How can you go wrong with a driver/guide named To Day in Bali? He picked us up at Ngurai Ah airport from where we proceeded to our itinerary of Kuta-Tanah Lot-Uluwatu. On his suggestion, we skipped Sanur in favor of Tanah Lot as there was really nothing much to see at Mekhar Buhana gallery which was the only reason I wanted to go there. He was a chatty kind of guy who had much to tell us about Bali, its sights, people, and culture. The girls really swooned when they asked him about “Eat, Pray, Love” and he told them that he was Julia Roberts’ personal driver. To prove it, he was going to give his copy of the book to Rhoda that Julia had given him.
I didn’t like Kuta very much as it looked just like any traffic-congested, hotel and restaurant-lined beach filled with souvenir and snack vendors, people offering massage, surf boards for rent, and other stuff. There was also a line of debris thrown by the waves lining the shore. It was definitely not the kind of beach I’d like to lay on the sand on. We found the Php 500,000 rental for two sun chairs a bit steep so we opted to jalan-jalan sajah (walk around only) and take pictures of the surf. Boracay is infinitely better.
We spent about half an hour at Kuta before driving off for lunch. En route, To Day showed us the spot where the 2002 bombing occurred and the Memorial Wall at Jl Legian in which the names of all those who died were inscribed. He said he still gets emotional every time he sees it as one of the names there is of his good friend.
We had the most delicious lunch at Malioboro Restaurant where we ordered the specialty— Ayam Telur Asin. The chicken was flayed and crisp to the bones and covered with a delicious yellow gravy of beaten egg (telur) and salt (asin). I still wonder how they made it. The sign board did say that the chicken was pressure-cooked which explains how tender it was. But the gravy was mind-bloggling. Never mind all the cholesterol, it was totally worth it! I have never had chicken cooked that way before.
To Day advised us to take a nap during the hour and a half drive to Tanah Lot which was very good advice as we had been up since five in the morning for the 8am flight to Bali.
On the drive to Tanah Lot, as we left the busy streets of Kuta and Legian, and passed through more rural villages, we chanced on a funeral at one of the houses. To Day parked the van so I could take pictures. A gamelan was assembled on a small porch outside the house and they soon started to play with a man singing a haunting melody. A group of people came out holding some offerings and went to a small path across the street which led to some paddy fields where they performed what seemed to be a ceremony led by someone dressed in white.
I guess all major sights in Indonesia force you to go through a labyrinth of stalls before your reach the entrance. Who said the easiest way from point A to point B is a straight line? In the case of Tanah Lot, it’s a jagged line that hopefully leads straight to your tourist wallet.
Surf pounded the rocky shore as crowds snapped photos everywhere. The craggy rock outcrops and swirling water all made for a very dramatic landscape. I half expected a curly-haired Meryl Streep to pop-out straight from a scene in a “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
The Holy Snake. Curiosity led me to a small opening under a cliff with a sign that read “Holy Snake.” A man sat out on front with a donation box (“Berapa harganya?” I asked. “Donation,” he answered. I gave Rp 1,000) while another older man in black-rimmed glasses presided over a large mound. Uncovering a small hole, he shone his flashlight on a black and silver snake writhing inside. He touched it and motioned me to do the same. I hesitated. “It might bite.” He shook his head and touched it again. I put my hand in and drew it back. He told me to touch it longer. He seemed to be reciting some prayer. I asked if the head was deep inside the hole as all I can see was a writing mass of black and silver scaly flesh that shone brightly on the light. With bated breath, I stroked the snake. Again, he prayed. I made out the word “bisnis” which I assumed to mean “business” and he was praying for its success. Whether it was my business he was praying for or his, I don’t know.
The pura (temple) itself stands on top of a small cliff reached by a flight of stairs. Jeannette and I crossed to the other side while Rhoda and Julie made their way up and opted to wait for us at one of the cafes overlooking the sea as they didn’t want to get their feet wet.
We joined a queue of people for some sort of purification ceremony. Water poured down from a bamboo pole that was collecting a stream of water running down the walls of a small cove in the cliff. Taking our cue from the locals before us, we washed our face, then our feet, then finally our hands. Then we turned to an elderly man who said some prayers while putting a flower on our right ears and some rice grains on our forehead.
Only then could we ascend the stairs leading to the pura on top. Our excitement soon turned into a huge disappointment! About a quarter up, a gate prohibited access further up. I had forgotten reading at LP that non-Balinese weren’t allowed on the temple itself. Jeannette and I had to content ourselves taking photographs with the spectacular view behind us.
Up at the cafe where Rhoda and Julie were we had some french fries (our excuse to be able to sit there) before heading back to the van for the long drive to Uluwatu. We slept again.
Arriving at Uluwatu, we were warned by To Day to keep all our possessions in our pockets or bags as the monkeys around the temple were prone to snatching things from people. True enough, a monkey had snatched the sunglasses off a shocked tourist.
Uluwatu is one of the holiest temples in Bali so we had to wear sarong which came as part of the Rp 3,000 entrance fee. The vermillion sarong anyhow looked great in pictures.
We had no time to go to the temple itself as we had to make our way to the open-air auditorium for good seats to watch the famous kecak dance at sunset. The view of the Indian Ocean from where we were was spectacular as waves crashed on the cliffs. From where I was seated, I also had a view of a small pavilion where the dancers were getting ready.
With the Indian Ocean and the sunset as backdrop, dozens of men in black and white plaid sarong started chanting “cak” and sat in a circle around a metal stand holding a fire. The chanting and the gestures was supposed to imitate those of monkeys who figure prominently in the Ramayana story which was to be enacted.
The movements of the dancers representing Rama and Shinta were the Bali dancing I had seen in documentaries and movies— graceful hand gestures and quick eye movements. It was all very beautiful and exciting especially when the men chanted at a feverish pitch and speed. The dancers performed inside the circle of men who would sometimes change formation and open-up to a semi-circle or in parallel lines for a wider dancing space.
The climax was the fire dance wherein Hanoman, set on fire, runs through bales of what look like grass set in fire. He kicks it around the “stage” while a couple of men with rakes in hand keeps the fire from running out of control and into the audience.
The show finished as dusk settled in. It was a long drive to Ubud and it was almost 10pm by the time we arrived at Jati 3 Bungalows which was on a small lane off Monkey Forest Rd. The three girls settled in a family room while I checked-in at a single room. The place was really nice as it even had a swimming pool and the rooms we got all had verandas that looked out onto the forest. It was also very clean.