71. The Holy

from “The Big O Soundtrack”, Toshihiki Sahashi, 2001.

The remainder of the sights we saw during our big tour around Bali were temples, which is something we certainly do visit an awful lot on our travels. And no complaints from us either as we’ve been privileged enough to see some wonderful edifices and sites in our current journey (as recounted in this International Vagabonds blog) as well as previous holidays during our working years.

The vast majority of Balinese identify as Hindu and Balinese Hinduism also incorporates elements of animism, ancestor worship, and Buddhism.

We were able to take in three Hindu temples across the island and the first of these was Batuan, in the village of the same name. This was a rather quiet temple with only a handful of visitors. On arrival you were gently encouraged to give a donation as you donned a sarong that the villagers lent you as proper attire, and at 10,000 IDR each (which is less than £1) this hardly seemed unreasonable.

Though a relatively small site, Batuan was rather lovely and made more so by the fact that we had the place nearly to ourselves. It was very pleasant to casually stroll around unimpeded by restrictions or crowds and enjoy the temple at our own pace.

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Tirta Empul is a Balinese Hind water temple that has a bathing pool famous for its holy spring water where worshippers go for purification. This temple was clearly much more popular than Batuan when we arrived and there was both an entry fee as well as a ‘donation’ for use of a sarong while you were in the temple precincts.

The temple’s holy waters come from a pond which has a freshwater spring, and when we arrived there were already plenty of people – both devotees and tourists – being purified in the bathing pool. The bathing was being undertaken at various levels of solemnity but even excitable tourists managed to maintain a level of decorum and resist having a good old splash around!

The holy pool itself was actually very quiet and you had to wonder whether in fact most visitors even knew of it or discovered its presence given the evident popularity of the purification bathing pool in comparison.

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Tirta Empul – the bathing pond where supplicants move from left to right as they wash themselves in each of the water spouts in turn. No bubble bath required.
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Tirta Empul – the holy pool which is fed by the fresh water spring; you can see the waters gently churn the silt in the bottom of the pool.

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Finally, Besakih is a temple on the slopes of Mount Agung  on the eastern side of Bali and is the largest and most holy of the Balinese Hindu temples. The site of the temple dates from ancient times and the temple itself has been rebuilt and expanded over the centuries due to earthquakes and volcanic activity. We learned that in 1963 an eruption that sent lava flowing down the sides of Mount Agung passed by Besakih without harming it, which was taken as a miraculous sign from the gods who had wanted to demonstrate their power yet not harm the temple their worshippers had built for them.

While Besakih was a temple that we wanted to see, we were aware that there would be the potential for ‘problems’ based on the background research we always do when planning our visits. Basically this boils down to the villagers living near the temple being very greedy and trying to con visitors out of their money. We knew we would need a ‘guide’ who basically would do little other than just lead us around. We already knew – and Wind confidentially told us as well – we should also bargain hard on the guide’s fee. The temple ‘authorities’ greet you on arrival and their first question is “where are you from?” Essentially this was just to determine your wealth level, as they then proceeded to suggest a level of ‘voluntary recompense’ in your own currency that would be appropriate for your guide’s time. It was late in the day and we had seen plenty on our tour so we played the tiring tourists who weren’t really that bothered as it was time to go back to the hotel, and so we got our suggested fee down from 250,000 IDR each (£30) to 150,000 IDR (£10) for both of us.

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It is a shame that the locals seek to exploit their temple; while it is understandable they wish to generate income from tourism, the way they do it isn’t ideal we thought. Better to have a fixed admission price like Tirta Empul rather than trying to fleece visitors for all they’re worth; it’s not good publicity. There were also a lot of places inside the temple grounds where locals sought to sell food, drink, and souvenirs. To us it all seemed to smack of disrespect for their holy place and their gods in the pursuit of worldly wealth. Hey ho.

The three Balinese temples we visited certainly exuded their own cultural style and feeling making them – like most others we’ve visited on our travels – unique to their locations. In particular we liked the guardian/welcome gates, which were always flat and vertical on their inner edge and highly decorated and ornamental on the outer side. It was a pleasing feature to note and one that has helped to impress Balinese temples firmly into our memories.

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70. River Deep, Mountain High

from “The Innocents”, Erasure, 1988.

So, enough of this indulgent relaxation and general pampering and time to get out and see a little more of the real Bali (pronounced bah-lee). We looked at several tour options but the majority of the operators did much the same thing and – as we’ve never been fans of guided or fixed agenda tours, which also usually involve going to places for shopping where the guide gets commission – we decided to try and organise something a little more personal. With a little help from the internet we found Wind.

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Wind runs his own tour company in Bali and was happy to drive us around the island to visit the various sights that we particularly wanted to see in our own itinerary and at our own pace. With water, sunglasses, hats, and most importantly a fully charged camera, we set off to explore.

Tegenungan is a village that is set beside a waterfall near the Balinese artistic centre of Ubud. With roughly 80% of Bali’s income generated through tourism it is not surprising that Tegenungan has grown to exploit this natural attraction. As Wind told us, many of the shops and eateries we saw didn’t exist a short time ago and we also saw several new buildings being constructed down in the valley beneath the village.

We could hear the roar of the waterfall before we saw it and as we started our descent of the steep series of nearly 200 steps to get down to the river we could already appreciate the splendour of the waterfall.

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As can be seen, the waterfall was not only popular attraction to see but also one to physically enjoy as we saw many people indulging in a cooling splash around in the waterfall’s plunge pool. We hadn’t brought our swimwear with us so everyone missed out on seeing our Adonis-like forms, but we did enjoy standing close to the waterfall and feel the cooling spray from the plunging water.

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There was of course the arduous and very hot climb back up to the village and so we felt we rightly deserved a gelato. With numerous gelateria to choose from, and all with identical prices, we plumped for the one with the smiliest staff and added incentive of free use of their toilet – as we discovered in Bali you always need to pay to use a toilet.

Back in the car and we headed off towards Ubud to see the rice terraces at Tegallalang. These rice paddies use the subak system, which is a traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation method of growing rice that has been in use since the 8th century. The terraces provide beautifully dramatic views as they descend the sides of the valley, and you can freely climb down and explore them.

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Philip had a minor misstep when he apparently tried to plant himself in one of the watery terraces – silly boy! There are no real steps and you do need to clamber and climb your way up and down, which is fun though felt a little perilous at times. We did see one or two ruined flip-flops left behind from previous explorers – seriously, who goes climbing in flip-flops?

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Hordes of eager hawkers and sellers on the road above await your return from seeing the rice terraces. Among them are some children, and while it seems harsh to say ‘no’ to the children who try to sell you stuff there is a good reason to. As we had already learned from our trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia in 2012, these children are used by their families to pull on your heartstrings in order to earn money but they are actually missing from school in order to do so. So really it is better not to buy from them and try to lessen their effectiveness in the – probably vain – hope that they will get their schooling. Anyway, onwards again.

One thing we had not seen in any of our travels was a volcano, so we definitely wanted to see Mount Batur, which is an active volcano in the northeast of Bali. The first documented eruption of Mount Batur was in 1804 and the most recent being in 2000. So while it probably wasn’t going to quite look like Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings (shame!), it was definitely very high on the must-see list for us.

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The peak above is actually several vents in the larger stratovolcano and the landscape along with Lake Batur to the east of these lie withing the volcano’s huge caldera. So as it turned out we were actually on the caldera’s southern rim.

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Mount Batur – the vents in the central peak.
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Mount Batur – Lake Batur lies on the eastern side of the volcano caldera.

We stopped for lunch and enjoyed great views watching the clouds and sky change over the landscape as we dined. We ate in the only non-buffet restaurant, which turned out to be very quiet as the masses of other visitors ate in the other nearby buffet ‘fill-yourself-stupid-on-average-lukewarm-food’ restaurants. Hmm, sounds like we don’t like buffets doesn’t it? 😛

Wind told us how a lot of the volcanic soil and rock is excavated and used for various constructions and works around the island and on the roads we saw a lot of trucks transporting the black earth away. Apparently some of the excavations are not exactly legal; we hope they don’t dig too deep and hit magma and trigger Mount Batur!

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Mount Batur – it all looks a bit like Erebor and the Long Lake from The Hobbit. Does that mean we’re in Mirkwood? Eek, spiders!

So with a volcano now ticked off on our bucket list it was time to see some Balinese temples; but that’s for next time.

69. Pacific State

from “Ninety”, 808 State, 1989.

While the main aim of our first week in Bali was to relax and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of The Laguna, there were still several local attractions for visitors to the area of Nusa Dua. The one that caught our eye was the Museum Pasifika, located just a five minute casual stroll from The Laguna, and so we decided to pop along one afternoon for a look around.

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The Museum Pasifika was founded in 2006 and presents art works by artists from numerous countries in the Pacific region, as well as a variety of cultural artefacts.

The museum was very quiet when we visited and we saw only two other visitors during our time there; good for us in that it was easy to tour around and enjoy the artworks in our own time, though maybe not so much for the museum’s sale of tickets.

Unfortunately the recurring curse of “No Pictures” was applicable to many of the museum’s galleries – basically the ones with pictures – and we could only take photos in the galleries that featured the Pacific region artefacts. With that said, it was surprising just how many of the pictures featured naked and semi-naked women – there was a whole lot of boobies on display! So perhaps just as well otherwise this would be an Certificate 18 blog entry! 😛

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However, it was permitted to take a picture of the artworks produced by local children and young people in a boobie-free collection of art, hurrah!

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Museum Pasifika was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Even without the aid of air conditioning the spacious galleries were open in places to the outside air to create relaxed and not too hot atmosphere in which to enjoy the artworks and artefacts on display.

68. Worlds On Fire

from “Cowboy”, Erasure, 1997.

Once again it is pastures new and this leg of our travels has taken us to the island of Bali in Indonesia. The journey took us across the equator to the southern hemisphere so we technically moved from autumn to spring, though it is often difficult to tell in these tropical climates. Scorchio!

Our first stop is in Nusa Dua for a week staying at The Laguna, a luxurious resort set amidst lush gardens and right on one of the better beaches on the island. So definitely time for some serious rest and relaxation before we move to Kuta, where we plan to be more active with touring around to see more of Bali.

We soon discovered one of the regular entertainments that occurred at The Laguna: just after sundown during pre-dinner cocktails there is fire dancing! So with the night just settling over the island a troop of Balinese dancers and drummers appear to perform a fire dance for the hotel’s guests. The display is certainly very impressive and the main fire dancer – armed with a blazing fireball on a cable in each hand – can certainly whirl the fire incredibly fast and intricately. It was also very impressive how his motions with each hand were different for much of the display.

With front row seats, we managed to get a few pictures that hopefully convey some of the drama, atmosphere and action of the fire dance. Flame on!

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Fire dancing – despite appearances the fireballs are not going between his legs. No toasted nuts here.

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There is a larger and longer show on Sundays with traditional dancing as well as fire dancing and we’ve already charmed the Cascade bar staff to reserve us front row seats again.