There is no real way to capture or understand the enchantment of a Balinese immersion. There is something subliminal and sacred about the way all the elements of Balinese life flow together. Yes, even those scary ass dogs.
At the present moment I have a few friends heading to Bali, and as the January rain pours down here in San Francisco, I wish so badly on the stars in the sky (that I can’t see) that I was joining them. But instead of pouting, I decided to put aside my jealousy and bask in my memories.
The small island is stunningly beautiful. Tiered rice paddy fields, lush jungles, picture perfect beaches, and volcanoes are all accessible from wherever you station yourself on it.
When I arrived in Bali I was lucky enough to do so at the tail end of a Southeast Asia tour in which I learned as much as I could about each country I was in, and its religion. A basic knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism helped me to understand the complexity of Balinese religion, and it also helped to have been in some Muslim countries to juxtapose Balinese belief to the prominent religion of the rest of Indonesia.
The island’s religion, dubbed Balinese Hinduism, is an all encompassing faith that celebrates the major themes of Hinduism; most notably the Gods Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu; along with many Buddhist principles, and agricultural deities. There is just an overwhelming awareness that everything around us has its own unique energy.
Evidence of this beautiful religion is prolific everywhere. Many houses and guesthouses will have their own elaborate courted temples, but at the very least a small alter is tended to daily. Every morning the locals prepare small offerings on little banana leaf plates to put on alters, doorways, windows, and everywhere spirits may dwell. The banana plates usually contain fresh flowers, rice and fruit, but I saw some with packages of crackers, cigarettes, sausages, lollipops, and almost anything else imaginable.
The offerings placed on the ground are for the demons and above are for the gods. I think the demon offerings are ironic because the demon-like dogs of Bali love to eat them. The demon offerings are almost impossible not to step on as there seems to be one every foot on the main walkways. After a week in Bali I noticed I stepped around the offerings without thinking about it. Easy way to spot the new tourists, look for the ones stepping on offerings!
The offerings for the Gods are placed on the loftier alters, all of which face the volcano, Mount Agung, the highest point on the island. There are about 20,000 temples on Bali, but the most famous and frequented is the mother temple, Pura Besakih, which sits on the slopes of the volcano.
While there, me and my travel companions got stuck in a huge downpour whilst in an abandoned courtyard at the top of the temple. Our guide (Whom my friend Laila picked. She was tired of all the in your face hustlers, so she found the quietest and least obtrusive guide available, sitting in a corner reading a newspaper, to escort us foreigners through the temple.) instructed us on how to worship to the high gods in the traditional fashion. While the tropical rain poured down around us, we prayed with fresh flowers in our hands.
My favorite temple I visited was Pura Tirta Empul, the water temple. The temple was built to honor a holy spring lored to be created by the god Indra and possess curative properties. There is a large pool I waded into with twelve fountains spewing out the purest, freshest, and coldest water I think I have ever felt. The whole pool had brightly colored flower petals floating in it from all the offerings piled everywhere.
In all my travels I have been in many churches, temples, and mosques as well as other unique natural settings, and I have never been so blown away by the power of a place as I was here. There was a sense of purity as well as playfulness. No one cared that I was obviously a tourist or that I wasn’t a Hindu. There were children splashing each other and goofing around, and no one shushed them, rather they received smiles. Some people seemed to go into a trance when they entered the water, others just couldn’t stop smiling. I was one of those people.
If (when) you make it out to Bali I highly recommend Tirta Empul on your temple list. Bring a change of clothes, and don’t forget to donate an offering so the flower petals will always grace the pool.
There is so much to say about this tiny island, but words seem lacking compared to my memories. Everything was cheap. The shopping was great. The beaches were beautiful. But what really sticks in my mind is simple interactions with the people who live on the island and the grace and gratitude so many of them encompassed with every core of their beings.
If you really want to immerse yourself in the island’s wonder, stay away from Kuta/Seminyak/Legian. Find yourself a tiny guesthouse or villa surrounded by rice paddies. Eat gado-gado every day. Take long walks (watch out for the dogs). Wave at the children that stare at you and watch them giggle with delight. Shop at local markets. Watch the sun set. Watch the sun rise. Leave offerings at temples no matter what your religion is (even if you don’t have one). Smile and thank the island’s many gods that your life is so good.
photo credits: simon monk 1-6, 11, 12 me 7-10, 13, 14