Friday, September 14, 2007


Inspiring view from a fancy resort about 20 minutes from Ubud. Lodgings range from USD175-400 a night. I paid 50,000 rupiah (about RM18) at Dewi Antara Homestay (no great views but it had a hot and cold shower and I slept extremely well).

THE BALINESE are apparently governed by a strong sense of cosmic order, devolving from the adoration of monarchs who were once worshiped as deities in human form. Their belief in the Law of Karma seems to fortify them against hubristic notions of upward mobility; in Bali you can be a rich tourist without paranoid expectations that the poor folk catering to your whims are just waiting for their chance to rip you off, pick your pocket or mug you in a dark alley.

70% of the craftsmen and business operators in Bali originate from Java.
This young man spends his days patiently pointillizing wooden turtles.
I was never, for an instant, nervous about anyone pinching my bag or making off with my rented bike. Even the few beggars I encountered in Ubud weren’t at all pushy, and were happy to accept a 500-rupiah (less than 20 sen) donation.

My second visit to Bali confirmed beyond any doubt that Ubud – and its verdant environs of well-tended paddies – is where I could easily establish a home away from home. One can “kontrak” or rent a cozy house set amidst the most inspiring landscapes for between RM300-500 a month; count on paying at least RM750 (that’s about 2 million rupiah!) for a luxury villa. Indeed, my Bali vacation has been a powerful incentive for me to become grotesquely rich (as I fully deserve to be).

Understandably - considering Bali’s immense popularity as a tourist destination (it has successfully retained its reputation as “the world’s most beautiful island” for decades) - I was initially anxious that I might find the place overrun by busloads of budget airline tour groups (Malaysians and Taiwanese are notorious for traveling in large, noisy platoons). As it turned out, the only horribly congested areas were the Kuta-Legian “drunken surfer” strip – and two or three shopping streets in Ubud. Everywhere else I ventured, Bali looked its remarkable, unflappable self.

I stayed only one night in Kuta, in a quiet guesthouse just off the busy commercial hub, and did a wee bit of shopping (nylon hammock, music DVDs, a cool shirt). Bumped into a lovelorn Irish gypsy named Eva and dispensed a bit of free advice. Rented a motorbike the next morning - cheap at 40,000 rupiah (about RM15) a day - and off I rode, feeling freer and easier than I have in years. Getting in and out Kuta, though, is quite a feat as the streets are a veritable maze, dusty and dense with traffic. You can’t rely on maps in Bali. Just stop and ask every 10 minutes. You’ll find that everybody is happy to point you in the right direction with a genuine smile.

One of the greatest joys in life is to ride a motorbike through open country without the impediment of a ridiculous crash helmet. True, Bali has been coerced by the diabolical forces of globalization into making crash helmets compulsory - but the rule is rarely enforced, especially outside the crowded urban areas, and this is one sure gauge of a nation that hasn't signed a contract with Dr Mephistopheles!

In Ubud I was surprised to hear somebody call my name. I turned around and caught sight of Andrew Sia’s beaming face. Did a quick U-turn and caught up with him down the road. Andrew (from The Star) was chauffeuring his mum around. He suggested I check out the sacred spring at Tirta Empul, Tampaksiring.

At Gunung Kawi, the royal pura (temple) and amphitheatre  carved out of granite are worth a visit.
11th century meditation cave at Gunung Kawi.
Met another Malaysian, oddly enough also from The Star, at Gunung Kawi. Zafarul was honeymooning with his new bride, Nazmi. He promised to pop me an email. Still waiting, Zafarul!

Private shower at Gunung Kawi - for me the most mystical moment of my brief sojourn there!

[To be continued...]
Text & photos © Antares

KEMBALI KE BALI (Part Two of a 4-part pictorial essay)

Barong, king of spirits, getting ready for the grand cremation of Bali's Queen Mother.
More preparations in Ubud for the Royal Cremation.

WHY ON EARTH did it take me 26 years to return to Bali? My first visit in 1981 stretched over 5 weeks and every day was a Technicolor dream filled with adventure, romance, inspiring vistas, and delicious sensations.

Perhaps the high point of that earlier trip was my encounter with the Bird and the Bearcat in a tourist restaurant on Lovina Beach. I found myself seated opposite two friendly young women who looked Scandinavian. As we chatted over coffee after dinner, somebody shouted: “Wow! Look at the full moon!” So we decided to take a stroll on the beach to revel in the silvery moonshine. Somehow I found myself standing beside the Bird on the surf’s edge. It was a moment of perfect ease and deep tranquility.

Without a word spoken our lips and souls connected.

Bird spoke briefly to Bearcat (her favorite traveling companion and childhood friend of ten years) and jumped on the back of my rented motorbike. We rode off to my humble lodgings and, with only a few coconut palms as our witnesses, I married Agnete "Bird" Holbak under a cloudless Balinese sky. Our honeymoon lasted less than a week before Helle the Bearcat turned up at our charming guesthouse on the outskirts of Ubud. “Your birthday is tomorrow,” Bearcat reminded Bird, “and I can’t let you celebrate without me!” So the three of us saw the Bird turn 21 in Ubud and thereafter, we decided to save money by sharing a room – the Bird and I in one bed, Bearcat in the other. And I thought such things only happen in the movies…

My Danish viking angels flew off to tour Malaysia’s peninsular east coast as planned while I stayed on in Bali another few days. They had my address in KL and promised to reconnect at the end of their journey. As it turned out I decided to cut short my Bali trip so that I could meet up with my dad at Changi Airport, Singapore. He was on his way to Melbourne for heart bypass surgery, accompanied by my mum and sis. The operation, performed by Dr Vincent Chang (the acclaimed heart surgeon who was senselessly murdered a few years later by a Malaysian thug), was successful beyond all expectations. My dad lived another 23 years and died of bronchial congestion in October 2004 at the ripe old age of 88.

Bird and Bearcat did show up at my doorstep in KL and we enjoyed a bonus vacation on Pangkor. I subsequently visited the Bird in Copenhagen a couple of times; and in 1987 Bird, Bearcat and I enjoyed a 10-day reunion in Phuket as the six-legged monster of Laem Promthep.

Stone monkey guards a wayside shrine.
In any case that 1981 holiday in Bali permanently changed my outlook on life, gave it an earth-centered spiritual grounding. The very next year I discovered the enchanting location I now call home. It was the closest I could get to living in paradise without leaving Malaysia. My nearest neighbors are now the Orang Asli who are in many ways like the Balinese – although they sadly lack the aesthetic sense, the unforced graciousness, and the rich tradition of skilled craftsmanship that characterize the Balinese.

Dead trees transformed into magnificent works of art.
Wherever you turn in Bali, you'll see skilled artisans hard at work - and there are expert woodcarvers, stone sculptors, metalworkers, and glassblowers to be found in large numbers, especially in the Gianyar province, where the cultural hub of Ubud is located.

Undoubtedly the people of Bali are an integral part of the island’s irresistible allure. Three million people – give or take twenty thousand tourists at any given time – crowded together on an island no bigger than the state of Selangor. A strong sense of hierarchy and tradition underpins all of Balinese social life - legacy of an era when Hinduism (along with the caste system) arrived on the island with refugees from the shrinking Majapahit empire.

Apart from the aristocracy - and it’s not unusual to meet a few “Anak Agungs” just as “Tengkus” aren’t uncommon in Malaysia, since Royalty everywhere has a penchant for polygamy - Balinese families classify themselves as Brahmanas (priests and scholars), Ksatriyas (warriors), Vaesyas (artisans, farmers, merchants), or Sudras (laborers).

I doubt that the demarcations between the castes are as rigid today as they once might have been, and intermarriage across caste lines must be fairly common these days. Balinese are named according to their status within each family. Every first-born has Wayan as a first name; second-born, Made; third-born, Nyoman; and fourth-born, Ketut.

What about the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-born?

“The parents are free to name these children whatever they like,” I was informed by a lovely she-male named Nyoman Ayu (left) who took a shine to me.

Striking architectural and cosmological similarities abound amongst the monument-building cultures found along the Asia-Pacific Rim, leading one to speculate on Bali’s ancient links, via the Indian, with the Cambodian, Incan, and Mayan civilizations.

The Pleiadian influence reveals itself in the symbolism of the sacred bull (Alcyone, the brightest star in the Pleiades, is also known as Eta Tauri, and happens to be part of the Taurus constellation). Interestingly, the Pleiades features prominently in the starlore of almost every culture found south of the Equator; while, in the northern hemisphere, the predominant influences are Sirius and Orion. Energetically speaking, one may regard the Pleiades as a "feminine" or magnetic influence and civilizations in the southern hemisphere tend to be more mystical. Whereas the "masculine" or electrical influence of Sirius and Orion tends to inspire civilizations that are more technologically inclined.

[To be continued...]
Text & photos © Antares