Beautiful Bali

By Michael Kasum
This item appears on page 48 of the October 2012 issue.
Courtyard of Pura Besakih, the most sacred temple in Bali.

by Michael Kasum, Gulfport, FL
Following our July ’11 visit to Laos (recounted in last month’s issue), my wife, Pat, and I continued our exploration of Southeast Asia with a visit to the Indonesian island of Bali.

Bali is an isle of exotic sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures, and we were looking forward to a unique and exciting experience to be savored at a pace as relaxed as the Balinese attitude toward life about which we had been reading.

Getting there

Our Garuda Indonesia flight touched down in Bali as the sun plunged into the Indian Ocean. Twilight is short near the equator, and the streets of Denpasar were dark by the time we climbed into our rental car and nosed into traffic.

Balinese dancer.

Trying to remember to drive on the left — the rule in Indonesia as it is in many areas of the globe influenced by the British — we headed out on the poorly lighted and ill-marked narrow streets. We wound our way around steamrollers and dodged dump trucks and workmen, the fumes of fresh tar filling our nostrils and burning our eyes. At last, the gates of the Holiday Inn Resort Baruna Bali on Segara Beach opened to offer us sanctuary from the madness of the streets.

Our welcome inside was as smooth as the sea breeze wafting through the palms. Our comfortable hotel room was on the small side, but we’ve found that that’s common for beach hotels everywhere in the world.

Everything we’d read about food in Bali led us to expect exotic flavors and seasonings, but the hotel’s dining room featured cheeseburgers, French fries and pizza. The buffet breakfast served beside the swimming pool the next morning included choices familiar to every tourist visiting Miami Beach. Even the beach smacked of Gulf Coast Florida.

But we hadn’t come halfway around the world for Bali’s beaches. We’d chosen this lodging for its nearness to the airport so we wouldn’t have to drive into the island’s interior on our first night, and we’d give it three stars for comfort and graciousness. It’s a good beach resort for the bucks ($94), but it wasn’t the Bali we were looking for. We were after bigger game: the interior villages and mountains, the temples, the people and their music, dances and arts, and the food.

On to Ubud

Leaving Denpasar behind, we drove north into the foothills on the narrowest 2-lane road imaginable. I played dodge ’em with motorcycles, minibuses and trucks on the tight curves.

My enjoyment of the scenic drive was somewhat hampered by the obstacle course of trees growing through the paving at the road’s edge, the clusters of dogs and the pedestrians. I’ve driven all over the world with ease, but this road required my full attention.

Only later did I discover that there was a perfectly adequate highway, but I’d taken a back road up to Ubud, the artsy village where we headquartered during the remainder of our stay in Bali.

Everything changed the moment we drove through the gates of the Bali Spirit Hotel & Spa (phone 0361 974013) in the village of Nyuh Kuning, not far from central Ubud. A bronze gong sounded our arrival in the grand pavilion lobby, overlooking a palm-filled hillside falling off to a river in the gorge far below.

Entrance to Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, on the slopes of Mt. Agung, Bali.

We relaxed in luxurious chairs, sipping chilled passion fruit and papaya juice, while a gracious receptionist introduced us to the amenities: a swimming pool; a spa with therapists expert in Balinese massage and baths; an open-air breakfast and dining room, located just above the river; vans to take us into Ubud (where parking is difficult) at our convenience, and guides to drive us to our choice of sights around the island. (If we had known this before, we could have skipped renting a car.)

Bali Spirit had the feel of a private estate rather than a hotel. It’s built at various levels on the hillside, descending toward the river.

Our Emerald Suite included a king bed; a sitting room; both A/C and fans; attractive walls decorated in Balinese fabric patterns; a bathroom and shower artistically designed with inlaid stone and open to the air and flowers; our own patio with seats in the shade and surrounded by statuary and orchids, and 24-hour room service and breakfast, all for $93 per night, including tax and service charges. This was the Garden of Eden, and we felt like Adam and Eve without a serpent of a worry.

Some have called it the Morning of the World, others, the Island of the Gods. But Bali is more. You must experience it to grasp its essence, though I will make an attempt to give the island shape with mere words. Let’s start with Balinese dance and music, two of the island’s unique art forms.

The art of the dance

Having evolved from ancient Hindu ceremonies, traditional Balinese dances are performed in temples and public theaters. The music, the beat and the highly stylized movements of limbs, torsos and eyes seem to mesmerize both the dancers and the audience. A 2-hour performance seems like only a few minutes as tableau after tableau unfolds before you.

As in all classic stories, the good guys and gals are beset by the bad guys, who wear most fearsome masks. They are stories that don’t need a commonality of language to understand. It’s all done with tinkling, sometimes raucous, sounds from the orchestra and the languid, sometimes sharp and intentionally awkward, movements of dancers in extravagant costumes and ornate headdresses. Even the movements of their eyes are part of the choreography.

A brochure often accompanies your ticket to give advance insight into performances.

Our favorite dance performance was the Classical Legong, which opens with Kebyar Dang, gamelan music performed by the orchestra. The second act, in which a dancer brings an offering to a temple hoping to have “flower rains,” is followed by Topeng Keras, offering a change of pace in which a dancer wearing a red mask conveys intense anger.

Kebyar Duduk is a dance from northern Bali in which a girl dressed as a prince depicts the bravery and effervescence of youth. In the Jauk dance, a lone demon in the jungle enjoys the freedom to play, dance and be happy as himself.

The Classical Legong closes with orchestral music, ending the audience’s trance-like state.

This was what we had come to Bali to experience.

Food and drink

Another thing that drew us to Bali was the food. I suppose you could find a cheeseburger somewhere in Ubud, but I didn’t see or smell one. Instead, we dined on things like bebek betutu, a duck that’s cooked for three days in Balinese spices, and Tuti’s tutu ayam, a traditional chicken concoction slow-cooked for eight hours in Balinese spices.

Other delicacies included corn soup, pork satay with peanut sauce, and curries the likes of which are created only in Bali.

For dessert, we enjoyed dishes like cashew pie, which leaned toward pecan pie but with its own unique flavor and loaded with so many nuts that every bite was full of crunch, a moist carrot cake with a hint of lime, and black rice topped with shredded coconut and palm sugar.

You can get the recipes, but you can’t re-create the exact dishes at home unless you also ship back a market full of Bali’s fresh ingredients and spices. Even the island’s limes have a somewhat different tang than those grown in North America.

We brought home some palm sugar, a brown sugar made from the sap of Palmyra palm, and mixed it with the same dark Myers’s Jamaican rum, squeezing our limes into it, but it was not the same Caipirinha cocktail that we drank in Murni’s Warung (Jalan Raya Campuhan), overlooking the Tjampuhan River gorge near the suspension bridge in Ubud.

Enjoying a peaceful break at a waterfall during a white-water rafting trip in Bali.

Even Balinese beer is unique. Unlike German beer, which tends to be robust, or the watery brews of other Southeast Asian countries, like those in Vietnam and Laos, Bintang is a pilsner of medium flavor somewhere in between these extremes.

We learned of and met dozens of expats running restaurants, hotels, art galleries and shops. Bali seeps into your being until you’re tangled in the mystique of its web. No wonder so many Westerners have come to Bali to visit and stayed on in paradise for the rest of their lives.

A center for art

Ubud became the spiritual, cultural and artistic center of Bali centuries before the current crop of tanned and bejeweled visitors jammed its streets. It later became the haunt of notables such as Dorthy Lamour, Noël Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Margaret Mead and Betty Hutton before the middle of the last century.

Though its fame has grown in the last 50 years, it has maintained its artistic temperament by resisting the encroachment of the McDonald’s/Starbucks/KFC franchises.

Luxury resorts to satisfy every taste abound, but they are not a prominent feature of the landscape. Small shops and interesting restaurants, museums and art galleries inhabit the low buildings of the town.

Pat and I enjoyed countless hours on Jalan Raya Ubud, Jalan Raya Sanggingan and Monkey Forest Road selecting the richly colored local fabrics we would wear for sarongs and sashes when visiting temples. We “oohed” and “ahhed” over antiques and artifacts before choosing those we would carry home. A bronze antique statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity renowned as “the remover of obstacles,” now sits on my writing desk at home.

The art galleries left us wishing we still had our larger house with the wall space to hang stunning paintings of Balinese life.

The restaurants and warungs (small, family-owned businesses) along the streets served as great places to take breaks for cappuccino or lunch.

Seeing the sights

Offering far more than shopping, Ubud is home to a score of temples which tempt visitors into dawdling a few more days. Tirta Empul is one of the most delightful.

Tirta means “water” in Sanskrit, and empul is a Balinese word meaning “spring.” People travel great distances to bathe in the waters here, which the Balinese regard as sacred.

This temple, which dates from 960 BC, features pavilions dedicated to Brahma, Shiva, Krishna and Indra.

Pat and I spent one morning whitewater rafting on the Ayung River. Between numerous waterfalls, we passed ancient Balinese carvings in the canyon walls. We’ve rafted more exciting rivers but none as gorgeous as this cool setting; it was worth the 400 steps down to the canyon and the 500 back out.

In addition to pickup from and delivery back to our hotel, Bali Adventure Tours (Pesanggaran, Bali; phone +62 361 721480) provided us with a lunch of fish, suckling pig, local vegetables, salads, fruits and freshly baked goods to restore our bodies from the jouncing trip through the canyon and the climb out. After lunch, they took us to the Elephant Safari Park, where we fed bamboo shoots to elephants and went galumphing through the jungle on elephantback, guided with expertise by our mahout. (The total cost was $224 for two.)

Returning to our hotel, we stopped for the passage of worshipers on their way to a temple. Smiling lads wearing white tops and head wraps and black-and-white checked sarongs banged small gongs, followed by chanting men carrying red, yellow, black, white and multicolored umbrellas on long poles. Some in the group wore fearsome masks. The procession wound past, complete with elephants wearing gold and silver coverings.

We found ourselves pausing often for the passage of such happy processions in Bali.

Outside of Ubud

Ubud makes a good base because the entire island is available for easy day trips from there.

Procession of young men heading to a temple near Ubud, Bali.

One day might be spent visiting the island’s north shore, including Pura Ulan Danu Bratan, the temple that sits on the edge of Lake Bratan. This temple is worth a visit simply for its view.

A meru (tiered shrine) with 11 roofs sits on a point of land jutting out into the lake.

Another day might be spent driving south into the Bukit Peninsula, where you can visit Pura Luhur Uluwatu, the most dramatic temple in Bali. Perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking the surf breaking onto Uluwatu Beach, this temple features a dance performance each day at sundown.

One day we drove out of Ubud to the villages of eastern Bali. In Semarapura we visited a museum that features artifacts from the last Balinese regency, which fell to the Dutch. An enormous painting in one of the galleries depicts the battle of April 18, 1908, in which King Dewa Agung Jambe II and his army of spear-carrying warriors were defeated by the Dutch colonial government; they committed mass suicide instead of facing disgrace. It is a moving memorial.

We also visited the Pura Goa Lawah, or Bat Cave Temple, located three kilometers east of Kusamba. It is one of nine kayangan jagat (sacred directional temples) believed to protect Bali from evil spirits.

Visitors brought offerings to the deities and we snapped pictures while bats swarmed in the dark interior of the cave, making the walls seem alive. Magical? Uh huh. Mystical and a little scary? Yup. But beautiful and impressive as well.

Mountain temple visit

East of Candidasa, we turned into the hills and began to climb the slopes of Mount Agung, which reaches nearly 10,000 feet into the clouds, making it the highest and, therefore, holiest peak in Bali.

We passed through hamlets so isolated that they permitted marriage only between residents of the same village. Hens that had been dyed pink and orange lived in bamboo cages. Women washed clothes in the streams, beating them on rocks. Girls washed their long black hair in the streams beside their mothers. Terraced rice paddies stretched out below.

At last we arrived at our primary destination for the day: Pura Besakih, called the Mother Temple of Bali because it is the largest and holiest. Named after the dragon deity which is believed to live in the mountain, the temple is comprised of between 28 and 35 buildings, depending on how you count them. Some of the foundations date back 2,000 years.

We climbed the long stone stairway, ascending through split monolithic spires to a courtyard, where we observed devotees entering various temples to make offerings. The main temples are dedicated to Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu and are surrounded by 18 separate structures belonging to different regencies and castes.

Pura Besakih has a mystical quality, located, as it is, almost a third of the way up that great mountain. We gazed in awe at the carved stone facades with ornate gold-and-purple doors, the ever-present religious umbrellas, the tall multiple-roofed structures and the kneeling worshipers, people clearly happy with living in their island paradise. One could sense a spiritual essence in the very air.

There, in the thinning air on the slopes of Mount Agung, we found the heartbeat of Bali.