Why we love Bali?
Welcome to the Island of God! This is how new visitors to Bali are greeted on arrival. They soon discover the reason: Bali, despite its rather small size boast an impressive number of temples. Old and new, famous and anonymous, on the rocks out in the sea, on the lake, in the forest, in private dwellings. Some were built by kings, some by travelling monks, our guide confirmed that every family’s ambition is to have its own home temple for everyday use. Do I need to add that we are talking about Hindu temples?
Hinduism arrived in Bali as early as 1st century AD and as it grew, it incorporated older animistic beliefs. Religious rituals still play a big role in Balinese society today; you will come across little offerings – Canang Sari- banana leaf trays filled with flowers and food that are left everywhere, including the beach.
Balinese temples with their characteristic split gates are exquisitely decorated and combine architectural elements from India and China. Some are celebrated because of their spectacular locations, like Tanah Lot, perched on the lone rock out into the sea or Ulun Danu on the lake Bratan with the mountains as the backdrop.
Gunung Kawi temple, dating from 11th century, is a complex of shrine reliefs carved into the rock face. Tirta Empul is renowned for the holy spring, where Hindus perform the ritual of purification. The spring is also the source of the Pakerisan River. The list seems endless and no matter how long you would stay in Bali, there is always going to be one more temple to visit!
Bali is an island renowned for its art. Ubud area in particular is home to a great number of craftsmen of all kind, from stone or wood carvers through jewellers to batik painters and glass blowers. Balinese culture is colourful, expressive and captivating. Nothing embodies these qualities more than dance. Inspired by religious rituals and ancient myths, it enthrals the viewer with elaborate costumes and dynamic movements. One of the most popular performances inspired by ancient mythology is the animal mask dance, featuring lion-like Barong, king of the spirits and Rangda, the child-eating witch. They represent the fight between good and evil in the local tradition. The motif of these two characters and their battle has strong presence in Balinese culture to this day and most likely predates hinduism.
A lot of people come to Bali because of its beaches, but you need to leave the shores and explore the interior to truly experience the island’s breathtaking landscapes. Active volcanoes with their peaks hidden in the clouds, green rice terraces and ancient forests and lakes invite nature lovers and adventure seekers. You can hike mount Agung or mount Batur for even more spectacular views. The forests are home to sandalwood trees, long tailed macaque, flying foxes, monitor lizards and rusa deer, among others. When we talk about wildlife and tourism, we cannot avoid the questions of animals’ welfare.
One of the places most people will visit when in Bali is the famous Monkey Forest in Ubud. The sanctuary is owned and managed by Panangtegal community. It is a conservation and research project with various objectives from observing macaques' behaviour and social interactions to growing rare plants. It is also a sacred place and home of several temples, such us 14th century Pura Dalem Agung. As always when mass tourism is involved, there is a question of animal well being. The presence of very many people every day will have impact on monkeys behaviour, on the other hand the idea behind the project is to allow people to experience and understand the environment where humans, animals, forest and spirituality are part of the same world and are equally welcome and cherished. It is also part of the local tradition. As always it is just the question of balance.
Another local tradition, drinking Luwak coffee has been turned into a commercial enterprise with I think more detrimental consequences for animals involved. Kopi luwak is a coffee bean partially digested by Asian palm civet – apparently fermentation that occurs as the bean passes through animal’s intestines gives coffee particular flavour. That I guess might be a personal taste and in the past the beans were collected in the forest, but due to high demand animals are nowadays kept in battery cages and overfed coffee beans. Industrial farming of any kind has its environmental cost that we too often choose to ignore.
Bali’s rice terraces were globally recognised long before the Instagram frenzy reached here. When you take a stroll through the fields, you will notice water canals connecting the fields and the temples. This is local irrigation system called Subak that has been in use continuously since the 9th century. Hence their UNESCO Heritage status. It is ecologically sustainable, but it is also based on a philosophical principle: the canals link the fields, temples and villages creating a harmonious relationship of people with nature and the realm of the spirit.
It is easy to understand what brings thousands of visitors to this tiny island every year: captivating, colourful culture, warm, welcoming people, the landscape of rice fields and steaming volcanoes, luxurious resorts and trendy beaches, all makes for an unforgettable experience and a holiday of a life time. The impact of tourism on environment with the increased development and pollution, the impact on culture with many religious or social rituals turned into shows for the curious holidaymakers looking for entertainment is apparent in Bali. Is this beneficial for the local community or would Bali be the victim of its own success?