For us, Wayan came to represent the very best of Bali. His charming and mystical smile, innocence, humor and his care and concern for our well-being were our Bali. No matter where we went, or where we stayed, Kuta Beach, Jimbaran, Ubud, or Candidasa, Wayan was there waiting to transport us around his very magical island. We first met him as our hotel porter, but then like everything else in Bali, he reincarnated as our transport, tour guide, restaurant aficionado and ultimately our good friend. Wayan made sure that we saw the best that Bali has to offer. Since we never did see any road signs, the best decision we ever made was to have Wayan tour us around Bali. In addition, with frequent stops by the police and obligatory payments, Wayan was always there with his easy manner to ensure that there were never any problems along the way. In addition, in Bali, if the road is two lanes, there are at least four lanes of traffic. Fortunately, with Wayan at the wheel, this never presented a problem. With an incessant honking of horns and incoming automobiles and motorbikes reminiscent of a Star Wars battle scene, but never an angry outburst, we and everyone else made our way along in the bliss that is Bali.
Although we originally stayed in Jimbaran to escape what we had heard were the Kuta Beach crowds, we found it to be lacking in color and culture. Hearing of our dilemma, Wayan introduced us to the Santika Beach Hotel in Kuta. Here in the middle of festive and colorful Kuta is a sanctuary of acres of gardens, palm trees and discrete beach bungalows with only the sound of the ocean and scent of the sea. Here you can relax at a water front thatched hut, fresh from your swim in the ocean and dine on some of the finest food that Bali has to offer.
Festivals to the Gods
One of the things that makes Bali so special are the many ceremonies honoring and paying tribute to the Gods. In fact, nearly every aspect of Balinese life is intended to please the Gods and Goddesses and bring favor upon the Balinese people. With over 20,000 temples, Bali truly is the Island of the Gods. And with Gods for the ocean, rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, rice terraces, and everything else, that makes for a lot of Gods. As we traveled across Bali, temple festivals were every day affair with their procession of Balinese women in their colorful sarongs and ceremonial sashes, carrying enormous amounts of fruit and other offerings on their heads, while looking as serene, composed and beautiful as ever. Like the Balinese people themselves, the Gods of Bali are said to enjoy and appreciate music, dance and of course lots and lots of color. In fact, the red, white and black wraps of colored cloth that you see at the temple ceremonies and in the processions throughout Bali represent the Balinese Holy Trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu respectively. Like the rays of the sun, emanating from this Holy Trinity are a multitude of deities, including Dewa Bayu, ruler of the wind, Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, and Dewa Baruna, ruler of the ocean.
Our first temple experience was at Tanah Lot. To reach Tanah Lot you head north up the coast from Kuta. Along the way you pass through an assortment of towns with beautiful carved Balinese teak beds, doors, windows and all sorts of other furniture and furnishings literally spilling out of shops onto the street. Every shop looks to be worth a visit, if one could only load up a cargo container and transport it all home. Tanah Lot pays homage to the guardian spirits of the sea. It along with Ulu Watu are two of Bali’s most famous sea temples. Here the atmosphere is very festive. With thousands of Balinese and visitors alike, the temple area literally swarms with people. While the temple itself is reserved for the priests, every inch of beach and rock around the temple is alive with people. With the incoming and outgoing waves, moss and slippery rocks this can make for a quite an entertaining show. If you do visit this temple, try to arrive so that you can enjoy the sunset from the cliffs above the temple. As the sun descends through the temple’s pagodas, you are sure to catch a sight worth remembering. It is said that on a clear day you can actually see Ulu Watu from Tanah Lot. Located south of Kuta, down the Bukit Peninsula, Ulu Watu presides over some of the world’s best surfing beaches in the world, including a break named after the temple itself. The feeling at Ulu Watu is quite different from Tanah Lot. Here the mood is somber, respectful and a bit ominous. Set high above the ocean on cliffs that reach far out into the sea, Ulu Watu is truly a place of power. Here, priests and others pay respect and tribute to the Gods.
Leaving the coast behind, we headed into the mountains to Ubud. Reminiscent of Maui’s up-country, this journey takes you through lush tropical forests, cascading rivers and emerald green rice terraces as you ascend one of Bali’s sacred mountains. Located in a tropical mountain paradise, Ubud is the original artist’s colony. It is here that Balinese artists of every type have honed their craft for centuries. Here, and in the villages leading up the mountain and surrounding Ubud you will find the most beautiful paintings, wood carvings, jewelry, batiks, and other arts. As Bali’s cultural center, you will also find some of the island’s best dancers, and musicians. A great place to stay while in Ubud, one that truly captures the spirit of the place is the Hotel Tjampuhan. Like the famed rice terraces of Bali, this hotel cascades down a mountain slope to the river below in a series of thatched huts and bungalows under a thick canopy of palm and banana trees. The open air restaurant with its fresh watermelon and other juices, banana pancakes and other delicacies, is reminiscent of sitting in a tree house. From Ubud, some of Bali’s most interesting sites are within easy reach. Just outside of Ubud is Goa Gajah, the elephant cave. Dating back to the year 1000 A.D. this is one of the Bali’s oldest relics. To access this cave, you enter through the mouth of an enormous demon carved into the face of the cliff.
As pervasive as the Gods are to Bali, so is music. No matter where you go you are bathed in the haunting melodies of the gamelan, an orchestra made up of drums, flutes, gongs and chimes. A perfect way to get introduced to this music is by attending a Barong dance performance, which always includes the Gamelan Barong. The gamelan is simply indescribable, like something from another world. If music is a language, then the gamelan is the language of the Gods. This music speaks the language of the spirits and the elemental nature of the universe. It somehow captures the indescribable and enables listeners to transcend the intellect to the very essence of things. Sitting under the stars in Ubud, observing the Barong dance and listening to the gamelan is certainly an out-of-this world experience that you do not want to miss.
Further up the mountains are Tirta Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empul. The complex at Tirta Empul is built around the sacred spring of Tampaksiring. Here the flowing water is collected in sacred pools for bathing. In accordance with tradition, each of 15 water fountains in the main pool has its own name and special function, including spiritual purification and cleansing from evil. According to Balinese legend, this water is believed to be the source of life and prosperity itself. At Tirta Gunung Kawi, the feeling is one of reverence. The legends of the past are very much still alive here as well at Tirta Empul. For Balinese, water is sacred and is an integral part of nearly every temple ceremony and ritual. In fact, the Balinese religion is actually called Agama Tirta, or the religion of the holy water. The water of Tirta Empul is considered to be the holiest water in Bali, possessing magical curative powers. Not far from Tirta Empul are the royal tombs of Gunung Kawi. Looking like a National Geographic pictorial from Egypt, this site seems quite out of place in the tropical paradise of Bali. As you descend a long flight of stone steps down a terraced rice-field, you come upon two very ominous rows of ancient royal tombs dating back to 1000 AD. In all there are ten tombs carved into the hillsides. According to Balinese legend the mythical giant Kebo Iwo carved out all of the ancient tombs in one night with his fingernails.
Goddess of the Lake
At the top of the mountain, high above Ulu Watu, Tanah Lot and Tirta Empul is Ulan Danu Bratan, the temple of Lake Bratan. This temple honors the lake goddesses worshiped as sources of fertility. Like the goddesses it honors, the temple is simply spell-binding. Gazing upon this temple it seems as though sky, lake and mountain have intersected at the point of this most awe-inspiring temple. Here in the cool mountain air with the mist rising off the lake, it is as if you are viewing a mirage bathed in the softest of pastel blue light.
Although it takes a while to get there, (an all day round-trip from Ubud), visiting Besakih, the Hindu mother temple of Bali, is quite unlike anything else you will see or experience in Bali. With its numerous pagodas and temples of every shape and size, this sprawling temple complex defies both imagination and reason. To truly take advantage of what Besakih has to offer, and in fact, what each of Bali’s temples have to offer, it is best to hire a temple guide and for a dollar or two you will learn things that you will carry with you for a lifetime. As you enter the surrounding temple area you will also find some of Bali’s best bargains, including some of the most beautiful wood carved statues of Balinese dancers with features as real and alluring as the actual dancer herself. From Ubud, Wayan took us to Candidasa, a colorful beachside resort. Before getting there, Wayan told us that we needed to be aware that the area around Candidasa was home to lots of magic – some good and some not so good. Heeding the warning we set out to explore the area.
Our first excursion was to Goa Lawah, the original Bat Cave. Here are gathered thousands of bats. In addition, according to locals, the island’s largest and most sacred python also resides in this cave, and is attended to by the priests. This serpent known as Basuki, represents the God Naga, and is a physical representation of karma, or life as we know it. You can easily imagine this thirty-foot-long serpent, feasting on bats and offerings from the priests, slithering in and out of fissures deep within this complex of caves, which are said to lead all the way up the mountain to the mother temple itself. Just across from Goa Lawah are a complex of beach huts where the ancient tradition of salt making is still practiced today. Here you will see the local fishermen raking and preparing the sand for the evaporation of the sea water and the making of sea-salt.
It seems very appropriate that Bali is known as the Dawn of the World. For us, Bali seemed to be forever fresh, vital and invigorating. Being that the Balinese are very much in tune with nature, and thankful for all that they have, they observe each new day with an offering to the Gods. Everywhere you go, you see these offerings, on the sidewalk in front of every shop and elsewhere, little squares of banana leaves upon which have been reverently placed a few grains of rice, a flower, salt, and a pinch of chili pepper. Each offering is actually a prayer, a prayer that is heard and accepted, as noted in the Hindu holy texts:
Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.
Maybe it is because of the offerings, or maybe it is just their nature, but the Balinese people are very pure of heart. We are very thankful that we were able to share their spirit, generosity, and their heaven on Earth. We will never forget Bali, or the Balinese people. Our experience of Bali, is perfectly expressed in the Balinese greeting ─ May God Shower Grace Upon You (Om Swastiastu). God indeed showered much grace upon us while in Bali.
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt