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Bali: Return to Ubud, Then North to Lovina

15 January 2012

The rest of Indonesia is nothing like Bali. That’s what everyone says; I can only speak for a little part of Java, and that certainly is nothing like Bali. The obvious difference is culture (budaya): Visual arts (particularly stone and wood carving) are evident all over the island of Bali in a profusion matched by few other places in the world (Rome and Florence come to mind). That’s why I chose the photo above as the first one for this post.

Monkey Forest, Ubud. The stairs come off a bridge crossing a narrow gorge in the middle of the Monkey Forest. The two dragons, larger than a man, provide a good example of typical Balinese carving. I can’t say whether these dragons are old or (relatively) new — both stone and concrete darken in the wet, tropical climate, and a lovely pelt of moss covers anything in the shade.

The monkeys (long-tailed macaques) are the big attraction for tourists in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, but as the name indicates, there’s more here than our 537 primate cousins (that’s the number given in the current brochure).

Three different temples (in good condition) stand within the lovely forest, which is delightfully free from vendors and other humans who might want to bother you (e.g., asking if you want a taxi). Pretty much every little desa (village) on Bali has multiple separate temples (pura), some of which are used often and others only for special ceremonies, so it’s not unusual that so many temples are so close by one another.

But back to the monkeys — okay, these are real, wild monkeys. There are no fences, and certainly no cages. They are used to having hordes of tourists tramping through their forest, so they have no fear of us. Some of them jump right up onto people’s shoulders or clamber up their legs. I saw numerous people allowing this, but luckily I didn’t have to figure out how to avoid it because none of them tried to use me as a tree. One of them did make an aggressive run toward me, but I tried the old “show your teeth to ’em” trick, and it worked: he shrank back and then retreated.

Anyway, I love watching monkeys, so I spent a good two hours or so walking and watching and trying to take good photos (most of my pictures are complete blurs, because with the heavy shade the shutter is not so fast). In many parts of Asia, macaques are considered pests (just as many Americans consider squirrels to be pests), but here they are revered. If you know the basic story of the Ramayana, you know that Rama (the hero) could never have defeated Ravana (the baddest of bad guys) without the help of Sugriya, Hanuman, and their giant army of monkeys!

Close to one of the temples in the Monkey Forest, a small army of stone carvers was hard at work. Watching them addressed an important question I had: Of the zillions of statues of gods, demons, dragons, assorted animals and heroes and (yes) monkeys seen all over Bali, aren’t a lot of them actually concrete, not volcanic rock? And if they are concrete, then are they simply cast from molds?

Probably not. This man, and about 12 more like him, was working on what had been a big block of concrete. Nearby stood several new blocks, curing in the hot sun. The small cement mixer, empty and silent, awaited its next load. One man in the early stages of his work was whaling away on a raw block with a large metal mallet and a big, broad chisel, but already I could make out the shape of a crouching bear. Another man, at a much later stage than the one seen above, was polishing the rough spots with an electric burr sander. This man was doing some gentle tapping around the area where lion cub almost touched mama lion.

My Bahasa Indonesia is now passable, so that I can ask simple questions like “How long does it take?” and actually understand the answer: One week. From the untouched concrete block to a finished statue, carved by one man (no assembly line here), takes a week. In a year or two, when it’s darkened and half covered by velvety moss, I won’t be able to guess its age.

Watching these men work was much more interesting than watching the monkeys (although not nearly as amusing). In contrast to all the mass-produced so-called handicrafts churned out by workshops all over Bali, it was clear to me that the stone carvers near the graveyard in the Monkey Forest approach their work as artists. (I’ll post more photos of them on Flickr.)

Walking south of the Monkey Forest, I got to see a lot of traditional Balinese houses — well, you don’t really see the house; you see the entrance to the compound, and you get little glimpses of the assorted buildings inside. This arrangement is very typical: Two matched figures flank the main doorway, which is set into a tall gate-frame. The narrow wooden door is often wide open (the door is often elaborately carved, and sometimes brightly painted), and close inside is a stone (or concrete) statue, very often of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god (seen here).

On an all-day bicycle ride through the countryside near Ubud, I learned from our excellent guide the reason why a big statue blocks your way immediately when you enter the Balinese home through the front gate: “We believe the bad spirits cannot turn corners,” he said. So by placing the statue just inside the door, you force anyone who enters to turn, and no bad spirit will be able to come in.

Bicycling around central Bali. Ah, rice terraces. This was a roadside stop before we actually mounted our bikes. We first rode in a van (there were nine of us, plus our guide and then two sweepers who rode at the back) to breakfast in a restaurant overlooking Mount Batur (which unfortunately was completely hidden by mist).

Then we had a great tour of a garden where we saw coffee growing (both robusta and arabica beans), fruit trees, vanilla beans, ginseng, etc., and afterward had a wonderful coffee and tea tasting. I tasted the kopi luwak! That’s coffee made from beans that have been eaten — and (ahem) expelled by the Asian civet cat (see story). It’s actually quite tasty, but like Kona coffee, it doesn’t taste different enough to me to justify the premium price. I was more excited about the ginseng coffee, which tasted amazing!

I didn’t take a lot of photos on the bike ride (about 25 km, or 15.5 miles) because we had a fair bit of rain (it is the rainy season now), but it was never too heavy, and it was warm. We wore rain jackets. We rode through lots of rice fields (mostly flat, though, because the route is designed to be mostly downhill — sweet!) and several small villages. In spite of the weather, this was great fun, and I would like to do it again on a dryer day. (Contact: Bali Eco Cycling.)

I stayed five days in Ubud (at Murni’s Houses, which I liked very much), and there was one full day (and night) of heavy, heavy rain, and rain most afternoons. I knew this might happen, so I had a list of three art museums, and that’s where I went when the rain came. Ubud is known as a center for art and culture; it also has wonderful restaurants and hundreds of shops (many of which have very nice things and not the tacky “handicrafts” abundant elsewhere). It’s very walkable, and if you set out in almost any direction away from the center of town, you’ll be in the rice fields.

  • ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art): A bit out of the way on the southeast edge of Ubud, this museum has two big buildings and a very good full restaurant. Paintings are the focus here, and the big collection of early Balinese paintings gave me a good foundation for understanding how painting developed here. With all the stone and wood carving, two-dimensional painting had not really been done on Bali until Europeans introduced it in the 1930s and ’40s. The paintings reminded me of Bruegel in showing everyday Balinese life (work in the rice fields, etc.), but with a stunning amount of intricate detail.
  • Museum Neka: This is on the opposite corner of Ubud (northwest), but an easy walk from Murni’s. It has more (but smaller) buildings than ARMA (set among lovely gardens) and a wider variety of works. Again the emphasis is on paintings, but here I saw few examples of the early style. Some of the modern works are marvelous (Cattle Boys, 1991, by Putu Ngurah Wardhana); some show too much Gauguin influence for my taste.
  • Museum Puri Lukisan: On Jalan Raya Ubud, about two minutes’ walk from Monkey Forest Road, this museum is really easy to visit, has gorgeous landscaped grounds, and must really delight fans of woodcarving, as there are numerous examples, most of them in a modern style and very expressive. There are many paintings as well, and a fair amount of space is dedicated to explaining the role of two influential Europeans, Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, on modern art in Bali.

Balinese Dance Performances. Seeing these (and many are available, all over Bali) is something most tourists do. The ticket is less than $10 (U.S.), and the dancers are amazing to watch. On my only previous visit to Bali (in 2005), I saw the Barong and Keris Dance (photos) in the morning, in the village of Batubulan, possibly about an hour’s drive from Kuta, where we stayed (I hope I never see Kuta again — what a dirty, loud, tacky place!). I really enjoyed that dance! It was the first time I listened to a gamelan orchestra.

Staying in Ubud, I was able to choose among numerous different performances every night, and most of them were an easy walk from Murni’s. I went to two: the Kecak and Fire Dance (Friday), and the Legong Dance (Saturday). I mention the days of the week because the performances will be different depending on which troupe performs them and on which day. I didn’t take photos because (a) it was dark, and (b) it interferes with seeing the performance!

Kecak and Fire Dance: This was so awesome, I considered seeing it again on Monday. About 70 bare-chested men of all ages sit in a circle on the ground, three men deep, surrounding a big fire device (like a 6-foot-high candelabra made of torches) and chant the most amazing a cappella accompaniment (continuous for 90 minutes) while Rama and his brother Lakshmana — aided by the clever monkey Hanuman — fight the giant Kumbakarna, brother of the evil lord/ogre Ravana. There’s more, actually four “acts,” including a fabulous scene when Garuda (the mythical eagle/man, rising up, red wings spread wide) frees Rama and Lakshmana from a death-like enchantment. The intricate costumes for all, but especially those of Hanuman and Garuda, were fantastic. Watching by firelight made me imagine the distant past, when this must have been so much more real — and scary!

After Kumbakarna is dead, the Kecak/Ramayana portion ends, and a single man comes out and performs the Sanghyang Djaran (which is a lot like kuda lumping in West Java), in which he gallops around on a hobby-horse and repeatedly runs through live burning coals! Okay, not actual coal, but coconut husks that have been drenched in gasoline and set alight. This is a traditional trance performance, and at the end two other men come out and wrestle the trance-rider to the ground, breaking the spell. Spectacular!

“Kecak & Fire (Ramayana),” at Pura Dalem Ubud, performed by Krama Desa Adat Ubud Kaja. This could not have been more convenient (about 3 minutes’ walk from Murni’s), at the point where Jalan Raya Ubud continues west but changes to Jalan Campuhan. It was performed under a roof because rain was expected (and in fact a deluge came soon after the show began), but in good weather it’s done on the adjacent plaza.

Legong Dance: A good gamelan orchestra accompanied this program of several separate performances, two of which were “mask dances” performed by a single male dancer. These were quite interesting to watch because while I’ve seen the female Balinese dancers do all their fancy mind-boggling finger movements, in the first of these (“Topeng Keras”) I saw a male dancer do equally intricate hand and finger positions, as well as the measured foot turnings and so on. The second one (“Jauk Dance”) was not quite as fascinating because the dancer wore the super-long fingernails or claws of a demon character, and so he could not do the most complicated finger movements. Other scenes included the three-woman “Legong Kraton” dance, a dance involving a flower and a bumblebee, and a somewhat similar one in which a woman dances as a butterfly.

“Legong Dance (Saturday Special),” at Ubud Palace (Saren Agung), performed by Bina Remaja Troupe. This is at the corner of Jalan Ubud Raya and Monkey Forest Road, and it’s done under a roof. Dancers are on an elevated stage.

After Ubud, I went to the north coast of Bali, where I’d never been before. Lovina (or Lovina Beach) is a string of villages extending west from Singaraja, the second largest city on Bali. Its claim to fame: Dolphins. I did see them, about 20 feet away from our little boat, powered by a small but noisy motor (just like the two boats in the photo above), but I didn’t get any photos. We saw them jumping, their dorsal fins and tails curving out of the water, and twice we saw one racing like a torpedo at Speed Racer velocity. The boat ride is quite nice, and less than $8 (U.S.) per person.

I stayed in Lovina four days (at Hotel Melamun, very nice) and rented a motorbike for the whole time. It was a bit rainy, and the sea was ugly — churned up and brown. The beach is not nice either. I knew it was a black (brown would be more accurate) sand beach, but it’s really rather muddy when wet, and at many spots, there’s trash.

But hey, it’s the rainy season, and I did not expect to be lying on the beach — hence the motorbike. The first place I went was the Brahmavihara Arama Buddhist temple and monastery (the photo above shows detail of the stupa there), which was a very nice ride west and then south and uphill through little villages. They have Vipassana retreats there. I only saw one monk, and he appeared to be doing walking meditation, so I didn’t speak to him. The setting is lovely — views of the mountains and trees all around. There were two meditation halls and then, farther up the hillside, a big new monument that borrows elements from Borobudur, with a circular meditation hall inside and partly underground. (I’ll post more photos on Flickr.)

On another day I rode to Pura Maduwe Karang (above), a Balinese Hindu temple about 45 minutes east of Lovina. It was easy to find on the main road, using directions from my Lonely Planet guide.

Balinese temples have many statues surrounding them, and guarding them, and many carved reliefs on the walls, and leering demon-heads on the corners of pedestals and so forth — but at the center rear, where Buddhists would have a giant Buddha statue, or Christians would have a huge crucifix, or a painting of Jesus, the Balinese have an empty throne. Also, no one is allowed to go inside that area except on special ceremony days, and then only certain people — never tourists.

So when you visit one of the bigger Balinese temples, you put on a sarong and a sash, and you go inside the walls, but you can never go up the steps to the innermost part.

Above, the figures flanking the left side of the outer set of steps. Below, the ones on the right side. According to the particularly poor (and pushy) so-called guides who insisted on following me around, the good guys (above) are Rama and Hanuman, and the bad guys (below) are Ravana (the big one) and his brother Vibhishana — but I have some doubts about that, as Vibhishana turned out to be a good guy and helped Rama defeat Ravana.

In case you were wondering — on my previous trip to Bali, I saw some famous temples, including Tanah Lot and Pura Besakih (“the Mother Temple”), so I didn’t put seeing temples high on my list for this trip. I also saw Kintamani and Lake Batur on a beautiful, clear day! My primary aim on this visit was to wander around without guides or itineraries.

One day at breakfast in Lovina, I heard some commotion in the street. This procession was under way. I was told the people went down to the temple at the end of the street (I didn’t even shoot any photos of that one — it’s very nice, but quite new) as an early part of the days-long cremation ceremony that had just started.

About 50 people (including musicians) walked from an area on the main road to the end of our small street. Everyone appears to be wearing their best clothes.

On just about any day, anywhere in Bali, you can see women dressed this way (in kabaya, sarong and sash), carrying something on their head in a basket or on a platter, walking to a temple. Sometimes it’s just one woman alone, walking along the roadside. Other times, it’s a whole line of women, walking single file. People also dress up nicely in this way when they make the morning offerings that one sees absolutely everywhere in Bali.

A cremation ceremony will cost the family of the deceased about $1,500 (U.S.). That’s more than a year’s pay for many people here.

On a third day — the best and sunniest day I had in Lovina — I rode through the villages south of the main Lovina road. I happened upon this big walled area, with a sign that said it’s Desa Pakraman Galiran.

The very long wall was covered (at least on the two sides I walked along) with these carved panels — some representing happy scenes, and others obviously intended to be disturbing!

Interestingly, this fine wall, covered with carvings, surrounds an empty lot filled with weeds. Yet the wall and the carved panels are clearly recent. I have to assume that a fine temple will be built inside at a later date!

Later on that same sunny day, I rode west of Lovina and found the rice fields were full of people cutting and threshing the padi.

I walked on the narrow wall of packed dirt that separates two padi fields from each other until I joined this group of women. The four you see above are given the mostly threshed stalks, and then they hit them a few more times with a metal rod to get the last kernels to fall. There’s a big pile of rice kernels lying all around the wooden thing in the foreground.

Men who were cutting the rice elsewhere carried it here and piled it up. These two younger women would each pick up a bunch and bring it to this trestle, then whack the top end of the bundle against the wooden slats about three times. After that, they toss the bundle to one of the older women sitting around the perimeter.

As I watched and chatted (again thankful for my somewhat passable language skills), a boy appeared carrying a plastic cooler, which he announced was full of es lilin, a candle-shaped homemade frozen treat that I’d already eaten in Bandung. He was asking the women if they wanted to buy, and then he suggested that I could buy a round for everyone. Well, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the heat was blistering. The women are covered in clothing from head to toe because otherwise their skin would fry off. So I asked the boy how much it would cost to buy one for everyone on that patch, and he counted 13 heads and said 13,000 rupiah.

That’s about $1.50.

So I bought an es lilin for each person, and everyone laid off work and started happily sucking a frozen stick of strawberry, chocolate, or … I think there was another flavor, but I didn’t ask what it was. Mine was strawberry. It was delicious. I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t make me sick (it didn’t!). One of the women patted the rice stalks beside her under the flimsy umbrella, and I sat down. She was hoping I would give her my hat — she had a hat, but mine has a much wider brim. I told her I like my hat a lot, and I want to keep it. She tried hard to convince me to give it to her, but eventually she gave up.

We all agreed it was very, very hot. We discussed the huge, long, heavy rain of the previous day. We agreed it was the rainy season, so it must rain. I observed that their work was very hard. One of them said, well, you have to work, or you don’t eat. I agreed.

When the es lilin were finished, they went back to work. I asked if I could take some pictures. They said yes. Some of them wanted to pose, and some said no picture. When I left, everyone said thank you, many times. I said thank you too.

So that was Lovina — I liked it because it’s quiet, but I gather that it’s quite busy in July and August, when it’s wintertime in Australia. The drive from Lovina to the airport in Denpasar took three hours, with some rain (but not very heavy).

I think I’ll try to go back to Ubud in May, when the rains are finished.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 January 2012 12:00 am

    This looks amazing! What do you think of Bali for a honeymoon? I ask because my fiance and I are trying to figure out where we want to go!!

    Courtney Mara

  2. 16 January 2012 12:12 am

    It would be great, but maybe expensive from the U.S. It’s a very long flight.

  3. 16 January 2012 12:15 am

    We don’t mind long flights and we can make it work in our budget. We are just wondering if it is a good honeymoon spot or if it is just kind of a visit-another-time spot…

  4. 16 January 2012 12:36 am

    There are all kinds of resorts, lush and tropical, with white sand beaches, hidden bungalows, etc. And every kind of spa treatment, like simultaneous his-and-her full body massages. Yes, I think it’s a great place for a honeymoon. And you’ll want to come back again, surely. Look up Sanur. Compare with Seminyak.

  5. 17 January 2012 10:40 am

    Hi Ibu Mindy, How are you Apa Kabar?
    I’m Ketut (froggy) was your guide when you did a cycling tour a couple days ago in Ubud. unfortunetaly was heavy rain, we saw nothing. (datang lagi ke Bali saat musim panas, hehe 🙂 )
    Thank you very much for your shights about Bali and Indonesia in General, I appreciate it very much. I read some of your written about Indonesia in this blog. (you know well than Indonesian hehehe)

    sampai jumpa di Bali lagi Ibu Mindy

  6. 17 January 2012 10:54 am

    Kabar baik, Ketut. It’s nice to hear from you! You were a great guide! Terima kasih banyak. Mau kembali ke Bali waktu musim panas, ya! Mungkin bulan Mai, baiklah?

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