On first impression Java’s 3rd biggest city Malang doesn’t offer much except less traffic and a cooler temperature than Surabaya and Jakarta. However, if you know where to look this city has hidden gems lurking beyond the burning piles of trash, and motorcycle exhaust. When the smoke of the city center clears it reveals a beautiful landscape of emerald greens and sapphire blues that serve to remind me that I am actually living on a breathtaking tropical island if I can only charm the goddess Java enough to uncover her secret oases.
It was this quest for more from what had become my more or less sleepy little hometown for the past 8 months that brought me to Bale Kambang beach. A mere 2 hour drive from my humble apartment, my students had been recommending this location to me for months, but since I had no idea how to get there, it remained uncharted territory and I didn’t really believe that Malang stretched all the way to the coast. It turns out I was wrong. Named for it’s resemblance to the famous beaches of the neighboring island of Bali: Bale Kambang (meaning small floating house) exists as a part of Malang. And since it’s impossible to reach with public transportation, it has remained a well kept secret of the East Javanese people.
My day started at 5 a.m. to beat the heat and the crowds. My friend Nita and our driver for the day picked up Stephanie and I to begin our journey. Our first destination was the flower stall at the local traditional market to buy some roses, jasmine and fragrant leaves to act as our offering to the Hindu gods of the temple on Bale Kambang. Bright trays of flowers littered the stalls on the street beckoning to become our vessel for prayer. It wasn’t long before Nita had a bag full of heavenly foliage and we were on our way armed with offerings.
The road to the coast took us through some incredibly scenic territory. Within 30 minutes the landscape transformed from grey graffiti buildings supporting Arema, the local soccer team, to green rice paddies, bamboo and farms. Yet, this was still Malang. My mouth dropped and I asked the driver to pull over so that I could capture the beauty of the landscape with some snapshots. During our Impromptu photo session, a woman passed by on her way to tending the farm. We somehow convinced her to take a photo with us despite her protests. Her lack of enthusiasm only served to fuel ours. We ended up getting her to enthusiastically pose with us, instead of getting shanked by her sickle.
Bale Kambang is a popular destination for local East Javanese tourists, but as it turns out is a secret from most foreigners. Its beautiful Hindu temple juts out of the water on a large rock that most likely used to be covered in underwater coral in another time. It is considered a sacred beach, and holy place where the Javanese Goddess of the South Seas resides among the Hindu gods to invoke awe and worship among mortals.
We met the Hindu priest and caretaker of the temple,a close friend of Nita’s and after visiting with him and his wife at their very humble beachfront home, we were granted the key to go inside the temple, an honor usually reserved for high Hindu spirituals and family. We tied yellow sashes around our waists for ceremony and made our way across the bridge jutting out of crystal clear turquoise water to the temple where we would pay tribute to the deities.
The scenery that the temple offers is healing to the soul. All my stresses melted, washed away by the crashing of waves, the fragrance of burning incense, and the fellowship of friends in a peaceful place. The inner courtyard of the temple has exquisite stone carvings, sand beneath visitors feet, and a view of the 10 foot waves crashing to remind visitors of the power of the ocean goddess and the smallness of us humans in the world mere grains of sand like those under our feet in the scheme of the universe.
After a while enjoying the temple we headed out to the water to cleanse ourselves in the refreshing, transparent sea salt. The water was amazing. It was cleaner than the water that attracts most tourists to Bali or Gili Trawangan. It’s also teeming with life, but armed with a strong current protecting the reefs from most destructive swimmers. The tide took us down the coastline lounging and floating and picking up shells and dead coral along the way. Fish nibbled at my feet like I was an all you can eat buffet and I connected with my inner mermaid.
Lunchtime brought us to a tasty fried rice stall where we each got our own coconut cut open to drink from. Hydration was never so delicious.
A small walk inland is a natural freshwater estuary that has 7 natural deep pools marking under water caves that flow to the ocean. These sacred pools are located in lush jungle foliage. Bamboo and tropical trees line the path with loping vines and twisting roots. They are thought to mark the portals to the spiritual world for some locals. Unfortunately as we were deep into the dry season of Indonesia, the main pool was sort of lacking in actual water, but was still an impressive hole reminding us that underfoot were ancient caves: waterways to the sea.
The whole day awestruck me. This oasis is sustained so close to urban life, laying undiscovered and largely untainted by tourism. I felt such privilege not only to visit but be let inside the temple (usually reserved for very important Hindus), indulge in the ocean and greenery and be reminded that indeed Indonesia does have a lot to offer right on Java, and outside of the usual hot spot islands. Adventure rule #1: Make friends with a local and explore!