It was a lunch date I knew no other could ever live up to. The bar had been set quite high; 1,500 metres above sea level, to be precise. Seated on a gangway perched atop a steep promontory, I gazed at the tall, dark (green) and handsome vista of Mount Batur opposite me, rising above misty clouds. This rendezvous – set against the backdrop of a lush forest carpeting a 30,000-year-old crater, the hide-n-seek sparkle of the distant Danau Batur Lake at its edge – was undoubtedly what romantics would label as one-of-a-kind. After all, how many times in a lifetime could I sup a few thousand feet away from an active volcanic mountain?
So far, counting my whistle-stop tour of the breathtakingly beautiful tropical island of Bali; once.
Batur Sari restaurant offers a head-spinning view of a volcano, lush forest and lake.
Four hours into my first day here and I had already scaled Kintamani (after photo stops at the marooned Tanah Lot sea temple), this Indonesian island’s popular mountain region. And how well-deserved it was of that popularity. A cluster of villages stacked on the forested ridge of a volcanic caldera, the highest point here is Penelokan. The peak offers an unhindered panorama of the active Mount Batur volcano in all its awe. That’s what keeps business pumping and the tourists flowing in its many middling eateries. Looking around at the 70-odd people seated around me across the Batur Sari restaurant’s raised gazebos and overhanging balconies, it was obvious we weren’t here for a mediocre buffet. Our eyes and hearts were entranced by the majestic mountain’s contours, shadows and reliefs. You wouldn’t believe it, but that gentle giant spewed fire and brimstone as recently as year 2000. The thrill of the volcano’s unpredictable volatility is a selling-point our smiling waitress peddled. ‘Anything can happen’, she quipped with an impish grin, leaving us with shivers down our spine and a plate of delicious satay lilit (skewered chicken with sticky rice) on our table. And given that Bali is precariously located in the earthquake and volcanic-eruption prone ‘Ring of Fire’, anything could definitely happen.
‘Aren’t you afraid of falling?’, asked Harti Hadisoem – the representative of travel agency Explore The Wonder and my chaperon throughout my two-day trip – her voice laced with trepidation as I swung my legs over the iron railing, leaning to drink in the sun-drenched sights as a howling wind rattled the bars.
‘Not at all,’ I said. The only risk I ran was of falling head over heels in love with the island of love.
Every second person I mention my visit to Bali to and who I meet on the island after the nine-hour long flight from Dubai to Ngurah Rai Airport, in the Balinese capital of Denpasar, acknowledge Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love for Bali’s romantic label. Another thing everyone agrees unanimously on is it’s impossible to explore all the glories of Bali in two nights and a day.
While our ever-smiling guide, Dewa, takes up the latter as a challenge, crafting a choc-a-bloc itinerary for me, he has no qualms acquiescing to the first notion. ‘When you get married, you must come here for honeymoon. Like Julia Roberts’, he insists, referring to the 2010 film adaptation.
Bali is full of contrasts, a place where traditional art and terraced rice fields co-exist superbly with luxurious five-star hotels such as Kartika Plaza.
He’s not the only one either to market this scenic isle’s colourful beaches (white due to limestone south and black in the northern volcanic region) as the abode of R&R: romance and relaxation. Stepping into the five-star Discovery Kartika Plaza Hotel – my home for the trip in the beach resort hub of Kuta – the previous night, I had a taste of the fairy-tale setting hotels here offer visitors. A melange of urban polish and classical Balinese elegance, we had stepped into a sanctuary of marbled pillars and floors, carved wood and thatched gazebos, but what took the cake was the sculptured pool sprawling across the hotel’s courtyard. Ornamented with giant fish figurines, picturesque bridges and quaint koi ponds weaving around paved, manicured lawns that opened out on the private beach, the place could have cynics wax lyrical. It definitely won me over with the splendour of the deluxe ocean-view room.
Decked in dark wood and exotic Balinese paintings of mythological characters, the carved balcony door was as exquisite as the view it opened to: a landscaped garden stretching out into the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean. My first night in Bali, I slept to an exotic lullaby of rustling coconut fronds, the rhythmic lapping of waves and the saccharine scent of frangipani flowers.
It’s this unique juxtaposition of old and new, commercial and cultural, paddy fields and barren limestone quarries, ancient temples and contemporary hotels – ying and yang , if you will – that defined the rest of my Bali sojourn. Not to mention the omnipresent fragrance of frangipanis that permeates every nook and corner of the island, as do its 20,000 shrines, earning it the epithet of the ‘island of thousand temples’.
Shreeja might have been overdressed for the beach, but she and her batik sarong fit right in with the traditional kecuk and barong dancers.
A walk through Kuta’s lanes the previous night and early morning revealed the bustling suburb’s two-faced identity: by day when the surf’s up this golden stretch of the coast is an epitome of laid-back island life. The beaches are strewn with shorts-wearing Australian surfers (looking at them it strikes me Australia is a mere three hours away), backpacking gap-year students, sunbathing tourists, locals hawking coconut water, batik shirts, on-the-beach massages, even hair-braiding services (it’s a great way to tame frizzy tresses in the humid weather) and the occasional unsuspecting journalist who finds herself inappropriately overdressed amongst them all, roasting under Bali’s blazing sun.
By night the lifeblood spills over from the beaches to the narrow lanes flanked on either side by a jumble of haphazardly assembled glitzy hotels (a surge of tourism in the Eighties led to unplanned development), cool shack pubs, a dime-a-dozen massage parlours and cutting-edge seafood restaurants where the music is loud, seating is preferably al fresco and time is inconsequential. Saunter further down into Kuta’s extension and the music rises to ear-splitting decibels, the warm lights flash fluorescent and neon and the nocturnal crowd grows larger in the small hours. Welcome to the neighbourhood of Legian, the pulsing centre of Bali’s nightlife that put it on the same pedestal as party capitals Ibiza and Miami.
Just as I was convinced Bali was a hedonistic resort hub teeming with creature comforts and decadence, Harti and Dewa parcel me off in a mini-van to Ubud, Bali’s cultural and artistic motherlode. This is Julia Roberts’ Bali in Eat Pray Love, I’m told.
Over the one-and-a-half-hour journey I can see why: the landscape around us changes like a flipbook in reverse; brick-and-mortar structures and tarred roads regress to sinuous, mountainous dirt tracks overhung by canopies of jackfruit and mango trees, and terraced paddy fields combed by gentle winds. No wonder then renowned painters such as the Spaniard Antonio Blanco and Mexican Walter Spies lived, died and found their muse in this poetic relic that feels like you’ve stepped back in time and into one of Bali’s mythological legends. And it’s a concerted effort of the government to keep it so, with laws that prohibit touristic constructions in the northern regions.
Nestled in the foothills of volcanic Mt Batur and fed by nutrient-rich lava over centuries, Dewa explains to me how this is a fertile ground for crops and artistic talent. Farmers pushing hand-tractors and conical topi sawah hats on their heads indicate the agricultural fertility, but it’s the graffiti-splattered, paint-flecked walls of traditional brick houses that’s my first glimpse of Ubud’s famed painters.
Our only stops here are at the Semar Kuning artists’ cooperative – an art gallery and school. There’s a strict no-photograph policy to prevent replicas, and I’m glad that my walk through the silent white chambers of mystical watercolours, intricate portraits in oil and life-size murals of rainforests isn’t filtered through a camera lens. However, outside on the verandah I’m free to click away at the oeuvres taking life under the agile paint-smeared fingers of artists clad in udengs (headdresses) and sarongs. I could spend another hour here, but I have to finish the rest of my whirlwind itinerary.
It’s a similar scene of squatting sculptors that await me at the Malen wood-carving gallery. Chisels and hunks of blonde teak, cherry mahogany, fragrant sandalwood, two-toned hibiscus and crocodile wood (so called for its knobbly bark) are scattered about. With ever step dry saw dust and wood shavings rise around us like pixie dust. Run by the Malen family and housed in the courtyard of their traditional Balinese house (multiple courtyards, slated roofs, squawking roosters and family shrines) Dewa Malen, the young, 18-year-old sculptor brings me up to speed on his family’s artistic legacy, the complexity of the projects – which take anything from one week to three months – and their unique method of polishing finished pieces with shoeshine to retain the natural hue. Before I can say ‘ebony’, I’m whisked off to the Peliatan Royal Palace.
The Peliatan Palace, where the royal family still live.
It’s hard to demarcate where Ubud ends and the autonomous village of Peliatan begins, but as you step through the arches (marvellous feats of masonry – a must-visit for those interested in architecture) of this imperial home of the Peliatan family since the 17th century, you know you’re in the presence of royalty, literally.
The family still stays in sections of the palace closed off to visitors. It’s a trilling laughter from an inner pavilion that first alerts me to their presence and breaks the hypnotic hold the glinting gold-edged pagodas, secret gardens of lotus ponds ornamented with marble sculptures of sprites and the sneering stone gargoyles have on me. The palace worker who’s guiding us shows me a family photo of the late King Ida Dewa Agung Peliatan, the Queen and their two fragilely beautiful princesses bedecked in golden crowns and traditional jewellery. I’m clad in the obligatory sarong and sash visitors must wear before entering palaces and temples in Bali. There’s a door ajar and I surreptitiously peer through the crack, catching a glimpse of a young woman lounging in slacks.
Before I leave, one of the attendants gives me a woven basket filled with tea and sugary doughnuts called kue ketans and kukis (flour cookies). ‘This is the same as the royal family’s afternoon tea,’ she says. Who am I to decline a royal high-tea, Balinese style?
Clockwise from left: Devotees during a festival. The underground pond at Tirta Empul temple. Roasting kopi luwak – civet coffee – beans.
We’ve travelled over a 100km since leaving Kartika Plaza at 9am that morning, but our guide Dewa has two more destinations in store for me before I can call it a day. The first was the springwater temple, Tirta Empul in the village of Tampak Siring and boy, am I glad we stopped. A splash of the cold, underground spring water to soothe my sunburnt skin was just one (a tip: always carry sunscreen in Bali). Luck had it that it was a no-moon day, an auspicious time for the Hindu Balinese, and I could witness the temple festival with its colourful processions and traditional kecak and barong dances in the outer pavilion of this 962AD stone structure. It’s an overwhelming sensory experience: cymbals and drums beat and the air reverberates with the sounds of conch shell horns as tourists mill about a thronging crowd of women clad in uniform white lace tops and magenta sarongs carrying pots decorated with palm fronds, fruits and flowers. Like Kuta, it was crowded and cacophonous, but nothing could detract from the intrinsic tranquillity of the place. The last halt for the day elicited a commercial shade of cultural and conscientious Ubud.
Varieties of teas and coffees served at the BAS plantation.
The BAS Coffee plantation was a tiny local cooperative that curates Ubud’s agricultural best in farmed plots – ‘here’s a cacao tree, there’s a jackfruit, a mango and oh, here we make the world’s most expensive coffee – the Kopi Luwak ground from droppings of civet cats’. Ideally the crisp fragrance of roasting coffee beans should have one begging for a sip of freshly brewed java. But I’d witnessed the process that transformed the racoon-like animals’ poo to a cuppa joe and politely declined. For 50,000 Rupiah a cup (about Dh14) it is cheap.
What I do opt for instead is gleeful gulps of smooth coco and aromatic nectar-like pandan tea, made from a herb fundamental to Southeast Asian cooking.
Traditional snacks, klepons.
On our hour-long drive back to the Kartika Plaza, stuck in Indonesia’s notorious traffic jams, as one of Bali’s spectacular saffron sunsets puts up a show, I take stock of the day’s outing munching on juicy green klepons (boiled rice cake stuffed with palm sugar and coated in grated coconut) bought from a roadside hawker.
In the journey to and fro, I’d covered over 250km and six sites of touristic interest from the southwest of Bali to the northeast. All the while eating, finding spirituality and falling in love with some of the world’s most picturesque places.
Eat, pray, love… it’s all possible in Bali, Ms Gilbert.