The island unplugged

Denied digital distractions, Sian Prior discovers the joy of solitude on the east coast of Bali.

Once you start noticing the piles, they're everywhere you look, in all shapes and sizes. Driving from the crowded Balinese capital of Denpasar towards the north-east coast, I start to count the different types of objects heaped on the side of the road.

There are piles of bricks, cement bags, sawdust, tiles, timber, kindling, peanuts, rice, stone carvings and religious offerings of flower petals. And on the heads of women, balanced magically in reed baskets, there are teetering towers of palm fronds and fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. So many piles of stuff are being made into other stuff.

Australians often worry about the amount of stuff we create and consume but we are not alone in these habits of heaping and hoarding. Many of these piles are destined for the building sites that continue to spring up throughout Bali.

New hotels, shopping centres, schools and houses are chewing up former rice paddies and jungles to accommodate the ever-swelling population of this island of 3.9 million people.

It's my first trip to Bali in 20 years and I'm determined to avoid the heaving tourist centres in the south. A friend has instructed me to head straight to Amed, where he assures me the Balinese live more traditional lives in spite of the influx of foreigners.

My driver, a hotel manager named Agus, speaks wistfully of how the island was two decades ago. ''We used to share things, be collective, but now we are all individuals and everyone wants to go to McDonald's,'' he says.

Agus has worked in Seminyak for 10 years but is planning to return to his rural village when he is old. ''There, if you have no food, your neighbour will feed you,'' he says.

As we pass the coastal villages north of Denpasar, I stop counting the piles of stuff and begin noticing how the jungle is creeping back, trying to recolonise the space taken by building sites. There are great flowering vines of greenery stretching up and over everything, in a race to reclaim the land.

Agus points out a distant mountain he climbed with his wife when they were newlyweds. They were making a pilgrimage to a temple near the top of the mountain and, after they had prayed, the young couple camped overnight behind the temple. They woke to find the mountain ringed by dark clouds and the rain falling heavily - but only below them - while the peak remained clear and cloudless at dawn.


The drive to Amed takes three hours and, as we turn south-east along the winding coast road, I watch for signs pointing to the Meditasi Bungalows. Meditasi means ''meditation'' and I hope the name doesn't imply an expectation that guests will be rising at dawn to contemplate the nature of existence. I've always been too impatient for meditation.

The steep coastal landscape is reminiscent of Italy's Amalfi coast. But where every hairpin bend along the Amalfi reveals a whitewashed town dissected by cobbled streets, Amed's villages of thatched huts hide demurely under coconut palms.

Meditasi is the last resort on a road that winds through the village of Aas Beach and the entrance is hidden at the end of a steep driveway.

The manager, Prapta, greets me with a relaxed smile and shows me to my palm-thatched bungalow, one of four in this small complex.

The bungalows have been designed for maximum exposure to nature and minimum exposure to other people. We enter through a private stone-walled garden, which doubles as the outdoor bathroom, and climb some winding stone steps to the back door.

The hut is a single spacious room with a double bed and a large balcony overlooking the sea. Surrounded by pink bougainvillea, the balcony has a day bed.

''Of course, you probably know that we have no internet connection or mobile phone reception here,'' Prapta says.

My heart skips a couple of beats. Five days alone in a bamboo hut with no means of communication. Suddenly the hours seem to pile up in front of me, empty and aimless. No gossip from friends and family, no online news outlets to keep me in the loop and no vehicle to drive myself back along the coast to find a phone signal.

I'm still in a state of mild panic as I head down to the black sandy beach with my snorkel and goggles. Meditasi is perched on a 500-metre-long half-moon bay and is bookended by rocky outcrops. There are dozens of white outriggers pulled above the tideline and I clamber around them to find a patch of clear sand. A couple of fishermen are mending nets in the shade but the beach is otherwise deserted.

I launch into the deeper water and suddenly, right there below me, is the alternative universe of a coral reef. Clouds of brilliant aquamarine fish swerve away at my approach and a couple of clownfish rush to an anemone for refuge. The coral shows signs of wear and tear from the outrigger traffic but the variety of fish promises days of entertainment.

On the beach I'm joined by a small gang of children aged between six and 16. We chat in phrases of two or three words (''beach good yes'') and then they gather a pile of smooth, grey stones and place them in front of me.

Under instruction from the oldest boy, they make a series of ''hotels'' by placing the stones in neat lines in the sand and decorating them with small shells from the shoreline.

The children belong to the families who own the fishing boats that go to sea about 4.30am each day. During the next few days, it becomes my habit to wake just after dawn to watch the fishermen return to shore, the flotilla of outriggers gliding landwards like water-borne spiders crouched on the surface of the stippled sea.

The beach is narrow and one day I ask a young man named Wayan if he worries about the prospect of rising sea levels.

''Of course,'' he says. ''Because there will be nowhere to put the boats and without the boats, no fishing and no food.''

There are 1000 fishing boats on the Amed coast and their owners also worry about tsunamis. Wayan tells me he feels safe, though, because he lives between two important Hindu temples and prays to the gods every day to make sure the sea is not angry.

I spend the daylight hours reading novels on my sunny balcony, snorkelling on the reef, eating small mountains of nasi goreng at the Meditasi restaurant and having massages. During the late afternoon, when the heat recedes, I walk north or south along the coastal road, peering at the carved temples in the villages and nodding to the women who salt baskets of fish and hang them under the thatched eaves of their huts.

One afternoon, I see a huge pile of straw propped high up between the forks of a dead tree, an ingenious feedlot system for the agile goats that bleat from the side of the road.

And somehow, in the absence of digital distractions, those mountains of empty hours dissolve. Solitude produces its own meditative state and I revel in the chance to do just one thing at a time, giving it my full attention.

On the fifth day, as I take my last stroll along the beach, I'm reassured to see that those little rock ''hotels'' piled up neatly in the sand are still standing, safe and sound, above the tideline.


Getting there

Garuda Indonesia has a fare to Denpasar for about $820 low-season return from Melbourne (6hr 15min) and Sydney (6hr 35min), including tax. Jetstar and Virgin also have non-stop flights. Australians obtain a 30-day visa on arrival for $US25 ($25). A taxi from Denpasar to Aas Beach costs about $50.

Staying there

Meditasi Bungalows cost $30-$40 a person a night in a private bungalow with breakfast. Other meals available at Meditasi Restaurant. Activities include swimming, snorkelling, massage, boat trips, motorbike rental, yoga, meditation; see