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Mesmerising Bali

Breathtaking rice terraces near Ubud.

Publication Date : 07-09-2012


One thing about Bali that keeps me transfixed is how the culture and religion are such a part of everyday life. The people here take it seriously, not like many societies these days that seem to just go through the motions.

I also like the “surprises” that the island throws at you. Around the corner, you might find a wedding being celebrated. Around another, a ceremony for a 30-day old infant or some other religious ritual being carried out, invariably with pomp and splendour.

In my case, I was caught in a traffic jam in the middle of Ubud, the artistic centre of the island. We soon found out why -- there was a procession taking place because a member of royalty had just passed away and they were preparing for the cremation that night.

As the person who had died was a blue blood, the chariot carrying the body was really elaborate and colourful. In addition, there was going to be a mass cremation ceremony for the plebians. At least that was what our driver, Made Diana, told us.

One must remember that the Balinese still have a feudal society.

Another Balinese custom I delight in is the way they name their children. The first-born is always called Wayan (or Putu/Gede) followed by their given name. The second, Made (or Kadek/Nengah), the third, Nyoman (also Komang) and the fourth Ketut. A second Wayan means you have a fifth child in the family, and this child is oft referred to as Wayan Balik.

A must-see on the island is the Balinese dance and music ritual called kecak. It is a seductive and trance-like performance based on a section of the Ramayana and normally danced by men. One of the best spots to watch this dance – though it now seems to have taken a touristic turn – is at the famed Uluwatu Temple some 40 minutes south of Kuta, the main town of Bali.

Perched on cliffs with a spectacular drop to the Indian Ocean, the temple offers equally spectacular sunsets (if you’re there on a good day). We were not lucky that evening, but the sight and sounds of kecak more than made up for it.

The crowd-pleaser was the comic characters that appeared towards the end of the dance. If you attend, be forewarned that you may find yourself becoming a part of the act – some unwitting member or other of the audience is usually pulled in to join the fun.

And fun it was. The repetitive and hypnotic cak-cak-cak sounds produced by the men still reverberate in my head.

But back to art central: Ubud. Our first stop was the Agung Rai Museum Of Art (Arma), named after the chairman whose personal collection of artwork is displayed here.

The museum has spacious and beautifully landscaped gardens ensconced within. There is even a resort incorporated into the place. I must say it was a delight to check out the various villas and to walk through the gardens and admire the water features.

The museum puts on display, among other things, classical paintings on tree bark and works by the famed Balinese masters like I Gusti Nyoman Lempad and Ida Bagus Made. Also the works of foreign painters based in Bali like Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and Wilem Dooijewaard. The 19th century Javanese artist Raden Saleh Syarif Bustaman is also featured.

It was quite a fascinating stop, and the intricacy of some of the paintings here was spellbinding. There was so much detail and work in them that just to examine one painting would take an hour.

The museum is open daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm. On certain days, there are barong and other cultural performances, so please check at the ticketing booth.

After this, it was off to the famed rice terrace at Tegalalang for us. These terraces, carved out of the hills and perfectly aligned with the contours of the hills, use gravity to irrigate the rice fields. Unlike the rice terraces in the north of the island, these are “farmed” by the local authorities.

They made for a splendid sight as we had our lunch at one of the few cafes on the opposite side. Do note, however, that prices can be a bit steep. You could opt for the food stalls outside, of course, but they don’t have the same magnificent views as the cafes.

Afterwards, we returned to Ubud to visit the infamous Monkey Forest (Padangtegal Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary). A small entrance fee is charged.

If you have read reviews on the place, you would have noted a common theme in the remarks: the long-tailed macaques here are mischievous and want to snatch personal belongings and even bite you.

We took extra precautions, but still the monkeys tried to snatch a bag and some keys. One jumped on top of someone’s head and refused to let go, while another acted randily towards a female visitor.

There were also fights, with some “rogue” monkeys being chased off by the rest of the pack. So it was a noisy but fascinating affair.

The trees and vegetation were also quite interesting as was the pura or temple within the grounds. But what surprised me was the monkey graveyard. Monkeys would stop by from time to time. Were they there to pay their respects, I wondered?

Before heading back to Legian, where I was staying, I decided to check out the Ubud Market for souvenirs. It is truly a huge market, unfortunately, the stallholders will harass you to buy their wares. Despite what some people may tell you, the prices here are high.

The stallholders will quote an astronomical figure, and even after bargaining, the price wouldn’t have been worth the trouble.

Needless to say, I did not buy anything. If you do not care to bargain or if you’re in a hurry, you would do well to visit the gift supermarkets (known locally as oleh-oleh centres) along Sunset in Legian/Seminyak.

Believe you me, you won’t regret it. You’ll come back from Bali with gifts galore. The most magical gift, of course, is the one you get for yourself: a wonderful experience in Bali.


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