Bali is paradise on earth. A unique island which is as much modern in its facilities as it is traditional in its art, culture and lifestyle – a heritage feast personified.
On first reaching the airport at Denpasar, we took a cab that brought us to our accommodation in Nusa Dua, a lovely little area that hangs off the southern end of Bali almost like a teardrop. It's where Bali's largest enclave of luxury resorts are carefully laid out surrounded by lush foliage and serene beaches. An ideal holiday experience, Nusa Dua has a number of little souvenir shops and restaurants that offer traditional Balinese dance performances like the legong, amongst other little treasures. The best way to get around in Bali is via hiring a car and a driver. The local drivers are resourceful and friendly, and they often double up as guides. If you have an aesthetic bent of mind, then undoubtedly, the first place for you to hit is Ubud, about an hour north of Denpasar. It's a good way to get a feel of "the real Bali". Driving through the town is like a dream come true, art and craft fill up every surface in sight, all around this little sleepy hamlet. It is home to the most distinct Balinese painting style.
The drive to Ubud is full of its own surprises. With a number of little villages offering various arts of their own, you learn that in Bali, it's always about the journey, rather than the destination. Stop over at Batbalan Village where you will see some rare stone carvings. An interesting thing to watch is the batik processing. There are a number of shops that sell batik ware, with people working at it outside. The next village is Celuk, known for its famous silver and gold jewellery. A little further down is Sukawati where you can pick up some artistic hand-crafted puppets. The road north then passes through Mas. Here you will find numerous shops selling several woodcarving masterpieces.
Other interesting items you will encounter along the way are kites and masks. These make up the must-buy souvenirs from a truly magical island! You might also like to take home some famous Balinese coffee, cocoa and herbal tea packets.
Ubud mostly has shops that sell paintings, but it also has its own share of branded stores that you would find in any big city. You can't help but shop till you drop in this area. And the best part is that you can always bargain! There are some intriguing cultural performances in the evenings that one cannot miss, traditional dance forms performed at the Ubud Palace.
Balinese people are a mix of Malays and Polynesians. It's really something to see a wedding or even funeral ceremony in procession, as it gives an insight into the community life. It is believed that every single person present in the area must participate in these celebrations. The Balinese greatly value the ideal of selam-putih or black-and-white, as every motif resounds with a sense of balance. Even doors have two gates, one good and one evil.
After Ubud, we decided to devote the next day to the famous Mother Temple that stands tall against a stupendous mountain backdrop on the southeastern slopes of Mount Agung. Pura Besakih is fascinating because it is a massive complex of 35 small temples. So, if temples are a must-do on your list of things and you're short on time, definitely choose this one! Plus, climbing the steps is not really a misery, as there are temples at regular intervals that you can stop at and see. Overall, the experience gets along rather smoothly especially if you're with a guide, who keeps telling you what you're looking at. There are different sites devoted to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; you may even feel cleansed.
To continue our spiritual quest for the day, we spent the evening at Uluwatu. Lying at the southern tip of Bali, Uluwatu has another beautiful temple called the Pura Uluwatu – great to be here in time to watch the sunset, as the view at this time is at its zenith!
A little walk from the sunset point leads you towards an experience that you can barely forget in a lifetime. In a round shaped auditorium, stages a dramatic representation of the Ramayana in the form of a lively dance known as the kecak. Kecak is the most unique Balinese dance form which is not accompanied by any orchestra, but by a choir of 70 men. In this, a person communicates with the deities in a state of trance. Using dancers as a medium, the deities convey their wishes. Needless to say, the costumes are magnificent and the performance is completed in the form of a fire dance. Some of the characters even interact with the audience in a jovial way, making it fun for children to watch. That said, it is an excellent way to learn about one's ancient scriptures and epics in a form that is educational as well as entertaining. It was the most simple and creative art I have ever seen for the great epic to be utilised.
On the way back to Nusa Dua, we decided to stop at the Jimbaran Bay for dinner. The bay itself forms the backdrop to a broad sweeping crescent of a beach. Having dinner on the coastline is romantic and the food traditional Balinese or Indonesian. Good time to be experimental and try out the local flavour. And if you're a seafood person, then it's your day.
We were fortunate the Bali Arts Festival was on at Denpasar, close to Kuta. Every evening was a feast of cultural performances, handicraft exhibitions and other related commercial activities. It's a microcosm of all that Bali is known for, complete with sights, sounds and smells. Stage performances, dance choreographies, musical creations, puppet shows and other revelry are the order of the day.
We spent the entire last day exploring the area around Nusa Dua. There is an interesting market called Bali Collection that houses a huge art market, convenience store, and a range of other branded stores like Sogo. It's a great place to do last minute shopping, and pick up little trinkets for friends and relatives back home. We had dinner at an outdoor restaurant where a local dance troupe performed some of the most impressive dance styles such as salsa, Latin, Indonesian, Balinese and flamingo. By the end, we were all tapping our feet on stage.
My last memory of Bali was getting myself a soothing traditional Balinese foot and back massage at a spa – left me refreshed and recharged for the journey back home.
You may or may not return to this beautiful island again, but you know that Bali will surely remain with you forever. To sign off in true Balinese style – Tremakasih.