North To The Sacred Mountain Sanctuary

Indonesia’s greatest travel writer Barrie Lie-Birchall tells one of his famous travel stories.

Having the opportunity to get away from the hectic pace of the Kuta stretch, its tourist-drenched atmosphere and its designer shops, and escape into the mountains is a delight.

I sit on the stone steps in the courtyard of Made’s house being amused by two chickens playing silly-buggers as they fight over a sun-crisped scrag of lettuce. They scurry as Made approaches. He tells me that tomorrow he will return to his village Batunya, not far from Danau Bratan. He puts an arm around my shoulder insisting my presence on the journey. Made grins knowing I could not refuse. He tells me we will stay overnight ‘somewhere’. Perhaps half-way along the journey, he says, where we will greet some relatives and absorb their hospitality. My bemused look caused Made to laugh and the chickens scurry even further away from him. Perhaps it was the glinting steel edge of the machete in his hand that blinded the life out of the chickens. We stand and stretch the day’s laziness from our bodies, then walk to the beach for the impending sunset. Along the way I ask if we can stop at a few places. Made smiles; understandingly. We watch the sun, golden and shimmering on the horizon, paint the ocean yellow, then red and finally, black. As the moon’s luminous shadows throw a shimmer of dull light across the vast sea, Made nods and we leave the beach to the nighthawks and the lovers of darkness.

The chickens obviously survived the night: their incessant scratching, the roosters involved in a vocal contest, and the dogs engaging in combat-barking imposed upon my dream. It was already a warm morning as I fall out of my sleeping bag. Washing the night away with icy water brings me to some semblance of life. ‘Are you ready.’ Made says. He stands there with two motorbike helmets in his hands; a cheesy grin on his face. I search within my brain for the dictionary for a few choice four-letter words. Made tells me we’ll find a warung along the way to have breakfast. I curse myself for eating those Mars Bars last night. Made’s old motorbike growled, spewed out more smoke than Bob Marley on a binge, and seemed to find every bump on the road making it worse than a roller-coaster nightmare. My head hummed and I wonder what I did last night to be cursed. Shit. Arak-flavoured Mars Bars!.

Ten minutes on the highway north found us entering a village I was familiar with. Made tells me he has to obtain something from a friend and he wouldn’t be too long. I tell him to take his time. We were in Lukluk, a small village that has one of the most fascinating examples of a Pura Dalem. As you enter the village from the south, take the first narrow road on your left. The short walk will lead you to a path leading through the undergrowth. Once through, you come into an open area and the temple. It actually comes upon you by surprise and makes you feel like Livingstone for a moment or two!. Take time to walk around this temple and check out the painted bas-reliefs; these are a mixture of mythological themes and comically roguish village scenes. The jungle backdrop gives the temple an ambience of magic and mystery and, the small river not far from there, with its rippling melodies, are the personification of peacefulness.

The roar of a motorbike heralded Made’s arrival and interrupted my meditational serenity. I ask how he made it through the undergrowth. He replies ‘Where to now?.’ As my question drifts away on the waft of the warm breeze, I tell him Kapal. Made slings the bulky bag over his shoulder almost rearranging my face in the process. He chuckles, speeding off as I death-grip the rear bar on the motorbike. Patchwork green padi fields lay out either side of us intermingled with clumps of bamboo as we travel along the narrow road, zipping between cars and the occasional truck spewing out its blackened pollution. Hills, like small irregular bumps on the horizon, give me an indication of the coming mountain range. I feel the Mars Bars repeating as I try to breathe and avoid inhaling a rogue insect bent on stinging my gullet. I tap Made’s shoulder and we pull into a small roadside warung. Sitting under the canvas awning on the splinter-ridden wooden benches, Made tells me it’s not far to Kapal. I am not worried at that moment but rather more interested in drowning the yellow and red striped insect that lodged itself so eloquently in my throat. I guzzle a full bottle of water. Made laughs as he orders Nasi Putih and fried chicken. Perhaps that insect will get drunk on those Mars Bars?

Later, with an intoxicated insect and fried chicken bouncing around in my stomach, we arrive at Kapal. We slowly pass shops selling primitive pottery, unglazed and brittle, of all sizes; some are ramshackle places, others, glass-fronted; but not many. Made tells me Kapal is renowned for its gaudy red-clay pottery as he begins to slow down behind a kaki lima. The aromas of Bakso Ayam tantalise my senses. Near the markets, we follow the sign leading to Pura Sada. Made stops the motorbike with a sudden halt. He reaches into the bag slung around his shoulder and gives me some Rambutan, then gestures I take my time. I had been here before many years ago, and my interest is meeting the pendeta (priest) of the temple. Previously I had enjoyed a whole day here in his company discussing the sacredness of devotion and cultural influences. I stop a temple worker and ask for my friend. The man informs me the pendeta is ‘luar kota’, out of town. Made relaxes under the tall and shady Banyan tree as I stretch the bumps from my body. The sun is getting higher in the sky; and more intense in its heat. I tell Made ‘tak lama’, I won’t be long, and walk off to look around a beautiful temple.

Pura Sada was destroyed by an earthquake in 1917 and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the original building was restored. The temple was in fact a old dynastic sanctuary for the Royal family of Mengwi and its origins are in the Majapahit period. Pura Sada is dedicated to the Hindu Trinity of Bhrahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The Candi Bentar, or split gateway entrance to the temple, is constructed in a similar fashion of Javanese Candi’s, as is the 16 metre-high tower inside the temple courtyard. It is interesting to note that the only true remaining ancient remnants are the actual finely carved and decorated Candi Bentar, and the kala head. There are a few other stone sculptures in the same era. There are 64 stone seats in the temple grounds are commemorations to warriors who died in battle; each has an undecipherable inscription. I leave the temple and walk nearer to the market bypassing a dozing Made. Several macabre potted statues sitting atop a plank of wood supported by two bricks, attracts my interest. I buy a small clay frog with an open mouth and two forked-tongues thrust forward, its eyes bulging eerily. Perhaps Made can place it on the handlebars of the motorbike to deter insects.

‘Nice frog’ Made tells me as I try and regain my senses from fright. I tell him its name is Made. He is not impressed and shows this by speeding off northwards out of Kapal. Made begins to laugh telling me the frog would make a good gift for his sister-in-law. ‘So that’s where we’re going’ I ask. ‘You haven’t seen my ipar permepuan’ Made replies. I ask Made if we can stop at Mengwi and he agrees. The terraced hills seem to loom closer as we cross the wooden bridge over the Penet river, and Made nearly ‘loses it’ on the sharp bend marking the straight run to Mengwi. I wasn’t worried with so many Gods watching over me, but Made’s complexion rapidly changed as the rear wheel danced sideways across the road. He stops, kisses the frog, and apologises to the Gods for his unkind thoughts regarding his Ipar. Five minutes later, we near Mengwi. Roughly constructed wooden shacks appear first on the side of the road, tall palm trees cast zebra shadows across it, and villagers attend to their daily life casually glancing up as we round the roundabout. In the village, the main street is a hive of activity. Made pulls up in front of a small warung and is greeted by a thin-framed man who I surmise is the owner. After a short conversation filled with hilarity, Made introduces me to his cousin, Wayan. ‘So you are the frog man!’ he utters, stifling further laughter. Following salutations, Wayan points the way to Pura Taman Ayun, the second biggest temple complex on Bali.

Often referred to as the ‘Garden Temple’, Pura Taman Ayun was built in 1634 by the then Raja of Megwi, I Gusti Agung Anom. The complex was constructed in four spacious levels, and the inner temple compound is surrounded by a moat adjacent to a beautiful lotus lake. In 1937, Pura Taman Ayun was extensively renovated making it a delight to spend time there and, especially before the hordes of tourists arrive on those large buses with the even larger windows. The first courtyard is a very large, grassy area creating the atmosphere of a garden. However, it is the inner temple, the oldest section that is archaeologically interesting. The stone-split gateway is beautifully carved with reliefs of half-kala heads either side. Walking through the levels, you will notice in the last level a lengthy row of 29 shrines for visiting deities and a stone altar facing east. This altar is dedicated to the royal ancestors. Each of the shrines are of different sizes and topped with multi-tiered meru roofs. Within the courtyard are the various bales for visitors, musicians, dancers and priests. It is interesting to note that the temple’s gamelan orchestra is also stored here.

After absorbing the beauty of the temple for an hour, I leave a donation and walk back down the path towards where Made still sits with his cousin Wayan, sipping ice tea and still laughing heartily. The waterfall of perspiration streams down my face as I sit on the wooden bench next to Made. He asks if I need a drink and, I fall off the bench jokingly, mimicking my dire desire for fluids. Two ice teas later and with the waterfall in drought, Made and I hop on the bike. There are various salutations and then, we are gone. I couldn’t see the frog in Made’s open shoulder bag, and I wonder where my little treasure is. Perhaps he gave it to Wayan and I am pleased he did. If he did. Made yells above the roar of the engine that he will take me to Marga and, it’s only a minor detour.

The terraced hills are now mountainous seemingly circling us, palm trees less prominent, and the edges of the road yield a variety of deep green coloured bushes. Not far from Mengwi, Made slows down and shouts if I want to check out some crocs. The Mamam Buaya Reptile Park is located on the right, and as we pass by slowly, Made yells ‘Prefer frogs then!’. I was not in the mood for amphibious jocularity and gesture him to continue on the journey. We pass an elderly woman, frail and thin, carrying a bag-load of large twigs on her back; she looks up, smiles, and I feel like stopping and assisting her with the burden. Made’s reaction to my thought was more pressure on the throttle and the bike screams a metallic pain as it labours its way uphill. At the small village of Sembung, Made veers sharply left onto the heavily pot-holed road. The roller-coaster nightmare returns. I pull the bandana further over my nose and almost cover my eyes, and try not to breathe too deeply.

Marga is an out-of-the-way place that is definitely worth a visit for its importance in Balinese history. There is an area called Margarana north-west of Marga which is now a cemetery for the 1,372 men and women killed during the fighting in the struggle against the Dutch. There are 1,372 small memorial stones, all eerily placed in a precise formation. Their religions were Christian, Muslim and Balinist. It was in Margarana where 29 year-old Lt.Col. I Gusti Ngurah Rai, and 94 soldiers committed ‘Puputan’, a fight to the death, against an overwhelming force of Dutch troops and fighter planes. In a large compound stands the monument to the freedom fighters and there are 94 small stupa-shaped headstones in their memory. The nearby museum is an interest also as it houses artefacts from the struggle, old fotos and the like.

Made taps me on the shoulder as I lean over the small headstones attempting to read the inscriptions. He tells me that we must be on our way to his Ipar. I look around this shady, peaceful place, trying to imagine how it could have ever been so violent a place at one time in history. Up with the badana, my backside on the rear of the bike, and feeling happy to at last be heading to our over-night stop, Made cruises back onto the small road and back to the main highway north. The sun has past its mid-way point in the sky and the heat of the afternoon seems to make every part of the body feel sticky. I close my eyes for a moment, but I am soon jolted back to reality when Made takes a vicious left turn onto the main road and zooms off along the asphalt as though he had a super-bike underneath him. Deep, lush green valleys drop either side of us as I gaze into their depths. How easy it would be to simply crash through the infrequent barriers and into the arms of the jungle, I think as I once more close my eyes; and pray a little. I trust Made, but, I am not in control of the motorbike!.

The laughter of children, the high revving and the palls of smoke, and dogs barking open my eyes. We have stopped in a small compound in the village of Kuwun. I glance around to see half-dozen small stone structures with people sitting out front, tall coconut palms in fruit giving shade, and the backdrop of the jungle brings a kind of serenity to the place we have arrived at. I alight from the bike, arch my back to iron out the creases in my muscles. Made pats me on the back, ‘Tonight we will stay here’. He grins as a man and woman approach from one of the houses; the man, slender in appearance wearing only a sarong, and the woman, tiny in stature but attractive. Made introduces me to his Ipar and her husband and after warm greetings, a young girl of 15 years old brings us some cold water. Small children gather around me inquisitively, and a dog sniffs my sneakers but is soon pushed away before he can piss on me; the dog’s leg was half-cocked. I try hard to take in the surroundings, and then I watch as Made gives his Ipar the frog with the two-forked tongues. She laughs, and I suddenly realise what Made had told me about her earlier that day.

I leave the family to their reunion and walk down a well-trodden path through the jungle undergrowth behind the compound. My hand is grabbed with a jolt; the young girl who earlier brought us cold water, stops me from walking further. She speaks a mixture of Indonesian and English.: ‘Hey Meester Barrie, kamu tak lihat ular itu’.’ The word ‘ular’ was enough to cause me to break into an instant cold sweat. No, I did not see the bloody snake!. I look down and watch the emerald green, six footer slither into the undergrowth. My heart pounds; the young girl laughs. Not being in the mood for doing an Indiana Jones impression, or a Tarzan for that fact, I turn in the direction of the compound. She tells me her name is Wayan, the eldest child in Made’s sister-in-law’s family. Wayan is quite talkative and open, telling me her mother’s name is Rani, and her father’s is Wayan also. ‘So your father is Made’s brother. Right’. I ask her. She laughs again. ‘Uncle Made is a crazy rider!.’ I keep my opinions to myself. Consciously I look for more of the local wildlife but everything is green where I gaze. Reptilian paranoia possesses me. ‘What are you looking for Barrie’. Made asks as I walk crablike towards him. Wayan says something to her mother. It’s repeated from one family member to the other and I become the source of amusement for that hour. I sit on the steps of Rani’s house talking to everybody whilst Rani prepares the evening meal. The sun has not long since lost its strength in the sky; the light is fading and the surrounding vegetation becomes a for-boding place in which to encroach after dark. Wayan is sharpening his machete with a wet stone, and I count the chickens in the yard. I ask Nyoman, Wayan’s younger brother, how many chickens the family keeps. ‘We had seven this morning’ he replies saddened, as though he were the keeper of them all. I count six chickens as Rani call us inside for the meal.

Sated and feeling tired after the day’s journey, I excuse myself and roll out my sleeping bag. The night air is cool in the mountains. I rub some Chinese oil on my face and arms in the vain hope that the mountain ‘gorilla-size’ mosquitoes give me a wide berth. Monkeys bellow in the trees, frogs croon, and various hoots and hollers are my lullaby as I drift into sleep; the geckos my companions for the night.

It wasn’t so much an urgency to empty my bladder but rather the creature that stirred in the warmth of my groin. I leap out of my sleeping bag, run outside, and virtually rip off my shorts. I stand naked, flicking at whatever it is that decided pubic hair made a good nest. The small (gigantic in my eyes!) black hairy spider scurried off into the undergrowth disgruntled at being evicted. Rani approaches as I stand there in a cold sweat coming to grips with my brush with death. She looks down at me, looks up, smiles and walks away. Made yells from the house ‘Put some clothes on!’. Embarrassed, I cup my hands covering myself as I enter the house; everybody stares as I dress quickly. Sniggers and giggles abound from the children as I sit there quietly eating bubur ayam (chicken porridge) over breakfast. I ask Made if we can go directly to the sacred mountain. ‘When you’re ready’ he replies ‘But, don’t bring company’. He laughs, then tells me to ‘shake-out’ my sleeping bag.

It did not take long for me to pack my gear. After exuberant farewells, Made and I cruised onto the main highway. I comment on how delicious the previous evening’s meal was. Made chuckles ‘Yeah, snake is tasty eh’. The road north ascends gradually affording some spectacular scenery: lush green overlapping valleys, terraced padi fields levelled in rows and rich in textured green, small plantations of coffee bushes, and interspersed with coconut palms spreading their fronds to a cloudless blue sky. Made asks if I wish to go to Pura Yeh Gangga but I decline wanting only to get to the lake and the mountains. ‘Oh well’ he said, ‘We’ve just past the turn-off to Perean’. Pura Yeh Gangga is an unusual temple on Bali because it doesn’t conform to the regularities of construction. The seven-roofed meru is made entirely of stone as compared to wood like in other temples. The actual foundation of the meru is also stone. The temple dates back to 1334AD and has an interesting split gateway with unusual inscriptions. It a quaint temple and worth looking around. Even better is the walk to the nearby river where there are a few hewn-rock caves.

Around a hairy bends, Made ‘lays’ the bike into the road attempting to perform his Mick Doohan feats. The bike splutters, coughs, and Made changes to a lower gear as we suddenly find ourselves stuck behind two rather wide and fully loaded tourist buses labouring their way uphill. Up goes the bandana as I drop my head using Made’s back for added protection from the noxious fumes. Several times he tries to pass the buses, and each time, the old bike screams for mercy. Without notice, the buses slow to almost a stop. Made ‘guns’ the bike and makes a quick right turn towards Bedugul and there it is in all its beautiful splendour; a grey-blue lake with a mountainous backdrop of cloud-covered peaks, and a soft mist seemingly hovering above the surface of the water. It is a fairytale setting full of magic and mystery. Bedugul is a small village but affords magnificent scenery. Made rides further round to a market where the locals trade, and the tourists rarely go. Bukit Mungsu is the place to buy anything from fresh mountain fruits, to exotic birds and general farm birds, but it the fresh fruit that Made is after. It wasn’t until we sat by the lake’s edge being entranced by the view, munching on strawberries and watermelon, did I realise the madness in Made’s thinking. He tells me the tourist buses will have gone straight to the botanical gardens of Eka Karya – a branch of the Bogor Botanical Gardens in Java. Made assures me will visit the place, but only once the tourists have moved on.

Soft, light rain falls as I watch children throwing stones into the lake, others have primitively made cane fishing poles; they cast and pull hoping to hook a minnow or two; some have been lucky, others less fortunate. People paddle small hire-boats on the lake moving from one side to the other seemingly not knowing which way they want to go. I feel as though I have wandered into a mountain paradise; opened a door and stepped into an Ibsen novel. Noisily Made munches and slurps as he finishes the last piece of watermelon, then walks to the water’s edge and washes his hands as the tiny ripples lap on the shoreline. He turns and smiles, arches his arm in a gesture that we should leave now.

A little way further north of Bedugul we come across the turn-off to the botanical gardens; a large and erect sculpture of a sweetcorn heralds the way – I quickly look around for the counterpart version and am thankful there isn’t one!. A magnificent presentation set amongst 130,000 hectares at an elevation of 1,300 meters. It is a peaceful and serene place, well-shaded and is home to more than 300 species of orchids as well as numerous flora from around the archipelago. The park was originally founded in 1959 as a place for studying the flora of the eastern archipelago, but since then, the collection has increased immensely. The tourist buses are present in the parking area and I tap Made on the shoulder urging him to continue to (what I consider to be) the most beautiful temple on the island.

Made comes to a halt on the western shore of the lake in the middle of the sprawling Muslim village of Candikuning. We walk down to the entrance shaded by a huge Banyan tree. It is from here I see the magnificent Pura Ulu Danau, a subak temple dedicated to the goddess Dewi Danau. Ulu Danau temple is actually half-Hindu, half-Bhuddist and it juts out from the lake’s shore on a promontory. The multi-tiered thatched roof meru of each shrine are actually built on small islands. In the early 1970s Pura Ulu Danau was actually flooded as the lake’s water rose dramatically. It was eventually reclaimed and is the most important irrigation temple on Bali – Lake Bratan is the source of the irrigation waters for the southern regions of Bali. The temple is the object of pilgrims who come to the lake to pay homage to Dewi Danau.

I sit beside the Bhuddist stupa nearby in awe of all the beauty around. Made doesn’t speak; no word is shared between us; and there you feel the magic of the island of the Gods. I watch small birds flitter through the air chasing each other and feeling safe from the evils of the outside world. As I muse in absolute serenity and silently thank Dewi Danau, the rumble of tourist buses breaks the air; Made curses and I laugh; that special moment is gone; but it is forever in my mind.

Made stands and stretches, I look up at him, and together we realise it is time to return to Kuta. As we ride off, I gaze over my shoulder one last time – I take a photograph in my mind of a temple on a wide blue-grey lake covered in soft mist and protected by the cloud covered, steep-sloped mountains that are its keeper.

– Barrie Lie-Birchall 2003