My last words on Bali were rather negative. I was complaining about the street hawkers pushing things in your face and harassing you ever 15 seconds while you walk down the street. I stand by what I said, however, that isn’t the whole story when it comes to Bali, and I don’t want my last words on Bali to be those.
It is easy to understand why people find Bali appealing. The weather is nice, the people are nice (save for the street vendors) and the Balinese culture is evident everywhere.
To give a bit of background: Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia is Hindu. Balinese Hinduism is different in practice and custom from Indian Hinduism, but much of the underlying theology is pretty much the same. Prior to the introduction of Islam to Indonesia, many of the islands were Hindu. (see my upcoming post on Prambanan). As Islam spread, many of the practitioners of Hinduism retreated to Bali, where they remain the dominate religion today. (there is still a Hindu minority in Java, but it is a very small percentage of the population).
I don’t think I’ve every seen a place where the religion and culture is so ubiquitous. You literally walk down the street and have to step around the offering plates which are left in front of every home and business. The offering plates are called canang sari. It usually consists of a woven plate of palm fronds, and it will usually have some salt, coconut, a coin, flowers, and I’ve even seen things like crackers.
You won’t just see them at the doorways of buildings. I saw them on the dashboards of cars, attached to the handlebars of motorcycles, on the beach, and on various small shrines, you’d see everywhere.
The shrines seemed to designed in a sort of hierarchical mathematical structure. There are family shrines, there are sub-village shrines, village shrines, and then there is the Mother Temple on the island. Think of a tree diagram with more branches on each level of the tree. Likewise, there are cycles of ceremonies performed at the Mother Temple every year, ten years, hundred years, and thousand years.
While I was there, every village I passed through had very large bamboo poles which would hang over the road holding offerings. I was told that the bamboo poles are usually only out for holidays, one of which was recently completed. I have no idea what the holiday was or was about.
I also saw some kids who were doing a type of Barong dance. They would go door to door to various businesses to try and raise money in exchange for performing a dance. I gave the kids a few thousand rupiah.
So for tourists looking for a “cultural experience,” you can’t really avoid the culture in Bali, even if you hole up at the Hard Rock Hotel on Kuta Beach. Moreover, the culture is very unique, even by the standards of Indonesia. There is really nothing else like Balinese Hinduism. Nothing which I’ve seen so far at least.
One of the most enjoyable things I did in Bali was to visit the monkey temple in Ubud. The monkeys have been there for centuries and are very accustomed to humans. In fact, you can buy bundles of bananas at the entrance for about $2 to feed the monkeys. The monkeys are smart and know if you have bananas and are not afraid to come and get them. I had monkeys crawl up on my head, dig in my pockets and one even held on to my pant leg as I walked around like he was a child. I could have spent all day there feeding bananas to monkeys. Monkeys are good people.
The other thing I did which was really unique was visiting the Mother Temple. My guide, who was a really interesting guy who worked as a journalist covering Indonesia for Australian papers, took me and had my dress in a traditional sarong and with a white headband. The Mother Temple is like Balinese equivalent of the St. Peters Basilica, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The day I was there it was overcast and raining, but there were still ceremonies going on. You can’t enter the main compound of the Mother Temple unless you are Hindu, but you can peek over the wall and see inside.
The other big cultural thing I did was attend a Barong dance. The Barong dance is normally only performed a few times a year, but it is now performed daily for tourists in some places. The daily photo I posted in March of a man stabbing himself is part of the Barong dance. Part of the story involves a god telling soldiers to kill themselves, but their skin becomes so hard they can’t stab themselves.
All is not peaches and cream in Bali. While tourism gives the average Balinese a standard of living higher than the rest of Indonesia, the bombings several years ago have really reduced the number of tourists which come here. As with most places I go, I met very few Americans. Many people would raise their eyebrows when I said I was an American, as that was the group which probably dropped off the most after the bombings. Most of the visitors in Bali are from Japan, Korea, Germany and Australia.
While I was on a day trip of the island, my guide was pulled over by police. It was basically a shakedown operation where the police pull you over and you give them money or cigarettes to avoid going to jail. He ended up paying about US$4. He sort of shrugged it off as something which happens all the time. (I gave him the amount of the bribe at the end of the day. I thought it sucked he had to pay it and wouldn’t have had to if he wasn’t hauling me around.)
All the police on Bali are Javanese, so there is tension between the police and the people. I didn’t get the impression that anyone trusted or liked the cops. Many Balinese villages have their own sort of police force. They don’t carry weapons nor do they have the power of the government behind them, but they do enforce village customs and norms. If you see guys with a badge on their shirt and ceremonial kris knives, those are probably the village cops.
There is no outward sign of rebellion or a separatist movement in Bali, but there are low key ones in other parts of Indonesia. I couldn’t help but think of the comparisons to Yugoslavia or the USSR when I left Indonesia. It is a large, diverse country dominated by a single ethnic group, the Javanese. While things are fine now, I could easily see a future event where the police accidentally kill someone that sparks riots. Toss in separatist movements in Ache, Papua, Moluka and Sulawesi and you could see things go from peaceful to chaotic in a hurry. The only reason Indonesia exists is because is the land which was grabbed by the Dutch.
Then again, that might never happen….
I can totally understand why so many people love Bali and why it has become an attraction for so many people. There is nothing quite like Bali. I don’t think the beaches or the climate or the land is all that special, but the people and the culture are.