Liz Gill is charmed by this gentle island and its people
There are little offerings of food and flowers almost everywhere you look in Bali. Not just in temples or homes but in shops, on pavements, tucked into hedges, tied to lampposts, carried in cars and on lorries. I’m told that when someone in an office is given a state-of-the-art computer it won’t be long before a small bunch of flowers will appear beside it.
For unlike the inhabitants of Indonesia’s other 6,000 inhabited islands (there are 17,000 islands altogether) the four million people of Bali are Hindu rather than Muslim and the religion’s influence can be seen and sensed everywhere.
It’s in the 12,000 temples – almost every extended family will have one; in the statues wrapped in black and white cloth, the colours of dignity and purity or in yellow, the colour of prosperity; in the decorative bamboo poles hanging from shops and houses; in the caste system no longer unbendingly rigid but still recognisable in titles and modes of address; and in all the elaborate rituals which accompany everyday living.
As a new grandma I was particularly charmed by the method of choosing a baby’s name. Suggestions are written on palm leaves and attached to incense sticks which are then lit. The stick which burns the longest is the one which denotes the name.
As well as rituals for such milestones as pregnancy, birth, birthdays, comings-of-age, marriage and death there are celebrations for new moons and old moons and for various religious festivals and anniversaries. One day a year in March or April is Nyepi or The Silent Day when between 6am and 6pm no-one works, travels, cooks or even lights a fire. It is an elaborate and complex society as our guide explains: “We are so busy we don’t have time to travel!”
The Balinese may not be great travellers themselves but they certainly welcome guests, ranging from backpackers to honeymooners to older couples to families with small children: our hotel, the Montigo in Seminyak had what looked like a brilliant kids’ club with games, crafts and activities that I wouldn’t have minded doing myself.
It is, of course, a long way – 14 hours to Singapore from London, then another two and a half hours to Bali – which is why it is popular as part of an extended journey or as a break on the long haul to Australia or New Zealand. But because the island is only 80 miles long by 50 wide it is possible even in a brief visit to pack in a variety of experiences. We visited temples, markets, a gold and silver smith, streets specialising in one particular handicraft – statuary, furniture, woodcarving – and the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud where hundreds of long-tailed macaques cavort over both trees and temples.
They look very appealing and the babies are unbelievably cute but they are certainly to be approached with caution. You can buy food to feed them but there are lists of dos and don’ts including warning not to look them in the eye which can be interpreted as a sign of aggression but is easier said than done.
If we had had a longer stay we could have done trips to an active volcano and a tropical jungle, visited local villages, a coffee plantation, a turtle conservation programme, ridden in an elephant safari or relaxed on a reef cruise. The island also offers wonderful beaches for surfing and other water sports as well as snorkelling and diving.
Our trip was a two centre one so after Bali we flew to Singapore with Singapore Airlines (who incidentally have just opened a swish new lounge at Heathrow) to catch a 45 minute ferry across to Batam Island to another Montigo resort to lounge around in huge three storey villas each with its own infinity pool and roof terrace for gazing out across the water to the city lights on the horizon.
A memorable aspect of both islands was the food. Delicious dishes included snapper in saffron sauce, beef slow cooked in sweet soy sauce, prawns with coconut and coriander, cumin crusted lamb chops, chicken with chilli and tomato as well as satays and spring rolls – one with 15 different spices – and all kinds of rice. One big surprise for me were the tofu dishes. I’ve always associated tofu with those slimy tasteless lumps you find in Chinese soups but here they took on quite a different identity – deep fried, crisp, coated with all kinds of wonderful spices.
In one of the markets I tried fruits I’d never even seen before, both of them sweet and crunchy: the mangosteen known as the queen of fruits and the snakeskin fruit so called because its peel looks like snakeskin.
Batam also offers lots of activities including fishing trips with local fishermen, visits to traditional villages, a tour of the bakery which makes the local delicacy a layer cake called kueh lapis as well as tennis, golf, yoga and various water sports. We had a go at batik which was fascinating. Again if we had had more time it would have been fun to take in a visit to the market to buy and cook the ingredients for an authentic Indonesian dish.
The spas were a big feature of both hotels so I tried the Balinese massage in Bali, aimed at relieving muscle tension and aches with long strokes and kneading techniques in light to medium pressures with my choice of oil: sensual, a combination of black pepper, sandalwood, cedar wood and ylang ylang.
Afterwards I feel both soothed and stimulated. I obey my therapist Dwi’s advice that since my skin is dry I should leave the oil on for at least an hour and longer if possible but I’m afraid I ignore the recommendation that one abstains from alcohol within eight hours of a treatment. That’s because before dinner we are going to have a mixology class with bartender Dhani showing us how to make such cocktails as the Rock Bottom – local oranges, spiced white rum and orange liqueur – and the Jammy Dodger – chilli, papaya, strawberry jam, honey and apricot brandy.
In Batam I had the Indonesian massage geared to improving blood circulation and oxygen flow through a combination acupressure, reflexology and aromatherapy, this time with the ginger and peppermint revitalising oil. I opted for medium to firm pressure with May, another charming therapist, doing medium on legs and firm on back and arms. So intense was that pressure – Indonesian massage tends to use the thumbs more than the whole hands – that I occasionally winced and was tempted to call for a lighter touch but I was glad in the end that I’d stuck with it.
I was struck, as I have often been before, where these slender little women – May could only have been a size six 6 at most – get their power from. She smiles and tells me the work is their gym – they don’t need to do any extra strength training. “We don’t go to the gym at the end of the day, we just go home and relax with our families.”
For a five star establishment prices are relatively modest ranging from around £32 to £58. But then with 17,000 Indonesian rupiah to the pound one can become a ‘millionaire’ just by changing about sixty quid.
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