The only way I can describe Bali is otherworldly. The lush jungle that surrounds Ubud (considered the cultural and artistic capital of Bali) is so raw and wild, it’s hard not to get emotional in its presence—monkeys swing from the trees, the spiders are as big as your hand, and coffee, cacao, bananas, and coconuts grow wild. It truly feels like you’ve stepped into the book Where the Wild Things Are. Bali’s natural beauty is profound, but it’s the culture, artistry, and spirituality of its people that adds to the charm and mystique of the island. The jungle is never far away in Ubud, but it’s the rice fields that make for stunning sunsets.Ubud City-Centre is loud and chaotic, but much of Bali is quiet, simple, and rural with rice fields all over the island. The Balinese have been growing rice on the island for over two thousand years, which is why they produce some of the highest yielding rice crops in the world.If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the wild ducks (look for the white one and then you’ll spot the rest of them).
THE BALINESE SPIRITUALITY
Balinese spirituality is on display everywhere in Bali; it’s an integral part of their culture. Their religion is an amalgam of three different religions. They practice a version of Hinduism called Agama Hindu Dharma, which is a blend of Shaivism, Buddhism, and a Balinese cultural tradition known as “respect your ancestor.” The Balinese worship gods and demigods, Buddhist heroes, the spirits of their ancestors, and indigenous agricultural deities.
My favorite Balinese belief is that nature has “power” and that power is susceptible to manipulation by the spirits. The spirits are housed in shrines and presented with ritualistic “offerings” three times a day, in an effort to create harmony between man, spirits, and nature. The Balinese believe that light and dark forces are in a constant battle and the offerings serve as a reminder to align themselves with the forces of good.
The offerings are gorgeous and almost always include flowers, cookies, rice, candies, and cigarettes, or incense. Each offering has a different meaning and you’ll see them all over Bali, in the shops, homes, even in the streets. According to Balinese superstition, if you step on one, you’ll be met by Leak, a “bad witch” or “evil sorcerer” who will eat your organs. So, if you see an offering, I’d advise you to step over it or you may see Leak in your dreams (or nightmares). Read more about Leak here.One of the most important Balinese holidays happened to coincide with our trip. Galungan is a 10-day festival that began this year on December 26, 2018 and ended on January 5, 2019. It commemorates the triumph of good (dharma) over evil (adharma) and is the time when spirits of deceased ancestors return to Earth to visit their homes and villages. The last day of the celebration is called Kuningan, and it marks the day when the spirits ascend back to heaven.
There are celebrations and dances and the villages come to life with decorations. This is how the Balinese show their respect for their ancestors and welcome them home. The streets are decorated with penjor, or beautiful bowing bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end. It’s an incredible time to be there.
During the celebration, beautifully dressed women carry elaborate towers of fruit and cake called gebogan on their heads and deliver them to sacred temples and shrines as an offering to deities and ancestral spirits.Ceremonial umbrellas are used to protect the gods and shield the offerings from the rain. The black and white umbrella in the picture above symbolizes harmony. The red umbrella symbolizes the Hindu god Brahma (the creator of the world); the white umbrella symbolizes Shiva (the god associated with the destruction of the world); and the yellow umbrella symbolizes glory.
Bali is known as the “island of a thousand temples” because there are temples, or puras, literally everywhere you look. Pura is Sanskrit for “walled city” or “palace.” Each village in Bali has a village temple and most large towns have at least three major temples.Pura Taman Saraswati is a small water temple on a busy street in Ubud. The lily ponds make this temple worth a quick visit.The dramatic split gate, or candi benter, is a common characteristic of the temples in Bali. The reason for the split traces back to a Balinese belief that Mt. Meru, a mythological mountain where the gods dwelled, was brought to Bali by the Hindu goddess Shiva, who split it in two. The two sides also represent the Balinese concept of duality, or maintaining a balance between dark and light forces. This temple in Ubud is called Pura Dalem, the Great Temple of Death.This must be Leak’s wife. Could that be Leak’s head in her hand? Ouch. No, it’s actually Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, doomsday, and death. Do not f**k with her or you’ll end up on her necklace!These lions look ferocious, and yet, I love the way the Balinese put fresh flowers in their manes.Temples in Bali typically have a split gate and a roofed inner gate known as a paduraksa or kori agung (above), which leads to an inner compound. Its gates will almost always be guarded by Bhoma, the Balinese god of the jungle (above the gorgeous red and gold door). Bhoma scares the evil spirits away and protects the temple.
MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF SIDEMEN
Sidemen, (pronounced Si-da-men), is a small rural town east of Ubud. I hadn’t planned to see Sidemen, but once I got to Bali, I felt drawn to it. My first glimpse came on the way to Virgin Beach. The road to the beach was jammed because of holiday traffic, so our driver, DeJohn, took an alternative route through the mountains of Sidemen.
When we got to the top of the hill, we pulled over and had a quick bite at a local organic restaurant, or warung. I stood there in awe of the view and did not want to leave.
I had to put my urge to stay in Sidemen aside because it was time to spend the day at Virgin Beach. The locals call the beach Perasi, but it’s also referred to as White Sand Beach. Virgin Beach is less crowded than most of the other beaches on the island because it’s pretty far away from all the tourist attractions, and it’s a little tricky to find.
The sand is gorgeous, the water is warm and completely clear, and the small waves make this beach perfect for swimming. If Mother Nature’s in a good mood, she’ll throw in a rainbow, too. While you’re swimming, you might see a traditional Balinese fishing boat glide by you. And if all that weren’t enough, the locals will give you an incredible massage on the beach for next to nothing.When you get hungry, there’s a restaurant a few steps behind your chair that serves delicious grilled prawns.The beginning of the path down to Virgin Beach.There’s a little island in the sea that looks like a whale.If you want a coconut, you can pick one up on your way back to the car.
BACK TO SIDEMEN A few days after beach day, we drove back to Sidemen and found a local guide named Kadek who was available to give us a tour. But before we started off on our adventure, I had to hug a kitten for good luck. There are wild kittens, chickens, colorful roosters, and dogs all over the island.As we set off into the jungle, our guide started whistling. It was a secret signal to the locals up in the coconut trees: “Please don’t drop coconuts on our heads!”I have no idea how, but the locals scale up those trees without a rope. I’d need an elevator.There were primitive ladders and bridges all along the trail.The Unda River in Sidemen.Can you see the man taking a bath in a natural pool?
Once we crossed the bridge, we were in the rice fields. The rice had just been harvested, which is why you see so much straw on the fields. The farmers use the straw to help suppress weeds and keep the soil covered, so it doesn’t dry out in the hot and humid climate. When the straw isn’t there, it’s fields of green rice plants.
Our guide, Kadek, has family who have been farming this land for generations; we wouldn’t have been able to walk though the fields without him.
Each farmer builds a small hut so they have a place to rest when they need to take a break from the hot sun.
After walking through the rice fields, Kadek took us up a small hill so we could see the view.See the jungle to the left of the rice terraces? Wild monkeys live there. And every one of the huts in the distance belongs to a different farmer.The green rice fields.After we took a million pictures of the view, we headed back down the hill.When we got to the banks of the river, our guide told us to take off our shoes and hand over our phones. The water was moving swiftly and it was as high as my upper thigh at its deepest point in the center. The tricky part was navigating all the slippery, slimy rocks at the bottom of the river. These are the times when it pays to have really gnarly feet from years of ballet.
Once we got through the river, we put our shoes back on and walked back to where we started at a small local store with the kitten.
On our way back, DeJohn, our driver (it’s very inexpensive to hire a driver and it supports the local people), insisted that we stop at Mahagiri to get a drink and check out the view. We walked into the restaurant/resort…
… sat down, ordered a fresh pineapple juice, and looked to our left. WOW! The view was incredible.
And if the clouds weren’t there, this is what you’d see in the distance…An active volcano! Mount Agung is the highest point on Bali. Mount Agung erupted for about three minutes on December 30, 2018, spewing smoke and ash more than 2,000 feet into the sky. That was three days before we got there. Gulp. A little frightening, but it would have been cool to see. This huge stone elephant is perched at the entrance of Goa Lawah temple right next to the road on the way home from Sidemen. I’m not even as tall as the antelope on his head (just to put things in perspective).
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WANT TO TREK THROUGH THE RICE FIELDS OR JUNGLE OF SIDEMEN?
If you’re planning a trip to Bali, and you want a tour of Sidemen, contact our guide Kadek. His tour will be one of the highlights of your trip.
Feature image of Balinese temple taken by Pawopa3336 @iStock