Ubud, the Spiritual and Cultural Heart of Bali
Mention Bali and most Australian’s will think of Kuta, which the Lonely Planet even describes as “the vulgar Oz ghetto not actually found in Australia”. Where drunks on mopeds speed dangerously through the smelly, narrow lanes of rampant over development, tacky shops, crass pubs and cheap hotels surrounding Kuta beach, which is good for sunsets and learning how to surf, but overall Bali’s most popular tourist destination lacks the spirituality and peace that I was looking for.
Kuta is an example of tourism gone horribly wrong but escape Kuta and Bali is once again beautiful where the enchanting culture is remarkably resilient considering the 2.5 million tourists Bali receives each year.
Luckily there’s so much more to Bali…
This little tropical island also has wonderful diversity and a visit here can be whatever you want it to be. From luxurious villas, to lively night life, to laid back beaches. Diving, dancing or dining, temples to trekking, surfing or spiritual retreats are all possible in Bali.
Bali offers delights both in the water and on the verdant land. Luscious mountains, waterfalls, traditional villages and green rice field terraces dominate the interior while the majestic cone of Gunung (Volcano) Angung presides with a god like presence over the whole island while waves crash creating epic surf breaks around the temple topped cliffs of the Bukit Peninsular.
In genteel Sanur you can stroll the beach front walk among the cafes and laid back golden beaches where multi coloured Jukung (traditional fishing boats) bob in the shallows or relax on the white sands and snorkel the fringing coral reefs on Nusa Lembongan or the Gili Islands. While in the North and East of the island the mellow, black sand beaches of Amed and Lovina offer a chance to relax and escape the crowds.
Eat Pray Love in Ubud
Ubud was made famous as the spiritual hub of Bali by the popular book and film – Eat Pray Love. Having seen the film I had high expectations for Ubud, alas the center has become quite busy and touristy so those visiting on a day trip may not understand what all the fuss is about, but take some time and you can still experience the cultured, artistic, spiritual Ubud by walking through the rice fields, taking in stunning rice terrace views, admiring Balinese paintings, watching a traditional dance, practicing yoga, relaxing with a Balinese massage and listening to traditional gamelan music, the soundtrack of Bali.
For me, the omnipresent, enchanting, ancient temples and the culture, religions, traditions and hospitality that is uniquely Balinese make the island of Bali such a paradise.
This ‘island of the gods’ has a unique culture all of it’s own, a Hindu enclave very different to the rest of Muslim dominated Indonesia – the largest Muslim population in the world and the 4th most populace country in the world.
The Hindu society here is the only one left in South East Asia and the religion differs from that found and practiced in India. Hinduism in Bali still has a strong focus on animism and a belief in the good and bad spirits, and positive and negative forces, that are omnipresent in the world. Religious activity still permeates almost every aspect of Balinese life, so much so that religious events apparently occupy a third of the average Balinese social calender.
Daily life is still dominated by the rituals. Enchanting little offerings called canang are made from banana leaves for the gods appear all over Bali every morning, in every nook and cranny and on every weathered statue. Each canang is different. I’m told that all that matters is that what ever you offer comes from the heart. Holy water is sprinkled on the offering and incense lit to let the deity know to come and get the offering.
Offerings are even tossed across the pavements and the beach as even the demons and bad spirits can also be appeased with offerings. The smell of sandalwood incense fills the air wafting up from ancient statues of mythical creatures wrapped in cloths sheltering under elaborate umbrellas.
Completing the magic are the the penyor (ornamental bamboo poles) bowed down with garlands of flowers that wave in the breeze arching over the roads always pointing the the volcano Gunung Agung that is revered, feared and respected in equal measures.
The Island of a Thousand Temples
Every house has it’s own temple shrine – this is why Bali is called the ‘Island of a Thousand Temples’ but this is still a massive understatement. You would be extremely unlucky, even only on a weeks holiday, to miss a temple festival or ceremony. Each of the 20,000 temples of Bali holds an annual festival to entertain the gods with processions, offerings, traditional dances and cock fights.
Witness the Balinese in their beautiful traditional dress of sarongs, sashs and head cloths called udeng; a kaleidescope of colours perched on mopeds swerving through the evening congestion. Thronging to the temple laden with offerings upon their heads trying to avoid the cheeky monkeys.
Despite the natural beauty, the real magic of this island lies within the Balinese, who approach everything with a smile, faith and good grace, illuminating this beautiful island with an ever present spirit that is what makes Bali so special.
To see more Reflections from Bali in the Huffington Post