Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bali, Indonesia - Part I: Ubud, the Cultural Heart of Bali

Daily Offerings at a Small Temple Next to the Psar Ubud Market
Our Valuair flight from Singapore touched down at Bali's Ngurah Rai/Denpasar International Airport a bit after 9:30 in the evening. As our aircraft throttled back for the roll to the taxiway, a female voice came over the PA system and, in a Singaporean or perhaps a Malaysian accent, welcomed us to Bali and informed us of the local time, temperature and weather condition, then reminded us to stay belted and seated until we reached the gate. As we pulled up to the gate, the monotonous whine of the A320's turbofans quickly dropped in pitch and faded to a low waning moan, as the soundscape within the acoustically-dead confines of the cabin shifted to a medley of the metallic clattering of seat belts being unfastened, the muffled pops of overhead storage door latches being opened, and the low murmur of conversations between passengers and over cell phones. I undid my seat belt and rose to the extent that the low ceiling panel above my window seat (our daughter took the center seat so that I could take in the view of Singapore at dusk as we took off) allowed to stretch my legs as a line of fellow passengers quickly formed in the aisle. I was finally realizing my dream of one day visiting Bali. I first became intrigued with the Indonesian island of Bali while in college after seeing an exhibit of black and white photographs capturing scenes of daily Balinese life and images of legong dancers in performance, together with a collection of Balinese wood carvings and other traditional handicrafts, which was on display in the campus art gallery. My enchantment with Bali and the resolve to one day travel there would be firmly established when, while flipping though the TV channels, I happened upon a PBS broadcast of the 1991 National Geographic documentary 'Bali: Masterpiece of the Gods' (link here); thankfully, WMPT ran a promo for the documentary right before its airing, so I had just enough time to pop a tape in the VCR and record over a portion of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. The documentary's cinematography, musical score and evocative narration was outstanding, and gave me a real appreciation of Balinese culture. Now, after nearly 16 years since my first of many viewings of that Bali documentary, I was finally about to experience Balinese culture in person. Our daughter and son-in-law had already made a few trips to Bali, and were quite familiar with Ubud and its surroundings; she would be able to show me some of the local sights in addition to their favorite places to eat, drink and hang out, with our son-in-law scheduled to join us on the evening of our second full day in Bali.

The line of people standing in the aisle finally began to inch forward, allowing us to step into it, quickly slide our carry-on luggage out of the overhead storage compartment and begin the walk to the front of the plane. As we passed from the jet way into the terminal, we were greeted with a slow and somewhat melancholy piece of Balinese gamelan music being played at background level over the airport's intercom system. For me, the shimmering, almost hypnotic melody rendered by xylophone, cymbals, drums and gong seem to evoke a sense of calm and tranquility which would set the mood for our time in Bali; for our daughter, however, it only evoked perhaps a bit minor annoyance; she is not a fan of Balinese gamelan, saying that it kind of reminds her of the background music of the old ‘Super Mario Brothers’ Nintendo game. We purchased our USD $10 Visa on Arrival ticket, had our passports affixed with Indonesian Visa sticker that was good for a seven-day stay in the country and subsequently stamped at Immigration counter, and after clearing Customs made our way out of the terminal and over to a transportation kiosk to arrange for a car to take us to Ubud. Driving along Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, which flanks the eastern suburbs of the capitol city of Denpasar, we stopped at a McDonald's conveniently located right off the road in Sanur for a quick bite to eat. After continuing a while through what looked to be predominantly urban environs, the surroundings appeared become more rural, with roadside dwellings and the occasional commercial building flanked by street lamps sporadically interspersed among the almost procession of trees that lay within the pool of illumination cast by our headlights, and stretches of darkness that may have been paddy fields. As we neared Ubud, the roadside dwellings began to appear with more regularity, with some of them possibly being workshops or darkened storefronts, as we caught passing glimpses of what looked to be stone lanterns and statues lined up in front of them. 

The View from Our Patio Deck at the Komaneka Monkey Forest Resort Hotel

As we arrived in the town of Ubud, we turned onto Monkey Forest Road (Jalan Wanara Wana), which caters to the needs of the visiting tourists with a host of hotels, restaurants, bars and boutique shops, and at last pulled into the Komaneka at Monkey Forest, our accommodation while in Ubud. We entered the resort hotel’s lobby, which is open-air and housed in a covered patio that’s laid out in the styling of a bale tiang sanga, or guest pavilion, which is an architectural feature found in the tradition Balinese family compounds. We were greeted by a smiling hostess holding a tray containing two glasses of a somewhat tangy, fizzy juice-type beverage that was primarily meant to refresh us but was also said to provide some health benefits. We checked in and were shown to our room, which was at the end of a meandering garden path. The room was quite nice, featuring a four poster bed complete with mosquito netting, with a decorative arrangement of red and yellow flower petals laid out on the bedspread.  I decided to take a quick shower before bed, and found that the combination sunken bath tub/shower was already filled to a depth of about 18 inches, with several handfuls of flower petals spread out across the surface of the water that had to be skimmed out by hand before the tub could be semi-drained for my shower. As nice as the room was, the first night was anything but restful. Firstly, I woke up in the early AM with a lot of nasal and chest congestion, which seemed to be due to either dust or mildew contained on the mosquito netting that surrounded me. The next rude awakening was due to the very loud and distinctive croaking of a frog that appeared to be out on the small patio deck that the back of the room opened up to. I had become desensitized to the more distant croaking and chirping of the local frog population and was able drift off to sleep in spite of it. But this particular call, consisting of an evenly-timed series of five low beep-like croaks, followed by a roughly five second pause, after which the series repeat ad nauseam, stuck out like a sore thumb against the background chorus, sounding a bit like someone’s annoying cell phone ring tone. Thankfully, the pauses between the croaks became longer with time, until at last the croaking finally stopped altogether and I was able to get back to sleep; come sunrise, I opened the drapes and saw that our patio overlooked a series of rice paddy fields, with the edge of the nearest paddy right in front of the patio deck.

Komaneka at Monkey Forest's Dining Area

The Garden Path Leading to the Dining Area

We ate a breakfast of eggs, fried rice, fresh fruit and strong Balinese coffee in the hotel's dining area which, like the lobby, is also housed in a bale-styled patio that looks out onto the garden; the dining bale was more reflective of traditional Balinese architecture given its bamboo rafters and a thatched palm fiber roof. Before heading out to explore the town on foot, we stopped at the reception desk to enquire about arranging a guide so that we could do a bit of trekking amid the hillside rice terraces that lie on the outskirts of Ubud. We were told that a guide could be provided for us tomorrow morning, and that he would be leading us on a roughly two-hour trek. After booking our trek for the following morning, we made our out onto Monkey Forest Road. Though there was already a fair amount of tourist-related activity along the road, the dining area and the main grounds of the hotel were set back far enough from it that what little traffic noise did drift over during breakfast was barely noticeable and almost masked out by the Balinese gamelan music that the hotel had playing softly in the background. Just about the time that we reached the end of the hotel driveway, two local guys that were sitting casually on a pair of motorcycles parked curbside and chatting amongst themselves immediately turned their gazes in our direction. One of them straightened up and, flashing a toothy smile, uttered that most-often asked question heard on the streets of Ubud: "Transport? You need transport?" Much like the "You need tuk-tuk? Where you go?" that a Westerner has to endure while walking around the streets of Bangkok, a visitor to Ubud (particularly on Monkey Forest Road) should anticipate being asked about their need for transportation numerous times each day, which after a while can really test the limits of one’s patience. I returned the smile and told him politely that we didn't need 'transport' at the moment, as we were just going to do some walking around, but that we might use his services later on. Encouraged by this, he handed us his business card as he told us his name was Wayan, and asked us to be sure to look for him in front of the hotel when we did need him. One aspect of Balinese culture that is particularly intriguing is the way that a person’s name is selected when they are born. A person will only be given one of four names, regardless of their gender, which is dependent on birth order. The first born is ‘Wayan’, the second born is ‘Made’, the third born is ‘Nyoman’, and the fourth born is ‘Ketut’. In the event that a fifth child is born, the naming series repeats with the modifier ‘Balik’ (meaning ‘again’) commonly following the appropriate name (i.e., Wayan Balik, Made Balik, etc.)

Ubud's Monkey Forest Road

Uneven and Unstable Sidewalk Slabs Spanning the Gutters
Looking South Towards the Monkey Forest Sanctuary Entrance
We briefly stopped to change some USD's into IDR's (Indonesian Rupiah), and then strolled down the road in the direction of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (officially called the Mandela Wisata Wanara Wana, and actually owned by the village of Pandangtegal). Our plan for the morning was to visit the sanctuary, then continue south from central Ubud along a portion of the 'Monkey Forest & Penestanan' walking route outlined in the Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok guide book. Our daughter had walked the route before and suggested that we backtrack through the rice paddies instead of taking the paved road north from Katik Lantang to Penestanan as the road's shoulder gets quite narrow and the traffic whizzing by can get nerve-racking. As we proceeded down Monkey Forest Road, our daughter pointed out the restaurants, cafes and bars that they had tried and liked. In a way, one could say that Monkey Forest Road is to Ubud as Khaosan Road is to Bangkok with regards to the concentration of tourists, though it is infinitely more quaint and laid back (especially in the evening) than Khaosan. The road starts across the street from Ubud Palace at the junction Jalan Raya Ubud Road, where it flanks the west side of Ubud Market (Psar Ubud), and gradually slopes downhill to the entrance of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where it turns east to join Jalan Hanoman Road. Monkey Forest is nominally a two-lane road, though in actuality it is a one-way road, with the lane lying to the east of the broken white line used for northbound vehicular traffic and the lane lying to the west of the line reserved for parked cars and motor scooters, and perhaps an occasional street vendor cart. What's nice about Monkey Forest Road is that it exudes a small town vibe, particularly along the sections where you can look between adjacent buildings and see stretches of rice paddy fields, and some of the restaurants and cafes, such as Three Monkeys, have tables that open onto the paddy fields. Perhaps one not so nice thing about Monkey Forest that I soon discovered was the condition of the sidewalks. The road has rather deep gutters, with the sidewalks comprised of brick and concrete slabs that span said gutters. Often times, the ground has perhaps settled in such a way that the sidewalk paving slabs don't sit level with the underlining concrete sidewalls of the gutters, resulting in the slabs rocking underfoot as you walk over them, or tripping you when you stub your toe on the raised edge of a slab. There are those other times when you encounter a slab that has disconcerting cracks running through them that look as though they may break through under your weight, or have already broken through, or (in the worse case) the slab might be missing altogether. 

Entering the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
A Long-tail Macaque (Balinese Macaque) Eating a Spirit Offering
Balinese Macaques Socializing in the Sanctuary
We made our way down Monkey Forest Road to the sanctuary's north entrance, where a few of the resident long-tail macaques (also called Balinese macaques) could be seen milling about, and paid our IDR 15,000 admission fees. The monkey is highly regarded in Balinese culture, with its importance reflected in the Kecak dance (the famous story of Ramayana taken from the epic Indian poem) and in Balinese folk tales, and in statues and carvings. In Agama Hindu, the monkey can embody both positive and negative forces, but in the form of the Barong (a lion-like creature in Balinese mythology), it is believed to be able to protect temples from evil. The sanctuary was home to over 300 monkeys at the time of our visit, but the current population living in the sanctuary is said to be just over 600, which live primarily in three clusters of males and females. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary contains three temples, which were originally built around the mid-14th century but have seen many renovations. Given that the sanctuary was constructed near the downstream section of the village of Pandangtegal, the temples contained within the site are thus classified as Pura Dalem, or Temples of the Dead. The most prominent temple in the sanctuary is the Pura Dalem Agung Temple, located in the southwest portion of the main forest area; the second temple, located in the northwest of the forest and closest to the sanctuary entrance at the bottom of Monkey Forest Road is the Holy Bathing Temple; on the eastern edge of the forest lies the third temple, the Pura Prajjapati (funeral or cremation) Temple.

Next to the entrance booth was a woman selling small plastic bags of slightly over ripened baby bananas for visitors who wanted to feed the monkeys. Figuring that I might as well have the full Monkey Forest Sanctuary experience, I bought some bananas before we started walking along the sanctuary's paved footpath. We had no sooner turned and taken our first steps when a couple of monkeys began to scurry over and eye my bag of bananas. A baby monkey came up to my shoe and, rearing back on its legs, held out its hands as if it was begging for the banana. I leaned forward and extended the banana to the young monkey, who quickly took it from me and backed up a bit before starting to eat it. The next monkey to come forward looked to be an adult and, given its size and the look in its eyes, looked decidedly more formidable than the baby monkey, so I dropped the banana in front of it rather than let it take it from my hand. Our daughter, whose dislike for monkeys is partially owing to her fear of them, was getting nervous as more monkeys advanced towards us, so I quickly distributed the remaining bananas to diminish the incentive for them to follow us. I had read that the sanctuary's monkeys have very little, if any, fear for humans, and as time goes by they have become conditioned to expect food to be given to them as soon as they approach a person; if the food is not given quickly enough, their impatience can soon turn to aggression, and it is not uncommon for people to be bitten by the monkeys in the sanctuary (which are potential carriers for both Rabies and Hepatitis B). As we proceeded down the path, we came across a Balinese woman who was placing a spirit offering which included cooked rice on a large rock, and wisely had a long wooden pole by her side to fend off any monkeys if required. Soon after the woman completed her offering and moved on, an adult monkey moved in and began to eat the contents of the offering.

The Double-Dragon Bridge to the  Holy Bathing Temple
A Statue of a Long-tail Macaque 'Spanking the Monkey' at the Holy Bathing Temple
The Entrance to the Utama Mandala Section of the Holy Bathing Temple
A Statue on the Holy Bathing Temple Trail
A short distance ahead, we followed a long flight of steps off of the main path that lead us down across a small stream via an ornate bridge whose railings were in the form of two dragons, and into the sanctuary's Holy Bathing Temple. The Balinese celebrate water for its ability to both sustain life and also to purify. As a culture, they have always considered regular personal hygiene to be very important, with the bathing traditionally being performed in rivers, streams and irrigation canals; in Agama Hinduism, pools of water (particularly those within a Holy Spring Temple) are believed to have special magic and curative properties. The Holy Bathing Temple's structure follows the traditional 'Three Mandala' layout; the northernmost portion of the temple compound is the Utama Mandala, which is an area reserved for the deities, the middle Madya Mandala is the center compound area for the disciples of the deities which contains the Holy Pool, and the Nista Mandala, located along the stream just south of the bridge, is the special bathing place for human beings. The path from the bridge enters the temple compound near the southern end of the Holy Pool, with the split-gate temple making for a picturesque backdrop at the far end of the compound. As I slowly walked around the far corner of the moss-covered stone railing that surrounds the pool, which features monkeys statues seated at its corners, a particularly nice composition of the temple's structural elements came together that begged to be framed and photographed. After taking a few shots of the temple, with its short flight of steps flanked by humorously-rendered statues of a rather portly man and woman, we left the Holy Spring Temple and made our way towards the main feature of the sanctuary, the Pura Dalem Agung Temple; it was only later when I reviewed my first picture of the Holy Bathing Temple that I saw with a chuckle that the seated monkey statue chosen as a compositional element to help direct the eyes of the viewer in the desired direction around the photograph had been depicted 'spanking the monkey', with a hand across one eye and a facial expression to suggest that he was either at the height of ecstasy, or embarrassingly caught in the act.

The Holy Bathing Temple's Nista Mandala Human Bathing Area

A Komodo Dragon Statue near the Holy Bathing Temple
Spirit Offerings Being Taken to the Holy Bathing Temple
Leaving the upper two Mandala of the Holy Spring Temple, we followed the steps leading down to the Nista Mandala human bathing area, near which was a pair of moss-covered stone Komodo dragon statues perched above a section of the bathing area, before ascending the stairs back to the main path to proceed to the Pura Dalem Agung Temple. We passed through the sanctuary’s central point, which is demarcated by a circular stone fountain in the form of two serpents with reared heads that have linked their bodies to form its perimeter, with three animal statues (one of them a seated monkey) overlaid with a fine dusting of moss perched atop the serpents’ bodies. In light of our daughter’s aversion to monkeys, we did not dwell long; a fair number of tourists had congregated near the fountain to have their pictures taken while they fed and otherwise interacted with the similarly congregated monkeys. Perhaps because of the sheer volume of bananas being offered, if not them being in a state of near-satiation, the monkeys appeared to be very docile and accommodating to the kneeling and camera-wielding tourists, who seemed unfazed to have the monkeys scale up their backs and perch on their shoulders to pluck the offered banana or piece of fruit from their hands. 

The Gate of the Pura Dalem Agung Temple
Details of the Pura Dalem Agung Temple Carvings
A Statue of Rangda, the Widow-Witch Demon Queen in Balinese Mythology
Carvings on the Pura Dalem Agung Temple's Kulkul (Warning Drum) Tower
Posing with My Loaner Sarong and Sash at Pura Dalem Agung Temple
Following the path to the right of the fountain, we continued on to the side visitors entrance of the Pura Dalem Agung Temple, where I had to first stop at the sarong stand to put on a loaner sarong and waist sash before proceeding into the temple compound's outer courtyard, or jaba. The aim of the rule requiring both males and females who are entering a Balinese Hindu temple to wear a sarong and sash is to cover the parts of the body that are considered to be impure, especially those parts that lie below the waist. (Given the sarong and sash requirement, I was a bit surprised that there was neither a sarong stall, nor a attendant present to assure compliance to the protocol, at the sanctuary's Holy Bathing Temple that we had just visited.) The Pura Dalem Agung Temple, being the main temple within the sanctuary, had additional rules regarding admission. Any person who has wounds or is bleeding, including women who were menstruating, were not allowed to enter the main temple; parents of children less than four days old were also denied entrance into the temple; finally, anyone who had recently lost a relative was not allowed into the temple until three days after the relative had been either buried or cremated. The walled outer courtyard of the temple was fairly quiet as we entered, with a couple of other tourists strolling about and taking photos of the Kori Agung gateway leading into the walled Jeroan inner courtyard (tourist are not allowed to enter the inner courtyard, as it is reserved for priest, their assistants, and worshiper), and a few others chatting beneath the shade of the wantilan, the larger of the courtyard's two bale pavilions that's used as a stage for dances. Our view of the inner courtyard was limited to the peaked palm fiber roofs of its bale pavilions that were visible above the inner wall, over which a number of young monkeys scurried over to see if we might have any food with us. The Kori Agung gateway is ornately decorated with fierce statues of guardian spirits meant to ward off evil. The most common guardian spirit depicted is Boma, which in Balinese Hinduism is the son of Dewa Wisnu (giver of wealth, fertility and life) and Ibu Pertiwi (mother earth), and is prominently featured with opens palms and splayed fingers above the gateway's center door. At the base of the gateway steps is a statue of Bedawang Nala, the mythical turtle that supports the world on its back, accompanied by two naga serpent that bind it to the earth to serve the needs of humans. Also featured prominently in statue form is Rangda, the widow-witch demon queen in Balinese mythology that is depicted with claws, bare pendulous breasts and long unkempt hair, and said to eat children. The temple motiff includes carvings of dragons, serpents and several Garuda, which is a mythical bird-like creature that is said to be the mount of Lord Vishnu and is a popular figure in Balinese art. As I was taking photos and video clips around the outer courtyard in the vicinity of the wantilan pavilion, I heard a local guide explaining the significance of some of the temple's features to his male tourist client. When the guide commented that the monkey on the railing next to him wanted to be friendly because he was extending its hand to the tourist, and suggested that he should try to shake the monkey's hand, I couldn't help but to turn around out; I was curiosity as to why an assumed knowledgeable guide would suggest such of provocative and potentially dangerous gesture to a wild monkey. As the tourist's hand came into close proximity with that of the monkey's, the animal suddenly let out a loud and harsh growl as it snapped at the extended hand; it was only due to the exceedingly-quick reflexes of the gentleman that he avoided the bite.

Statues inside the Scared Monkey Forest Sanctuary

Rice Paddies to the South of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
A Small Temple on the Outskirts of Ubud

A Rustic Stable on the Hike South of Ubud

Rain Begins to Fall Over the Paddy Fields, Cutting Our Hike Short

After strolling around the outer perimeter of the Pura Dalem Agung temple to check out some of the surrounding statues, a number of which had monkeys perched atop them, we exited the sanctuary through the southwest gate and proceeded down Jalan Nyuh Bulan, which is a quaint paved road that leads through a neighborhood of private homes, small businesses and the odd artisan workshop interspersed with patches of rice paddies and open fields. At the village of Nyuhkuning, we headed west along the main road per the walking route suggested by Lonely Planet, which put us onto Jalan Raya Tebonglang Singakerta Road and across the bridge spanning the Sungai Wos River. Walking along a stretch of narrow shoulder that gave us some close encounters of the left hand-side oncoming traffic kind, we entered the village of Dangin Lebak; after taking a right near the large Bale Banjar Dangin Lebak (Dangin Lebak Community Hall), our route of travel thankfully changed to follow a marginally-paved narrow track that was free of traffic safe for a lone motor scooter that slowly lumbered by. As we passed a picturesque temple on the bale banjar's northern flank, the path soon transitioned from thin tarmac to loose gravel and bare earth as it took us out among the paddy fields. As darker clouds moved in and we began to feel a few rain drops, we decided to reverse course and head back to Ubud before the clouds had a chance to really open up. Back up on Monkey Forest Road, we grabbed a bit of lunch before heading to the hotel to let the afternoon rain shower pass.

Pasar Ubud Market

A Woman Making Offerings next to the Pasar Ubud Market

As the rain tapered off, I strolled up to the top of Monkey Forest Road to check out the Pasar Ubud Market, then head across Jalan Raya Ubud Road and do some wandering around the sections of Ubud Palace that are open to the public. I entered the market from the Monkey Forest side and walked through one of the aisles that lead to the center courtyard section, which appeared to mainly be selling paintings and other decorative arts and crafts at ground level, with a lot of Balinese clothing seen hanging on display along the veranda surrounding the upstairs vendors, all of which resulted in a heavy concentration of tourists looking to buy souvenirs. I made my way to the northeastern corner of the market that's fronted by Jalan Raya Ubud Road, and saw that there was a small temple tucked in right next to the market, with the sidewalk and railings flanking the temple covered with spirit offerings and a local woman in the process of making an offering as I approached. Spirit offerings are a common sight in Bali, not only within the confines of a temple's compound, but also in front of trees and rocks believed to be the dwelling place of a spirit, and in abundance along the sidewalks. Much the same way that the Burmese mix the practice Buddhism with the worshipping of 'Nat' spirits, the Balinese combine the practice Agama Hinduism with the worship of both animistic spirits and their ancestors. The spirit offerings, called sajen, are comprised of a small tray fashioned from coconut leaves whose shape can vary depending on the intended symbolic use of the sajen, into which is placed a varying combination of cooked rice, flowers of different colors, fruits, small cakes and other items as prescribed by the intended use; the sajen is anointed with drops of holy water and in some cases a stick of incense may be placed atop or inserted into the offering. The sajen is often used to appease the spirits, but can also be used as part of a rite of purification. As most Balinese are believers in white and black magic, and that an object like a tree or rock can become magically charged or otherwise inhabited by a spirit, they will sometimes drape that object in a poleng, which is a black-and-white checkered sash; a poleng may also be seen draped over some of the statues within the temple or palace compounds.

The Grounds of Ubud Palace (Puri Saren Ubud)

Portions of the Barong and Rangda Costumes 
I strolled along the north side of the market back to Monkey Forest Road, then crossed Jalan Raya Ubud to enter the grounds of the Ubud Royal Palace, officially known as Puri Saren Ubud. Built during the lordship of the late Ida Tjokorda Putu Kandel (1800-1823) and meticulously maintained by his successive heirs, the front section of the palace is open to the public at no charge and provides the visitor with well-preserved examples of traditional Balinese architecture. The palace also functions as an artistic cultural center that hosts nightly dance performances with gamelan orchestras, with the palace's ornate angkul-angkul gate and guardian statues providing the performance stage with a dramatic backdrop. Just inside the entrance to the palace grounds, two Balinese women were seated behind and folding table, with a couple of of thin stacks of colorfully-printed tickets secured with paper weights and a metal cash box between them. As I stopped to look at the tickets, one of the women looked up with a smiled and asked if I wanted a ticket to tonight's 7:30 PM performance, which was scheduled to be the Legong and Barong dances, adding that the ticket price was IDR 80,000; I told her that we had not yet made plans for the evening, to which she replied that tickets should still be available if we decided later on to see the night's performance. After checking out the courtyard surrounding the angkul-angkul gate where the evening's dance performance would be later held, I walked around the palace perimeter to take some photos of the various gateways and their protective statues that were cloaked in checkered poleng sashes wrapped into the form of a sarong, and some also topped with white cloth head scarves. Passing through one of the archways leading into the beautifully-landscaped garden, I came upon a bale pavilion in which two young girls were being instructed in the art of legong dancing by a middle aged Balinese woman, who was having them perform and hold a particular dance step, at which time she would make slight adjustments to the positions of their hands, fingers and head while conveying verbal instructions in either the Bahasa Indonesian or Balinese language. Some of the bale pavilions contained within the garden were decorated in a manner befitting of royal occupancy, with their posts, beams, molding and wooden furniture adorned with intricate carvings and painted in bright red and gold. One of the bale pavilions contained some of the traditional Balinese gamelan percussive instruments (metallophones, xylophones, racks of tuned cymbals and gongs), also intricately-carved in traditional motifs and painted in red and gold, that would be later used in the evening's performance, in addition to the large and elaborate Barong and Rangda masks that would be worn by the performers that would be playing the parts of the key characters in the show.

Back at the hotel, we firmed our plans for the evening. We decided that we would taken in the evening's Legong and Barong dance performance at Ubud Palace after having dinner at one of the restaurants along Monkey Forest Road, where we were bound to encounter a number of sidewalk ticket sellers along the way to get our seats for the show. Of the variety of Balinese cultural performances that can be seen on a daily basis at Ubud's various venues, which operate on a rotating schedule, I was most interested in seeing the legong dance performance, as it was the one that I had found to be most captivating from watching the National Geographic documentary. Another performance that was high on my list to see while in Bali was the kecak, or 'monkey chant' dance, where the music for the performance was provided by a chorus of voices singing in a staccato fashion. A glance of the schedule for our time in Ubud showed that I would be able to take in a kecak performance, which would be combined with a trance dance and fire dance performance, at a venue that was within easy walking distance of our hotel; unfortunately, we had arrived into Ubud a day late to be able to have seen a performance of wayang kulit, or shadow puppet play, which was another of the traditional Balinese performing arts that I was interested in checking out. 

We made our way out onto Monkey Forest and soon came across one of the sidewalk ticket vendors who, thumbing through the different bundles that she held in her hand, was able to produce two tickets for the Ubud Palace performance. Having secured our admission for our evening of Balinese dancing and gamelan orchestra beneath the stars (not to mention among the mosquitos), we backtracked a bit to enter Bumi Bali Restaurant, which was just up the street from our hotel, and selected a couple of traditional Balinese dishes from the menu and a some Bintang Beers for dinner. As showtime approached, we continued up Monkey Forest, passing the soccer field and the Pasar Ubud market, and after presenting our tickets entered the grounds of the palace in the fast-waning ambient light of the dusk sky. In front of the palace's angkul-angkul gate, a large red mat had been laid out atop the courtyard's paving stones to form the dancing stage, with the musicians of the gamelan orchestra and their instruments setup atop mats placed on the strips of grass along the right and left sides of the stage area. Two portable racks of elevated flood lights and a single bank of footlights at the front of the stage provided illumination for the dancers and the members of the gamelan orchestra. The stage matting and the edges of the steps leading up to the angkul-angkul gate were lined with what looked to be white, yellow, red and pink orchid flowered, which were assumed to have some ceremonial significance. A second section of red matting was placed on the courtyard pavement in front of the stage area for members of the audience who wanted to watch the performance while seated on the ground. Behind the section of floor seating were rows of folding chairs and, as luck would have it, we were early enough to be able to get a couple of seats in the middle of the first row. Not long after we sat down, an elderly Balinese woman carrying a wicker basket containing some bottles of Bintang Beer, soda and some small bags  of assorted snacks approached us. We ended up buying two Bintangs from her, which she open before handing to us, and found that they were still pleasantly cool. As we sipped our beers and waited for the show to start, the mosquitoes began to arrive in force, announcing their presence with that transitory high-pitched whine that makes one instinctively bat the air around their earlobe with an open palm. After dispatching a couple of them mid-blood draw with a quick slap to the forearm, we started wishing that we had some mosquito repellant with us. As if on cue, or perhaps having seen our hands flailing into the evening air, the elderly Balinese basket lady returned, this time with some bottles of what we assumed to be mosquito repellant included in her inventory. Setting our beers on the ground, we peered down into the basket and selected a white bottle with a pink cap and a label printed in pink, red and blue, with the word AUTAN featured prominently beneath a black cartoon of a mosquito trailing a jagged red line conveying an erratic flight path; a red circle and slash encircling another cartoon mosquito near the bottom of the label, this one upside-down with legs splayed, with the words WASPADA DEMA BERDARAH overlaid around the circle, suggested that this was just the stuff we were looking for, particular with 'DEET 118, 75 g/l' seen among the Indonesian words an numbers in the region of the label where the active ingredients would be listed. As I paid the vendor woman, our daughter opened the bottle and applied some to her upturned palm, then let out a gasp as the very low viscosity repellant quickly rolled off her palm and onto the ground. Thus forewarned, I carefully applied the very watery and sickly-sweet perfumed repellant on my exposed skin, wiping some of the slick residue from my palms onto the legs of my well-worn cargo pants before picking up my beer and taking a couple of sips. Our daughter suddenly groan as she took a sip of her beer, commenting that it tasted weird and adding that she thought that some of the mosquito repellant may have dripped onto the bottle as she applied it; we wrote the bottle of Bintang off as a loss and crossed our fingers that she didn't ingest enough DEET to cause any problems. As darkness descended, the members of the gamelan orchestra settled in for the evening's performance and made last minute checks and adjustments to their instruments beneath the whitish illumination cast by the raised floodlights.

The Legong and Barong Dance Performance at Ubud Palace

The Legong and Barong performance opened with the low and somber warbling tones of a gong being struck a few times, with pauses between the beats to allow the sound to reverberate around the palace courtyard and set the mood for the show to follow as the murmur of the audience quickly dropped off and everyone's attention was drawn to the stage, after which the orchestra began to play a piece of traditional gamelan music. As with the other styles of Indonesian gamelan music (Javanese and Sundanese, or West Java, gamelan), Balinese gamelan is a predominantly percussive type of music played with instruments whose current form were established during the Majapahit empire (1293 - 1500 AD), the last great Hindu dynasty on the Indonesian island of Java. The word gamelan comes from the lower Javanese word gamel, referring to the type of hammer that a blacksmith uses. The music makes use of non-Western tunings, with the particular tunings and the array of instruments used in the ensembles differing between the Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese gamelan styles. Balinese instruments are commonly played in pairs, with the paired instruments used to play specific notes in unison purposely tuned slightly off from each other (as in one tuned slightly sharp of a given note, and the other tuned slightly flat of the same note) so as to produce a beat, or warbling tone; this cyclical undulation, known as ombak, is meant to represent the beating of the heart and symbolic of being alive, and perhaps contributes to the hypnotic quality of Balinese gamelan. Relative to Javanese gamelan, the Balinese pieces tend to feel livelier, if not frenetic and a bit annoying to some, and feature more tempo changes. The first piece of music in the evening's performance featured an upbeat and shimmering melody carried by the bell-like tones of mallets striking the bars of metaliphones, which were then quickly dampened by the free thumb and index finger of the musicians to deliver crisp and precise stacatto notes, accompanied by the bright splashes of tuned cymbals and a low sounds of percussive beats that included elements reminiscent of Western jazz drum fills. The tempo then increased, with the time being marked out by what seemed to be a cowbell-like percussive instrument, with the low and gong-like reverberant tones of metaliphones ringing out once every four beats, as flutes and violin-like stringed instruments joined in. The music then dropped in tempo and took on a more melancholy and hypnotic feel as a female legong dancer, wearing an elaborately-decorated red and gold brocade costume comprised of a tight-fitting sarong, blouse, fringed collar and a shiny gold sash, with a golden crown containing red and light yellow flowers, descended the angkul-angkul gate steps to perform the first dance of the evening.

Legong is a style of Balinese dance that is believed to have originated in the early 19th century, and traditionally was performed by prepubescent girls. The circumstances of legong's origination are in question. Legend suggests that a prince of Sukawati fell ill and had a vivid dream in which two maidens danced to gamelan music, and that he sought to recreate his fever dream after he recovered. Others trace the style's origins back to around 1825 when a prince named Dewa Karna Agung in the Balinese village of Ketewel in Gianyar district near Ubud saw beautiful heavenly nymphs dancing the legong in a vision whilst in deep meditation in the local temple, and sought to recreate that vision. The most common style of legong which is seen in abbreviated form by tourists visiting Bali is the Legong Keraton, so named by the Sultanate of Keraton Surakarta for a palace performance by a gamelan troupe from Kuta, Bali. Legong dance performances enact traditional Balinese stories in elaborate and stylish pantomimes, with more than fifteen stories in the legong repertoire and the story most commonly performed being the tale of the King of Lasem, taken from a collection of heroic romances known as the Malat. The story involves Lasem, a Majapahit king, at war with another King, who is a relative of his unrequited love interest (Princess Ranjasari), whom Lasem later captures and imprisons; as he goes out for the final assault against the princess's family, is ultimate demise is foretold as he is attacked by a mysterious raven.

Legong Dancers

Walking onto the stage, the legong performer danced to the almost trance-inducing music with limb, hand, head and even eye movements that were at times briskly executed with robot-like precision, yet still fluid and graceful. The intricate and highly dextrous movements of her fingers, which at times were widely splayed apart and rapidly fluttering independently or in pairs, were nearly as spellbinding as the shimmering tones of the gamelan ensemble.  She dramatically flashed her expressive eyes at the audience, which as an element of the dance were often held widely opened and animated with exaggerated movements of the irises, to convey emotion during the performance, The first legong performer was next joined on stage by two female dancers wearing similarly elaborately green and gold brocade costumes, who danced in unison as if in mirror image. In the next part of the performance, the first dancer reentered the stage wearing gilded wings on her forearms, which she fluttered as she danced to mimic a bird in flight, which was followed by a segment where the two dancers in the green and gold brocade danced with folding fans.

Barong Dance Performers

The second part of the performance was the Barong Dance, which is a classic story taken from Balinese mythology about the duality of life and the restoring of balance between good and evil, with the opposing elements represented by the characters of the Barong and Rangda, respectively. In an often-performed rendition of the Barong story, a young prince named Sadewa is sent to be sacrificed to the widow-witch Rangda. As Sadewa stands tied to a tree in the cemetery that Rangda inhabits while awaiting his sacrifice, the god Shiva shows the prince mercy and grants him immortality. When Sadewa at last encounters Rangda, the power that Shiva has imbued him with enables him to change himself into the lion form of the Barong spirit so that he may engage Rangda in battle, though neither can win as the powers of good and evil are always held in balance. The Barong next calls on his followers, who are armed with magical kris daggers, to assist him with defeating Rangda, but the widow-witch casts a spell which causes the Barong's men to turn their daggers on themselves. The Barong then returns to release the kris-wielding men from Rangda's spell, thus restoring balance between good and evil.

The dance opened with the lion-like Barong taking the stage, with the costume being worn 'Chinese lion' style with one performer supporting the head and another the hind quarters, with the longish body loosely bridging between the two. The Barong was soon joined by a performer dressed in a charcoal gray and white spotted monkey costume; the monkey was not part of the traditional storyline but rather appeared to have been thrown in as comic relief for the benefit of the tourists, as it interacted both with the Barong on stage (humorously pantomiming picking lice out of the Barong mane and eating it) and also a random audience member selected from the front row. The Barong and monkey left the stage and were replaced by five female performers know as telek dancers, dressed in white clothing with colorful sashes, all wearing white masks depicting smiling female faces and gilded crowns, and carrying red folded fans in their right hands, who danced in a style similar to the legong dancers seen earlier. They were joined by a male character dressed in white clothing with a long cape-like red and gold brocade jacket, a wooden mask painted to covey a dark brown skin complexion with a healthy black mustache and set of bushy eye brows above a pair of widely opened eyes, and a wig of long, wavy black hair, with the combination of the mask and wig reminding a bit of an overweight Little Richard. The performers exited the stage and were replaced by six female sisya dancers, who portray the black magic pupils that practice their dark spiritual teaching under the guidance of Rangda, they are dressed in tight-fitting sarong dresses of black, red, yellow and gold, with silver sashes and tiara styled crowns atop their heads that are made of light yellow flower and shaped somewhat like bayan leaves, with single red flowered placed at the center and at the top of the crown. After the sisya completed their dancer performance and took their leave, the widow-witch Rangda entered the stage with a retinue of female dancers wearing costumes that were much less ornate than the prior dancers sans any decorative headdress. The stage is then given over to three male performers, two of which are Prince Sadewa and the prime minister tasked with escorting him to the cemetery, and one female performer portraying the queen, that have an exchange of dialog in the Balinese language. The next scene is the confrontation between Prince Sadewa, who has now transformed himself into the Barong, and Rangda, as they engage in battle, which is depicted by Rangda swinging a length of cloth she holds in her hand at the Barong, who responds by bobbing and weaving his head and snapping his wooden jaws together with an audible clacked. In the final scenes, Rangda is encircled by by seven dagger-wielding kris dancers, with whom she trades shouted taunts and feigned lunges. She casts her spell over them, which causes them to turn their kris daggers on themselves and attempt to drive them into their own chests, gripping the weapons with both hands firmly against the hilt and rotating them as if struggling to penetrate the skin, all the while screaming and shrieking as if possessed by demons. At last, the Barong reappears on stage, together with an Agama Hindu priest bearing holy water which will be sprinkled on the performers, to release the kris dancers from Rangda's spell; thus having brought the elements of good and evil back into balance, the performance was brought to a close.

Given the limits of my digital camera's 3X optical zoom capability, mediocre photo and video resolution, and low battery life at the time of the performance, I was only able to capture a limited number of decent pictures and poor quality video that doesn't do the Legong and Barong show justice; thus, I am providing a link here to a You Tube video that was taken at Ubud Palace that captures the sights, sounds and overall experience (minus the mosquitoes and the Bintang Beer, of which you will have to provide your own) of the Legong and Barong performance. (Note that I have no affiliation with the associated owner of the You Tube channel, or his business venture.)