This small district in eastern Bali derives its name from the old court town of Klungkung. The name means "beauty" or "happiness" and the town was founded several centuries ago on a site chosen for its many auspicious qualities.
The founding of Klungkung was not as idyllic as the name suggests, however. Prior to 1651 ancestors of the Klungkung kings ruled Bali from their capital at Gelgel, some 5 km to the south. At its height, Gelgel was a great and powerful court, governing a realm that extended to the adjacent islands of Java, Lombok and Sumbawa. In 1651, the prime minister of Gelgel revolted and forced the royal family to flee. Some 30 years later, a young prince chose the present site for a new capital, and a smaller kingdom was born here.
Despite its small size and lack of natural resources compared to the other kingdoms of Bali, Klungkung has always maintained the mystique of being the island's original royal center. The Klungkung royal family is still considered more regal than any other on the island, and up until recent times this meant having exclusive rights to certain ritual status-symbols, such as the 11-tiered cremation towers. In the intricate etiquette of the formal Balinese language, moreover, the Klungkung royalty have the right to speak down, literally, to everyone else.
The people of Klungkung are still extremely proud of this heritage, and uphold a reputation for being more traditional than other Balinese. This is supported by the active role the royal family takes in the life of the area, and by the presence of many famous Priestly families in the region, all of whom once participated in the great rituals of the court, and to whom Bali's most famous and venerable pedanda priests trace their origin.
The prestige of Klungkung and its illustrious past is such that most Balinese aristocrats trace their ancestry back to Gelgel. Family histories will often tell why their ancestors left the center, and temples in Klungkung still draw people from all over the island for major rituals to celebrate their heritage. Gelgel is full of sites of legendary deeds by ancient kings, ministers and priests.
Perhaps because of its past, Klungkung today seems rather removed from the hustle and bustle of tourist activity. Its main tourist spots are the Kerta Gosa - the famed judgment hall of the former Klungkung palace and the bat cave temple near Kusamba.
In general, its income derives more from trade than from tourism, since it is a stopping point on the busy inter-island trade route, which runs from East Java, via the port of Padangbai, and on to Lombok and eastern Indonesia. A visitor to Klungkung can get a sense of this lively commercial activity from a visit to the city's market - the largest in Bali. Since most of the trade passes along the main road through the town, visitors to Klungkung find the side-roads quiet and serene.
Outside the busy town, Klungkung offers a contrast of landscapes - from the lush hills on the road leading to Besakih temple, to the stark gravel pits to the east, formed when Mt Agung erupted in 1963, its lava flows laying waste to the rice fields of the area. The villages of Klungkung are among the most charming in Bali, and have been major prize winners in the all-Bali "beautiful village" competitions sponsored by the government.
One of the natural highlights of the Klungkung area is the great Unda River just east of the city. Floods and changes in the river's course figure in many episodes of Klungkung's traditional history. Nowadays its caprices are kept in check by a system of dams and man-made dikes, built with the voluntary aid of those who live by the river and are dependent on its waters for their survival.