My tour group, travelling from Medan in Sumatra catches the ferry from Jave to Bali today; the land of curly roofs. Bali is the westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands. It is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia, with 86.9% of the population adhering to Balinese Hinduism. Otherwise, Bali probably needs little introduction. It's a world renowned tourist destination, beaches, coral reefs and highly developed arts: traditional and modern dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking, and music.
We arrive in the port of Gilimanuk, to be greeted by a decorated arch and tall gates. You're not far from a temple, anywhere in Bali. First stop, after that is Pemuteran on the north coast. Here, we have access to West Bali National Park, the island's only national park. Most of it is off limits but there are walking trails, and deer. There are also reefs off the beach and Menjangan Island, home to ancient Hindu temples.
The snorkelling is really excellent. Myriads of coral scattered with Fox's Glacier Fruit fish, gorgeous sandy beaches and iridescent blue water.
It’s been nice to escape the group. Though I’ve just remembered that I’m supposed to be having a fish barbeque with them on the beach.....
Now I’m on Lovina Beach, (middle of the north coast) and am a little worried, because I don’t remember much of it from when I was here 10 years ago, after travelling from Flores. I’m not sure if it’s changed out of all recognition, or if it’s just that I spent quite a lot of time trying out the bars on my last visit. But I don’t even really recognise them. The black volcanic sand beach, though, is still the same.
Besakih, the biggest and holiest temple in Bali, lies 1000 metres up the slopes of Mount Agung, Bali's largest volcano. It is actually an extensive complex of 23 separate temples. The largest and most important is Pura Penataran Agung. The temple is built on six levels, terraced up the slope, with the entrance is marked by a traditional Balinese candi bentar (split gateway). Besakih, as a religiuos site, probably dates from prehistoric times. It was certainly used as a Hindu place of worship from 1284 when the first Javanese conquerors settled in Bali. Each of the houses has its own intricate shrine, so the whole countryside is littered with curlicues and carvings. Shimmering green lakes and skirted statues galore.
The Klungkung kingdom was considered to be the highest and most important of the nine kingdoms of Bali from the late seventeenth century to 1908. It was also the last. The Klungkung Royal Palace was destroyed by the Dutch, but enough of the carved arches, painted roofs and floating pavilion remains to appreciate the amazing craftsmanship. The most fascinating part is the Kerta Gosa pavilion , the Hall of Justice. in the north-eastern corner of the palace compound. Unresolved cases were referred here, to three Brahmana priests. Those in the dock were treated to views of the ceiling which depicted different punishments in the afterlife, the results of karma.
The route that passes all these beautiful temples with thatched wedding-cake towers. has taken us from Lovina in the north to the fishing village of Candidasa on the south coast, climbing over volcanoes on the way. It's a touristy area, with a lot of hotels, but there's a pretty, water lily covered lagoon in the centre. It's real name is Segkidu Village, but it's known as Candidasa for tourists. I'm struggling to understand why this appeals.
No muezzin, a beautiful balmy sea breeze and a ten o’clock start, gorgeous. Tenganan - an immaculately manicured Bali village. According to legend, the people of Tenganan Pegringsingan were selected by Indra, the Hindu god of storms and warfare to live out his divine plan, to be a microcosm of the world. I suppose, like the Amish in America, they wanted to keep their world pure and clean. They were an entirely secluded society until the 1970s. Today, their tranquil village is on the tourist circuit. We endure sales pitches for weaving, as soon as the guide thinks he can get away with it.
Terta Empul Hindu Balinese Water Temple, I do remember from before. There are tanks with scores of fountains and the locals come to bathe for ritual purification and generally have fun. The temple, dedicated to Vishnu, is divided into three sections: Jaba Pura (front yard), Jaba Tengah (central yard) and Jeroan (inner yard). Jaba Tengah contains two pools with 30 showering spouts.
Then, Gunung Kawi, another temple, this time with hot springs and some royal tombs at the bottom of some even more amazing rice terraces. Gunung Kawi is an eleventh-century temple and funerary complex in Tampaksiring. It is spread across either side of the Pakerisan river, which originates from the spring at Terta Empul.
There are 10 rock-cut candi (shrines), carved into seven metre high niches on the sheer cliff face. These funeral monuments are thought to be dedicated to King Anak Wungsu of the Udayana dynasty and his favourite queens. On the east side there are five temples that are dedicated, (according to one theory), to King Udayana, his queen, Mahendradatta, and their sons. The temples on the west side are dedicated, (according to the same theory), to the king's minor queens or concubines. It's simply stunning.
There are several celebrations going on at Pura Penataran Sasih, a Hindu temple in Pejeng village. It was founded, according to a modern chronogram displayed at the entrance, in 1266 AD, and served as the state temple of the Pejeng Kingdom. There's a very tall, stone Seat of Ganesh (elephant) in the middle of the main courtyard and a revered colossal bronze drum, the celebrated Moon of Pejeng, Several legends attach to this
The temples are full of men and women weaving and conjuring up baskets full of offerings, like pig’s heads and coconuts. The temple grounds at Pura Pendataran resemble giant school fetes with harvest festival going on at the same time. There’s also of course National Day looming and the flags are still multiplying. They are now appearing on all the cars too. We only get this in England when we are playing in the World Cup.
The people are incredibly friendly and seem very gentle but there is another side to them too. There are rows of cockerels in baskets all along the waysides. They are being sold ready for the regular bloody bouts of cock fighting. And the tourist routes at the temples are all cunningly contrived, so you have to weave your way through endless stalls when you exit. It’s quite hard to get out unscathed and without being assaulted by women waving sarongs. I am very tempted to treat them as if they are toreadors. But local names are easy to remember. There are only four Christian names, one for the eldest, one for the second born and so on. If a family has more than four children they start again with the first name.
The food in Bali is more varied and many places have a good stab at western style food. Chicken Gordon Blue is noteworthy on several menus. I’ve also noticed lots of western style advertising hoardings. Most of them seem to be promoting cigarettes. Apache seems popular. The guide says the people like the Red Indians.
My last day in Bali is to be spent in and around Ubud, the gorgeously spiritual heart of Bali..This I also remember. It’s just like Glastonbury - health food shops, reflexology and palm readings. Cafes, juice bars, designer everything and yoga. Serendipitously, I'm staying in the same delightful lodging, as on my last visit. Artini 2 sits right in the middle of the paddy fields. We visit a school where ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom.
There’s even more ceremony fever right in Ubud town. There’s to be a big cremation soon and the locals are building all kinds of artefacts at the palace in readiness. A huge bull will hold the casket. A very tall totem pole affair has been rigged, so that the body canbe launched. It appears that it will travel down a long garlanded roller coaster, until it enters the bull. We can’t work out how the body is going to get up the totem pole to begin with, but it’s wide enough to fit a hoist inside. It’s all fascinating.
Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave has more intricate carvings. Wikipedia contradicts itself on its age, so it may or may not date from the eleventh century. It's characterised by menacing faces that are carved into the stone facades. They're to ward off evil spirits. The main figure was once thought to be an elephant, hence the nickname Elephant Cave although there is another theory, that it is named after the stone statue of the Hindu God Ganesh found inside the temple. There's also a bathing pool here.
Then Yeh Pulu. It is located in a ravine and you have to descend a forest trail to get to the paddy field, freshwater springs, more tombs and an impressive 25-metre-long array of carvings etched into a rock face. They're presided over by delightful couple, the guardians.
Close by, another festive temple, with a school attached. Ceremony fever seems to have taken over and the teachers have given up. Some boys are conducting an interesting experiment with matches in one corner of a classroom.
I say my farewells to the odd ball group and head to the airport. The mad lady has disappeared. Ian is desperate to get home for some decent food (he signed off the tour as soon as it hit Ubud, saying he couldn’t stand any more temples) and Jim is staying on to ‘get some action’.
Denpasar is the capital of Bali. The road to Denpasar Airport takes me through Kuta, the Aussie version of Benidorm. Indonesia has continued to offer more that is curious and unusual than almost anywhere else I have travelled.
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