Bali is Indonesia’s most visited destination and has a large expat community which has mixed a lot of western elements into the fabric of the original, fascinating local culture. Though still undoubtedly a beautiful place, Bali is not suited anymore for those looking for peace and authenticity. At least, that’s what it seems. However, up north, away from the crowds of the central and south parts of the island, lies the West Bali National Park (Taman Nasional Bali Barat). If you want to find a piece of Bali that isn’t overrun by tourism, this is it.
GETTING THERE: The national park is located in the northwestern corner of Bali. If you’re coming from Java you will cross by ferry from Banyuwangi to Gilimanuk. If you’re getting to Banyuwangi by train, you’ll get off at the Banyuwangi Baru station, then make your way across the street to the Ketapang ferry terminal. At the terminal you can purchase tickets for about US $0.50 pp (in 2018). The ferries depart every hour, 24/7 with the exception of the Balinese New Year (Nyepi), and the trip takes about 45 mins to an hour. Scooters, motorcycles and vehicles can be brought as well for an additional cost. If you’re coming by bus then you’ll stay onboard for the crossing and the ticket will be included in the bus fare. If you’re heading here from Denpasar, the island’s capital, there are many buses that go to Gilimanuk and take several hours depending on traffic conditions. Alternatively, for a more expensive fare, you can book a private taxi ride that will also take you on a tour to see the central and northern parts of the island on the way to West Bali National Park (around US $80 per ride). Reserve a full day for it, be prepared for stand stills in certain popular tourist areas, and choose to visit the local art, silver & wood carving galleries in the traditional villages around Ubud if you have the option because it really is a beautiful, authentic experience. If you could, please avoid the kopi luwak plantation visit. This is the most expensive coffee in the world, whose production process involves the coffee beans going through the intestinal tract of wild civets, which supposedly adds a special flavor to the beverage. However, in order to respond to growing international demand, most suppliers now use trapped civets that are kept in mostly cruel conditions. Contributing to this trade as tourists involves, in general, a high degree of animal cruelty. Finally, if you want to get from Gilimanuk to the national park or to the more charming tourist town of Banyuwedang we found that the easiest option was to arrange a taxi, since it seems complicated to figure out public transportation. The price is not as low as imagined in relation to Indonesian prices for services, and varies between US $15 - $40, so keep asking until you find a good option. We did not ask about renting a scooter or motorcycle so we have no personal experience of it. As far as biking there, the road is fairly dangerous for this activity and we would not recommend it.
GATEWAY TOWNS/WHERE TO STAY: If you’re taking the ferry from Java to Bali, you’ll arrive in Gilimanuk. This is far from being as charming as other Balinese towns further south, but there are some accommodation options if you need to spend the night. It’s a good place from where to arrange guided trips into the national park. We stayed at the Arya Guesthouse, which had the highest ratings and was truly an excellent value for the money. They helped us organize a fairly priced taxi ride to Banyuwedang the next day and a trip into the national park with one of the best guides available. Most accommodation options in the Banyuwedang area are Indonesian-owned, from more expensive resorts to welcoming and cheap guesthouses. If you’re looking for a luxury option that contributes to the area and is built with sustainability in mind, the Plataran L’Harmonie destination is the place for you. This is a private 382 ha/944 acres reserve at the boundary of the national park, which contains two luxury accommodation options: The Menjangan and the Plataran Menjangan Resort & Spa. The prices will be more in tune with those of luxury resorts in other parts of the world, but still more affordable than many. And here a portion of your money will go toward sustainability, community and conservation programs. Within the reserve there are a Scientific, Education and Research Centre, a Bali Starling Sanctuary with a reproduction center which contributes to the local return of this iconic species, and an Endemic Tree Planting program. Guests can partake in all conservation activities, aside from options for hiking, bike rides, horseback trips, birdwatching, scuba diving around Bali’s best preserved reefs, and snorkeling. We did not stay at Plataran L’Harmonie, but we visited the reserve for birdwatching. For a much more off-the-beaten path experience, you can head to the Blimbingsari Village to a clean, simple homestay called Shalom, run by one of the area’s best prepared birdwatching guides: Made. We met him alongside our guide, Pak Yudi, who had trained Made to work as a birdwatching guide. From the homestay’s backyard you can go on more adventurous hiking trips through the forest into the West Bali National Park and see many of the region’s special flora and fauna.
ABOUT THE PARK & WHEN TO GO: Depending on when you visit the national park the landscape can be entirely different: from the lush, green forests that cover the mountains and line up along the road half the year, to dry savanna and leafless trees in the dry season. Both seasons, the dry one (roughly May to September) as well as the rainy one (October to March/April) have their benefits. When we visited toward the end of the rainy season, in late March, the forests were still green and lush which made for beautiful landscapes. However, once the trees lose their leaves and the land becomes more scorched is when most wildlife is visible. If you’re fully dedicated to spotting birds and other fauna then your best chances are in the dry season, although we can’t complain of what we succeeded in seeing in March either. The reason for this dramatic change is that the majority of the forest is seasonal tropical or monsoon forest, where some of the tree species lose their leaves entirely. Mixed in with this habitat are mangrove forests, savanna and scrubland, as well as lowland and montane forests. From the approximately 190 sq km (73 sq mi), some 70 sq km (27 sq mi) are represented by coastal habitats like shallow waters, coral reefs and deep coastal waters. The Menjangan Island within the national park is a sanctuary and Bali’s best preserved scuba diving and snorkeling site. The park was initially protected as a nature park in 1919, then turned into a national park in 1941. Aside from the national park there is also an adjacent nature reserve comprising 580 sq km (22 sq mi) of managed mixed-use land. Bali shares many of the flora and fauna of Java, but there is one remaining endemic species of vertebrate on the island: the Bali Myna or Bali Starling (pictured: white, on top of the tree). These birds are critically endangered and barely recovering from almost going extinct in the 20th century. After a reintroduction attempt of captive-bred birds into the West Bali National Park in the 90s failed due to poaching, there are now three successful captive-breeding and release programs on Bali. One of the best areas to see the reintroduced myna in west Bali is within the Plataran L’Harmonie private reserve adjacent to the national park. There are over 160 recorded bird species in the park, as well as hundreds of species of flora, mammals such as the Javan rusa (deer species), the banteng (wild cattle), and over 100 species of coral around the Menjangan Island.
VISITING THE PARK: Since it has been difficult to find comprehensive information regarding the history, flora and fauna of the park, taking a guided trip is truly the best way to see the area and understand what makes it special. The HQ of the park in Cekik is just outside Gilimanuk, while the ranger stations are based in Labuan Lalang (departure point for trips to the Menjangan Island) and in Sumber Klampok. At the ranger stations you can purchase your permits and book guided trips. Only a limited area of the park has maintained trails and is open for visitation, and you have to be accompanied by a guide at all times. Depending on whether it’s a weekday or the weekend, you can expect to pay up to US $23 pp for the permit (2018 prices). You have to pay additionally for bringing a camera, a small activity fee, then the price of the guided trip. The cost is not too high for short two-hour trips, but it adds up for a full day. We opted for a full day trip to various parts of the park and the surrounding communities with Pak Yudi, which included all national park fees and a driver (for two people expect the fees to go close to US $200). Pak Yudi (pictured) is one of the best known guides in the park and is truly passionate about birdwatching, bringing with him a very high quality telescope lens which made the whole experience of spotting various bird species a really special one. We did not get to see all that we were hoping for because the season wasn’t the ideal one, but we did spot several Bali mynas atop some leafless trees and they were the highlight of the day. Pak Yudi’s tour involves short hikes in more remote parts of the park and trips to surrounding villages to spot lizards, snakes, butterflies, and kingfishers. We’d probably not recommend the afternoon boat trip within the Gilimanuk Bay because it’s more polluted and not as scenic as the waters around the Menjangan Island, due to the proximity of the ferry terminal and the harbor, but it was still a good experience. We got to see mangrove forests, crab-eating macaques, lesser adjutant storks, and kingfishers. Visiting West Bali National Park doesn’t bring you to the most impressive scenery Indonesia has to offer, but the importance of this protected area goes well beyond its tourism infrastructure on an overcrowded island prone to mass tourism. This is really the last remaining wild side of Bali and one that is diminishing from population pressure, forestry, poaching and other activities. Supporting local communities in seeing a benefit for the protection of West Bali National Park can help ensure a better future for the park and the species it protects.