Rakshanda Jalil discovers that there is more to Indonesia than Bali and more to Bali than sun-kissed beaches and a roaring night life.
When it comes to travel, popular imagination can sometimes be as misleading as tourism over-drive. Nothing can be truer than the case of the archipelago of Indonesia which many view as a one-stop destination. In an attempt to dispel the stereotype, the Indonesian Tourism Board invited some of us to explore the idea that there is more to Indonesia than Bali and that, indeed, there is more to Bali than sun-bleached beaches and a hectic night life. Perhaps, it is taking a cue from Thailand — the Big Daddy of tourism in South Asia — which keeps unleashing newer and newer tourist destinations upon an insatiable world. Beach-combers and back-packers flock to lesser-known travel hot-spots in this part of the world along with high-end tourists seeking nirvana in exclusive spas and resorts and rambunctious families on a jolly good outing. Increasingly, the focus of the travel industry is shifting towards inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, towards affordable luxury rather than en masse shoestring budget travellers. The idea, everywhere, seems to be to promote a place where a good time can be had by people of different age groups and diverse interests.
There being no direct flights from India, we travel via Kuala Lumpur. From Jakarta we head to Bandung, Indonesia's third largest city and capital of the province of West Java. Situated atop volcanic mountains, Bandung caught the eye of the Dutch colonialists for its temperate weather. Tea was brought from China and when that failed to take root, the Assam variety was introduced. Soon it proved to be so profitable and prolific that the city of Bandung was ‘developed' as a resort city for the plantation owners and dubbed the ‘Paris of the East'. The European influence lingers in the art deco architecture, the elongated spires of the Dutch-style cathedral, the canals and the wind-mills atop a popular bakery chain. An entire street devoted to jeans and rows upon rows of ‘ factory outlets' make this a shopping haven for those looking for near-similar clones of popular high-end brands at bargain prices. However, of greater interest to me is the Afro-Asia Avenue, named after the first Afro-Asian Conference held here in 1955 which brought together leaders from 29 countries including the noted Urdu writers Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer.
A visit to Bandung includes a short detour to a volcano that last erupted in 1954, Mount Tangkuban Perahu, takes you along winding mountain roads past tea, rubber, banana and coffee plantations to a crater that spews boiling mud and clouds of steam. A vantage point on a small bridge allows you to take pictures of the plume of smoke that hangs low over the crater and sniff the acrid smell of sulphur. At the nearby hot spring, Sari Ater, you can sit in a pool of warm sulphur water along with rambunctious locals enjoying a family outing or a weekend getaway from Jakarta. Roadside shacks sell a concoction of dried fern roots that cure everything from arthritis to cancer to diabetes and a local delicacy made from the rabbits that breed in great abundance on these wooded slopes.
We return to Jakarta for a quick tour of the chief attractions of this bustling capital city prone to the most mind-numbing traffic jams, before flying off to Bali. Home to the majority of Indonesia's Hindu population, the island is synonymous with sun, sand and tourists, especially the Australians who are everywhere, given the strong Australian dollar and the geographical proximity. Once accustomed to the booming Aussie drawl, ubiquitous kangaroos and blue-white-and red buntings set out to woo these visitors from down-under, you will find plenty in Bali to entice you. While the sea-facing night-spot Ku De Ta (possibly a Balinese spelling of coup d'état!) and the Hanging Rock Café are popular hangouts at night, the beaches, especially the ones at Kuta and Nusa Dua draw all the crowds. The first-floor lounge of the Anantara at Seminyak is a great place to watch the sun go down as are the extensive grounds of the golf course at the Pan Pacific Nirvana Resort at Tanah Lot. In fact, you might do well to time your arrival at Tanah Lot so that you arrive at the Pan Pacific and take the short cut to the temple carved onto a rocky outcrop before settling for a sun downer. This fantastic sea temple, among the holiest sites for the island's Hindu population, was built in the 16th century and is dedicated to protecting the island from the wrath of the sea. One of seven sea temples that encircle the coast of Bali like a protective girdle, its guardians are the mythical sea snakes said to inhabit the caves below. The sea pounding at the rocky shore below, the wind tearing at your clothes and jostling crowds posing precipitously close to the cliff's edge make a visit to Tanah Lot a truly ‘hair-raising' experience.
Heart of Bali
While the area near the temples offers a variety of Balinese mementoes, the serious shoppers head for Ubud. A far cry from the boisterous beaches, the town of Ubud in the middle of the island offers a glimpse into the heart of Bali. The road from Kuta takes you past orchards groaning with fruit and fields glimmering with the emerald of paddy. We stop at the village of Celuk to watch master craftsmen at work, chiselling objects of incredible beauty from all kinds of wood — the sturdy mahogany and the flimsy driftwood that washes up on the island's shores. Everywhere, there are signs of painstaking labour and creativity. All along the road, we see samples of the industry and ingenuity of the local people who have festooned their shop fronts and homes with temples, altars and decorations fashioned from flowers, leaves, bamboo and bits of cloth. Girls carrying baskets of flowers walk to village temples and the streets wear a festive look; every day in Bali, we gather, is a special day to worship the gods and the rituals of prayer are celebrated, not merely observed.
Indian tourists are known to visit Ubud to buy container-loads of home decorations, objects d'art and wooden furniture, though few bother to explore this quaint town. The main thoroughfare has cafes, museums, art galleries, gemstone and jewellery boutiques and a warren of shacks selling batik, metal ware and wood bric-a-brac including side tables designed like jungle drums to Buddha figurines and ritual masks. Lunch at any one of the scenic cafes overlooking the dramatic valleys gouged out by the Wos river can be interspersed with a browse through the many interesting nooks and crannies at the Temple of Bubbling Waters (Tirta Empul) and the royal palace followed by high tea at the scenic Ali La, a boutique resort situated in the midst of terraced rice fields. At Tirta Empul, remember to borrow a sash from a desk piled high with scraps of coloured fabric, to tie around the waist as a symbol of respect before venturing near the sacred springs that still bubble near the central courtyard.
Quite apart from shopping for a range of imaginative handicrafts for which Bali is justly renowned, there is the island's cultural life waiting to be explored. The Barong dance, the most popular of Bali's many dance forms, is a spectacular fight between good and evil with many moments of light relief thrown in. Language ceases to be barrier in the episode involving Ketaki and Sahdeva as colour and movement crowd the open-air stage. You sit on stone steps padded with rush matting with a live orchestra occupying one side of the tiny stage, and watch engrossed. Swaying coconut palms provide a fitting backdrop for this vignette culled from the Ramayana. When Barong, the king of the spirits, vanquishes the forces of evil, you rejoice not merely because order and harmony have been restored but because of the seamless manner in which religion and drama have come together.
Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com.