North of Australia, and strung along a horizontal line just south of the equator is the archipelago of Indonesia. A series of 17,500 islands surrounded by the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Somewhere in the middle of this vast string of islands stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean is the island of Bali. 2,250 square miles of ancient volcanoes, dense tropical jungle, deep river gorges, life-giving rice fields and endless sandy beaches. Many have found paradise in this lush, gorgeous landscape but the real beauty lies in the people and their flamboyant religious culture. The Balinese are not Muslim like the rest of Indonesia. Their religion is based in Hindu, but it incorporates animal and ancestor worship, the cult and cultivation of rice and elaborate daily rituals to honour the spirit world. For a thousand years the Balinese have been perfecting the link between the natural and the supernatural. Along with their superstitious nature, they have maintained a sweet, earthy innocence. Their small frames are draped in elaborate layers of colourful dress and their faces are always lit up with the open smiles of children. I immediately thought of the Balinese as the ambassadors to paradise. Freddie and I, and our friends Jeff and Erik had finally found it.
It was a four hour flight from Hong Kong on a 747 packed with other paradise seekers. The planes land on a narrow strip at the southern tip of the island in an old fashioned airport that is clearly struggling to cope with the huge numbers of tourists that have descended in the last twenty years. The entire infrastructure of Bali is strained as low cost air travel from Australia and China has changed the slow, idyllic way of life into a manic rush to provide tourists with everything they need. The roads from the airport are choked with thousands of motorbikes and taxi vans. The intersections may have elaborate carved gods in the center, but the traffic around them is from hell.
The town of Kuta is the main hub of tourist activity on Bali, and it is only a few miles from the airport making it an easy place to start. With a huge swathe of grey blonde sand and good surfing waves, it attracts tens of thousands of holiday makers. There is an endless variety of accommodation here, and a sea of surf boards, day beds and umbrellas are for rent everywhere you turn. Kuta has a lively, bawdy nightlife scene as well, so for many, there is no need to explore the island any further. I suppose if you are under 25, or Australian, Kuta will provide everything your heart desires. For me, one day in Kuta was plenty.
Further up the coast the traffic eases, the tacky shops become more glamorous, and everything feels a lot more sophisticated. This is Seminyak. And thankfully, this is where we booked our 2 bedroom villa for the next four days. It was 2,500 square feet of Balinese style luxury with two huge terraces and a Jacuzzi. Like much of the rentals in the area, it is part of a compound that includes pools, gardens and a full service restaurant. And 'Bali Mystique' was just a block from the beach. Miss Dessy was our housekeeper and cook, and she made sure we had everything we needed. The total price of this huge villa, including breakfast and maid service was a whopping eight million Rupiah! Of course, that only works out to be $200 per night.
For just $35 a day (including gas), we hired a private driver to take us all around the island. On our first day out, Sedi drove us to a gorgeous beach and cliff area with one of the island's most famous temples: Tanah Lot. 'Tanah' means land, and 'lot' means sea, and this beautiful temple is dramatically set on a promontory where the two elegantly meet. The temple is on a small island about one hundred yards from shore, and at low tide, you can walk over to it. Our visit was at mid day, and we made it about half way across before we were baptised in a huge wave of warm sea water.
Later, Sedi drove us to the island's bustling capitol city, Denpasar. Located in the center of the southern part of the island, it is not near any beaches and therefore is relatively tourist free. The locals come from all over to buy wholesale in the myriad of warehouses. We stopped at the huge, heaving spice and produce market, and you could tell we were out of place by the strange look on the women's faces. We found some amazing deals in a kitchenware stall and bought a fantastic meat cleaver for just $3.25. In the center of the city is a pleasant green park with tall shade trees and an exquisite temple housing the Bali Museum. The entrance fee was only $1 so we spent an uneventful hour walking through a few sparse rooms displaying a few bits of ancient folk art. It occurred to me that the Balinese must not think much of the past, as the display of their thousand year history is rather pitifully empty. But then I thought of the art that they put into their daily lives. The offerings, the flowers and the fanciful rituals. Their whole existence is an art form, and that simply does not fit into a museum setting as we know it.
Back in Seminyak, we dived into the waves on the beach, and then into the amazing cuisine on offer at a spanking new restaurant called Potato Head. DJ's spin the coolest grooves and the seafood and cocktails are art forms themselves. This is only the latest arrival in a string of super chic beach club restaurants in Seminyak. We made sure to explore a different one every night. Lovely locals are working in these places but they are clearly aimed at the International Jet Set and have international prices to match. For late night entertainment Seminyak also has a few wacky Lady Boy bars where small, dark Balinese men dress up like tall, blonde Western women and mouth the words to Lady Ga Ga. We were welcomed like visiting royalty and it was impossible not to have an absolute blast among all the feathers and shiny lipped smiles.
On the day of me and Freddie's ten year anniversary, we summoned trusty Sedi again to take us to the southern most point of the island. We stopped at Uluwatu, a famous surfing spot accessed by steep steps cut into the rocks. There is a pristine white sand beach between two giant boulders where surfer boys launch themselves into the gleaming blue waters, one after another. On the cliffs above is the beautiful and serene Temple of Uluwatu. This sacred place gives reverence to the goddess of the sea and has a fantastic view of the crashing waves below. It is also the home of an extended family of long tailed macaques. These photogenic and fearless monkeys are well aware that you are on their turf, and they are not above demanding an offering of their own. Some of the larger ones will stand in your way while another comes up and frisks your pockets for anything tasty. I sat down on a wall to have my picture taken and within seconds I had three of them inspecting me like hairy little narcotics officers. As the sun was setting, Sedi dropped us in Jimbaran Beach famous for its seafood restaurants with tables set up in the sand. Jeff and Erik treated us to some fat tiger prawns and a massive lobster that had just come in on the fishing boats an hour before. Fancy cocktails in hand, we toasted our good fortune and our ten years together as the huge orange ball slipped below the horizon.
After our four days in Seminyak, we reluctantly left the villa and drove up into the middle if the island where the beach culture gives way to the mountainous jungle. Our next four days were spent in the village of Ubud, the center of all things artistic in Bali. The streets are swollen with craft shops, art galleries and showrooms and among them are sweet cafes decked out in island art. Our new villa was just outside of Ubud, quietly set in a rice field. 'Villa Bayad Ubud' is a newly built collection of villas around a gorgeous pool and super lush greenery. Our 2 bedroom had its own private pool and a host of frogs and geckos to keep us company.
On our first morning there was an intense rain storm, as there often is on this high plateau. When it let up, I went for a walk in the rice fields behind the villa. I followed a broken road past the houses of local families. These are arranged as indoor outdoor compounds with eating and relaxing areas that have thatched roofs but no walls. I could see the people through the gates going about their daily lives. Old women were cooking, children were playing and their shabby dogs barked at me to keep my distance. Hens and their chicks poked around in the grassy areas while the roosters kept watch from their high point on the wall. I passed several people on the road. All of them stopped to smile and say hello, and the kiddies just waved enthusiastically with toothy grins. One woman was gathering herbs among the wild ferns. She told me the plant she was picking was called patak and she gestured it was for eating. I walked through a banana grove and came across yet another temple. This one had flowing water and carved gods that looked like pigs with long tongues. Next to the temple was a bamboo hut with two curious sacred cows who watched my every move. Further down the road was a beautiful terrace of flooded rice fields arranged like great elegant steps going down the natural slope of the hill. In one of the paddies a gaggle of ducks had claimed the spoils of the rice that hadn't been picked. They also greeted my noisily. Finally I came to the river and an old pumping station that keeps the water levels constant in the rice paddies. Two boys were playing with a crude paper airplane. They squealed with delight when I picked it up and tossed it in the air.
Rising out of the rice fields and demanding attention where ever you are is the mighty volcano Ganung Agung. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it is the dominant feature of Bali's dramatic landscape. To the Balinese, this massive green mountain is the spiritual home of their ancestors and is the pinnacle of their religious culture. They orient their houses and temples in relation to this most sacred place. Ganung Agung last erupted in 1963 shooting lava and boulders high into the sky. Two thousand people were killed when whole villages were burned and buried. Local belief blames the event on a Hindu purification ceremony that was wrongly timed, and sent the gods into a rage. When we made the long drive up onto the lip of the volcanic valley, and first caught sight of Ganung Agung, I hoped the gods were being appeased that day. We ate at a restaurant perched on the cliff that had the best views. In front of us was the very active volcano Gunung Batur and the lake and caldera that separates it from its big bad brother across the valley.
We left the gods to their own devices and came back down into the heavy green jungle and made a stop at a coffee plantation. Coffee and tea are both grown on Bali, and the locals have a taste for both. The most sought after coffee beans are the ones that have passed through the bowels of a local racoon-like animal called a Civit. This is touted as the most expensive coffee in the world, and can cost up to $160 per kilo. We tasted several teas and coffees and finished with the crappy one. Interesting, but I doubt it will be putting Starbucks out of business any time soon.
Over the next few days we took our time to get to know the town of Ubud. We bought hand made blankets and wood carvings from the local artisans, who were always very entertaining while they procured their sale. We had dinner at the famous 'Lotus Cafe' set in a beautiful old temple complex with a sprawling lily pond and a stage beyond. That night there was a performance of traditional gamelan music, which is about as oracally exciting as a bad case of hiccups, but the costumes were gorgeous and the nosh at The Lotus was very tasty. Another night we splashed out for a five star dinner at 'The Bridge', a stunning open air establishment perched on a precipice next to the picturesque bridge over the Agung river. We loved the food everywhere in Ubud, except for one night when we fancied a steak. There is only one place in town that serves the sacred cow, and for some reason it tasted like fish. I'm still trying to figure that one out.
Alas, our time in paradise had come to an end. The four of us spent our last hours together reliving the events of the last eight days, and how it had changed us. Of course, we travel to discover our world and our brothers and sisters in other countries, but we also travel to discover ourselves. Among the chaos of tourist life on Bali lies a deep spiritual connection to the sea, the rocks, the jungles and the mountains. The Balinese have learned to balance their business concerns with their spiritual life, their families and their connection with nature. For me, the path to paradise on Earth is in this balance, and I like to think that the Island of the Gods has shown me the way.