Wellness retreats may be a crowded market on the Indonesian island. But writer Mia Chenyze navigates the varied and remote landscapes of Bali to find her moment of zen – all without her phone
Image: Justin Kauffman, Shutterstock (Bali Starling), Courtesy of Plataran Menjangan, Shuttershock (Menjangan Island)
Standing in the middle of Ngurah Rai International Airport, which served an average of nearly 2 million monthly passengers last year, it’s hard to believe that Bali is a haven for those seeking to get away from it all. Of the swarm jostling through baggage claim, a chunk is likely headed to the party areas of Kuta and Seminyak. The surfing types are going to Uluwatu and Nusa Dua. And with those Instagram pictures of everyone and their mum doing the #baliswing (66.6K posts and counting!), the rice paddies of Ubud are starting to be overrun by the shutter-happy crowd, too. Peace and quiet, I imagine, will not be easy to find in these places.
It is, however, expressly on my wish list. I’m headed to the quieter periphery of West Bali, anchored by a national park and fringed with coral reefs and, most enticingly, located four to five hours from the airport by car – to avoid these crowds and to investigate if it really is possible for travellers today to escape the rush of the modern world. That means turning my phone off for three days and trying to live in the moment.
As someone who uses a smartphone to work, play and socialise, the idea strikes me with dread, but I am, as you may have guessed, embarking on one of the big travel buzzwords du jour: a digital detox.
For those who don’t know the term, digital detoxing means going cold turkey on all of your electronic devices and it’s an increasingly popular holiday choice for urbanites around the world. Here in Bali, properties such as the Ayana Resort and Spa have already banned mobile phones around one of its pools from 9am to 5pm in a bid to tap into this trend. But my plan is to go several steps further and totally disconnect from the outside world. Will I be able to cope without Google Maps, WhatsApp, my Spotify playlists and – shock and horror – my camera? Can I say this trip happened at all if I don’t post it on Instagram? I am about to find out.
Learning to stop and look
The challenge of my digital detox starts the moment I open my eyes on the first morning. I may be in a rustic joglo-style villa at the Plataran Menjangan eco-resort, but I still want to reach over to the night stand and mindlessly thumb through my messages in those first minutes before I’m fully awake. Instead, I lie in my kingly bed and listen to the surrounding forest, until the flood of sunlight over the glass-roofed outdoor bathroom nudges me to start the day.
Though I’m anxious and phoneless, there’s plenty here that makes the real world more enticing than the virtual one. The resort lies in the Plataran L’Harmonie extension of West Bali National Park – 190km² of vast mangroves, coral islands, savannas and montane forests. It’s also said to be teeming with some 175 species of flora and 167 species of birds, including the endangered Bali starling, a stunning white bird of paradise with electric blue eyes.
As far as finding peace and quiet is concerned, it’s a good place to start. Only a small portion of the park is open to the public, and hikers must be accompanied by a guide – which suits me just fine. The less Google Mapping I have to do, the better. Through the Plataran Menjangan’s Ranger for a Day programme, I meet Ade, guide, translator and a true-blue nature lover with uncanny observation skills. As we walk through the rainforest, he rattles off the complicated Latin names of plants – without Googling them, mind you – and throws in facts about their medicinal properties. He spots a giant squirrel and its nest of leaves from afar; more used to the extreme close-up vistas of my smartphone screen, I can only make out a hazy silhouette. He coos and clicks to demonstrate the onomatopoeia behind the local names of birds and, most remarkable of all, with his astonishing hearing picks up the faint shrill of the elusive Bali starling even as our buggy is grinding down a rocky path. Upon spotting its white plumage, I instinctively reach for my phone – then I remember I’ve left it in the villa. I’m disappointed, thinking of that millennial adage: #picsoritdidnthappen. It’s painful to think that no photographic reminders will remain of this day.
Plunging below the surface
If disappearing into the forest of West Bali for a day isn’t far enough from civilisation, I’m about to go even further on day two of my digital detox: snorkelling around Menjangan Island. A little way over the northern tip of the national park and facing the Bali Sea, it is an unspoilt and uninhabited island accessible only by boat.
On our 30-minute boat ride, our snorkel guide Yudha explains that the island is splendid all year round as the underwater gardens are sheltered from the elements. Yudha used to work in a dive centre for eight years until a diving incident left his ear drums damaged. Now he runs snorkelling trips as a freelancer for resorts, doing fishing when tourism is lean. He shares with pride that the nearby local villagers employ line-fishing methods rather than dragnets in a bid to protect to the marine ecosystem.
And what an ecosystem it is. The water boasts astonishing clarity and a diverse assortment of coral gardens, reef walls, sandy slopes and caves. I am greeted right off the boat with sea anemones teeming with clownfish (#findingnemo, I reflexively think) and parrotfish pecking at corals for algae. The reefs stretch on almost endlessly.
Menjangan Island means “deer island” in Javanese, and after an hour of snorkelling, we head off to another site in the hopes of sighting some. Here, the water is a stunning patchwork of deep cobalt and dreamy turquoise, set in dramatic contrast to the beach. This zone is scant in coral, but offers dramatic drop-offs. The fish are much bigger and they amble leisurely in shoals, unfettered by our presence. We are quite alone. The only crowds here are the schools of surgeonfish and bluefin trevally, the occasional manta ray and the endangered green sea turtle.
With staggering vistas everywhere I look, and not just down below, I’m beginning to see why Bali is so popular for going off the grid. Over the course of the day, the compulsive Instagram curator part of my brain starts to chill out, and I begin to enjoy the sights not for their potential likes, but for what they really are: an invitation to surrender and just look.
Listening for the silence
On our ride back, I survey Pura Gili Kencana, believed to be Bali’s oldest temple, and its sea-facing Ganesha statue. The statue appears to watch me as it recedes into the distance, seemingly holding my gaze.
This is the other reason why Bali and spiritual well-being go hand in hand. It’s not for nothing that it’s called the Island of the Gods. About 80% of residents are Balinese Hindu. There are said to be a whopping 20,000 temples here, and many Balinese art forms are inspired by the Ramayana – which incidentally also involves leaving worldly attachments and going into the forest.
In a few weeks, over 7–8 March, locals will visit the temples for Nyepi, the Day of Silence, one of the biggest religious holidays in Bali. Its beach clubs, cocktail bars and adventure outfitters will shut down, the streets will be empty of vehicles and people will take the day off work to fast, pray and reflect. During Nyepi last year, internet was limited and the airport, too, closed for a 24-hour period. It’s an island-wide digital detox, you might say.
Yudha and I spend the remainder of the boat ride in silence, as the temple disappears into the distance. Ganesha is revered as the god of learning and a remover of obstacles of both the physical and spiritual kind – a good deity to pray to for the patience and presence of mind to appreciate and absorb all that I am experiencing.
Waiting for the dawn
Gurus say that your phone is an escape from the discomfort of the present. But that escape is impossible during the discomfort of climbing the Ijen volcano complex.
It’s day three of my digital detox – or rather, late at night on day two. The journey to Ijen involves setting off at 11pm for the Gilimanuk Harbour, taking an hour-long ferry ride across the Bali Strait, and another hour-long drive to reach the base.
I’m going further off the grid than yesterday. I’m in search of poor cell phone reception and another out-of-body spectacle. A complex of volcanoes in Java’s Banyuwangi regency, Ijen is famed for the electric blue flames that ignite when sulphuric gases emerge through its crater and ignite.
The gravelly, narrow path is lit only by headlamps, and I’m with Arief, a former sulphur miner turned guide. It’s 3km to get to the crater rim, and another 45-minute scramble down, through a sulphur mist, for a view of the flames – it’s a long walk, and my progress is slow. My phone is the last thing on my mind.
When we get close, Arief hands me a gas mask for protection from the toxic sulphuric gases. About 80% of the men in his village are miners, working from midnight to sunrise – the crater is too hot during daytime.
I reach the crater at 4.30am, but it’s already too bright to see the flames. I’m surprisingly fine with this failure. The hours spent thinking about nothing except putting one foot ahead of the other seems as good a reward as any Insta-moment. I’m pretty sure I’m the first customer who has ever declined Arief’s offer to take photos.
I do catch the sunrise which gradually stains the sky pink and lifts the mists to reveal a placid turquoise crater lake. The moment of zen I was seeking finally grips me.
By the time I make the drive back to the airport, it’s been 76 hours since I used my phone. I feel focused and relaxed. I’m not naïve enough to think this feeling will last forever. But that just means I’ll have to come back to the island where I found it. It might just be on the Day of Silence.
+An at-a-glance look at West Bali’s top places to eat, visit and rest your head
Situated at the fringe of West Bali National Park, the beach-front resort features spacious villas that marry rustic architecture with modern-day comforts. Wild deer and grey monkeys roam freely on this unique topography of savannas and mangroves.
West Bali National Park, Jln Raya Seririt; plataran.com
Its iconic octagon-shaped structure presents a panoramic view of the national park and the Bali Sea from its rooftop bar. Sip on sunset drinks at the swim-up bar before dining on Balinese classics and Western favourites.
West Bali National Park, Jln Raya Seririt; plataran.com
Bali Tower Bistro
The five-storey tree-top “hut” soars high above the tree canopy to offer sweeping views of the forest, Menjangan Island and even the volcanoes of Java. Happy hour runs daily from 3 to 6.30pm.
West Bali National Park, Jln Raya Gilimanuk Singaraja; themenjangan.com/bali-tower-bistro
Reputed to have the best-preserved coral reefs around Bali, Menjangan Island is abundant with marine life such as manta rays, sea turtles and garden eels. Mild currents and pristine waters provide ideal conditions for diving and snorkelling all year round.
This volcano in East Java is renowned for electric blue flames that flare up when sulphuric gases ignite above the surface – visible only in the wee hours – and its acidic turquoise lake. From West Bali, it’s about two hours to the base by ferry and car.
West Bali National Park
Sprawling across 190km², the national park comprises a diverse range of topographies: savannas, mangroves, coral islands and montane forests. The park is home to diverse flora and fauna, including the hawksbill turtle, giant squirrel and the endangered Bali starling. Guides are required.
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