“The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not...” the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Tempest comes to mind when I think about the little Indonesian island of Bali. Before visiting the island I imagined it was just another beach destination and I did wonder why it seemed so popular with tourists, considering there are hundreds of tropical islands much closer to Europe. But it’s not just the island’s exotic beauty and magnificent coastline that captivates. The fragrant smell of frangipani and the tinkling sounds of gamelan, the friendliness of its people, the unique local culture, the ornate stone temples and pretty pagodas collude to create a tropical island that’s a cut above the rest.
It’s half a world away, both figuratively and literally, from the UK, sitting on the Ring of Fire at the point where no less than three tectonic plates – the Eurasian, Pacific and Australian – clash. Across the Indonesian archipelago, clusters of volcanoes vent earth’s engine and you would think that might put some limits on the development of life here. Instead evolution seems to have gone into overdrive creating a biodiversity that’s second only to Brazil. Exploring the forested slopes around Bedugul, in the central foothills of Bali, I saw a veritable dessert menu of pineapples, vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa growing along the path, as well as curious national favourites; snakefruit, mangosteen and durian. You get the feeling that you could simply drop some seeds into the rich volcanic soil and they would spring up magically in the manner of Jack and the Beanstalk.
My warm guide to the island, Natta, took me to stroll around some of the island’s dewy green rice terraces that yield three harvests a year and are another happy product of the region’s volcanic soil. He tells me that a quarter of the island is taken up with rice paddies and the locals eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Smelling coconut and sugar coming from a roadside stall I decided to purchase a cone of the curious green snack balls on offer and discovered that even these – known locally as klepon – are made from sweetened rice.
Natta wears a traditional brightly coloured Balinese sarong, representing his local village colours. He’s a fantastic font of knowledge on the island’s culture and tells me about the Balinese belief in the harmonious connection between people, the gods and nature. The Balinese practise this by tending tropical gardens, building countless temples and treating each other with care and respect.
This is the only Hindu island in Indonesia, which is a predominantly Muslim country, and there are literally thousands of temples dotting the landscape, some dedicated to Dewisri, the pre-Hindu goddess of rice and fertility. Natta thinks that it’s this unique culture that makes the island the friendliest place in Indonesia. I ask him if he thinks this is why Bali is so popular with travellers and he says that though the less-visited neighbouring island of Lombok has prettier palm-fringed beaches, the people don’t have the same welcoming spirit as the Balinese.
Religion and artistic expression are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life in Bali. Sacred offerings are everywhere – origami-like banana leaf packages of petals and rice are scattered on the ground and delicately placed on corners, bright blooms are lined up along steps – the Balinese revel in their natural bounty and seemingly celebrate it every day. Swimming in the languid sea at Sanur, a flowery offering even floated towards me on a reedy raft and a local told me these are intended to placate the moody gods believed to live beneath the sea.
Heading into the island’s cultural heartland of Ubud, I pass through a succession of art villages – each dedicated to a different craft. I whisk past ones for stone-carving, pottery, metalwork and glass and stop at the wood-carving village of Dewamalen where the locals make stunning intricate statues of Hindu gods and animals from ebony, teak, mahogany and sandalwood.
The town of Ubud itself has become the pivot for a booming trade in arts and crafts with dozens of boutiques selling pieces from the art villages. Surrounded by serene stepped rice paddies tufted with tall palms and fringed by forest, it has an infectious atmosphere of bliss that has given rise to a clutch of yoga retreats. Unsurprisingly, it is the place where Elizabeth Gilbert’s protagonist begins and ends her personal spiritual journey in the best-selling book Eat Pray Love. Though I had not read the book or seen the film when I came here, it is impossible to escape references to it on the island.
During my visit, I was fortunate to be hosted at the King of Ubud’s Palace – a truly enchanting experience. A quintessential and exquisite example of the region’s architecture, the building features intricately carved stone and latticed woodwork, curling tiered roofs and wide verandas hung with birdcages. The walled palace courtyard is like a Garden of Eden with bloom-laden boughs shading a babbling pond of colourful carp, fragrant frangipani trees, and a concertina of stone steps scattered in petals and leading down through the jungle undergrowth to a rushing stream. I was treated to a display of graceful and haunting synchronised dancing by the granddaughters of the king, with painted faces, golden headdresses and vividly-coloured gowns. A traditional gamelan orchestra provided the soundtrack with the gentle vibrating and tinkling sounds of metal and wood instruments.
Tiers of joy
In places, Bali’s strong sense of spiritualism, peculiar tiered temples and wildly exotic landscapes collude to create a heart-stirringly beautiful scene. Once the mouth of a volcano, Bali’s second largest lake, Bratan, is shrouded in mellow mists and rimmed with moist green forest. Silhouetted against the cool lake, the temple of Tanah Bratan looks as if it could have sprouted from the lakeshore, rising up in odd organic-looking tiers to create a dream-like vision of the mystic east. Strolling around the sacred site, I heard the omnipresent magical tinkling of gamelan instruments but couldn’t find where it was coming from until I discovered a small speaker hidden amid the foliage.
Perched precariously on a limestone stack washed by the curling waves of the Indian Ocean, Tanah Lot is another of Bali’s shrines and it must be one of the world’s most dramatically positioned temples. The 16th-century structure curls around and merges into the rock so it’s impossible to tell where the natural feature ends and the man-made structure begins. It’s a pilgrimage temple and during my visit I stood above the shore watching the monks’ mad dash across a surf-washed causeway to reach the temple on one side, while on the other a clutch of surfers sailed along the succession of perfect waves rolling onto one of the neat glistening beaches that notch Bali’s south-west coast.
In the farthest south-western corner on the Bukit Peninsula lies Uluwatu, the most impressive of all the temples I visited in Bali. This was in part due to the troops of light-fingered macaques patrolling the carved stone walls and the dramatic Kecak fire dance performed at sunset on the clifftop, which added a certain drama to the experience. But the setting alone is spectacular – the temple is built on the tip of a forested plateau of neatly stacked limestone cliffs that plummet straight into the ceaseless curling swells of the Indian Ocean. The temple itself is constructed from coral stone and carved with intricate reliefs representing Bali’s Hindu and animist gods. As I enter the grounds, I’m handed a sarong to tie around my waist, which is a customary sign of respect if you are visiting a temple in Bali. Visitors are also warned to remove their glasses and keep loose objects inside a bag as the grey monkeys that occupy Uluwatu have a habit of snatching things from unwary tourists.
In the wooden amphitheatre built on a high bluff above the sea, I waited in uncomfortable humidity for the traditional Kecak dance to start. It seemed the monkeys lazing around the theatre and perched on surrounding treetops were feeling the heat too as I witnessed one grab a bottle of water and take a swig. Retelling the ancient Hindu epic tale of Ramayana, the dance includes several monkey characters so it is appropriate that the audience is part ape. Instead of a Balinese gamelan orchestra, this dance is accompanied by a 70-strong choir of chanting men that are supposed to induce a hypnotic state. Though captivating, the dance is almost upstaged by the extraordinarily vivid brush strokes of the Balinese sunset blazing across the ocean backdrop.
Of course, as a quintessential paradise island, Bali’s coastline is indented with plenty of palm-fringed beaches, with the most stunning stretch of powdery white sand at Jimbaran, and the most relaxing swimming in sleepy Sanur, where the beach is protected from the waves by an outer reef. Having visited the island, though, I can see that Bali’s beaches are not the real reason to come here – it’s the intoxicating charm of its unique culture that makes the island so special.