Ode to Pemuteran

Pemuteran is a gently developed fishing village in the north-west of Bali, with a quiet and refined lassitude that I liked. It has spacious, elegant resorts which are currently great value, umbrageous trees on the sand, inexpensive guest houses and warungs, unbelievable snorkelling, and proximity to many activities associated with Bali’s sole national park.  Not a beach hawker in sight.  It’s a great base for a trip to climb the great volcanoes of Eastern Java, Mount Bromo and Ijen. And it’s a model of community eco-tourism. But damn this village hurt during COVID, and tourism is only slowly coming back.  I promised the friends I made there to give the place a plug, so here it is.

Pemuteran seems like an awfully long way from the airport on a map of Bali, until you appreciate that it is only 134 km by road, and that the whole of Bali is only 60% (5,780 km2) of the area of greater Melbourne (9,982 km2).  On the other hand, since it is generally possible only to drive at about 30-40 kph in Bali when you are moving at all, it takes longer than the distance might suggest: between three and a half to four and a half hours to complete the trip ($70 in a big car with your own English speaking driver which any hotel can arrange). Perhaps this explains why few Australians reportedly make it to Pemuteran, though it does not explain why French speakers, the Dutch, the Danes, and German speakers are willing to make that trip. It is the Western Europeans and not the Russians or Chinese or Asians in general (including Australians) who mainly holiday there.

For a couple of folks I met, Pemuteran was their first night in Bali. They had arrived on the vehicular ferry at the nearby port of Gilimanuk from Bunyawangi in East Java: what a lovely way to enter Bali.

Bali for Europeans is a long-haul Shangrila, as we might think of Tahiti or the Cyclades, more than a place to repair to at the end of an amateur footy season, and they tend not to go to Kuta but to the inland arts hub of Ubud and to beach resorts away from the Kuta conurbation which includes Legian, Seminyak and Canggu. The resorts and villas of Pemuteran seem to be owned by the Dutch, and Germans, though some of the best are, unusually, fully owned by Pemuterans, and an Australian seems to be behind the Reef Seen dive shop.

Pemuteran is like Bali used to be, and deliberately so.  There is no traffic; I reached my top speed in Bali (90 kph) on the approach to the town, and crossing the main road is a breeze.  The absolute beachfront resorts are concentrated along a strip of coast over which vertiginous hills tower. Easy to stay in an inexpensive resort and eat at the posher ones next door, in other words. They are elegant and designed according to what we regard as traditional design, first championed by the Adelaide architect Peter Muller, which has spread to resorts across Asia and the world, with thatched rooves, unwalled pavilions, and ornate wooden carvings.  They sport the kind of gardens which owe much in their design to the importation long ago from Mexico of frangipani trees and to the eccentric white Australian graduate of the Cranbrooke School who converted to Hinduism and lived in Bali, Made Wijaya.

Consider Amertha Villas, Reef Seen Diving Resort, Taman Selini (great value at $90 a night), Pondok Sari, Taman Sari, Puri Ganesha, and the astonishing Milo’s on the Beach, all lined up next to each other on the beach. I’m sure there are other lovely resorts close to but not on the beach, but the one which endeared itself to me was Tirta Sari, which has in its grounds a traditional Balinese wood-burning kitchen (a paon, the wonders of which are championed in this gorgeous new cookbook which put me onto Batukaru Coffee Estate, below). There one can do cooking classes and cook the traditional way.

One can from all of these places wander out one’s door past the beachside pool and restaurant, across the sand and into the warm sea, and gaze upon tropical fish more or less upon putting your head under the water, on previously damaged reefs regenerated by an innovative local cooperative using biorock technology.

Then there are the villas in the hills, e.g. Sumberkimba.

In the sea, you may hope to see one of the turtles who are carefully protected by the community led by Reef Seen Diving Resort, which also does much coral gardening.  The turtles lay their eggs on the sand, the locals sell the eggs to the hatchery (saving the eggs, and providing an incentive to preserve the turtles which lay the eggs), Reef Seen hatches the turtles in a fenced off bit of sand and then feeds them up in open air tanks for a couple of months to minimise their otherwise extraordinarily high chance of being eaten in infancy, and releases them into the sea. Or rather, it allows tourists to do so, for a fee.

These cooperative efforts deeply involving the local community give the place a truly lovely vibe, and it is an unusual characteristic of the place, compared with other seaside resorts in Bali, that one sees villagers using the beach and snorkelling. These efforts also mean that there are turtles to be watched in the sea by divers and snorkellers, if they’re lucky.

There are dolphins to be seen in the mornings, a pearl industry in nearby Penyabangan, ponies for kids to ride along the beach, vineyards, and plenty of monkeys, but the clincher is proximity (35 minutes by boat) to the uninhabited Menjangen Island where some of Indonesia’s best snorkelling and diving is to be found.  I’ve been snorkelling before, but it was underwhelming. This was eye-popping: teeming with corals and fish of every colour and description to be watched with ease,  floating on the water’s warm surface. I saw big fish, nudibranches, and a giant clam.

The place is a busy working fishing village, so the place is obese with the freshest seafood. I joined a Guadaloupian couple for a barbecue on the sand (embers, a bit of wire, a double-sided griller) to consume the crocodile fish and mahi-mahi they had caught on a fishing trip, with some good sambal whipped up by the diving / fishing outfit. It was good. (Much arak was consumed by Guadaloupians and their Balinese friends for the night and unfortunately they erred into moonlit karaoke between sessions of naked sea bathing. Next morning for reasons I never learnt and cannot really surmise, the Balinese exploded into uncontrolled laughter every time they referred to the by then hung-over bloke enduring a choppy speed boat journey to the snorkelling grounds as ‘Monsieur Helicopter’.)

It is not a place where one is trapped in a luxury resort; it’s de rigeur to go down to the main street and eat at local warungs and go shopping and to take massages at little local places, so that the tourist dollar is spread around a bit.

Many trips to scale Mount Bromo to watch the sunrise, and down into the Ijen crater at night to see the ‘blue fire’ (gaseous sulphur which combusts upon contact with air at 360°C or hotter) and then watch another sunrise may be arranged from Pemuteran, via the West Bali National Park.  I guess most Australians visiting Bali have never heard of this option, since most people I know are unaware that it is easy to drive from Bali to Java, but this is what awaits (apparently: photo credits to The World Travel Guy).

So, since people complain about the great surfeit of information about Bali and  panic about what to do, here’s my latest diktat: Melbourne-Bunyawangi transiting at the airport in Denpasar. Stay at Ijen Resort and Villas, and/or, if you’re up for an extra hour’s drive west from Mt Bromo, Hotel Tugu in Malang. Scale Bromo and Ijen in the dark to watch successive sunrises and see the incredible waterfalls (Tumpak Sewu, Madakaripura) nearby. Then drive to Pemuteran via the West Bali National Park (stay or dine at The Menjangen?) and do some snorkeling or diving, thence to Pemuteran to kick back and eat Balinese food, doing some more snorkelling and diving, pony riding, monkey wrangling and turtle releasing from time to time.  Fly out of Kuta, hiking through the World Heritage listed terraced rice paddies at Jatiluwih on the way down.  Stay a couple of nights there at the Batukaru Coffee Estate, a truly civilised and quirky place created by a Balinese woman passionate about Balinese food, who has returned from living in Sweden.  You can scale Mt Batukaru walking through the most beautiful forest I have been in, from a path which departs from the property for sunrise, swim in the crystal clear pool at the bottom of their waterfall, and most of all eat the delicious Balinese food and homemade bread from the kitchen there.  I think their preferred business is retreats, but you can be completely un-yoga and adore this place, if you’re lucky enough to find it un-booked out by the Eat, Pray, Love brigade, the stargazers, or forest bathers.  Then drive down to catch your night flight home after dinner at Hotel Tugu in Canggu: exercise your right as a dinner guest to take a swim in their pool, watch the sunset from the Japanese restaurant and then head down to the exquisite pan-Indonesian restaurant. Eating at Hotel Tugu involves a traffic-clogged detour, but it’s worth it. So would be dinner at Tandjung Sari in Sanur:

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