Somehow, I have such an affinity for this enchanted island, which has been billed as “the last paradise” and “the morning of the world.” I am not beckoned by the beaches or the tropical climate. It is Bali’s rich cultural heritage and exotic artistry that call me. Arriving at the brand new Denpasar Airport, we were surprised at how large and modern it is, with touches of traditional Bali found everywhere. We took a cab to our hotel in Seminyak and the hot, humid air assaulted us with the same force as the colors, smells and sounds. At the hotel, we were ensconced in our one-bedroom villa with a tantalizingly cool private swimming pool. Bali must really inspire creativity since even being there for just a few hours, I already started designing our own Bali-style villa.
Because our stay was short (four days and three nights), my husband and I decided that we would skip the beaches and concentrate on seeing Bali's cultural offerings. We hired a private guide/driver to take us around the main sites on the island as well as the “real” Bali. Our first stop was a Barong Kris Dance presentation in Batubalan. This is a play about the fight between good (the mythological animal Barong) and evil (Rangda) spirits. It was a good introduction to Balinese culture since you are able to appreciate the artistry in the costume and masks, Balinese dancing and gamelan orchestra music. At one point in the play, I got confused since the Prince was played by a woman. I asked our guide about it, and he said that the Prince was a weakling so a woman had to depict the role.
After the play, we headed towards Batuan Temple. On our way there, we passed by what seemed like endless gold and silver workshops in the village of Celuk, where gold and silver crafting was an art form. Here you will find intricately crafted jewelry. Before reaching the temple, we stopped by a typical Balinese house. A low wall barred the entrance to avoid going straight into the property. This was supposedly to ward off any evil spirits. The walled-in property consisted of several post-beam-and-lintel-wood and stone buildings. There was a kitchen (always located on the south side), a couple of family sleeping quarters (one set aside for the head of the household), a family or community structure where celebrations and observances are held and the family temple.
The Batuan Temple was founded in 1020 AD and is probably the oldest existing temple in Bali. Batuan comes from the root word “batu,” meaning stone, and is a nod to the community's megalithic tradition of using upright stones as a site of worship and meetings. The Batuan temple is filled with Balinese carved ornamentation in every building including scenes from the Ramayana epic, which reminded us of the bas-relief found at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. One thing we learned here was that mostly villagers voluntarily took care of the temples and all other public spaces in Bali. It might have started years ago as a requirement, but now the citizens (young and old) find this voluntary work as a natural and important part of their lives. It is seen as a civic duty and community affair.
Ubud was our favorite town in Bali. It was filled with artisans and craftsmen; the number of artists concentrated in one place was mind-boggling. Both sides of the road were filled with store after store featuring all manner of arts and crafts such as stone and wood sculptures, paintings, baskets and almost anything you could think of. I noticed there were a number of shops selling birdhouses. Our guide said this was the craft du jour. A few months ago, it was beaded jewelry, and months before that, something else. If you take away the shops, the real Bali is revealed -- Verdant rice paddies, dense forests, steep ravines, farms and horticultural centers. And the weather was definitely more pleasant than in Denpasar or Seminyak. If we ever get a chance to come back, we will definitely stay in Ubud. One of the sites we visited was Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest where long-tailed monkeys roamed free and were considered guardians of the temple. Just be careful with any food or loose items you are carrying as these cute little guys are quick to approach and grab them from you.
We stopped for a coffee break in one of the many Kopi Luwak coffee places. This coffee is produced from partly digested coffee cherries eaten and then defecated by the Asian palm civet, a process, which is said to improve the flavor profiles of the coffee beans. We were shown the civets and the process of making luwak coffee then were treated to a taste test of the different coffee and tea flavors made with the luwak beans while seated overlooking folks working in the rice terraces of Ubud. Our guide told us that he likes to take his visitors trekking the rice fields, a popular adventure for tourist but even more popular is trekking the volcanoes of Bali. An idea for our next visit.
I could not be in Bali and not see how batik and ikat fabrics were made. We visited the Bidabari Batik Shop in Tohpati, a village known for its Batik artists. There were artisans there that took you through the process of making wax-resist batiks and as well as working the ikat looms. While the batiks in the store were probably more expensive than outside Tohpati, you were guaranteed authentic made-in-Bali material. In the age where most items you buy all over the world are made in China, Bali is a good place to shop for items made by local artisans.
For being a small island (90 km at its widest and 50 km lengthwise), Bali is very densely populated especially in the south, near the capital city of Denpasar. Traffic can sometimes feel like you are in NYC or Chicago at rush hour. We did not notice any public transportation though our guide told us there were public mini buses called Bemo -- if they were around, they might not be readily accessible. We did see loads of scooters, motorcycles and bicycles. The easiest way to get around is by taxi, but the taxi drivers are notoriously dishonest. We made sure to use the Bluebird taxi company since they were said to be the most reliable. Be careful though in flagging down a cab on the street, many cab companies have copied Bluebird's colors and logo so you would mistake them for the real Bluebird cab.
Bali has maintained its Hindu religion since the 5th century but mixed it with Buddhism and local rituals resulting in a unique style of worship and ceremony. Ninety percent of the Balinese practice this hybrid form of Hinduism. Ancestor worship is very important to the Balinese, so each household has a sanggah or merajan -- a family temple (which is always located in the East) where they venerate their ancestors and other deities. Anywhere in Bali, we saw these temples in varying sizes and all were well maintained with offerings given daily.
In the early morning hours, we found beautiful little pallets of plaited palm leaves that served as containers for the kanang-sari, the Balinese morning thanksgiving offerings to the gods, which included flowers, rice and incense artfully and lovingly created daily. They were placed strategically all over the house, in stores and on the sidewalks and streets, a job usually relegated to a woman. They were so predominant in Bali that it could sometimes be difficult to walk around and avoid stepping on them. I really love this practice of kanang-sari since it is so beautiful and feels so uniquely Balinese.
There are many Hindu Temples in Bali referred to as Puras. We visited some of the ones that were considered the holiest places in Bali for their role in providing spiritual balance. There are village temples located in the center of town like the Batuan Temple and also very large family temples owned by Balinese royalty. The Puras are open-air places of worship enclosed by a wall with a series of compounds connected by intricately decorated gates. Each compound hasseveral towers, pavilions and shrines (merus). To enter most of these Puras, one has to wear a sarong and a sash, which are normally available at the entrance for free or a small donation.
Established in the 10th century, Pura Luhur Uluwatu, one of the key temples in Bali is situated on the tip of a steep cliff of coral reef about 262 ft. above sea level, overlooking impressive views of the Indian Ocean. The name comes from the word “ulu” meaning head and “watu” meaning stone. The temple complex was one of the largest we saw. Sacred monkeys, inhabiting the forest and temples, are found roaming the compound freely.
Pura Taman Ayun in Mengwi village is a family temple built in 1634 by the Raja of Mengwi to honor the ancestors of the Raja Dynasty of Mengwi and other important gods. It is surrounded by broad canals and its layout and silhouette reminded us of Ankor Wat in Cambodia. Walking through a couple of gated courtyards, one ended up at the third courtyard, jaba jero, where the most important and holy shrines were found, including several merus up to 11 tiers high. This temple is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. It is my favorite Balinese temple because, to me the impressive architecture appears to be the truest manifestation of Balinese culture.
Located in Tabanan, Pura Tanah Lot is another of Bali's sea temples and one of the holiest. Our guide told us it was the most visited site in all of Bali and once you were there you could see why. The placement of the temple is breathtaking due to its offshore location. The temple is propped on a rock with waves crashing constantly. During high tide, when the waves cross the causeway making it impossible to cross to the temple, the rock is almost like a small island much like Mont Saint Michel in France. During low tide people can cross to view the rock base where the legendary sea snakes that are believed to be protectors of the temple dwell. You can receive blessings from a priest who sprinkles you with holy water that comes from a natural waterspout. Surprisingly, this water is fresh despite its source being in the salty sea. If you have not done your souvenir shopping yet, this may be a spot for you to shop. Bring your best bargaining skills! The restaurants on the hill provide good respite, refreshments and magnificent views of the temple and the Indian Ocean, especially at sunset.
Today's Bali is said to have been created for tourism. In the 1960s, the Indonesian government determined that the tourist revenues would be a great source of income for the country so they made sure Bali remained a picture of paradise. After decades of academic and travel writing and tourist promotion, the romantic image of Bali has become almost indisputable and has even seeped into Balinese consciousness. The Balinese are charming, artistic, in harmony with nature, community-spirited, hospitable and are proud of their island.
Some Bali travel tips:
Get a local guide/driver. It is the safest and easiest way to get around Bali and not that expensive. Our guide Didi Suprapta was from a site called Withlocals and at the end of the trip, we ended up as friends. He also operates his own Bali tours company called Baliadventours
Wear a hat and sun block. Being so close to the equator, Bali's sunlight is very intense.
When shopping – bargain! Bargain! Bargain! I was quoted 240,000 rupiah ($24) for a bag and I was able to bargain it down to 40,000 rupiah ($4)
Learn about the Balinese culture. Beaches pretty much look the same everywhere but Bali's culture is so unique and rich.
Be flexible when departing Bali. Flights are often canceled or rescheduled due to volcanic ash or for any other reason, which may mean spending another night or two in Bali or sleeping on the floor at the airport. Our flight, which was supposed to leave at 9 p.m. kept getting delayed. We ended up departing 2 a.m. We found it funny that airport and airline personnel went around all the gates looking for their passengers who may be asleep when the flight was ready to board.
Like many who come to Bali, we left with a sigh of regret and for as long as we live, we will never forget. Terima kasih.
Jojo Sabalvaro-Tan is a retired corporate director of accounting, payroll and compensation at OfficeMax (formerly Boise Cascade Office Products). An alumnus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she now devotes her time to volunteer work and her travels, art, food, quilting and needle arts, which she writes about in her blogs, Finding Art and Ang Kusina ni Lola Alfonsa.
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