Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Northwestern Vietnam: Rice Terraces and Hill-tribe Encounters in Sapa - Part 1: The Streets of Sapa, and a Black H'mong Girl Named Ha

Local Black H'mong Hill-tribe Villagers Working the Rice Terraces Near Sapa

After completing my tour of the Bac Ha Sunday market and a traditional Flower H’mong house at the nearby Ban Pho village (covered in my earlier blog post), we begin the 110km drive to the town of Sapa. We retrace our earlier route back to Lao Cai, save for a stop outside of Bac Ha at a roadside fruit stand where my guide buys some papayas to take home to his family. Once back in Lao Cai, we cross the Red River and continue southwest along (national road) QL 4D towards Sapa, enjoying the scenic views that unfold during our winding ascent. Situated on a steep scenic slope above terraced rice paddies and scattered hill tribe villages, the former French hill station of Sapa (elev. 1650m) is a popular tourist destination for those who enjoy trekking and are interested in experiences ethnic hill culture.

The Sloping Streets of Sapa

Chau Long Sapa Hotel, Near the South End of P Cau May Street
We arrive in Sapa about 2 PM, passing by the town’s picturesque lake and the public square in front of Sapa Church en route to my hotel. We turn left onto P Cau May Street, which is the primary destination for arriving tourists given its concentration of restaurants, cafes, tour agencies, and western-geared hotels and guest houses. It becomes readily apparent that P Cau May is also the primary destination for the town’s numerous wandering Black H’mong and Red D’zao hill tribe vendor girls and women eager to sell traditional tribal handicrafts and trinkets to the arriving tourists. P Cau May Street, given its sloped grade, surrounding mountainous natural beauty and the assortments of establishments that line it, has a vibe reminiscent of Ubud's Monkey Forest Road, though the number of Black H'mong and Red Dzao hill tribe vendor girls that work the tourists on the street or seated at curb-side restaurant tables to make a sale is somewhat reminiscent of the transplanted Ahka vendor girls encountered on Bangkok's Khaosan Road. The driver stops to let my guide and me out in front of the Chau Long Sapa Hotel, which is located near the south end of P Cau May Street. I’m a bit surprised to learn after checking into the hotel that I have to surrender my passport to the hotel for a period of about 6-8 hours. My guide explains that my passport would be reviewed by the provincial party officials, who need to know the particulars of any foreigner entering the region. My guide establishes what time he will meet me in the lobby tomorrow morning to begin our trek on the outskirts of Sapa and takes his leave. As the hotel is built on a mountainside, its split-level design puts my fourth floor room one floor below the street level entrance. The room affords a good view of the valley and the surrounding mountain peaks when the weather permits; given its ridge-line location and 1650m elevation, Sapa sees a lot of fog and rain, and visibility can change quickly with the shifting winds.

Sapa's P Cau May Street

A Black H'mong Hill-tribe Woman and Child
A Red D'zao Vendor Woman Intent on a Sale From Me
A Flower H'mong  Hill-tribe Woman in the Sapa Market
I leave my small pack in the room and walked back up to P Cau May Street to begin exploring the town on foot, and soon have my first of many encounters with the wandering hill tribe vendor girls. The local Black H’mong and Red D’zao girls, wearing traditional costumes and toting their tribal handicrafts and garments in embroidered sling bags or draped over their arms, are an ever-present sight in town; their persistence in trying to make a sale can eventually try one’s patience, if not become down-right annoying. A visitor browsing at the offerings of one vendor girl may soon attract several more, and one seated at a sidewalk cafe or restaurant may be seen as a captive potential customer. The Black H’mong vendor women, who are in the majority of those encountered, wear indigo-dyed and multi-color embroidered hemp or cotton cloth jackets, aprons, skirts, leggings and pillbox hats. The vendor women of the Red D’zao hill tribe wear indigo-dyed and white embroidered jacket and pants, and large red turbans which make them easy to distinguish; per their tradition, the women shave their eyebrows and their hairlines back to high on the forehead to denote wisdom. The Black H’mong vendors, which tend to be younger than the Red D’zao, are perhaps the most friendly and business-savvy of the ethnic minorities encountered on the streets of Sapa. They also tend to exhibit the best command of the English language among the local hill tribes, and can be quite open with regards to what they reveal about themselves and in the personal nature of the questions that they may ask in conversation.

A Stepped Walkway Leading Down to P Cau May Street

I continue my uphill stroll in the direction of the public square and familiarize myself with the nearby restaurants, cafes and businesses. Given Sapa’s mountainside layout, some of the fairly steep streets that intersect with or run parallel to the inclined P Cau May are accessed via quaint stair-stepped cobblestone walkways. As I walk, a Red D’zao vendor woman toting an umbrella (pictured above) approaches me and offers to sell me something from her stock of handicrafts contained in a plastic shopping bag. Smiling, I politely refuse her offer and walk on. Undaunted by my lack of interest, she begins following me, staying about a half-step behind and periodically looking up at me with imploring eyes as she hold out another handicraft for my examination.

The Steps Leading From P Cau May Steet Down to the Sapa Market 

The Sapa Market

Cobra, Scorpion and Herb-Infused Rice Whiskey

The Hill-Tribe Handicrafts Section of the Sapa Market

A Red D'zao Vendor Woman
The Market's Fresh Fish Section

I take the steps leading down to the Sapa Market, which is located at the intersection of P Cau May and D Tue Tinh streets. The market’s open store fronts and tarpaulin-covered stalls sell the normal assortment of dry goods, produce, meats and fish, and household items. Most intriguing are the bottles of medicinal rice whiskey that contain ginseng roots and a coiled cobra with a scorpion held in its mouth by the tail. The market’s hill tribe handicraft vendors are mainly concentrated upstairs inside a building fronting P Cau May. I work my way through the market taking photos, with my new-found Red D’zao friend and her bag of handicrafts close by, matching me step for step so as to stay just off my left shoulder as I explore the meandering streets in the vicinity of the market. She gives me quizzical looks as I contort and position myself to frame different compositions, and at one point asks why I would even bother taking pictures of a parked motor scooter. I circle around with the Red D'zao woman still in tow and again arrive back up on P Cau May. As she holds up a small decorative wall hanging of red and black cloth embellished with embroidery and silver jewelry, my will is finally broken; I purchase the piece and, after taking a photo of her, we at last part company.
Red D'zao Vendors at the Sapa Town Square
I walk to the nearby public square adjacent to the Sap Church where a number of hill tribe vendors sell their traditional handicrafts laid out in the open atop blankets on the pavement. Much of the black and dark blue hill tribe fabric and clothing offered for sale is dyed with local indigo that is not well-set into the fabric, with the blue-green stains seen on the hands of the fabric and clothing vendors in the market being ample evidence of the fact. There are also a number of Vietnamese vendors in the square with their goods for sale displayed beneath tarpaulin canopies that line the periphery of the square. Lacking my copy of the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide, I then spend some time exploring the more quiet streets on the downhill side of P Cau May to see what my options are in the way of cafes, restaurants and such, which after a while gives my legs quite a workout.

After an early-evening plate of beef fried rice and a large Lao Cai Beer (67,000 Vietnamese Dong; USD $3.22) for dinner at a restaurant on P Cau May Street call Buffalo Bell, I decide to swing by the hotel to retrieve my passport before continuing to explore the town on foot. As I head out the door and make my way past the restaurant’s outside seating with my daughter’s borrowed point-and-shoot Cannon digital camera in hand (my compact Casio Exilim having lost the ability to take clear still shots about a week earlier in Singapore), a hauntingly familiar female voice with a British accent calls out to me, “Hey, I thought that was you! Hi!” I turn to see my two night train 4-bunk sleeping compartment companions on the trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai. The two girls (one from England, the other from Canada) were friends traveling together around Southeast Asia, and had also visited the Bac Ha Sunday market earlier that day but were planning on spending two nights in the Sapa area (as opposed to my one night) so that they could do an overnight home-stay in one of the local hill-tribe villages. Her face brightened when she looked down to see the Cannon camera in my hand, and she excitedly told me that she had what appeared to be a similar model of camera, but had unfortunately forgotten to bring her battery charger with her, and that she would be very appreciative if I could put an hours’ worth of charge on her battery as they had dinner at the same restaurant. I agreed, and she extracted the battery from her camera and handed it to me.

I continue on my way down to the bottom of P Cau May Street, following the short street to the right where P Cau May hooks to the left before leading out of town. As luck would have it, my passport had just recently been returned (indicating that I had passed official scrutiny, and would not be having to meet with a local party official to answer questions about true intent for my visit) and was waiting for me at the front counter. Back in my room, I attempt to insert my traveling companion’s camera battery into the charger, but find that the battery is just about an eighth of an inch too long to fit into the charger. I secured my passport and headed back up to the Buffalo Bell to let the girl know that unfortunately her battery was just a bit too big to fit into the charger. As I walk up P Cau May, I noticed that the hill-tribe wandering vendor girls, exclusively Black H’mong based on their attire, were already making the rounds of the captive curbside diners in an attempt to sell their handicrafts. She is decidedly disappointed as I give her the bad news and point out the offending dimensions, but she thanks me for the effort.
Ha, a Unique Black H'mong Vendor Girl in Sapa

As I wish the two girls a pleasant stay in Sapa and happy travels beyond, and turn to head back towards the public square, I’m stopped by a Black H’mong vendor girl wearing her traditional indigo jacket over a printed T-shirt whose intent on selling me something from one of the tribal sling bags hanging from her shoulder. I patiently express my lack of interest in buying anything to the vendor girl (I tend to only buy a T-shirt for myself to commemorate a visit to a new destination, especially given that I travel with a small pack usually already stuffed to the gills) and turn to continue on my way, but a simple three-word entreaty conveyed in a particularly lilting feminine voice causes me to pause and look back. “Buy from me…?” Her attire is the first thing that sets her apart from the other myriad vendor girls encountered since arriving in town, and to me the styling looks distinctly Chinese. Her pastel plum blouse, white pleated skirt and belted sash are all ornately embellished with embroidery, sequins, imitation gemstones, lace and beaded fringe tipped with small dangling silver charms.
Ha and Her More Traditionally-Dressed Black H'mong Friend

With a playful grin and a mischievous gleam in her laughing eyes she continues her no doubt well-honed and practiced routine calculated to charm a prospective customer. “You buy from me? Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” She gazes up hopefully into my eyes while maintaining her playful grin. When I smile and say that I’m really not looking to buy anything, she over-dramatically conveys feigned disappointment by letting her grin slip into a somber frown as she tilts and lowers her head while pursing her lips into an exaggerated pout beneath her now downcast eyes. “If you don’t buy from me, I’m gonna…DIE!” The last word is said in a deep voice and drawn out long enough to comically emphasize the mock gravity of the situation. When my laughter subsides, I ask her name and inquirer about her ethnic minority heritage. I learn that her name is Ha, and that she is a 17-year old Black H’mong from a nearby village called Cat Cat. She says that she wear a costume in the style of the Chinese H’mongs because it makes her stand out, which is very good for business. She then quickly gets back down to business, holding up a folded Black H'mong garmet made of embroidered indigo-dyed cloth and what looks to be a rainbow-banded Flower H'mong shawl. "So, you buy from me? Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” I tell her that I don't have room in my small pack for any souvenir H'mong textiles or garments. I then attempt to throw her off of her sales pitch by asking her questions about Black H'mong culture, telling her that I had visited a H'mong village when I was in northern Thailand and described the type of costume that the women of that village wore. “Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah; all you do is talk! Are you going to buy from me?!” My will was yet again broken, in part by her quirky yet endearing personality, I heaved a little sigh of resignation and asked what small handicraft she might have for sale in one of her colorful ethnic sling bags, thinking that she might have some piece of inexpensive tribal jewelry that I could buy to give as a gift (as I had done with some persistent Akha hill-tribe vendor girls that had corraled me on Bangkok's Khaosan Road).
The Black H'mong 'Jew' Mouth Harp to Bought from Ha on P Cau May Street

Ha reached into one and extracted small Black H’mong mouth harp called a ‘jew’; it is made from a pen quill-shaped brass leaf and cased in a bamboo tube that is covered in embroidered fabric, to which the brass leaf instrument is attached via a length of black string, and apparent used in H’mong courtship. Ha takes the instrument from its decorative case and demonstrates it by holding it to her mouth and varying the shape of her mouth cavity as she tweaks the brass leaf, which modulates the tone of the twangy hum of the instrument in a subtle Cry Baby wah-wah pedal fashion. She quotes the price of the mouth harp at 60,000 Vietnamese Dong, and then drops it to 50,000 Dong when I say that the price is more than I am willing to pay. The haggling continues for a bit I until at last Ha reluctantly agrees to my final offer of 30,000 Dong. I thank Ha in her native H'mong language ('O-chan' was the only word I had learned from my morning spent among the H'mongs at the Bac Ha Sunday market) and take a few pictures of Ha and her friend, who had first approached me and stayed close by to observe our transaction (and questions as to why I had only bought something from Ha but not from her), before going on my way. Sometime after returning back to the States, I would be browsing through videos posted of Sapa on YouTube and actually come across a few videos of Ha, and in one case of Ha with her friend shown in the photo above, that had been taken some years earlier when she was quite young. I couldn't help but smile when I saw that even back then, she was using her signature "Buy-from-me-buy-from-me-buy-from-me…?” sales pitch.

I ascend the stair-stepped walkway to a quite street that runs parallel to P Cau May and leads up to the Sapa Church. I hear the faint sound of what seems to be live traditional Vietnamese music being played up ahead and go to check it out. Following a bend in the narrow road, I end up at the side entrance of a small hall adjacent to the Sapa Church with a number of people standing around and conversing out front. Walking into the hall, I see what appears to be seated members of an extended family dressed in white robes surrounded other in respectful attire; surmising that the live traditional orchestra is performing as part of a funeral service, I leave as inconspicuously as I can manage.

I walk along D Ham Rong Street, which flanks the church and the town’s lakeside park. Along the side of the road are a number of grilled food vendor stalls housed in a long continuous row of adjoining tarpaulin canopies; a line of bare hanging light bulbs illuminates the haze of rising smoke as fat and marinade droplets sizzling on hot wood coals. As I stroll among the barbecue grills being fanned with woven cane mats, the enticing savory-sweet aroma make my mouth water even though I’ve already had dinner. I’m beckoned to take a seat by a litany of hellos from hostesses and waitresses standing behind platters of enticing grilled meats, whole fish, large prawns and assorted vegetables. I accept an extended invitation at one of the stalls and order a Tiger Beer. Though a couple of other foreign tourists are seen milling about, the assembled diners seated at the low tables in petite blue and red plastic chairs are all locals. Little English is spoken and my Vietnamese is limited to some basic words and phrases, but I still manage to communicate with those around me, with the sharing of my photos and video clips of the Bac Ha market helping to break the ice and bridge the cultural divide.

I take the stair steps back down to P Cau May and head back to my hotel. Sapa’s ‘tourist zone’ is pretty sedate on a Sunday night, with only a modest number of people out strolling the street and few vehicles going by. Somewhere nearby, perhaps just beyond the open accordion-style doors of one of the souvenir shops, a person is improvising somber-sounding melodies on a type of flute or reed wind instrument; the instrument’s melancholy wail merges with the sputtering growls of passing motor scooters, providing a soundtrack befitting of the laid back mood of the street. A bit further down the street, I notice four Black H’mong vendor girls sitting in a line on the right-hand curb in the distance, and can immediately pick out the one seated at the far end of the group as Ha given her colorful ‘Chinese H’mong’ attire. As I come closer, I can see that Ha’s hair, which was tied up when I had my encounter with her earlier, was now untied and extended down in loose waves to just below waist level, with one of the Black H’mong girl in traditional indigo-dyed attire gingerly brushing her exceedingly long hair as her vendor girl friend whose sales pitch I had turned down earlier sat closely to Ha’s left. Having had endured Ha’s somewhat sarcastic bantering that ultimately ended to her benefit earlier, and now feeling a sense of familiarity with Ha and her friend, I decide to stop and chat with them for a while before continuing on my solo stroll back to the hotel. Ha and her friend immediately recognized me, with the friend again inquiring as to why I purchased something from Ha but not from her.

In the street, roughly in front of where the four seated Black H'mong girls were seated, was four Vietnamese (or perhaps H’mong?) guys of about twenty-something years of age playing a hacky-sack type game using a badminton shuttlecock in lieu of a small beanbag (or a woven cane ball, as the Burmese game of ‘chin-lone’) that the girls were engrossed in watching. The guys were batting the shuttlecock back and forth with their feet at heights and distances that was a testament to their skill, which made it quite interesting to watch and likely a far more appropriate form of evening entertainment than crashing a funeral party to take in some traditional music. I take the opportunity to give my feet a now much needed rest and had a seat on the downhill side of the inclined curb to Ha's right; as I did Ha glanced my way and flashed me a slight, somewhat devilish grin tinged with what seemed to be a dash of mock smugness, then leaned her head back as the Black H'mong girl behind her, perhaps a few years her junior, continued to to alternately brush her long hair and smooth it out with her free hand. The deference shown to Ha by the other girls suggested that she was the alpha female of the group, and seemed to be both quite aware of her status among the others and really take pride in it. When I commented that I was surprised how long her hair was when it wasn't tied up, she replied with an air of presumed mock smugness, "Oh, this is nothing! You should have seen it before I cut it; it was down past my butt!" "Ha is the most popular girl in the village!", one of the girls in the group added emphatically to confirm her status as the alpha female. "Yup, I've already had five boyfriends!", Ha proclaims proudly. "And I haven't even had one boyfriend yet...!", one of the younger girls in the group adds with an embarrassed giggle.

I turn my attention back to the shuttlecock being passed back and forth from foot to foot, and the mixture of groans and giggles when someone fails to connect and it skitters across the tarmac, as the girl behind Ha make a final pass along the length of her hair with the brush and her open hand. Two additional Black H'mong girls walk towards the group, prompting the seated girls get up and walk over to meet them, with only Ha and I remaining seated on the curb as she gathers her hair into a single ponytail and secures with a small multi color cloth band. "I don't know why I let you buy that mouth harp for only 30,000 Dong. It should have been the full price, or closer to it...", Ha says as her friends move just beyond earshot. I reminded her that she had made the initial offer, and that we had gone through iterations of counter-offers until she finally accepted my 30,000 Dong offer. "I lowered the price from 60,000 Dong to 50,000 Dong; that was a real good deal. You made me drop the price so low that I think you still owe me something, and should give me more...", she replies. I'm a bit surprised by her wanting me to fork out additional cash after we had already sealed the deal, and wonder if she seriously expects more Dong from me after we had sealed the deal, or if this more of her drama queen shtick.

I told her that I hadn't intended to buy anything from her in the first place, but after talking with her for a while decided that I could see if there was some small trinket that I could buy from her to compensate her for her time. I again reminded her that she always had the option to refuse to go lower that 50,000 Dong, or offer to split the difference and perhaps settle on 40,000 Dong. She responded that she knew that but wanted the sale and accepted my 30,000 Dong offer, and is now regretting having done so given that she hasn't made much money at all today, which is why she thinks that I still owe her something to make amends. After telling me this, she breaks eye contact and leans back slightly as she folds her arms and appears to shift her gaze as if looking at something on the second-floor balcony of the older French-style building across the street, with her upturned nose, closed eyes and the hint of what might be the beginning of a smirk conveying a bratty defiance and the confidence that she believes she has the upper hand. She pauses for effect, then returns her gaze to me with that mischievous gleam again in her eyes. "So, what's it going to be...?" In drama queen fashion, with her elbows still at her side she rotates her forearms outward to expose her upturned palms as if she is holding something in them, and as she enumerates the two options as she sees them (both of which involving my Dong) she nods first down into her right palm, and then down into her left palm, respectively. "Are you going to give me 20,000 Dong, or are you going to give me 30,000 Dong?" I give a little exhaling chuckle and roll my eyes. "C'mon, Ha. A deal is a deal..."

But she is not detoured by my response. She next plays the sympathy/guilt card to coax the Dong out of my cargo pants pocket. She tells me that she has extra expenses to cover, as she shares a rented room in Sapa with some other Black H'mong girls so that she does not have to walk or take a 'xe om' motorcycle (or motor scooter) taxi back to her home Black H'mong village of Cat-Cat, which lies in a valley among the rice terraces and a rather picturesque waterfall northwest of Sapa, a roughly 90-minute trek from the Sapa market along a marginally-paved and decaying road, with the final segment of the journey being along a meandering path of cobblestone steps. Her tactic began to have the desired effect as the thought came to mind that I shouldn't have talked her down that low in price. Perhaps I was standing firm on principles regarding the perception of having been overcharged or down right ripped off as a tourist before (being overcharged for a woven shoulder bag at a Skor Karen hill-tribe village that I had spent the night in while trekking in northern Thailand, and being down right ripped off when forced to rent at a premium price a sarong and a waist sash from some overly-aggressive local vendor girls, despite having my own in-hand at the time, in order to advance to the ticket booth and pay my admission fee to enter the Batur Temple in Bali), and resolved to not let that become a recurring experience. She then played the next sympathy card, with the Queen of the Black H'mong vendor girls drawing an Ace and giving me the guilt trip in Spades. "I haven't made any other sales today, and I haven't even been able to eat dinner tonight!"

Yet again, my will is about to be broken, mainly because of a congenital soft spot in the heart that I seemed to have inherited which on occasion has gotten me into some interesting, if not edgy, situations (the one in Siem Reap, Cambodia being a case in point) ending in unanticipated charity. Ha seems to noticed the subtle change in my expression and my pause for consideration, and takes it as encouragement. "So what's it gonna be...?" Again, with the nodding down into the upturned palms for effect. "20,000 Dong, or 30,000 Dong...?" A slight pause as her upturned palms hang in the air like the pans of the old-school balance scales that you see being used in the rural markets. "20,000...or 30,000...?" I'm about to give in, but still hesitant to do so because I know she's just playing on my sympathy. "You really haven't eaten tonight, huh?" I ask. "No, I haven't", she responds, though her gaze is slightly averted as she answers. As the moment of (hopefully) truth arrives, I give her a final opportunity to be straight with me, figuring that I would be getting off cheaper that I did with the impoverished woman and child, and those three disfigured landmine victims in that Cambodian shanty town on the banks of the Stung Siem Reap River. "Look, Ha. I don't want you to have to go hungry if, in fact, you had not had anything to eat for dinner tonight. But, I need you to be honest with me, and not just take advantage of my generosity..." Now it's her turn to pauses for a second of consideration as she lowers her head slight, and then her expression softens and a slight smirk starts tugging at the corners of her mouth until it coaxes her lips into a little embarrassed grin. "Well...," she says  as her eyes take on a bit of a devilish gleam, "I could have always had a little more to eat!", as she punctuates the end of the sentence with the hints of a chuckle. I find myself chuckling too, despite having been on the receiving end of an attempted con job, and have to admit that her quirky personality is becoming more endearing as the evening wears on.

I glance at my watch and decide that it's time to be on my way back to the hotel to get some rest ahead of tomorrow's guided trek to view the rice terraces on the outskirts of Sapa and visit a couple of hill tribe villages, and then after lunch do a self-guided trek down to Cat-Cat village. I said goodnight and goodbye to Ha, wishing her the best and telling her that perhaps I would see her around town before departing Sapa for the return trip to Lao Cai, and thereafter the night train back to Hanoi. At the bottom of the hill where P Cau May Street takes a 90 degree hook to the left, I hung a right to follow the street that leads to my hotel.

Not far from the corner, I saw a placard next to a short stairwell that lead down from the declining sidewalk to a basement or sub-level doorway advertising some type bar downstairs. I decided to step in to have a look despite not hearing the sounds of music coming up from the open door, which would not be a big surprise given that it was a Sunday night. Looking to the right as I step through the doorway, I wondered if the bar was still under construction and slated to open in a few weeks or more, or if they were going for 'behind the Iron Curtain' command bunker minimalism. In the gloom of the dim indirect interior lighting, I could make out what looked to be bare concrete or dully-painted walls flanking what could have been thin solid color carpeting befitting of one of the greens of a miniature golf course. There was a very bland looking bar against the back wall with a couple of empty shelves behind it, with no bottles, glasses or even any wall decorations visible, nor bar stools or any other furniture in evidence. The place seems to be deserted, with no music, voices or any other sound to indicate any sort of activity, yet a rotating light ball located somewhere out of sight silently bathed the bare walls with a slowly sweeping star field of cool blue dots of light. I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and climbed back up to street level, and I was shortly back in the hotel lobby and up in my room to get a decent night's sleep before tomorrow's trekking.

Coming Next - Part 2: Three Villages and a Funeral

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bali, Indonesia - Part IV: Chants, Trance and Sunset Seafood by the Seashore

(Continuing from Part III) After grabbing a quick bite to eat, I went out to track down one of the sidewalk ticket vendors and book a seat for the evening’s performance of the Kechak, Trance and Fire Dance at the Bale Banjar Pandangtegal Kaja dance stage, presented by the Trena Jenggala Troupe. Located within reasonable walking distance from our hotel on Jalan Hanoman Street, the venue held performances of the combined bill every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 7 PM, either out beneath the stars in front of the split gait of the Pura Penataran Kloncing temple or, as the sky was threatening rain that night, within a bale-styled pavilion to the left of the compound entrance, with perhaps a reduced number of male choral performers owing to the size of the stage. The venue had a ground-level stage floor, with three rows of chairs (the back two elevated rows comprised of white plastic backed chair, the front floor-level rows of bamboo and woven cane folding chairs) along the right and left sides of the stage area, and four rows in front of the stage. At roughly the center of the stage area was a dark-colored carved candle rack that looked like a stunted tree trunk with short spindly branches that held perhaps a dozen or so lit candles in a sort of Christmas tree pattern. At the back of the stage area (to my right, as seated) a couple of steps above the floor was a small shrine-like alcove decorated in a manor befitting of a temple entrance or an angkul-angkul gate (a pair of red and black-checked and fringed umbrellas in front of the wooden support columns, black and white-checked flags, decorative arched woven palm screens accented with red flowers) that contained the doorway through which the performers entered the stage. I was able to grab a front row seat on the right side of the stage that I figured would afford me a decent view of the performance and allow for some good pictures, though the ambient lighting provided a couple of dim rafter-mounted floods directed towards the alcove at the back of the stage and a couple mounted at the front of the pavilion would force me to use a flash; unfortunately, the camera’s flash would do me no good when shooting in video mode.

The Kecak Performance, Based on the Hindu Tale of Ramayana

The first part of the performance was the Kechak dance, also known as the ‘Ramayana Monkey Chant’, which was actually created in the 1930’s by German painter and musician Walter Spies while he was living in Bali. The dance involves a circle of anywhere from 50 to 150 bare-chested male choral members (called a ‘gamelan suara’) seated in a circle, all clad in black and white checkered waist cloths trimmed in red over black sarongs, with a white or yellow flower tucked behind the left ear and a red flower tucked behind the right ear. They repeatedly chant the syllable ‘chak’ in a staccato manner, occasionally interspersed with verses of sung choral melodies and brief solo vocal melodies distinctly recognizable as riffs based on the Balinese musical scale that are commonly heard in pieces of Gamelan music. The group singing is done with coordinated rhythmic symbolic movements of the members’ hand, arms and upper bodies, which compliment the intricate movements and gestures of the costumed dances in the center of the stage in the depiction of scenes and battles from a fragment of the epic Hindu tale of Ramayana. For the Balinese, the Kecak was originally a Sanghyang, or sacred trance-inducing dance ritual in which spiritual entities or forces were believed to enter the body of the entranced performer, which was traditional accompanied by a male chorus. Given his deep interest in the Kechak ritual, Spies adapted it into a drama based on Ramayana incorporating dancing which would be performed for visiting tourists. A brief summary of the epic of Ramayana is as follows: Prince Rama, a warrior and rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is exiled with his wife Sita to a faraway desert. Upon their arrival, an evil demon king Ravana spies Sita and, having fallen in love with her, sends a golden deer to lure Rama away. As a result, Sita is captured by Ravana, but Rama ultimately summons his forces and, aided by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and his monkey army, defeats those of the King Ravana and rescues her.

A Blessing Prior to a Kecak (Monkey Chant) Dance Performance in Ubud

The End of the Kechak Performance

The Kechak performance opened with the checkered clothed, sarong-wearing and flower-tucked choral members entering the stage area with their hands raised and their outstretched fingers wiggling as they chanted in a call-and-response manner that sounded almost as if they were repeatedly saying, “Tugboat, tugboat, tugboat…”, and taking a seat cross-legged on the ground in a circle around the spindly candle rack. They were soon followed by the ‘Pemangku’ (the Agama Hindu priest assigned to each temple to serve as its guardian and overseer, and takes responsibility for the needs of the temple and its congregation) dressed in a white sarong, tunic and turban who made his way to the centered of the assembled singers. He proceeded to sprinkle them with benedictions and holy water from a brass bowl and tray held in his left hand to appease or invite the spirits prior to the performance, with the singers’ hands held up at head-level to receive the blessings. As the priest took his leave, a lone voice started the performance with what sounded like a sentence delivered in a groaning, drawn out fashion, which was followed by a long wailing melody reminiscent of the muezzin’s call to prayer, which I had first heard blaring from a distant loud speaker from one of Singapore’s mosques while strolling through the fringes of Little India, and then a choral response not unlike the soccer (football) stadium chanting heard around the 5:00 minute mark at the end of the Pink Floyd song ‘Fearless’ off their 1971 album Meddle, with the seated singers rhythmically rotating their upper bodies in a circular fashion and leaning to and fro to the melody. They then switched to an up-tempo staccato chanting that built in intensity until they all raised their hands in unison, with fingers fluttering, settled into an arrangement that had a portion of the chorus chanting “Chak, chak, chak-ka-chak-ka, chak…”, while another member appeared to mark out the beat with a chant of “Boat, boat, boat…”, and other members sang a melody in unison. It was at that point that two elaborately-costumed female dancers (presumed to represent the characters of Prince Rama and his wife Sita) entered the stage and began the first of the evening’s dance performance segments. Rama and Sita were later joined by the character Maricha, portrayed by a young dancer in a yellow costume, who assists the demon king Ravana by turning himself into the golden deer that so enchants Sita and ultimately lures Rama away from her. The epic continues to unfolds, with King Ravana and the white-furred monkey god Hanuman making their appearances on stage, as do dancers representing the other key characters in the epic such as Garuda (the king of all birds, depicted by a dancer with wings clipped to their biceps), who helps to free the captive and rope-bound Rama and his brother Laksamana so that they can continue in their effort to rescue Sita. At one point in the presentation each of the closely-seated choral members, leaning back nearly flat against the singer behind them and reaching forward to grip the shoulders of the singer in turn leaning against them, form a circle around the two female dancers and the candle stand, and dramatically sway their bodies deeply to and fro as they hiss loudly, presumably to symbolize Hanuman’s monkey army. In the end, the forces of good does win out over those of evil, with the choral members assembling (the front row of singers taking a seat on the ground) together with the dancers and character actors at the back of the stage for a final chant-like group sing to close out the Kechak performance to the sporadic bluish-white flickering of camera flashes.

The Sanghyang Dedari Trance Dance

The next dance in the evening’s presentation was the Sanghyang Dedari (also referred to as the ‘Trance Dance’), which is performed by pre-pubescent girls (generally 8 to 10 years old, making them ‘pure’ yet old enough to be intermediaries with the spirits) in a manner similar to the Legong dance, though in this case the girls dance while in a trance state and are said to be possessed by hyangs, a term from ancient Indonesian mythology for the supernatural forces of spiritual entities that enters their bodies. As with the male performer of the Sanghyang Jaran dance that would follow, the girls are said to be put into the trance state by the wafting of incense and the initial chorus of Sanghyang song. The costumes worn by the two young dancers are similar to that of the Legong dancers save for the sarongs and tunics being white. The Sanghyang Dedari dancers are said to have never had any dance lessons in their lives, and can neither remember nor repeat the dance steps that they perform while in trance, and though the girls perform with their eyes closed, the movements of the dancers are coordinated and in-sync as they become a medium of spiritual expression while possessed. The opening of the performance was heralded by the sound of a female chorus beginning to sing from somewhere beyond the alcove area behind the stage. Nearly concurrence with the start of the singing, the performance’s two young Sanghyang Dedari dancers, held aloft and supported bear hug-style under the arms by one each checker-sashed male choral members as they fluttered unfolded gold fans with their right hands, emerged from the alcove and were brought out onto the stage. The female choral members that provide most of the singing for the performance, dressed in sleeveless navy blue and white print tops and solid navy blue sarongs, emerged from the alcove and begin to assemble as a seated group on the floor behind the two entranced girls. One of the female choral members walked abreast of the carried dancers, and as they were set down on a rectangular red carpet that covered the stage’s concrete floor by their gentleman carriers, she continued forward to the candle stand and set what looked to be a stemmed offering bowl at its base before retreating. The ladies were followed by a contingent of male choral singers who lined up behind them and remain silent for the first part of the performance.

As the feet of the young dancers came to rest on the red carpet, they both bent their knees to settle into a slight crouch and held their bodies rigidly save for their right arms and wrists, which were vigorously waving and fluttering their gold fans. Their dance movements then became more fluid and Legong-like as they transitioned into a sitting position while the female chorus continued singing their slow and perhaps a bit somber-sounding melody. The mood and tempo was then changed as the female voices were replaced with that of the saronged and bare-chested male singers, who reprised the now-familiar Kechak-style chanting (“Chak, chak, chak-ka-chak-ka… Boat, boat, boat…”), with the entranced dances coming to their feet and their dancing incorporating turns, dips, shimmies and side-to-side movements in response to the upbeat cadence of the chanting. All at once, the chanting stopped and the young dancers appeared to have fainted and gracefully slumped to the ground in mid-turn as if a puppeteer absentmindedly lowered his horizontal control rod and caused the strings of a marionette to go abruptly slack. As a single female voice rendered a somber melody, two of the female singers went behind the dancers and lifted them by their underarms back to a standing position, at which point they seemed to regain consciousness and began to flutter their fans as the rest of the female singers added their voices to the melody. The performance continued on until the entranced dancers again appeared to faint. This time, the two women assisting the dancers eased them back so that they were lying on their backs with their heads and shoulders elevated and resting on the sitting women’s knees. The Pemangku priest returned carrying a brass bowl in his hands and sprinkled the dancers’ heads with holy water, after which the women assisting the reclined and apparently unconscious girls carefully removed their ornate headdresses and, inclining them up to a sitting position by grasping their shoulders, rocked them in a circular motion three times; this caused the young dancers’ head to wag lazily and appeared to rouse them out of the trance states as the female choir continued singing their melancholy yet soothing melody. The priest then went in turn to each of the girl and again sprinkled their heads with holy water, which the seated girls accepted with raised hands. The girls then cupped their hands together as the priest administered three more doses of holy water, the first two of which the girls drank from their cupped hands and the third of which the girls wiped across the tops of their heads. As the last soulful note of the female choir’s mesmeric melody was fading out, it was abruptly replaced by an incongruently discordant chant of a single male voice, sounding something like “Nor-nor, naw-naw, nee-nee, nar-nar…!”, after which the rest of the male choir joined in with a reprise of their “Chak, chak, chak-ka-chak-ka… Boat, boat, boat…!” As the chanting continued the priest retreated to the alcove at the back of the stage, then the young dancers and both seated male and female choir members rose to their feet and began to retreat as a group in a slow shuffling backpedal towards the rear of the stage, with one of the female choir members coming forward to retrieve the offering bowl from the base of the candle stand. The chanting then stopped and the young dancers and choir members bowed to the audience with a somewhat Thai-style, palms-together ‘wai’ gesture.

A Fire Dance performance

The final (and at barely six minutes in length, the shortest) performance of the evening was the Sanghyang Jaran, or Fire Dance. The Sanghyang Jaran is performed by boys or (in the case of our presentation) a priest or chosen man who, in a trance state, dances on a jaran (horse) represented by a somewhat minimalist wood and coconut hobbyhorse around and through a bonfire made from coconut husks to the singing and chanting of a male chorus. Following the conclusion of the Sanghyang Dedari dance, the spindly candle stand and the red carpets provided for the benefit of the dancers and seated choir members were removed from the concrete performing area. As I was in the process of reviewing the photos and video clips that I had taken of the prior two performances, I glanced up and noticed that a pile of coconut husks and pieces of shells had been brought out and placed at roughly center stage. A goodly amount of liquid accelerant had apparently been applied to the piled husks and shells, as when they were set alight, the pile quickly erupted into a large crackling flame that would improve my chances of getting some decent video footage if it didn’t over-saturate my Casio’s CCD optical sensor and cause blooming to occur in the image (which tends to happen when shooting video of brightly-lit night market vendor stalls). The male choir re-entered the stage with their hands raised and wagging, with a portion of the choir chanting what sounded like “Tugboat-tugboat-tugboat…!”, and the remainder chanting what sounded like “Cheeseboat-cheeseboat-cheeseboat…!” After a brief reprise of that distinctively discordant and droning solo male voice, this time chanting “Rah-rah, ree-ree, rah-rah, ree-ree…!”, a portion of the choir slipped back into the “Chak, chak, chak-ka-chak-ka”-mode. One new chanting element added into the mix caused me to chuckle a bit, as a portion of the choir began to vocalize what nearly sounded like “Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me…!” and immediately reminded me of the classic bit from “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In”, a popular American sketch comedy television show from my youth that ran from January 1968 to March 1973 on the NBC television network. 

At this point, the rather elderly and barefoot male Jaran dancer entered the stage. He was dressed in colors similar to the other male choir members save for wearing black, white and red shorts in lieu of a sarong and a white headband that was gathered into a triangular peaked in the front, with some white dots painted on his temples and above the nose. The hobbyhorse that he straddled was in the form of a narrow D-shaped wooden ring, with the flat side of the D resting on his right shoulder so as to support its weight has he danced, and the bottom portion of the D extending beyond the flat in a reverse-arc to form the horse’s tail. The head of the horse appeared to have been artfully carved out of wood to convey in detail the animal’s musculature, with the mouth opened to display the teeth and the nostrils flared as if the horse was in a fast gallop, and painted a shiny gold. The structure of the horse’s legs, arched tail and mane were conveyed with long thin strips of what looked to be dried palm fronds or rice stalks, with the tail sporting a tied red silken sash that’s assumed to have some symbolic meaning. The Jaran dancer slightly bobs and weaves in place, causing the small bells suspended from the hobbyhorse to jingle with each movement, then begins to circle the bonfire several times with alternating walking and skipping steps as the choir continues with their “Chak-ka chak-ka, sock it to me…!” chant. The choir suddenly switches to singing a very up-tempo melody together as the Jaran dancer’s circles around the bonfire quickly tighten, until he abruptly veers into the bonfire and begins to kick the burning chunks of coconut shell and husk with a series of sweeping forward and sidekicks, sending them and a flurry of bouncing embers skittering across the concrete stage floor, as more embers ride the thermals and rising curls of smoke up to the ceiling. As the coals are dispersed the bright flames begin to die down, taking with them the major contribution to the ambient illumination and thus diminishing the resolution of the video shot. The Jaran dancer continues circling and kicking the coals and embers as the chanted melody continues, though as the choir switches back to the “Chak-ka chak-ka, sock it to me…!” chant, the fire dancer retreats and a couple of the choir members use rakes to sweep the glowing hot coals and loose embers back into a pile. Once the consolidation is completed, the choir switched back to the up-tempo melody and the fire dancer returns to again kick the burning remains across the stage. The choir shifts back into the coal and ember-sweeping chant, and in the final installment of fire dancing and coal kicking, both the tempo and the mood of the melody throttles back appreciably, which seemed to be reflected in the energy level and enthusiasm of the Jaran dancer. Two choir members, or perhaps similarly-dressed stage assistants, emerge from the alcove to corral the Jaran dance, followed by the return of the Pemangku priest with his holy water. The assistants help the elder Jaran dancer out of his hobbyhorse and ease him into a sitting position so that the Pemangku can administer the holy water which, together with some gentle shoulder-shaking by one of the assistants, brings the dancer out of his trance as the choir again switches back to the “Chak-ka chak-ka, sock it to me…!” mode to close out the performance. Despite my video clips being shot in medium resolution under poor lighting conditions, you can at least get a sampling of the performance from my YouTube video here.

The Fire Dancer After the Show, Still Somewhat Entranced

After the applause ended and people began to rise from their chairs, I decided to sit back and let the rest of the audience clear out before leaving and began to review that latest round of photos and videos taken as the elderly Jaran dancer continued to sit on the stage floor where the Pemangku had anointed him with holy water. From the looks of it, the dancer did not yet seem to be fully out of his trance as he sat there staring straight ahead with his mouth slightly open. One of the other tourists in the audience who also chose to lag behind walk up to the dancer and handed him a tip in the form of a few Indonesian Rupiah notes. Seeing as how none of the others in the audience had thought to tip the dancer, I decide to go up and also offer him something. I knelt before him and offered him some additional Rupiah held out with two hands and I said to him in English, “This is for you, Uncle…”, noticing that the tops of his feet and ankles were covered with dark gray soot, though there did not seem to be any real burns or blistering. He looked up at me at first with what could be described as a rather spacey ‘thousand-yard stare’, though as he some the offered notes in my hand he managed a brief and very slight smile as he reached out to receive my offering, though immediately afterwards the smile slipped away has his mouth went slack and his eyes returned to a glassy stare as if to suggest that he still wasn’t quite fully back to the ‘here and now’ after his supernatural encounter. I walked back to my chair to retrieve my knapsack and grab a bottle of water, as the evening air within the bale pavilion was still quite warm, not to mention smoky from the burning of the coconut shells and husks. Looking back towards the old dancer, I considered how he must be feeling after having danced around and through the coconut bonfire, and that his mouth was likely dry from having inhaled all that smoke. I reached into my knapsack and took out my last bottle of water and took it over to him, kneeling down before him to unscrew the cap before placing the bottle on the ground in front of him. Looking up at me, his glassy stare suddenly took on a quality of warmth and appreciation as a smile slowly spread across his face. He slowly picked up the bottle with one hand, then reached out to take my hand in the other; he then rotated my hand as if he wanted to examine the back of it and, fixing my gaze in his and widening his smile, he uttered a small grunt that I took to be a ‘thank you’ as he slowly brought my hand up to lightly touch his forehead three times, and then released my hand as his gazing transitioned back into the glassy ‘thousand-yard stare’ directed towards the entrance to the bale pavilion. As I was about to leave the temple compound, I stopped and turned to take a photo of the old man as he continued to sit.

As I walked back out onto Jalan Hanoman and headed up to Jalan Dewi Sita, which was the most direct route back to Monkey Forest Road, I browsed backwards through the photos that I had just taken via the camera’s LCD screen. The first photo to appear was that of the Jaran dancer, and I was intrigued to see in the photo that there was a very bright and well-defined ‘orb’ right in front of the old and potentially still-entranced guy. Granted, with all the floating soot particles in the air after all the repeated kicking of the hot coconut coals and embers, I would have been more surprised if no ‘dust bunny’ orbs appeared in the fire dance photos (and others did appear in the photos figuratively left on the cutting room floor, although much dimmer). Still, I thought that it was pretty cool that one so bright should end up so strategically placed in front of the trance dancer, and I had no doubt that some of the people who I would later show the photo to, with the appropriate back story conveyed, would take the position that something supernatural had been captured in the image. As I strolled along Jalan Dewi Sita just a little ways’ east of the football field, I heard some live acoustic music being played at a bar called Bamboo, which is located across the street from Dragonfly Restaurant. It seemed that the two local musicians, a guitarist/vocalist playing what looked to be an Indonesian-made Yamaha Eterna nylon string classical acoustic and a bongo player, were entertaining a bunch of friends or perhaps regulars at the bar by playing acoustic renditions of classic rock hit by request. I made note of the location and figured that when I got back to the Komaneka, I would see if my daughter and son-in-law wanted to come check the place out and have a beer. As I was about to leave I heard an approaching motor scooter and turned around just in time to see a beautiful young Legong dancer still in her costume and stage makeup sitting sidesaddle on the back of said motor scooter as it was passing. Something about that fleeting image, perhaps in the way that for a fraction of a second her expressive eyes seem to shift every so slightly to maintain that extra half-second of contact with mine, or the way it seemed to serve as a metaphor for the connection between Bali’s rich history and age-old traditions and the present day, it just seemed to engrain itself as one of the mental pictures that would later make up my fond memories of Ubud.

As I entered the Komaneka’s bale pavilion-styled reception area and passed the front counter on the way to our room, I was greeted by two of the staff members and decided to stop and get their take on the photo that I had taken of the old Jaran dancer and what looked to be a gaseous orb of supernatural origin hovering before him. Upon examining my camera’s LCD screen, both of the gentlemen behind the counter agreed that the phenomenon captured had to be a manifestation of the Jaran dancer’s power if not the presence of a spiritual entity. Our daughter and son-in-law took the position that, while the orb-like image likely had earthly origin, it was an odd if not eerie coincidence that the artifact in the photo happened to be just so positioned in front of an individual who was said to have been, if not still in, communion with a spirit entity. When I had mentioned the live music being played at the Bamboo on my way back from the dance performance, we agreed that we would head back there for a beer to take in some of the music. We would end up spending nearly two hours at Bamboo, enjoying both the acoustic music provided by the talented duo and the appreciative patrons that sang along to their favorite tunes, and also the Storm Beer Golden Ale brewed ‘locally’ by Storm Brewing, formerly of Denpasar Selatan, Bali but now relegated to the past as it has since closed its doors; it’s too bad really, as the beer was quite good.

The following morning, which was the day of our evening departure from Bali, we opted to sleep in a bit and after a large breakfast packed up to check out of the Komaneka. Having a bit of spare time before meeting up one last time with Ngakan for a last half-day of sightseeing before being dropped off at the airport, I took the opportunity to make a final walk around the grounds of the Komaneka and take some photos. Our afternoon would start off with one more complimentary visit to the Neka Museum to again browse through the galleries and see some of the pieces that were part of a new exhibit that was soft-opening. Following the museum, we would basically retrace the route that we had taken into Ubud, though sidetrack on the outskirts of Denpasar to head further south to see the famous seaside temple of Ulu Watu and briefly sample the new Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, which at the time was still in the construction phase but already opened to the general public, which would allow us to at least walk the grounds of the park and see some of the attractions that had been completed. The late afternoon and early evening would be spent strolling along Jimbaran Beach and enjoying a dinner on the beach before being dropped off at the airport.

We loaded our luggage into Ngakan’s car and pulled out onto Monkey Forest Road for the final time a bit after 12 noon. As we turned left onto Jalan Raya Campuan, I saw in passing what looked to be some sort of group fabrication activity involving bamboo poles being performed by a number of the local men within the Ubud Watilan community pavilion, which is located across the street from Ubud Palace and serves as venue for town meeting, political rallies, cockfighting and cultural dance performances. I wondered if perhaps they were constructing the frame for the artistically-rendered multi-tiered tower and base platform that are used to carry the body of the deceased in the procession, and the ornate animal-shaped funeral sarcophagus (the type of animal prescribed by the particular caste that the deceased belonged to) that will contain it in the final moments before the flames consume it, which are used in the Agama Hindu cremation ceremony locally known as Pitra Yadnya. The ceremony was featured at the end of the National Geographic documentary, and it was something that I had hoped I would be able to see for myself when I finally visited Bali someday, though given the timing and the length of our stay, it would not happen this trip.

We returned to the Neka Art Museum and spent about 90 minutes there, revisiting the galleries that we had walked through our first time there but at a more leisurely pace, and checking out the soft opening of the new exhibit featuring the works of late contemporary Javanese artist Abdul Aziz (1928-2002). To provide additional entertainment for those attending the soft opening, two musicians seated in front of the gallery entrance played an upbeat piece of Gamelan music on flute and compact wooden xylophone, which I was able to capture a bit of on video (a sample of which is included in my video clips montage that I will include a link to). Part of the Abdul Aziz exhibit was a piece depicting three young legong dancing girls in traditional ornate costumes bracketed by a thin wooden door frame with looks of anticipation on their faces entitled ‘Waiting to Dance’ that had particularly intrigued me when I had first seen an image of it in the museum brochure and gallery map; the artist had made use of this same compositional element to good effect in a few additional pieces in the exhibit. Another exhibit we took in featured the keris (kris), an asymmetric Indonesian dagger with distinctive blade patterning that is equal parts weapon, spiritual object and object d’art, and holds substantial significance in Indonesian culture. The exhibit contained dozens of antique and new keris from the collection of the Suteja Neka family, paintings from the Neka Art Museum with keris in them, and photographs by the museum’s curator Garrett Kam showing keris in Balinese costumes, ceremonies and dances. As we browsed the exhibit, we were able to meet the curator Garrett Kam (I Nyoman Swastawa) himself, who was very gracious and quite personable, and in brief conversation with him learned that he had spent time in Burma researching the techniques used to make traditional Burmese lacquerware.

The Pura Luhur Ulu Watu Sea Temple

We arrive at Ulu Watu Temple a bit before 4 pm, taking in our first view of the ocean after nearly five days in Bali. The famous and culturally significant ‘sea temple’, known officially as Pura Luhur Ulu Watu, lies on the southwestern tip of Bali’s Bukit Peninsula (bukit means ‘hill’ in Indonesian, and the region does afford some good views of southern Bali), overlooking a section of coastline that offers world-class, if not legendary waves that draws in surfers from all over the world. The temple was established in the 11the century by the Javanese priest Empu Kuturan and is part of a chain of sea temples meant to honor the Gods of the sea, and whose relative positions were meant to provide a spiritual chain of protection for the island. In addition to being an important sea temple, Ulu Watu is also considered to be one of the Sad Kahyangan Jagad, or ‘six sanctuaries of the world’, believed to be the six holiest places of worship on Bali and pivotal point to maintain the island’s spiritual balance. The temple sits out on small point at the edge of a vertical cliff face that plunges straight down into the ocean’s battering waves. Visitors paying the IDR 3,000 admission fee can tour the temple’s outer courtyard grounds, but only Hindu devotees can enter the small inner temple. The wall that separates the outer courtyard from the inner temple prohibits non-Hindu devotees from getting a close-up view of the iconic three-roofed meru shrine out on the point, or at least those limited to a 3X zoom on their compact digital cameras like me. (The three-roofed meru are built to honor the holy mountain Gunung Agung, with the taller and much more photogenic 11-roofed meru seen at the larger complexes such as those seen at the Pura Ulun Danu Batur Temple visited during our earlier excursion from Ubud to Mount Batur, are built to honor the supreme Balinese deity Sanghyang Widi.) The trail that leads north and south of the temple afforded some very nice views of the scenic surrounding coastline and decent views of the temple’s meru shrine. It would have been a nice place from which to view the sunset, and also take in the Kechak and Fire Dance perform that is presented on the temple grounds, but given the time of our departing flight back to Singapore it was decided that sunset would be better enjoyed over a cold Bintang Beer and a plate of freshly-grilled seafood with our toes in the sand at Jimbaran Beach, which was much closer to the airport. Ulu Watu, like other tourist attractions in Bali, is known for having its share of naughty monkeys, and we did see a few of them along the trail during our hike.

The Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park - Under Construction
The View of Bali's Bukit Peninsula from the GWK Cultural Park

The next stop on the afternoon’s itinerary, the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park (also known as the GWK Cultural Park or, simply, the GWK), was decidedly underwhelming given that it was barely midway through construction, and the roughly 30 minutes spent there plus the associated drive time (not to mention the IDR 15,000 per person) could have been much better spent strolling the beach. The cultural park at the time featured a 66m-high bronze statue of a Garuda, the mythical bird-humanoid hybrid that was the mount of Lord Vishnu (Wisnu), a similarly-scaled bronze bust of Lord Vishnu, some newly-erected empty buildings and a small Gamelan ensemble to entertain the presumed scant number of visiting tourist (like ourselves) that might be brought by for a peak at the current state of the cultural park. The 250-hectare (roughly 618 acres) park was conceived and designed to embrace as well as preserve for art, cultural and spiritual aspects of the Island of Bali. The main bronze statue of the park, which appeared to be pretty far on its way to completion, is the namesake Garuda Wisnu Kencana that depicts the Hindu God Vishnu riding aloft on his winged mount Garuda. It is claimed to be the tallest and largest modern statue at 120m tall and 64m wide, and was conceptualized by Nyoman Nuarta, one of Indonesia’s finest modern sculptors. It appeared that much, if not most, of the park was excavated out of limestone at likely great expense and effort. The plans called for the inclusion of adventure attractions, dining and shopping complexes, and venues for both traditional Balinese performances and concerts featuring top-name international bands and performers. The GWK concept has finally come to fruition since our visit to Bali (http://gwkbali.com/), and has even apparently hosted a performance by the heavy metal rock group Iron Maiden; if nothing else, we at least got a decent view of the Bukit Peninsula out of our ‘Run To The Hills’.

Our last stop before being dropped off by Ngakan at Ngurah Rai/Denpasar International for the flight back to Singapore was Jimbaran Beach, where we would do a bit of strolling before enjoying a glorious sunset across Jimbaran Bay while enjoying a beer and some grilled seafood. Our son-in-law would not be able to stay for dinner as he had an earlier flight out of Bali on account of a business trip, and Ngakan would take him to the airport after dropping us of at the off at the beachside restaurant that we would have dinner at. We turned onto Jalan Pantai Jimbaran Road, which flanks a long stretch of beach extending from the ‘Middle Seafood Warungs’ (beachside restaurants with a combination of indoor seating and an array of tables out on the sand) to the ‘Northern Seafood Warungs’ and drove for some distance before turning left into the parking lot of one on the seafood warungs (the name of which escapes me, as I could not find a copy of the bill receipt in my carryon-sized backpack which would be later used, together with the date and time stamps of my digital photos and video clips, after-action reviews of annotated Lonely Planet pages and glances at Google Earth/Google Maps, to jog my memory of our itinerary for the purposes of travel writing and blogging.) We claimed a table for two from one of the several available out on the sand, using my hat on the table and my sandals next to my chair, then walked south a ways along the band of compacted wet sand that was pleasantly cool on the feet in the still-balmy late afternoon air caressed by a light cool breeze coming off the ocean to the cyclical roar and slap of crashing waves on the beach, and the hissing ebb and flow of warm, foamy seawater across our feet.

Fishermen Unloading Their Catch at Jimbaran Beach

The beach was quiet relative to what I had expected, though perhaps most of the beach-goers had already had their fill of the beach by that time of the day and had already gone back to their resort hotels and budget guest houses to shower and dress for an upscale dinner, or prepare for a long night of clubbing and drinking. Whatever the case, I was pleasantly surprised and the vibe was consistent with the laid-back feeling that Bali seemed to exude through the trip, at least in our experience. There were some Western tourists seen on the beach, but there were also locals there to relax and enjoy the approaching sunset, and some fishermen with their outrigger boats on the beach emptying their fishing nets onto blue plastic tarp laid out on the sand, in addition to some fishermen and perhaps a handful of pleasure-paddlers still out on the water. As I stopped briefly to watch the fisherman at work and take some photos, the ambient rhythmic of the incoming surf became layered with the distant laughter of local kids playing on the beach, the murmured conversations in Balinese among the fisherman, the dull slap of fish coming loose from the raised and shaken netting and falling onto the plastic sheeting, and the thin, trebly rendering of an Indonesian pop song from a radio somewhere in the boat to form an audio tapestry. This element combined with the scent of the ocean and the catch of the day laid before me, the tactile sensation of the light sea breeze across the face and the grittiness of the sand between the toes, and the visual richness of the scene before me to firmly imprint the memory of the experience in my mind. It was one of those often-random experiences that, perhaps in part due to that sense of being in a far-off or exotic location, just seems to strike a resonant chord within you, and evoke a feeling of connection with a destination, its culture and its people. It’s the kind of feeling that makes the expensive, effort, and occasional frustration and hardship (not to mention the odd bout of food poisoning) involved in traveling thousands of miles to experience a new culture seem all the more worth it.

A Food vendor at Sunset on Jimbaran Beach

We returned to our reserved beach table as the setting sun was settling into the band of haze and thin high clouds that bordered the heavier clouds on the distant horizon, which tinged the sun in yellow-golden hues and softened the edges of the sun with a soft halo that made it appear to gradually swell in size as we placed our order with the one of the restaurant’s beach combing waiter. Our bottles of Bintang Beer and some glasses arrived after I had returned from the water’s edge with a dozen or so new digital images on my camera’s SD memory card. As the sun continues its lazy descent, it silhouettes the fishing boats still out in the shallows of the bay and people walking along the water’s edge, and back-lights the approaching wave fronts to transform them into advancing dark bands that interrupts the glaring shimmer of the ocean’s surface. As our order of grilled prawns arrives, I notice that a vendor has wheeled his grill cart with a camp lantern positioned at the far end out across the sand to set up off to our right and roughly midway between our table and the water. By the time our grilled fish and Balinese-style mixed veggies arrives, the sun has dipped beneath the band of clouds and fog on the horizon, and after an ample sip of beer, I head out to the edge of the beach take some addition pictures before we lose the ambient, which can happen quickly in this part of Southeast Asia given the proximity to the equator. The grilled food vendor has now lit his lantern and being curious I walk over to him for a closer look. As I approach I see him fanning his glowing hot coals with a hand fan typically made of woven palm leaves, and see that he is preparing to grill ears of corn with the husks still on, and has two containers of some type of reddish sauce or paste (perhaps the spicy fermented shrimp sambal paste?). I take a couple of pictures and head back to our table as the restaurant next door to ours begins their evening outdoor entertainment for the benefit of their customers and anyone within earshot or line-of-sight at a reasonable distance. A young costumed Legong dancer of perhaps 8 or 9 years old performing on a raised wooden stage positioned between the beach tables and the restaurant building, with a few elevated colored spotlights provided for illumination. Though her dance movements coupled with my camera settings and the quality of the lighting did not allow me any decent pictures of her, we were at least able to enjoy the shimmering tones of Gamelan with the background slap and hiss of the waves on the beach with our grilled seafood and beer.

We finished our meal and then walked inside the restaurant to settle up our bill, where we would find Ngakan seated up near the register. We got back in the car and made the short 2 to 3 km drive back to Ngurah Rai/Denpasar International for the evening flight back to Singapore. Our stay in Singapore would be but one day to do some laundry and finalize our itinerary for Malaysian Borneo, and also book some last minute flights to leave for there the following morning. The ‘there’ was still to be determined, as our daughter really wanted to see orangutans in one of the two rehabilitation center jungle reserves in Malaysian Borneo, but we were still trying to decide which of the Malaysian states’ rehabilitation centers we would visit, as there was one in the state of Sabah (northeastern Borneo) and one in the state of Sarawak (northwestern Borneo). Personally, I wanted to do a trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but our daughter said that a family trip to Cambodia had already been planned for when her in-laws arrive in a few months. We would end up deciding on Kuching, Sarawak as our destination in Malaysian Borneo, as covered in my blog post

We arrive at the entrance to the Ngurah Rai/Denpasar and said our thank you’s and good bye’s to Ngakan. We were really lucky to have met him the morning of our guided trek on the outskirts of Ubud, as he really made our time in Bali special. Our daughter and son-in-law would later make use of Ngakan’s service during several trips to Bali with visitors in tow, including my parents who would make their first and only trip to Southeast Asia the following year, and would later sing the praises of both the island of Bali, and also of Ngakan’s expert guide services and charming personality. We made our way through the check-in counter and security screening, and on through the terminal to our departure gate to the accompaniment of the shimmering and hypnotic sounds of Balinese Gamelan over the intercom system. As we waited at the gate to board our Valuair A320, I was wishing that we could have spent more time in Bali to take in addition sights and explore new parts of the island. The trip had been everything I had hoped it would be with regards to experiencing some of would I had seen and become enchanted with in that Nat Geo documentary years earlier. I also hoped that I would be able to return to Bali someday, and continue to do so to this day.

I am including a link to my video clips of Bali on my YouTube page here, though they are unfortunately in medium resolution. Hopefully you will enjoy them none the less. A special thanks to our daughter Jessica and son-in-law Bransby for letting me benefit from the wealth of insights into what to see, do, and especially where to eat around Ubud that were gained through your prior visits to Bali; and thanks, Jessica, for accompanying me through the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, despite being deathly afraid of monkeys. Also, an additional 'terima kasih banyak' (thank you very much) to our guide, driver and local village chieftain Ngakan Arnawa for helping to make our visit to Bali extra special.