Bali…Island of the Gods…Island of a Thousand Temples…The Last Paradise…whatever name you choose to call it, Bali is a feast for the senses. Stepping off a plane in Denpasar, day or night, the first thing you notice is the warm, humid air almost immediately turning to moisture on your skin. Yes, it is the same in all tropical destinations but in Bali, it is just the beginning. Since I am talking about “feeling” Bali on your skin, I do highly recommend Balinese massage. Balinese massage is a full body holistic treatment. It uses a combination of gentle stretches, acupressure, reflexology and aromatherapy to stimulate the flow of blood, oxygen and “qi” or energy to bring a sense of well-being, calm and relaxation. It is also a bargain at anywhere between 70,000 and 120,000 rupiahs or $5 to $10 per hour.
After clearing customs and grabbing your luggage, you are met by your local driver. Wow, men in skirts… correctly called a kamen and on their heads an udeng (symbolizing a clear mind). You soon notice men and women all around you in colorful, traditional Balinese dress. Along with a kamen, women will be wearing a kebaya (lace jacket) and an anteng or sash around the waist. So, off you go with your driver and the next thing you notice is the sight and sound of motorbikes aka scooters everywhere. With close to 3 million registered scooters on an island 90 miles long and 50 miles wide (2176 sq. mi) they are hard to miss. If you plan on renting a scooter while in Bali, be sure to get your international driver’s license before arrival, it’s mandatory along with wearing a helmet. Fines can be steep and it’s not unusual for foreigners to be pulled over for seemingly no reason.
So, you have left the busy, capital city of Denpasar and arrive at your destination, most likely Ubud or a beach town such as Canggu, Kuta or Seminyak. Although 88% of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali is 85% Hindu and you will see symbols of the religion and culture everywhere you look. You will probably notice statues wearing a black and white checked cloth called a saput poleng which symbolizes the coexistence of opposites and the ultimate goal of harmony. The Balinese people believe that joy will always be balanced by sorrow, that good and evil exists in the world and everyone. They embrace the differences because they create balance and harmony.
You will see many split gates or Candi Bentar which are an important feature in Balinese temple architecture. They mark the entrances of the temples or puras in Balinese, drawing a line between holy grounds and the outside world. Legend tells us that Lord Shiva split the mythical Indonesian Mt. Meru (home of the gods) into 2 halves which became Gunung Agung and Gunung Batur, Bali’s 2 primary volcanoes. It is believed that the candi bentar represents the 2 halves of mythical Mt. Meru. Sadly, in my humble opinion, because of Instagram, the most famous candi bentar is at one of Bali’s oldest and most sacred temples ~ Pura Lempuyang and is nicknamed “Gate to Heaven”. If you have any interest in Bali, I’m sure you have seen photos of the now-famous Gate to Heaven that frames the peak of Gunung Agung. I say sadly, because when I first visited Pura Lempuyang almost 2 years ago, I was one of maybe 6 people at the temple. This year, August and October 2019, there was a 2 hour and an over 3-hour wait respectively to take a photo between the now Instagram famous “Gate”. Many are also surprised/disappointed to discover there is no lake or water at the gates but merely a camera trick of placing a mirror beneath the camera lens so that the picture appears to be reflected on non-existent water. Not only that, but you must hand your phone over to a “local” photographer with a donation so he will snap your photo and you get 3 poses. I personally find the Gate to Heaven stunning without the Instagram sham of water. I also feel that most people are there to get that all-important Instagram shot and forget or maybe don’t even know that Pura Lempuyang is one of Bali’s six major temples known as Sad (six) Kahyangan (place of Gods) or that it is only one of seven temples in the complex. Whether you choose to take a number and wait for the “shot” or not, the temple is well worth a visit just for the view of Gunung Agung, but please respect the fact that it is a sacred place to the Balinese.
With over 25,000 species of plants in this tropical climate, you may next notice the flora. The vivid colors of bougainvillaea and lotus flower then the sweet scent of my favorite the frangipani are everywhere you turn. Flowers are an important piece of Balinese culture. As part of their everyday life, they are used in the offerings or Canang Sari. Canang is a small woven basket from palm leaves and sari means essence. Broken down further can = beauty (like you feel the view) nang = purpose and sari = source. Typically, a family places about 15 offerings per day, more on special ceremony days. The canang sari is handmade daily and it is considered self-sacrifice with the time it takes to make the offerings. The offering must have certain elements representing the Trimurti or 3 major Hindu gods; white lime for Shiva, red betel nut for Vishnu and green gambier plant for Brahma. On top of these are placed petals. White petals facing East for Iswara, red petals facing South for Brahma, yellow petals facing West for Mahadeva and blue or green facing North for Vishnu. The offerings also can contain food items, rice, crackers small cakes, etc. Along with an incense stick, these offerings are placed with a prayer ritual to deliver the sari (essence) of the canang to heaven. A flower dipped in holy water is sprinkled over the canang along with a spoken prayer as in a symbolic merging of earth, fire, wind, and water. The smoke from the incense carries the essence of the offering to the gods. These offerings are to maintain balance and peace on earth amidst good and evil and between heaven and hell. Within this ritual is an understanding that both positive and negative energies exist in the world. It is up to us to seek balance and harmony in our personal lives, in our community, and in the world. What appears to be a simple basket of flowers is really an important part of Balinese life.
Outside of the roar of motorbikes, you will also hear the entrancing sound of gamelan music. The gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of Javanese, Sudanese and Balinese in Indonesia, made up of mostly percussive instruments. The predominant instrument is the metallophone which is played using a mallet. I have been fortunate to attend gamelan lessons with the children from my homestay.
Gamelan is played on formal occasions, during many traditional ceremonies and as an accompaniment to Balinese dance. For most, gamelan is an integral part of Balinese culture. Certain pieces are believed to have magic powers and can be used to ward off evil spirits. Interestingly, gamelan is also used in the Catholic Church of Indonesia. Another sound that I relate to Bali is the sound of the tokay gecko. Nocturnal, you will hear them “barking” at night. You will also need to get used to seeing them wandering across your walls and ceiling.
I said earlier, Bali is a feast for the senses. I have covered sight, smell, hearing, and touch. That leaves taste, the taste of Bali. Ketut, from my homestay family was a chef before they opened their homestay. That means I learned a lot about Balinese foods and traditional spices during my stay. I love the spiciness of the food in Bali and that sambal comes as a condiment with most dishes. Sambal is a blend of chilis and spices. There is no one recipe and it can be prepared a hundred different ways. It is definitely a food staple in Bali. A few of my favorite foods are nasi and mi goreng (nasi meaning rice, mi meaning noodles and goreng meaning fried), pisang (banana) goreng and the easy to grab street food nasi jinggo which is rice, meat, vegetables and condiment, usually a type of sambal all wrapped up in a banana leaf. I can’t forget about the sate ayam (chicken), babi (pork) and kambing (goat) all topped with peanut sauce. Of course, no trip to Bali is complete unless you try the babi guling or suckling pig.
Oh, and I must mention the avocados (sometimes as big as my head, well, almost). You haven’t tasted avocado until you eat one plucked right off the tree. The same holds true to eating the fruits….mango, papaya, dragon, guava….there is nothing like it! Another personal favorite, right up there with pho and Lanzhou LaMian, is mi ayam which is actually an Indonesian dish versus Balinese, but an almost daily menu item for me.
Bali, you feed my senses and you have stolen my soul. Until next time. I’ll leave you with the traditional Balinese greeting… spoken with hands clasped in front of the chest in a relaxed prayer position …. “Om Swasti Astu” or “peace and greetings from God” and the traditional goodbye… “Om Santih Santih Santih Om” or to wish you “peace in body, speech and mind”.