BALI, Indonesia — The island of Bali — half a world away in the middle of the South China Sea — has become synonymous with grace, simplicity and serenity, an oasis in a part of the world that is frequently tempestuous.
Bali's easygoing way of life has caused the rest of the world to take note. It's a rare travel magazine that hasn't tempted readers at least once with stunning visuals of the island's beaches, terraced mountains and palm-filled jungles. Spas around the world have tried to copy the famed Balinese massage with varying degrees of success. And try as hard as they might, no one has come close to copying the graceful elegance of Balinese dancing. To what does this tiny island owe such great good fortune?
Some Balinese will tell you it's the gods that define the tempo of daily life, whether it's the "good" spirits that inhabit the highlands or the "evil" spirits that dwell in the lowlands near the sea. Good or evil, pious or impish, all have their place in Balinese mythology.
Fit for the gods
The outward manifestations of the belief in these gods are the places of worship that dot the island — from the simple shrines in every home and business to the more elaborate temples that illustrate the Balinese love of harmony and nature. While Bali lacks the huge temple complexes such as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, on the neighboring island of Java and Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia, it does offer a chance to see temples in a variety of gorgeous settings.
Among the loveliest is Taman Ayun ("beautiful g arden"), a name that could not be more fitting. The temple, built in 1637, is in its own Eden, separated from the rest of the world by a moat. Another temple, Pura Ulun Danau, also was built in the 17th century to honor the water goddess charged with protecting the rice crop. It sits on Lake Bratan in the crater of an extinct volcano.
Perhaps the most exquisite setting is that of Tanah Lot, dating back to the 15th century, which hugs the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. At low tide, the island on which it sits is accessible by foot, and while each evening, hundreds gather to watch the sunset, many are careful to go no farther — perhaps because of the giant snake reputed to live in the temple, protecting it from evil spirits and intruders.
Note: Religion in Bali is very complex. Unlike the predominantly Muslim islands of the rest of Indonesia, Bali's religion combines polytheistic Hinduism with Buddhism and borrows from ancient indigenous mythology.
The temples are bastions of serenity on an island that prizes serenity. You can see it in the graceful movements of the traditional legong dance performed each Friday at Nusa Dua Beach Hotel's Budaya Cultural Theater or in the other traditional dance, the ketjack (monkey dance), performed by more than 200 people at one time during ceremonies in rural villages.
You can see it in the Balinese love of symmetry, a good example of which is "Eka Karya" Bali Botanic Gardens. It is a tropical rainforest in the volcanic highlands and lake districts of central Bali that just happens to have some 1,200 species of plants ranging from orchids to cactus.
With the tragic exception of the 2002 terrorist bombing at a popular nightclub, serenity is such a way of life here that the turbulent outbreaks in other parts of Indonesia seem light years removed. One afternoon, as I sat in a beachside restaurant in Singaraja after a day spent touring the coffee and tea plantations of the highlands, I stared out over the ocean and watched as a dolphin executed a perfect leap right in front of me. It occurred to me that I might be in another century and that I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the billowing sails of a China clipper come into view.
I didn't, but I did see a lone boatman, paddling a canoe piled high with bananas, breadfruit and mangos. In Bali, it seems, the grocer still makes deliveries.
Another day was spent driving around the interior of the island, where the mountains were decorated with row upon row of terraced rice paddies. Every so often, the lush green was interrupted by a silvery flash of falling water as a waterfall erupted from a hidden spring. I reflected on those good spirits residing in the mountains and thought what a lovely home they had.
Along with the benevolent spirits, the mountains are home to monkeys that line the side of the road, jumping up and down and gesticulating wildly — probably in the hope their comical antics will coax a banana from a passing motorist. A piece of advice: Skip the touristy Monkey Jungle and drive into the interior. These monkeys put on a better show, and it's free.
An artsy paradise
Plan to save one day for an excursion to Ubud, Bali's arts and crafts center. You will find shops and galleries offering island specialties from colorful batiks and wood carvings to Balinese shadow puppets. These are small, beautifully crafted leather figures lit from behind so that when their images are projected onto a screen, they become shadowy creatures of the imagination.
A good place to stop for lunch after a morning in Ubud is Kamandalu Resort in lush green hills above the town in an area once famous for its royal palaces. The great hall of Kamandalu, with its rattan furniture and ceiling fans, is open-air, affording a spectacular view of the surrounding hills, rainforest and Petanu River.
For a real taste of local color, visit Jimbaran Bay for one of the famous barbecues. Everyone sits at folding chairs at long tables on the beach, breathes in the smoke from hundreds of pits and eats succulent lobster washed down by cold beer. It's the Balinese equivalent of the Friday night fish fry, where tourists are outnumbered by locals. Don't miss it.
Along with the cuisine, another of Bali's art forms is massage. In any of the island's spas, once the actual body work is over, the real fun begins. On my last day in paradise, once my body had been completely coated with yogurt and then thoroughly rinsed, I was directed to a pool sprinkled with delicate yellow and white frangipani blossoms. With skin now as smooth as the flower petals drifting next to me, I sipped a cup of jasmine tea and gave in to a feeling of total serenity.
Serenity — it's what Bali is all about.