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January 27, 2005


January 19-23, 2005. (Were you wondering why I hadn't posted lately? I was also writing two midterm exams!)

Bali. I had to ask whether it was part of Indonesia (it is). I always thought of it as a place where rich Western kids went for a vacation, an island long ago spoiled by beach-loving tourists. Well, that's not entirely wrong, but it's also not entirely true.

Cliff at Tanah Lot Temple

My Malaysian friend Halimah said it was too much like home, and our other Malaysian traveling companion, Kiran, agreed -- except for the shopping. Many things in Bali, such as sarongs, can be bought for much less than in Malaysia. Food is especially cheap. One night the three of us ate dinner in the resort restaurant for about US$30 (including 21 percent added tax and service charges). No alcohol, but we all had full meals and tall glasses of fresh fruit juice.

Halimah tried the avocado juice, which we don't have in Malaysia. Sounds terrible, right? It was delicious! Of course they put sugar into it, and it's thinned (slightly) with water. In a clear glass, it looks exactly as you would expect pureed avocado to look, green with a few very thin brown swirls through it.

The point Halimah made about similarity is true. In Bali, you are definitely in a Southeast Asian country. The dense tropical foliage, stands selling durian and jackfruit beside the road, beautiful flowers, the aroma of steamed rice, open drains, road traffic, "underbone" motorbikes in profusion.

I had never seen rice paddies like Bali's, though. Stacked up the hillsides in curving terraces, alternately flooded and lushly full-grown, they seem to occupy every square meter of land not taken up by houses, shops or roads. Ingeniously separated by low walls to hold the water required by the young rice plants, the plots make a patchwork pattern that winds around houses and clumps of jungle and zigzags up even the steepest slopes. Riding along in a tour bus on Thursday, or in our hired van on Saturday, I felt delighted every time I had a view of the paddies.

Rice Paddies

Not many people were working in the fields, but now and then I saw one, two or three Balinese knee-deep in water, their heads protected by the conical straw hats we Americans associate with the Vietnamese, leaning down among the young plants. Sometimes one or two people sat on the platform of a small open-sided structure on stilts, shaded by a high woven-grass roof. Many of the rice fields had one of these platforms straddling two plots; where else could you get out of the sun and maybe eat your lunch?

Another significant difference between Bali and Malaysia is religion. About 90 percent of Balinese are Hindus. This means they eat pork! In our resort's breakfast buffet, there was real bacon and real sausage! Okay, this was not the highlight of the trip for me, but I have not eaten real bacon in more than two months, so I really appreciated that. (One morning I even had an omelette with ham!) Our tour guide on Thursday told us that Balinese eat pork more than any other meat. Even though we saw chickens strutting in the streets wherever people were living (not in the tourist areas), he said the chickens are used more for eggs, and sometimes for sacrifices. They don't raise sheep; probably because there is hardly any grazing land. We saw cows in twos and threes in some places where tall grass grew, but being Hindus, most Balinese do not eat beef.

Dogs flirted with death by crossing the roads everywhere in the rural areas. In Malaysia I almost never see a dog, because no Muslims keep dogs as pets. The Quran instructs people that dogs are exceptionally dirty, and some special washing must be done if you ever touch a dog, especially on the nose. The dogs in Bali seemed tame but not well cared for. They never came up to us or tried to get our attention. Whenever a dog walked near us, it just kept walking.

The same cannot be said of the Balinese people near the tourist areas. Here is how tourism seems a particularly bad human practice (at least to me) -- it turns the local people into beggars, pushing goods into the faces of foreigners, pleading, "Very cheap!" and "Special morning price for you!" In some of the more remote places, the people swarmed on us like pirhanas on a scrap of meat, unfurling sarongs or T-shirts one after another, offering ridiculously low prices. But in that kind of atmosphere, I never buy anything. I know the people are only trying to make a living, but it makes me want to get away as fast as possible. I have seen the same thing in Mexico. Sometimes the smallest children shove things at you, chanting an ever-reducing price list in a sing-song that tells you they have already done this many, many times today.

We stayed in the Santika Beach Resort on the edge of Kuta, a main tourist area of Bali. It's only a 10- or 15-minute drive from the airport, but it takes about an hour to drive from Kuta to almost any of the great scenic destinations in Bali.

Kintamani and Lake Batur The way the three of us ended up going to Bali is this: On the Monday morning after Christmas, we were all sitting in Halimah's office at UiTM, and we agreed we should all go somewhere soon. Kiran had wanted to go to Langkawi back before Christmas, but now it's inundated with press tours in a government campaign to show that Langkawi was not destroyed by the tsunami. In 2002, Halimah and Kiran had planned a trip to Bali, but then there was the bombing in Kuta, and they canceled. So since the tsunami had ruled out Langkawi, Kiran was reminded of Bali, and we grabbed the newspapers and started looking in the travel agency ads for a good package.

Within 40 minutes, Kiran had negotiated a deal for us on the phone, including airfare on Malaysian Airways (it's about 2.5 hours from KLIA to Bali-Denpasar), four nights in a resort hotel (breakfast included, as usual), transport to and from the airport, and a full-day bus tour. Halimah and Kiran got a two-person rate and shared a room. I paid a singles surcharge, but the whole package for me was less than US$370.

The resort was gorgeous. Although I have stayed at resort hotels in Miami Beach and St. Petersburg, Florida, this was really much nicer. The whole layout of the place made me feel relaxed and like I was truly in the tropics. The rooms were beautiful, with tropical woods and pale stone tile. The staff were very courteous and helpful. Plus, here they were not gouging us for every little thing.

Bottled water, for example. The printed card says the hotel gives you two complimentary bottles of water. In the U.S., that would mean "for your whole stay, no matter how long," and then they would charge you about $10 per bottle after that. In Bali, every day I poured my two bottles into my own Nalgene bottle; every night two new bottles had appeared in my room; at the end of the stay, there was no charge for the water. A little thing, I know, but U.S. hotels are really outrageous for overcharging. We signed up for a massage, which we later canceled because we didn't have enough time, and the charge would have been US$25 for 75 minutes; for two people, US$42. That's Southeast Asia for you.

At Tanah Lot The bus tour on Thursday was mostly a waste, unfortunately -- except for the scenery (rice paddies!) and the last thing, which was excellent. Most tours take people to the Tanah Lot temple at sunset, which, according to the guidebooks, is horrible. Thousands of foreigners swarming with cameras. We were there and gone before sunset, so we didn't see the hordes. We were also there at high tide, which means we could not go into the temple, which is the main attraction. However, I'm not sure you can ever really go inside, even at low tide, because the other temples we saw had locked gates.

The similar features of the Balinese Hindu temples (judging from my very brief exposure) are walled compounds that contain many small altars and one or more large altars. The altars (or maybe it's more accurate to say offering places) usually have a roof over them, but most of the temple is completely open. Many stone carvings of deities and other religious figures stand at gates, atop the walls, on or beside altars. I think these stone figures are the real attraction of the temples for non-Hindus; the workmanship equals or exceeds much of what I saw in Thailand. However, here the carvings are not painted. Older ones have a skin of moss or something similar to lichen.

Statue Wearing Sarong

Most unusual (at least to me) is the custom of wrapping certain figures in cloth sarongs. Our guide on Thursday explained that white or yellow sarongs denote good spirits, or goodness. The commonly seen black-and-white checkerboard pattern represents both good and bad. Altars are usually wrapped in both white and yellow cloth. Most of the cloths are relatively clean and not ragged, so I guess the people change them quite often.

Another practice of the Balinese is the placement of small offerings to the gods at every entrance to any room or structure. I almost stepped on hundreds of these every day, and they are definitely cleaned away and replaced by fresh ones each morning. Each offering is woven from leaves and filled with fresh flowers (or flower petals) and a little food, such as rice or some crackers. The idea is that you must put out some food for any gods who might enter, and you must do it before you eat anything that day. Otherwise, I don't know what would happen, but presumably you wouldn't want it to happen to you!

Offering on the Sidewalk

The other sights of note that we took in were Kintamani, a big and still-active volcano; the Hindu temple at Besakih, which is the largest in Bali; the town of Ubud, which is surrounded by streets lined with hundreds of small workshops where Balinese live and make many of the local handicrafts; the town of Klungkung and its old Palace of Justice compound. We also saw a performance of the Barong dance on Saturday morning. Friday we shopped in Kuta all day. I ended up buying more than Kiran -- a fact she will never allow me to forget, because she is the one with a reputation as a tireless shopper!

Barong and Keris Dance

Bali reminded me of Thailand in that everywhere you go, you see evidence of a long artistic tradition and huge amounts of handicraft items for sale. As in Thailand, in Bali the tourist market has created a misfortune of mass production. You see the same stuff everywhere. Some of the wood carving, especially painted cats and other animals, we have seen in U.S. gift shops for many years. Of course, the U.S. prices are 10 times (or more) the Bali prices. But seeing hundreds upon hundreds of the same item in shop after shop really minimizes the appeal. Sometimes you do see something unique, or a small number of identical items you hadn't seen before, and then you really take a close look. For the most part, though, shopping in Kuta was not exciting.

Painting at Klungkung

I did buy, of course. Especially fabrics: Two long scarves, two sarongs (one hand-decorated, in buttery-soft cotton), a pair of pants, a blouse. Also three very well-made baskets, of a type sold everywhere, but the workmanship is so nice and the variety of styles so wide that I didn't feel like I was getting one identical copy out of thousands (although probably I was). On Saturday we went to the Jenggala ceramic factory south of Kuta, and I bought several small things. The pottery is cast, not thrown, but the quality is beautiful. My favorite is a chopstick rest in the shape of a flying bat. Not a design I had ever seen before!

Silk Batik Scarf


While driving through the rural areas, we saw a lot of large items for sale that we did not see in town, especially huge wooden doors (some fantastically carved, and some of which appeared to be quite old) and big stone figures like the ones in the temples. There were a lot of Buddhas, but the facial expressions lack the serenity of most Thai Buddha figures.

To view Kintamani, the volcano, our driver took us to the usual place, a restaurant with an outside deck on the opposite side of the valley. From the deck we had a panoramic view of the volcano, the forested valley, Lake Batur and another mountain beyond that. We hadn't eaten lunch yet, and the food was actually very good. It was one of the few places in Bali where we were not sweating like crazy from the heat. Bali is south of the Equator, and so it's like late July there, in Northern Hemisphere terms. Even my Malaysian colleagues complained about the humidity!

The Mother Temple at Besakih The temple at Besakih has a spectacular setting in the mountains (about an hour away from the volcano site). We were bullied into hiring a private guide for all of US$6, but the rip-off artists at the entrance tried to coerce us into "donating" more by showing us a guestbook of sorts indicating that others had paid as much as 40 euros for their guide. The guide was actually quite good; he spoke clear English and patiently answered our questions in detail. We avoided the other big rip-off of the "Mother Temple" because our guide on Thursday had warned us about it: If you don't have a sarong, they force you to buy one and wear it. If you brought your own (as we had), you don't even have to wear it.

One of the most interesting things the guide explained: The numerous structures arrayed up the mountainside, parallel to the temple, were villages divided among the four castes of Hinduism: Brahmins, military, merchants, and laborers. All the people who live there perform the work necessary to support the temple (no doubt including the dozens of tourist shops along the road leading to the temple steps). So if I understood correctly, the idea is not that the temple exists to serve the people; the people who live there serve the temple. Such a large temple requires a large number of people to support it.

Hand-Painted Sarong


Ubud might lure me back to Bali. It's a small town of uncrowded sidewalks, shops, and cafes. There were a lot of Western people there, but not the hordes of Kuta. It seemed quiet, pleasant, and peaceful. We arrived too late to really see the galleries and shops (because of faulty information from our hotel; they told us the galleries in Ubud were open late, and so we saved it until the end of our Saturday excursion). I would like to rent a motorbike and explore the little roads around the town, where large numbers of craftspeople live and work, and where it would be easier to stop and soak in the atmosphere. Our hired van (US$45 for 10 hours, all included, with a friendly English-speaking driver) was extremely comfortable, but it was often difficult on the small roads to find a place to pull over and park.

I'm glad I got the chance to go to Bali. Seeing the patchwork of rice plots fitting so intricately into the landscape, I understood that the temples, the carving in stone and wood, the curling vines and flower stems in the batik designs, the sarongs binding the spirits of the statues, and the beautiful little offerings at every doorway all belonged to a single thing, a way of life for the Balinese that even a tourism economy has not destroyed.

Posted by macloo at 02:08 AM | Comments (0)