Bali! The name alone conjures images of white sandy beaches, verdant rice terraces, and graceful dancers decorated in gold. From the Families on the Move Facebook group, we had heard so much about Bali and, more specifically, about Ubud – a mecca where people regularly come for a week and stay for two months. Looking to find a place to sit in one place for a couple of weeks, how could we resist?
We arrived one evening after dark and were met by a driver who whisked us off to our villa – an hour long drive through constant traffic. We parked in a dingy parking area and then walked down a narrow path between high walls. Not really what any of us had envisioned, but I was willing to wait until morning to get a better sense. We entered our ‘compound’ and found behind the wall a lovely little pool (Eva’s request) and villa with two bedrooms, a living area and kitchen. Perfect – just what we wanted.
The next morning we awoke to a ‘tap, tap, tap’. I went out exploring and found not only the rice fields, but heaps of construction underway. As we observed during our time here, villas are springing up everywhere to serve the tourist demand (of which we, of course, were now part). Tourists and expats are everywhere, and the streets of Ubud are lined with shops selling all manner of wood carvings, fabrics, art and trinkets. Alongside these shops are the countless spas, each promising a relaxing massage, facial, or body scrub to rejuvenate and restore your depleted energy. I walked several hours that first morning, trying hard to look beyond the shops and hawkers to see what all the hype was about. I must admit, it took me several days to begin to understand but gradually it became apparent.
Our time here was not rushed; we did not race around trying to see and do everything. I know, I know, that is so unlike me! Chris wanted to spend some time writing, and Aran wanted to finish his on-line science course and write music, so Eva and I were left to explore on our own. We rented a small scooter and joined in the masses who whizz around on the roads. Eva loves riding on the scooter and the two of us truly enjoy these mother/daughter excursions. One day we attempted to find a nearby temple, but took the wrong road (let’s just say the signage is not quite ideal!). Once we realized our error, we decided to just keep going and discover whatever lay ahead. It was in this manner that we stumbled across some spectacular rice terraces, and a coffee plantation where we again tried weasel coffee (having had our first taste in Vietnam). The highlight of this stop, however, was a giant fruit bat that had been rescued and now ‘hung out’ very comfortably among people.
Another day we headed off in a different direction, determined to find two ancient sites nearby. This time we were successful and found Goa Gajah (or Elephant Cave). Believed to have been built in the 9th century as a sanctuary, but only discovered in 1923, the cave has wonderful carvings at its entrance, complete with menacing creatures and demons. Inside is a small shrine for worship. The site also has a large bathing area which was not excavated until the 1950s.
We then headed a few kilometers further to explore Yeh Pulu, a 25-meter relief carving that was first discovered in 1925. Dating back to the 14th century, the carvings depict daily life in ancient Balinese society. We had a lovely time examining the carvings completely on our own; this was a hidden treasure and so it was curiously empty. We had a wonderful lunch at a nearby warung (stall) and watched as only one other visitor arrived. Eva enjoyed the freshest coconut juice; a young lad climbed up the tree to pass it down for Eva’s drink.
One day we all opted for a car instead of the scooter and, having pulled the kids out of bed earlier than they would have liked, spent a wonderful day exploring several temples and the volcano area. We had found a fantastic driver who was knowledgeable, personable, and spoke excellent English. Gunung Kawi was the first stop and we arrived so early that we were able to enjoy the solitude on our own. Hewn from rocky walls in the 11th century, the site consists of 10 tomb-style memorials set on either side of the Pakrisan River. The niches are each 7 metres high and are believed to have been built as a dedication to an ancient king and his favourite queens.
Our next stop was just upriver at Pura Tirta Empul, or the Temple of the Holy Water. This is the location of a sacred spring that has been used for over a thousand years. The water bubbles up into a large pool, and then flows from there to 13 fountains in which worshippers pray and bathe. Our guide explained that the 12th fountain was not to be bathed in, but rather the water was to be used only for cremation ceremonies. Clearly that had not been explained to the tourists who were happily dunking themselves under all the fountains, including the 12th one.
From the temples we drove north and then along the rim of Mount Batur, an active volcano that erupted as recently as 2000. It was an impressive sight; the entire top of the volcano had blown off a long time ago, and within the crater was a second, smaller cone.
From the volcano, we headed south to see Besakih temple, also known as the Mother Temple. Our driver, among others, had strongly advised us against going, and we had read all the reviews on-line about the intense scams that we would face at the temple, but we still wanted to see it as it is one of the seven directional temples and an important one at that. Given our time in India and the rest of SE Asia, we felt prepared to deal with any challenges we might face.
We paid our entrance fee and received our tickets. As many other visitors have discovered, this was the last point of contact with any sort of ‘officialdom’. We were then promptly asked to show our tickets at the entrance booth, which we did. At this point, we were asked to make a “donation” and were shown a book which outlined the donations made by previous visitors. The suggested “donation” was about $25 per person, or thereabouts. We declined, but then were immediately advised that we would need the services of a guide as there was a special ceremony going on in the main temple that day. Again, we declined these services as we suspected this was yet another ploy to extract money from unwitting tourists. We then made our way toward the temple, which is terraced on a hill and has three staircases; the one in the middle leads to the main temple. Once we reached the top of the staircase, we were told we needed to purchase an offering to enter. Aran went back down and asked a “guide” if an offering was required. No, he replied, but he could take us through – for a fee, of course. We declined and attempted to enter. As we approached we were again told, very forcefully I might add (by someone with absolutely no indication of being an official), that a special Hindu ceremony was going on, and therefore we would not be allowed. We were not yet certain of the protocols for non-Hindus in Bali. In most Hindu places that we had been, non-Hindus are absolutely not allowed into temples; in other places, they are. After all, we had just been to the Temple of the Holy Water with no problems.
Our skepticism grew, however, as we watched as people who had no offerings, but had paid for a “guide” were lead up and into the central part of the temple; clearly it was not restricted to Hindu worshippers only. Having received no consistent, or believable, message about what was actually required to enter (and still not wishing to give any possible offence), we opted to climb one of the outside staircases which lead us to the top of the temple complex and afforded great views.
The Basakih Temple is actually a complex of at least 86 temples along several paths that scale the mountainside. Some were locked, others were open and accessible, and others had attendants who might tell you not to enter or to make a donation. Even with all the confusion over protocol, it had to be one of the most spectacular temple complexes we have seen. Then, at the top, to add to the confusion we were actually invited (as non-Hindus) to participate in a worship in one of the smaller temples, which was a very special moment indeed. The attendant who invited us to participate was personable and kind. As a result, we were very happy to make a small donation to the temple.
As we descended down the complex, we were able to pass through the main temple area (the same area we had been denied entry only a short time ago) completely uninhibited. Clearly the restriction to enter was imposed by the “guides” at the bottom, who remained firmly in place to pounce on any unwitting visitors.
We left with a better understanding of why we had been advised to give the temple a miss. The temple is one of the highlights of Bali, but the experience is spoiled by the efforts of locals to take advantage of tourists. We fully support the role of tourism in building local economies, but the challenge is doing it properly. Many countries have wonderful temples and sites for which an entrance fee is charged, but how much of that finds its way back into the local communities? We saw a fantastic community model in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal, but Bali is a completely different story with a reportedly high level of corruption. Is it any wonder that the locals try and extract some portion of the benefits for themselves?
For our final stop of the day, we had planned to visit some waterfalls when we drove past a cluster of men hunched around in a circle. We slowed down to look, and then we saw the baskets containing roosters. Cock fighting! A quick poll was taken which resulted in us stopping to watch the action. We learned that this was the ‘warm up’ ring and that just down the road was an actual arena where the real action could be found. Eva indicated that she was okay with it, and so off we went.
Not only were we the only foreigners, but Eva and I were the only females in the audience. It was a fascinating, but grim, spectacle indeed! Once the two combatants were held up for all to see, the betting was fast and furious. Our driver explained both the betting process, as well as how the winner is determined. Each rooster has a knife blade strapped to its leg, and once they are put down in front of each other, they aggressively attack. Within the space of about 30 seconds, one of them is usually on the ground, unable to move. A winner is declared, the ring is cleared, and the next round begins. Large amounts of money are apparently won and lost within that brief period. We all agreed that we really didn’t see the attraction in it and found it pretty violent, until one of us pointed out that in Canada, many people also pay good money to watch men, rather than roosters, fight each other until bloody.
And so, that is one view of Bali; a beautiful, peace-loving island that every once in a while can throw a few curves at you.