No Place Like Bali

Bali Indonesia

What do you do with your miles? I chase OneWorld and Star Alliance to get from North America to Bali via Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines as often as possible. Oh, I know the place has changed. Years ago, I worked on an Indonesian guidebook and briefly taught school in a village outside Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali.

I was back a few months ago for the cremation ceremony of a former student’s father. It was more like a wedding than a funeral. Suppose you are the deceased. The day goes something like this.

You’re being cremated on the heavenly island of Bali and a few hundred tourists show up. Is it really so bad? You don’t have to feed them. Your Balinese neighbors sell beer and barbecue and insist that visitors show respect and buy a sarong to wear.

Think about it. You’re dead. Your body is taking its last journey on Earth. You’re the guest of honor at a Balinese cremation ceremony. Your family has placed you inside a larger-than-life image of a bull made of wood and paper, carried on the shoulders of frantically screaming villagers. The bull is anatomically dead on and painted to the nines. It’s all going to burn.

Bali Cremation Ceremony

Wouldn’t you like a crowd? Beer, anyone?

“To me, Balinese cremation is the final liberation of the soul,” explains my former student, Nyorman Suradnya. “Cremation sets the soul free from the worldly attractions of the body.”

To the Balinese, death is a passage from this life to the next in the soul’s journey to heaven. The body must be destroyed and the soul free to unite with the Supreme Being as a first step to reincarnation. Liberating a relative’s soul is the most sacred duty of every Balinese.

Cremation ceremonies and their carnival-like atmosphere are just one of the must-see sights on this far-flung outpost of Indonesia.

Everyone on this side of Bob Hope’s Bali High knows this fable of paradise. It is a land where myth and reality swirl around each other in a luminous haze. Located at the southern end of the Indonesian archipelago, Bali straddles the equator, literally and figuratively, in the geopolitics of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. The country is an untamed mix of cultures, ethnic groups, rivalries, languages and gods.

And Bali is out of step with the rest of Indonesia– a Hindu island in a sea of Islam. In Bali, life is lived as art and every action has religious significance to its three million inhabitants.

“Culture and religion are one,” Nyorman said. “Go with the flow and feel as one with the people.”

Bali Locals

Tourists started coming to Bali in 1967 after Sukarno ran the communists off. In the 1980s, when I first visited, Bali was hippie haven. Like Katmandu, the cultural uniqueness – 25,000 shrines and 1,000 temples – and the psychedelic omelets changed lives. Some Westerners never returned home. Others don’t remember being there.

Today, many come to Bali chasing eternal summer. The beaches are divine. Even the accommodations are to die for. The former Ritz-Carlton Bali (now the AYANA Resort and Spa) is paradise. The Four Seasons so exclusive they chased me away when I came for a look.

“Forget the resort areas,” Nyorman said. “They’ve lost the plot. Travel the island and be in a state of journey instead of searching for arrival.”

The island’s heart lies intact in communities just off the beaten track, which have barely changed their arts and beliefs for a thousand years. Development is mainly concentrated on the south side of the island at Sanur and Kuta, where most packaged tours base themselves. But even there no building is taller than the swaying coconut trees.

“Balinese need 87,000 hectares to produce rice,” said Luther Barrung, a local politician. “We try to build tourism facilities where agriculture is unlikely.”

But Nyorman has his own view (the good student that he was).

“The Bali government doesn’t understand tourism,” Nyorman said. “They just build hotels. The attraction is the Balinese way of life. Everything is art. The (tourism) evolution is too fast. Go to the Four Seasons Hotel, close your eyes and imagine rice fields. Then open your eyes and ask yourself, is this Bali?”

For those who want to see the Bali of dreams, an extraordinary home base is the mountain town of Ubud, located an hour’s drive upcountry from the Denpasar International Airport.

In Ubud, rice fields sway at the edge of town. The surrounding countryside is suitable to walking and Westerners are welcomed. At The Dirty Duck restaurant the old staff still remember Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall hanging out day after day during their honeymoon.

Good challenging evil is a constant theme. Every visitor should attend a performance of the monkey dance, with its tinkling gamelan, chanting, torch-bearing dancers and terrifying and stunningly beautiful women falling into trances. In Ubud, the Agung Rai Museum of Art offers regular performances by some of the islands most renowned dancers.

Bali is one of the most fertile islands in the world, producing hundreds of varieties of tropical fruits and vegetables. Culinary specialties include babi guling(suckling pig) and nasi goring, the national dish of rice, egg, chicken, spices and chilies.

As Nyorman says: Go with the flow and enjoy the journey.

The Tarmac’s View: Numerous transportation companies hustle arriving passengers at Denpasar Airport. Negotiate with a cab (the one least interested in you), $30 should get you to Ubud, where tour operators post the locations of upcoming cremation ceremonies. My favorite digs are at the ARMA Resort and Museum in Ubud.


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Comments (Showing 3 of 3)

  • ekartash at 2:49pm September 27, 2013

    Great post. Bali is one of my favorite places anywhere in the world. Just something magical about that island, its people, culture…

  • gypsyinabigtown at 3:33pm September 27, 2013

    Thanks for the article – I enjoyed it!
    I have to say I found it a bit strange to see Bali described as a “far-flung outpost of Indonesia”. Where I live, in Australia, many people know it as the only place in Indonesia 🙂

  • kabroui at 12:08am September 30, 2013

    Bali sucks. Overly commericalized tourist trap full of drunk Aussie backpackers and locals out for every penny they can possibly get out of you. I’d like to think that there are other places in Indonesia that are nicer than this.

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