Exotic, charming and wonderfully embracing, Indonesia has one of the world’s greatest tourism destinations in Bali. But there’s more to the country than the little island, and those willing to go a little further off the beaten track find the rest of Indonesia just as fascinating and welcoming, and many come back year after year for more.
Beyond the Beaches & Temples
Two of the most prominent icons of Bali are its beautiful beaches and majestic temples, which draw thousands of admirers every year. Both represent different facets of Balinese culture; the beach embodies the island’s its playful, joyous side and the temples its deeply spiritual underpinnings.
Few people need any help in enjoying the simple pleasures of the beach – after all, that’s what a vacation is for – but for those interested in exploring Balinese culture, without heavy-duty tours in the museums, its actually quite easy: just head to the hills.
The Mountain Peaks of Bali
Everyone knows about the holy temples of Bali, but not as many know about its sacred mountains. The towering peaks of the island play a huge part in the local culture; unlike many other island nations, it is the mountains and not the ocean towards which the most reverence is directed. Many of the island’s temples are located on or near mountains, and many are prominently featured in the local legends as the abode of gods, demons, or both.
The most famous holy mountain in Bali is indisputably its highest peak, Mount Agung, revered by the Balinese as the centre of the world, the stairway from heaven to earth for the gods and goddesses and lodestone towards which all temples on the island are oriented. Almost as famous as Mount Agung is Mount Batur. Centuries ago, this once-colossal volcano blasted away its top in an epic eruption and today, the old crater is filled with water and transformed into peaceful Lake Batur. What remains of the mount is the three-peaked Gunung Batur volcano. Fairly regularly, visitors will make the hour long drive from nearby Ubud and hire a guide to make the climb to the peak of the volcano. Along the way, climbers pass by the peak’s three craters and witness firsthand the slumbering threat the mountain embodies; huge plumes of steam billow from the ground and in some places, the rocks are still jagged and torn from recent volcanic activity.
Like all volcanoes on the island, Mount Batur is sacred to the Balinese. The villagers, more than anyone else, are acutely aware of the danger the volcanoes pose, yet paradoxically also see them as an ultimate blessing, bestowing rich fertile soil, and in recent years, curious tourists. Many volcanoes are ringed with villages and sometimes, whole processions of villagers trek up the slopes to perform religious rites on the summit, often for thanksgiving, and perhaps sometimes for the uneasy peace to continue.
The Sacred Waters of Bali
Another little-known aspect of Balinese culture is its reverence of water, which is best seen in the many holy springs which dot the island. Many of the temples have sacred water pools, in which the temple-goers bathe. Further away from the more populated areas, there are quiet little freshwater springs where the locals will purify themselves.
One fantastic place dedicated to the Balinese love of water is Tirta Gangga. This overlooked attraction – not many foreigners visit it, yet – is a veritable water palace built in 1948 on the orders of a rajah, when the local water-priests determined the spring waters had the same healing properties as the Ganges in India, one of Hinduism’s holiest rivers. Almost destroyed by an eruption of Mount Agung in the middle of the last century, the Tirta Gangga has only recently been restored, but is now a wonderland of fountains and mossy stone walls, through which the water from vast underground aquifers pour through. The waters are not only safe to drink (the same springs are the source of water for Amlapura, the nearby town) but are also great to bathe in – and who knows, maybe the waters really are healing.
Another idyllic spot (somewhat less holy, but still pleasant to visit) is Yeh Saneh, located about 17 km from Singaraja, where only a short distance from the pounding ocean surf is a cool freshwater spring, with nearby pool and gardens for picknickers. If you get there early enough, you can not only enjoy the waters, but also one of the more spectacular sunrises in Bali, as the sun crests over the slope of Mount Agung.
These are only a few of the lesser known aspects of Bali culture, relatively easy for a curious visitor to understand and a joy to experience firsthand. There are many more fascinating traditions, beliefs and customs to be explored, but only by those willing to take the trouble of looking past than the charms of the island’s beautiful beaches and exploring Bali’s rich, vibrant culture.
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