Temples, monkeys and mountains

posted in: Travel | 0
Mythology. That’s Garuda, Vishnu’s mount

We’d had a look at tour offerings in the hotel lobby and asked one of the clerks if prices were in US$. He said yes, US dollars – but he could organise for a car and driver for us who would cover the same attractions. Car and driver for eight hours would cost a million, and we’d have to pay for entrances and lunch.

A million???? Yep. The exchange rate worked out at roughly IDR10,000 to AUD$1. So that was $25 each for a car for eight hours. Sounded good, especially since the tour we’d seen in the brochure would have been $US69 each (about IDR960,000). I think it’s very likely the hotel clerk lined up the job with one of his relatives. I recall something similar happening on my last visit to Bali thirty years ago.

The driver picked us up in a clean, modern vehicle – but the backseat was only big enough for two of us, so one of us had to sit in the dicky seat in the rear. Our driver, Oka, was a pleasant enough young man and although, like most Balinese, he spoke some English, he was far from fluent and really only offered halting explanations if he was asked.

From Seminyak it took about two hours inching through the traffic to get to our first stop, a temple. On the way we were stopped for a police check. In Oz it would have been a random breathtest. Oka got out of the car to talk to the cops, and Colin, who was in the dicky seat, took out his phone. In seconds the cop was at the door, pointing and speaking in rapid Indonesian. Oka translated, was Colin taking pictures? No, he wasn’t. Okay. We went on our way, Oka explaining it had been a routine licence and rego check. But we discussed the incident the following day and agreed that our driver had to pay a bribe. Traffic enforcement is not a big deal here (we hardly saw a policeman), and we had been warned in Australia that the police are corrupt. Thinking back, the driver signaled the truth with a few comments he made. In fact, he said, “The police are corrupt, especially in Sanur”. We’d been in the Sanur area when we were stopped.

Two warriors stand guard at the entrance to ward off evil spirits

Temples are everywhere on Bali. I’ve mentioned the little shrines found in shops, cars (Oka had a little shrine on the car’s dashboard) and on the roadsides. That’s the bottom layer of a pyramid of spirituality. Every family has its own temple, some extremely elaborate. Every community has a temple, and then there are large public temples. The family temple is essentially ancestor worship, with the public temples more about the Gods. The Gods are those of the Hindu faith – Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. As in India, the cow is sacred. Then there are the other deities such as the elephant-headed God, Ganesh. The Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are important stories. We passed a huge statue of Arjuna, hero of the Mahabharata, not too far from the airport, and the figure of the monkey general, Hanuman, who is a major figure in the Ramayana, also figures prominently.

High fashion

Temples are not like a church where everybody goes into one building. Groups of open buildings are scattered around large, walled areas. Non-believers are allowed into the area but are asked not to go inside the buildings. Visitors are asked to conform to the requirements of entering a temple. It’s all about purity and modesty. Pregnant women, and menstruating women are forbidden, as is anyone where a close family member has died within the last 11 days. Oka couldn’t enter the temple because his uncle had died a week ago. Visitors are also asked to dress modestly – which means no trousers or bare legs. Ladies at the temple took our IDR10,000 each to fit us with a sarong, then we went into the temple area.

Each building has its guardians, ferocious creatures who defend against evil. These figures are often draped with black and white checked cloth, a symbol of security. Yellow and white cloth is also common. I couldn’t find a simple explanation of the significance, except that colour is associated with the Gods (red for Brahma, gold for Vishnu, white for Shiva). It would have been nice to have someone to explain everything properly (the advantage of a properly-organised tour).

The world turtle

We saw several depictions of the World Turtle carrying the world on its back. This was the inspiration for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The Disc is carried on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of Great A’Tuin, the star turtle, who swims magestically through space.

The carvings are magnificent. In this tropical climate the soft stone ages very quickly. Apparently, the carvings are replaced over time, as funds permit.

Next stop was the Tegenungan waterfall. We had to pay an entrance fee of IDR15,000 each. It sounds such a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s $1.50, so $6 for our group. The driver parked the car while we wandered between the line of food and souvenir stalls leading to a vantage point with a view of the waterfall. A steep path led down into the ravine for a closer look and a swim. After a nanosecond’s discussion, we agreed to pass. We took some photos, then returned between the stalls. A common incentive to buy something in the shops was an opportunity to use their toilet – for free.

From there we went to the monkey forest near the town of Ubud. It was very well established, with decent toilets and good paths. We had to pay, of course – IDR50,000 each – but that was perfectly reasonable. The monkeys are semi-wild – that is, they’re wild but the keepers feed them, so they hang around. Visitors are asked to use common sense – no food or drinks to tempt the beasties, no teasing or attempts to touch etc. You really don’t want to annoy a big male – or a baby monkey.

One of the three temples in the forest
For her it’s just a vantage point
New baby with extended family

People are warned not to bring in food and drink, but there’s always an idiot. In this case a woman had an (empty) soft drink can. At least she had the sense to let the monkey take the can, which she had crushed. He took it down to the water flowing down a drain and filled the can, then had a drink. Smart.

By now it was about 1pm, and we’d started at 9am. We wanted a break for coffee or something, so the driver took us up to Kintamani, a village with an excellent view of Mt Batur and its crater lake. Once again, we had to pay a fee to go up the road – IDR32,000 each. It was actually supposed to be IDR30,000, but the tax gatherer person added 2,000 each for himself. This was starting to feel like being asked to pay to take a photo and we were beginning to be a tad resentful.

Mt Batur. Ugung (the restless one) is further away to the right

The driver parked and pointed us at the restaurant with a terrace facing the mountain while he went off to wherever drivers go. Lunch wasn’t included, and the buffet lunch would have cost us IDR200,000 ($20) each. We weren’t particularly hungry – a sandwich would have suited – but that wasn’t an option. We passed on lunch and asked the local security/tax collector where we’d find the driver. Down there in the markets, he told us, pointing down the hill. We walked for a ways, taking note of non-existent or broken foot paths, the surrounds covered in litter, pursued by small children thrusting postcards at us. You buy. Cheap. Yes. After a short distance we agreed this was silly and went to wait by the car, fending off hawkers with T shirts and the like. Turns out our driver was in the downstairs restaurant under the building we’d entered (locals only) enjoying his free lunch.

Up here in the mountains the climate is cooler and this is where the Balinese grow vegetables like cabbages and tomatoes, as well as citrus fruit. Little villages are scattered everywhere, each with its own temple. We noticed the roads were lined with decorated bamboo poles with baskets, which we were told were ceremonial offerings. There had been an important festival on the date of last month’s full moon when these pieces were erected. They would be burned soon. I tried to get him to explain what the household expected to get from the offering. He didn’t understand the question at all. It was something you did. And why were some poles so much more elaborate than others? I don’t think he understood that question, either. I think the answer is if you’ve got money you are expected to create a more elaborate pole – but I bet there’s a bit of ‘mine’s bigger than yours’.

Symbolic offerings in a village

The driver who took us from the hotel to the airport when we left explained more on that trip than we’d learned with our man Oka for the full day. He explained what those bamboo poles were all about. The pole symbolises the sacred mountain (the volcano Mt Agung, which caused disruption to air traffic late last year). It’s an example of bringing the mountain to you when you can’t go there. He said Denpasar was emptying fast as people went back to their home villages for the ceremony when the offerings were burned. He would be off to his home town of Singaraja as soon as he’d dropped us off.

We drove back down towards Ubud and stopped off at the Tegalalang rice terraces, sculpted hillsides planted with rice. Our driver told us to tell the local security man when we were ready to go and went off to park the car. As soon as we’d alighted the security fellow wanted to sell us a ticket. IDR40,000 each. There are walking paths down through the paddy fields and up the other side – a lot of people younger than us were down there. But we just wanted a photo from the road, so we refused to pay. I took a picture from the footpath and was scolded with ‘no photo’. This same roadside was packed with food shops, souvenir stalls etc. To us it seemed silly. Wouldn’t they be better off not offending us with ‘entrance’ tickets and hope we’d buy a drink or something from the shops?

The rice terraces from the road

Seems we weren’t the only ones. This is a quote from “Things to do in Bali”. Sorry. the link to this post no longer works.

Which brings me to the one minor drawback Tegallalang has. Compared to some of the other rice fields in Bali, Tegallalang has become very touristy. The area is now complete with parking and entrance fees and stalls selling everything from food to souvenirs. You can book a tour with one of the many companies offering rice field tours or take a walk on your own. By wandering a bit further along the tracks after reaching the “top” of the valley you can reach the next valley, which has better views and fewer crowds. 

Our next stop was supposed to be the special coffee place which makes the most expensive coffee in the world – the beans have been through an animal’s body. By this time, we were all fed up with the ‘hand out’ mentality, so we asked the driver to take us back to the hotel. We arrived at about 5pm, tired and a bit pissed off.

In retrospect we may have been a bit unreasonable. After all, we’ve all voiced complaints about having to pay money to drive down a road in a national park in Australia, or to stand somewhere to take a photo. Entrance fees to National Trust properties in UK are expensive. They even charge you to stop in a layby with a view. Many places charge a fee to park the car. I think our gripe was that we didn’t know in advance – which is what you get when you don’t go on a properly organised tour. If I did it again I’d want to talk to the driver beforehand, sort out what we wanted to see and how much it would cost. That way, there are no surprises.

In more retrospect I think I would also have opted to look at spots closer to where we stayed in Seminyak. For instance, a couple of temples by the sea were not far away, including the famous Tanah Lot. Crossing the city took literally hours, with really nothing to see. Thirty years ago Sanur, Seminyak, Noosa Dua, and Kuta were villages, with Denpasar and its airport ‘over there’. Now it’s a classic conurbation.

However, on the way back we did pass by the infamous Korobokan jail. The administrative buildings look quite nice, actually. In contrast to the row of rusting barbed wire on the top of the prison wall.

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