The rich and vibrant local culture is one of the top reasons for visiting Bali. It offers a unique mix of Hindu-Buddhist religion and Balinese customs that cannot be experienced anywhere in Indonesia and even the world. The visit to Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) piqued my cultural interest. It served up a feast for our senses, with Balinese art, music, dance and drama. I desired further immersion.
While there are plenty of day tours on the cultural subject, most provided only superficial sweep of the local culture and traditions with visits to popular tourist sites. I wanted a private option with my own cultural expert and vehicle. Be Balinese Tour is a small independent operator who focuses on customer-friendly arrangements at affordable prices.
Owner Wayan Juli worked with me on a one-day itinerary, complete with less-known places, experiences and an air-conditioned 6-seater (that is essential to survive the Bali humidity and heat) for IDR600,000 excluding entrance fees and personal expenses. He also served as my personal guide, translator and driver. Together with Wayan Juli, we undertook our own Balinese cultural immersion in a day.
We started the day with a well known story-telling dance of Bali. Wayan Juli provided an orientation of the costumes, dancers and musicians as well as photo opportunities prior to the sit-down performance. He also provided some background to the dance to better appreciate each act and the entirety in relation to Balinese beliefs and practices.
While the Barong Dance is based on mythology, it provided an insight into the Balinese psyche and notion of good and evil. The central beings are Barong (good) and Rangda (evil) who are invoked by a fight between humans. While Rangda bewitched the humans to knife themselves with their weapons, Barong casted a spell that made their bodies resistant to physical harm. The dance ends with the triumph of Barong and the departure but not the defeat of Rangda.
We were able to come up-close with the masks of Barong and Rangda used in the performances. They are considered sacred items and are blessed by priests before being used. The entrance fee was IDR100,000 per adult.
Our next stop was a private family home. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Wayan Juli had opened his own home to us. We met his family and were treated to fresh coconut plucked from the tree while hearing stories about daily activities, work, wealth, architecture and religion.
It was interesting to learn about the individual family structure and the traditions that governed the way family members interacted and lived together in a large compound. The concept of a shared family land that was passed down from generation to generation encouraged cohesive family units. The village was a collective of such family units.
A similar concept applied to the family temple and rituals, which was an extension of the village temple and island-wide rituals that ensured the continuation of the Balinese-Hindu religion and practices.
The family land also provided for their occupants with vegetables, fruits, herbs and plants used in everyday rituals and ceremonies. Wealthier families reared livestock like cows and pigs, and had more ornate family temples and entrances to their land.
Our lunch stop was a warung (local eatery) in Ubud that was famed for its chicken rice at affordable prices. It was a hole-in-the-wall venue that would be easily missed by visitors. We were informed that this eatery was popular with locals for its traditional Balinese flavours.
The portion was generous with fried chicken, stir-fried vegetables, fried peanuts, half a hard-boiled egg, lightly grilled minced chicken on a stick, spicy sambal and rice. The dish was tasty but may be too spicy for some diners. We paid no more than IDR20,000 per person for the chicken rice, drinks and snacks.
We were on route to one of Bali's best kept secret temple situated within Sebatu, a highland village in Tegallalang. The Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple is known by the locals as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu.
This 'Tranquil Water Temple' in Central Bali is one of the most picturesque and tranquil temples yet it remained one of the least visited. The temple complex is famed for its ancient shrines, verdant gardens, ponds filled with lotus and carps and natural spring-fed crystal clear pools.
Highlights of our visit included the walled bathing sections where visitors and locals could participate in the ritual bathing. There was a figure of goddess Sarasvati at the centre of the water garden filled with carp. The entrance fee was only IDR15,000 per adult and IDR7,500 per child.
Located in Tampaksiring or the valley of the kings, this stop brought us back in time when ancient Balinese kings and legends roamed the pre-Hindu candi temple complex of Gunung Kawi, the holy springs of Tirta Empul Tampaksiring and the sacred river Pakerisan.
The unremarkable entrance pointed to a steep stone-ladened path down into the river valley. Our climb down was rewarded by views of picturesque padi fields surrounded by verdant forests. There were paths that allowed us to walk around the rice fields.
Further down the stone pathway, the veil of trees reveal the ancient candi temple complex of Gunung Kawi. Its ten candis are the largest and the best preserved of all the candis in Bali uncovered by seismic events, landslides and archaeological efforts.
These rock-hewn constructions are believed to date back to the 11th century and the reign of King Anak Wungsu. Today, they serve as the backdrop of Balinese Hinduism rites passed down by Nirartha in the 16th century. The water found around Gunung Kawi are also an important source for the holy water central to Hindu Balinese rites. The entrance fee was only IDR15,000 per adult and IDR7,500 per child.
We chanced upon a vendor selling durians off a pick-up truck on a major thoroughfare. It was busy with locals purchasing and eating by the roadside. We decided to join in the fun and a taste of local durians that were collected from various villages.
We made a dinner stop at a local seafood warung in Denpasar. It was located off the main road and in a short laneway accompanied by an aquarium fish shop and a satay stall. This small nondescript open-air cafe had views of a neighbouring padi rice field.
This venue was popular with locals for its affordable grilled seafood set meals featuring prawns, squid, fresh water and ocean fish. We ordered the Pakat Ikan Bakar and Gurami Bakar set which included a whole grilled fish with rice, stir-fried vegetables, peanuts and spicy sambal. The meal was no more than IDR50,000 per person including beverages.
There was only so much we could experience of the Balinese culture in a day but we were certainly not disappointed. Wayan Juli had designed a private tour where each stop provided a piece to the cultural puzzle. He had also prepared the traditional clothes needed to enter the temple grounds. We finished the day with a deep sense of appreciation and understanding of Bali's unique family, village and community culture, interwoven with threads of history, music, dance, food and ancient religious rites.