A sudden breeze whips up from the ocean below, billowing through the open-air amphitheatre and over the embers of coconut husks on fire. The sudden gust of oxygen breathes life into the flames, creating a spiral that illuminates the faces of dancers, deep in trance and the darkness.
Uluwatu is located on the southwestern tip of the Bukit Peninsula in Bali – a large limestone jetty that juts away from the main island and out into the Indian ocean. Perched 70 metres above the waves on this parapet of stone, the eleventh-century temple - Pura Luhur Uluwatu - is one of Bali’s most sacred places; an outpost of ancient Hinduism that reaches towards the ancestral sub-continent.
“Dancers in a state of trance, surging together in concentric circles; a blur of pulsating movement”
Every night at Uluwatu, as many as 150 Balinese dancers gather for a performance of the island’s world-famous kecak show in the temple amphitheatre overlooking the sea. Dressed only in black and white chequered sarongs and with a red hibiscus flower tucked behind one ear, they chant and sway in a state of trance, surging together as one in concentric circles, with hands and arms fluttering in a blur of pulsating movement. The sound of so many voices chanting together creates a visceral, ethereal atmosphere in which the energy of the dancers is palpable to all in attendance.
Encircled by the audience, Uluwatu’s dancers form the pulsating nucleus of a human mandala pattern, radiating their energy outwards into the crowd (the mandala is a radial geometric shape that represents the cosmos; it appears in various Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions, focusing attention on practitioners and adepts, or as a spiritual guidance tool, establishing a sacred space and inducing a state of meditation and trance). Such patterns normally appear static in paintings, graphs, diagrams or sculptures; only in Bali are these cosmic arrangements brought so vividly to life.
The kecak dance was first conceived in the 1930s as a collaborative effort between Wayan Limbak, a local choreographer, and Walter Spies, a German painter and musician who was living in Bali at the time. Together they adapted movements and themes from traditional Balinese Sanghyang exorcism rituals, incorporating movements from the island’s Baris dance into a portrayal of tales from the Ramayana.
“A tale of magic, deception, drama and romance”
The story centres on Prince Rama’s beautiful bride, Sita, who is kidnapped by Rahwana, the demon king of Alengka, then rescued by Hanuman and his army of monkeys. The show is a tale of magic, deception, drama and romance. Unlike most rituals in Bali, which are accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra, the Kecak plays out to a five-part a cappella chorus of male voices provided by the dancers themselves. With primeval intensity, they channel animal spirits and the ancient gods into their performance.
The last glimmers of sunlight sink behind the horizon, melting into the depths of the Indian Ocean for another day. The sinuous bodies of the dancers weave and throb in unison, firelight flickering in their sweat on their backs as the show builds to its dramatic conclusion. Hanuman appears in a circle of fire at the centre of Uluwatu’s amphitheatre. The flames of the temple flare one last time, as Sita is rescued from the clutches of darkness and returned to Rama.
Every night, the dancers of Uluwatu conjure distant spirits from the Ramayana epics to play on this stage; a flickering canvas of fire and sunsets, perched above foaming ocean swells.
In Bali, morning crawls up the beach at sea turtle pace; lemon-yellow sunlight edging towards the palm trees with the tide. Fishermen, beachcombers, hoteliers and hawkers rub the sleep from their eyes and begin the day by sweeping coconut husks and driftwood from the powdery sands, putting out signs or making offerings to little shrines in the doorways. Sleeping dogs twitch in the dunes, chasing cats in dreamland and grinning through sandy whiskers. Fresh coffee wafts on the warm air, scented with jasmine creeping up trellises at the water’s edge. The day begins anew in Bali.
Sanur - known rather unkindly as ‘snore’ in some traveller circles – is unashamedly languid in character. This dreamy enclave on the southeastern coast of Bali is a spa for the soul; reducing the days into good reads, indulgent cocktails and intermittent dips in pool or ocean, bookended by luminous sunsets and restorative sunrises. There is no better place to drop the tempo, untangle the stresses of the world and breathe away your worries on the waves.
“A frenetic highway of activity and adventure”
Just down the coast, Nusa Dua has already had its coffee and is moving on to energy drinks in a blur of adrenaline. Here, Bali’s blue sky is dotted with kites and colourful sails, pulling thrill seekers through the surf below. The ocean is a frenetic highway of activity and adventure, where kayaks, windsurfers, jet skis and speedboats churn the sea up into a white-knuckle playground. Back at the beach, Balinese school kids fly kites in the shapes of pirate ships, dragons and eagles, soaring ever higher as tropical breezes sweep through the bay.
Across the Bukit Peninsula, to the western edges of Denpasar, Kuta beach could be mistaken for a different time zone. The dawn is less a call to action, more a white flag of surrender, sending revellers into retreat. A few hardened souls greet the dawn on beanbags, blinking in the daylight and incubating a twinkling nest of Bintang bottles. Out on the ocean, surfers are cutting swathes through the breakers. Back at the shore, English breakfasts are fried up with urgency and a Bloody Mary or two gets the day going once more. Kuta takes a deep breath and prepares to do it all again.
Bali is home to some of the world's oldest, most intricate and colourful traditions; ancient Hindu-Buddhist beliefs are deeply rooted in Balinese culture and intertwined with every aspect of daily life. The Balinese calendar is filled with cultural events to pay homage to ancient deities and to celebrate the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation.
The tinkling of distant gamelan music blends with the percussive tapping of sculptors’ hammers on stone and wood in the temple gardens. Warm air hangs still, scented with flowers and sweet sandalwood incense. Delicate offerings of food and flowers decorate every doorway, little shrines and ornate statues carved into each nook in the stonework. Known as the Island of the Gods, in places Bali can truly appear as a paradise on earth.
“Every temple in Bali is a unique work of art and devotion”
At the centre of it all, countless temples are dotted throughout the island; built by hand in terracotta-coloured stone and sculpture, they mingle with jungle ferns and vines, cradled by springs and rivers as though made by the island itself. Every temple in Bali is a unique work of art and devotion. Each sacred place offers something different: there are lotus gardens floating over koi ponds; ancient catacombs built into bedrock; elephant caves; fabled springs where youth springs eternal; shrines to kings, queens, gods and goddesses; and communal baths for the common man.
Balinese worshippers have been drawn to the sacred waters of Pura Tirta Empul for over a thousand years. Legend has it that the holy spring was created by the god Indra during a battle with Mayadanawa; Indra’s army was poisoned and close to death, so he created the holy spring to heal and revive his troops. The restorative properties of the sacred water are still revered to this day, with many local and international visitors journeying to the main pool to bathe and pray. Founded in 926 AD, the Tirta Empul complex features several bathing pools, along with a koi pond, ornate gateways, souvenir shops and some interesting gnarled banyan trees that have grown into twisted knots around the stonework.
“Bali temple craftsmanship at its decorative best”
Arguably Bali’s most iconic and sacred water temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is an eleven-story pagoda that appears to float like a lily on the surface of Lake Bratan, near Bedugul. Built in 1633, the temple is a shrine to lake and river goddess Dewi Danu, with a statue of the Buddha enshrined inside. The surrounding gardens offer crisp, cool mountain air and blissful views, overlooking the ornate beauty of Bali temple craftsmanship at its decorative best.
Just off the bustling main market street in Ubud, Taman Pura Saraswati is an oasis of tranquility. The temple is a wonderful example of Balinese artistry and temple architecture, framed serenely by a garden of floating water lilies and lotus flowers. Pura Saraswati is home to many ornate carvings and sandstone bas-reliefs that honour Dewi Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and the arts. It’s free to enter the courtyard of the temple compound, where you can get a close look at Bali’s statues and take a stroll around the ponds, where red dragonflies flicker among the flowers. The Lotus Café inside the compound is a peaceful place to enjoy lunch in full view of the temple and its adjoining garden.
Gunung Kawi is an eleventh-century temple and funerary complex in Tampaksiring to the northeast of Ubud, nestled in a valley that descends steeply through rice terraces and forest towards the Pakerisan River. Built on the banks of the valley floor, Gunung Kawi comprises ten candi (shrines) in 7-metre sheltered niches carved out of the sheer rock face. These funeral monuments are dedicated to King Anak Wungsu of the Udayana dynasty and his favourite queens. On the east side are five temples in honour of King Udayana, his queen Mahendradatta, and their sons Airlanga, Anak Wungsu and Marakata. The temples on the west side are dedicated to the king's minor queens and concubines.
Hidden away in the highland village of Sebatu near Tegallalang in Gianyar province and approximately 12km northeast from Ubud, Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple is a special find for visitors to Central Bali. Known locally as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu, this is one of the lesser-visited places on the island, yet arguably one of the most special. This serene temple complex features delicate gardens of frangipani and lotus flowers, koi ponds and ornate ancient shrines, accompanied by the trickling of natural spring water into clear pools.
“Every aspect of daily life can be a simple yet sacred act of devotion”
Bali’s temples are not just relics of an ancient past; they are compass points for prayer and pilgrimage that continue to function as spiritual centerpieces in modern times. On Bali, every day is a special occasion; a joyful and grateful celebration of life. Here, every aspect of daily life, no matter how small, can be a sacred and simple act of devotion. The people of Bali continue to give thanks and perform their religious rites as they have done for generations. Bali’s temples are the alters upon which the islanders’ offerings are placed; where Bali’s devotion and zest for living can be seen in all its traditional, contemporary and colourful glory.
If temples are the spiritual heart of Bali, art and music must surely be the lifeblood. The best place to feel the pulse of Bali’s unique artistry is Ubud; a spectacular green veranda overlooking cool jungle highlands, home to a thriving art scene, yoga retreats and wellness centres for healing and relaxation. Ubud is the perfect place to escape the excesses of the south, get back to nature and discover some detox for body and soul.
About 30 minutes’ drive to the north of Ubud’s main market, the winding roads open out over a beautiful valley of rice terraces known as Tegallalang. The area is home to three of the most impressive terraced rice field areas in Ubud’s shared region, including the neighbouring villages of Pejeng and Campuhan. These fields are the perfect place to explore, snap some picturesque photos and witness subak farming in action (subak is a traditional cooperative irrigation system, established in Bali by a revered holy man named Rsi Markandeya in the early eighth century).
With its rice terraces, valleys, fields and forests, Ubud is about as beautiful a backdrop as you can imagine for a relaxing retreat into nature and serenity. The town has established itself as one of Southeast Asia’s premier locations for yoga and wellness retreats, with classes on offer for all levels. Ubud is also home to many luxurious spas, where visitors can unwind, pamper, rejuvenate and indulge in absolute relaxation.
“Explore the fields, snap some photos and witness traditional Subak farming in action”
Elsewhere there are plenty of museums, galleries, cafes and workshops dotted along the mountain trails of Ubud - little corners of creativity, collections of artworks and culinary enclaves that will have visitors alighting at virtually every bend in the road. Ubud is food for the soul; an idyllic getaway in the cradle of Balinese culture where you can to eat, pray or simply love your stay.
Clouds break open in the cobalt sky over Jatiluwih and the faint arc of a rainbow cuts the mist in the valley below. Sunshine climbs the staggered rice terraces, which flash gratefully in luminous greens and yellows, as if they were the fluttering pages of a book. Farmers trudge the mud at their borders, shoring up the banks of packed earth and tidying up after the storm. Corrugated rooftops of cottages and huts glitter in the distance; twinkling beads in a chain of emerald green, behind which little gardens grow marigolds and ducks waddle in search of snails.
Jatiluwih is the largest, best-preserved and most breathtaking expanse of paddies to be found anywhere in Bali. Located 50km (around 1 hour 30 minutes) from Denpasar, the village and its adjacent farmland covers an area of approximately 35 km2, comprising 600 hectares of rice fields that blanket the rippling topography of Bali’s central Batukaru mountain range. Taken from the local language jati (meaning ‘really’) and luwih (meaning beautiful or special), this panoramic paradise lives up to its name; a stunning vista of green steps in the landscape, with blue skies reflected in rice paddy pools as far as the eye can see.
Jatiluwih forms part of the Subak Landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru, one of five regions in Bali designated as a unique cultural landscape by UNESCO. These fertile fields produce crops of rice, vegetables, coconut, coffee and bananas, tended to by indigenous communities of Subak farmers and their families. They use a traditional irrigation system, which implements the concept of Tri Hita Karana; a philosophy of harmony between neighbours, nature and the spirit world.
The area was appointed a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2012 due to its importance to the environment and sustainable living for traditional communities. Tours to Jatiluwih with Panorama Destination put an emphasis on sustainable tourism and integration with the local population; a great way to get back to nature, learn something new and leave behind nothing but footprints and happy memories.
“Learn the local customs of an ancient and storied community”
Visiting Jatiluwih offers the chance to experience authentic village life and learn the local customs of an ancient and storied community, all the while contributing to the preservation and success of this beautiful corner of Bali. Whether putting down roots or just passing through, those who see Jatiluwih will forever remember the view from this special garden in the island of the gods.
Just like the Subak farmers of Jatiluwih and Tegallalang, fisherman in the channels and coral coves surrounding Menjangan live by the local philosophy of “Tri Hita Karana” - a concept that revolves around principles of harmony between people, nature and religion. Nowhere is this more eloquently described than in West Bali National Park.
The park is the most north-westerly point of Bali. It includes the whole of the Prapat Agung Peninsula, along with nearby Menjangan Island and large areas of land around the towns of Gilimanuk, Cekik and Banyuwedang. The official area inside the park boundaries is 190 square kilometres, with a further 580 square kilometres of protected reserve in the highlands to the east. In total this accounts for around ten percent of Bali's total land area.
West Bali National Park is a nature reserve that’s home to rainforest, dry savanna, acacia scrub, lowland forests and mangroves. Each habitat supports a wealth of wildlife, including Javan Rusa and Indian Muntjac deer, and more than 160 types of birds, including the island’s only endemic vertebrate species, the Bali Starling. Visitors can participate in worthwhile conservation projects in the park, helping to nurture biodiversity that is fast disappearing in other parts of the island.
At the forefront of these conservation efforts, Plataran L’Harmonie opens up the many wonders of the park to eco tourists from all over the world. In October 2017, the resort hosted the first ever Menjangan Fisherman Boat Carnival, showcasing the traditional culture, outstanding natural beauty and spiritual richness of the area. The centerpiece of the event was a full moon celebration known as ‘Tirta Yatra’, along with additional activities such as music and dance performances, kite flying and a beach cleanup project designed to bring nationalities and cultures together in the park as family and friends.
“Traditional culture, outstanding natural beauty and spiritual richness”
A total of 200 pilgrims, industry professionals and Plataran’s own guests attended the event. Local families gathered in the gardens of the resort’s Octagon restaurant, each dressed in crisp white tunics and headdresses, kebaya, batik sashes and sarongs fluttering in the early morning breeze. Together, they made their way in a colourful procession to the resort’s jetty and prepared to depart.
After prayers on the dock and blessings from a local priest, the whole group clambered into a flotilla of fishing boats, elaborately decorated with flags, streamers and fringes made from banana leaves. The fleet was led in grand, statesmanlike style by a traditional Phinisi boat, casting off in the direction of Menjangan Island; home to one of Bali’s most sacred temples and the destination for the day’s festivities.
“The fleet was led in grand, statesmanlike style by a traditional Phinisi boat”
Upon arrival at Menjangan, the congregation disembarked against a backdrop of swooping volcano peaks and clouds puffed up like cauliflowers in the sky. Parcels of marigolds and frangipani, along with lunches, incense and water were unloaded and carried ashore on shoulders, through the sapphire shallows of the island’s beaches and past groups of wild deer, looking up from their watering holes.
Next, the devotees journeyed through the savannahs and forests of Menjangan, up sunbaked hillsides and past overgrown shrines built in sandstone, to Segara Giri Menjangan Temple. Here, offerings were lovingly placed on the temple alters, and blessings given to all in attendance with a flick of holy water and the tranquil tinkling of a bell from the island’s priest.
The final stop on the parade route was a shrine at the top of a mountain in the centre of Menjangan Island, overlooking the bay below and framed by fluttering penjor decorations above (the penjor is a slender, gracefully arching bamboo pole, intertwined with colourful flowers, fruit, unhusked rice and palm frond ornaments, with an offering at its base. Such decorations are commonly used in Bali to mark special occasions).
At the summit of the hill in the centre of Menjangan, the congregation of worshippers gathered to pray and make offerings to the island’s sacred shrine. Here, with the sun on their backs and the salty ocean breeze whipping their sashes and sarongs into a flutter, they gave thanks to the gods and the island itself for bestowing such a beautiful environment upon them.