The human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour. This is thanks to our natural history – we’ve evolved against a background of lush fields and forests where the ability to recognise subtle shifts in the hue of our, predominantly green, surroundings could mean the difference between life and death-by-leopard. I picked up this fact when I was younger, pocketed it in the ‘pub-quiz’ compartment of my brain, and promptly forgot all about it. That is until I visited Bali.
Indonesia mothers a thriving brood of islands, each benefiting from her tropical climate and fertile volcanic soils. It’s this fecundity that allows rice to grow and wildlife to flourish. Nestled between the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean, Bali is a sumptuous pearl on the string of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Paddy fields sprawl across the landscape like patchwork, a verdant quilt of green. Stretching from the rich soil at the base of Bali’s imposing mountains to the lofty peaks, they form an emerald staircase to the horizon, assaulting your senses with a shock of colour. To be greeted by the sight of this vast terraced vista was to know that this would be a trip of extremes.
In search of a certain breed of relaxation, James and I had been craving a destination that would satisfy our need for respite and peace, whilst also sating our appetite for adventure and culture. This holiday was set to be the height of luxury. We’d been saving for years and after many agonising nights deliberating over a list of many of the most impossibly exotic destinations that this planet has to offer, we settled on Bali as somewhere that could provide exploration and luxurious relaxation in equal measure. And it didn’t disappoint.
Arriving at the Samaya hotel in Ubud, it took a few minutes to even begin to process the beauty. The surroundings were stunning – an azure sky stretching higher and wider than you’d imagine the sky could, and mile after hilly mile of verdant hills. The Samaya hotel is cut into the side of one of these hills, meaning that the walk from the reception to the rooms to the restaurant presents a serious work out for the calves. Sound a little too stressful? No problem, they’ll happily chauffeur you in your own little golf buggy to your doorstep. Heady with the decadence of the place already, we stepped into our room and were stunned silent by just how big and beautiful it was. Luxury is what we were looking for, and luxury is what we found.
Over the next few days, Samaya Ubud became our home. In the cool evenings, we could lounge by the giant private pool, watching the sun set over the stunning hills. We’d stroll down to the restaurant and enjoy delicious local food and cocktails to the soothing soundtrack of a river running through a ravine.
Our bones had been aching for lazy respite, our skin for bright warmth, and after days of flooding our cells with sunlight and nights of curling up, stretching out, unfurling and unwinding, we woke refreshed and ready to leave our personal paradise.
The rice fields that had greeted us upon our arrival didn’t fail to impress upon closer scrutiny. Taking in the intricate terraced parcels of land, you’re struck with the complexity and workmanship that has been invested into these feats of farming. The creation and upkeep of a successful paddy field takes gruelling labour and maintenance, and with miles of land to nurture it’s important to remember the dedication that goes into sustaining these iconic landmarks. With increasing pressure from privatised companies to use land in Bali – a beacon of Indonesian tourism – for hotels and other purposes, it’s gratifying to see that paddies such as the Jatiluwih rice fields have been made a UNESCO Cultural Landscape site and therefore remain, with the continued work of many committed locals, protected. The singing greens of the paddies became a refrain that accompanied us throughout the trip.
To this day, Balinese culture remains faithfully synonymous with its history and religion. Flanked by her Muslim sisters Java and Lombok, Bali displays a quiet yet fierce pride in her Hindu roots. Religious art, architecture and sculpture attract crowds of tourists and spiritualists alike, with the ancient temples standing majestically at Bali’s cultural heart.
Temple. A word that has suffered much from clumsy handling by the hot, sticky paws of the Western vernacular. At best, it conjures up images of ornate, glistening homages to wealth and opulence; at worst it is diluted until meaning has dissolved into insipid mantras for health-nuts and born-agains – “my body is a temple.” Temples in Bali, as with most Hindu nations, are in fact often unassuming and humble – a focus for worship in which small tokens and offerings can be laid to show gratitude and respect. A house for example will have its own temple. Our hotel had a temple within its lush grounds. There are actually more temples than homes in Bali.
Banish the idea of an imposing building or a large gathering place, and imagine instead a small shrine, carefully decorated with silks and flowers. For the more established households or residences, you can expect a grander temple, perhaps fashioned from stone and inlaid with intricate carvings, yet this may will still only stand at half your height. It is only once you discover those temples that are dedicated to dignitaries, royalty or – most awesome of all – deities, that you witness the scale, detail and grandeur that you would traditionally expect to find. And when you do find them, they do not fail to overwhelm with their beauty.
Whilst Bali’s most awe-inspiring manmade spectacles were taking up the lion-share of our time in Ubud, it was paying homage to the island’s natural wonders that nuzzles deepest into my memory. Towards the end of our stay, we arranged to hike to a local mountainside community. We woke before dawn, keen to make decent headway before the blistering midday sun reared its fiery head, and after a short drive met our guide. Quiet and meek and wrapped in a warm fleece, we wondered silently if she was best equipped to make the strenuous hike, but within minutes our fears were assuaged. As we began to puff and pant, turning slowly pinker as the sun matched our ascent, she seemed to virtually skip over the loose earth, waiting serenely at each turn as we lumbered our way upwards.
Nearing the pinnacle of the trek, we stopped to make a small offering to the mountain temple. I was expecting flowers or fruits, but was delighted to see the guide lay down a couple of BN biscuits; I couldn’t help but smile, imagining how the gods would receive this chocolatey gift. If the view that next greeted us was anything to go by, I can only assume that they were adequetely satisfied, as Nature seemed to explode in a display of organic bliss, stretching before our eyes. I could do little but gawp in wonder at the sapphire sky, the rolling fields of green and the majestic outline of the mountain framing the horizon.
After hours of plodding upwards under the beating sun, we arrived at the village. Munti Gunung, is separated from the hubbub of civilisation in Ubud and is consequently deprived of easy access to food, water and basic necessities. With the arid mountain landscape in which they lived providing no opportunities for work, the women and children of the community resorted to making the long trek into town to beg for money and meagre offerings of food. That is until a Swiss business man had an idea – to create a unique tourism experience which would benefit both visitors and locals. Under his initiative beggars became tour-guides, the local women acting as ambassadors for their region by escorting curious tourists over the long and sometimes treacherous paths to their home. Thanks to this innovative example of symbiotic tourism, we were able to sate our thirst for authentic, adventurous travel, exploring the workings of a humble but thriving local community, safe in the knowledge that we were perpetuating the livelihoods that these people have come to rely on.
In my mind, this is in example of tourism at its best – offering visitors the chance to see something authentic, unique and truly memorable, whilst also providing a legitimate support system for a community in need. The pricing is fair and the system is transparent; everyone can see what everyone else is getting out of it, and no one feels as if they’re getting a raw deal. As a tourist, I got an insight into an authentic part of the country I was so keen to explore, a healthy dose of strenuous adventure, and the feeling that I had, in some small way, contributed to a beneficial local scheme.
After the strenuous hike, coming home to a dip in the pool, a delicious homemade afternoon tea and a cucumber cocktail rounded off a perfect day.
Activity vs. relaxation? Ubud has hit the nail on the head, perfectly balancing the two. Our brief four night stay passed in a decadent blink of the eye, and it was in no time at all that we were packed up and heading to our next stop: Lombok…
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