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Tulamben

Tulamben

You can’t refer to Mount Agung,   the Balinese version of Mount Meru, without mentioning Besakih – Bali’s mother temple – which is dedicated to the island’s version of Smaug ‘the dragon under the mountain’ in Tolkien's The Hobbit. It had its uber-holiness confirmed in 1963 when even as a quarter of Agung’s top was blown off and lava streamed down every which-way, Besakih remained unpeturbed. It’s also the starting point for treks to the top, which start at midnight and take 4-7 hours to complete so that a great sunrise (and view of Rinjani) is always on the menu. But make sure you’re physically fit and well kitted out before setting off, the last hour is largely spent on all fours and the early morning temperature lurks around 6-12 degrees Celsius rather than the normal 24.
Padang Bai

Padang Bai

Meaning ‘grassy bay,’ This eastern port town is seen as a necessary thoroughfare by those who simply want to get on one of the ‘fast’ boats to the Gillis or Lombok. This is a mistake. One of Bali’s greatest gems, Biastugal, sits on the other side of the bay, a little slice of heaven serviced by three cheap warungs and kept delightfully deserted most of the time by an obscured entrance that lies at the heart of an abandoned hotel project.   The other highlight is the local reef, Tanjung Sari, where sharks, rays, razorfish and the like lurk, swimming for your pleasure before most likely being served at one of the warungs or cozy homestays nearby. Quiet and relaxed, the natural rhythms of Bali are at their most obvious here.
Nusa Islands

Nusa Islands

This tiny triplet of islands, (from west to east: Lembongan, Ceningan and Penida), across the treacherous Badung strait, are a strange mix of swampy mangroves, sugary beaches and a dry, barren limestone reminiscent of the Bukit peninsula. Though the locals are perfectly nice, mostly making a living from selling seaweed or embarking on diving trips, few honest Balinese encourage a sortie because they regard the islands (and especially Penida) to be the home of bad spirits that used to help a medieval king-sorcerer, I Macaling, scuttle numerous invasion fleets and later bring disasters on Bali whenever these forces were not spiritually deflected. Like the Gillis, visitors quickly hedonically adapt to the fact telephone access, hot water, 24/7 power, wifi etc. are luxuries and not to be taken for granted.
Lombok

Lombok

Basically Bali’s poorer Islamic cousin,   Lombok is drier, less connected, more violent (the last riots were against Christians in 2000) and more expensive. In fact, it’s inferior in all respects to its westerly neighbour unless you want old-school authenticity. Once visitors leave the beaten track around the north-west of the island and Rinjani, there are some gems to be found. Highlights include the ‘unknown’ Gillis (Asahan, Poh, Gede, Nanggu and Tangkong), the Jukut and Joben waterfalls, the antique markets and Chinese food at Ampenan, as well as the deserted beaches and stupendous surf that dot the south west coast. Just, whatever you do, don’t arrive here all fired up for a party, almost all music stops here at 11pm and nightlife in general is frowned upon.
Gilli Islands

Gilli Islands

Literally the ‘small island islands,’ thanks to the redundant English, this vehicle-less archipelago clustered off the coast of Lombok, 25 miles from mainland Bali, was once so niche that only backpackers and locals knew about it. And while Meno and Air have kept their eccentrically unkempt airs and graces (like a lack of electricity and WIFI) about them, ‘Gilli T’ (once a penal colony) with over 30 pubs and clubs, is more like Magaluf territory.   In short, if you want a local buzz hit Air; to chill, hit Meno; to party, hit Trawangan. Just be aware of the fact accommodation will need to be booked in advance, the mosque call to prayer lasts all night, and most of the beaches have been ruined by coral reef degradation.
Candidasa

Candidasa

Candidasa is really a pleasant, pit-stop rather than a destination per se. While its giant lily-strewn lagoon and fertility-dedicated temple are doubtless gorgeous, there’s not much else to do. Granted, some of the seafood restaurants are premier league stuff (especially the soups) but the beach is non-existent, there’s no nightlife to speak of, and even the diving that it was once known for is sub par thanks to its destruction to feed building works in the 1980s.   So now a once-charming fishing village has been reduced to a sprawl of resorts of varying quality and prices (often with little correlation between the two) whose chief merit is to serve as a transport hub for those who want to find a real slice of history at Tenganan.
Amed

Amed

Amed is Bali’s crown jewel.   Not a village as such but really a name applied to about 10 miles of laidback coastline, it’s famous (mostly among the French weirdly) for the quality of the dives its hosts (which include the hulk of USS Liberty) and the robustness of village life – after all, it’s a place where locals can still be found flogging buckets of fresh fish at five in the morning.   Non-divers still visit in their droves, however, mostly to lounge about on its black sand beaches, sip a cold bintang, and watch the sun dip below Agung, before nipping to one of the few bars, most of which peddle Bali reggae in one form or another.
Alampura

Alampura

The capital of Karangasem, as the town was once known before the 1963 eruption of Agung, there’s nothing really of note here other than a few ATMs (few of its neighbours have any), a couple of Chinese shops and some mosques. People still make the detour, however, usually to see the Taman Ujung Water Palace, the sister site of the more glamorous Tirta Gangga, also built by the late Raja of Karangasem.   Which is understandable as its mountainous backdrop, glistening ponds, stately pavilions and elegant elephant bridges form the epitome of tranquillity. Don’t be fooled though, parts of the grand water palace were used not to bathe and luxuriate in but rather to punish those guilty of practising pangiwa (sorcery).
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