Bali, Part 2: A Place of Culture

The Lure of the Sunset
Photo by the author
As our Toyota MPV crept uphill, the landscape suddenly transformed into what seemed like a completely separate world from the bustle and hustle of Nusa Dua. Our vehicle took a turn off the smooth pavement to the parking lot. I thought we were the only ones going into this secret place. But when we got there, the lot was full of tour buses and MPVs (Multi-purpose Vehicle – a type of rental car common in Bali). An entire town, it seemed, was there to watch the sunset. Our driver/guide told us that when visiting a temple in Bali we had to wear modest clothing or dress appropriately. He pointed towards the entrance for us to pay (sort of rental) for sarongs and sashes. One of my traveling companions had to wear a sarong over his shorts. I wore a sash around my waist.

We quickly ascended into a walkway where we were greeted by monkeys. We continued on and followed a foot path towards the edge of the cliff. Looking westward, there was nothing to block our view. The ocean looked infinite. Looking down, I could see the deep blue sea, the waves and the gentle breaks.
Photo by the author
Perched on steep limestone cliffs some hundred feet above the ocean was the temple of Uluwatu.

As I made my way to the top, I was greeted by hundreds and hundreds of dragonflies. I was snapping my camera when suddenly I saw a monkey trying to snatch someone’s camera. Our driver/guide, who was letting us explore the place on our own, suddenly ran towards us and warned us to watch our stuff from the naughty monkeys who inhabit the place. He said, “They are capable of stealing anything they could get their hands on.” After taking photos of the temple and the surrounding views, we proceeded to the open-air auditorium for the Kecak dance.


The Lure of Strange Music
We got there some 5 minutes before sundown and just made it to the Kecak or ‘monkey dance’ performance. The crowd already gathered and seated in the open auditorium. The performance was about to begin. As we drew closer, I saw a small fire began stirring in the middle of the open-air auditorium. Just as we got ushered to our plastic seats (which were added for late comers), I started to hear ‘chak, chak, chak’ chanting. http://youtu.be/sBx-ls0HYsQ

The chanting grew louder and louder until finally men dressed in sarong, with red hibiscus behind their ears, swarmed onto the open-air auditorium. The men sat cross-legged, encircling the fire in the middle. The men stood, reached, squatted and always chanting ‘chak, chak, chak”. The ‘chak, chak, chak’ was broken only by the appearance of a beautiful woman dancing, a monkey general, a magic bird, dancing women, and pantomime-style clown who startled the audience by jumping into their seats. I was preoccupied filming the sunset during the performance that the chanting provided a dramatic soundtrack for my film. The program guide told us that it was a five-act play about the story of Sita, the beautiful wife of the God Rama, and her abductor, Ravana, the lustful demon. It was a play with no artificial backdrop and no instrumentation, just an incessant ‘chak, chak, chak…” The final act was accompanied by a blazing bonfire. I was amazed by the man who jumped on the fire with his bare feet.


According to Wilford Welch, a former US Diplomat to Asia, and now leads a cross-cultural journey organization, “Dance and music performances are ubiquitous in Bali, daily happenings and planned or spontaneous. They are part of their social and spiritual life to please the deities and ancestral spirits.”

I thought the performance that night was mainly staged for tourists. But I sure was mesmerized by the performance with the sunset and natural setting as backdrop.

Ubud - The Center for Culture
Ubud and its surrounding villages are cradled in the folds of rice-fields and rice-terraces and rolling greens in Bali’s northeast; a place of history and culture, open doors and warm welcomes. The city has its origins in the 8th century, according to Wikipedia, “when a Javanese priest, Rsi Markendya, who meditated at the confluence of two rivers (an auspicious site for Hindus) at the Ubud locality of Campuan founded the Gunung Lebah Temple on the valley floor.” Ubud remains a pilgrim destination for holistic seekers and artists.

Although a town of immense history, Ubud is far from being an open air museum of temples and Balinese architecture. Ubud is green, alive and vibrant, educational, cultural and commercial. Famed for its history as Bali’s center for culture and arts, artwork is integrated into the aesthetic appeal of the place (mostly for tourists). The most popular tourist attraction is the monkey forest and temples.

I was not privileged to see those spontaneous dances and music that occurred during festivals, and was not able to witness a religious ceremony or rituals to enjoy the sound or the smell of incense. But I got to admire plenty of artwork in Ubud and surrounding villages from visiting wood carving shops and temples.
The temple at Batuan village near Ubud was hard to miss. It was accessible from the main road. There was a sign before the portal to tell a visitor that it’s one of the oldest temples that dates from 1022 AD (944). We entered the gate, a very ornate portal, to the central courtyard. I was struck by the intricate designs on the temple walls.   In front of the courtyard was the main temple. The courtyard was surrounded by smaller buildings/temples that served different purposes: building that housed the gong and other musical instruments, bale building, ornament building, building that housed the statues.   On the right side of the main temple, I saw smaller but very ornate temples topped with golden statuettes.

We entered a narrow path to the back of the main temple. There we saw a building that housed stone statues, and a pond. The pond had portals that looked very ancient. The lotus plants and flowers floating on the pool surface gave the place a serene atmosphere. On the opposite side was a narrow path that led to a doorway that seemed to be cut from the temple wall. I went through the doorway to find a building used for cockfights. Since I was not privileged to witness a religious ceremony or festival, I could only imagine the sights, the sounds and smell of incense during a religious festival. After the visit to the temple, I saw a sarong dance performance that was mainly staged for tourists.

TRAVEL TIP:
Many people do come to Ubud and the villages in the surrounding area to visit the monkey forest and temples. To appreciate this cultural capital of Bali, I would recommend on reading up about the place before your visit. Or checkout this website: http://www.monkeyforestubud.com/temple.html
Plan on visiting Bali during festival dates in order to see and enjoy those spontaneous dances and music.

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