Bali - Island Of 1000 Temples

Artists at work - the art gallery tour

With a nice resort and a beautiful beach we spent a lot of time just taking it easy. But we did venture out to explore the rest of the island. Lots of tour companies offer everything from shopping trips to cultural tours to white water rafting. Most of them offered all-day, ten to fourteen hour tours that tried to cover as much as possible. We found one company that offered shorter trips and chose that one instead.

Our first trip was a shopping excursion to the village of Ubud, the main center for arts and crafts on the island. After an early walk on the beach and another good breakfast, we met our tour guide, Mr. Sudira, in the lobby of the hotel at 9:00 am. Most people on the island speak one of a number of local languages such as Balinese. In addition virtually everyone speaks Indonesian since that is the common language of the island and the rest of the country as well as the language of business. Then many people speak English and maybe even other languages because they work in the tourist industry. Tourists to Bali come from many places. The most common seemed to be Australians, Japanese, Germans and even quite a few Russians. There were a few Americans but not that many since it is so far away from the US. Since tourism is so important to the economy of Bali language skills are very valuable. Balinese who speak three or four languages are not unusual. Sudira called our driver, Mr. Made, and off we went.

Our hotel was near the southern end of the island. So to go anywhere we started by driving through Denpasar. It was definitely a third-world city. There was a lot of poverty and in some places a lot of trash. But not the worst I have seen and some parts of it didn't look too bad. There was a lot of traffic. And it seemed that almost all of it was motor scooters. They outnumbered cars and trucks about five to one. The traffic was quite chaotic. Roads were narrow and it seemed like if the road had one lane in each direction, there were at least one car and one or two scooters side-by-side going each way. And half the motor scooters had people with riders on the back. It was very common to see a whole family riding - dad driving with mom on the back and a kid (or two) on the seat ahead of him. Definitely chaotic although not as bad as China. It seemed like there should have been accidents everywhere. Sure enough on one of our trips we got stuck in a traffic backup. When we reached the point of congestion there was a big crowd of people and someone on the ground covered up with a plastic sheet. I don't even want to know what the traffic fatality rate is there.

The master salesman showing wood carvings to Sandy

Ubud is in the south-center of the island. Our first stop was the batik factory. Sandy was especially excited about this. One of her favorite lines of fabric is based on Balinese batik patterns. So she brought an extra soft bag in our luggage to fill up with fabric she bought. She was psyched. We got a very brief tour of how the batik fabric is made (skip the tour - we want to shop) and then went to the store. I found a really nice batik shirt. It even had purple in it so Sandy liked it. But she didn't like any of the fabric. Everything had strange colors - red or gold or pink or yellow green. Nothing that Sandy liked. Oh well.

Next stop was a store specializing in silver jewelry. Sandy spent quite a while there and found some nice things but no good deals. So she passed. Strike two.

Then we went to an art gallery. There we found some nice things. We were interested in the paintings there. But Bali is also very famous for wood carving. We found a great combo - a nice painting of a Hindu goddess with a frame that featured intricate flower carvings. It seemed pricey but I decided to apply the knowledge I got in China - I offered them half. When you do that you feel kind of guilty. Turned out I wasn't off by too much. Sandy found a second picture she liked but decided not to get it. Before we left though, the guy had gone lower for his offer than I had offered on the picture we bought. So I was pretty close.

Steve and Sudira at the Bat Cave Temple

After that we went to a wood carving factory. Again the tour was short and we got down to shopping. Sandy found a wood statue of Dewi Sri, the goddess of prosperity, also known as the Rice Goddess. It was just gorgeous but since it was over three feet tall I wasn't sure how we were going to get it home. And they wanted a lot for it. So I lowballed and offered 40% and they took it. Then the sales guy kept whispering to Sandy that she should give him a tip because he had talked the owner into giving us such a good price. Man, that guy may have been in Indonesia in a sarong and sandals selling souvenirs but he would have been at home in plaid pants and sports coat, smoking a cigar and selling used cars in Southern California.

We did find some nice things but it was a little disappointing. The shopping setup in Bali was different than other places that I have been. Usually tourist type shops are clustered near resorts or tourist areas. In Bali shops were spread all over the island and seemed to cluster by what they sold. We would be driving through a village and for a block there would be shops on both sides of the street selling wood carvings. But on our tour most of our stops were at isolated special tourist shops. But we did find some nice stuff.

Worshippers exiting the Mother Temple - Mt. Agung behind

On another day we took the temple tour. We had seen some incredible Hindu temples on our visit to Cambodia the previous month. But Bali is known as the "Island of 1000 Temples" so I was interested to see what they were like.

Bali has a very long history. The island has been inhabited for 4000 years. It was a part of the Majapihit Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom in Indonesia, which was based on the eastern end of the island of Java. As the empire collapsed in the 1400's under pressure from nearby moslem sultanates, many people fled to Bali which was the only island in Indonesia to remain predominantly Hindu. So the temples on Bali are Hindu like Angkor Wat. But there is a distinctive style to the Hindu temples of Bali. And rather than the colossal scale of the projects in Cambodia, in Bali every village and even every business and home has their own temple. Most of them are small but they are everywhere. The life of most people is strongly oriented around their religion. Offerings are made and prayers said multiple times every day.

Looking up the main steps of the Mother Temple

After another drive through the traffic in Denpasar we visited Goa Lawah, the Bat Cave Temple. As we cut across the outer courtyard I started taking pictures. I got in trouble because I didn't know that we were supposed to go quickly (we were cheating) to the place where we would get the appropriate clothes for visiting the temple. Both Sandy and I had to wear a sarong and a sash. Once we had the proper attire (and I thought I looked very sharp I might add) we went into the inner courtyard of the temple. It is an active temple and we watched worshippers praying and making offerings and being splashed with holy water by the priests. Directly behind the altar is the mouth of a large cave that is inhabited by thousands of bats. No one is allowed to enter the cave but you could easily see inside that the walls and ceilings were covered with hanging bats. It looked like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. And there was a constant squeaking noise from the bats. But the temple had been there for a thousand years and the people don't bother the bats. And the bats didn't bother the people - unless you count getting bat shit everywhere and on everything. I wouldn't want to be the guy who had to clean the place up.

Next we continued to the northern part of the island to visit Besakih. It has the largest and most important temple on Bali which is referred to as the Mother Temple. It is high on the western slopes of Mount Agung so the roads were narrow and winding and the drive there took about two hours. But we finally reached the town and our driver dropped us off in a square lined with tourist shops. Sudira took us to get our required sarongs again and then we headed up the road to the temple. From where our driver had to drop us off it was actually over half a mile up the road to reach the temple. And in this case "up" really meant up. Not really bad but some of the tourists must find it tough as there were guys on motor scooters who kept offering to give us a ride to the top for a few bucks. We actually enjoyed the walk and since we were up higher it was cooler here. The street leading to the temple was lined with tourist shops and this looked like my first real chance to get some tshirts and souvenirs. But Sudira said that these were very cheap and poor quality. He promised to take us to a place with better tshirts. It was tough but I passed by all the shops.

Mother Temple with Mt. Batukaru and other peaks in the distance

Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, is situated on the slopes of Mt. Agung at an altitude of 900 meters. But with a height of 3142 meters there is still a lot of mountain left above. The view is impressive walking up the road with the upper slopes of Gurung Agung towering over the temple. As we entered the temple worship services were just concluding and many people were streaming out of the temple. Add to that lots of tourists and lots of hawkers trying to sell to the tourists and it was quite a scene. The Mother Temple is really not a single temple, but rather a sanctuary that contains 22 different temples with almost 300 separate buildings. They were built over the course of many generations. Even exploring the temple site is work as it is built on a series of terraces on fairly steep slopes and going anywhere involves climbing many steps. But it is worthwhile as there are beautiful views from many spots that look out over the temple buildings and courtyards to the southern plains of Bali and the Indian Ocean in the far distance. One of the main motifs was the pagoda - there were many towers throughout the temple grounds. The roofs of the pagoda towers are made of thatch from the black pepper tree, a unique spice that grows in the area of the temple on the south slopes of Mt. Agung. The black thatch roofs made the pagodas quite striking in appearance.

Lake Batur and Gurung Abang with Gurung Agung behind

During the major eruption of Mt. Agung in 1963 the lava flow passed only a few feet from the temple grounds. The people of Bali consider the survival of the temple to be a miracle where the gods showed their power but deliberately spared the holy temple. The temple has been proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site but the local people have strongly resisted this idea. Since the temple is very active they do not wish to reliquish any control to outsiders.

After the temple our next destination was the village of Kintamani. We piled into the car for the half hour drive which took well over an hour. Kintamani is very famous as a tourist destination. The town is long and narrow, built along the crest of a ridge that overlooks Lake Batur, the largest lake on Bali. One side of the road is basically lined with restaurants that overlook a basin. The lake is framed by two volcanoes, Mt. Batur and Mt. Agang and in the distance is the huge volcano Mt. Agung. Thousands of years ago Mt. Batur was actually much higher than Mt. Agung but it exploded in what is believed to have been one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in recent eons. The lake, basin and two peaks are all in a caldera that is the remnant of the original Mt. Batur. The 5633 foot peak known today as Mt. Batur is a secondary cone that was formed by an eruption in 1917. It's last eruption was in 1994. The view was impressive but as a mountain afficianado I have seen lots of mountains and lots of mountain lakes. I'm not sure it was worth several hours of driving in a semi-airconditioned car. After snapping a few photos we decided to skip lunch and headed back to the resort.

A toast to Sandy on her birthday

On the way home we did stop at a tourist shop where I got a few tshirts. But it was probably a mistake to have waited. It seemed way too artificial. I like rumaging around in small shops and markets a lot more. And I was really disappointed that I couldn't find any of the really cool carved-wood chess sets with Hindu figures that I had seen in some of the shops we passed while walking to the temple.

But I was in luck after all. One evening our hotel had a craft fair where local artists could come in and sell their work. There was actually a lot of nice stuff but we already had a large item to take home, our Dewi Sri statue. We also had all of Sandy's birthday presents which I had hauled to Bali and which we now had to haul back (and if you know how much I hate adding any weight or bulk in luggage you know that is a big deal). Sandy was upset as there were hardly any guests from the hotel even looking at what the people had for sale. I did find a wood carver who had some beautiful chess sets and boards carved in ebony wood. We were on our way to dinner to watch the sunset but we told him we would be back. He seemed disappointed since that is probably the standard line people give when they leave. But we did come back after dinner and bought a chess set with a really cool board that is actually a mini-table/stand. He said it took him almost a month to carve. We also bought two beautiful jewelry boxes that were even carved on the inside cover. The artist was very proud of his work and showed where he had carved his name, where he was from, and his telephone number on the inside. For once we didn't haggle too much on the price. If it really took him a month it was a heck of a deal.

Last but not least we had a really nice dinner on our last night on the island to celebrate Sandy's birthday. Sandy got to wear her new dress and I wore my new batik shirt. We had a glass of wine and watched the sunset at Jimbaran Bay. Then we ate at the Italian restaurant that was our favorite at the resort. Sandy had lobster - it was probably caught by one of the local fisherman right in the bay. Or not, but the story is a lot better if it was.

Additional pictures

Entrance to Goa Lawah Temple