Home of the island gods
Belinda Jackson swaps the noisy demands of the south for a slice of serenity amid temples and hillside rice terraces.
The main road through the beautiful Balinese village is blocked by a parade of about 100 people, led by women in glittering costumes bearing offerings on their heads and men playing percussion instruments.
It's a pretty event, and I wind down the window of my car and take plenty of pretty photographs. Everyone smiles and waves. They're happy, I'm happy.
Eventually, the parade is over and we start on our way again. "What's the occasion? I ask my guide, Nata.
"It's a cremation ceremony," he explains, still smiling.
There are 17,508 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and we all go to just one, Bali. But while southern Bali heaves and pumps, there is a slice of serenity less than an hour's drive west of the choked roads of Denpasar, in the Tabanan regency, as "states" are known in Bali.
Tabanan is a quiet state of farmers and royal dwellings, the rice bowl of Bali, and famed for its traditional dancers and plays. It's also home of the extremely well-loved sea temple, Pura Tanah Lot and, blending rusticity with glamour, Alila Villas Soori hotel, which is set between the ocean and rice paddies.
Jatiluwih in northern Tabanan is the site of Bali's famous terraced hillsides of rice fields that recently made the UNESCO World Heritage list, but there are plenty of examples of the traditional farming techniques in the south of the regency.
There's no need to ask the driver to slow down so I can photograph the terraces; we're inching between a string of potholes masquerading as the road. Nata snaps photos to send off to the government to plead for repairs.
"It would normally take about 15 minutes to drive from Tanah Lot to the hotel, but we allow about 45 minutes," he says, as we lurch, teeth crunching, into yet another crater.
On either side of us, field workers wearing their caping - conical hats made from leaves or grass - bend down to tend their muddy rice paddies. The fields are dotted with little shrines and Mount Batur is just visible through the haze.
The villas of Alila Villas Soori overlook either the rice paddies or face a black-sand beach, where tourists ride sedately trotting ponies. A local zips past on the wide beach, the noise of the old motorbike's engine dwarfed by the rolling surf. It's not a swimming beach, it's a beach for dipping your toes, walking along and admiring from the comfort of an overstuffed sofa, with a large tropical drink in hand.
Alila is a home-grown success story, an Indonesian-owned group whose Uluwatu property has cleaned up the world's architecture awards and a new Seminyak hotel is in the making.
We check into our villa, guided by our host Iyu, and head straight back out for a sunset dinner on a platform jutting out towards the ocean.
If you're up for action, hunting for the next club, this is not the hotel for you. In fact, you may even rule out the entire regency.
"Why would you go to Tabanan?" a smug Ubud resident asks. "You get there, then there's nothing to do."
I guess it depends on who you're there with.
The hotel is buzzing with a large wedding, and darkened corners are the scene of much hand-holding and long gazes. There are also a few families with small children who are being cooed over by the staff.
The night is quiet, save for the crash of the surf, and the next morning we're up with the sun. The full-length windows of the villa open out to the ocean and our pool, so it's with great delight that I jump from the lounge room into the water for a frolic before breakfast is served in our cabana.
I enjoy fresh tropical juices, beautiful eggs hollandaise and, to end, a petite, perfectly chewy almond croissant with a cup of kopi luwak, Bali's famed "civet coffee". You know the one: Where the beans have been eaten by a small mammal, passed through their digestive tracts and popped out the other end, where they're collected, dried and ground to make an oh, so smooth coffee. You just have to banish the idea of civet poo from your mind while you're enjoying your cuppa.
Today, I'll journey with the gods, through a few of Bali's 20,000 temples (puras), with Nata as my guide. He is dressed in a white-collared shirt, a sarong over his trousers and a udeng - a cloth - knotted around his head. A woman ties a cotton sarong over my trousers, and we are declared suitably dressed to visit the temples.
Pura Penarukan is the main temple in the nearby village of Penarukan and, unusually, the three deities are all here - Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva: the creator, the preserver, the destroyer. We cleanse our hands with fragrant incense smoke, wave a flower through the incense and hold it in cupped hands, tearing off a small piece that we tuck behind the right ear. Three times the temple's priest pours water into our hands, and three times we sip it, then splash a few drops on our heads. We place a few grains of uncooked rice on our forehead and at the base of our throats, where they stick as though glued, and leave an offering at a shrine.
The canang sari is an offering of fruit, flowers and food, with fire from the incense stick and water, the universal symbol of life, sprinkled on top. Rice signifies life and prosperity.
"We consider rice as a goddess," Nata says. Dewi Sri is the goddess of rice, "padi" is the name for unhulled rice, "baras" is uncooked rice and "nasi" (think nasi goreng) is cooked rice.
"You have only one word for rice, yes?" he asks, looking at me sorrowfully. I struggle to think what we Australians have a multiplicity of words for: tax?
Back in the four-wheel-drive, we weave through the regency to five temples. It's only the ornate stone gates that indicate where one village ends and the next one starts. The roadsides are lined with upside-down woven baskets covering roosters, ready for a bout of cock-fighting. "They're fed a special diet of vitamins, eel, slugs, corn and beef," Nata says.
Each village we pass has its own speciality: Penarukan for its stone and timber sculptures, Kerambitan for is its magical tektekan orchestra and 17th-century palaces that line the main road that runs through the town. Pejaten is best known for its ceramics and terracotta tiles, and the village is dominated by mountains of coconut shells, which fuel the flames to fire the tiles. The rich orange afternoon sun spills over a busy courtyard where newly pressed roof tiles are laid out on the earth.
At Kelating, the village is preparing for temple celebrations, and the local orchestra has its instruments unpacked and ready. Some gongs are more than 100 years old, their metal notes scarred and aged, and the men sit among them, cross-legged, barefoot and smoking.
If you thought Tabanan was all country roads and quiet villages, you'd be forgetting two of its biggest temples - Pura Alas Kedaton and Pura Tanah Lot - which are also two of Bali's biggest drawcards. Alas Kedaton sits alongside a state forest dripping with monkeys. To get into the hugely popular temple, you run the gamut of souvenir-sellers who double as guides: there's no getting around it - no guide, no go to the monkeys.
After the shops, you pass a bat show, where you can hold a furry little fruit bat by the tips of its wings, if that takes your fancy. The demo bat looks bored, and I bypass it to see the temple guardians. From every tree, dozens of sets of eyes stare out at us. Fangs, tails, eyes and limbs - all are working overtime. Tiny babies cling to their mothers while bullish teens box each other and try, with fairly serious intent, to get a leg over. They're draped over the temple's stupas, and scamper along its walls.
Equally mobbed by the crowds, Pura Tanah Lot, on Tabanan's coastline, is the classic case of having been loved too well. Come sunset, it is besieged by sightseers waiting to catch the sun setting over the island temple, which is linked to the mainland by a small isthmus. The walk down to the water is fraught with decisions: Hold a snake? Eat suckling pig? Buy plastic frangipani hairclips? Spiritual, it is not.
The last stop of the day is an anathema to the crowd-pullers - it's a simple temple five minutes' walk along the beach from my hotel. Nata tells the story of a journeyman whose body was stolen by evil spirits on this beautiful headland. His brother built Pura Timan Agung to protect future travellers, and his descendants, from the faraway village of Pandak, still care for the pura today.
The views are every bit as dramatic as those at Tanah Lot, but we are alone on the headland. The beach ponies are in their stables, the farmers have gone home; there's just the thunder of the surf and the call of the night birds. A black-and-white temple cloth flutters and a yellow parasol twirls as the night air rises and the little temple casts a shadow as the sun dips down over the ocean. The gods are resting and the south Balinese coastline disappears into the sea spray and sunset.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Alila Villas Soori.
Sydney Morning Herald