As the aircraft touched down at the Ngurah Rai International Airport at Denpasar, I said -“At last, Bali is in Bali.” I was addressing my newly-made friend in the seat next to me. Cathy from Camberwell, London, England, dressed in a sky blue vest and bright yellow shorts, snorted and replied, “Silly, where else would Bali be except in Bali, the island paradise in Indonesia.” I explained that my name was Bali and I was referring to my being in the island of Bali, after wanting to come here on a visit for a very, very long time. I mean I have been to many far flung corners of the globe – chasing sights, scents and tastes – for a long, long time, but had not been able to visit Bali earlier. My son Rahul had often teased me that he had visited Bali, but I had not. Not only had he visited Bali, but his visit was quite dramatic. He was in Kuta the day the Bali Bombings took place in 2005!
But bombings and terror were far from my mind as the aircraft rolled on a runway which was just a tiny sliver of land surrounded by blue waters of the ocean After hours of nothing but the seas beneath and the fleecy clouds around and above, it was quite an interesting experience to land at the Denpasar airfield – just a very small collection of motley buildings and a few parked aircraft. Small or not, the airport functioning was quite efficient and visa-on-arrival, baggage collection and a pre-paid taxi to Kuta Beach were all hassle free.
The drive to Kuta gave a few glimpses of Balinese life, but Kuta itself – along with the sister beach settlements of Legian and Seminyak hardly gave an impression of traditional Bali, as one had imagined. True, the sunsets were glorious and people appeared to be enjoying themselves in the sea, on the beaches and on the promenades, but it was all very tinsel-and-buntings affair. Expensive/ Very Expensive resorts/hotels far outnumbered other types of accommodation. The accent appeared to be – apart from these ritzy resorts/star-category hotels – on Malls, International Fashion/Food/Lifestyle Statements and such like. Interestingly, the easiest way to reach the Kuta Beach was by walking through the huge Centro Mall. A matter of ‘to glories of Nature, via Gucci, Givenchy and Gabbana’! The beaches were indeed lovely and clean with the seas ideal for surfing. But, overall, one could not get rid of the impression that this popular beach-complex was more of a Tourist Trap than anything else. Apart from the sensational sunsets, what is unforgettable is a free spectacular show by some Fire Dancers. Real Fiery Stuff!
My hotel in Kuta, was about a ten-minute walk to the beach, It was rather picturesque with a small garden, a nice swimming pool, trees/flowers and fountains. My room was comfortable and came with a comfortable easy chair in the verandah outside, overlooking the pool. The breakfasts were sumptuous multi-cuisine affairs. I quite enjoyed my stay in Kuta.
After a few days in and around Kuta,my next stop was Ubud, considered to be the Cultural Hub of Bali. The Ubud-Impact is visible much before one reaches the town. Quite a few miles before Ubud, the road is lined with thousands of statues-for-sale of various sizes – from larger-than-life to life-size and smaller – depicting assorted gods and goddesses, animals, birds and other subjects. There were also scores of artist’s studios with colourful works catching the eye. For quite few miles, the road appeared to be one never-ending continuous Art Gallery.
Ubud has a number of attractions. Some are quite unique. A major attraction is the Sacred Monkey Forest inhabited by various kinds of Balinese Macaques and temples dedicated to them. With the extreme popularity of the Sacred Monkey Forest attracting a very large number of visitors, there have been some interesting changes in the behavior of the macaques. They are totally unafraid of the humans –sometimes, quite aggressive, if provoked – and may or may not agree to eat the offered bananas. There were many shrieks followed by reluctant laughter as some monkeys decided to climb over some visitors – men, women and children. They also loved pouncing on plastic bags and cameras! Evolution?
Ubud is a rather curious mix of the traditional and the touristy. The traditional comes through in the typical architecture of public and private buildings, featuring intricate carving, statues, colours and the omnipresent offerings of flowers to gods left at the feet of statues, thresholds and by the roadside. There is great deal of local food, western fast food, cafes/bars with great atmosphere and even a full blown Jazz Café. The market has a plethora of colourful textiles, jewellery, artifacts, exotic fruits and an unending scope for your bargaining skills. Ubud is also a place where one does not think it odd in the least when one comes across shops selling Prada and Dior flanking a paddy field! Many mod restaurants and hotels offer rice field-views as a premium bonus.
A highlight of my Bali visit was the road trips undertaken on the pillion of a motorcycle. There was the visit to Tanah Lot with its hilltop Temple-in-the-sea. The temple is reachable only for a couple of hours every day, when the tides are right. But, the incredible seascapes are always there. Kintamani provided a breath-taking panorama of Lake Batur with the old crater of the volcano Mount Batur guarding it. On the way to Kintamani was Bali’s premier Fruit Belt, with roadside stalls offering an Artplate Display of oranges, durian, apples, guavas, mangosteens, bananas, papayas, pomelo and other fruits. Tampak Siring Temple with its tank for a holy dip, and Gua Gaja (Elephant Cave) Temple were shining examples of the deep religious nature of the people.
Balinese are Hindus. But their concepts of Hinduism and its practice are rather different from those in India. Some of their practices are bound to send our Hindu radicals up the wall, foaming at the mouth. The offerings to Lord Shiva at a temple included packets of Lays Potato Wafers, biscuits, chocolates, candy and cigarettes. One often comes across “Ramayana,” “Seeta,” “Gayatri” and other such names. But! “Gayatri” was a laundry in one place. “Ramayana” was a popular brand of cigars!
Bali also has dance-dramas based on religious themes. Essentially, like in India, these are dramatized stories of the victory of Good over evil. The costumes and make-up are very elaborate and colorful. The dance movements and postures remind one of Bharat Natyam and Lama Dances.
There is much more to tell. Of beautiful lakes and mountains, of the relatively tourist-free pristine beaches of North Bali, of dallying with the dolphins and of great seafood. And more. Another time, another place?
For now, “Bali Hai!”
As the aircraft touched down at the Ngurah Rai International Airport at Denpasar, I said -“At last, Bali is in Bali.” I was addressing my newly-made friend in the seat next to me. Cathy from Camberwell, London, England, dressed in a sky blue vest and bright yellow shorts, snorted and replied, “Silly, where else