My previous visit to Bali was, to be honest, a bit shit. Despite having an awesome group of friends from around the world staying in the same budget hotel for the 6 weeks I was camped there, waiting for spare parts and repairing the bike, I came away with the impression that Bali is not ‘Indonesia’. Being trapped in and around Kuta with an unreliable motorcycle was the problem, not Bali. Coming out of the sparsely populated parts of eastern Indonesia, where most people still live a largely subsistence lifestyles and foreigners are few and far between, hotels costing up to 200 times what I’d been paying elsewhere and the immaculately paved Legian Street that clashes with the semi chaotic traffic weaving along it, felt like some kind of dreamscape. Presiding over everything are the golden arches of the infamous fast-food chain that acts as more of a safe haven to most foreigners than foreign embassies. Needless to say, I left Bali with a rather sour taste in my mouth.
Now, I like to believe that most things in the world are good, whether it be people, cultures or places. While it’s not always the case, I usually try to give the world a fair opportunity to prove its ‘goodness’ to me. So when the opportunity came up to go back to Bali again, I said, “fuck it, why not”.
This time things would be a little simpler though; no more big motorcycles, or half a tonne of gear to carry around. Just 7 days on a rented Honda Vario 125cc scooter, two up with a small backpack each. This meant camera gear needed to be downsized too. So any drop in quality of the photos I am now blaming on having only a 50mm prime lens for the DSLR and my phone camera.
Even the toolkit got downsized on this trip
Naturally our first stop was Kuta, as that’s where aeroplane land, and it was quickly back to the same old, same old; drunk Australians stumbling down the narrow Jalan Poppies 1 and 2, or entire families wearing Bintang singlets on their 27th family holiday to Bali. Once we cleared the 2hr long line at immigration (a new experience for me as I’d only ever come in via ferry previously) and were out of the recently renovated, and admittedly quite beautiful airport, I couldn’t help but smile at the familiar sights and smells of Indonesia. We only spent one night in Kuta to stock up on supplies; a map, a scooter and a couple of beers with some old friends, one of which happens to build the fastest Harleys in SE Asia. My travelling companion for the trip was also more than happy to move on after we discovered that my level of acceptable accommodation was somewhat below what she was comfortable with. From here on in it was fancy hotels for everyone!
The view from one of the hotels that I didn’t choose
Heading north, we began to find that a lot of places we wanted to visit were closed as we had inadvertently arrived at the start of the 10 day long Hindu festivals of Galungan and Kuningan celebrating the triumph of good over evil. While disappointing that so many places were closed for the holiday, the benefit was that the Balinese were out in force, riding scooters in full traditional dress, bringing offerings and prayers to the many temples that are a dominant feature of rural Bali. Even the smallest village has at least one ornate stone and brick Hindu temple, which, due to the celebrations, were all were freshly decorated with red, yellow and white parasols, each colour with its own significance. Most houses also have their own personal shrine, usually decorated with yellow lengths of cloth to bring wisdom and prosperity, while affording the shrine a certain amount of protection from evil spirits.
With flowers playing such a prominent role in Balinese religious practices, flower farms are a common sight
The celebrations weren’t just restricted to the temples though. Many of the streets were lined with long, arching lengths of bamboo, known as Penjor, decorated with young coconut leaves intricately folded into complex shapes and patterns. Small shrines with offerings of fruit, rice, flowers, traditional cakes and Chinese coins are attached near the base of the bamboo pole, while more decorative coconut leaf origami hangs above the narrow roads like chandeliers. The Hindu majority population is out in force too as they “balik kampong” (go back to their village) by scooter to visit family for the holiday, oversizes hiking packs on their backs, or dressed in full traditional garb as they carry offerings to the nearby temples.
Penjor lining the street of a small village in the foothills of one of Bali’s northern volcanos
Some groups of devotees visiting the temples are large, they cause a higher than usual level of traffic chaos in the surrounding streets on their way to a fro. Everyone wears the traditional Payas Madya; a folded headband (Udeng or Destar, symbolising the need to control thought) and collared shirt in white with a traditional batik sarong wrapped around the waist for the men, while the women are dressed beautifully in sheer lace blouses (kebaya) over a wide sash wound around the body from the hips to the chest (a sabuk) while another sash (senteng) pulls the kebaya in tight at the waist.
A Balinese woman wearing traditional Payas Madya adds her offering to the growing pile of Canang Sari
Temple entrances are piled high with offerings of Canang Sari (which translates to “the essence of beautiful purpose”) that are square containers of folded coconut palm leaves, filled with betel leaf, lime, gambier, tobacco and betel nuts to represent the three incarnations of the Hindu gods. Roses, jasmine, frangipanis and orchids are laid on top and oriented with the points of the compass add colour to the offering, while the sweet smell of incense sticks waft throughout the streets of Bali. Beyond the piles of Canang Sari, sit stone temple guards; demons carved from black volcanic rock, wrapped in black and white chequered cloth to represent balance in the world; good and evil, men and women, light and dark and all dualism in general. The temples themselves are made of the same stone, so readily available in Indonesia with its positioning in the ring of fire, and are beautiful complexes with older foundations of red handmade bricks still visible beneath the roofs of tightly bundled, black palm fibres that keep the monsoonal rains from damaging intricately carved and painted woodwork structures.
A stone demon guards the entrance to Pura Besakih
Most temples are amazing to visit, like Pura Panarajon, which sits atop a mountain and provides views of the valley below when not obscured by low clouds. An unplanned visit there found it full of devotees, all super friendly, happy to answer even the dumbest questions or just spend time with us in return for a little politeness and respect. In the open courtyard, an abridged version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana took place, accompanied by live gamelan music. While Hanuman defeats Ravana, temple guards explain the significance of wearing flowers behind the ear and sticking grains of rice to the forehead or neck; flowers symbolising sincerity and purity, only to be worn when a good mood, and rice as a blessing from the gods. With the temple rising above our backs on terraces carved into the mountain and ancient stories re-enacted in front of us against a backdrop of white clouds drifting silently above the valley below, the importance of religion in the lives of the Balinese becomes evident. As the demon Ravana chases spectators, groups of children scatter, running over each other as they flee in terror to the safety of their mothers sarongs where they wipe clean tear stained cheeks; this man dressed in a mask and faux fingernails may as well have been a real demon as far as they were concerned.
Two Balinese boys watch an abridged version of the Ramayana
Unfortunately, the tourist influx to the island has tainted other temples, in particular Pura Besakih, or The Mother Temple, the most important temple in Bali, perched on the southern slopes of Mt Agung, which is itself believed to be a replica (or even fragment, depending on who you talk to) of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe in Hindu belief. A visit to this most holy of places is far from spiritual. It starts with the entrance fee that all vehicles pay, which is ok. Young girls renting compulsory sarongs at the entrance then try to charge more than the price of a new sarong. Being led around by an official temple guide is nice and kind of informative, but looses its charm when his voluntary services include demanding a voluntary donation as you’re leaving. While that sounds fair, donating the equivalent of an average Indonesians daily wage was countered by “Oh, is that all? The other Australians donated a lot more than that. I think you should too”. Then the kids at the front gate try to fleece you of a little more money for the flowers that they “gifted” to you on your way in. relative to the cost of living in Indonesia, Pura Besakih quickly becomes an expensive place to visit. Combined with the attitude of entitlement displayed there that is in stark contrast to the hospitable nature of Indonesians in general, the experience of visiting a 2000 year old site is somewhat ruined. On the other hand, when almost 75% of the 110 000 visitors its gets every year are rich foreigners, you can’t really blame the locals for trying to get a little extra out of our fat wallets, but I know I wont be returning there anytime soon.
A family group prays together at Pura Besakih
On the subject of places to avoid, Tanah Lot, while being more regulated and less prone to overpriced services and hidden costs, is still super overcrowded and kind of unattractive. Despite being somewhat unique, the busloads of visitors squealing about the waves and taking 4 million selfies ruins any atmosphere that the temple might have. If you really feel the need for a temple fix, best to search for lesser known and in slightly more remote temples.
Pura Tanah Lot in all its touristy glory
Back on the roads, the Indonesians continue to do their chaotic yet super polite driving thing, which is quite comfortable to ride in once you get used to it. The most dangerous thing on the roads are probably the Indonesian girls dressed in their Payas Madya, riding side-saddle on the back of a scooter on what passes for a road in some parts of Indonesia. Distracting can only begin to describe these girls as beautiful smiles flash beneath almond shaped eyes and high cheekbones as we pass them on winding mountain roads as the landscape alternates between the deep green of terraced rice paddies, wooden villages, darkened from weathering and thick sections of jungle. The Indonesian men do their best to impress too, usually by carrying loads that break the laws of physics on the back of their little scooters and making it look completely natural.
Making a delivery of tyres or doing some hardcore long distance riding?
The tourist trail leads us to Lovina Beach and its infamous dolphin pod. I’ve been lucky enough to swim and surf with dolphins while growing up in Australia so I wasn’t as interested in dolphins as much as I was the fancy hotel that we stayed in, but it was one of the must see sights for my travel companion. The great big pool, massive air conditioned room and restaurant only metres from the water was almost good enough that I could get used to it, as long as someone else was paying. The dolphin tour was pretty straight forward, starting spectacularly at 5am, as we walked out of the room, past the pool, through the empty restaurant and down onto the beach where a 6m long fibreglass canoe with bamboo outriggers was lightly beached on the black volcanic sand. Heading out into the broad bay in the predawn glow, the odd piece of rubbish floated by us in the smooth, steely grey water as we chatted with the captain, a young Balinese man squatting on the back of the boat, one hand on controlling the outboard motor as his eyes scanned the horizon for signs of the ocean-bound mammals. Clouds just beyond the horizon in the east turn the rising sun into beams of light overhead but are soon forgotten as the pod is spotted for the first time. The small outboard engine screams frantically as we weave between the only other boats on the water; more canoes, the same design as our, but filled cast nets, rods, handlines and high-powered lights hanging over the side of the boat to attract squid by night.
Early morning search for dolphins
As the one man crews of these working boats are packing up for the day, two other tourist laden boats join us in the chase, and despite my apprehension about doing touristy things, the small size of the crowd on the water is relaxing. The sun, now a golden orb rising above the clouds in the east, casts long, yellow shadows across the north coast of Bali, as bluish smoke rises from early morning fires amongst the treed volcanic slopes. The small waves on the calm ocean catch the suns rays, like hot sparks appearing momentarily on the surface of the sea, as sleek grey bodies rise suddenly up out of the dark water, only to slide back beneath the waves with barely a splash, adding a touch of beautiful unpredictability to an otherwise still landscape. Completely lost in the moment, I barely even realise that more and more tourist filled outriggers are amassing, their occupants seemingly more intent on pointing cheap cameras at, than enjoying the scene. In no time we have gone from a small handful of boats to more than 50, all jockeying for position whenever the dolphins make an appearance, the sound of poorly maintained outboard motors drowning out everything else. The magic of those private early morning sightings is soon gone, so we opt to head back to dry land before the experience is spoiled altogether. As we motor away from the larger fleet that turn like a herd of panicked sheep towards the next dolphin sighting, I can’t help but be concerned about the effect of having that many boats on the dolphins natural instincts.
The first pod of dolphins breaks the surface of the water near Lovina Beach
By this stage I had been deemed unfit to make decisions on matters concerning accommodation, so I was tasked with planning the route, and seeing as this wasn’t my bike and good roads bore me, I began looking for routes made up of only the smallest lines on the map. While this strategy usually results in reaching some of the most interesting places, it also leads to some interesting predicaments. Such was the case with a small loop that runs along the side of a volcano, a necessary detour to avoid a lot of boring trunk road. Despite being marked on the map as being the same quality as the tarred roads, it quickly deteriorated into a track paved with rough volcanic rock, which gave way to red soil turned to slippery clay by the rain. Sheltering in a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere, we had a homemade coffee while deciding whether or no to continue, as a coffee roasting contraption made of an electric motor running through a couple of old bicycle wheel reduction gears slowly rotating a hand made steel drum, filled with locally grown coffee beans over a wood fire hummed and rattled away in the background. I was impressed enough that I bought half a kilogram of ground coffee from them for $2 (which I happen to be drinking as I write this).
A home made coffee roasting machine
While deliberating on whether we should proceed or not, a group of motocross rider came flying past the shack, off-road tires kicking up mud as they went, obviously a challenge to see if we could follow, so we mounted up, determined to show them that you don’t need knobby tyres and long travel suspension to have fun! The prospect of ever seeing those guys again was soon forgotten about as the little tyres started slipping and sliding around all over the place and I became rather thankful that the locals living high up on that volcano had taken the time to lay down narrow concrete paths up the steepest of the hills we were about to encounter. Without them there would have been a lot more walking and pushing of the little automatic scooter and muddying of boots.
Out of the mud and back onto rough, stony roads that were wonderfully tractable, we took a moment to rest our battered arses; one thing the little Honda was lacking is suspension travel. We soon got talking with a group of elderly women, busily separating harvested rice grains from their brown stalks on a dry rice terrace near the road. Initially the conversation was a little one sided, the ladies somewhat uncertain of our intents or reason for being in an area that sees little to no tourist traffic. In an attempt to break the ice I asked them about the bags of rice they were filling, how much they weigh and how they manage to carry the 40kg back to the house. On their head, of course was the response. It seemed incredulous that these little old ladies could manage 40kg on their heads, so I offered to carry one myself. Naturally they said yes; after all, who doesn’t want to see a white man in Bali doing some work for a change, and it would be one less bag that they have to carry too.
A woman sorts rice from the husk in a roadside rice paddy
It turns out 40kg is a lot of weight to sit on your head, so I opted for not breaking my neck, carrying it instead on my shoulder towards the little house they had directed me to while they all laughed. Closer to the opening in the high, vine covered fence surrounding the cottage, I spied another old couple, both of them bare from the waist up, the wife drawing water from a well while her husband looked at me in surprise. I paused briefly, not knowing if my presence was welcomed, my western sense of decency telling me that a half naked lady means they may not be prepared for visitors. Frozen in the entrance to their little cottage, with a heavy bag of rice on one shoulder, I waited for the scolding I was about to receive from her husband and expected her to run off covering herself in the process. It was with a mix of shock and relief when the two of them started laughing along with the others in the field, clapping her hands and coming over to show me where to put it. The old couple even followed me back out into the field to stand bare breasted in the rice fields, laughing along with the other women. I had become something other than the standard run-of-the-mill tourist, interested only in taking photos and buying trinkets. They became a part of traditional Balinese culture that now only survives in small, isolated pockets of the island, amongst an older generation of women who grew up in a time before the western ideal of modesty was introduced. Standing there in the fields, so comfortable and naturally was a beautiful thing to see and upsetting that parts of the culture are being lost and forgotten.
40Kg bags of rice usually carried on the head of the women surrounding me
The highlight of this little adventure, as always, was a long way from the fancy hotels and hordes of tourists. It wasn’t even riding between the roots of an ancient fig tree or riding on Bali’s new bypass road/bridge; it was Gunung Batur, an active volcano in north of the island, just to the west of Mt. Agung. Apart from the standard draw card of being a spectacular place to watch the sun rise over Lombok from, Mt Batur has a few other surprises. Off the main road, it’s a steep and crumbling track littered with loose sand and stone that leads down from the west rim of the outer crater into the sand sea that leads to the foot of the smaller inner crater. The road skirts around to the south through the black sands, gradually getting squeezed between the jagged, uneven black wall of a solidified lava and the sheer outer crater wall. Eventually the road is forced up into the barren lava field where otherworldly structures, thrust up from when the stone was still molten, fill the horizon from the east to the west, dwarfed only by the immense face of the outer crater to the south and the looming presence of the smoking Mt Batur to the north that dominates the landscape. Despite the well marked track, a complete lack of life and the accompanying silence that blankets the lava flow gives a sense of total isolation.
Riding the little honda through the most recent lava flow on Bali that appeared in 1968
Further east, the volcano holds a morbid surprise near the village of Trunyan, a village now partially flooded after the most recent earthquake caused the level of the crater lake to rise by over 2 metres. Accessible only by boat, a small wooden pontoon floats in front of an opening in the forest on the steep slopes of the outer crater. Amongst the undergrowth sits a large tree that is the focus of the local beliefs; that it can absorb the smell of the rotting corpses laying on the bare soil nearby. Regardless of what the locals believe, there is a definite stench in the air that emanates from amongst the household items and kitchen utensils spilling from woven baskets scattered across the forest floor. It’s probably not as bad as what I imagine a rotting human corpse to smell like, but its still no rose garden (and besides, I probably smell worse after a few days on the bike without a proper shower).
With only enough space for 10 deceased bodies at the site, old remains are cleared on an as-required basis; the oldest skeletons, having been picked clean of flesh, are unceremoniously raked off to the side to join the growing pile of bones that have begun to form a retaining wall of sorts on the sloping ground. The skulls, some with blackened, leathery skin still clinging in places, are meticulously stacked one atop the other on a wide stone alter. Closer inspection of the loosely woven bamboo tents that cover the rotting bodies reveals photographs hung near the feet of the corpses which have been wrapped in blankets, leaving only their heads exposed.
Skulls of the deceased stacked nearby fresh bodies. Our guides relatives were emplaced here but he didn’t know which remains were theirs
Behind the open slats of the bamboo tents, the bloated and sagging face of somebodies loved one, lips now peeled back over yellowing teeth, while lichen turning the once brown skin a mottled patchwork of green and white while sunken eyes stare blankly at the forest canopy. This cemetery is for those who are married and that die of natural causes, but is only one of three open-air cemeteries that the residents of Trunyan get buried in; the others are reserved for those that meet a violent or unnatural death or for children and unmarried adults.
The corpse of a woman laid to rest 3.5 weeks before this photo was taken
And so ended my reconciliation adventure in Bali, which I flew away from with a sense of regret at not having more time to explore, a stark contrast to the last time, when I was happy to just be gone. Its nice to find that parts of Bali are still relatively unexplored and undamaged by the influx of demanding, selfish tourists that Kuta other parts of the island have experienced. It also showed that bigger is not always better when it comes to bikes; the little Honda was so much more nimble, fuel efficient and far less physically demanding than a large bike that I’d recommend to anyone overlanding through Indonesia to park up that monstrosity of an overlander that you might have, and rent a small bike for $5-$7/day. You’ll probably save yourself that much in petrol and tire wear anyway, and have a lot more fun to boot.