Beautiful Bali

"How would you like to go to Bali," she asked.
"Are you serious?" I asked her.
"Well, pack your bags for that's where we're headed!"

A Bali welcome
Bali? It wasn't anywhere on my radar, not even on my bucket list. And a few short days later, our group of 4 adults + 2 kids was headed to Bali via Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi Airport was so very crowded; it looked as if half the world was transiting through Bangkok. The connecting flight to Denpasar was a couple of hours away, leaving us with plenty of time to feast on some pad thai and mango sticky rice. It was sometime in the afternoon when we reached Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport and joined the long queue snaking up to the immigration counters.

At the arrival hall, we were most relieved to be met by our guide Gustaaf and driver, Chris. They explained it was better to drive straight to Tanah Lot to see the sunset and then come back to the city and check into the hotel. Hmm... it was only when we saw the roads in Bali that we understood how much sense that plan made. The roads are long and narrow and meant for two way traffic. If you get stuck anywhere, too bad.

Ghatokacha statue near the airport

Bali is the smallest province in Indonesia with a population of 4.2 million, 86% of which are Hindus, the remaining are Buddhists, Christians and others. Famed for its beautiful, white sandy beaches, tourism is what drives the economy. Gustaaf told us it was possible to walk around the whole island, an activity none of us were keen on that day anyway! Retail stores and restaurants lined our route, occasionally we'd see beautiful old houses and almost every house had a shrine inside the compound.

Batu Bolong temple. Bolong means hole, self-explanatory!

Tanah Lot temple with the causeway

After a little more than an hour of travelling, we reached Tanah Lot. One of the things first time visitors to Bali do is to watch the sunset from the cliff above. A Hindu shrine, the Batu Bolong Temple, sits atop a rocky outcrop, the forces of nature and relentless pounding of the waves have carved a tunnel under the rock. A little way away, the Tanah Lot temple sits on a rock in the sea and during low tide, a causeway that connects the temple to the mainland is exposed, allowing pilgrims to walk across. Local Hindus, dressed in traditional clothes carried their offerings in baskets to offer it at the temple.  As the sun set and the tide came in, we could see people being shepherded to safety and soon enough, the causeway went under the water.

A civet cat; kopi luwak beans

There is a steep path along the cliff, lined with shops and little restaurants. We walked up this path, passing little eateries with signboards advertising the famed kopi luwak. One of these places even had a civet cat with a chain around its neck. Gustaaf took us to his favourite restaurant from where we watched a spectacular sunset. 

Nasi Jinggo; wajik (traditional cakes), some of the local food served in our resort 

We stayed the first 2 days at a resort at Kuta Beach, a rather crowded area popular with tourists.  Restaurants stay open quite late into the night and there are street side stalls that sell clothes, footwear and souvenirs. You can try your bargaining skills; we did manage to hook a couple of good deals. There's plenty of local food to savour, as well as restaurants like KFC and Hard Rock Cafe if you're looking for something more predictable. The complimentary breakfast at our hotel did feature plenty of local dishes along with the usual Continental selection.

The batik specialist

We had a minivan to take us around the island. Bali is well-known for batik, a traditional art form on fabric using the wax resist method. Legong has quite a batik collection and you can watch how it is created. Using a stylus, craftswomen draw the design on a piece of cloth, later retracing the design with wax. The material is then dipped in colours, depending on the design. There is a store on the premises from where you can pick up batik dresses, skirts, shirts and just about anything made of batik.

Making silver jewellery at Sari Dewi

Jewellery making is another craft Bali is known for. Tour companies include a visit to the shops where you can watch craftsmen make all kinds of silver jewellery. At Sari Dewi, they showed us how a bar of silver is flattened into a loop of wire which is then shaped into filigree earrings. The attached store has a large collection of jewellery, not only in gold and silver but also those set with precious and semi-precious stones.

Batuan Temple, the oldest temple in Bali

Mount Batur

Mount Batur is one of two active volcanoes in Bali.  As we drove up from Kintamani, we could see its conical top. Gustaaf assured us that the last major eruption had been way back in the 1960s. We stopped for an unremarkable lunch at a restaurant called Madu Sari which was right opposite the volcano. From that distance, the volcano looked calm and serene. (Mt. Agung, the other active volcano, has erupted twice over the last 2 years.)

Cabbage and cucumber grow abundantly on the island 

All along the way, we saw raised beds of soil with thin plastic sheeting over them. There were holes cut out on the sheets from which grew cabbages, tomato plants, cauliflowers and cucumbers on vines.

Rice terraces at Tegalalang

The trip to the Monkey Forest took us through the Tegalalang rice terraces. Rice is a staple crop in Bali and the terraces, which have been carved out on the hillside, are a popular tourist attraction.

At the Ubud Monkey Forest, we were warned not to provoke the monkeys, not to look them in the eye and definitely not to feed them. There were monkeys of all shapes and sizes scurrying along under the huge trees. Some mommas were carrying babies while alpha males showed their aggression to junior monkeys. Just make sure you clear out of the place before it gets dark.

The entrance to the garden; the entrance of the house of the head of the family, the shrine;
the pavilion; a clay sculpture

The light was fading when we reached Negari Luwak Coffee. Fortunately, the owners of the show garden were willing to let us in and we took a quick look around the traditional Balinese house and surrounding buildings, built according to traditional  architectural principles. A wall encloses the property; the head of the family lives in the largest house while other members live in smaller ones. There is a pavilion in the central courtyard where guests are received and family functions are conducted. The kitchen is housed in a separate area and the family shrine is located in the northeast corner of the plot. There is a large garden behind the houses with cages that hold civet cats. It was too dark to see the animals but we could hear and smell them!! We walked on dimly lit pathways to an area almost at the back. Wooden containers and baskets held coffee beans in various stages of processing - poop covered, cleaned and roasted and implements to powder the beans with. The aroma of the powdered beans was incredible. Other baskets held a variety of spices, chillies, garlic and other crops grown on the plantation.

Poop covered beans; cleaned and roasted; a cup of coffee. Spices for sale; the common kitchen
of the property; the coffee experience centre; the store

We sat on benches under a thatched roof while the ladies made our coffee. And finally, in the middle of a clearing in a tiny plantation, with giant mosquitoes buzzing around, we drank a cup of the 4th most expensive coffee in the world. Midnight black in colour, it actually looked thick, tasted smooth, rich and velvety. It had a complex flavour, very aromatic and with no acidic tones. Nothing like anything I've had before and thoroughly enjoyable.

The beach at Grand Hyatt Bali

Of course, after that, we had to go into their store and pick up some kopi luwak to take home with us.

The beach at Tanjong Benoa
The glass bottomed boat

Some of the inhabitants of Turtle Island

We shifted base to Grand Hyatt Bali at Nusa Dua. The next morning, we drove to Tanjong Benoa, a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. We were not there for that so we clambered aboard a glass-bottomed boat and took off for the 15 minute ride to Turtle Island. The greenish water was rather opaque and we could only make out the darker coloured fish. Our boatman handed out bread for us to feed the fish which did look pretty well fed. It was quite windy and spray from passing boats assured us of a rather wet welcome at the Island, a turtle breeding and conservation site. Not only turtles but there were also iguanas, owls, a couple of cockatoos and even a snake on the island. Kids and adults had a whale (!) of a time photographing and being photographed with the animals.

The limestone cliffs at Uluwatu. Tectonic subduction of the Indo-Australian
 Plate under the Eurasian Plate pushed it above sea level. Photo credit: Annie Jacob

The cliffs at Uluwatu are an amazing sight. The Pura Luhur Uluwatu, a sea temple, is located here; devotees and visitors throng the area. So do monkeys so watch out!

Ready to be lit

Kechak fire dance performers, the entry of Rama and Sita

The golden deer; Laksamana refusing to leave Sita; Ravana trying to capture Sita

Every day at sunset, a Kechak Fire Dance takes place in the amphitheatre. The audience sits on the concrete steps; latecomers have to sit on the ground. A lamp is lit and about 70 male performers dressed in black and white checked sarongs with orange belts and a flower tucked behind one ear, enter the performing space. They sit around the fire and start by chanting "chak chak" in rhythm. They are in a trance, their hands are outstretched and bodies sway to the beat in perfect synchronisation. No musical instrument is used, their voices rise and fall in a dramatic fashion and other actors enact the story of the  Ramanayam, of Sita's abduction by Ravana and her subsequent rescue by Rama. Performers who play the roles of Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Ravana enter the tiny circle between the men and the fire and play their parts. Truly fascinating and a definitely not-to-be-missed performance.

Puja Mandala Complex

On our last day, we visited the Puja Mandala in Nusa Dua. It is a fine example of how different faiths can co-exist in a country. Five places of worship - a mosque, a Catholic and a Protestant church, a Buddhist vihara and a Hindu temple share a single compound.

Bali Collection - close to the hotel and a great place to shop

Of course we did a fair bit of shopping. Nusa Dua has many starred hotels and most people head on over to the Bali Collection complex. The shops there sell branded labels and there are many handicraft and souvenir shops too, along with restaurants, coffee shops, spas, bookshops and a supermarket.

Chris, Gustaaf and us.
Photo credit: Annie Jacob

All too soon, our short but beautiful holiday was over and we were back at the airport. We said our goodbyes to Gustaaf and Chris and I'm sure I did see a tear in Chris' eye just as I turned to enter the building.

Back home with a cup of kopi luwak


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