After just over a week relaxing on the Gilis, we were ready to get back to it and start discovering Bali and its culture. We decided that, considering Ubud is smack in the centre of Bali and has been named the ‘cultural capital’ of the island, this would be a good place to start.
A trip to Ubud isn’t complete without a visit to the Monkey Forest.
In this little pocket of jungle amidst the city centre, mischievous monkeys roam free. It’s quite easy to forget you are in the middle of a city when you’re surrounded by towering trees and crumbling, vine encrusted temples.
The highlight of course is the monkeys themselves. It was fun just to watch them – some of them have brilliant facial expressions.
As of February 2015, there were 659 of the naughty little devils and, even though they warn you not to bring in any food from outside when you enter, we saw several people have their bags or pockets raided!
One thirsty little blighter thought he’d help himself to Dale’s water bottle and, when Dale didn’t let go of it and run off screaming as most other people did when a monkey tried to grab something from them, it promptly chewed the cap off and helped itself to a drink!
One also tried to have a look inside my handbag, but (not smelling anything tasty in there) didn’t put up much of a fight when I ushered it off.
After the excitement of the monkey forest we wanted to see some of the famous temples of Bali (known as the island of a thousand temples) and learn more about the way of life here. The public transport is awful in Indonesia – there are no buses or trains at all, so your only option to travel further than walking distance is by taxi, hired motorbike or by guided tour. Wanting to learn as much as we could, we opted for a tour and the next day we were picked up from our hotel by our chosen guide, Wayan.
Wayan was taking us to our first temple when suddenly he cried out: “Look! Here they are preparing for a mass cremation!” and hastily pulled over. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see such a thing, but as Wayan explained, this is a very important part of Balinese Hindu tradition (and that I wouldn’t see anything too extreme because it was simply the preparation).
Like most Hindu cultures, in Bali it is traditional to be cremated after dying – but the accompanying ceremony is very expensive. Because many can’t afford an individual ceremony, the families bury their dead temporarily and exhume the bodies when a communal cremation ceremony for the whole village is taking place (roughly once every five years) – thereby sharing the cost. The remains are then transferred to a small box-like coffin, which – during the ceremony – will be placed into giant ornate effigies of animals that correspond with the dead person’s caste (social status). It is the effigy that is set alight during the ceremony, after many mirth-inducing antics such as water fights.
It is this concept of happiness that struck me the most as I took a look around the ceremony preparation – there was not a tear in sight. Used to funerals being solemn and weepy events, I was surprised to learn that it is extremely important not to show any sadness during a Balinese cremation ceremony – this would halt the spirit’s passing into the next life and trap it here. Instead, you must be happy that the spirit is free to complete its journey, and it shall do. I was happy that Wayan had encouraged us to take a look. This was an amazing insight into real life in Bali.
Our next stop was Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – one of Bali’s most recognisable temples thanks to its representation on Indonesia’s 50,000 rupiah note.
This temple is used to give offerings to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess Dewi Danu. It’s placed on the shores of Lake Bratan – the main source of irrigation in central Bali – and so this temple is especially important to farmers (including Wayan), who come at least once a year to thank the goddess for their harvest.
On the way to our next temple, we stopped off at Jatiluwih rice terraces – a beautiful plantation that has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status for its unique Subak irrigation system.
The farming looked like gruelling work and Wayan explained that it is strenuous activity like this which makes Balinese massage so important (and so affordable). Around the world, treatments like massage are seen as luxury – but in Bali it’s a necessity to keep the body healthy.
Watching a group of farmers scooping up huge swathes of rice, he explained, as if it was the most natural thing in the world; “every day, after they have finished they’re harvest, they will go and get a massage.”
Our last stop of the day was at Tanah Lot temple, where we found a good perch on the cliff edge and watched the sunset behind the most photographed landmark of Bali.
The temple is one of seven sea temples around the Balinese coast. Each of the sea temples was constructed within eyesight of the next to form a chain along the south-western coast. Wayan told us that it is traditionally thought this chain of temples was built to alert the entire island to the presence of invaders (similar to the Great Wall of China). But, he believes they were built as a message of defiance to neighbouring Islamic parts of Indonesia because they were built the same time as a religious exodus of Hindu intellectuals to Bali during the rise of Islam in Java.
As we headed back to our hostel for the night, we were surprised by the rich and colourful culture that is still alive in Bali. It would have been nice to hire a car or moped and go at our own pace, but having a guide like Wayan really helped us understand what we were seeing and the meaning behind it all.
If you’d like to contact Wayan for future tours, he can be easily reached on email@example.com