No description of Bali is complete without mention of its iconic temples, food and dances. Budget constraint and want of seclusion had made me stay away from the most renowned Balinese charm most of the times, but on my last Bali trip as a couple, I had enjoyed all of them to the fullest. The photogenic Tanah Lot temple had happened on a colour splashed sunset and in spite of the milling crowd around, it had been a stunning evening. The crowd did nothing to mar its beauty and I guess that’s what made Tanah Lot so popular. Very few places and monuments in the world can retain their charm in the midst of its madding crowd of visitors and Tanah Lot was definitely one of them.
While the shrine was small and bit insignificant looking, the entire combination of dashing sea, rocky isolation and sky colours made each Tanah Lot visit absolutely glorious. Because of its incredible location, Tanah Lot is a popular backdrop for wedding photography and billowing bridal gowns and “eyes only for you”, looks against a pounding sunset ocean made the temple seem like a dream. Meaning “Land in the sea”, in Balinese language, Tanah Lot actually refers to the rocky outcrop off the island of Bali. One of the 7 sea temples of Bali, Tanah Lot is influenced by Hinduism and is dedicated to the Balinese gods of the sea. Incidentally Bali has a chain of 7 sea temples built along its south western coast and each temple is built within the viewing distance of the next.
Tanah Lot, owing to its popularity is the most visited and is definitely one of the most photographed sights in the world. According to a popular belief, poisonous sea snakes, coiled at the base of the rocky island, guard the temple from intruders and evil spirits, but in reality, more than the deadly reptiles, hustlers (demanding money in exchange of sandalwood paste dot and flowers) around the temple, make Tanah Lot visitors wary. However, in spite of all the hustling and blatant commercialism, Tanah Lot is unmissable and we had had a lovely time enjoying sea spray and watching cooing newly wedded couples. In comparison to picturesque Tanah Lot, Taman Ayun had been a bit of a disappointment. A royal family temple Taman Ayun had been built by a Mengwi dynasty king in 1634 and is best known for its beautifully landscaped gardens, bridges, waterways and ponds. The traditional multi tiered thatched temples had sat on a mini island surrounded by a lotus filled moat and gardens and we had more impressed by its scale than magnificence.
In retrospect, we often consider that perhaps it was not Taman Ayun’s lack of impressive charm, but the overpowering beauty of the previous Tanah Lot evening. Post Tanah Lot visit, we had headed over to Batu Balong for the incredible “kecak” fire dance. An ingenious trance based dance, Kecak has origin in sanghyang, a sacred Hindu Balinese dance performed only for religious ceremonies, never for tourism purposes. It is also trance based ritual and associated with exorcism. Kecak, however is performed commercially and depicts the Hindu mythological stories of Ramayana, in which the monkey god Hanumana helped the good prince Rama win over the evil demon king Ravana. That’s why kecak is also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant and is traditionally performed by all male troupes of 150 members. Accompanied by a chorus of repeated “cak” chant by the dancers, instead of usual gamelan (traditional ensemble of musical instruments of Java and Bali) music, the last act of a kecak performance features a performer dressed as a horse who dances barefoot on fire. I had found the kecak too masculine and had preferred the fluid and graceful Legong.
Loosely known as the “dance of the virgins”, Legong is traditionally performed by pre pubescent girls who start their training as early as the age of 5. Ironically, the “dance of virgins” has its origin in Nandir, which had young boys performing at the royal courts. According to legends, Legong originated sometime in the 19th century when a prince in his meditation saw a vision of beautiful heavenly nymphs performing an exquisite dance characterized by complicated foot work, intricate finger movements and expressive facial gestures. Based on his vision, he sought far and wide for dancers to fill the part, but since no girl could come close to the beauty of the nymphs, masks were made to cover the faces of the performers. Legong originally is a very long performance and made up of nearly 10 acts, but for tourism purposes only a few are staged. Accompanied by gamelan music, pretty props and elaborate costumes, Legong is simply enchanting. Legong depicts many traditional stories and comes with exotic and exciting repertoire of names like Lasem (a Majapahit dynasty king), Jobog (monkey kings) etc.
I have not watched a Barong dance performance yet, but because of compelling story telling, amazing masks and awesome history, it is high on my Bali wishlist. An ancient pre Hindu culture dance, there are too many theories regarding the origin of Barong. While some claim Barong art to have been brought from China during the Majapahit era, others claim it to have been derived from an epic battle between 2 powerful nobles. Some versions tell the story of a beautiful girl named Ja’rifa, who was protected by a faithful monster faced animal called Barong, while others believe it to be a typical pre Hindu civilization Balinese dance, which depicts victory of good over evil. The last version is the most popular one and Barong indeed is represented by dancers depicting good and evil. The good are usually 2 dancers in 4 legged animal costumes and the bad is represented by Rangda, a terrible masked figure with 2 large canines drooping out of his mouth. Barong and Rangda masks are considered sacred and are always blessed by sprinkling of holy water, brought from Mount Agung, before the beginning of a performance.
My Barong fantasy started after seeing the fantastic shaggy, pop eyed Barong masks at the beautiful Saraswati temple at Ubud. Famous for its stunning lotus pools and the chic Lotus Cafe next door, Saraswati temple had been an oasis of tranquility in the middle of chaotic, busy central Ubud. It was located a little ahead from one end of Monkey Forest Road and the Jalan Raya juncture used to be always crowded with too many cars, huge tourist coaches, locals, hustlers, vendors and wide eyed tourists. Shops, stores, restaurants, cafes, studios, spas, boutiques and handicraft market lined its all sides and it was used to be a always a traffic nightmare. The Chinese influence on the Barong masks is undeniable and it had often made me wonder at Bali’s beautifully blended cultural osmosis. The graceful, fluid movements, eye expressions and facial gestures of Legong had always reminded me of the elegance of Indian classical dance and the similarities are again unmistakable.
Similarly Balinese food had been a mind blowing explosion of fusion and its rating as one of the best cuisines in the world is not over rated. One of the most complex cuisines in the world, Balinese dishes are a smorgasbord of exciting spices, herbs, vegetables, fish and meat. An unusual blend of Indonesian, Chinese and Indian flavours, the island’s predominantly Hindu population and their culinary traditions add that special twist to the Balinese food. Rice is consumed as staple along with host of little pockets of fried, sauteed, grilled and broiled goodies and the fiery sambol is an indispensable part of the platter. Religious preference restricts consumption of beef although (unlike Indian Hindus), pork is heartily minced, chopped, smoked and cooked in multitude of mouth watering dishes, sates being most famous.
While I have eaten at both warungs and popular restaurants, the food served at village eateries, sold by vendors from push carts, open air weekly markets and off bamboo baskets have been the best. Come evening most streets in Bali comes alive with smoking charcoal as Balinese grill their favourite Ikan (fish) and Ayam (chicken) in hordes (Ikan/Ayam Bakar). While available all over Indonesia, just like Nasi Goreng, I love the Ikan Bakars sold near Kuta. Babi Guling is one of Balinese cuisine highlights and although there are many stories of people falling sick after eating an under prepared dish, it is undoubtedly drool worthy. I had tried slices of Babi Guling at a weekly market near Ubud and had fallen in love with the roasted suckling pig in spit. While the sight of a whole, roasted pig is not very appetizing, the meat had been meltingly tender, succulent and well done.
Our biggest Balinese food disappointment had been the star dish of the paradise island, the much famous, Bebek Betutu. A very popular dish, Bebek Betutu has its own dedicated specialized restaurants and even a story behind its conception. With so much fame and hype surrounding it, Bebek Betutu had intrigued us enough to book an expensive dinner at a specialized Betutu restaurant. Unfortunately, it had turned out to be a bad decision as the ambiance (hibiscus forests, cascading pools and lotus gardens) was the only highlight of the place. The duck had turned out to be a miserly skinny bird, too dry and stringy for our taste. Its much hyped seasoning was non existent and we had ended up spending up a hefty bill for cardboard tasting duck, pebbly hard Nasi Goreng and sugarry sweet avocado juices.
Bebek Betutu is perhaps best tried at a warung or at a weekly market. The birds on sticks don’t look very tempting, but its loyal followers swear by its taste. The famous dish consists of a duck being seasoned with herbs, chilies, pungent roots and spices and wrapped up inside betel-nut bark, before roasting in a special oven made of rice husks. Bebek betutu is traditionally served while still smouldering and often with beaks and wings attached. Usually accompanied with side dishes of Lawar, another Balinese specialty ( a vegetable, shredded pork and pork blood dish of green beans, banana flower etc) and dash of tomato based fiery sambol sauce, Bebek Betutu lovers claim that the best betutu can be stumbled upon only after numerous trials and errors and there’s way too many conflicting opinions on the best bebek betutu place in Bali. One of the safest Balinese dishes we had tried, was the innocent looking Nasi Campur and later had always turned to it when out of options.
Available at each Balinese step, Nasi Campur contains grilled tuna, fried tofu, cucumber, spinach, tempe (soya fries), beef cubes, vegetable curry, corn, chili sauce, all heartily tossed on a bed of rice. Sold by street vendors, wrapped in a banana leaf, Nasi Campur is as popular as Bakso (indigenous Indonesian meat balls) and are one of the cheapest eats of Bali. With so many memories, options and choices of things to do, it is nearly impossible to encompass Bali in a few posts, but I guess our favourite memories of the island as a couple had been monkeying around with the pesky crab eating macaques at Ubud Monkey Forest, watching an incredible Balinese cremation ceremony, the morning Campuhan Ridge Walk (a lovely paved walk at a confluence of 2 rivers), spa sessions (milk/flower baths) and organic massages, food and shopping for the famous delicate Balinese lace at Uluwatu Handmade Balinese Lace (http://uluwatu.co.id/). Surrounded by stunning coral reefs, Bali is one rare place, which words fail to do justice and you just have to experience it to believe it.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE