Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Brief Break in Bali

One of the advantages to living in Singapore for a while is that its location is central in Southeast Asia, so travel in the area can be done quite easily and cheaply.  We suddenly found ourselves with a five-day break in my Dear Husband’s killer schedule of six day workweeks with 18 hour days, and on two days notice got ourselves to Bali.  From the US, the flight would have been long and expensive but from Singapore it was less than three hours flight time and bargains were possible.

I had to learn a lot about Bali very quickly!  It’s a large (just over 2,000 square miles, nearly 10 times the size of Singapore) island with about 4 million inhabitants.  Most Balinese are Hindu and pretty much constitute the 5% of all Indonesians who are Hindu and not Muslim.  Bali has beaches, some with surf-worthy waves or black sand, jungles, volcanoes and mountains, cities and villages.  Each town attracts specific groups of tourists, and we settled on Sanur, on the southeast, as suitable for the budget-minded mature couple we are.  Thanks to booking.com, I located the perfect hotel for us by looking for the intersection of our price range, and the highest guest rating:  The Tamukami (http://www.tamukamibali.com).  We’d go back there in a heartbeat.

We’re not the type of tourists who lie on the beach or by the pool.  We’ve got to be doing things!  It took over an hour to get through Customs at Bali’s little (and very badly organized, to put it nicely) airport in Denpasar, during which time we each studied half a dozen tour agency leaflets.  By the time our hotel’s van had gotten us to the Tamukami, we’d agreed on what we wanted to see, and which leaflet most attracted us both.  The staff at our lovely hotel not only called the agency for us, but also didn’t add an extra charge for doing so to either our hotel bill or our tour bill.  We enjoyed exploring our very beautiful hotel, and a walk on the beach, before quite happily taking the path of least resistance and dining in the hotel’s open-air dining room.

Our tour guide picked us up the next day in his clean and well-maintained SUV, which to our delight we did not have to share with other tourists.  It was such a good deal to have a private, comfortable car and driver for the price of two tour tickets that we hired him for a second day.  

Part of the tour’s shtick is to take you to crafts workshops where you have the opportunity to purchase mementos at twice or more the usual cost. We were interested in the batik workshop, but not the jewelry or painting shops.  Our guide quickly realized that we were not interested in buying things, and focused instead on the natural beauties that did interest us.

The first natural beauty-spot we saw was the Tegenungan waterfall, surrounded by jungle and farm country.  There was no time to hike down to the pool below the falls, but just viewing it made us feel better!  Along the way we passed lush fields of vegetables, where I first saw pandan being grown. 

Pandan leaves are used in Asian cooking, particularly Malaysian and Thai, to moisturize and flavor fried foods (as in Pandan Chicken) or to give a sweet flavor to desserts in the same way vanilla is used in Western cooking.

Rice is grown all over Bali, often on terraced hillsides.  We saw these rice terraces on our way to a spice garden.  Kintamani is high up on a volcanic mountain.  We saw vanilla pods, coffee beans, ginger and a variety of tropical fruits before we came to the coffee treatment area.  

Bali is known also for luwak coffee, which has been internally processed by the local mongoose population.  You have to pay to try a sample of it, so we passed on that.  We did enjoy all the free samples of regular Kintamani coffee, which we watched a local woman roast over hot coals.

At some point we attended a dance presentation of a story involving princes in disguise, evil spirits, battle, and some broad comedy featuring dwarves.  A gamelan band provided atmospheric musical accompaniment.  Balinese dance makes artful use of the fingers and feet of the dancers, who also make exaggerated faces.  Later, we were entertained by a small Balinese troupe at a hotel bar in Sanur.  This troupe included dancers as young as 6 or 7, who were able to dance for about one minute before dashing off stage.  Their main function was to pass the hat after the performance ended.

Bali has temples and altars everywhere.  Some are large and lavish, some are makeshift; all testify to the role of religion in every moment of everyday life here.  Offerings are typically placed on palm or banana leaves and include flowers, little bits of food, and whatever the worshipper thinks will be pleasing, such as a beer (thoughtfully opened for the gods) or a cigarette.  Statues of gods are often modestly wrapped in black and white checked fabric, and sheltered by matching parasols.  

The Hindu priests wisely selected the most stunning locations for their temples.  

We visited the temple at Tanah Lot as the sun was setting.  Naturally, there were hordes of other visitors there too, but that didn’t diminish the beauty of the natural water-worn stone bridge with its 16th century temple.  

When we visited the quieter temple at Uluwatu, further south on the island, there were fewer other visitors and little activity except the appearance of some monkeys (which I studiously avoided).  The rugged cliff arising from the ocean waves was simply breathtaking.  

Even the monkeys have their own temples in the Monkey Forest.  They didn’t seem particularly devout, but they should have been thanking the gods they’d been given a lovely forest with moss-grown shrines and statues, along with keepers to bring them food.

Being driven around Bali by a local was ideal, as the roads are extremely narrow and filled with people and animals.  Dogs, who all looked related to one another, often lay in the middle of roads, unconcerned by traffic.  

Our driver often had to pass slower traffic in the face of oncoming vehicles.  Driving on Bali seemed to require a special combination of faith in the kindness of others and forgiveness of their failings.  In fact, the warm nature of the people of Bali infused the days of our visit there with a friendly, relaxed pace.  We returned to the bustle of Singapore, refreshed by our interlude in Paradise.