The land of the Gods – Bali
On arrival in October, Bali’s Denpasar airport was just as I had anticipated – hoards of local taxi drivers begging for your custom,wanting to take your bags and whisk you away to your hotel. Luckily we had our taxi sorted and a sign displaying my name was a welcome relief for us at 10 o’clock at night after a long flight. The AirBnb I had chosen wasn’t far from the airport but it was a little shady – down a bumpy old track on the outskirts of town. There’s no way we would have found it by ourselves.
We woke up the next morning surrounded by dogs, cats, screeching cockerels, cows and noisy scooters. It was a shock to the system after how peaceful Broome had been and how peaceful we were expecting Bali to be.
The decision to move to Ubud after only 2 nights in Seminyak was made shortly after we got horrendously lost coming back from town one evening. The poor taxi driver must have cursed us for ever getting into his car quite honestly as we didn’t have a clue where we were going and neither did he. Eventually, after hours in the taxi (what should have been a 20 minute journey) and asking several locals who each pointed us in the wrong direction, we eventually parked up alongside our rustic airbnb. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved in my life.
Thankfully Ubud was a lot more like we had been anticipating. Only a 90 minute or so journey from the airport or Seminyak, it is in the centre of Bali, surrounded by mountains and rice terraces and countless Hindu temples. There is a nice villagey atmosphere here – the streets are lined with trees and Balinese families walking around in traditional dress. There are bookstores and massage rooms and yoga barns and meditation centres and sweet cafés around every corner offering delightful vegetarian/vegan food in beautiful surroundings.
The roads are still brash and noisy and polluted but there is peace here. We both instantly felt happier and grounded in Ubud, which no doubt resulted in us staying here for the majority of our stay.
Our guesthouse, Ubud Ku, was run by the most wonderful couple – Navika and her husband Ketut (and family). We received the most grandiose welcome upon our arrival and were shown up to our delightful, lavish room alongside freshly squeezed juices and a map of Ubud, highlighting all the places of interest they could think to go. I was as happy as a little kid who had stepped into a sweet shop!
Of course the following day we woke up to a lovely home cooked breakfast of fresh fruit, tea and banana pancakes overlooking the family’s temple sanctuary in their grounds, abundant with flowers and trees and birds singing. (What a dream!)
We visited The Monkey Forest to meet up with a few of my friends from Broome who happened to be there at the same time. It was a mere 10 minute walk to the forest from Ubud Ku so we didn’t have far to trek. We spent the day meandering our way around the mystical, lush green forest, watching these cheeky creatures capture everyone’s hearts (and sunglasses!). The monkeys are free to come and go as they please; there are no gates, but then why would they leave the sanctuary of this place where they get fed free bananas each day by gawping tourists anyway?
I think Mum had about 5 monkeys on her at one point (no exaggeration and also no bananas even required!!) Not sure quite what this says about her but she was the centre of attention among everyone for quite some time.
Whilst staying in Ubud, we seemed to make it our mission to sample as many vegan/vegetarian cafés as we could find. The streets are saturated with places to eat and shop and drink, and before too long we had our firm favourites. Deciding on dinner each night was a simple pleasure, as any street we strolled along would upturn a new gem.
Soma, a lovely little vegan restaurant tucked behind the hustle and bustle of the busy streets and markets was a sanctuary for our tired feet. Lanterns overhung each low tree branch and candles sat upon each table. Water fountains trickled and the food was magical. In short, it was a complete delight and we would sometimes spend the whole evening here, ordering organic teas and ginger infusions long after we had finished our meal and then walking slowly home in the humid air, ducking in and out of gem shops and listening to Balinese songs being sung or watching a Balinese dance.
And so it was during one of these leisurely strolls back home that we met Tess and the story of the Balinese Witch Doctor unfolded! ….Now let me set the scene…a ring had caught my eye in one of Ubud’s glistening shop windows. I made my way around the shop, adorning the beautiful jewellery whilst Mum chatted away to the shop keeper. The topic of healing comes up as it quite often does in Bali just as in walks Tess, a lovely, smiley girl from the UK. She over-hears this talk of healing and inquires as to whether we are speaking about the ‘Spiritual Doctor’ in Ubud. Unbeknown to us, we shake our heads as she begins to tell us of her miraculous experience last night with a spiritual healer, who had rid her of years of anxiety. Both mum and I are were very much interested after the last couple of years of mum’s diagnosis and decided to tag along with Tess that evening to see what it was all about.
Well little did we know what was in store..
We were driven to this Balinese home in the countryside surrounding Ubud. Offerings were placed outside and we were immediately dressed in sarongs. It was expected that we were to give money with the offering and we turned over the equivalent of £30 whilst glancing at Tess who gave us a nod and said, ‘it’s a small price to pay for how good you feel afterwards’.
Then it was time to wait. And wait we did!
For FOUR hours!
Several Balinese families were ahead of us in the queue, and we all sat around and watched as the Balian seemed to relieve people of their physical stresses and strains whilst hot sweet tea was offered around to us who were waiting.
He was all dressed in white and smoked cigarette after cigarette (apparently it helps invite the spirits!). Candles were burning around him and several pots and jars sat beside him of which he would use the contents of every so often on patients. He had a tall, solid frame and a somewhat imposing presence. Not once did he shift from his cross-legged position on the floor.
Finally it was our turn and Tess went first. Then myself, then Mum. Several bizarre things happened as we individually sat opposite the imposing spiritual healer.
1.‘Holy’ water was doused on us individually. As it was my turn I tilted my head too far up and choked on the water as it filled my mouth and nose. The Balian said that was a problem with my airways.
2.He made gruff ‘BAH’ chanting noises directly at us, as well as firing his hand towards our faces and pointing his skinny finger in our direction. He then hummed as our heads hit the pillow behind us (we were cross legged and it felt easier to lay down or it may have been him hypnotising us, who knows!)
3.Hot oil was swiped across our eyes and stung profusely, turning our vision blurry and making our eyes weep. (This was to draw the toxins out of the body.)
4.We were given a plastic cup of water to drink with oil blobbing on the surface. It was absolutely disgusting but we drank it all like good little Buddhas.
5.He pressed his fingers onto our temples and clapped us around the ears.
6.Lastly, he used his long pointy nails (with gloves on) to apply hard pressure into the pressure points on our skin (backs of calves, knees and soles of feet). This made us all yell in pain, but this seemed to distill a sense of appreciation amongst the healer and his staff, seeming to believe that the more pain you were in, the more toxins were escaping your body. After each jab with his nail he would clasp his hand tight into a fist almost comically and move it over to the candle where he wove his glove around the flame. Of course once he took his glove away, the flame had turned it black but he grew more satisfied the more black the glove turned, again believing the bad spirits were being omitted.
From my tone, you can probably tell I was sceptical of the whole thing but actually I was very open-minded to start with. Truth be told, I still don’t really know what happened that night but mum and I both came away totally mystified whilst Tess seemed to rejoice in her spiritual healing.
Did we feel any different?
No. In short. I just felt bizarre. No anticipated spiritual awakening . It was more laughable than believable. Maybe we just weren’t in the right zone for it though. Maybe Tess believed so fiercely that this would work that she reaped the benefits…
…Or maybe it was just a Bali scam and Tess was part of the whole thing.
Whatever happened, it shall remain a mystery but there’s no doubt it certainly made our holiday quite unforgettable!
The next day I remember getting up at 1.45am to go climb Mount Batur (Tess had promised me I would be full of energy on the walk after the healing, and actually to her credit, I was actually one of the first to summit. Maybe there was something to be said for the experience after all.)
Mount Batur is an active volcano and a focal excursion of many backpacker’s visits to Bali. It took us nearly 3 hours to reach the top, but from there the most magical sunrise appeared from the ends of the earth as it swept rainbow colours across the sky before fading into a beautiful morning’s day. I sat watching it with Ben, a friend of mine I had met in Broome, whilst we sipped hot tea and wrapped ourselves up against the frosty temperature and talked about travel.
The rest of our stay in Ubud passed by immeasurably luxuriously. Every day we practised yoga at The Yoga Barn (a gloriously tranquil space offering daily meditation and yoga classes in central Ubud) and every evening we would find another beautiful venue to eat at, talking of our day and soaking in the good energy of Ubud.
However we didn’t spend the WHOLE time relaxing. Looking back, we were actually pretty ‘busy’ too with…
–Market shopping – complete with small, hungry-eyed Balinese ladies never letting you have a moment’s peace to look around, just demanding a sale.
–Temple ceremony – we joined Novika and Ketut one evening to watch an annual Buddhist full moon ceremony. It was definitely interesting scenery, like a party being held in a religious building.
–Balinese cooking class – a beautiful way to spend the morning, chatting with other tourists from all over the world, attending an early morning food and spice market and learning how to make classic Balinese dishes by the sweetest, most patient guide.
–Visiting the Tirta Empul Holy Spring Water Temple
–Getting a tattoo – Mum and I both got the words ‘BFB’ tattooed on our left wrists, signifying our life mantra…
–Cat Café (be rude not to!)
–Befriending “Mr Smiley” the taxi driver who took us on his motor bike to the rice terraces and then out to lunch!
–Tegalalang rice terraces – TRULY stunning scenery but oh so busy with tourists after 11am. Make sure to get there early and have it all to yourselves. Also felt disappointed by the money-grabbing actions of the Balinese people working in the rice terraces – one man wanted to charge mum for having a photo taken with him and at one point two ladies even wanted to charge mum for SITTING DOWN after climbing a large hill. It took away from the beauty of the place a little, but it was still well worth the agro.
I think in Bali it’s a way of life to try to get the most out of all the visitors. It’s how everyone survives. The whole community is built around tourism and for many people this means working dawn to dusk, ferrying westerners around, giving massages or waitressing. Most have never even left Bali and can only dream about travelling on their minuscule wage; instilling in you a sense of pity and sadness.
However, there’s a darker side to these oh so sweet little Balinese, so kind, so gracious. You need to play games if you want to live in Bali, as I found out on several occasions when I got ripped off in The Gili islands for a turtle tour, paying almost 4x the amount I should have, and being surrounded by small money-grabbing Balinese ladies after mum accepted an offered banana from one of them.
I soon came to realise that there are no prices in Bali, only bartering skills!
So, after my first-time experience in Bali, would I return?
Hmmm…depends on who I’m going with. Honestly I wouldn’t rush back but I think that’s more to do with the fact that I have so many more places I want to see rather than me not liking the country. Bali, although heaving with tourists and full of scams and bartering and litter and poverty, can be forgiven for all of this after just one pleasant early-morning walk…you’ll see what I mean when you go…