Bali Hai, the song made famous in the musical South Pacific, doesn’t really have anything to do with Bali. The novel by James Michener, upon which the musical was based, was inspired by the Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu, some 7,000 miles away, where Michener was stationed during WWII. Similarly, the movie was shot on the Hawaii island of Kauai, about 6,300 miles east. But because of its association with Bali Hai, Bali is forever regarded as the epitome of the Pacific island paradise, with white sand beaches, pure blue water, palm trees swaying in the breeze and beautiful women in grass skirts and bikini tops made of coconuts swaying to ukulele music.
In fact, Bali’s topography does match its reputation, although there are no native women in grass skirts. As one of between 17,500 and 18,300 islands (no one can quite agree on the figure) making up the archipelago of Indonesia, its shoreline is fringed by spectacular beaches with both white and black sand, clear turquoise waters replete with crashing waves beloved by surfers and a green interior, home to palm trees, coffee plantations, orchids and rice paddies. At 5,800 square kilometres, the island supports a population of about 5 million and has over 5000 hotels with close to 60,000 beds. An attempt to add land to Bali via reclamation was defeated, but threats to resurrect the scheme abound.
Indonesia’s population is primarily Muslim, but Bali is the exception. Its inhabitants adopted Hinduism between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD after coming into contact with Indian traders. Java, the larger island to the east and home to the capital, Jakarta, was eventually conquered by Muslim invaders, after which the Hindus and Buddhists decamped to Bali and have stayed since, resisting all attempts to be converted by Muslims and Christians.
Thus, Bali adopted Hindu gods, traditions and architecture, but not the caste system. Walking around today, offerings are placed at every entrance way each morning, made of betel leaves holding betel nuts, lime, tobacco and gambier overlaid by flowers. Hindu temples, with their interior sanctums housing shrines with images of deities, multi-level roof towers and ornate carvings, are ubiquitous; estimates indicate there are over 20,000 temples in Bali and seemingly on every corner.
I had arrived just before the Balinese New Year’s celebration, Nyepi, or day of silence. During the week preceding it, Balinese roads are filled with processions of Bhuta (demons), accompanied by white clad gentlemen and bands banging on pots and pans and bamboo tubes. I was lucky enough to run into one and took pictures while traffic stood still; the driver was less enamoured of the 30 minute delay.
The night before Nyepi, Ogoh Ogohs – bamboo statues of demons or negative spirits – are paraded through the streets before being burned in cemeteries. I attended at one parade, but so many people were straining for views and making it difficult for me to see much.
During Nyepi, four rituals are performed: no light or electricity, no work, no travelling and no revelry. It is a day of reflection, forgiveness and looking forward to the new year., reminding me of a Balinese Yom Kippur. In practical terms, it means the airport shuts down, TV stations go blank, mobile networks are off-line, special police patrol the streets ensuring no one is about and meals, if one is not fasting, must be consumed by sundown. Fortunately for me, tourists and pregnant women (not applicable) are excepted from the prohibition on lights and revelry, but not the travel ban. My hotel had power and food before 6PM, but we were not allowed out and had to draw our drapes after dark. The internet did work and I noticed a large number of Indonesian guests who came for the day and left the next, after Nyepi and travel was once again permitted.
I engaged the services of a guide/driver to do some sightseeing. First up was the famous Lempuyang temple, whose gates frame the volcano Gunung Agung. Much beloved by Instagramers, the temple imposes strict rules on visitors, including the compulsory donning of a sarong, a ban on menstrating women (how they check I do not know), no kissing and forbidding yoga poses at the gates. If one looks at Instagram, the reason for the last rule is apparent. Hundreds of tourists decided that yoga postures (mostly disrespecting the Buddhist/Hindu restriction of having feet pointing to the gods) would best show themselves off. The first one or two photos may have been beguiling but after a few, they just become cliches.
After climbing a steep roadway to the temple’s entrance, I passed through a gate and into the courtyard, where a line of tourists waited patiently for their turn to have a picture with the volcano behind. “It wasn’t too busy”, a guide told me, “the wait will only be 20 minutes. Sometimes, it is hours”. A gentleman, probably a combination photographer and rule enforcer, chastised a lady when she started raising her leg in a prelude to a tree pose. When my turn came, I gave him my I-phone and a tip and he snapped a few photos while directing me how to stand – both feet firmly on the ground.
We went to Tirtagangga, a water palace built by the king of Bali. Yes, Bali was a kingdom (or 9 of them, depending on the century) from 914 to 1908, when the Dutch overlords finally had enough. The royal family still exists, and while administration has been ceded to the central government in Jakarta, the family still regards itself as the guardian of the Hindu faith on the island.
The grounds today are preserved primarily as a tourist site and wedding destination venue. The pools are the highlights, with stepping stones allowing visitors to get up close and personal with the richly carved statues:
Another water palace is Taman Soekasada Ujung, a pretty place featuring ponds, bridges, gardens and pictures of the king:
Lastly, we stopped at the Tibumana Waterfall. Bali is blessed with many lovely waterfalls, surrounded by the verdant rainforest with cooling watering holes fed by the clean water. Unfortunately, as I entered the water, two idiot Italian girls followed me in with cigarettes dangling from their lips, blowing smoke in my direction and totally oblivious to the hypocrisy of enjoying nature while smoking.
This is my second time in Bali and so far, it is as enjoyable as the first. It is far more built up than in 1996, but the Balinese are kind and welcoming hosts. Tourists proliferate, mostly Australians; think suntanned blonds with tattoos and surfboards riding on scooters. Bali has decent infrastructure, first world amenities and enough cultural attractions and differences to enchant a visitor like me. It’s the perfect place to relax, de-stress and wait out winter.