When you think of Bali, you immediately daydream of gorgeous beaches, bikini clad chicks, surfers, lush jungles and Instagram snapshots of Kuta parties and infinity pools. Well, the real Bali is not too far from that image. Even though tourists make up 1% of the island’s population, it is actually quite difficult to get away from them. Of course, it depends on where you go, and we were able to find many spots without hordes of crowds.
The average tourist is European or Asian, we encountered a few Americans. Whenever anyone (Balinese or tourist) asked where we came from, we always started off with “Puerto Rico”. After the look of bewilderment, we followed it up with “it’s in the Caribbean sea”. Again, the ponderous looks. Ok, America. Ah, YES! America! And then that was the end of the conversation. On one occasion, we had an Australian ask why all Americans tell foreigners what state they are from, rather than just saying America. What an interesting and true statement. I usually always tell people Texas, but that is just because Texans are a proud bunch.
We spent our first 6 days in central Bali and this was definitely the part of the island to experience true Balinese culture. We started off at the monkey forest of Sangeh, shown in the photos above. Our hosts suggested this monkey temple as opposed to the one in Ubud, where the monkeys tend to be rather aggressive towards people. We found these guys to be relatively indifferent to our presence, unless we had peanuts. A few of them were quite interested in the cameras though.
Next we were off to one to visit a legendary water temple Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. This temple is the primary holy temple for all the rice farmers in Bali. It sits on Lake Bratan, which supplies water to the subak irrigation system in Bali. There are several water temples throughout the island, and gods for every element and aspect of life. One interesting thing we discovered is that Bali is the only Indonesian island that is Hindu, the rest are Muslim.
I expected to observe the same Hindu customs that I witnessed and experienced in India, and although many things were similar, these lifestyles and traditions were very different. Western clothes were the norm, except when dressing up for special religious or holy occasions. Offerings were placed out every morning, meticulously observing the ritual for each shrine and family temple. Offerings were placed at the front of warungs and street vendors, offerings were left in the middle of the streets, or on the sidewalks. I many times found fresh offerings randomly in the rice terraces, or on shrines hidden and overgrown by the tall grasses in what seemed like a completely forgotten locale.
The attention to detail is what set central Bali apart from the coasts. In the center, real Balinese life goes unhindered or bothered by tourists. Unfamiliar faces are welcome, but life moves about in a manner that is completely unobstructed by our presence. Offerings are created with slow, methodical purpose. Buildings are clean, shoes are not allowed inside, the family temple is respected and honored. On the coasts, the livelihoods cater to tourists, so someone is always calling out to sell you trinkets, or people are always trying to offer you taxi services, or usher you inside their shops. Boutique hotels are built on previously occupied Balinese grounds, and family temples are offered only a faint glimpse by the waitstaff. Of course, not every place is exactly like this, but the differences were not subtle. However, there were certainly aspects of the island that we loved in both locations.
I’ll continue to share about this amazing month long journey over the next several weeks! I hope it inspires some wanderlust, but perhaps also sheds a new perspective on Bali from the eyes of two Caribbean “islanders”.