Thursday, 8 January 2009

The upscale soak site of Toya Bungkah

Hot springs of Bali
The isle of Bali thanks, like many other similar islands in the Indonesian archipelago, it's existence on volcanic activity, with evidence often at hand; much to the detriment of local inhabitants. Bali's main volcanoes Agung and Batur have both erupted in the past century causing many victims.

With the earth's crust so thin here, one would suspect that geothermal activity on Bali would also be prominent, but the list I have put together (see links list) refers to just over half a dozen. However after recently concluding a visit to Bali, I'll have to revise the figure downwards; there aren't that many geothermal soaks to be found!

My first port of call on Bali were the hot springs in the northeastern village of Toya Bungkah. Besides being referred to under the same name as the village, it's also referred to as hot springs of Kintamani (the name of the region), Tirta Sanjiwani (the previous name of the complex) and Toya Devasya (current name).

The village of Toya Bungkah is actually located within a large volcanic caldera, (roughly 1000m up/down) hopefully long extinct. Besides the village, inside the caldera there is a very active volcanic cone (Batur) and the tranquil lake aptly named Batur as well. Toya Bungkah is located between the two, the volcano and the lake. Unfortunately though, this beautiful location has hardly lead to the village being described as anything other than nondescript. The view east wards over the lake towards the volcanoes of Abang and Agung is picturesque enough, however the volcano has altered negatively all local vegetative growth and the locals have seen no need to enhance the in-essence one lane village. Not necessarily complementing all this, is the constant rumble of small trucks transporting black sand for building sites elsewhere on Bali.

View of the Batur volcano (1717m) cone from the outer rim. In the background on the right hand side, is the lake.

So why visit?
With so little appealing on offer, why would anyone visit? Well, there is still sufficient attraction apparently. Toya is the place to set off for early morning (4.00 am no less) hikes up the Batur volcano for views of Bali and Lombok. And on return the thing to do is to hit the hot springs.

Despite some
references to public facilities there are only private facilities named Toya Devasya. This "Resort & Spa" as it refers itself to offers the opportunity to take the waters in two specifically built "hot" pools and a large swimming pool. Other facilities are (clean!) changing rooms, a restaurant, a camp ground, sun beds and a beautiful view. The latter is arguably free, but for the other facilities one needs to pay. The hefty entrance fee (100.000 IDR ~$10) includes besides the obvious entrance to the hot springs / swimming pool, the use of lockers / towel, a drink and meal. It's also clear considerable effort has been made in enhancing the facilities with greenery and the facilities do look clean though flies formed near plague like proportions. The company does however pride itself on positive hygienic conditions and from the many hot spring sites I have visited in Southeast Asia it certainly would rate high as 'clean', though it might still be lacking with western standards in mind.

About half of the resort (but not the hot pools) was cordoned off for (re)construction.

The soaking
As stated prior, there are two hot pools: roughly 3 by 10 by 1m, each with 3-4 spouts with water pumped coming straight from the source. The water is not extremely hot, more tepid, but still enough to ensure one's body temperature doesn't drop too much while soaking, despite the evening chill coming in when I was visiting. It does seem less than the claimed 35-37 degrees. The waters are odorless and colourless.

The olympic pool? Was it 50 by 25m?

The swimming pool (claimed to be 'olympic size') though is un(der)heated so alternating between the swimming pool and the soaking pool is a great way to spend a couple of hours.

At the time of our visit, Indonesian year-end holidays were in full swing so there were quite a few visitors, half foreign, half non-foreign. With the hefty sum keeping out the riff-raff, most locals had swim clothing on or had changed into 'clean' clothes / prudent swimwear before hitting the waters, another unique aspect of these private facilities. Elsewhere (in Southeast Asia) there's little need to change with everyone jumping in their 'street attire'. Where swimwear is required, females usually opt out, which certainly wasn't the case here, possibly because the entrance fee ensured male-check-it-outers were at a minimum

Let's discuss
I have tried to trace the origins / history of the springs site. The recent history (and more background) is described in the Rough Guide to Bali and Lombok:
'Toya Bungkah's stylish hot springs, Tirta Sanjiwani [now Toya Devasya], were rebuilt in 1997 amidst considerable controversy as they moved stratospherically upmarket.
They look extremely good with a cold-water swimming pool and smaller hot-water pools and private jacuzzi's but the prices mean they've moved beyond the reach of many of the backpackers who are the mainstay of the local economy.
Traditionally the springs here, known as Tirta Bungkah (the Holy Waters of the Mountain), form a trinity along with Tirta Empul (the Holy Waters of the Plains) at Tampaksiring and Tirta Selukat (the Holy Waters of the Sea) at Medahan in Gianyar [all places on Bali]. Pilgrims, especially women in early pregnancy and anyone who has recovered from along illness, bathe in each of the three waters in turn.'
Adding to this:
'The Hot Spring, Tirta Bungkah (Holy Waters of the Mountain), was developed in 1997 for the upmarket tourist trade. Though very beautiful, and not expensive by western standards, the pools are out of the reach of the local people who make do with a muddy outlet a few steps away. Though we had a lovely meal here, and enjoyed the peace and tranquility of a beautiful spot, we regretted later that we had pandered to commercialism, since the waters have religious significance to the Balinese.'
Certainly excluding locals by way of pricing seems non-excusable; then again the facilities certainly warrant the hefty sums required for entrance. Possibly some compromise could have been met, but once a private company has invested they'll not be willing to relinquish control over the only source to which they have obtained exclusive rights. This is comparable to situations in many other developing countries as well as previously in the western world. Ideally the hygienic / cleanliness factors required for outsiders could easily be obtained through better management including (local) users.

Fake (over) development? In hot water.

On the plus side, besides enhanced soaking facilities, there were sufficient other points to warrant the entrance fee, so I certainly did not feel short changed. In a later blog entry I'll come back to this often occurring discussion. Many Southeast Asian governments are obsessed with improving soaking facilities hoping to cash in, through increased tourist earnings. While at the same time, tourists seem to be negligent about these kinds of attractions. Or after visiting are either interested in the naturalness of the site or the ability to soak. However half baked in-between solutions tend to be the least valued by tourists, though may be fully sufficient for locals.

Interestingly I found another great source on this discussion on the Wikitravel site. Here's just part of the discussion:
'Note, incidentally, that a "developed" hot spring is not necessarily a commercial hot spring, i.e., one that has been developed for profit-making purposes. The distinction can be important in countries and regions where the political/economic system allows for both for-profit and public-interest/non-profit/governmental development; regulations for doing the developing will often differ between the two cases, as will the resulting amenities, access, etc. For example, as a general rule, springs in the United States that have been developed by government will have fewer amenities, but also lower admission fees, than for-profit developments. In Japan, many hot springs in rural locations are maintained by the local government and are open to the public for free, and even expensive spa resort towns usually have at least one public bath open to all for a token fee. '
Personally I would prefer the Japanese onsen, which not only strike a pretty good balance between soaking ability and naturalness as well as practicing high levels of hygiene and the ability to take the waters naturally.

Great surroundings, the soaks overlook Danau Batur (Lake Batur) and the Abang volcano with the Agung volcano peeking through the clouds.

Already emphasized are the picturesque surroundings. Along the western edge of the outer volcano rim are a number of villages with some nice temples, beyond that is a high plateau with many citrus and coffee plantations. Furthermore there are many treks possible, but many guidebooks warn about persistent guides.

Within Toya there are a number of guesthouses and a (too?) large hotel. In other villages there are also hotel facilities.

Getting there: The main eastern mountain road between the south and north coasts of Bali runs through Kintamani district. As one comes (from the south) to the caldera edge, there's a road heading steeply down. Follow this and once below stay on the left side of the lake. After 4 km's one finds one self in Toya Bungkah. The resort is located in the middle of the village, with a large parking area.

A great soak?

Soaking Experience: With ample space for both soaking as well for swimming this is an ideal place. The soaking waters could be hotter, but the swimming pool was great for doing laps and for alternating between hot and cold. With many other foreigners about I didn't fell uncomfortable in my swimmers which could be a first. The facilities were far from being over run which certainly adds to the atmosphere of relaxation

Overall Impression: Without doubt this is one of the best enhanced soaking facilities in Southeast Asia, at least what I have visited. The soaking experience is a plus as well as striving for hygienic and clean facilities. Unfortunately the free drink and food could have been better.

Soaking in the early evening, lights out by seven!

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