Rice above it
On a winding road high in the mountains of Bali, a three-hour-or-so drive from Nusa Dua, we stumble across a tableau that surely could have existed any time over the past several centuries.
Below us, as our vehicle draws to a stop on the ragged edge of the bitumen road, a farmer and his two cows - or are they bullocks? - framed by extravagant palm fronds, are ploughing a water-logged rice paddy, a mosaic of caramel-coloured mud criss-crossed by lush green grassed paths.
As I gaze down at the rice field, the farmer so intensely focused he doesn't even glance up at us, I hear a rustling sound behind me.
I turn to see a figure, its head a huge ball of long grass with a straw conical hat balanced on top, walking towards me looking like a character from some subsistence farming horror movie.
I greet the creature, stooping to discover a smiling face and shiny white teeth hidden below the blades of grass. She has to be the farmer's wife. Not speaking English, she pauses to pose for a photo and then plunges down the hill to deliver the feed to the family bullocks. Then we're off, too, leaving the couple - or quartet, if you count the bullocks - to their toil.
A few years ago UNESCO awarded a World Heritage listing to Bali's rice terraces, feats of manual engineering just like the one we've just observed.
Remarkably, for an island of such immense physical and spiritual beauty, it's Bali's first and only such listing, one that recognises the island's unique system of rice cultivation management known as subak.
Subak reflects the Hindu philosophical concept of tri hita karana - roughly translated as "three reasons for prosperity" and is derived from the ancient cultural exchange between Bali and India during the past 2000 years.
The new World Heritage-listed areas consist of five major rice terrace centres and their impressive water temples, the focus of a co-operative water management system of canals and weirs that date from the ninth century.
I've been to Bali, like many Australians, more than a few times and although I've visited the odd temple there I've only marvelled at its network of rice terraces from afar, until now, on this day-long guided tour of a unique feature of Balinese culture.
"Once the tourists used to go to the Balinese culture," bemoans my guide, Sumadi Wayan, "but now the Balinese culture comes to them [at their resorts and hotels]."
Bali's subak system, effectively a form of social control, is designed to dispense an equitable share of water resources to each and every rice farmer from the top of the mountain right down to the bottom. It's enabled the Balinese, a population of more than 4 million on a relatively small island, to be self-sufficient in rice, save for the occasional poor season.
But the World Heritage listing, as is sometimes the case around the globe, particularly in the developing world, has been both a blessing and a curse.
"Many of the local people didn't realise what the listing meant," says Wayan. "It came with many new rules. 'What is the benefit for us?' some of the local people asked. 'We still have to work each day'."
Although agritourism is an evolving industry in Bali benefiting the Balinese far removed from the coast, Wayan says rice farmers are seeking tax breaks from the government in order to continue farming because the limitations imposed by the World Heritage listing have meant that they can only sell their land to other farmers, who are invariably just as poor as themselves.
So far, the potential tourism benefits from the listing have not flowed to the communities.
Back on the roads of central Bali, we journey along palm-shaded lanes with the vines from enormous, ancient trees dangling before us like immense threadbare curtains. Eventually, at Jatiluwih in west Bali, we stop at a lookout.
It affords some of the finest views of rice terraces in the island, with 2276-metre Mount Batukaru as a backdrop, dominating the landscape for as far as we can see.
On this brilliantly fine day, with the nagging heat of the coast marginally cooled by the mountain air, the rice terraces merge into mist-shrouded mountains, veritable stairways to heaven.
Here we're just 40 kilometres from the main city of Denpasar but with the condition of Bali's back roads, that means a two-hour drive and a world away.
Later, on our journey around the island that began soon after dawn, those heavens turn slate grey, and open with a typical monsoonal intensity. As we motor through yet more villages, each with their own ceremonial stone gateways, we watch as the Balinese pluck giant banana leaves from trees to use as makeshift umbrellas.
By the time we reach the supreme water temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur, perched 900 metres above sea level and dedicated to the gods and goddesses of agriculture and water, we've left the rain well behind us. But the temperature has dropped sufficiently for a light jacket to be required.
The temple, dedicated to the supreme water goddess Dewi Danu, is at the rim of a crater lake of the volcanic, 1717- metre Mount Batur in central Bali.
Legend has it that in ancient times God Pasupati (Shiva) moved the peak of Mount Mahameru in Hindu India and divided it into two.
He took one part with his left hand and the other with his right hand. Parts of that taken with his right hand became Mount Agung - Bali's highest point at 3142 metres - serving as a throne for his son God Putranjaya (Mahadeva Shiva) while the one in his left hand became Mount Batur, a throne for Dewi Danu, the Goddess of the Lake (the manifestation of Vishnu).
With its nine tall holy towers (and no less than 285 shrines and pavilions) Pura Ulun Danu Batur looks like an oversized architect's scale model of a small city's CBD.
And, as it eventuates, the temple as it stands today effectively is a replica. In 1926, Mount Batur erupted and the village, including the temple, was buried by lava.
Miraculously, the 11-tiered and most important shrine dedicated to Dewi Dan survived and it, the temple and the entire village was eventually rebuilt on the higher ground of its present site.
Back on the road and nearing the end of the day, closer to Ubud we have one last temple, Gunung Kawi, to visit.
It's the site of the ancient royal tombs of Balinese kings. Few tourists seem to bother to make a pilgrimage to this wondrous and under-rated site due to the 270 steep steps that have to be negotiated in order to reach the temple, nestled deep in a lush valley.
As I head down the hill, shirt plastered to my back like a gluey, floppy sheet of wallpaper, we encounter a group of weary elderly women with weathered and pained faces traipsing in the opposite direction. On their heads they're balancing large, heavy bags of rice harvested from the paddies below, from where, as far as I can tell, there is no vehicular access.
I turn my mind back to earlier in the day and the farmer and his wife struggling to plough the soaking field. You can eat rice but not a World Heritage citation.
Gunung Kawi, dating to the 11th century and surrounded by rice fields, is believed to be where the subak system was developed.
Once you reach the last of those 270 steps in order to reach the temple, which is carved from the rock walls of the valley, you cross a bridge over the fast-flowing Pakerisan River. On the other side appears the temple complex, a secret water world consisting of 10 shrines, each as high as seven metres and carved into a cliff-face, replete with water features.
As a constant flow of water trickles along irrigation channels and pours from outlets at the base of the shrines into long troughs, I learn that the shrines are believed to be dedicated to a Balinese king and his favourite queens.
Even with that enervating walk back up the top of the hill, with or without bags of rice, it's hard to imagine, here, amid the rice fields, river and royalty, a more profoundly gorgeous resting place for nobility or mere mortal alike.
Anthony Dennis is national travel editor. He travelled as a guest of My Bali.
SEE + DO
A full-day tour of Bali's World Heritage-listed rice terraces and water temples with a driver costs $US170 ($196), including entrance fees, for two. Book through Bali Res Centre. An English-speaking guide costs extra. See balirescentre.com.
Sydney Morning Herald