Photo: Statue and a volcano.

Introduction

Bali’s Sidemen (pronounced Si-da-men) sprawls across an enchanting valley and not only offers a magnificent landscape of terraced hills overshadowed by Gunung Agung, but here you can connect with traditional village life and recharge away from the trappings of the tourist hustle and bustle elsewhere.


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Sidemen is found about 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Ubud or an hour northwest of Candi Dasa. The valley is peppered with several small villages, with most tourist accommodation and restaurants around the village of Tabola. Here you will find the temperature drops a little, offering ideal conditions for trekking. It can be downright chilly at night — check that the hotel you’ve chosen provides enough cosy covers before you sign on the dotted line.

Fields, a shrine and a volcano.

Fields, a shrine and a volcano. Photo: Sally Arnold

Sidemen is a traditional Hindu area and many locals, although friendly, are a little overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of tourists. It’s polite to dress respectfully when wandering around the village; we’d recommend keeping your shoulders and knees covered. A small Muslim population lives here too; these people are descendants from the Karangasam kingdom, which was based in modern Amlapura and once extended to Muslim-majority Lombok. There is a mosque in the village next door to Villa Lihat Sawah. Famous Westerners who discovered Sidemen before you did include German painter Walter Spies, who in the late 1930s moved from Ubud to Iseh near Sidemen as Ubud was “too crowded” — one wonders what he would think today.

While it’s primarily a rice growing area, most farmers only plant one crop of rice per year, unlike other parts of Bali, where up to three crops are planted. Crops are rotated and you’ll find chillies, peanuts, corn and tapioca, among others. Flowers grown for offerings add other colours to the green. On the higher slopes salak (snakefruit), cacao, coffee and cloves are grown.

Rock hop the river and keep exploring.

Rock hop the river and keep exploring. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Temples are dotted through the fields as are large boulders — evidence of the holy mountain Gunung Agung’s former rage. The farmers just plant their fields around them. On the summit of the hill in Banjar Sangkan Gunung, Pura Bukit Tegeh (the temple on the hill), offers tremendous views and a steep uphill trek to see them. The Unda River meanders through the valley and forms part of Bali’s subak, the traditional irrigation system that pulses across the island.

Guides offer treks though the fields, but you can just as easily wander about yourself and get happily lost (but don’t trample the crops!). A guide though will explain a bit about the local culture, maybe take you inside a temple or to a local ceremony, and explain what all the plants and crops are. Rates are around 60,000 rupiah per hour for up to four people.

Recommended local guides:
Yoko (I Nengah Merta Astawa): T: (0813) 3826 5214; yokotrekking@yahoo.com; 60,000 rupiah per hour for up to four people. Ricefield walk: Two to three hours. Temple walk: four to five hours. Gunug Agung or Gunung Batur trek: 500,000 rupiah per person, minimum two, maximum four. Includes transport, entry fees, local guide and breakfast and runs from 01:00-11:00.
I Nyoman Subrata: T: (0852) 3899 5701; nyomansidemen@gmail.com; 50,000 rupiah per hour for two people, usually for three hours. Gunug Agung trek: 1,000,000 rupiah for two people. Includes transport, entry fees, local guide and breakfast and runs from 01:00-11:00.

You can also organise to climb Gunung Agung from Sidemen. The trek to the top usually starts around 01:00 and costs 500,000 rupiah per person, with a minimum of two, returning about 11:00.

Beautiful weavings.

Beautiful weavings. Photo: Sally Arnold

Traditionally Sidemen is renowned for its songket and endek (ikat of the weft) weaving. Songket is an intricate and time-consuming process, produced on backstrap looms. It can take several months to weave a sarong. The traditional style here uses gold and silver thread along with naturally dyed cotton.

These days the metals are artificial, and many of the coloured dyes are chemicals, while sometimes silk is used rather than cotton. Regardless, it’s interesting to watch the beautiful and skilful work. Traditionally worn as wedding clothes or for tooth-filing ceremonies, due to their high cost, Balinese often hire songket for special occasions these days rather than buy them — that is reserved for the passing tourist or collector.

The devil is in the detail.

The devil is in the detail. Photo: Sally Arnold

Ikat, locally called endek, is a form of weaving where tie-dyed thread creates a pattern that is then woven. Traditionally this cloth was only reserved for high caste families, and woven on blackstrap looms, however these days it’s produced in greater quantities, usually on a larger loom, and takes less time than songket. Many local artisans whose skills have been passed down through generations work out of their homes around Sidemen.

A guide can take you, or up on the main road, you can see the weaving in action at Pelangi for ikat (T: (0812) 392 3483; open daily 09:00-18:00), make sure you visit the workshop underneath, or opposite in a small unnamed shop, for songket. Weaving is for sale and prices are negotiable. Beware of the cheaper mass-produced machine-made weavings in some of the shops. Pelangi also sells textiles from other parts of Indonesia and accepts credit cards.

Sidemen is quite green in places.

Sidemen is quite green in places. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The family at the songket shop also produce traditional Balinese books made from lontar palm leaves and bamboo. The text is scrapped into the dried leaf with a sharp implement then rubbed with a mixture of coconut oil and burnt candlenut, to make the scratchings visible. Pages are tied together, through holes, concertina-ed and bookended with bamboo. These books traditionally stored sacred Hindu texts written in Sanskrit and were kept in temples.

Sidemen is also one of Bali’s best known areas for producing arak (potent moonshine). Distilleries can be a little tricky to find, and you’ll probably need a local to take you. One we visited said they collect 50 litres of palm flower sap (which can also be fermented to make palm-wine — tuak), and distill it to produce 20 litres of arak, which they sell for 20,000 rupiah per bottle (about 600 millilitres). Beware there have been numerous deaths in Bali caused by methanol poisoning from badly distilled arak.

Home made booze - use caution.

Home made booze - use caution. Photo: Sally Arnold

Sidemen is home to a Sadus Tile factory, which produces beautifully coloured and pattered traditional cement tiles, used in many of the local hotels.

Sidemen has a local genjek group. Genjek is traditional music from east Bali that involves groups of men singing, usually tales of woe and lost love, punctuated with a kind of cek-cek sound (a little like some forms of rap), drinking arak and individuals performing a dance off. There are no regular performances, but sometime there are local competitions between various groups — ask around, and you may be lucky to see one.

If you’re an early riser, the morning market on the main road through the village starts about 04:00, and is all over by 09:00.

I Gede Tama at Pondok Bukit Luah, across the river from Tabola, offers silver classes for 400,000 rupiah for two people. You will produce two simple rings from about eight grams of silver. T: (0852) 3772 1290; www.facebook.com/gede.tama.3.

Cooking classes are offered at Surya Shanti Villa in their wonderful traditional kitchen, for $50 per person, with a minimum two. T: (0852) 3734 5574;(0828) 9729 8500. Embang Homestay also provide cooking classes on request in a more modern kitchen setting for 300,000 rupiah for two people. T: (0813) 3753 6464, (0853) 3399 7092.

Have a stretch at Sidemen Yoga Centre (T: (0812) 3918 700) located at Cepik Villa — by request only. Many hotels have spas and massages can be had in your room too — ask at your accommodation.

Sukahet Sari Bali Countryside cultural village, about six kilometres south of the centre of Sidemen, offer half-day cultural workshops and tours. Though mostly aimed at groups, individuals can also participate. Options include cooking classes, offering making, and you can ride a plough behind a cow through the fields — fun for kids too. It’s less cheesy than it sounds and is priced from $55 including lunch, with a discount for kids. T: (0851) 0145 7474; (0811) 396 070; www.balicountryside.com.

Mother Temple Besakih.

Mother Temple Besakih. Photo: Sally Arnold

Forty minutes’ north of Sidemen is Pura Besakih, Bali’s mother temple. This is the largest temple complex on the island, and the most important to the Balinese. We’d recommend going with a local in tow for a ceremony if possible or with an outside guide, rather than turn up alone and face the hassle of touts there — or just avoid it altogether, as there are plenty of other beautiful temples in Bali to see.

Accommodation in Sidemen is mostly found in Tabola, along a road that leads from the main road, then heads south running almost parallel — just follow the signs. In recent years the choices here have become more upmarket and Sidemen now has some lovely accommodation to choose from — many rooms have excellent views. Hardly any rooms are now available for under 300,000 rupiah per night, however you can bargain a bit in low season. If you’re on a tight budget, Warung Bali offers one simple fan-cooled cold-water room with no view for 150,000 rupiah. We were unable to inspect it as it was full, but it’s the cheapest sleep around. Most other offerings fall well into the mid- to top-range brackets. The word ‘villa’ has become a ubiquitous misnomer in Sidemen, and almost every hotel here is Villa this or Villa that.

Food choices haven’t quite kept up with the upward mobility of the accommodation, but you’ll find some decent local options. Menus don’t offer much variety, and many hotel restaurants and local warungs offer the same Indonesian, Western and Thai choices. Yes, Thai; it’s not quite what you’ll find on the streets of Bangkok, but it makes a change. The story is that one of the hotels employed a chef who had studied in Thailand, and this guy taught others in the village.

Want to climb a volcano?

Want to climb a volcano? Photo: Stuart McDonald

Getting to and from Sidemen can be a bit tricky via public transport, but is possible. Around the village, motorbikes and motorbike taxis can be hired locally. Some of the higher-end hotels offer free local transport or bicycles.

Sidemen is worth at least an overnight stay, if nothing more than to do nothing and soak up the serenity. But if you’ve got the time and enjoy trekking, you could easily spend two or three relaxing nights here.

Orientation
Sidemen has one BRI ATM that in theory accepts international cards located on the main road, slightly north of the turn-off to the hotels -- if it doesn't work, Klung Kung a 30 minute drive away, is a good bet.

The police station is opposite. If you are in need of medical attention, the closest clinics are at Manggis near Candi Dasa or Ubud. For serious illness, best to head back to Denpasar or Kuta.


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