Bali is so picturesque that you could be fooled into thinking it was a painted backdrop: rice paddies trip down hillsides like giant steps, volcanoes soar through the clouds, the forests are lush and tropical, and the beaches are lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. But the postcard paradise gloss has been manufactured and polished by the international tourist industry rather than by the Balinese themselves and it pays scant regard to the hard reality of life on Bali, which is currently suffering the fallout of Indonesia’s economic crisis and collapsing currency.
Bali remained calm in 1998 while many islands in the archipelago expressed their anger at the economic and political situation. Though tourism took a downturn in the first half of this year, visitors have flocked to the island in droves over the past 20 years. You’ll find locals living in traditional houses and participating in a timeless round of religious rituals and rice cultivation. In fact, the Balinese seem to handle tourism better than some of the tourists, many of whom are happy to be able to get a Coke but seem disappointed that they’re not the only ones sucking back the real thing.
Ubud is situated in the hills 20km (13mi) north of Denpasar, Ubud is the serene cultural center of Bali. Extensive development in recent years has meant that Ubud has engulfed a number of nearby villages, although these have retained their distinct identities. Head off in any direction and you’re in for an interesting walk to a secluded craft hamlet, through the rice paddies or into the dense Monkey Forest, just south of the town center.
Kecak / Fire Dance
The Kecak dance is a Balinese dance of the Hindu story Ramanyana, accompanied by a male chorus with chants, shouts, and recitations of highly rhythmic and complex interlocking syllables that are intended to sound like a forest of monkeys. Before the evening’s dancing begins, a pedanda or local priest holds a frangipani blossom between his fingers and dips it into holy water to sprinkle over the temple courtyard and the waiting dancers. In the righthand tray are typical temple offerings, to honor the gods and ask their blessing on the assembly. About 100 men of the banjar (village asociation) sit in a great circle by lamplight and chant the famous “monkey chorus” of ka-CHAK, ka-CHAK which gives the dance its name. Many cultures use “mouth music” of one sort or another, but we thought that kecak is one of the most infectious kinds we’ve ever heard. The men really get into it, and so do the crowds!
The second dance is the Fire dance which entails a man posing as a chicken running around in a trancelike state. A bonfire is set in the middle of the floor as he runs around it frantically. Then, all of a sudden he leaps into the middle of the fire and kicks the glowing embers in all directions with his bare feet. He proceeds to do this until the fire is completely out and the embers no longer glow. It was really quite an amazing sight and one well worth seeing again. It should be noted that trance dancing by men and women, children and adults, is an event which the Balinese treat with great respect. Skeptical Westerners may suspect fakery, or at least regard such performances as staged rather than authentic, but we do well to remember that they were a part of sacred temple ritual for many centuries before the first busload of tourists hit Bali.
Barong / Kris Dance
The Barong dance is a short extract from the much longer and seldom seen Calonarang drama. It is nonetheless an impressive spectacle. It describes the eternal conflict between Ratu Barong, the faithful guardian of the community and the pendulous-breasted Rangda, demonic mistress of the graveyard. Our show closed with a Kris dance, in which young men get into trance and stab themselves with krises, yet remain unhurt.
Burial / Cremation Ceremony
The Hindu people of Bali cremate their dead in an elaborate ceremony complete with processions, garlands, and effigies. However, the costs of cremation have rapidly risen over the years resulting in many local Balinese being unable to cremate their loved ones at death. Instead, the dead are buried in shallow graves and their bodies are exhumed from the ground once enough people have died in a single village to warrant a mass cremation. This system of mass cremation is not only an amazing spectacle for all to behold but is also generally the only economic means by which the local Balinese can continue this ancient tradition.
Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is located in Padangtegal, Ubud. The monkeys congregate in a small forest area adjoining the temple Pura Dalem Agung which is the greatest of three main temples in the Padangtegal village. The temple complex consist of a holy bathing temple, a mortality temple, two graveyards, and the Pura Dalem Agung.
The monkeys are long tailed Macacaqua monkeys (Macaca Fascicularis). Although the monkey population varies, it consist of more than 150 monkeys. The monkey is important in Balinese culture and you find it featured in the Kecak Dance and the Ramayana Epic. Tourist should beware the agile hands of the monkey, which can quickly borrow your glasses or other loose possessions. Although they may seem tame at times, they are nevertheless wild animals and at times react accordingly. This is a great place to visit, walking through the trails of the monkey forest and visiting the adjoining temple.