A changing Canggu


Bali’s delightful sleepy fisherman’s village of Canggu is on the verge of explosion, writes Mark Tjhung

Echo beach at sunset

One of the few decipherable lines in the Martha and The Muffins’ 1979 classic, Echo Beach, is the recurring chorus – ‘Echo Beach, far away in time; Echo Beach, far away in time’ – and it’s an infectious couplet which plagues me as I flip off the top of a ridiculously cold tall-bottled Bintang beer and watch Bali’s dramatic west coast swell threaten to leap up on to the table, the sun going down amid a euphoric haze of purple cloud and thin beams of light. 

Indeed, I’m at Echo Beach, watching the sun go down – just like in the song – and while that tune wasn’t actually based on this little, picturesque strip of sand in the southwest of Indonesia’s popular tourist isle, Echo Beach and the surrounding area of Canggu have long existed in that spirit: an idyllic surfers’ paradise where the passage of time really has no place. 

The rice fields of Canggu

However, in the Canggu air – the very same aura that still sends gentle reminders of Bali’s untouched past; of undeveloped beaches, rice paddies and village houses – there’s also another vibe that suggests that times are a-changing. It’s still far removed from the Bali towards the south – the manic party world of Kuta and Legian just 10km away – or the gleaming, ritzy development that has defined Seminyak in the last 10 years, but Echo Beach is no longer that far away in time. 

The restaurant development around Echo Beach, particularly for the kind of shoreside barbecue seafood restaurants I’m enjoying a beer at, hints at the changes. But it strikes me more immediately as I walk along the smoothly black volcanic sands of Batu Bolong Beach towards Echo Beach and pass the mammoth new Intercontinental Hotel, which is under construction. There has been a slow development over the past 10 years, my guide and butler from Ametis Villa, Astawa, tells me. However, he also says that Canggu is on the verge of exploding. With the impending arrival of this 160-room resort in 2015, there seems little doubt. 

The untouched Canggu

Circa 2013, however, Canggu still retains the feeling of its fishing village roots – and it’s especially palpable at 6am on Fisherman’s Beach, when dozens of traditional Indonesian vessels, known as jukung, begin to bring in the catch from an evening of fishing. It’s a slightly chaotic scene, as the workers onshore rush to help the vessels from the angry, crashing waves, dragging it to the high safety of the beach sands. Once on shore, I join the workers who are frantically packing up the fish to check out the catch of the day, fuelled by Astawa’s suggestion that lobster can often be purchased directly from the fisherman (at market price). Disappointingly, in the boat I inspect, I identify some rather unappetising garfish as the pick of the lot and decide to forego freshness for flavour – it was too early for lobster anyway. 

If fishing is the main industry on which Canggu was built, the rice industry comes a close second. And indeed, the rice paddies of Bali – perhaps an oft-sold cliché – remain an important part of Canggu. The best way to take in the area’s surrounding fields is by a gentle cycle. Compared to the precipitous mountainous terraces around Bali’s famous Ubud region, the rice paddies of Canggu are welcomingly flat – particularly given the searing heat that envelopes Bali year-round. With the fields stretching across much of the Canggu area and beyond, you can essentially weave your way through the paddies, hitting dead ends, new paths and sweeping vistas largely by chance, as well as passing buffalo gently grazing, local youths wasting away the afternoon and, just occasionally, someone at work in the fields. Indeed, actual work in these fields has been diminishing. As development has edged north of Seminyak towards these quieter regions, and as the demand and real estate prices have soared, more and more landowners have decided to trade in their land for quicker riches – or at least to leave their lands dormant, waiting for a sale. There’s a 100sq m plot down by the water, Astawa tells me, that’s recently gone for US$1m, and I also pass another large but not overwhelming two-storey property which he estimates would be worth around US$5m. Regardless of the precise price, it shows the kind of riches that are coming, quickly, to this seemingly quiet corner of Bali. 

One part of Canggu’s heritage that’s unlikely to change any time soon, though, is its temples. Indeed, they are one of the area’s biggest drawcards – and if you’re looking for some temple culture, Tanah Lot (tanahlot.net; $25) should be your first stop. Sitting dramatically on a rock in the wave-swept ocean, this temple is one of most important spiritual places for the Balinese – and, perhaps, the most spectacular. The story goes that the holy man, Nirartha, came to Bali in the 16th century, helped develop a new Hinduism in Bali and built numerous temples along the coast, including the more modest Batu Mejan and Batu Bolong nearer Canggu village, to worship the water gods. At low tide, the Pura Tanah Lot can be reached by foot – but the most thrilling view of the temple is in the evening, as the water sets in and waves crash against the mystical temple. 

The food evolution

While the explosion of change will no doubt come to Canggu in the next decade, its slow transformation from surfer haven to chic destination has already started – and is most obviously manifested in the eating. The food of Canggu is no longer merely made up of classic warung (Indonesian cafés serving up traditional ever-tasty favourites), babi guling (Bali’s famous suckling pig) or street carts. In the past couple of years, the village’s gastronomy has become increasingly international. Along Canggu’s main street, we see new, gleaming Mexican cantinas, organic burger joints boasting of Aussie wagyu beef and several cute cafés catering with global fare. I pop into Betelnut Café (Jalan Batu Bolong, +62 821 4680 7233; betelnutcafe@gmail.com), a rustic two-storey café, for lunch one afternoon, and find an impressive array of modern, health-focused delights. On another afternoon, I try out the most welcoming of warung on Canggu’s main strip, Warung Bu Mi, and I’m thoroughly satisfied with their classic fried chicken, eggs, fried noodles and tempe. And perhaps most surprisingly, I come across an incredible French bakery (Monsieur Spoon, 43 Jalan Umalas 2, +62 878 6238 9148; monsieurspoon.com), serving superb patisseries and coffee.

Deux Ex Machina

But, without doubt, the go-to hotspot in Canggu is Deux Ex Machina (Jalan Batu Mejan 8, +62 361 3683395; facebook.com/DeusBali), an expansive venue that does restaurant, bar, motorbike shop, surfboard maker, fashion boutique and art gallery all at once – and with aplomb. An evening at Deus, over a few beers, its exceptional modern pan-Asian menu and with a laidback surfer crowd, seems to very much sum up what is happening here in Canggu – an idyllic, cool scene, once far away in time but forever accelerating into the future. That’s at least the case circa 2013. By 2015… who knows?

Where to stay
Opened in 2011, Ametis Villa is one of the first luxury villa accommodations in Canggu and offers the height of comfort with all the secluded privacy you could want. The beautifully landscaped boutique grounds feature only 14 villas – eight one-bedroom Premiere villas, five one-bedroom Imperial villas and one three-bedroom Grand Villa – with every one coming with its own private swimming pool, expansive outdoor living and dining area, and gourmet kitchen, as well as your own private butler and 24-hour car service to Seminyak for any information or whim you may fancy. Ametis’ The Eternal restaurant offers an innovative fusion take on Indonesian cuisine, while The Ruby Spa caters for all your relaxation needs. Room rates start from around $2,500 per night.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong, Canggu, +62 361 844 5567; ametisvilla.com

How to get there
Hong Kong Airlines flies daily from Hong Kong to Denpasar, the capital of Bali. Canggu lies around 15km north of Denpasar airport. A taxi from the airport should cost IRD135,000 ($100).

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