Immerse in Balinese culture

When we first wrote about Bali, we hadn’t taken a holiday in many months (an anomaly) and were searching for a resort where we can take a real break from the rat race. Being timeshare owners, we promptly deposited our week at an exchange company and searched high and low for somewhere we can enjoy both resort facilities yet be close to something of cultural significance. At the Le Meridien Nirwana resort in Bali, we found our “Nirvana”. That was many years ago, for the resort has now the Pan Pacific…

But that was the first visit.

Because Bali is probably not a place to only be just once. We went yet again a few years later. During both occasions were made the most of a week’s time to explore the island, instead of spending it all by the pool or the beach.

And what else could we have done but immerse ourselves in,

Spiritual experiences

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first resort stay was pleasant indeed as it was set on a 103-hectare property near Tanah Lot, about thirty kilometers from Denpasar and Jimbaran. At that time the timeshare apartments are tucked away in a quiet corner of the property, providing much needed privacy. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur well-kept one bedroom apartment came with a kitchenette. It was quite enough for a small family to prepare a meal though we did not have to do so.

And because it is located within a 5-minute walk to Tanah Lot, we spent whole days simply watching the seas pound the islet that holds the famous temple. While busloads of tourists come and go in a hurry, we were able to take our time to explore the temple complex on shore. There is a small market and many restaurants at Tanah Lot, adding to the variety of choice. At the market, you can buy all manners of Balinese handicraft. Remember to bargain hard though. Cutting prices in half ought to do the trick. That’s what we did!

And what to do here? Why watch the sunset of course! We had the privilege to view the setting sun over the temple almost every evening. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow it is often a game of chance, for surely there could be a cloud or more that fogs out the sun as it returns to sleep. But even when it was that cloudy, the sunset can still be spectacular, when set against the backdrop of the beautiful temple.

There are many more temple complexes all over the island and while we did not visit them all, a few stand out for us. Such as Bantabulan. Located near the craft village of Celuk, you just need to make a donation to the temple (no fixed amount). Be prepared with smaller denominations of the local currency though…

The entrance to the temple bears the familiar twin pillars and the inner courtyard is open for all to walk into. At the back of the temple there is a large collection of stone carvings. These stone carvings were formerly used in various parts of the temple buildings. With time, many of these structures have become unstable to hold these huge stone carvings.

And yet another is stop is the temple of Goa Lawah – temple of the bats. With the cloudless skies, the temple pavilions are so pretty. The main altar is in the cave, which we did not venture into. Pilgrims believe a big snake reside in the cave, which extends really deep. How deep? You will need to follow the pilgrim to find out! Helloooo… are you still there?

Besaik temple07But for us the crowning piece in this complex web of temples would be Besaikh – the mother temple. It took us the better part of 2 hours’ drive to eventually get there. And there are two distinct areas of the complex – the main temple and family built temples. Many privileged families build temples here as remembrance of deceased family members. There are also temples built by the various “castes” of Bali. These castes include the: Brahmin, Nobles & warriors, Traders and Laborers.

Like other Asian cultures, Balinese people have specific dates on which the spirits of the ancestors are worshipped, blending animistic beliefs with Hinduism. The location of the temple is said to be sacred and powerful. In the last eruption, the lava was said to have diverted past the temple.

Our guide was one of approximate 300 in the area, in which only 75 are working every day. They are paid from a pool of contributions that tourists pay at the foot of the temple complex. Intriguing how the local arrangement is made to ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to make a living.

We’ve heard about Goa Gajah as well, but had not made it there in our journeys. Perhaps we can see it in our next trip. Setting aside enough time to appreciate the religious practice of the Balinese is important, because it is not the partying and beach that is central to an experience on the island. And speaking of appreciating the island, one might also consider day of,

Arts and Crafts

The main attraction is the artisans’ village. You can literally spend hours walking and bargaining. If that’s what you like… And for us this is all rather exciting. In our little red dot we talk about hubs, where industry clusters gather and build expertise and share ideas for innovation. Well they have them here on Bali too. Across the central part of the island, there dot numerous villages where folks practicing a specific art congregate.

To get around we hired a car with driver for US$45 for a whole day instead of braving the elements with a scooter. Our driver took us to mainly to the handicraft villages near Ubud. One such stop was where we were shown how traditional batik is woven and printed. Now this is not considered an old art for the island, but because the distinctive style that is characteristic of the Balinese had made it quite popular outside of the country.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It would be also recommended to visit the village of Celuk, if one is curious about the jewelry making industry of the island. This is where many silversmiths work and hawk their wares. One can find beautifully filigreed figurines and bracelets set in semi-precious stones. We preferred to visit the ones with workshops, so you can ask for a small tour of the place where you see the craftsmen working on the pieces. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow whether one purchases anything is an option, but there are certainly some exquisitely made art in some of them workshops…

Our favorite has got to be the painters’ village. Here, we witnessed a master painter working on his piece while guiding his protégés. There were no templates or drawings from which to draw inspiration, just a plain sheet of canvas on which the master deftly sketched outlines of what would be a religious scene out of Hindu mythology. Painters village 1In just 30 minutes, this was done and he was commencing to brief his student on the application of oil paint on the canvas. There are painter families in Bali who passed their craft from one generation to the next. Talk about family businesses! Entire homes are adorned with the paintings – some taking up to 6 months especially intricate ones involving religious figures and stories.Painters village 2

The list will probably be long for we also found woven baskets, wood and stone carving workshops all around the Ubud area. It makes for excellent use of time when making the journey across the island.

What else can one do here?

Eat.

Now in any of our journeys we seek out local cuisine as much as we can. One experience we think that should not be missed is to try crispy duck. At “Bebek Bengil” (a.k.a. Dirty Duck when loosely translated) in Ubud we tasted the “signature” dish served with a local concoction of spices and herbs, not to mention a lot of chilies! Gush it down with a glass of local beer and it’s heavenly.

And how would you like to drink coffee brewed from beans processed by a civet? Yep, the kind that the local Luwak (a specie of Civet) spits out from its rear end… Well try not to think so hard about it. At Susut which is a kind of agri-orchard we tasted it for free, though you might be tempted to buy some to share with loved ones back home…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The best time in our opinion to see the rice fields would probably be when the rice is freshly planted and the padi full of water. But that would probably mean it would be the “wet” season too. So that’s a fine balance. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the central part of the island which is more mountainous one can easily find terraced fields. Unfortunately for us we were there both times after the harvest. So, all we could see were the terraces naked of rice.

One thing we would definitely recommend is to visit a local village. We got to Tengenan, which asks for donations for visitors to gain access. On both sides of the village are brick-laid homes while the center has numerous long houses.

We were there in the morning, and we saw many fighting cocks being sunned in their cages. These fighting cocks are painted over into varied colors. The prized birds are kept indoors once the owners feel they had enough of the morning sun. They don’t get let out much in case they pick a fight with a neighbor. Tengenan village04Of course there are numerous chickens that roam freely with tiny chicks… so cute they are. At the communal long houses the neighbors meet – where cock fighting can also be watched and where even the local oxen roam.

Yes, this too is commercialized in some ways, as the villagers have converted their homes into shop houses too, many retailing locally woven fabrics made into scarves, shawls and towels. But it was still an experience where one can see how locals really live.

We also visited the water palace of the last Karangasem King. While this palace is not too large itconsists of a number of water features – much like smaller versions of the “barays” in Angkor Wat. In the center of the complex is the main palace building where the Royals would stay when resident there. Sit down there for a while. Enjoy the breeze, and pretend you are a Balinese prince or princess being waited upon. It can be such a respite from the hot day.

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Numerous bridges link the various parts of the palace interspersed by the bodies of water. The bridges are adorned with various carvings of Hindu deities and gods symbolic of Royal power. At one corner, the highest pavilion overlooks the entire complex. And right next to the Pavilion is a goat shed. A number of “hairy” goats are kept there. They brayed so loudly when we got near – thinking we are feeding them. This is a unique breed that we have not seen before. One of them looked suave like a K-pop star. Remember that post here?

There are so much to see and do in Bali. Cannot understand why some only come here for the beach, drink and partying only. And it’s not the massages too. We think the main reason to be here is to gain an equal dose of spiritual and physical enrichment. While we may have not returned in a long time, those experience still remain in us.

We were in Bali in November 2007 and December 2009

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