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Blog: Bali – Death, Sex, Magik

Perhaps nowhere else in the world that fecundity and sex, death and decay and the potency and magic of ancient religions have coexisted so cohesively that they seem to permeate and inhabit everything. There’s something visceral and sensuous about Bali in the way that every seed that is tossed into the ground sprouts without effort and the inhibitions of city dwellers – imagined or otherwise – are shed as soon as they step off the plane.

A fishing boat on Echo Beach, Bali.

For me, going to Bali is akin to returning home to myself. There I have made and broken oaths, stewed in uncertainty, grieved over a loss, licked and healed my wounds, broken hearts, cooked for strangers, began writing a novel, fell in love.  On a moped, in mostly shorts and T-shirts, I made full use of my recent return to Bali to truly soak in the reasons why I have always been in love with it in the first place.

I had spent most of my previous visits in the artistic and tranquil town of Ubud to avoid the maddening crowd in the south and the traffic jams around Kuta and Legian that continue past rush hour into the night. However, I was pleased to discover that the recent APEC convention had prompted the extension and renovation of the Ngurah Rai airport for receiving a greater influx of visitors; there is now a complex of highways and roads to distribute the influx more evenly, resulting in smoother, shorter rides in and out of town.

A view of the sunset from Lanai restaurant, Kuta.

For a good 10 days, my fiance and I stayed in Canggu, a mostly hot and flat delta plain of paddy fields, now springing up with holiday villas. Canggu is just 10 minutes away from Seminyak, the food, clubbing and shopping mecca for regular long-term European holidaymakers and traffic-permitting, about 15 minutes from Kuta, which is mostly inhabited by surfers and short-term budget tourists from around the region.

You have not experienced the sensuality of Bali if you have not put up in an open concept Bali villa like the Sunset Villa in Canggu. Because the weather in Bali is sunny all year round sometimes even through the monsoon periods from November to January, villas in Bali are typically built with an open air concept where parts of the building, for example the bathroom and the living room are designed with minimum roofing and walls to allow for maximum ventilation and natural light.

The pool at Sunset Villa Bali at Canggu remains pleasantly warm even in the evenings.

Owned by Australian Wayne Plant, the tastefully furnished and very private four-bedroom villa has a reasonable daily rate and sleeps eight. The master bedroom on the top floor has an open concept walk-in bath and shower and a spacious bedroom area. There is also a reasonably sized pool that stays pleasantly warm even in the evenings  and friendly help who speak good English. Built for dwellers of the civilised world who are accustomed to modern creature comforts, there is a good and stable WiFi connection, air-conditioned bedrooms, hot water on demand, a kitchenette with a reasonably sized refrigerator, while the help can arrange for most things from transport and basic laundry to marketing for cookouts.

There are many reasonably priced good restaurants and cafes in Canggu, new and old, but of worthy note is Spanish restaurant La Finca Bali at Batu Belig. The food is authentic, delicious and value for money; five tapas dishes, a main course, two salads, a non-alcoholic drink and two desserts cost just over RP600,000 or S$66. We love everything on the menu especially the salads, the Spanish meatball tapas and the desserts – even the chocolate truffle with orange oil and zest are handmade on site – and we will definitely go back for more.

A view of paddy fields from Warong Lili Lala at Penestanan, Ubud.

Ubud is still the quiet and tranquil place that I have always loved, with more bars and cafes opening till around midnight for the nightbirds. Penestanan, a little village just outside Ubud town is a respite within a respite, with paddy fields, jungle and trekking opportunities and not too far away from cafes and resthouses equipped with all the modern creature comforts. If you are lucky, like I have been, you might be able to catch a few lean and tanned Balinese men showering in open-air water springs in the liminal space between the village and jungle.

From Ubud, my fiance and I made a day trip to Gunung Batur by moped – the most efficient way to get around in South East Asia – which should not be attempted by inexperienced or jittery riders. The ascent from Ubud to Kintamani was smooth with panoramic views of paddy fields and lime, chilli and coffee orchards on either side, especially during the Galungan and Kuningan season with colourful processions to the main temples carrying fruit and flower offerings and incense.

Paddy fields enroute to Kintamani

However, the descent to the crater lake of Gunung Batur was treacherously steep and punctuated by potholes but it was the worth the trip as the view of Gunung Batur and its crater lake was breathtaking every part of the way.

The crater lake of Mount Batur

I had not planned to visit the Trunyan gravesite, thinking that it’s tucked on the other side of the crater, but we were swayed by the local boat vendors to cross the crater lake by boat to get there. The Trunyans have been inhabitants of Bali for hundreds of years from even before the Hindu devotees from Majapahit had fled to Bali after the Muslim conquest of Java. The Trunyans don’t bury or cremate their dead but leave them exposed to the elements on the ground. I had expected to do much more trekking to the site, but the motorboat landed us right at its entrance. Over decades the gravesite has been completely covered with the broken down remains of the Trunyan dead so much that it would take hours of shovelling just to see the black volcanic earth beneath the decay. There was also no stench of decay there; the locals attribute it to the presence of a centuries-old Karumenyan tree which is thought to absorb all smells, but I attribute it to the dry climate and constant sunshine.

We were “fortunate” to have arrived a day after a fresh corpse had been laid to rest. Through a cage-tent made of bamboo, the face of the deceased was exposed, while the rest of her – I believe it was a female – was covered by a  piece of cloth. Offerings for a smooth transition to the afterlife that included money, food  and flowers, pots and pans, baskets and fabric were placed at her feet. While attempting to take some pictures of the pelvic bone of another deceased Trunyan which was still attached to the thigh bones, the camera blacked out and when it came on again after I had left the site en route to the jetty, I had found that some of the pictures were missing.

The Trunyan gravesite

If there was anything to be mindful about at the Trunyan gravesite, it was not the dead, but the living. The visit was worth RP350,000 (almost S$50) including a “donation” of RP50,000 at the entrance. When we were approached, the price of ferrying us to and from the site was RP200,000, but we were asked for RP300,000 when at the counter to pay for the tickets. It would be much harder to bargain if you are travelling alone; if budget is an issue, take some friends with you for better bargaining clout.

For more Bali pictures, click here.

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