Bali – A Cultural Journey

Let me preface this post by saying this is a long one. The weekend I spent in Bali was short but so dense with experiences and visually stunning opportunities that I have much to share. I apologize in advance for the length but I can’t let any of this experience slip my ever forgetful mind.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to check out Bali, Indonesia. My flight departed out of KL on a Friday evening at 6:30 pm and I would be flying back Monday morning at 6:00 am so it would be a short but active weekend. The flight I took was one of the few direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Bali with a total flight time of just under 3 hours, ultimately arriving in Bali around 9 pm (fortunately they are on the same time zone as KL).

Now Indonesia is one country the US does not have a pre-negotiated travel agreement that eliminates the need for a Visa, so one was required upon entry. After talking with other people from across my travels I realize how fortunate we Americans have it when it comes to travelling. So many of the destinations we visit do not require a Visa to visit due to negotiations with our government and that is really not the norm for so many other countries, however, Indonesia was one of the exceptions to the rule (though I have heard that should be changing in the coming months). Despite the need for a Visa, the process of procurement was pretty straightforward and could be done in the airport. The requirements included a passport valid for six months past your departure date and 35 USD. The most arduous process was making my way through the line of the Visa On Arrival queue. By the time I had procured my Visa, passed through immigration, had my bags scanned, and finally reach the arrival hall an hour and a half had elapsed. Like any place I travel, I made a beeline to the ATM to get some local currency and was faced with that momentary anxiety of whether or not my card would work in another foreign country. Luckily it did and I can say it is the first time I have ever taken out over a million in a currency from any ATM. I withdrew 1.25 million Indonesian Rupiah which would set me back around 95 USD, and made my way to grab a taxi.

I ultimately arrived at my hotel, Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa which was situated on the Southeast side of the island on Nusa Dua beach around 11 pm. I dropped my stuff at the room and made my way down to the bar area to grab a cocktail and a bite to eat as I had yet to eat dinner. The hotel had an impressive indoor/outdoor lobby space that spills into a scenic landscaped garden/pool area. The bar area had a covered portion that was softly lit and well appointed. I looked through the menu and stopped at a cocktail named the Aviation. This is a cocktail that has a significant nostalgia for me as it is one that I used to make and enjoy primarily with my family. After spotting it I thought it would be a great way to connect with them in some small way from the other side of the world, so I ordered one.

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I enjoyed my drink and some vegetable samosas then made my way to bed as I had a full day in store the next day.

Prior to my arrival in Bali I had researched different tour opportunities and found a company that did a very scenic (as the pictures on the website indicated) tour of the Eastside interior portion of the island. The price appeared very reasonable however after looking into what the costs would be for one person it turned out to be 150 USD. Not terrible, but I thought I would see if there were more affordable options as I have encountered very reasonable prices throughout SE Asia. I sent an email to my hotel and listed the main places I wanted to visit asking if they could connect me with a tour guide and a reasonable price. They came back with a quote of 1.5 million rupiah which sounded extravagant until I checked the exchange rate. For me to have my own air conditioned car (this feature is very key in SE Asia), driver, and English speaking tour guide it would essentially cost me 115 USD, so I was of course in.

Saturday morning I met my driver and guide in the lobby at 8 am. My guide’s name was Susila and he was dressed in traditional Indonesian garb accompanied with a great big smile. As we started driving away from the hotel I explained to Susila that our list of destinations was just a starting point but that I would love to get any input from him as to other places we should visit along the way and his suggestions paid off wonderfully. As we were driving to our first destination called Pura Besakih or the Mother Temple we passed another temple located next to the beach currently being visited by a large group of prayer goers. One thing that is so different from the Christian way I know, is that in Bali there is no single day of the week when everyone goes to the temple or church. As Susila explained, the visits to the temple are often based around the adjacent community’s needs and schedule. Today we were fortunate to see this community out at the temple which sat aside the stark, black sand beaches (parts of the island have beautiful black sand which is a byproduct from one of the two active volcanoes on the island).

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Next to the temple were young school kids who were enjoying a half-day of school (on a Saturday nonetheless) by visiting the temple and cleaning up the grounds! I was really impressed how the importance of a clean and well kept place of prayer permeated its way into the schooling of the youth and they seemed to embrace this as a welcome task. This group of young grade schoolers seemed to revel at an opportunity to get their picture taken.

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Bali is a Hindu-Buddhist culture and the traditional garb when visiting the temple is a white shirt and headwrap with a light-colored sarong. Just across from the temple I noticed these two gentlemen having a conversation on the black sand beaches and thought it was a beautiful moment. After taking in the sites we made our way back to the van and headed towards Tenganan village and Pura Besakih. Along the way, Susila explained the nuances of their culture and how religious played a role in their everyday life in so many ways. This included daily offerings you would notice throughout the island as small packages scattered everywhere, even on the dashboard of our van. These daily offerings had to have five elements: leaves, flowers, fruit, water, and fire. He proceeded to tell me about the main tenets of their religion and to hear an entirely different perspective that was still based on the importance of love, harmony with the world we inhabit, and understanding was really moving.

From there we made our way to Tenganan village which is just off the Eastern coast of the island. This small village has a long and rich history, which prior to the 1970’s was widely considered by anthropologists as one of the most secluded societies in the archipelagos. Today many of their ancient traditions are alive and well. The people of the village are considered to be the original Balinese people and there are strict rules which govern this community in that you must be born in the village to live in it and become a full member. This small village is built around a long central courtyard which contains several open aired hut-like structures in the middle where the community will gather for prayer, events, or even rest. All the houses surrounding the courtyard are interconnected and open directly into this central gathering area. Many of the houses also double as their workplaces where they create these beautiful and intricate cloth weavings called ikats. We walked into one of the shop/houses selling the ikat weavings and I could see the weaving machine lying amongst bright cloths and tapestries, all across from the family’s living room area.

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Being in the construction industry I couldn’t help but capture a local construction worker re-thatching one of the houses. I don’t think there safety standards are the same as Turner’s.

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These two villagers were working in one of the central courtyard structures handcrafting gambang kayus which are a wooden xylophone like instrument. The community seemed full of craftsmen and women producing some beautiful and ornate carvings and cloths. It truly felt like taking a step back in time as the signs of modernity were largely non-existent except for fellow tourists like myself that wandered the grounds.

After spending some time walking through the village and purchasing an intricate bamboo carving, we loaded back in the van and headed for Pura Besakih, the mother temple. Along the drive I told Susila that I was also hoping to see some of the scenic tiered rice paddies that Bali was famous for. He assured me that we would have ample opportunity to see many rice paddies during our drive up to Pura Besakih and sure enough, within ten minutes or so they began to appear.

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Susila with his ever present smile at one of our rice paddy stops.

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As we continued our drive up the side of Mount Agung (the tallest mountain/active volcano on the island) we stopped to get a view of the island spreading out before us as it dipped into the crystal clear waters. As we stopped alongside this steep road, I was soon swarmed by an old woman and a younger woman competing to sell me these simple yet beautiful hand-woven baskets. I tried to resist at first but the quality of the craftsmanship and their persistence wore me down. As I begun negotiating between the two women, a young boy came running up with his own basket for sale. Much to the chagrin of the older women, the young boys infectious smile won my business over. The picture below captures the young boys getting a reprieve from the warm Indonesian sun and you can see the basket I ultimately bought, tucked under the arm of the kid at right.

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We got back in the van and soon after, we arrived at Pura Besakih which is located further inland about halfway up Mount Agung. As we parked and prepared for the hike up to the temple Susila grabbed a sarong out of the back for me to wear. All of the temples require men and women to be wrapped appropriately and they were good enough to bring along a sarong for my use. While the color didn’t quite match my eyes I didn’t put up too much of a fight (I kid).

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These stunning temples carved from the dark black volcanic rock, contrasted brilliantly with the colorful banners and dressings that adorned the figures. Susila explained to me that each color represented a cardinal direction (North, South, East, or West) and the representation of all elements was a symbol that all things meet at the spiritual center. I had expected that there would only be one temple, and was surprised that this complex contained 22 temples within its walls. All the temples are oriented along a North-South axis working their way up the mountain. The Balinese people consider the mountain to be the holiest point on the island so the closer a temple is to the top the greater significance it carries. The stone carvings which surrounded the complex were utterly impressive. Susila told me that the origins of the temple began nearly 2,000 years ago, with the “newer parts” constructed in the 12th century. Seeing the level of detail and complexity of each piece of stone, left me in awe of the skills of the craftsmen that have worked on these temples over the last 2,000 years.

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While walking up the steps of the complex we saw a group of women, as Susila explained to me, who were working to prepare for an upcoming festival. Bali has many religious festivals celebrated throughout the year, and many of those are determined by individual clans. This was for one such clan that would have a celebration at their temple in the coming weeks.

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We spent the next several hours walking across the grounds from top to bottom. Being utterly in awe of the beauty I took many, many pictures but just wanted to share a few that would give a sense of what I saw. Eventually we made our way back to the van and continued on our journey.

As Susila and I made conversation about what I had experienced so far during my time in SE Asia the topic of durian came up. The more and more I get to know locals in Southeast Asia I realize how much they adore this so-called King of Fruits. Just mentioning the word will typically bring a smile to the face of Asians I have met over here. I told Susila that I had tried the fruit but frankly was not a big fan of it. Susila quickly told me that I had just not tried a fresh durian. Trying to always keep an open mind to experiences, I told him that I would try it again if he and the driver would eat it with me. As we were driving down from the mother temple, heading to our next stop Mount Batur or baby volcano, we passed a woman on the side of the road with a basket at her feet. Susila promptly had our driver pull off to the side of the road and he exclaimed this would be just the place to experience durian. We got out of the car and Susila walked over to the woman to look at the basket full of durian at her feet and assess which one would be best.

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Susila soon picked what he thought to be the best durian and begun negotiating with the woman. When a price was agreed (a whopping 40,000 rupiah or just a little over 3 USD) Susila looked at me, smiled, and said let’s eat. A little uncertain as to where we would begin digging into this prickly fruit our seller led us down a short inclined pathway that led to her house. She then grabbed a plastic tablecloth and laid it down on the front stoop of her house.

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As I sat down on our tablecloth I looked up at a large tree just next to us. Lo and behold it was the provider of the fruit that we would be eating, we were snacking beneath a durian tree! Susila explained to me that unlike other fruit, they do not pick the durian off the tree as it would not be ripe if picked off the tree. They have to wait until the durian falls from the tree to collect it, knowing only then that it is ready for consumption. Now one particular problem this woman faced is she lived on a steep hillside which means that when the durian is ripe and falls off the tree it will proceed to tumble down the hillside, gifting her downhill neighbors with the highly sought after fruit. So as a solution, every durian had a rope secured to the stem and was then tied back to the tree, so that when it loosened from the limb it would swing down to the base of the tree, ready for collection. Such a simple but creative solution!

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As I sat there, staring at the durian tree full of ropes, our seller proceeded to pull out a large machete and split open the spiny shell. Inside were the soft pods that are so highly prized in this region of the world.

Durian with guide, Susila

With the open chamber in front of me, I grabbed a portion of the soft almost custard-like fruit and took a bite. Now I’ll admit that I was certainly wary of another dining experience for a fruit that I found less than appealing my first time around, but Susila made a liar of me. A fresh durian did indeed make all the difference! It is a very difficult taste to describe but I began to understand why the inhabitants of this side of the world enjoyed it so much. I’ll also confess that I had no idea how many of the fleshy, slightly sweet pods were actually found inside a durian. When they first cracked it open and I saw the two pods inside I had assumed that was the extent of the shells offerings. After we quickly polished off the two pods, Susila began cracking open the two halves that remained to reveal yet additional chambers filled with the pod-like fruits. He then halved them again revealing even more pods, which left me feeling even more pleased with the bargain we got. There was so much of the fruit that, knowing lunch was around the corner, we couldn’t finish it all and had to take a hefty portion with us to go.

After our roadside durian experience we continued on to Mount Batur where I would have lunch overlooking the baby volcano and the large lake at the base formed many centuries ago. The food was good, not remarkable, but the view more than made up for it. Watching the sleeping giant lie, its top shrouded in the passing clouds, and the stark evidence of its last eruption in the 90’s providing a crisp dividing line of black and green all the way up to the top.

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After lunch I met back up with Susila and we continued on to our next stop Tirta Empul, the holy springs temple. Along the way, Susila started talking to me about the incredible variety of plants and crops they grow in the rich, volcanic soils. While listing off several dozen examples of locally grown crops he mentioned coffee and noticed how my interest piqued. He then asked me if I had seen the movie The Bucket List. I thought it was a bit of an odd transition and confessed that I had not. He explained that within the movie, Luwak coffee was featured, and then preceded to tell me about one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the world. If like me, you don’t know about Kopi Luwak allow me to introduce you to this guy, the luwak.

Indonesians Farm Civet Cats To Produce World's Most Valuable Coffee

This nocturnal animal is prevalent in a few places in Southeast Asia and spends its evenings creeping around coffee plantations eating the seeds of coffee berries. As the seed passes through the luwak, it digests much of the berrie except for the coffee bean and then, frankly, craps them out. Some lucky (or unlucky) coffee brewer many years ago discovered that after collecting the “leftovers” from the Luwak, washing, and then roasting those beans you would have yourself one fine cup of coffee. After I picked my jaw off the floor I shrugged, thought to myself “when in Bali,” and told Susila to take us to the best Luwak coffee shop he knew.

A little while later we arrived at what looked like a small jungle. Susila and I got out and made our way through the dense woodlands as he pointed out things such as a pepper plant, cacao tree, pineapple plant, coffee tree, etc. It was amazing to see all these products that I had only known as coming from an aisle in a Kroger grocery store. After a brief walk, we ended up at a local Luwak coffee purveyor with all the elements of the process on display.

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The coffee beans at each step along the way. The beans on the left are the “fresh” Luwak droppings, the middle tray has the cleaned beans, and then the last tray has the roasted beans.
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Hand roasting the coffee beans.

One of the employees fresh brewing my cup of Luwak coffee.
One of the employees fresh brewing my cup of Luwak coffee.
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About to take my first big swig of some crappy coffee. A crappucino if you will. You’ll note the slight look of skepticism on my face.

I have to say that the coffee was actually quite pleasant. A wholly unique experience that I found slightly less bitter than most other coffees. Also, for those who come to visit, fear not, for I brought back some Luwak coffee with me and may just be willing to share it with you upon your arrival!

After some good, sh*tty coffee we loaded back in the van and headed on to Tirta Empul, the holy spring temple. This temple is known for being placed on top of an active spring. The water from this spring is held in a large collecting pond and then at the side of the structure there are a series of 30 spouts or showers that spill into a smaller pool. Each spout is said to cleanse away a particular negative aspect within your life; so if you are having particularly bad dreams, go to the 7th spout on the right side pool, etc. Because I had to borrow a sarong, I didn’t wade into the pools to partake in their ritual of purification but know that in my next trip to Bali I absolutely will. The place was so spiritual and captured so much of what makes Bali so special.

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We spent a couple hours just taking in this special place, that similar to Pura Besakih, had several temples within the complex.

After a while we loaded up in the van and as the day had grown late, we began making our way back to the hotel. Along the way we passed several neighborhoods that were divided based on the craftsmen that lived there such as stonemasons, woodworkers, silversmiths, painters, etc. Their wares would be on display along the side of the road and there were so many beautiful, handcrafted items for sale. I told Susila of my particular interest in woodworking so he took me to a Balinese shop that featured some stunning works by local masters. He told me how the woodworkers are divided into student, teacher, and then master, with the understanding that not everyone would meet the elite level of master. I never knew Bali held such remarkable artisans and while I was unable to get anything due to my current status of temporary living, as soon as I have my own place I will be back to get something and support their craft.

By the time we got back to the hotel it was 7 pm and I was beat. I thanked Susila for all that he had shown me and we all exchanged information. Initially I had planned to head over to another part of the island for drinks and some dinner but based on my current exhaustion and the knowledge of another full day tomorrow I decided to eat at the hotel and enjoy my first glimpse at the Nusa Dua beach. it was a quiet, scenic and relaxing dinner and then I called it a night.

The next morning I had lined up a half day surfing lesson which would be on the West side of the island in the area called Kuta. Bali is known for having excellent surfing conditions and a wide enough variety that depending on your skill level will dictate where you should surf. For beginners it was Kuta and it had the right amount of consistent low to mid-size waves for learning. My fellow surf school classmates were from all over the world including an awesome couple from the States, Joe and Katie, that had been living in Guam for the last three years, two very friendly and outgoing girls from Singapore, one adventurous girl from Sweden, and two other girls from Korea. We had about a 30 minute info session and then made our way out to the warm water with board in hand. After spending the morning in the waves I have come to develop a great respect for surfers as it offers a pretty intense workout that also requires a hefty dose of balance and body control. We had great teachers whose guidance helped me to get up consistently by the end of the two hour session. Thankfully, the school also had a photographer on the beach with a telephoto lens that captured some great shots of the morning. I was a little concerned that after leaving the water there was a big hole in the ocean…. from where I ripped it up. Hang ten brahs.

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_MG_9714 I’m fully aware I may get some grief for this shot, and rightfully so.

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The morning was thoroughly enjoyable and exhausting. I can definitely see the appeal of surfing and if I find myself in a position to ever live next to the water, it’s something I would love to do with more frequency. I had become quick friends with the whole class with the exception of the two Koreans (I have nothing against Koreans they just weren’t very outgoing, I’m sure there are many lovely people in Korea and I look forward to meeting them) so the group of us decided to grab lunch together (again, without the two Koreans). We got a recommendation for a good local place around the corner. I went for the beef rendang which it was known for, washing it all down with a cold Bintang beer (it’s Bali’s local beer and quite good).

After lunch we made plans to go check out a beach called Pedang Pedang located on the Southwest corner of the island. That is everyone, except for my two fellow American friends who had to go back to their hotel so Joe could submit an on-line work assignment. But, they agreed to meet up with us later in the day. So four of us made our way down South. Pedang Pedang is known for a small sandy beach surrounded by stunning rock cliffs and also good surfing. None of us were ready to capture the bigger waves, but enjoying a beach is something we could handle.

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Our driver Ronnie, a local Balinese who also works at the surf shop,
Our driver Ronnie, a local Balinese who also works at the surf shop,

We enjoyed a very nice and relaxing afternoon at the beach and as the sun began to fall further in the sky we hoped in the van so Ronnie could drive us to another spot. We were headed to an area called Jimbaran beach, which was known for good seafood and great beach views of a Balinese sunset. This was also where Joe and Katie were going to join back up with the group. A short drive over and we got out to make our way down to the beach and enjoy the sunset and a cocktail.                                                IMG_4393

The view really was beautiful and after the sun had set, we made our way a little further down the beach to a less tourist-heavy spot. The dinner was great as the conversation moved effortlessly through the group of travelers from different corners of the world. At the end of dinner we exchanged contact information and said our goodbyes. It was really the perfect way to spend the last evening of an unbelievable, short trip in Bali.

My flight left the next morning at 6 am, so I was up by 3:30. That Monday was a long one, but the experience of the weekend made it absolutely worth it. I have already started planning my next trip back and would strongly recommend it to anyone.

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4 Comments

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  1. Knowing Evan is better than having a subscription to National Geographic!

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  2. Crappy coffee face if my favorite.
    Awesome post.

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  3. What a great read my friend. The “After some good, sh*tty coffee” segment produced extreme belly laughs from an extreme belly. Thanks for sharing!!

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  4. Evan! Wonderful story! You are funny and so honest in your writing style. The pictures are lovely too. Your lunch picture made me drool a little. Thanks for writing about your experiences, I’m following you now so I can keep up. I also have a word press blog if you feel like reading some mindless stuff of mine 🙂 My posts aren’t anything as big as yours though.

    I loved the pictures of Susila too- his smile is REALLY infectious!! How blessed!

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