Bali evokes thoughts of PARADISE, palm trees, crystal white beaches, and UNTOUCHED flora and fauna. It is the island’s spiritual nature and IDYLLIC beauty untampered by decades of tourism that won me over. An essence of ADVENTURE and mysticism, Bali is as serene as it sounds.
“You honour the bad spirits, too, or they will get revenge” says Nengah, placing an offering in front of a red door with a seemingly infinite number of golden carvings. I’m at Pura Khan, one of the thousands of temples on the island, learning one of the many stories from the island’s locals. At dusk, every day unless it rains, Nengah treads the unpaved roads lined with banana plantations to one side and rice fields to the other, to the Pura. He walks through the stone-carved split gateway or candi bentar, up the moss green stairs, and places his offering to one of the three gods – Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu – or the spirits.
Not once does he wonder who took the hours to carve out the tessellations that fill every centimetre of the walls. It doesn’t matter. The occupants of the tiny, and only Hindu island among the thousands that make up the Indonesian, and vastly Muslim, archipelago, count the shrines found at every corner of even the minutest village, as mundane. With places of worship a requirement in every household, magic and myth are irrevocably woven into the daily rituals of life. Perhaps therein lies its charm, and the reason I jumped at the chance to discover the island.
The morning hasn’t quite broken when I wake in the pale light filtered through the mosquito net, on my first day in Bali. Still enamoured by sleep, I step outside to find a mise-en-scène that would seem surreal under any other circumstances. Beyond the infinity pool, a mirror reflecting the sunrise, extends the rainforest so green it’s hard to comprehend, its depth marked by the varying hues. The more you look, the more you see, like the fabrics that weave a sarong. The humidity is almost visible in its heaviness, and yet there is a buoyancy in the air; our villa feels like it’s hanging above the sea of green. I dive into the cool water to find myself at the edge, literally. The pool ends in a piercing crag. While the prospect of hours of blissful leisure in the hotel is an enticing one, my instinct to venture into Ubud, a small bohemian town where tourists flock for handmade souvenirs or its healers, wins me over.
It is in Ubud that I begin to understand the island’s eclectic appeal. Cars and motorbikes are fireflies that swarm around roads with one-storey houses, temples, and stores, in a charming cacophony you must embrace to stay afloat. Vendors shriek out prices for everything from wood carved figures and shell-tiled plates to silver jewellery and handwoven straw bags. Passing by the market, the sound of intense bartering is paired with the scent of fresh fruit. Every five steps I hear the words “You need a taxi? Here please,” and after a while I begin to realise just about anyone in Bali can be a taxi driver. The only requirement is a functioning car, and a willing customer. In such a chaos I can’t help but feel elation, so unalike it is from anything I have ever known.
The Campuhan Ridge Walk, an 8km hike along rural Ubud, is just the antidote to the ebullient town. I walk amongst palm tree plantations and pass a river forcing its way through two mountains. I tread a scenic road I had seen in countless photographs; there is a downhill gently curved path, with rice terraces extending to its right, and the soft swish of tall grass to the left; and a single palm tree standing like a monument to those who stopped the hike due to the oppressive heat that falls over you like a blanket. The village halfway through the walk is just that; an assemblage of houses with one grocer, a sculptor, and a world-renowned painter. Artful simplicity. We’re back at the hotel just in time for one of Bali’s explosive sunsets that arrive at 6pm every evening of the year; the sky lit with colours one usually finds on highlight markers or bright jewellery, engrossed in a dance that blows out into darkness like a candle.
In the morning I wake at six with dusk, like clockwork. I turn over to face the doors of the terrace that I’ve left ajar, and see a bruised and moody sky. The cloud will lift soon enough, and the line of mercury in the horizon will turn into the hot Balinese sun. It is under this heat that I find myself walking on a crowded road to the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, the legacy left from Bali’s years as an agriculture-based economy before tourism took over. It’s a peaceful sight that seems hand-drawn; the undulant hills sprawling across as far as the eye can see, miniature small ponds at every level that the rice is planted. The small figures in conical straw hats appearing across the field are working under irrigation systems from the 9th century that transport water from the island’s mountains, keeping the rice fields wet all-year, and requiring extensive manual labour with no machinery. They offer me one of their headwear and a hand spear to take a photo, and I immediately accept. The hat is heavier than it looks.
Here in Bali, the tempo of life slows from presto to adagio; days are taken at the unhurried pace of a sip of kopi luwak on Sunday mornings. It is why much of my time is spent driving somewhere in a car. The secluded spots of untouched nature we visit, however, were well worth the effort. Picture in your mind the perfect waterfall, and it probably resembles Tegenungan. Framed by lush greenery, a curtain of white water cascades over grey rocks as if it were being poured from a giant bucket that never empties. It plunges, foaming into lather at the base into the depths of the serenity pool, and if it wasn’t for the crowds bathing, it would seem like one of those anonymous pictures hung in waiting rooms that seem to belong to no place in particular.
On my last day, everything strikes me as poignant; the last breakfast of nasi uduk, martabak, bantal, and babur injun; the last dive into the infinity pool to shelter from the heat; the last stroll around the Ubud market in search for move hand-made souvenirs; the last run to our villa to catch the sunset. It’s near impossible not to fall in lust with a place where time is measured by the songs of birds and the shadow cast by multi-layered temple pagodas; a land where opulence is not isolated to the extraordinary, but brought into the mundane, making even the humblest rice and petal offering look exquisite.