The final week of our amazing 90 days backpacking in southeast Asia arrived far too soon.
In search of some some rest and recuperation we travelled to Bali.
Author’s note: It’s been over 3 months since our return from travels in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia yet due to something called blog-lag (where bloggers travel quicker than they can blog) I still have a few more posts to complete the series 90 Days in South East Asia. 35 blog posts in 90 days was always going to be ambitious, and although I failed in in this, at least I managed to keep wedded (here are some hints on how to not get divorced if you are a travel blogger)
The final week of our trip was like the last part of a sunset, when the sun, the day’s work done, dives fast. ‘I’m outa here’ it seems to say, leaving jilted onlookers wishing it had lasted just that bit longer; perhaps if it was ticketed they’d be wanting a partial refund. (Thunderstorms, in contrast, stay around to give you the full value-for-money shebang).
Someone was secretly guiding our trip towards Bali. Guess who?
Yes it was the wifey. All along Sarah had guided our route so that our final stop would be Bali (plus Lombok and Gill Air). With the unencumbered benefit of making up our journey as we went, from Kuala Lumpur we could have gone north to the world heritage city of Penang; instead we went further east; to Borneo, to see Kota Kinabalu, to Sandakan and Sepilok, to the jungles by the Kinabatangan River; to see turtles laying eggs on moonlit beaches, clownfish fluttering playfully above coral, dense jungles on night-hikes and fluffy orangutangs nesting in the rainforest canopy.
We flew to Denpasar, Bali’s busy capital. My first impressions of Bali wasn’t quite what I was expecting; I thought I would see yoga retreats and western people cycling through rice fields wearing loose linen trousers but all I saw was busy roads with bricked up central reservations, chock-a-block with traffic, big buildings, huge billboards and shops. It was much like any bustling city in south east Asia. For sure it wasn’t quite ‘Eat Pray Love’.
‘There are many different Balis,’ our airport taxi-driver said. ‘Bali is Kuta for party, Bali is Cangu for surfing, Bali is Ubud for culture.’
That was a revelation; Bali has a plural.
The world’s most expensive coffee made from poo
We walked towards the beachfront and passed t-shirt shops, cafes, restaurants, nail and tattoo parlours, foot-spas where women sat with bare shins in tanks of tiny nibbling fish till we got to the main beach on the west coast of Seminyak, at a suburb called Kuta.
There are many coffee shops rigged up with wifi for backpackers to plug in and catch up with their digital lives. Some coffee shops in Bali serve the most expensive coffee in the world, it’s called kopi luwak and made in an unusual way: coffee beans are eaten and defecated by a local civet and their digestive enzymes remove some of the acidity in the beans. The coffee is found on Bali, Sumatra, Java bali and Sulawesi and can cost up to $700 per kilogram.
A week earlier we had been on a night hike on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in the jungles of Borneo; suddenly, as we stomped through the undergrowth, a civet appeared before us, its eyes were burning gold medals in the torchlight. The creature was sharp and alert, and just stood there for some moments frozen in time, looking rather majestic with its spots and stripes. Now I realised its alertness was due to caffeine and its regal air from a knowing that even its droppings were valuable. I mean, what must that do to your self esteem?
I decided not to buy a cup of civet poo coffee because I have an easily triggered gagging reflex usually reserved for Indian public urinals.
The beach at Kuta, a suburb of Seminyak
The wet sands shone like fields of mercury in the hour before sunset. The rollers thundered in; in their crashing over-spills of froth surfers wove winding and complex chicanes.
One lone surfer shimmied a route quite speedily, in the opposite direction, from the foreshore to the waves; I had never seen an electric surfboard before, but they exist.
We sat on stools at a bar with two cold beers, overlooking a spectrum of sun umbrellas, staring at the loungers, the sun-tanners, the screamers and the somersaulters, the knee-dippers, and the beach-dozers. The beach vibe was friendly, crowded and utterly self-absorbed but for us, in the setting sun, there was tinge of longing as it was the very last leg of an amazing time in our lives.
All good things … as they say.
Bali’s Hinduism, ‘same same but different’
To the east, in the distance, was what looked like a rising plume of grey smoke, spreading wider as it rose.
‘An erupting volcano?’ I said to Sarah. I was still hugely ignorant of the physical geography of the region.
‘No,’ said the barman, collecting empty glasses. ‘It is Vishnu.’
(I later found out the statue is called ‘Garuda Wisnu Kencana’, is 120 metres high and in a theme park built in 2018, based on the Hindu god Vishnu and his bird Garuda).
The barman’s correction reminded me that Bali is 83% Hindu and devoutly so; signs and symbols of their faith are easily spotted all over the island. The Balinese have little shrines and temples in their homes. Their buildings are adorned with wonderful stone ornamentations of Hindu gods, flowers, flames and glaring faces with bulbous eyes.
All over Bali you can see little offerings called canang; they are left around a family shrine or on the pavements in front of a shop. They are beautifully compact and eye-catchingly colourful, put together with thought and solemnity and usually comprise marigold petals, betel nuts, banana slices and a smouldering stick of incense. These canang as they’re called, are part and parcel of Balinese life. Our taxi driver wouldn’t even start our journey till his offering was made.
Visually, Balinese Hinduism is different to Indian Hinduism, in terms of its symbology, deities and architecture. I’ve visited Indian Hindu temples, its bare-chested chanting brahmins; ash-smeared dreadlocked holy men clutching tridents; ancient stone temples aglow with the light of a thousand butter lamps fronted with idols of blue Krishna, dancing Shiva and the elephant headed Ganesha.
But this Hinduism in Bali was different; the gods had different names, it was a faint whisper of familiarity, a notion of deja vu. It was ‘same same but different’ to quote a popular Thai catchphrase that seems to have spread all across the merchandise of South East Asia.
Two thousand years ago Hinduism arrived on the Indonesian archipelago; 600 years ago Islam arrived and islands like Java, Borneo and Sumatra became predominately Muslim. Throughout all this time, Bali clung on to its Hindu faith.
In the 1950s the Ministry of Religion of a newly independent Indonesia declared that religions, in order to be official, had to be monotheistic. This proved a little problematic for the Hindus of Bali with their pantheon of gods; their faith threatened to debase their citizenship rights.
So the Balinese decided to send students and scholars to India to consult Hindu scriptures; when they returned in 1958, they put together a petition that quoted directly from an ancient mantra that referred to ‘the essence of the all-pervading, infinite, undivided one.’
And there it was, a way forward for the Balinese Hindus. From a polytheistic religion, with a pantheon of gods, at its core was the phrase, ‘the undivided one’. The Balinese identified Ida Sanghyang Widhi Wasa as the undivided one, both as the cosmic ruler and the cosmic law (in Hinduism it’s called dharma) and this adjustment met the government’s requirement.
Today Hinduism flourishes on Bali, and is embedded in their art, plays, rituals and fused with local animist beliefs, resides in their hearts and souls.
Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali
We traveled one hour north to Ubud, considered to be the cultural capital of Bali. It’s quaint and pretty, but very touristy. Ubud itself has only 74,000 residents but 3 million tourists a year. We checked in to the Soulshine Hotel, a comfortable place set amongst palms and a babbling brook, in to a room of hardwood floors, mood lighting, antique furniture, a wide bed sprinkled with petals and a stone outdoor shower.
Because of a long-standing inability to say no, I found myself in a morning yoga class on a high open studio filled with shards of bright sunlight, to chirping of birds, with vistas across rice fields, where gentle wispy breezes stroked distant palm trees.
It was just the two of us with a very bendy young instructor, and despite me having the flexibility of an ice lolly, it proved to be quite enjoyable. My sun-salutation felt so much more saluting the sun, instead of a tube-light in a basement yoga studio in Tooting. This was much more like Eat Pray Love.
We took out a moped in Ubud, it’s not the easiest town to ride in, the streets are narrow, full of bumper to bumper traffic, and they undulate across the hilly terrain.
We visited Ubud’s temples, palaces, rice terraces, marketplaces, museums and its sacred Monkey Forest.
The rice terraces of Jatiluwih
Bali has the most beautiful rice terraces in the whole of Asia. On our final day in Bali, before we left for Lombok, we took a taxi for two hours to the picturesque highlands in the west to see the Jatiluwih rice terraces.
We drove through villages, their kitchens open where families ate together by the fireside. Houses are generally situated around a courtyard and decorated in stone carvings of flames, flowers and gods. These household ornaments are freely available from builders merchants, which are reminiscent of museum galleries. Their houses are made all the more grander by mosses and shadows that give them an ancient feel, like a mini Angkor Wat.
As we gained altitude, paper kites with bamboo frames fluttered in the skies above the highlands. The Balinese have a deep and meaningful relationship with their kites. They are created in stages, blessed by a priest for each part of process which brings the whole village together. They are created with deep symbolism and tradition, each colour of the kite symbolises a Hindu god. These impressive bamboo constructs, complete with a buzzing voice box, can be up to 10 metres long. There’s money to be had too; winning a competition can you bring you kudos and a four figure prize (in US dollars not rupiah).
We took a hike around the terraces, where water is carefully irrigated and shared in a co-operative system (the entry fee for this once-UNESCO-world-heritage-site is shared with the co-operative).
It was July, slap bang in the dry season (October to to April is the wet season) so the Jatiluwih rice terraces weren’t as lush as I was expecting, although their immensity and beauty were incredibly impressive.
This was what I was expecting.
This is what I saw:
We resolved to return again to Bali (as we did for every place), because the plural of Bali is Balis – there are so many of them on this tiny island just 90 miles wide.
We had just three days there and then it was time to catch the ferry to the nearby island of Lombok, to sail across a deep and angry stretch of water which although a short hop, is incredibly important; 150 years ago this line helped to define our understanding of ourselves in a revolutionary new theory from a Victorian explorer.
Curious much? To be continued.
Previous posts in this series, 90 Days Backpacking in South East Asia are below: