most important temples in the Tabanan regency. Devotees come from four villages that were prominent from the 10th to the 14th centuries – Munduk (where we were), Gobleg, Umajero and Gesing Customary Village. However it is central to the dozens of other temples surrounding the lake and is considered to be the purusha (cosmic man), while nearby Batur Temple in Bangli the pradhana (cosmic woman).
The Tabanan regency is famous for its World Heritage rice paddies and even though rice can’t be grown in the vicinity of the caldera, it is an important link for the spiritual connections of these villages as well.
It is impossible to get close to the temple, which like the lack of beer is a positive thing, preventing ignorant tourists from erroneously entering the holy grounds. This would most certainly anger the villagers and the Gods.
From a photographer’s point of view, being held at bay is perfect. It forces you to move along the pathways, exploring the many vantage points that offer up splendid images. I make a mental note to suggest to people that temples are best viewed from afar.
It also forces a keener observation of what’s outlier to the temple walls. For me, the presence of hand-carved wooden boats resting in the shallow waters are pivotal to the story that is forming in my head. I want to know how old they are, when did they start using them, do they include them in the annual ceremony that blesses tools? They are like italics in a sentence, drawing attention to the traditional and barely touched village that goes on about its business, with visitors gently coerced by a lack of entry, into being its silent observers.
A group of Australians had driven down to the lake, struggling to turn their car in the space made for people and pushbikes. They almost pushed past us, ignoring our usual friendly smiles which we offer when we meet fellow travellers. But these Aussies were tourists, hard and fast and I could not wait for them to leave. Sniffing their noses at the old temple and the water that prevented a path to its door, they grumbled about how they had driven all this way for nothing.
I raised an eyebrow and wanted to shove a copy of Bali Soul Journals in their thankless hands, and fling my arms out wide in a last ditch effort to beg them to take in the span of the lake and the jungle that grew to its shores on almost all sides. But that would be wasted, and the chasm between tourists and travellers became a little clearer to me as I watched them quickly leave after another twenty-point turn, with likely yet another story to add to their kit of how ‘backward’ Bali was.
Swallows dipped over the lake and an afternoon wind was providing them with plenty of current to dance on. Locals had waded through to little jetties floating offshore that I later learned were made of recycled bottles. But “not in a bad way” we were told. “The lake is full of bottles” had required a little more explanation.
I don’t know what made us follow a little path through the village adjacent to the lake. It seemed a bit obtrusive, peering into their wooden homes that were only metres from the water. But we were welcomed warmly. A middle-aged woman waved to us from her tiny home. It had million dollar views of the lake and the temple. I asked her in Bahasa Indonesia if it was okay to come in and chat. With a huge smile, she beckoned with her hand, eagerly pointing to a wooden bench on the narrow veranda for us to take a seat.
Her son Ketut appeared from nowhere and began chatting to Bill. Meanwhile, I was negotiating my way around a slightly different accent to that of the South, as I learned how long they had lived there for and what they did for work.
She bustled about, frowning every now and then at my city-Indonesian-come-Aussie twang. Without my realising it, she was preparing four cups of coffee that she proudly presented in glasses on a plastic tray. Ketut explained that it was the locally grown Arabica variant. I normally decline coffee, as the caffeine has me stringing from ceilings, but I took a sip of the sweet, thick brew and settled back in my chair to listen to stories of the lake.
Ketut’s family had lived in the village for generations, but had come by this land ten years ago so that they could be closer to the fishing. As we chatted, his father was using a wooden mold to create small fishing nets. These, he explained, were dipped by hand into the water, creating turmoil to startle the sweet fresh water fish. They would literally jump into the net, reminding me of stories of the south of Bali many decades ago when fishermen needed little skill, just a good arm and a string.
“The net is big enough,” he said smiling, mistaking my gasp of disbelief as being a comment about the size of the fish versus the small basket. “The fish are not too big, just right.” I was left with a lingering image of fish willingly jumping into the hands of men, cooperative in the web of life of the village.
Ketut’s English is near perfect, learned from tourists, which he said was a very easy way to learn. I silently wished learning Indonesian or Balinese was as easy, but I guess if that is your one focus, it is going to come a lot more quickly.
Ketut didn’t finish school. Now 27, when he was at school it was just too expensive. “But now,” he says, “it is free, so all the children go to school.” Many have gone onto University in Denpasar, which is wonderful and sad at the same time. The village is getting older and I wonder what will happen down the track.
“Do the children come back to live, after they have an education?” I ask.
Ketut shakes his head. Even he doesn’t live with his parents by the lake anymore; he lives near the parking lot with his young wife (“only 22,” he boasts), and child of five years. But at least he is still in the village. Unable to go to university, he runs tours for visitors, taking them on a canoe around the lake and a short hike, finishing with a traditional Balinese lunch in one of the villages.
His mother brings out a basket of goodies for us to choose from. Even Brodie is offered rice and a biscuit. Travellers (clearly not tourists, given the last group I had seen!) often wander into her compound. She greets them all with the same courtesy and smile, as if they had given her notice earlier in the day that they were stopping by.
Walking around the grounds of the house, which would be no more than 15 by 10 metres, I notice that the back of the kitchen is just a concrete slab. The building is made from misshapen wooden slats, barely holding on, and the roof is a piece of blue tarpaulin held down by rocks on strings. “The house was once big?” I ask his mother.
“Yes,” she nods. But three years ago, the lake flooded during the wet season driving them from their homes into the thick jungle behind. For five months they lived there. When they returned, almost the entire village had been washed away. The government helped with rice rations, but there was no money to rebuild, reflected in the haphazard structures that are there today.
Ketut’s family fish every day for their meals, but need to purchase the daily necessity of rice as none can be grown in the village. Locals work on nearby coffee plantations growing Bali’s finest coffee for Bali and export.
As we walk back toward the main path, local children wave with delight and stop to tentatively pat Brodie. The village is always smiling, says Ketut – “…never not smiling. Unless there is an emergency,” he adds, laughing. Then, it’s okay to not smile.
I wanted to have a rest before we began our two-hour drive home, so we stopped at the last warung as you leave the village. Ibu came running out in response to Ketut’s whistle, laying a straw mat in the bale we had chosen on the grass to have our drink.
We asked for two small beers, but entrepreneurial in a typically Balinese style, she brings out two large ones, grinning broadly at her ingenuity. 80.000 rupiah, is her response to my request for the price.
I laugh and say, “Harga Bule, ya?!” (White person’s price.) She erupts in laughter, literally doubling over slapping her knees with delight. “Ya, ya!” she chortles. “Anda tau harga bule?!” (You know?!) Needless to say, the price stuck but I happily handed it over. Haggling over a few cents smacks of bad taste, particularly given the view, company and experience and of course, the need of our hosts. (To see her response, click here!)
Ibu Made was widowed just nine months before. Her only child is now in Denpasar and she lives alone. Perhaps this is why she settled down beside us while Ketut gave a brief history of the area.
Tamblingan was once a Kingdom, which also had a temple for blacksmiths. The region made kris, knives with wooden handles used in battle. Today, they are used in ceremonies but the creation of a Kris is not something arbitrarily made. Its whole construction is a process that imbues it with energy sourced from the Gods.
The whole region is deeply spiritual. Lake Tamblingan has many legends surrounding it. One I had learned of after locating it on Google Maps, was about a vengeful King who descended on them to steal the wealth of coins that they had amassed. The Gods had blessed them with the fertile soils and bountiful fish. As a final act of spite, unable to fight him off, they threw their riches into the lake, forever giving it a glow of gold that it has at certain times of the day.
Another legend explains how the name Tamblingan came about. The village became very ill from a mystery disease that not even the medicine man could cure. By immersing themselves in the cool, clear waters, they were suddenly healed.
The lake’s name is made up of two Balinese words – tamba meaning medicine, and Elingang, spiritual abilities.
I imagine that there are countless stories to be told, but the mist is starting to close in and the temperature has suddenly dropped. We finish our drinks and stroll with Ketut up the cool pathway to the car park. As we walk, he points out the different trees and plants, noting which ones are used for medicine, which ones will leave you with a painful rash, which flowers are dried to make recreational drugs.
I learn the difference between the Banyan tree and another fig, and gain insight into what the thick canopy is made up of – a complex mesh of leaves that are often helpful and sometimes hindering. But the local women know them all, possessing knowledge that spans centuries.
He points to a little white hut that his parents lived in after the flood while they restored their home. It now looks like it has been transformed into an upmarket chicken coop. Behind it, a Banyan tree has fallen, forcing villagers from their hut. The tree is too big to move, so it lays there, a reminder that the earth around the lake is soft and unstable. Fertility has its downside. Apparently many Banyan trees around the lake end their life like this, but it doesn’t stop them weaving their vines around the solid trunk of another, slowly crushing it until it crumbles, leaving the centre of the Banyan tree hollow and fragile.
We stop at a little warung (which means café or shop where general goods are sold) to buy some of the blue hydrangeas that decorate the slopes around the lakes. A little girl shyly helps her mother weigh out fruit for me – how can I resist the fat locally grown avocados and jeruk, citrus that have a green skin dappled with orange?
I smile at her, and ask for a smile in return, pointing to my cheeks.
Like our lady at the lake, she giggles, joined in by her mother as they begin to laugh and play: authentic, unspoiled in every way. I clean her out of hydrangeas, thinking the family near our home will appreciate some for the fragile blue petals they use in offerings.
We leave the lakes behind, winding down into Bedugal to join the line of buses headed back to the South.
I think about those tenuous fingers of tourism, and wonder how long it will be before they snake their own way around the lake’s road, down to the foreshores where the villagers only stop smiling for an emergency.
Munduk is a village almost frozen in time, but as the young ones leave, very few remain to continue the traditions. However at times, this also sentences the families to a life of floods and shaky wooden huts with walls made out of promotional banners and roofs of tarps. Who would not want better for them, if that is what they want?
Ketut’s father’s pocket had rung while he was stringing the fishing net, the reality of life in Indonesia regardless of your income. He whipped out his phone and disappeared to take what was a very long call, abandoning his net to respond to the interruption of a modern device.
They say all things are perfect. It was a blessing for the village that Ketut did not finish school, as now he shares the knowledge of his ancestors. But his own daughter will one day head off to university; this is what he wants for her.
We spot a young boy helping his grandfather cut grass. He idly watches, but he is not watching us. His gaze is fixed on two boys around his age, whizzing down the path on bikes, free to play, and I wonder whether like most children, this is what he wants as well.
We pass the mist of the mountains, slowing for the stream of cars buying vegetables from hawkers near the market. Waving out-stretched arms reflect the haggling taking place, as tourists pay the still very cheap tourist prices, while farmers strive to make the most basic of livings.
As I am slowly awakening on my traveller’s journey, a sense of sadness often pinches the peace that I am filled with after a day like today. Is the village sustainable? Even if the doors were closed to tourists, the reality of education and jobs outside the village is inevitable. It’s too late to leave well enough alone. There is a reliance on plastic, fabric and other modern tools. To just leave the village be, would mean stripping it bare and closing the gates. Yet to preserve it for the sake of tourism seems unfair.
My own childhood was idyllic, running free through the bush of Mt Macedon at the base of the Blue Mountains ridge. No phones, WiFi or worries. Potatoes were delivered in sacks on the back of a truck from the local farmer and milk had cream on top. Now, the Western kid has their head not in a book, but hovering over an animated screen. Why wouldn’t the cultures of the planet want what our children now have?
I think back to when I began writing Bali Soul Journals and the lessons I gained. The most compelling was the understanding of what culture really is, how it is deep within the spirit of the island and its people. Its heart and soul is in not what people have, but in what they do, how they relate to each other, how they live their lives connected with the land that the Gods blessed them with. It is about balance of light and dark, good and bad.
And I wonder – should the world be flattened by consumption, perhaps the people of villages such as Munduk will be the leaders on our journey back home; a passage to the essence of the Balinese soul which was perhaps once, the spirit of humanity – our hearts, mind and body.
By keeping balance with these elements, and with the Gods of the ocean, land and mountains, no matter what little you possess, you would still have more richness than a Kingdom, and the happiness of a child.
I silently thank the people of Bali for the gifts they teach us, if only we would stop to chat and listen, as guests and observers.
Then, I think, we will begin to wake up.
And perhaps, the frighteningly fast grip of tourism could become the gentle caress of positive change for all of us.
To read more journals such as these that take you to the heart and soul of Bali, purchase the book, beautifully designed and photographed. A coffee table book that is also possibly one of the best reads about Bali, capturing its essence through the eyes of locals with their stories and glimpses of a world that can teach us so much.
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Photography and journal – copyright Clare McAlaney and Bali Soul Journals
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