Friday, November 1, 2013


On the way from Sanur to the ferry terminal we had passed through Ubud. It had looked like a nice artsy town full of art and crafts shops, so on our return to Bali we headed there for a few days.

We had been drawn to a lot of the Indonesian handicrafts we had seen during our visit – hand-carved wooden masks, animals made of tin, batik print materials etc – but our small backpacks limited us from carrying souvenirs with us, and we knew from past experience that sending a package home by air would be prohibitively expensive, and to send it by sea a package needed to weigh at least 3kg. Our options were therefore to buy no souvenirs in Ubud, or to go on a buying frenzy to fill a box and make the cost of shipping a package home justifiable. We chose the latter option, and spent much of our time in Ubud shopping for souvenirs. After months of seeing cool stuff but restraining ourselves from buying many souvenirs it was quite good fun to feel justified in buying the things we liked.

We did partake in a few of more cultural activities whilst in Ubud. The first was a Cultural Dance & Fire Trance. The performance, which took place in the open-air courtyard of a temple, was spectacular. We were initially dismayed to find out that the performance was part of the Ramayana – the same story that was depicted by the ballet near to Prambanan – however the two depictions were completely different. A hundred or so bare-chested men sat in concentric circles on the floor and proceeded to chant (sometimes in unison, sometimes in a ripple moving around the circle) as they swayed from side to side or front to back, raised and lowered their hands etc to reflect elements of the story. It had a truly hypnotic effect, especially as it was illuminated only by candle-light.


Above the chanting one performer would sing what we assume was part of the story, and at the same time actors in fantastic costumes entered the circle to dance and act out the story.

Without prior knowledge of the story we wouldn't have had any idea what was going on, but it really didn't matter as it was the music and spectacle created by the chanting men that was the undisputed star of the show. My description really doesn't do it justice, so check out the excellent video below which shows a similar performance (the dance starts at about 1min 50sec but its well worth watching the whole video as it is well made and includes some great footage of Borobudur and Bromo as well):

I had completely forgotten about the Fire Trance mentioned in the description of the show, so I was surprised when another performer entered at the end of the story. A large bonfire was lit in the centre of the courtyard, and metal barriers placed at the feet of the people in the front row of the audience. The performer appeared wearing only a loin-cloth and holding a wooden horse head, and proceeded to repeatedly kick the bonfire with his bare feet sending the coals crashing into (and over) the metal barriers, and a huge cloud of sparks and smoke flying into the air. The performer then walked and danced over the burning coals, crushing them underfoot. The coals were subsequently brushed back to the middle to enable him to repeat the feat over and over until the coals cooled. The performance, which was accompanied by more chanting, ended with the dancer collapsed panting, before coming out of his trance and displaying the charred soles of his feet. It was a truly remarkable sight.

Our second cultural show was no less bizarre, but definitely less enjoyable. Shadow puppetry is a popular form of entertainment in Indonesia, and having thoroughly enjoyed a shadow puppet show in Cambodia last time we travelled we were keen to see another. Once again we were dismayed to find out that we were to see yet another performance of part of the Ramayana. The show took place in a tiny shop and consisted of various puppets being flung around behind a white screen, illuminated from behind by a candle, while the puppeteers shouted in mental voices and musicians played deafeningly loud music. It was absolutely crazy and quite headache-inducing. As with the previous performance we had seen in Ubud it included an equally crazy English-language interlude where the characters talked gibberish. The only understandable part was a character offering “You want transport?...Taxi?” - mocking the plethora of taxi drivers offering the same. To be honest I was glad when it was over and we got to look behind the screen to see the 4 gentlemen responsible for the assault on our senses. One thing was certain – it was completely different to the other two performances of the Ramayana we had seen. 


We also had time to visit Monkey Forest – a small forest at the end of Monkey Road which (you've guessed it) is home to lots of monkeys. You'd have thought that we would be bored of monkeys after seeing them on a daily basis almost everywhere in India and Nepal, however it sounded like a nice break from shopping and the Ramayana, and there were also some temples in the forest. We had read that the monkeys weren't shy, but we were taken aback by quite how un-shy they were. Monique thought it would be a good idea to take some peanuts to feed the monkeys with, but before she could even get them out of her bag the monkeys rushed at us at the mere sound of the packet. It was clearly not a good idea, so the peanuts remained in Monique's bag. The monkeys, even the females with tiny babies, were scarily comfortable with being in close proximity to humans and seemed to find sport in chasing people and jumping on them. It made for a slightly nervous experience, but gave us a good opportunity to take some photos.

Whilst the temples in the forest were not particularly notable for their structure, they did have multiple statues in the unique Balinese style that is unlike anything we have seen elsewhere.

We were due to leave Indonesia by way of an early flight from Denpasar, and so had intended to take a bus to Denpasar to stay over the night before the flight. However, our plan changed when we discovered that the Post Office in Ubud wanted to charge us more than three times what we had previously paid to send a package to the US. Instead we headed back to Sanur by bus with our backpacks and large box of souvenirs; we knew where we would stay and eat, and that the staff at the Post Office there were extremely helpful. Fortunately the plan worked and we got our package sent without any difficulty (for a much lower price that justified the change in plan) and made the early trip to the airport in time to take our flight to Singapore.

Our stay in Indonesia had started badly and not been without its dramas, however we had seen some truly spectacular sights in the form of temples, volcanoes and marine life that we will never forget. Indonesia has a huge range of sights and experiences (even in the relatively small part of the country that we had seen), and I would highly recommend it to anyone as a holiday/travel destination.

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