Embark on a cultural treasure hunt for the real Bali
Hankering for more than white-sand beaches, tropical sunsets and graceful Balinese dancers? Curious to venture beyond the volcanoes, forests and lush, green paddy fields? Want to see authentic art that isn’t the usual mix of batik sarongs, masks and colourful fish mobiles?
Bali is in fact brimming with different cultural influences – mixing modern trends with centuries-old traditions. From the quieter, less developed north-eastern coast to the cosmopolitan buzz of the capital Denpasar in the south, you don’t have to venture far from a luxury Balinese hotel to explore the more authentic (and often quirky) side to this Indonesian island.
Get into the happy Hindu spirit
The main Hindu festivals take place during a full moon. So if you’re planning to visit this autumn or next spring, chances are you’ll witness at least one of these magical spectacles. It’s the perfect way to understand what makes the Balinese such a genuinely joyous and deeply spiritual bunch. Here are three of our favourites:
At this major festival the Balinese honour the Universe’s creator and thank family ancestor spirits for their protection. Temples are dressed with golden fabrics and filled with fruit, coloured jaja rice cakes and flower-petal offerings. Mystical gamelan music fills the air as children wearing glittering costumes parade through the streets. And festive Penjor decorations woven from palm fronds hang from curved bamboo poles. You might even witness a Ngelawang ceremony, where a lion-like beast (barong) dances through the villages and enters homes to perform an evil-expelling exorcism.
Delicious tip: Once the gods have had their fill, it’s your turn to tuck into the huge amount of ‘leftovers’. You’ll find plenty of restaurants and food stalls offering specials on native dishes such as lawar – spicy pork in coconut sauce.
Bali’s strictly observed ‘day of silence’ takes place on 29th March. The night before there’s a parade of papier mâché Ogoh Ogoh monsters – to scare off bad spirits. 24 hours of fasting and spiritual cleansing then follows. Expect to find the streets deserted and eerily quiet. Shopping, cars, music, TV… Everything is banned – even the airports close, so time your travel arrangements carefully.
3. Bali Kite Festival
July is when everyone near Sanur Beach gazes up at the skies. Teams from different villages get together to compete at flying giant kites, some up to 10 metres in length. It’s always an incredible, colourful event – its religious origins based on asking the Hindu gods for a bountiful harvest.
Art, music and soul
If it’s not festival season, there are still lots of creative gems to discover:
- Ghostbird + Swoon
A fascinating art gallery in Sanur full of paintings, jewellery and figurines created mainly by local female artists. Here is where to appreciate the powerful beauty in ‘ugly’ art, experimental fashion and the artistic potential of junk.
- Antonio Blanco Museum
Designed in palatial, new-Renaissance style, this museum houses masterpieces by the artist dubbed the ‘Dali from Bali’. His voluptuous artworks might not be to everyone’s taste. But the spectacular gardens, complete with waterfall and exotic chirruping birds at the entrance, express Blanco’s eccentric, theatrical style.
- Bali Spirit Festival
For five days during March, this progressive, contemporary event in Ubud attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world. Prepare to open your mind and chakras with a celebration of yoga, dance and music in Bali’s artistic centre.
- Bali International Jazz Festival
Chill out to smooth jazz beats in early March. Since 2014, when it began, everyone from Earth, Wind and Fire to local acts such as Balawan have wowed audiences at this festival’s open-air venues, restaurants and bars. Dates and locations vary, so check before you go.
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes
Curious about local healers? Then visit Ketut Liyer and Wayan in Ubud – of Eat Pray Love literary fame. There’s also Mr Pak Sirkus, the ‘The Healer of Canggu’, in north Kuta. Renowned for his stiffness-relieving miracles, he treats visitors from his front porch.
Or for a truly natural, soothing experience, take a dip in nature’s private Jacuzzi. You’ll find these pools of bubbling seawater near Jimbaran Bay on the shore of Tegal Wangi Beach.