*This is a guest post by my friend Michael, the Accidental Travel Writer. Michael introduces us to the excitement of festivals and rites of passage in Bali.
It was my first trip to Bali, and it had been a very long day. It started with a VERY early wake-up call at our hotel in Jakarta – so early that the hotel’s restaurant had to open early to accommodate us.
This was followed by a lengthy drive through heavy traffic to Jakarta International Airport, where we boarded a Garuda Indonesial flight for Denpasar, Bali – which took nearly five hours.
Because this was a press trip designed to promote Indonesian exports, we didn’t take in any of the scenic sites for which the island is famous. It was all about factories and workshops producing handcrafts and clothes, jewellery and furnishings.
Following a very interesting but hectic afternoon, we were driven to what we were promised would be a very posh resort.
Before we reached our destination, however, we found ourselves caught in a slow-moving traffic jam that would put the legendary traffic jams of Jakarta to shame.
Village Festival on Arrival in Jimbaran
As we sat there in our van, we noticed a procession of people from small children to the elderly making their ways in the same direction that we were headed. What was extraordinary was that they were dressed in the most spectacularly beautiful ethnic costumes I have ever seen.
“What the heck is going on?” I wondered. Based on the show that had been put on for us the night before in Jakarta, I assumed they must be participants in a floor show at our hotel. Little did I know …
At some point, the driver got out of the van and had a discussion with an important-looking man dressed in traditional Balinese garb. When he got back into the van, he apologised profusely. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But I can’t drive you any further. You’ll all have to get off the van here, walk the rest of the way to the hotel, and enter the hotel through the employee’s entrance rather than the lobby. The front door of the hotel has been blocked.”
This wasn’t long after the Bali bombings, so we were understandably a little bit worried. Following a brief talk with the driver, however, the organiser assured us that everything was okay. “Go to your villas, freshen up, and meet me by the pool in 20 minutes,” she said. “It’s a bit complicated. I’ll explain over cocktails.”
After the majority of guests had arrived, we were informed that by coincidence, our stay at the resort had coincided with a village festival, and it was one of the most important festivals of the year. There was some kind of sacred object at the entrance of the hotel, and since the land had been “borrowed” by the developer – it still belonged to the village – villagers took precedence over hotel guests.
“Multinational hotel groups aren’t allowed to own land in Bali,” we were told.
Several tables had been set up by the pool, and we were served a sumptuous multi-course dinner accompanied by glass after glass of wine.
Under a full moon, banners attached to swaying bamboo poles flapping in the breeze and drumming and chanting served as the back drop and sound track to my first ever dinner in the Island of the Gods.
I was seated next to an Englishwoman that had been living on the island for many years, and I said to her, “I can’t believe how lucky I am to have arrived on the same day a festival like this was taking place.”
“Mike,” she said. “You weren’t lucky. Stuff like this happens in Bali all the time.”
And so it does …
I’ve since been back to Bali several times, and on each trip, I’ve had a new – and totally unexpected – experience.
The Balinese Barbeque in Canggu
On one trip, the concierge of a 14-villa boutique hotel I spent two nights at told me, “Mr Taylor, you are very lucky! There will be a Balinese barbecue on the beach tomorrow. The procession will pass by the hotel at 10 am. You don’t want to miss it. And don’t forget to bring your camera!”
The barbecue, of course, was a cremation. The procession down the street in front of my hotel and the ceremonies on the beach that followed were a sight to behind.
Hindu New Year in Seminyak, Bali
On another trip, I was asked by the general manager of the hotel I was staying at why I was leaving Bali just two days before the Balinese New Year, a.k.a. Silent Day. (Read about it in Why I am extending my stay)
“I hadn’t heard of it when I booked my ticket,” I said. “Had I known …”
“If you can change your ticket, I’d like to host you for four more days,” he said. “As a travel blogger, you shouldn’t miss this.”
As it turns out, the Balinese believe that spirits return to earth on the first day of the new year – sort of like Day of the Dead in some cultures. To trick the spirits into thinking that the island had been abandoned – so that they will leave it alone in the new year – the entire island shuts down for 24 hours.
TV and radio stations don’t broadcast, street lamps and signals are turned off, even the airport shuts down. Only hotels, hospitals, and emergency services are exempt, but they, too, must turn off external lighting and hang up black-out curtains if they don’t turn off their internal lights.
Homestay at a Hindu Temple in Ubud, Bali
Bali, of course, is famous for its extravagant Hindu temples, and I had the chance of staying at a Hindu temple on my last trip to the island. This, too, was a surprise. But it wasn’t what you might think! In addition to the larger communal temples visited by tourists, many Hindu households on the island live in family compounds with a family temple as well as shrines and dwellings for different branches of the extended family.
Needing a place to stay for a few nights, I booked a room on line at what was billed as a “homestay”. Upon arrival, I discovered that my room – a small one room villa – was, in fact, situated within one such family compound, offering cheap sleeps, a simple breakfast, and a glimpse at Balinese family life for the paltry sum of less than US$15 a night (off season).
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