The first experience we had of Bali was of its sounds. We arrived late at night and got to the house in a taxi so the next morning we had no real idea where we were. Glimpsing nothing in the blue pre-dawn light but the outline of a heavy mosquito net, I could hear the dense, tropical raindrops, relentless as static, broken by the distant, almost imperceptible chanting of the call to prayer. I listened for a while as the light just began to creep through the delicate latticework of the windows. I hadn’t yet seen anything of Bali, and I was already seduced.
Taking advantage of a break in the clouds we stumbled out with the cocks still crowing, jetlagged and hungry and looking for breakfast. Just outside the house on the street I saw my first Balinese offering (Canang Sari), a skilfully folded palm leaf filled with brightly-coloured petals, sticks of incense, a beautiful pearl-coloured frangipani and topped off with something resembling a cream cracker. I took about twenty pictures from all angles until I saw more petals strewn along the street leading to another offering, and then another. Canang Sari’s are everywhere in Bali – on front porches, cars, garbage dumps, so that at all hours of the day you’re hit by wonderful, unexpected wafts of sandalwood and patchouli. The offerings aren’t just there to look pretty; the preparation of these little baskets is a constant ritual that makes up a large part of a traditional Balinese woman’s daily life. In fact, Ca Nang derives from the Kawi language Ca – meaning beautiful, and Nang – meaning purpose. They are offerings to the Hindu God Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, as a form of thanks for the peace given to the world.
We ate at a local warung and had nasi campur with fish sate lilit. Balinese cuisine is incredible in its taste and dizzying variety. Nasi campur means a dish which has a little bit of everything on offer, and Sate lilit is something of a sweet and savoury popsicle – a satay made from minced pork, fish, beef, or chicken, which is then mixed with grated coconut, shallots and lemon juice and wrapped around lemongrass sticks to grill. We loved the food at the warungs (and its price), and even though I did get Bali belly I’m convinced that it was from the tap water rather than the food. J was fine and we always share our dishes, whereas I ALWAYS forget to not rinse my toothbrush with tap water – Every. Time.
The next day the friend whose house we were staying in invited us to a healing festival she’d organised. Keen to see this other side of Bali we agreed and made our way towards Ubud. This was when we met our driver, Apel, who we used for the rest of our time on the island. Meeting and talking to Apel was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s a good thing too when you’re fond of your driver in Bali as the increasingly heavy traffic means you end up spending a lot of time with them. Apel told us more about the history of the island as well as that of his own family. He explained that his real name was actually Ketut, which means ‘fourth son’. In Bali, the first son in a Hindu family is called ‘Wayung’, the second ‘Made’ and by the time the fifth son comes around the name becomes ‘Wayan Balik’ – meaning ‘Wayan again’!
Apel also explained a bit about the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda – the philosophy of balance and origin of the concept of Yin and Yang. The most I knew about yin and yang was of the ubiquitous black and white symbol plastered on kitschy spiritual paraphernalia in vaguely alternative places like Camden Town market. But Apel and his family lived by the concept; he never said that anything was ‘bad’, and if he did he checked himself and sought out the good that may have come of that thing’s existence. Similarly, he said that you cannot know what pleasure is if you haven’t experienced the lack of that pleasure. While it’s easy to realise this, it was the first time I ever saw someone actually living by the idea. You’ll see that a lot of spiritual symbols in Bali are decorated with Black and white chequered cloth – like the famous Yin/Yang symbol. The black stands for evil and the white for good. For the rest of the trip, any time we said anything negative Apel lightheartedly told us off and encouraged us to see what good may have come of it. Difficult at first, it became easier each time.
By the time we got to the New Earth healing festival I could already see why so many people are attracted to the Balinese ‘philosophy’, and it was interesting to see how people personally interpreted it. The festival offered various options to achieve healing; via movement – Tai Chi and Yoga; via nutrition – all the food was vegan and organic; via ‘Mind, body and Spirit – aromatherapy and sound and crystal therapy. There was also a strict no electronics policy (ie no mobile phones – which I was fine with although from what I could see nobody else was) and an absolutely no drugs policy, including no alcohol at the ‘awakening’ music festival later. Me and J almost ran for the hills. I’m kidding of course – if I could do veganism, no electronics and no drugs anywhere in this world it would be Bali. After one breakfast bowl of raw chocolate, dragon fruit and coconut yogurt I was ready to convert. Also, they made an exception for coffee, understandably, because no-one wants violence at a healing festival.
The next day, reluctant to leave the stunning villa where New Earth was held, we headed to Ubud town and the sacred Monkey Forest. Whilst the main attraction here is obviously the wildlife, the location itself is beautiful, featuring a rocky stream that flows through a steep ravine in the middle of the rainforest. Dense, tangled vines and tropical vegetation cover the various Hindu statues. We were warned upon entering not to look at the monkeys directly in the eye, and to be very careful with our possessions; apparently, they are very adept at snatching your stuff and then holding it for ransom in return for food. Thinking I could out-wile them, I managed to sneak in a few shots on my cameraphone, before I was spotted and had to frantically stuff it back into my rucksack before being attacked. They look deceptively cute in those pictures though.
It’s easy to see why Ubud has become Bali’s artisanal and cultural capital; every few metres, the treelined, cobbled streets are dotted by stunning Hindu temples and their hidden, rambling family gardens. Our hotel room was in the middle of one of these secret gardens, and in the morning we’d wake up to the smell of rain, coffee and incense from the Ganesha statue by our balcony. We happened to be there for Tumpek Landep – a holy day that celebrates objects made of metal. All over Bali, motorbikes and cars are bedecked with beautiful baskets of flowers. The ceremony also celebrates other useful everyday objects containing metals – including laptops, phones and fax machines!
Our last few days were spent visiting rice terraces and temples. While we did go to the Tegallang rice terraces, I’d say they’re a bit of a tourist trap. I’m pretty sure no rice has been harvested there for quite a while. I’d recommend a less busy and equally beautiful terrace like Jatiluwuh instead. Much more remote, here you can really enjoy the peace of the still water of the paddies and impossibly green steps of the terraces.
While all the temples we visited were stunning, my favourite was actually the smaller, less dramatic temple of water – Tirta Empul. Discovered in AD 962 and believed to have magical healing powers, the springs bubble up into a beautifully clear pool within the temple and stream out through spouts into a separate bathing pool. Here, people perform a cleansing ritual to wash away their sins. You can feed the thousands of Koi fish in yet another of the temple pools. Make sure you don’t kiss or cuddle your partner in the temple – our driver told us off.
On our last day we visited the stunningly dramatic sea temple at Tanah Lot. Perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Pura Tanah Lot is an incredible sight. The steep cliff walk to the west of the temple grounds offers the most spectacular views. It also offers some very impudent monkeys. Knowing full well how photogenic they look along the cliff wall, they pose and wait for innocent passersby that stop to snap a photo so that they can snatch their stuff. One poor tourist had his eyeglasses stolen and chewed and mangled in front of him. He tried to bribe the monkey with food, which of course it took and then proceeded to return the favour by chucking the glasses over the cliff. I guess that’s one good example of Yin and Yang. The stealing of the glasses, that was bad – but the hilarious Schadenfreude it caused the crowd, that was definitely good.