Sunday, 27 December 2009

Island of the Gods

Bali Temple
The similarities were unmistakeable..the swaying palms, the small shacks all along the streets, the rented scooters and motorbikes thronging the roads, the many sea-food places advertising the best food in town and the swarms of European and American tourists everywhere..Bali was a larger version of Goa, India's most famous sea-side resort.

Bali has a very strong Hindu culture, in fact it has its own version of Hinduism-Balinese Hinduism. Hinduism is not a stranger to many different sects and streams, all with their own Gods and Godesses gathering under its umbrella. It's probably the most diverse religion in the world, and Balinese Hinduism, with its presiding deity, Acintya, is one of these many forms.

Bali TempleThanks to this religious influence, Bali has a multitude of temples, with their own unique architecture, motifs and ornamentation. The dwarapalas or the temple guardians at the gates here are some of the best I've seen. With their fierce faces and fangs, they reminded me of Chinese dragons and the ornate statuary of South India at the same time.

Here's a closer look at one of the Balinese temples, bang in the centre of Kuta, the town close to the Ngurah Rai International Airport. All around the temple, which formed a largish traffic circle, the evening traffic screamed and honked and fumed, and shops buzzed with people. And yet, right in the centre was this calm little temple that looked strangely out of place.

Bali TempleOther Balinese temples are located in much more spectacular locales than traffic islands.The temple at Tanah Lot for instance is built right into the sea, on a giant monolithic piece of rock jutting out of the sea a few hundred yards from the coast. It can be reached on foot during low tide, but during high tide it is guarded by fierce waves and a frothing churning sea.

BaliBali TempleI also happened to witness this evening prayer ceremony taking place at one of the shrines on the mainland near the Tanah Lot temple. A prayer is beautiful by itself, but a setting like this makes it seem as if the prayer itself has come alive in the sky,the clouds and the sea.

Bali's traditions and customs are as beautiful as its scenery. Its a pity we did not have time to watch any traditional Balinese dance performances, but they're quite beautiful watch, with splendid traditional costumes and finery. And equally splendid is Balinese food, with it's liberal use of spices, seafood and rice. Seafood lovers, its your paradise; vegetarians, its a golden chance to convert.

Bali is famous for is its coffee. We did manage to go to a coffee plantation located on the higher slopes of Bali's hills.As we reached there at around 4ish in the afternoon, it was coffee time already and the aroma of freshly roasted coffee was very welcome in the cool mountain air. We were ready for a steaming hot cup of coffee, or hot chocolate or herbal tea, and we tried all of that. We also tried a very unique Balinese coffee that makes for very intersting coffee time conversations, if not anything else.

The Asian Palm Civet, a small cat-sized animal, produces this highly sought after and expensive coffee. It's called Kopi Luwak ( Kopi = Coffee, and Luwak = Civet), and believe it or not, its made out of coffee beans defecated by this blighter, the Luwak. Some explanation is in order. The Palm Civets love eating coffee berries. They tend to pick the ripest and the sweetest berries, and thereby the ripest coffee beans. Moreover, the digestive system of the civet breaks down the protiens that give the coffee bean it's bitterness. The enzymes also 'add' to the flavour. The rest of the bean, stripped of its bitterness, passes out undigested. The beans are then lightly roasted to produce this coffee. We tried it out. It was a bit anticlimactic though, it seemed quite unremarkable to me at least. ( The coffee beans in the picture above are the regular ones.)

Batik is Indonesia's gift to the world of textiles. We  had a look at this traditional process of block printing, at a handloom centre. This is the stuff that interior designers are probably looking for all the time, to get that 'ethnic' look and feel. The cotton fabrics were indeed quite handsome, and we saw exactly how the painstaking process of handweaving them was.

As the sun set on the last day of our visit to Bali, I was thinking about our short 3 day trip. Bali has something to offer everyone. Whitewater rafting, paragliding, parasailing, scuba diving, spas and massages, shopping, great food, traditional performing arts, a national park for nature lovers, temples with some eye-catching architecture, plenty of opportunities for the photography buff and nightlife for the party lover (HardRock Cafe, Kuta, has a mean rock band). Of course its a paradise  for honeymooners, but that is equally true for families, friends and casual vacationers. Whoever you are, the Island of the Gods has something for you.

Truly Asia

Its been a little bit of a predicament to discover the real Asia, and that's pretty ironical coming from an Asian. But the truth of the matter is that Asia's simply too vast and too diverse to have one 'true' self. It also true that South East Asia is a much more closely knit region than South Asia. South Asia, due to its adjacency to Persia, the Middle East, and its connections to Europe via the sea was always in a state of diffusion of cultures and peoples. And so there have always been significant differences between India and her eastern neighbours - differences that go way beyond that fold of eyelid skin that gives East Asians their 'oriental' look. And the Orient traditionally meant lands to the east of India.
Malaysia's marketing campaign claims it to be 'Truly Asia', but the capital city of Kuala Lumpur spoke of an Asia very different from the conventional images of a 'mysterious and exotic' Far East. It spoke of a region fast rising on the wings of western capitalism, riding new technology, new business practices and creating its own place under the sun. Nothing could be more emblematic of KL than the twin Petronas towers seen above, taken at a really low shutter speed.

Downtown KL glittered and sparkled after a late downpour, and city looked like a party-goer and shoppers paradise. The conversion rate of the Malay Ringit makes spending in SGD deceptively easy, and that never bodes well for the shopper's purse. KL has all the brands you've ever known about, and probably some that you've not known about. The stores and malls can give any American mall a run for its money, and the downtown is studded with diners and cafes for the hungry and watering holes for party-goers.

Kuala Lumpur is doing all the right things: working towards establishing a good infra-structure, inviting retailers from all over the world to tap into its very receptive markets, and getting it's people hooked on to a diet of malls and showrooms and shopping. Selling itself as the ultimate shopping destination and drawing in hordes of tourists from within the country and abroad, KL is is doing everything it can to whip up a voracious retail appetite in its markets.

It has a casino at the near-by hill resort of Genting. The clown here was one of the many attractions on the way to Genting, trying to make life a little more entertaining for people queueing up for the 20 minute cable car ride up the mountain. And as soon as we reached the top, we were greeted by a blast of chilly mountain air and some freshly brewed Chinese herbal jelly. The dark mahogany decoction was steamed in huge brass vats, so that it congealed to form a jelly, and was served steaming hot. Its hot pungent aroma filled the air, and very soon, we'd downed two cups of the jelly each, with some very sweet honey water to complement the slight bitterness of the blend. The jelly seller lady who served us with much ado about its health benefits, agreed to pose with her vat of jelly.

The Genting Highlands are roughly an hour's drive from KL, followed by a 4km ride on a cable car that takes you to a height of well over 1700 m. In spite of being in steamy Malaysia, Genting enjoys an almost perfect climate with temperatures ranging between 16 and 24 degrees celcius. Plentiful rainfall ensures lush rainforests covering the slopes. This comes the closest to my idea of an ideal climate...I had never imagined I'd ever want to wear a sweater and sip on some hot chocolate at 4.00 in the afternoon anywhere in South East Asia.

But Genting is too busy being the Las Vegas of Malaysia to pay heed to nature's gifts. We saw a colossal resort filled with an indoor and outdoor amusement park, and of course, a casino. The casino was overflowing with gamblers and the amusement parks were overflowing with picnickers and kids. I saw these two little dudes waiting patiently for their balloons outside one of the many rides.

We had a lovely time trying out the rides. And a little less lovely time watching the games of roulette, and wishing we had enough money to just blow it off on a night in the casino. The shoestring budgets that we had planned our trip on had no room for such extravagances. We did cook up a hypothetical fool proof scheme for making some money on the roulette the next time we came back.

The dining was very fine, and inspite of constraints faced by our vegetarians, we sampled some Vietnamese food. The restaurant had some lovely decor.The food of course was very nice too, but to people famished after a day of trudging theme parks and casinos, I wonder if the taste would have made any difference.
Thus ended our very first attempt to discover Asia. Even though what we saw was the very superficial, fast changing, market driven face of Asia, it was nevertheless one facet of this exotic place. Perhaps there are other things to be discovered by going, not on a trip to a Casino resort, but perhaps on a trek to the rainforests of Indonesia, or a trip to the rice fields of the Phillipines or the temples of Angkor. I hope I get a chance to write about these places in this blog.