Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bali, serene Bali

If there is one thing that can must be pointed of Bali, it is its serenity. The feeling of peace and calmness that one experiences on the island matches the most laid-back areas of Goa. Time seems to run at a slower pace. The beauty, the tradition and the calm demeanor of people around makes one slow down and take a breather.

We landed in Bali after a hectic and tiring series of days. The flight from Chennai was rather uneventful, except for a sleepy break at the KL Airport where we struggled to find vegetarian food and had to finally settle for pizza and popcorns. The Ngurah Rai International Airport at Denpasar, Bali seemed a bit dated, and under renovation (mildly reminiscent of the Ninoy Aquino Airport at Manila, in the same brick mold). 
While the queues were long, the airport staff seemed efficient and quickly passed us through. 

The cab-driver seemed glad to see us, saying that Bali was the last Hindu area in Indonesia and it was great to find Indians with whom they had a shared culture. Enroute to the hotel was also a massive statue depicting the war scene between Ghatotkacha and Karna during the Mahabharatha, bigger than we had seen anywhere in India.

Bali Mahabharatha scene (source: Vivek Pandit)
Nusa Dua was our first port of call. Nusa Dua is a clustered set of resorts in the southern end of Bali which usually holds conventions and conference. The area may seem a bit plasticky to those seeking culture, but we were glad to check into a comfortable bed after a strenuous trip. 

The Nusa Dua hotel and convention center (yes, named after the area), is a beautifully decorated, yet slightly dated hotel in the center of Nusa Dua. The rooms are large and beautiful, and look onto beautiful gardens and pools that face the sea. The weather was a bit balmy and reminded us of Goa. The hotel has a beautiful white sandy beach, with waters that are sometimes green-blue, and often crystal clear. All hotels in Nusa Dua share a walking path that runs along the beach, and one can quickly hop between hotels to sample the best of restaurants around. Bali also has amongst the widest range of fruits I have seen in any country (baring the Philippines, of course). 

We had got an international drivers permit to drive around the island, and on the very first day managed to hire a car. In retrospect, it was one of the best moves we ever made. Petrol on the island is cheap, the roads are well laid, and traffic is relatively coherent and sparse (relative to India, of course. Westerners have a different notion altogether). In addition, cars are a right-hand drive, quite like India.

Further North of the airport is the big backpacker hangout of Kuta, a bustling market-place that is very alike Kathmandu's Thamel or Bangkok's Khao San. Shops sell items from every part of the planet and the mulling backpacker crowd seems to talk every language out there. North of Kuta is the upmarket Seminyak, with its bevy of luxury hotels (including the Oberoi and the Anantara), where apparently the who's-who of the world stay when they come visiting.

Bali temple on the lake
Ulun Batur Temple
The city of Denpasar reminded us of the towns of Kerala, with sloping ornate roofs, criss-cross roads, and its smattering of gardens. The Bali Museum situated in town is small, but a worthy visit to understand Balinese culture in greater detail.

After a couple of days in Nusa Dua, we moved to Ubud, made famous in "Eat, Pray, Love". Ubud is one of the prettiest places I have been to. The culture, the markets, the verdant greenery of the rice-fields, the spas, and the bustling back-packer crowds make it an great experience for an idle walk around. An interesting part of the Ubud is the Monkey forest, where gazillions of monkeys abound. Most travellers love feeding the monkeys and playing with them, and it makes a fun watch, except when some of the simians start bounding after you!

During our stay in Ubud, we decided to take a chance and drive up to Lovina, near the northern-most tip of the island. The guy who we hired the car from, had said that the Lovina was "very very far", but we decided to take a chance, since at just under a hundred kilometers it didn't seem much. The drive took us a total of 3 hours from Ubud, and was quite memorable cutting across the Kintamani mountains with their verdant chill, and giving us a chance to visit the famous lake temple of Ulun Danu Batur. Interestingly, outside the temple of Ulun Batur was a painter, one of whose paintings was of Shah Rukh Khan !

The weather in Lovina was balmy and a bit sultry - reminding me of Mumbai. The beach, however, was nothing special - covered with stones and quite a bit of dirt - similar to the Chowpatty. As we walked along the beach, a couple of fishermen sitting nearby turned around, and noticing we were Indians, started singing "Kuch kuch hota hai" (!) with a Balinese twinge, making it a memorable visit. 

Another memorable trip was a visit to the temple of Ulu Watu, with its famous Hanuman Kecak and Fire Dance, depicting Hanuman's visit to Lanka and the burning of the tail & island. The actor playing 'Hanuman' was funny, jumping around all over the arena and in-between the audiences, and the crescendo rendition of the 'chak-chak'-ing monkey actors created an intensely theatrical, emotional feel.
Bali Hanuman dance 3
Ulu Watu Hanuman Kecak Dance
For Indians visiting Bali: Given the cultural similarity, Indians will associate well with the shared culture and legends (the Ramayana is widely popular, and so is Shah Rukh Khan ;-D). Vegetarian food is available widely. In addition, there is much to learn from the way Balinese people have inter-vowen and maintained their traditional culture in every part of their lifestyle - from the architecture, their music, to their daily food.

(For the record, we visited Bali late last year. I have finally managed to complete this post, after having sat down to write multiple times in parts)