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Travellers began arriving in Bali around 100 years ago, making the journey by sea on a weekly steamship service from Java. Most were Dutch and English package tourists eager for an exotic cultural adventure and a tantalising glimpse of local women, all of whom were too modest – and too clever – to be ogled by a bunch of gawking Europeans.
Fortunately, these voyeuristic visitors were replaced by independent travellers who came to Bali to revel in the island’s natural beauty, heritage and spirituality. Many were artists who stayed in thatched huts and ate with the villagers, immersing themselves in the local way of life.
While few modern-day tourists would be willing to forgo Bali’s affordable hotels in favour of a hut, the spiritual heart of the “Island of the Gods” remains for those who seek it out. Balinese culture is everywhere: art is integral to the local way of life, people make offerings every day, there seems to be a festival for every occasion and family is everything. But it’s the kindness and gentle humour of the locals that stays with most visitors long after they return home.
While some cultural activities are no longer free, taking a trip down the tourist road less travelled is still a journey like no other. Visitors who venture beyond the bars of Seminyak are rewarded with captivating performances, spiritual blessings, artistic exploration and festivals that touch the heart and soul.
Even the popular Nusa Dua resort strip offers a few surprises when it comes to the Island’s spiritual experiences. As sunrise dances on the waves at Sawangan Beach, guests from The Ritz-Carlton, for example, commence their journey onwards with a devotion to the Gods, followed by a tepung tawar ritual – a washing of the hands, feet, face, and mouth with purified holy water – to cleanse their mind, body and soul. This beachside Hindu purification ceremony conducted by a Balinese priest calls on Surya and Baruna, the God of Ocean, to bestow a blessing on travellers for a clean and fresh new beginning.
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, a piece of three-coloured string called Benang Tridatu is tied around guests’ wrists, providing a meaningful holiday memento.
In the late afternoon, tour buses begin climbing the winding road to a clifftop high above the sea. It leads to the atmospheric Uluwatu temple, which is home to one of Bali’s most famous performances. Kecak (pronounced “ke-cha“) is a dance that tells the story of Prince Rama and Princess Sita, who must escape the clutches of an evil villain.
As the sun sinks towards the horizon, the performance begins with over 50 bare-chested men seated on the ground chanting “chak-a-chak-a-chak” in a hypnotic rhythm. There is no gamelan orchestra for this classic dance performance, only the sound of the male chorus which rises, falls and changes tempo in time with the action taking place on stage. Dancers wearing colourful costumes tell the story of royal lovers who are saved by Hanuman, a monkey warrior as mischievous as the real monkeys that call Uluwatu temple home.
Before he defeats the evil king, the dancer playing Hanuman leaps through the crowd, bounding from one hapless audience member to another like a furry white parkour expert. He swipes hats and sunglasses (although, unlike the real monkeys, he gives them back) and plays cheeky tricks on those who aren’t paying attention. When Hanuman is captured and put inside a crackling circle of fire, the audience yells out “No!”
Of course, their favourite dancer escapes and goes on to save the day.
There’s nothing better than a little pampering on holiday, but a handful of spas, like the Healing Village Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, offer something more meaningful than a simple massage. Treatments which connect visitors to the local culture offer a unique way to experience Bali’s spiritual heart. Even better, you can do it lying down.
Combining Balinese spirituality with indigenous treatment techniques, some use a Balinese gayung – a vessel used to splash water infused with seaweed and herbs – while others feature weteng massage, which uses a combination of herbal paste, binding and hot stones. One of the most unusual massages involves a 15-minute sound bath created by the boom of Balinese gongs, which emit deep, rich vibrations that make your insides quiver. It’s a strange yet deeply relaxing sensation.
Cultural celebrations abound in Bali, but Nyepi (which is also known as the “day of silence”) is one of island’s most important ceremonies. On Nyepi Day, which takes place in March, there are no roaring motorbikes or blaring horns and there is no local chatter on the street outside. Even the birds seem to chirp more quietly. On this day, locals must follow four rules: amati lelangon (no noise), amati lelungan (no travel), amati geni (no light) and amati pekaryan (no work). Nyepi is taken seriously and pecalangs (traditional security men) patrol the deserted streets to ensure all Balinese comply.
If you’re on the island when it rolls around, be mindful that tourists are also asked to respect Nyepi Day, albeit in a more relaxed way. Most hotels provide information about the celebrations, and the resorts are wrapped in the warm embrace of a tropical night heady with the scent of frangipani. Here, in the silence under a sky scattered with stars, guests feel at peace often for the first time in many months.
Nyepi Day is a time for quiet contemplation and introspection; for visitors, it’s also a panacea for the daily demands of modern life.
The Balinese regency of Klungkung is a largely undiscovered destination which offers a total contrast from the bustling tourism hubs of Kuta and Seminyak. Visitors are surrounded by lush Balinese gardens and rice paddies, farmers tending crops and herding ducks with a long bamboo pole, water buffalo grazing, and fishermen hauling in their catch.
Here, guests at the Wyndham Tamansari Jivva Resort can sign up for something truly rewarding. “Many visitors are seeking the ‘old Bali’… the Bali of yesteryear that charmed tourists with its fascinating culture and deep spiritual traditions,” says hotel General Manager Agus Suananda. “Bali is rich with history, music, arts and customs. We wanted to give our guests the opportunity to discover the secret soul of Bali and these tours have helped us do that.”
On a day trip, guests visit sites such as Museum Puri Lukisan, the oldest art museum in Bali, where artistic treasures will take your breath away. Soft rain falls at Tirta Empul Temple while fully clothed pilgrims bow under the holy spring water, hands pressed together. Around the back of the temple, spring water bubbles up through the ground.
The tour winds up at Goa Gajah, a temple famous for its intricately carved entrance. After a sweaty climb to the top of some stone steps, an archway leads to an elders who bestow blessings, pressing a piece of rice to the foreheads of visitors as they chant.
Tiana Templeman was a guest of the hotels mentioned in this article.
(Lead image: Jamie Fenn)