When I first travelled to Bali years ago, Kuta and Legian were two separate villages separated by cow paddocks, and I stayed in a small hut with a thatch roof, just a hundred metres or so from the beach, and fifty metres to a place that served great lime drinks. As breakfast it was hot black tea and small sweet bananas with the sounds of cockerels crowing and a Balinese lady sweeping the ground of leaves with a palm leaf broom. It was a great time and adventure.
Today the great beach is still there, but there are no cow paddocks or small huts in Kuta or Legian - it is almost wall to wall big hotels with swimming pools and pool bars along this part of the Balinese coast. The restaurants and bars have grown in number and there are all the surf shops and tourist shops selling souvenirs and breakfast is now a full scale affair with continental pastries, fruits, fruit juices and "how would you like your eggs".
Even though Bali is now a big tourist destination, it is still a great place to holiday and it is one of the most popular of all island holiday destinations in the world, and certainly in Asia.
People come to Bali for many reasons, particularly from Australia, but also from Java, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Europe, USA and other parts of the world.
Some people come to just lie on the beach or around a hotel/resort pool; others to surf, party, to get married, celebrate finishing school, a family holiday, a reunion, cheap prices, to relax and a host of other reasons. It is a great place to have fun and just enjoy being on a hot tropical island with great spicy food, bars, beaches and culture with charming people who are ever ready to help. A lot of young people come here and there is, at least in Kuta, a real party feel.
While Bali is one of the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, it has a quite different culture to the other islands – with the main religion being Hindu, whereas the rest of Indonesia is Muslim.
A LITTLE HISTORY –
When you think of ancient Empires – you most likely will think of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman and Venetian Empires, but there were also many other Empires that existed in Ancient World in the Middle East, India, China, North, Central, South Asia and Americas. These Empires and dynasties were either conquerors or conquered, rising or falling in power and influence over centuries, leaving their legacy in language, customs, architecture, tools, weapons, language and laws.
Today we can still see or trace some of the legacies of these Empires today – Greek Philosophy and writings, Roman Law, roads, baths and buildings and in India, the Middle East and China – the Egyptian Pyramids, Indian Temples, Shrines, Palaces, the Great Wall of China and the list goes on.
Most of these Empires expanded with trade and contracted when overpowered or were even destroyed by wars and battles over territory and people. In conquering a people, this meant that those people came under the rule of law and authority of the conquering power and that in many cases that also meant their religion. In the modern world the best example of this is the Spanish Empire that conquered Central and South America, where still today the dominant language is Spanish and the religion is Roman Catholic.
When you look at the Middle East and South Asia – you see that the Islamic Religion originated from Prophet Muhammad (CE. 570-632) born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and this religion is dominant throughout the Middle East while in India, the Hindu religion is the dominant religion with around 80% of the population following this religion. In turn the Buddhist religion is based on the teachings of Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) born in 623 BC in Lumbini in Nepal and the Christian religion is based on the Bible and teaching of Jesus.
In South East Asia – you see that Thailand is predominately Buddhist, whereas in Malaysia and Indonesia the main religion is Islam. Bali however is predominantly Hindu, the oldest of the main religions in the world, pre-dating Islam, Buddhism and Christianity and dating back to around 2000BC.
It is thought that the Hindu Religion came to Indonesia from India in the 1st and 2nd centuries and continued under the Srivijanyan Empire and then the Majapahit Empire, which encompassed all of today's Indonesia and parts or Malaya from 1293 onwards before going into decline by 1500. The power and strength of the Majapahit Empire can be seen when under General Gajah Mada (The Elephant General) a massive fleet of ships carrying over 30,000 Chinese soldiers attempted to invade the Majapahit Empire in 1293. They were led by Mongolian leader, Kublai Khan and were defeated and forced to flee back to China.
It was in the 13th Century that saw the Islamic faith come to Sumatra, and then Java, brought to Sumatra by traders and preachers from Gujarat in India. The Chinese Admiral Zheng He was also a Muslim, with some of his ancestry being of Mongol origin – the Mongol and Persian Empires also bringing Islam to parts of China too. Chinese Admiral Zheng He's major expedition was between 1405 and 1433 during which time he came to the Malacca Straits and stopped in Malacca in Malaya where Sultans ruled and had been converted to Islam too.
While between the 14th and 16th Century most of Indonesia had converted to Islam, the island of Bali and a small mountainous section of East Java continued to practice the Hindu Religion and they still do today.
In the Hindu Religion there are a number of Gods - the Supreme Being is Sanghyang Widi Wasa (Tunggal) and manifestations of this God are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu the protector and Shiva the destroyer. There is also Surya, the Sun God; Rangda, the Evil witch and Ganesh with the elephant trunk, who is the son of Shiva and Durga. There are also many other Gods too and Balinese believe very much in a spiritual world with every Balinese belonging to a Temple, often an ancestral temple.
All major religions have their different ways of expressing the faith of its followers and build places of worship. Christians build cathedrals in the shape of a cross; Muslims build Mosques, Jews build synagogues and Hindus and Buddhists build temples and all have different ceremonies, traditions and customs related to human birth, life, living, moral values, death and the afterlife.
What is most apparent in Bali is how much Hinduism and a Spiritual world has played such an important part in Balinese life, and how this is expressed in so many different ways – in architecture, design of family compounds, art, sculpture, paintings, gardens, temples, dance, rituals, ceremonies, literature, music, clothing styles, food presentation and so many other ways.
This 'spiritual world' almost envelops you as a visitor to Bali with the temples, sculptures, shrines, gardens and Balinese architecture, interwoven at night with the soft glow of palm trees, small burning candles, the tropical night smell of frangipani flowers and small geckos darting here and there up and down a wall in search of an insect to eat.
While you might be staying in a big resort hotel with swimming pools and other luxuries, there is no mistaking that you are in Bali and that Balinese culture is here all around you. There is perhaps no other place on earth where art and crafts are such a central part of everyday life.
Bali is also however a land of contrasts. On one hand there is this amazing artistic expression, yet on the main roads there are a million motorbikes, buses, traffic jams and noise along with roaming skinny street dogs and rubbish, and in spite of the massive tourism wealth that has poured into Bali, there is also poverty too. Bali too has suffered when the Global Financial Crisis happened and then has faced more hardships associated with the Sars and Bird Flu epidemic, Sari Club bomb blasts, volcanos erupting and ash clouds, drugs and other factors. In many ways Bali has also suffered from Tourism overload with roads across the Island almost a continuous line of shops selling batiks, artefacts, wood carvings, sculptures and even carved and painted copies of Australian didgeridoos and US New England sea captains.
With so many shops across the Island all selling much of the same mix of T-Shirts, sarongs, batiks, carvings, paintings, umbrellas and copies of 'big name' branded clothing (both genuine and fake) Bali on one hand is a shopper's paradise or yet also a nightmare. For those Balinese sellers, the competition for a sale is immense, with both street sellers and shops all competing for your attention and the possibility of a sale. This can be a tough life selling and getting the occasional sale. There is no social security in Bali, people work to make a living and what they make each day allows them to eat and feed their family. While part of the fun is bargaining for a cheaper price, keep it fun, but keep in mind that your money is helping the person selling make a living.
While the old adage that "if you pay too much, your spoil the market" may or may not be true, giving a little extra to a person in need has its own way of repaying you in 'good karma'.