The Balinese Road Less Traveled

Any reference to Bali typically conjures images of picturesque sunsets, stunning waterfalls, and world-class waves that would stoke any surfer. But while the natural beauty of Bali initially captures our attention, its people and culture add the richness and vibrancy that make this island stand apart from any other destination on earth.

This Photo Essay documents my recent travels to Bali, focusing on the roads less traveled and exploring the culture of this incredible island and the people that make it so uniquely special.

In Bali, religion surrounds you. It is in the large temples and monuments; it is in the small offerings, clothing, and art. Balinese Hinduism is palpable in every setting and visible on every street corner. It reflects ancient traditions and world views that have journeyed thousands of miles and evolved over centuries, yet remain steadfastly relevant and reverent throughout Bali.

Balinese Hinduism has shaped the vibrant character of this beautiful island. It is elegant and respectful; its rituals are beautiful and enthralling. A passerby’s observation of this personal religious devotion necessarily inspires reflection of one’s own faith journey. And even if we do not share this belief system, we can approach it (and its followers) with grace and respect.

Sometimes liturgical conventions and temple practices can be a bit dull for the millennial generation. To pass the time during this Spring Temple ritual, the youngsters enjoy some games and phone browsing.

Travel affords an unparalleled opportunity to experience different cultural perspectives and approaches to universal realities. Such was the case with my fortuitous participation in a local ngaben.

As we all know, death is a part of life. For Balinese Hinduism, however, the treatment of the deceased has long-term consequences. In an elaborate cremation ritual called ngaben, the family returns the deceased body to the earth and releases its spirit to reincarnate or, for some, to find final rest free from the cycle of death and reincarnation.

Families devote great expense and time to preparing elaborate elements of the ceremony. First, the wadah, a multi-leveled tower structure built of wood, bamboo, or papier-mâché. The number of levels that comprise the wadah represents the prestige of the individual during their lifetime. Second, the lembu is an ornate sarcophagus adorned with decorations that houses the deceased’s body for the ceremony. The lembu is often designed to look like a Balinese ox, but other animals can be used, depending on royal lineage or the person’s status in the caste system.

Ngaben requires significant effort, planning, and expense. For poorer families, this may necessitate postponing the ritual for months or even years in order order to save money and participate in a mass cremation at a later date. The bodies are temporarily buried, and communities will schedule mass cremations once the grave sites are near capacity.

It was adventitious that our travels coincided with the neighboring community’s scheduled ngaben, which in some cases can be five years between ceremonies. On this day, the community came together with clutched photographs and plenty of food and stories to celebrate the lives of their deceased and usher them into their next journey. It reminded me that, while sorrow is natural, remembering a life well lived, and the faith and hope in new life, is worth celebration.

Massive rice terraces and small family backyard paddies alike demonstrate the prominence of rice cultivation in Bali. Rice was the economic foundation for the early Balinese kingdoms, and it remains a centerpiece of Balinese economy, culture and cuisine. As we drove through Bali’s interior, the water-filled terraces, lush green rice grass, and family workers (large and small) highlighted the collective participation in agricultural practices dating back thousands of years.

An ancient, elaborate system of water temples in Bali managed irrigation issues, such as cropping patterns, rotations, and irrigation schedules. In a nod to the gods, the temples contained an array of shrines and rituals associated with appeasing particular components of the agricultural landscape. Sacred water, purification ceremonies, and gods of harvest and crop merged the concepts of religion and agriculture from an early period. Today, this system of water temples has less significance on rice production, but rice and religion are still intricately interwoven in Balinese culture.

The ocean, naturally, plays a pivotal role in all aspects of society in this island community. Although Bali is known for its beautiful beaches and fantastic surf, locals rely on the ocean more for its bounty. In a typical scene, a fisherman ushers in the new day with his nets in the hope of securing a good catch to sell at the nearby market.

Bali is an island of artists and craftsmen. The boundless creativity of its residents inspires a diverse array of art used for religion and everyday life. From puppetry, song and dance to clothing, jewelry and ceremonial objects, artistry is an integral part of society. Passed down from generation to generation, these skills have garnered regional prestige. My wanderings emphasized the fact that particular crafts are focused from village to village. While there is great divergence in Balinese art, all are crafted with passion, diligence, and intricacy.

There is no better way to enjoy a Pacific Rim destination than a culinary adventure through the local street stalls and pushcart peddlers. It is here that I found the delicious dish that has becoming synonymous with Indonesian cuisine: satay (or sate).

The delectable skewered meat on a stick, often accompanied with a savory peanut sauce, is perhaps the best Bali has to offer amongst its street snack offerings. There is no particular method to its greatness, and satay can be found in all forms, from chicken to goat, mutton, beef, pork, fish, and even tofu.

Grilled to perfection over charcoals with various spicy seasonings, this is a tasty treat I would seek out on every corner. Diligent pursuit yields a perfected prize. Satay is, without hesitation, the quintessential Balinese street food.

Of course, satay isn’t the only delicacy on the menu. Indonesia is the third largest purveyor of coffee in the world, and has developed a reputation for tremendous quality and unique flavor profiles. How good is it? So good that I wrote two posts on the subject. The first post provides a brief overview of the coffee industry in Indonesia. The second post, written from my travels in Bali, explores one of the rarest and most expensive coffees on earth. Everybody needs a daily dose of #🐱💩☕.

Naturally, I conclude with monkeys, because they are fun and whimsical. Well, perhaps not always …

Traversing a winding trail through the sacred monkey sanctuary, the furry forest residents quickly make their presence known. These macaques are curious, mischievous, and alarmingly audacious. Their mission is clear: acquire tasty treats and glistening gadgets. But pursuit of these items can quickly turn to aggression, so best leave behind the spicy satay skewer, travel light, and refrain from perceived retaliatory gestures. Happy monkey, happy life.

Beyond the sands and surf of Bali, there is a fascinating culture that invites adventure and exploration. My travels inspired many reflections on cultural narratives and worldviews that expand my understanding and challenge established paradigms. Taking the Balinese road less traveled affords an immersion in this tremendous culture, its people, and history. For me, that makes all the difference.