First, some quick facts and geography. Where Indonesia is on a map. The blue dot is Bali. To the south is Australia, the land down under.
Indonesia has the second longest coastline in the world after Canada. The country is made up of about 18,000 islands; the 4th largest country in the world with a population of 260 million. It is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
Bali, The Island of the gods. The blue dot below is where the Bingin Beach Villas are located.
The Villas are located in an area of Bali called The Bukit peninsula, the southern most region of Bali. Bukit means hill and after all of the steps I’ve navigated I will never forget the meaning. The Bukit area includes the famous cliff hanging temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu and a number of Bali’s very best beaches. Pantai (beach)Balangan, my favourite and also some of the top surfing spots on the island.
Pura Uluwatu is situated on a stunning promontory facing west. The Kecak Dance is performed most nights at sunset. I had last seen it performed over 30 years ago when my good friend, Tara, and I did a tour of East Asia and stayed on Bali for a few days. It is only in hindsight that I realize what a fantastic experience we had.
The Kecak dance, or ‘Tari Kecak’, is a captivating traditional Balinese art performance, which also goes by, ‘the monkey chant dance’, and loosely ‘fire dance’, for its occasional use of fire as a centrepiece prop. The Kecak was created around 1930 and is now internationally recognised as one of Bali’s top-three signature dances.
The Kecak dance is unique in that it has no other musical background or accompaniment besides the chanting of male dancers, intoning a “keh-chack” polyrhythmic choir during most of the performance. Kecak’s storyline is taken from the Ramayana Hindu epic.
Tari Kecak is simply accompanied by the a cappella chorus of dozens of men including one leader to set the tones, one soloist, one in charge of intoning high and low notes, as well as a narrator. The men wear chequered sarongs and are seated in tight, concentric circles with a central space reserved for the protagonist characters.
The main characters depict Rama, Sita, Ravana, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Sugriva. The storyline generally starts from when prince Rama goes to the woods with Sita, his wife, and Lakshmana, his brother. There, Ravana kidnaps Sita and imprisons her in his castle. Rama seeks for help and sends Lakshmana to find his friend, Sugriva, the King of the Monkey Kingdom. Hanuman, Sugriva’s commander, is sent to check on Sita in Ravana’s palace and Rama finally begins the battle. At first, Ravana wins, but Sugriva and Hanuman then come to Rama’s aid with monkey troops. Sugriva finally wins. The male chorus chants ‘chack’, representing the sound of the monkey troops. The soft rattling sound of bells around the protagonists’ ankles is the only addition to Tari Kecak’s choral background.
Tari Kecak actually originated from a Balinese ancient ritual called ‘sanghyang’ in which dancers fall into a trance. It is also a form of an exorcism and can go on for hours or even months. The ritual used to only take place inside temple grounds. In 1930, a German artist, Walter Spies, created a touristic dramatic version of the ‘sanghyang’ by adopting the Ramayana epic as well. He worked together with Balinese dancer Wayan Limbak, and took their innovation on a world tour. Kecak shot to fame.
Kelsi, Mitch and I toured the temple to catch the sunset. Unfortunately, clouds got in the way but it was still enjoyable.
Some quick facts about Bali:
Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia, is majority Hindu and most of the Balinese actively practice Hinduism. This is why they are allowed to eat Babi Guling, or suckling roast pig, a delicacy that would be off limits to Muslims.
No need to order all your drinks neat – the ice in Bali is quality controlled by the local government. The tap water is not as belly friendly, unfortunately, so bottled water is necessary and has led to a huge plastic bottle pollution problem. Bali uses 30 million plastic water bottles a month. 100 million tons of mostly plastic garbage washes up on her shores annually. There is no real solid waste management on the island, so this has become a huge problem throughout the archipelago. The Bukit has some issues, but the local villagers are very diligent about keeping the beaches clean.
If invited to someone’s home to dine you might find yourself sitting on the floor and eating with your hands, in which case use your right hand only, and when you’ve had enough, you should leave a little bit of food on your plate to signify you are done.
Nyepi, a Hindu celebration observed mainly in Bali, sees the entire island fall silent, with businesses closing and even the airport shutting up shop.
This ‘Day of Silence’ is seen as an opportunity for self-reflection and to fool the evil spirits into thinking the island is deserted. A night, no visible light should be seen from your house. Its observation is enforced by pecalang – local security officers. Beaches and streets are closed to all – including tourists. This caused me some concern as Nyepi falls on March 17 and that is when my outbound flight to India is scheduled. I phoned around, and found that the airport closes from 6 a.m. March 17 until 6a.m. March 18. My flight is at 1:30 a.m. so I will be okay. My driver did tell me that we will have to leave around 8 p.m. because the traffic will be very bad. I was told to offer to pay for the tolls on the toll road and that would make the trip faster.
Mounts Agung and Batur are the two towering peaks of Bali, and these dinosaurs are far from dormant. Gunung Agung, as it is locally known, last erupted in 1963, killing around 1,500 people, and still makes its presence felt with occasional gassy belches, the last being on January 18 of this year. It is one of the reasons that tourism is down significantly in Bali – tourists are unable to get trip cancellation insurance for acts of the gods. Batur, meanwhile, last erupted in 2000, shooting ash into the air, but harming no one.
North is sometimes south. The Balinese concept of north is the same as “up” – a place where gods and good spirits dwell. In this way, high points such as Mount Agung, which is considered sacred, represent ‘north’, and you’ll find most Balinese dwellings and shrines face ‘north’ – to the mountain. If you are north of Mount Agung and ask where north is, you will almost definitely be directed to the mountain – south of where you stand.
Bali is in a coral triangle. THE Coral Triangle, in fact. Sitting right in the middle of the world’s richest waters for corals, considered the ‘Amazon of the Seas’ for its marine biodiversity. Not just 600-odd species of coral, but turtles, more than 2000 species of fish, including tuna – a major food source for millions of local communities. With this in mind, plastic pollution is a huge concern for the health of the marine environment.
Bali has one of the highest densities of spas in the world. You do not have to go far to find a massage in Bali – the island has around 1,200 spas. Traditional Balinese massage is, of course, a must. Characterized by long, not-too-firm strokes focused on pressure points, it’s influenced by Chinese and Indian traditions. The level of pampering is up to you – you can have a massage on the beach for less than US$10, or opt for a five-star treatment in a luxurious suite. I was advised not to have any massages at the villa as some are shady and use the visit to “case the joint”. No problem. I don’t like massages – too ticklish.
Malevolent spirits are not welcome. Spirits are everywhere in Bali, and there are myriad practices to keep evil ones at bay. There’s a screen behind compound gateways called an aling aling, intended to keep them out. There are daily offerings of incense and food wrapped in banana leaves to appease them. It is quite elaborate with offerings placed on the shrines, in the roads, on the bumpers of vehicles. Sadly, the road offerings attract the free range chickens and many are killed by speeding scooters and cars. Made makes an offering every day that he comes to my villa. The daily offerings include burning incense sticks and I will miss the delicate scent that floats over my walls while I enjoy my morning coffee.
Monkeys have no manners. You don’t need to go to the Monkey Forest to have your phone stolen by a macaque – it could happen anywhere you see these, I find them kind of malevolent, critters. There is a large troupe at Uluwatu temple and Padang Padang beach.
Emboldened by travelers who feed them and take selfies with them, monkeys at any Bali tourist site may try to take your bag/hat/sunglasses/food. I was told to appreciate them from a distance, and to remember that smiling at them with bared teeth is basically challenging one to fight you.
Ubud is vegan heaven. Mitch, Kelsi and I went to this picturesque bohemian town in central Bali to white water raft. The van ride there was longer than the rafting, but the rafting was still awesome because it is the rainy season and there were some exciting spills and rescues. Not us! The worst that happened was I flipped over backwards into a young Dutch nurse’s lap. I had visions of becoming a #metoo tweet. From the raft we were able to see jungle resorts perched on the cliffs cut by the river. They looked so peaceful and green. It is also the wellness destination on the island. Vegetarian, vegan and raw food cafes and restaurants abound, with an emphasis on locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. Liking my protein freshly killed, and having a fantastic butcher/chef cousin, I don’t see the appeal.
Bali is an island of thousands of gods. Combining Hinduism with some Buddhist mythology, ancestral spirits, animism, (black) magic and indigenous deities, Balinese Hinduism has a higher than average number of gods.
This complex belief system results in an island with more than 20,000 shrines (pura), which is why it’s called the Island of the Gods.
The Balinese usually have one of the following four names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut. They simply mean First born, Second born, Third born and Fourth born and it doesn’t matter if the child is a boy or a girl!
This one is for my friend, Mark. The most expensive coffee is Kopi Luwak.
Do you fancy coffee made from civet droppings? Mark calls it cat shit coffee. The prices for this coffee can go up to as high as 50 dollars a cup! Kopi Luwak is not exclusive to Bali, but it is one of the few places where you can get authentic Kopi Luwak.
Next, the beaches of the Bukit.