One of the most fascinating things in Bali for me was the architecture, specifically the architecture of temples and important buildings. Tall spires reach up to the sky, adorned with a multitude of geometric shapes, statues of humans and animals and offerings of flowers, incense and food.
Our first up-close experience with this was a visit to Pura Lempuyang on the way from Amed to Ubud. We entered the various forecourts, renting the obligatory sarongs, and got distracted by dogs chasing and playing, yelping and howling. After Kari had spent quite some time giving them some love (as usual), we headed up the stairs to find the main building already shut. We still spent an extraordinary amount of time there and most of my pictures in Bali are actually from this temple. The reason we took so many photos was the fascinating serpents which made the hand-rails to the steep steps up to the temple doors, the female statues gesturing in dance, the decorative plants, and the escaped rooster which ran in circles. Apart from the chatter of some local women who seemed to have their own entrance, the temple was still, serene and atmospheric as the sun went down over the horizon.
Balinese religion is a unique blend of different beliefs, a documentary I watched recently informed me, a mixture of Hinduism, belief in ghosts and other spirits. Offerings of small woven baskets of flowers, rice and incense lined the streets and each home temple. Practices were ingrained in society, daily rituals clearly still important.
This feeling of spirituality somewhat evaporates in Ubud, where yoga culture, pseudo spirituality and veganism have taken a commercial hold. The temples are still a central attraction, Goa Goa drawing in many visitors, for example, but the experience is no longer devout. The small temple is littered with drink stands, you are urged to take a tour guide, and in the last temple an old man prays for photographs (and an additional fee).
The town is almost claustrophobic with shops crowded close together, offering food, jewellery, clothes. Here, too, they sell faith- Buddha’s image makes his way onto earrings and t-shirts, tank tops and totes. Nothing feels authentic. Sarongs of every colour and style are offered as the ‘respectful’ must-have accessory, although this message seems to be lost on the tourists marching around topless. The town seems to want you to believe that inner peace is obtainable, but only with the associated price tag, some ‘clean’ food* and a few costly spa treatments.
*Disclaimer. I loved the food, although I grumbled extensively about the price tags, and the frequent hidden taxes.
Some peace can be found on the roads between rice fields, watching the ducks scurry between the plants. I actually found our visit to the ‘Monkey Forest’ to be quite refreshing, as well. While here, too, you are urged to spend more money and feed the monkeys bananas, you can easily disappear deeper into the ‘reservation’ and enjoy the inquisitive, mischievous monkeys. Be warned- they will take any opportunity to climb up your leg and try to get into your bag!
Mischievous monkeys are not enough for me to recommend Ubud, however. I think our time riding bikes in the North and along the Western Coast, visiting temples along the way which are still considered and used as holy spaces, provided us with more authentic experiences. While Bali is already very tourist oriented, Ubud, I think, has taken it all a step too far.