Close your eyes, take a deep breath and forget about Covid-19.
You’re sitting on a kayak in an estuary, looking towards a village on the coast in which the only structure of note is a whitewashed temple that soars like an angel over terracotta rooftops.
Anchored in front of a sand flat is a fleet of multicoloured fishing boats with elongated headpieces, complex carvings, embroideries, flags and banners. More of these psychedelic vessels pass, heading out to sea as the sun sets over the mouth of the estuary.
You’re in Perancak, a fishing village on Bali’s little-visited west coast.
“It’s spectacular. When friends come to visit they say it doesn’t feel like you’re in Bali,” says Craig Harrington, a New Zealander who moved here a decade ago, after marrying a local woman.
“But very few tourists know about it. Why? I think it’s the highway. Locals call it Death Road.”
The literal translation of Jalur Tengkorak – the nickname locals have given Bali’s Gilimanuk-Denpasar Bypass – is not “death road” but “skull track”.
A 127km (79-mile) stretch of asphalt connecting Gilimanuk Port, on the western tip of the island, and the heavily touristed south, it’s the most dangerous road on Bali. According to official estimates, more than 25,000 accidents occur on the road in a usual year.
I get a sense of how dangerous it is while sitting in the front seat of a taxi as my driver peels around hairpin turns and cratered bends that have claimed many lives on Skull Track. Overtaking slow-moving overloaded trucks is a game of Russian roulette, as is dodging speeding buses that hog three-quarters of the road’s width.
It’s with much relief that, after nearly three hours on the road, the driver takes a left-hand turn towards Perancak.
I am here to see the selerek, a glittering armada of hand-built wooden vessels with such extravagant cultural and religious decorations that these vessels are, according to the Australian National Maritime Museum, “possibly the most spectacular fishing fleet anywhere in the world today”.
Much has been written about the origins, construction technique and complex symbolism of the selerek. But few travel stories or online blogs speak of how beautiful and well-preserved this corner of Bali is.
Herons fly over emerald-green rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Old men in conical hats pedal old bicycles down the road. Children run out of houses to wave “hello”. And rising high in the sky are the colossal mountain ranges that occupy the spine of west Bali, blue in the haze like folds in the hide of a sleeping giant.
The road reaches its end at a small park on a peninsula set between a long empty beach and the mouth of the estuary, where I see the selerek for the first time. The many explosive expressions of creativity make it difficult for my eyes to settle on any single feature.
Big timber hulls enlivened with rich palettes of racing stripes. Extravagant mastheads topped with portraits of Hindu deities, Muslim saints and modern idols such as Bob Marley. Chariots with wings and miniature mosques with onion-shaped domes balanced on crows’ nests. Long bundles of striped spars bedecked with tassels that look like stowed sailing rigs.
Yet the most striking feature of all are the high-peaked stem and stern posts decorated with spiralling serpentine motifs, whose function is unclear.
“The headpieces – they’re just for decoration,” says Amita Made, a local who runs a small riverfront restaurant. “These boats are from Bali but copied from Madura.”
She is right about the ship’s origins. The maritime museum confirms the selerek is a flatter-bottomed version of the seagoing vessels of Madura, an island off the north coast of Java.
Custom-shaped hulls make the selerek independent of slipways for mooring, according to the museum, and well suited to remote ports that are no more than beaches or mudflats – like Perancak.
But the elongated bows and triangular sails laced between bamboo spars do more than just adorn. They are talismans that are “vital for the safety and success” of every fishing trip, the museum claims; every selerek is “considered to be a living entity with its own spirit”.
The following morning I rise at dawn and hitch a ride to the harbour, on the other side of the estuary, where the selerek unload their catch every morning. Every fishing port in Indonesia is a feast for the eyes if one can get past the smell of fish guts and puddles of skanky water. But at Pengambengan Harbour, an amusing cultural phenomenon plays out, too.
As large wicker baskets full of sardines are lowered from the ships to carriers waiting in the shallows below, women snatch stray fish out of the water. But they also pinch fish straight out of the baskets.
The thievery becomes much more brazen when the carriers hit land, where a half-dozen women pick at every basket. These “fish-pinchers” squabble and verbally dress down one another like seagulls fighting over tourists’ chips. But the arguments never get too heated.
The carriers get in on the action too, slipping fish into their pockets, up their sleeves and down their shirts. Some work in cahoots with the fish-pinchers, passing them their illicit takings with a slip of the wrist. But if a fish-pincher gets too greedy, they are given a light slap or shove by supervisors, who perhaps also get a piece of the action.
“It’s normal,” says one of the fish-pinchers, who explains that her actions are an extension of an old custom whereby fishermen who depended on women to help them beach their outriggers handed out fish as payment. “My mother did it. My grandmother did it, too.”
The Segara Urip Homestay is the only accommodation option in Perancak and its surroundings. It isn’t busy but the owner, Gede, isn’t concerned.
“You don’t need much money to survive here and I don’t want to change my concept,” says the proprietor, who likes to spend his time talking philosophy with his guests or training for the local buffalo chariot races.
“My dream was always to have a hotel on the beach where people from far away can stay and feel like part of my family.”
Covid-19 travel restrictions were a mere bump in the road, and international tourists are beginning to return to Bali. But Gede is likely to get much busier in coming years, whether he likes it or not.
Rumours of a new highway on the west coast that have been circulating for years have now been confirmed. The Balinese government has completed a feasibility study and is courting construction companies to build a US$1.3 billion four-lane tollway on the west coast.
It will cut travel time from the airport in the south from four hours to two and bring hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tourists to west Bali.
Only time will tell if Perancak will develop sustainably. For now, it remains a three-dimensional postcard of Bali before the tourism boom – paradise found on the Island of the Gods.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.