Siem Reap is best known for the twelfth century wonder known as Angkor Wat. However, there are more than one hundred temples dating from the ninth to the twelfth century built around this Angkorian capitol which was all but destroyed by the Thai Army in the fourteenth century. Angkor Wat was one of the last temples built during the during this period but is best known as it is both one of the largest and most detailed of them all.
As kings and religions changed over the centuries, so too did the purpose of the temples. However, the line between each religion becomes blended with old traditions and the importance honoring ancestors. Therefore, temples or monuments originally dedicated to Hinduism, Animism or Buddhism may be rededicated with the change in belief system over the years.
Locals break up the temples into three parts; The “Small Circuit” include Angkor Wat, Bayon which is nicknamed “Temple with the Faces” and Ta Prohm nicknamed “The Tomb Raider Temple” as is was made famous by Anglia Jolie’s famous movie, ‘Laura Croft: Tomb Raider’. The “Big Circuit” includes one of my favorites, Preah Khan, which is a very detailed temple with pink highlights and losing a battle against numerous banyan trees towering above the collapsing stones. Further away from the center is the “Roluos Group” which comprises of some of the oldest temples dating from the ninth century.
For the adventurous there are amazing temples further out from these three groups. The greatest of these is Beng Mealea. Here not only the trees but also the moss and jungle seemed to be claiming it for their own.
Most tourists come in groups and just seem to view the highlights. Coming for extra days with your own transportation, waiting for the groups to pass by make the journey more peaceful. It is common to rent a bicycle and pedal from place to place.
I snapped over a thousand photographs in my three day visit to the temples. In reviewing the photos I realize that nothing seems to capture the greatness of it all.
I, like many visitors, arrived early to witness the changing morning colors over Angkor Wat. I was quickly introduced to the steep narrow steps most temples possess. The steps lead up to holy sites that are built higher to be closer to god or heaven.
I must admit that I was nervous climbing up and down some of the steps. Some steps barely achieved three inches in width. A few times, I could feel my toes tighten to hold myself as my fingers gripped tightly to these narrow steps as I mind questioned why I decided to climb to the top.
By the second day of my journey, I notice little restoration work about me as I become more and more aware of the impact thousands of tourist a day are having on these sites.
At one temple, I see three workers vainly attempt some reconstruction without any heavy equipment. At the same site I notice bus loads of tourist crawling all over one of the oldest temples, Beng Mealea, in order to capture “that perfect photo”. The stones are not stable, but one by one they wait their turn and crawl over to the place for their chance at the same photograph and creating additional damage along the way. I begin to wonder why the government is not doing more restoration and blocking off areas to preserve the temples for future generations.
On the last day I hired a personal guide to help answer questions I have had about the temples and the people surrounding Siem Reap. At the end of the day I asked, “What do you want me to know about this place before I leave?” I was shocked to learn his answer. “Where is your ticket?” I reached in my bag and pulled out my three day Angkor World Heritage Pass. “Look at the symbol at the bottom.” He pointed to a pink symbol and under it had the words ‘SOKHA HOTEL Co., LTD’.
“What does that mean?” I asked. My guide explained that the government had a contract that allows most of the revenues from these Cambodian treasures to be claimed by this company which little, if any, goes to support reconstruction or to help the people of Cambodia. In my guides opinion, due to government corruption it is unlikely that these contracts will be changed to support the people of Cambodia or the temples located here.
I titled this blog, “Don’t Walk, Run To See The Wonders of Siem Reap”, because with little interest or financial resources to restore this structures, as the country is still rebuilding from the wrecking ball of the Khmer Rouge, I fear that the destruction of the temples will continue over time as the number of tourist mount. So, do come quickly if you are eager to see the temples as unrestricted as I have been able to enjoy. However, please be aware of your presence here and please do your part minimize your lasting footprint on the area.
The capitol of Cambodia is a raw and bustling entanglement of street venders, vehicles, businessmen, bicycles and sidewalk restaurants. Motorbike and tuk tuk drivers ask each passerby if they need a ride. Police sit in corner restaurants or stand by street intersections and observe the daily chaos.
As I walk around the city there is an unmistakeable friendliness that fills the air. Despite the poverty and long working hours of the people there are smiles everywhere. People want to get to know you. As I walked to the river one tuk tuk driver asked if I wanted a ride, “Tuk tuk?” “No, I am walking.” As point my index and middle finder down and move them back and forth as legs walking. “Oh….. Walking!” The driver pauses smiles and adds, “Walking is good too.”
Highlights in Phnom Pen include visiting the Royal Palace, National History Museum and walking by the river. It was a meaningful experience to visit the museums and memorial for the the victims of Pol Pots reign. Above all however, I enjoyed attending two Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) performances at the National Museum.
The CLA was formed in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. About ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists were killed during the reign of Khmer Rouge and the traditional arts were at risk of extinction. The CLA was formed to keep the traditional Cambodian arts alive with a focus of providing opportunities for under privileged children to learn the arts and further pursue their educational endeavors.
My time in the capitol city proved that people are resilient and where there is a spark, a flame can be rekindled in the human spirit.
When I was in grammar school, in a land I did not know, a horror overcame an entire country called Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the political party that won a revolution and their leader Pol Pot began a harsh rule to cleanse an entire nation. In four years he would be responsible for the deaths of two to three million of his own people. More than a quarter of his countries population.
Anyone who was educated or appeared educated were especially vulnerable. Schools and places of worship were closed and many in these institutions were executed. Teachers, monks, artists, doctors, business men and those with “soft hands” or who wore glasses, giving the appearance of being educated, were especially vulnerable. Children were executed with the parents because Pol Pot did not want the children to grow up with revenge against the government in their heart.
Complete cities were evacuated to camps to work in the field since city dwellers were also a root of evil. Families were separated.
Peasants from the country were Pol Pot’s heroes. However, even the peasants were treated harshly. People did not have enough food. The only religion the people needed was the new government.
As I walked up the steps at S21, a high school that was turned into an interrogation center and prison, my mind flashed to when I was a principal walking up the steps of our high school. As I walked the stairs, I thought about the principal and the teachers who worked here. ‘Did they live long enough to see what the new government would do to their students…their colleagues? Could they do anything at all before dying? How can anyone do this to children?’ As I walked from classroom to classroom little was left to the imagination as photographs of the executed were hung about. Pot instructed, “Better to kill an innocent then let an enemy survive.”
People were interrogated and tortured for hours everyday. They pulled out their finger nails from their hands, used electric shock, beat, hung them upside down and dunked them into water and cut them open with tools that should be used only for farm work.
Officials hauled truckloads of their countrymen to be executed in killing field locations all over this country. At times the victims would have to dig their own grave pits before they were knelt down beside the pit and executed.
In addition to S21, I visited one of the killing fields. After going to Rwanda just a few months ago I was going to bypass this place. I was not sure if my heart could bear witness to another genocide of a people. However, I believe that it is important that we visit, talk and write about these things so that the unthinkable never happens again.
Final Thoughts to Consider–
After Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, rescuing the people from this hell, the ousted government was still recognize by the UN and many western governments for years. Many governments, including the United States, continued to financially support the Khmer Rouge which had fled into hiding. As I am here in Cambodia, I wonder how our western governments pick winners and losers in these third world countries. I also encourage you to consider:
1) Why our governments are more interested in helping people who are experiencing genocide and crimes against humanity when those people live on a land with great natural resource?
2) When our government choses a side, how do we know they have chosen correctly?
Sparkling with color, architecture and planned development is the vibrant city-state of Singapore. It is a clash of cultures which maintains traditions from old countries yet is a blending of a new people. The skyline looks planned with artistic strokes as the flow of new buildings blend with the old and revitalized.
This city is an expensive place to visit and to live. Apartments can easily cost four to five times more than back home. People work hard here. Many have more than one job to get ahead.
This society holds itself to higher standards and expectations for its citizens. It appears that there is also a higher quality of life and freedom from much of the crime that has become commonplace in other western societies.
The history of this area was a difficult one. We again see the players from the explorer nations that we have seen before on this world tour…..Portugal and England were here early on until the Dutch captured the Malay region in the seventeen century. Then a hundred and seventy-eight years later Britain decides to “join the party” again.
To completely simplify history, Raffles, from Great Britain, thought this would be a great place for a port. Not wanting to lose this opportunity due to slow “snail mail” post he made “arrangements” to take the land for Britain’s gain.
The Dutch were already here and their “guy on the ground” wrote a letter to leaders in Great Britain since Raffles “take over” was not gentlemanly. Which could be interpreted more than a century later as, ‘We were here to exploit these people and this natural resource first, it’s not fair what “your guy did” and you need to get Raffles in line.’
Great Britain was not happy with Raffles for acting without authority but in the long run agreed that it was a land worth keeping. So the heads of these two European nations decided to split a land, that was not really theirs, in two….Britain kept the island which became Singapore while the Dutch received what is now Malaysia. I think to myself in a sarcastic tone, ‘Now I understand why Malaysia is divided in such a strange way on the map’….Colonial Involvement.
Raffles did create a economic powerhouse but the indigenous people were treated little better than slaves with limited ways for advancement. Immigrants came from other countries. Among these many came from China. The Chinese risked execution by fleeing their country in search of a better life. Walking through the historical museum in Chinatown I wonder if they thought it was better after they spent a few years here.
Also interesting is that the early infrastructure of the country was built by convicts from India. Other immigrants also relocated, such as women from Japan, but in the end life was hard and the poor lived in filth and poverty.
After World War II and the Japanese Occupation, the island finally achieved independence and grew into the society that now appears in all its harmony and glory.
The museums here do a very good job of relaying the history, culture and personal stories of those who lived here. I especially liked how the museums give voice to both the indigenous and immigrant, rich and poor; Telling both sides and painting a more complete picture of the island’s past.
I spent hours in the museums here and I was grateful for the lessons learned. In fact, I had to return a second day to the National Museum of Singapore as the two hours I had originally allocated was not enough time before this museum closed for the day. The museums here helped to continue to paint the picture of the larger interconnecting world history which we all are apart.
Other high points during my time here included, walking around Fort Canning Park, Chinatown and by the river at the trendy Clarke Quay, observing Chinese New Year celebrations and attending mass at St. Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral, which has a packed Sunday service almost every hour on the hour. I must admit that I also enjoyed having another shot at beating my new friends from the Komodo Island boat trip at Gin Rummy even though I lost again. And yes….I did get to the Long Bar at Ruffles Hotels to sample their famous drink (Singapore Sling) and eat a few peanuts while dropping the shells on the floor.
I sit back and watch the bartender who can barely keep up with the drink order everyone is here to sample. We have stepped back into time. The bar has been restored to it’s nineteenth century nostalgia. The teak wood shelving behind the bar is organized neatly with glasses and liquor bottles. A spiral wooden staircase rises in the middle of the room. On the ceiling, palm woven fans move back and forth to create a slight breeze.
Waiters wearing pinstriped shirts and golden ties scurry from table to table to take drink orders as strangers share stories and discuss the politics of the day. As I leave, I can say with certainty that Hemingway always did find the best places to kick back and relax while he was not writing. Check out the photos, or better yet come and visit yourself, and then tell me…..Wouldn’t you agree?
Surrounded by three volcanoes the center of the Java island rainforest sits the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere and it is called Borobudur. Built in the ninth century by the Saliendra dynasty, this temple soars ten levels and contains over twenty-five hundred panel reliefs.
The temple reads like a book teaching the pilgrim though the carved pictures in the stone. Visitors travel around each level in a clockwise direction, following the path to enlightenment.
The first levels, called Sphere of Desire, are dedicated to the everyday activities, chaos and desires of the human existence. These walls also explain the role karma on our choices and lives.
Walls on both sides surround you. The walls on my left, the outer walls, portray the activities of man while the inside walls, to the right, show the story of Siddhartha (Budda), from his past lives to his path to enlightenment.
The next level begins the Sphere of Form as man separates himself from greed but is not separate from the material world. It is here that the outer walls fall away and the beauty of the surrounding mountains are viewable.
Inside each of the seventy-two large stupas, which circle around these three levels, there is a large statue of Budda holding his hands in front of him, one up and one down, middle fingers touching representing the truth of the turning wheel.
On the top level we reach the Sphere of Formlessness, representing true enlightenment and attaining Nirvana. There is no form or Budda found on this level. The stupa is empty. Looking around I see the glory of this place.
Through the stupas below and above the mist in the hills I see the faint outlines of the three surrounding volcanos, including Merapi, one of the most active volcanos in the world today. I am reminded of the people who built and abandoned this place. It was because of the volcanic eruptions that work on this temple was never completed and the people relocated to safer grounds in eastern Java.
Almost a thousand years later the temple was rediscovered under the ash and volcanic remains. The temple was restored with great care in the 1970s. Many stones that were taken from the temple were recovered by the Indonesian government. Where there was a perfect match the stones were replaced in the original locations. Flat stones in the panel reliefs serve as a “placeholder” for the original stones yet to be located. Stones recovered but whose original locations are unknown lay outside of a museum nearby waiting to be reunited in there original space in temple.
Borobudur is not only a great representation of how various religions use pictures to teach and a great demonstration of ancient methods of measurement and construction but also is a tribute to the modern engineering skill used to preserve such ancient wonders.
The journey to Flores Island is a rough one, when sailing is impossible due to the tempestuous seas in January and February. During this time, you must either fly, by first backtracking to Bali, or take the bus and ferry route. I chose the adventure. Thirty-one and a half hours later, I arrived on Flores Island, the gateway to the Komodo Dragons.
Once on Flores it is easy to schedule a trip or you can even go out to the docks and barter a price with a boat caption. Most trips include tracks for the dragon on both Rinca and Komodo Island and break up the trips by stopping to snorkel several reefs along the way. This time of year most people opt to sleep on the deck of the boat at night as it is cooler than the cabins.
I loved sleeping on the deck. After the caption turned off the boat generator, it looked like the stars would go on forever. Away from the modern world they peer out to play and dance in the black night. So many stars that constellations were difficult to recognize since there were so many additional specs shining in places that I have not observed before in the sky. This is the way the night was meant to be seen….In all it’s glory.
On Rinca and Komodo I stayed within a few feet of my guide during the entire hike. We were all aware that two park rangers were bit by a Komodo Dragon last week. The had just returned to the park from the hospital in Bali. I was not planning to make an early trip back to Bali and was overly cautious.
“Excuse me? That dragon is coming up pretty fast behind us. Can I walk in front of you.” I said to a ranger, knowing that dragons can run up to the speed of a horse. “Yes, don’t worry.” “Are you not afraid of them?” I asked. “Yes, I am. I think that is the reason I have never been hurt. I respect the dragon.” It sounded good to me but I wonder if those other two rangers had felt the same way before their near fatal experience.
The dragons had big claws and saliva which dripped down from their mouth. I assume that saliva contains the same bacteria that slowly kills the victim. Once dead, the dragons, which follow there prey, sometimes for days, chomp into there prize with there heavy duty teeth. I notice that the dragons walk with a purpose….Never backtracking. I wonder what is on their mind and I hope it isn’t me.
“Evon… Come look at this deer.” I walk over toward my friend and startled the deer in the process. The deer turned and just then out pops a dragon at his feet. The deer hops his front feet in the air and pushes off with its hind legs over the reach of the dragon. I think to myself, “See that dragon was hunting.” As is was the same dragon that had been walking behind us just twenty minutes earlier.
There were so many small islands and secluded beaches on the way. The rainforest was a brilliant green with all types of foliage and brown vines hanging from banyan trees. I loved sitting on the boat as it chugged onward. The water was so clear that we could see fish swimming in the shallower waters.
“Look, there’s a turtle.” Sure enough, a turtle swimming towards the side of our boat. Also the way to Komodo we saw a large pod of dolphins jumping out of the water in a parade like fashion, one behind another, a short distance from the boat. Later, when I was sitting on the bow of the boat, two dolphins jumped up twice just a couple meters away from me. We all clapped like school children at the sight of them.
My favorite part of the trip was the snorkeling. The advice I was given was correct…..I would now agree that this is some of the best snorkeling in the world. In addition to the fish I saw in the Gills, there was even more bountiful and diverse aquatic life here. The coral was more pronounced with bolder shapes and colors. Maroon, green, blue, purple, yellow…Some enormous and sturdy brain coral covered the sea floor and other coral fanned out providing a perfect place for little fish to dart in and out.
At one point I was swimming along and directly beneath me a sting ray raced from under his coral hiding place out to sea. It only took a few split seconds for him to disappear again.
When we reached manta point is was clear how it was named. Huge manta rays moving on the bottom of the sea floor with just a soft fan of its wings. “Are you ready to snorkel?” “Is it safe?” I reply. “Sure….Just watch out for the jelly fish. If you get caught in the current that is okay. We will come around and get you.” The three travelers on our boat decided to go even though the guide was going to watch us from the boat.
The mantas were so large and graceful. I loved watching them. “Come over here.” My guide yells out from the boat. “There are too big ones here.” I decided to swim out to where the boat had just been circling. After about ten meters, I can feel the current pushing back towards me. It is amazing how fast the current changes here.
I arrive directly above a huge manta ray and I have to continue to take long powerful strokes to stay above the manta who is motionless on the sea floor. It feels like I am in one of those new Hydropools I have seen on television and think they actually might work if they can duplicate this experience.
“It’s so graceful!” I yell back to my guide. I look down again in the water. Another slick black manta ray joins the large manta I had been watching. Then with a graceful partial flap of their wings they leave me behind.
I swim back to my friends looking for jelly fish as I swim. I adjust my stoke and turn slightly to let each float by me. We continue to observe the mantas until we spot five jelly fish in a lump and decided it was time to get in the boat. Swimming with the mantas was definitely the highlight my trip.
Yes, even in January and February, the trip is worth the effort to get here and should not be missed when in this part to the world. However….I will add that I am flying back to Bali.
-Please note the under water manta ray photos were captured by Eric Van De Put, Holland. Who had been diving on manta point the following day. Thanks Eric!
-Also note that the blue fish by the manta rays are just larger than my pinky finger.
There are over 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Bali is only one of them. A week and a half ago I had never heard of the Gili Islands. It seemed to be the place all the backpackers were talking about. “Don’t even waste your time in Kuta. It is nothing like it used to be.” I heard that over and over. That is one nice thing with backpacking, the “buzz” is always more correct than an outdated Lonely Planet guidebook. So, while in Ubud I bought a ticket for the “the speed boat” and I was on my way.
There are three Gili Islands and all have a different personality to them. Gili Meno is the quietist Island. And no wonder since it has mosquitoes…..I choose not to go there. Gili Trawangan has the most development and the most tourists. Gili Air is less developed and though would be perfect in the high season, right now it seemed almost too quiet for me.
It is easy to jump over to different islands for the day. We were were really happy we spent a day snorkeling on Gili Air as we saw many different varieties of aquatic life here.
Since it was the low tourist season on the islands, I found Gili Trawangan a perfect place to hang my hat. The cost of the rooms are about half the price than in the summer and the weather was perfect. The entire time I was there only three of us occupied this hotel and we had the beach front and umbrellas to ourselves.
The nicest thing about all three islands is that there are no vehicles or motor bikes allowed. Once here you have to walk, ride a bicycle or pay a flat rate to ride a cart pulled by a pony to travel anywhere on the island.
There are no police on these islands but there seems to be no need. I guess if something “happens” there is a “guy in charge” that will resolve the issue. Though I think it is the permanent inhabitants that watch out for their own island. One time someone tried to brings a motorbike on Gili Trawangan and the locals threw it in the water. It is still visible to new comers as a reminder of the no vehicle policy.
In many ways I think I have stepped back into time…. This must have been the way beaches used to be in more famous places before being taken over by developed resorts. All accommodations are steps away from the water. In low season it is not uncommon to spend twenty to forty dollars a day on accommodation. The cost of lunch has been about two dollars a day. An expensive meal would cost seven to eight dollars. No snorkel gear? That’s okay…The place next door has gear for three dollars a day.
The snorkeling is incredible. Just a few feet off our beach we started seeing fish. Then a huge turtle! Wow. We just floated and watched this giant turtle eat on the bottom of the sea. Several minutes later he, ever so gracefully, moved his fins forward and glided to the surface for air.
The were bright electric blue and aqua fish that darted about. There were fish whose color blended in with either the sandy bottom or lime green coral surroundings each tried to appear invisible beside. There were small black and white angel fish swimming energetically and big vibrant yellow angel fish gracefully floating by their reef.
There were grey fish with orange, white, blue and purple highlights. Long transparent fish with needle noses that pointed an inch out from their faces. You could see their long spine within.
We saw a puff fish and a cutter fish with sides that rolled up and down like a flag in the wind. I loved the medium size fish with purple, pink and blue colored pastels. How lovely.
There were also fish as big as a trunk of a person. One of these was busy feeding on the coral when someone I was snorkeling with decided to get a closer look. This large fish did not like that and swam directly towards him. When the fish opened his mouth we saw it had teeth. Now the mouth was smaller than my fist and we we in no danger but our friend was sure he had just had a possible brush with death.
My favorite fish was at least two feet long and had the most brilliant colors. Bright purple and yellow splotches on the sides and tail and vibrant aqua on his face.
Off the shores of Gili Air they had millions of these little light blue minnow fish which darted about us in these massive schools of fish. Just as I thought, “Wow, really cool”, then they all changed directions unison and darted the other way. This is just a few of the countless varieties of aquatic life we encountered. More than once I thought I felt like I was in the middle of the Nemo Movie.
The people here are pretty laid back. The locals and businessmen do not haggle tourists on the beach or when walking down the road unlike in other Asian cities. One only has to say “no” once to be left alone. Restaurants are “open until closed” and no one seems to be running on a set time. Some may say that has to do with the availability of magic mushrooms but I think it is the island life.
We had to laugh one Monday as our hotel restaurant was closed for the day and it was lunch time. We had been sitting on the beach for hours and we getting pretty hungry. “I will ask if they have take out at the place next door?” James, who was staying at our hotel announced. A few minutes later he came back with a smile on his face, “No food there but he did say he had some magic mushrooms and marijuana to offer.” Needless to say we found take out somewhere else.
The snorkeling was some of the best I have ever seen. The sheer beauty of these islands makes this one of my favorite beaches ever. The absence of noise pollutants and few people makes this one of the most relaxing places I have ever been. It is not easy to get out to these islands but if you do you will not be disappointed.
Watching at least one traditional Balinese dance is well worth your time. I thought the styles were as unique as any I have seen before and thought these events were worth there own post.
The stories of the dances are as ordinary a tale as in any culture. Stories of good, bad, right, wrong and love. The subjects are of demon kings, witches, gods, goddesses, prince and princesses and as in any Disney tale the good guy always seems to win. Many of the dances are also performed in a series of acts. However, the unique aspect of Balinese dance is the music and the dance itself.
The music for the dance is made from one of two sources: The first is sounds made from men who play and instrument which looks like a short xylophone bench. The men sit cross legged at this instrument and use a small pointed hammer to strike the keys on the instrument making a “ping” sound. The second form of music is made from a choir of voices. These men sit in a large circle in a trance-like state with the dance happening in the center of the circle. The men each say one word syllables like “tutt…tutt…tutt” at different speeds and octaves creating a soothing sound.
The performers wear elaborate costumes and make-up. Evil demons seem to always wear scary masks. The movement of the dancers is more deliberate that I have ever seen. Every foot, every finger, every head movement has a precise location for every poise. The women somehow made their head move side to side in an inhuman looking manner. When their head slid one direction, with there face straight out toward the crowd, their eyes slid the opposite direction. The speed at which they performed this movement must have taken years of practice to perfect. In one act, two women danced this style of dance in complete synchronization with their eyes closed the entire time.
My favorite dance was something that took me completely by surprise. I did not even have my camera ready to shoot a picture. A man in a grass skirt was dancing around a flame as all the dancers had been doing most of the night. Then out of know where he started jumping on the hot coals and stomping on them. Then the “helpers” sweep the coals in a circle again and he did it two more times! I was sure it had to be a trick so when he sat down I took a close up photo of the dancers feet. Sure enough, there were coal marks on his feet. What a way to earn a living!?!
In the hills of Bali, between the fields of rice terraces, is the cultural and spiritual center of the island. I had planned to stay two nights in Ubud and I ended up staying six. This community was already known as a destination zone for health and spiritual growth for decades. However, since the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie, this place has become a mecca for a wide range of alternative practices and natural healing.
I met people here from all over Europe, America and Asia on week long to several month retreats. There were a lot of people here for yoga workshops but I also met three people completing intensive week long “colon detox” spa and an entire group of people staying at my hotel doing a ten day mysticism course.
There seemed to be something for everyone and every age here. Vegans and raw food enthusiast would love this place. I have never seen restaurant menus with so many varieties in meal style preparation. I did not even know of the Ayurvedic Diet method and that it was used by some to reach a balance for a particular body type. However, here there are restaurants with a complete section of dishes tailed for this diet on their menu.
It seems as though everyone is out walking in the evening and you can count on live music any night of the week. You will never find yourself lonely in Ubud. There seems to be always someone wanting to socialize.
I went on long walks everyday including walking through the “must see” Monkey Forest. The Monkey Forest is a jungle area near the center of town with hundreds of monkeys. It was pretty but I was more than a bit nervous at times when the diseased infested creatures moved a little to close for comfort.
I also spent parts of four days at the Yoga Barn. I figured it was a good place to try to work on one of my 2013 New Year’s Resolutions to “Try to do yoga again and try to like it.” I figured this had to be a good place to try to work on this goal since all the classrooms overlooked gorgeous gardens. How could I become bored in a class here?
There were yoga sessions every hour on the hour from seven in the morning until six at night. They had a wide selection of yoga styles to choose from–I found one style called Shadow Yoga that I actually really enjoyed. Shadow Yoga incorporated marital arts movements into this style with the focus of intensionally following your shadow with the body movements. So I guess that’s something of my New Year’s list….”Check!”
It is easy to arrange tours from Ubud to see the surrounding area. One day I arranged a half day tour to explore a waterfall and walk through the rice fields. The half day adventure with the driver guide cost twenty dollars.
As we were on our way to the waterfall my guide, Yan Tu, asked me, “Do you like coffee and chocolate?” “Yes. But I like coffee better than chocolate.” I responded. “Have you ever had animal coffee?” “Animal coffee?” I questioned. “I don’t know what that is.” “You know poo.” “Poo?” I shake my head as I try to think. “You know, poo, poo.” Reaching back in my mind for an answer I replied, “You don’t mean coffee like on the movie the Bucket List?”
“Yes, the Bucket List! I love that movie!! Jack Nicholson and Morgan…ah..What’s his name?” Freeman.” I answered. “Yes, yes….Morgan Freeman. Do you know that movie?” “Yes, I have seen the movie. It is one of my favorite’s.” “Yes, well it is that coffee…..Luwak.” I chuckle to myself then answer, “No. I am not drinking that coffee.”
We sat in quiet a couple minutes and I thought– Well, I am back in Asia and have not tried to eat something out out of my comfort zone yet. “Okay, the coffee is on the way from the waterfalls.” “Yes. It is.” “Okay, we can try the coffee.” So yes, while in Ubud I did go to a processor of Kopi Luwak. Coffee made from the fermented coffee beans which have been selected, eaten and exited from the civet before being processed into the most expensive coffee in the world. And I must say it is really quite amazing.
So that was my adventure in the heart of Bali. Are you ready to join me yet or at least share a cup of coffee?
Ratih invited me to join her on a tour she had previously scheduled for another travelor. I knew the tour would visit a couple of temples and we take a drive through rural Bali but I had no idea what an amazing day she had planned…..
Every day begins the same in any Balinese household and business. Offerings are prepared to give thanks to God and to receive blessings. One type of offerings is made by putting bits of rice on a squares of banana leaves and placing these offerings around the outside of the house. Other offerings include square boxes made fresh each morning out of coconut leafs then filled with petals of flowers and grass. These offerings are then placed around the home and a burring incense stick is added. “What are those for?” I asked looking at the handmade containers with the petals. “An offering…. These are for the angels.” Ratih explains. I continue reading my book as the morning routine, of making and placing offerings, continues as it had the previous two days.
Every home and business prays everyday. Every day, everyone I observe in Bali is taking time to create similar offerings and say thank you to God. At some point I am told that there is one God. Confused, since I thought I had finally understood the basis of the Hindu religion from my travels in India, I asked Ratih, “I thought the Hindu religion had multiple deities but there were three main gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva?”
“No, there is one God….Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the protector, and Shiva, the destroyer, are manifestations of the same one God.” When I was in India it was hard for me to grasp the main points of the Hindu religion since when I traveled it seemed as though I received different answers from different people. But I was in another country so I decided to give it one more “old school try” to understand.
After a beautiful drive among the rice terraces and lush jungle scenery we arrived at the base of Gunung (Mount) Agung. Mount Agung is the highest point on the island and the mountain is considered sacred. Besakih Temple sits on the slopes of this mountain and is considered the holiest temple in Bali. In 1963 the Mount Agung erupted and the lava flow missed the temple by meters flowing around the temple. The salvation of the temple was considers a miracle by the people. “We alway remember the Twin Dragon. When he is sleeping the mountain stays calm.”
The drive up the road is slow as we approach. In between the slowed vehicles, motor bikes continue to inch forward. In any space left between the motor bikes and cars, people were filling the space. Many women balanced offerings on the heads as they walked.
Today happens to be the day after a full moon and considered holy. “It is also the day of the year when Balinesse give thanks to god for the blessing of metal. Have you noticed the flowers and leaves on the cars and motorbikes?” “Yes. I was wondering what that was about.” “Those are offerings. Giving thanks for metal used on our vehicles. That is why there are so many people here today. Besakih is considered the most holy place so everyone from the island comes at least once a month to pray at this temple. Some people come as early as four in the morning and they will be arriving all day to pray.”
Ratih has prepared a gift of clothing for both of her guests. We stop at a rest stop near the temple to change into our new clothes. “Does this look right?” I ask Chad, Ratih’s other guest. “I don’t know. Ratih helped me.”
Soon our guide had appeared around the corner. I had put my sarong on upside down. We return to the restroom together and Ratih assisted me. I came down the hallway and the women sitting at the bottom of the restrooms looked up, gave me a big smile and thumbs up.” I understood I was now dressed properly.
Raith, Chad and I proceed on foot up the hill. The entire surroundings was stunningly beautiful. We proceeded up the steep steps to the area designated for prayer. Raith had prepared offerings so that Chad and I could participate in the worship and receive a blessing. It is one thing for a tour guide to show you a temple and talk about the traditions but it is so much of a deeper experience to participate in the traditions. Participation is exactly what Ratih had planned for our day.
She handed us the offerings she had prepared and lit our incense. We then walked to sit with the others praying at the temple. We took the first flower, which represents beauty and waved it in the incense. “The incense is a witness to your prayer.” Then we clapped the flower in our hands with our palms touching together and placed our praying hands up to our forehead. Ratih told us “Now you can say your own prayer God.”
We repeated this two more times. Each time getting a new flower from our dish and waving it in the smoke before saying our individual prayer. After the three prayers were completed, holy water was passed from others in the crowd for us to use for our blessing. A flower was put in the water and sprinkled on us three times. Then rice was taken from the common dish and a few grains were placed in the middle of our foreheads. A sign that we had been blessed.
In Bali families usually stay at the temple after their blessing to have a picnic lunch and enjoy their time together. We had more places to tour and were on our way.
After a short drive we had lunch overlooking another active volcano called Gunung Batur. “This mountain erupted when I was having lunch here just over three years ago.” It was an amazing crater with a lake below. The lava flow from 2009 was visible on one side of the mountain and nothing appeared to be growing in that space.
After lunch we were headed on to our next sacred sight named Tampaksiring. Here the water springs up from the earth. One can visibly see water bellowing up from the earth as plumbs of sand puff up in the clear water. From here the holy water runs through a canal system that pours water out in a series of fountains.
Raith has brought everything we need to experience the purification of the holy water. We take our flower offering and burning incense and wait in line for our turn to be touched by the flowing water. At the first fountain we leave our offering. We know to let the water touch our face, then we taste the water and finally have it run over our head. Afterwards we are to line up for the next fountain in the series. We know to skip the two fountains that only those experiencing death attend.
Many adults waiting in line have smiles on their faces. Many parents are sharing this time with their children who, of course, are having the time of their life while they are waiting in pool for the next fountain. The children are all giggles when it is their turn to duck under the fountain.
There are other adults who are visibly injured and some with long faces who are seeking some kind of peace. One couple behind me had an offering for each fountain, not just the first, and then I noticed that this couple did not skip the fountain for death and their eyes had become red and glossy. I said a prayer for them and hoped for relief.
After we finish at the fountains of purification we ready to enter the temple behind the spring at Gunung Temple. Here we followed the same rituals we had learned earlier that morning which included a series of prayers and offerings. We are blessed a second time with rice and have received the sacred purification waters from the fountains.
I must admit that I still don’t understand a lot about the Hindu religion but I do think I have more of an understanding now that I have experienced some of the traditions firsthand. I also understand that the Balinese people have their own flare to their religion which is impacted by their island culture and ancient customs. They also have a deep regard and spiritual practice for their ancestors as well as other spirits and angels. In Bali you will also find many statues with bulging eyes and angry teeth meant to keep bad spirits at bay.
While I have been here I have heard several times of the importance of balance; The good and the bad, the ying and the yang, the male and female. Ratih also spoke about the importance of praying. “It is important to be still and pray. So much poison can get in your eyes and your ears which can trouble you. You much have some quiet (so you can handle the world).” Now, doesn’t that make a lot of sense?
People in Bali do seem to pray continually. Even though they are working, every business and every home has reminders all around them which remind them of their God and to be thankful for their blessings.
When I was young I asked my mom why why put ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I remember her saying, “It is a outward and visible sign of a inward and spiritual faith.” I am reminded of this here….. We may not always understand the traditions of others but maybe some of those traditions are just the outward signs which brings individuals closer to their faith and God.
The important things I learned today from Ratih is how similar we all are even though our customs are very different. How we are all searching for answers and how we all searching to cope with life and loss and struggles. That balance and quiet moments are important to preserve oneself. And finally, I walk away thinking that if all people in the world prayed to their God as much as the Balinese, then wouldn’t this be a changed world indeed.