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Batukaru: beauty and the bugs

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The rain fell in thick sheets, drumming against our bungalow’s tiled roof and ricocheting into the darkness. Outside a persistent swarm of insects flocked to the lamps hanging off the wall. “We have to go to bed early tonight,” Bama warned. He had turned out the lights on the upper floor and locked all the windows throughout the building, for we were under siege.

Bama and I were facing an invasion of laron, flying termites I had grown up seeing every spring in Hong Kong when the weather was wet and gloomy. We had encountered them on a previous trip to Bali, in Candidasa, when the opportunistic insects crawled in underneath the front door. This time they came through the gaps between the roof and the walls, shedding their wings before reaching the end of their short, brutish lives.

The next day the bungalow’s lower floor resembled a war zone, for we could not count the number of lifeless laron littering the ground. Luckily there was a broom of dried coconut leaf in the space beneath the stairs. Grabbing it by the handle, I swept a cloud of wings out into the morning sunshine, down the steps and into the grass where they could no longer be seen.

Travelling in the tropics engenders a certain kind of acceptance – it means sleeping soundly in damp bedsheets, and calmly opening the window to allow wasps to escape. It means quietly disposing of dead insects before breakfast and not breathing a word of it to the staff at your eco-lodge. As Bama and I discovered firsthand, staying in a forested area at the height of rainy season meant dealing with these challenges.

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Sarinbuana’s bamboo bale (pavilion)

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A forest setting

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Early morning at the balcony

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Inside looking out

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A floral arrangement and ‘gebyok’ panels

But you would never have known about it from our photos. For Batukaru is a wildly beautiful part of Bali, and Sarinbuana Eco Lodge is the kind of place where you could write a book or go on a digital detox. We had booked two nights in the Jungle Bungalow, which a previous guest cleverly nicknamed the “Jungalow”. Of Sarinbuana’s five villas, this is the one that appears most frequently on websites and in the glossy pages of magazines. Its many windows flood the rooms with natural light, and the timber frame is filled in by gebyok panels made from interwoven strips of bamboo.

My favourite place in the bungalow is the upper floor balcony, where the view extends over a thickly forested valley and all the way down to Uluwatu, the southwestern tip of Bali. We can make out the runway of Ngurah Rai Airport jutting out into the Indian Ocean, and the undulating terminal roof gleaming a brilliant white in the midday sun. By night the lights of Denpasar blink like stars on the horizon.

Around us the verdant hillsides are punctuated by prehistoric-looking giant tree ferns, and though we can’t see its inhabitants, the jungle is clearly teeming with life. The bungalow feels as though it is enveloped in the low drone of cicadas and other insects, not to mention the birdsong drifting through the trees. From the balcony, we hear the occasional mating call of the tokay gecko, and Bama catches the melodic sound of a lutung.

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Enveloped by the foliage

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Our Jungle Bungalow

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Idyllic scenes at Sarinbuana

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Bama and the resident cat

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One more of the “Jungalow”

On our second day at Sarinbuana, we are taken on a morning hike into the Batukaru rainforest. The road winds past salak palms, jackfruit trees and robusta coffee shrubs, along with several lychee trees which have grown to an enormous size in the fertile volcanic soil.

Wayan, a former tour guide for English- and Japanese-speaking visitors, has returned to his home village to till the fields. He is our primary resource on the flora and fauna of this area. Entering the rainforest proper, we follow the overgrown stone tracks to Jatiluwih Temple and catch glimpses of the surreal. Wayan points out several bird’s-nest ferns sitting high up in the trees. We spot one suspended in mid-air, its roots holding fast to a clump of soil. There are strangler banyans, majestic candlenut trees and thickets of bamboo, where elusive (and critically endangered) Sunda pangolins sometimes breed in a burrow beneath the stems.

Just off the trail stand a cluster of giant pandanus trees with exposed roots, where Wayan retrieves its fruit, resembling a corn cob but patterned like honeycomb. He also shows us wild figs, manggis hutan – ‘forest mangosteen’ – and other fruit-bearing trees. We grimace at the tart flavour of fresh green rhubarb, which has a firm and juicy bite.

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Inside the rainforest

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Mystery blossoms

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Wayan shows us a wild fig

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A baby spider fern grows at the tip of a leaf

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Edible mushrooms

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A bird’s-nest fern suspended in mid-air

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Wayan at the giant pandanus trees; wild berries on the right

The animals of the Batukaru rainforest are more difficult to track down. Bama and I barely make out an emerald pigeon flying through the canopy or an eagle rustling the distant branches, though we do come across a languid Malabar tree-nymph. Native to India, its wings are a triumph of delicate patterns in black and white, and the eye-catching tree nymph is the biggest butterfly I’ve ever seen.

Still, there is one particular resident that we must be careful to avoid. “Watch out for leeches,” Wayan says. At his warning, I look down to find one wriggling between my sock and the inside of my shoe. Thankfully the leech is extricated before it reaches a bare patch of skin.

But Bama is not so lucky. Further down the trail, I spot a telltale black shape with traces of blood above his ankle. Wayan effortlessly plucks the leech off Bama’s leg and places it on his thumbnail to give us a closer look. I watch in revulsion as the vampiric worm stands upright, curling to and fro while Wayan talks at length about its supposed benefits. Both Bama and I are relieved when he flicks it back into the undergrowth.

Jatiluwih Temple, which helps control the subak irrigation system of the nearby rice terraces, occupies a quiet forest clearing. There is no one there, save an inquisitive monkey who waits patiently for food. He positions himself so close we can almost reach out and touch him. Wary of a potential bite, Bama gets up to move a short distance away. But I choose not to budge and neither does Wayan, who opens his backpack and shrugs. At this, the macaque stands on his hind legs and peers carefully into the void. “See?” Wayan says gently, “There’s no food for you.” Satisfied, he disappears into the trees.

Soon the three of us find ourselves back at the eco-lodge, in time to escape a torrential downpour. That night is the assault of the flying termites, and though I hated it then, I now see the humour in the hardship. And we really should have seen it coming. The day we arrived in Bali, a driver had asked us where we were staying in Batukaru. Upon hearing our answer, he talked excitedly of broken roads only accessible in a four-wheel drive. “Oh, Sarinbuana!” he exclaimed. “That is really an adventure.”

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A Malabar tree-nymph

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Its spotted wings were translucent in the sun

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The tree-nymph at rest

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More wild fruits – these ones were the size of apples

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Inside, a thick mass of buds

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A long-tailed macaque yawns at Jatiluwih Temple

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The same monkey perched in the nearby trees

52 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ooooo this was lovely! I escaped into the jungle with you. What a great adventure. Reminded me of our time in the Amazon. Really must get back to Bali to see more of it!
    Alison

    March 22, 2015
    • I loved it – in spite of the leeches and flying termites, this was a fabulous place to get away from it all. You and Don would definitely enjoy the wild heart of Bali!
      James

      March 22, 2015
  2. wou!!!! More than beauty!!! 🙂

    March 22, 2015
    • We lucked out on the weather. Everything looked so photogenic in the sun!

      March 22, 2015
  3. Looking at your photos and reading your story remind me of the fresh air and healthy dishes we had at Sarinbuana. When our driver went through a small road, at times very steep, going deeper and deeper into the forest I was both impressed and worried. It was really far from everything! However despite the bugs (swarms of them!) Sarinbuana was one of those places which left a long-lasting impression on me – and inspired me to eat better and have my own vegetable and spice garden one day.

    March 22, 2015
    • The way in was fascinating… especially that section when we drove down the stone tracks in the middle of the jungle! For me the food was also a major highlight. I remember you saying that if we stayed a week, we could learn to cook everything on the dinner menu. 🙂

      March 22, 2015
  4. Time to visit Bali I think, nice post 🙂

    March 22, 2015
    • Thanks! If peace and quiet are what you’re looking for, steer clear of crowded areas in the south!

      March 22, 2015
  5. Sounds blissful James! I can imagine why wildlife spotting would be hard in that dense tropical jungle. We had our share of dead flying termites on the hills, so I could cope with them for a brief taste of the tranquility this gorgeous retreat promises. My Bali list gets ever longer thanks to you two 🙂

    March 22, 2015
    • I think the best time to go would be dry season – the flying termites and leeches rarely (if ever) make an appearance in those months. Bali has such a wealth of sights and beautiful places… I’ve been four times now and have yet to get bored! 🙂

      March 22, 2015
  6. thethoughtsofarunner #

    wow that’s amazing! You make me jealous 🙂

    March 22, 2015
    • Who knows, you might stay there in the not too distant future… 🙂

      March 22, 2015
      • thethoughtsofarunner #

        I hope so!

        March 23, 2015
  7. Wow looks so beautiful

    March 22, 2015
    • Yes, it was a gorgeous jungle hideaway!

      March 22, 2015
  8. This all LOOKS lovely, but I wonder if I could handle the bugs?! I am really freaked out by insects; I’ll take lizards or other creepy reptiles over bugs any day! I’m shuddering thinking about the leeches …

    March 22, 2015
    • I think we chose the worst time of year to go… the leeches only come out in wet season and so do the flying termites. Had we gone in June-August, there would probably have been a lot less bugs!

      March 22, 2015
  9. Gorgeous restful looking place! Forest walk looked interesting and beautiful. Did you see many birds?

    March 22, 2015
    • We only saw a couple of birds, but they were high up in the canopy and flew very fast! It might have been different if we left earlier in the morning.

      March 22, 2015
  10. Fascinating reading and great pics. I grew up with bugs too so it’s not a big deal but leeches? Once did a bush walk through a rain forest in northern New South Wales and found ourselves amongst leeches. Not something I want to experience again.

    March 23, 2015
    • Wow, I wasn’t expecting there to be leeches in New South Wales. I was lucky this time – wearing long socks on the hike really helped.

      March 23, 2015
  11. myworldinca #

    Great views and photos!

    March 23, 2015
  12. Girl Gone Expat #

    Love the amazing pictures from your jungle walk, amazing what the jungle floor has to offer! Did you try the wild figs as well? And the eco-lodge, wow! Would be amazing to sleep there!

    March 23, 2015
    • I didn’t try the figs, but they sure looked tempting! The eco-lodge was such a beautiful place… I loved walking around and taking pictures in the early morning sun.

      March 23, 2015
      • Girl Gone Expat #

        Your pictures turned out pretty amazing as well:)

        March 24, 2015
  13. I’m sooooo not a fan of leeches and termites however it simply looks so lush and gorgeous, tempted to brave both!!

    March 23, 2015
    • You won’t need to face either one if you go in dry season! Had we gone between June and September I’m sure we wouldn’t have had to deal with them. 🙂

      March 23, 2015
  14. That was beautifully written and descriptive. Even without the gorgeous photos, your words did the adventure justice!

    March 24, 2015
    • Much appreciated – thank you for the kind words!

      March 28, 2015
  15. This looks breathtaking. I don’t like heat and humidity, so I might just have to be happy with your beautiful words and pictures.

    March 24, 2015
    • Funny thing is, it didn’t feel that hot or humid when we were there. It may have been because of all the trees and the fact that we were 700 metres above sea level.

      March 28, 2015
  16. Beautiful absolutely. cant wait for the next blog.

    March 25, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

      March 28, 2015
  17. The area you visited looks like the Bali that became world famous for the green, culture and landscapes. It is cool to see that it still exists.

    Yes, dealing with insects is part of traveling in the tropics and isn’t for the faint of heart. We once had an enormous spider that we named Clyde living with us in Malawi. He came out every night and we gave him a wide berth. I can’t say I’ve been invaded by thousands of bugs at once thought. That is a goal of mine now.

    March 25, 2015
    • Absolutely – it was great to experience this side of Bali. I loved how the eco-lodge was completely immersed in nature and I hope the rest of the island doesn’t go the way of the south.

      I’m not surprised you and Kristi gave that spider a name! I haven’t encountered any massive one so far, but that may change in one of our future trips around Southeast Asia…

      March 28, 2015
  18. Incredible! I have this eco-lodge saved and will check it out when we make our way to Bali! Completely here you on the insects. In the Philippines we left our place for dinner only to come back to a swarm of hatched mayflies. In Thailand the biggest thing was needing to check for giant cockroaches before bed. Oh the price of paradise!

    March 25, 2015
    • This is surely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed in. I guess we were still lucky – dealing with those bugs was not as bad as fighting off giant cockroaches!

      March 28, 2015
  19. I have to go back to Bali to see this. It’s great how you were able to accept the bugs and bask in the beauty.

    March 27, 2015
    • I think it helped that the bugs were familiar… it wasn’t the first time I encountered leeches or flying termites. Those experiences probably forced me to build up some tolerance!

      March 28, 2015
  20. Nice article and pictures James. Your narration makes me imagine how serene to be there.
    I’m considering to visit and stay there someday.

    Btw, I like the picture of those edible mushrooms. The lighting is just perfect … And I’m mouthwatering now 😀

    March 29, 2015
    • Hatur nuhun, Bart. Hopefully you’ll get there pretty soon! 😀

      Those mushrooms sure looked tasty. I’m so glad I took that photo – a second later the patch of sunlight was already gone.

      March 29, 2015
  21. You know, out of all the beautiful and unique aspects of life at the Jungelow that you described I honestly couldn’t get past the swarm of dead bugs on your floor! Call me crazy, but I love that sort of weird thing… I live in HCMC and life here is basically one long (and excellent) succession of the bizarre and nonsensical

    April 2, 2015
    • I don’t think that is being crazy! Some of us thrive on strange and unexpected experiences. Now that I think of it, waking up to all those dead bugs was pretty funny. It is great that you love HCMC – I was there on a short trip two years ago and remember the great sense of energy. It just felt so optimistic, so up-and-coming, like it was rushing headlong into the future.

      April 7, 2015
      • Oh it honestly is – rushing headlong into something, the future probably, but I don’t think HCMC itself knows whats it’s rushing into! That’s part of the fun 😉

        April 8, 2015
  22. What an incredible adventure…and I love the opening of this post “The rain fell in thick sheets, drumming against our bungalow’s tiled roof and ricocheting into the darkness” granted, living in Hong Kong and having to deal with this flying termites. The peace, solitude and intense colors of nature (every shade of green I think you have captured in your photographs!) is the perfect remedy for life 🙂 I think if I was there, I’d be spending a lot of time roaming around ~ and then to the Sarinbuana’s bamboo bale (pavilion), what a view it must have. Cheers ~

    April 5, 2015
    • Thank you, Randall. 🙂 Sarinbuana was incredibly photogenic… the best part was waking up at sunrise and taking an early morning stroll in the grounds. Apart from Bama and I, there were only two other guests at the lodge (who we saw at meal times). I guess that made it even more tranquil!

      April 7, 2015
  23. The Awayfarer #

    Nice post! I’ve never heard of a lutung before, but now I’m itching to hear one.

    May 31, 2015
    • At first I mistook them for some kind of bird! Here’s a clip of their sounds:

      June 3, 2015

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