Indonesia: Enchanting Isles of Bali & Flores

Indonesia: Enchanting Isles of Bali & Flores
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Discover the breathtaking beauty of the classic Indonesian Islands with its lush green hills and pristine white sands that has everyone wanting to return

Karishma Upadhyay
July 14 , 2016
11 Min Read

On an island where every view is post­card-perfect, Bali’s temples are her most iconic landmarks–the dramatic sunset and silhouettes of Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, the mist covered peaks of Mount Agung at Besakih the ‘mother temple’, the Pura Taman Ayun that translates to Garden Temple in the Water, the myste­rious ruins of Goa Gajah or the beauti­fully carved Batuan Temple complex that’s over 1,000 years old. The sunset at Uluwatu is just as spectacular as the guidebooks promise. Perched at the end of a cliff, nearly 70 metres over the crash­ing waves of the Indian Ocean, Uluwatu is overrun by tourists at all hours but more so around sunset. Even as the sun begins its daily descent, I’m ushered into an open-air arena, with the temple and the sea as the perfect backdrop to watch the hypnotic kecak dance.

Goa Gajah Temple, Ubud

About 40 men, dressed only in black-and-white checked sarongs, each with a red hibiscus planted behind their ears, sit in a circle oblivious to the steep banks of spectators that surround them. As the turquoise sky shot with intense shades of pink and copper made way for a bruised purple afterglow, their soft hum of the polyrhythmic chant: cak, cak, cak, reached a crescendo. It’s the familiar story of Sita being kidnapped by Ravana and rescued by Rama who was helped by Hanumana and Garuda. I was riveted, in part by the exquisite costumes of the main characters but mostly by the chant­ing men. Throughout the hour-long per­formance, the men sit, sway and move as one, forming a wall of sound.

The kecak, or the monkey dance as the West has come to know of it, came into its present form in the 1930s when Ger­man painter Walter Spies, one of Bali’s earliest expats, encouraged a Balinese dancer to adapt the ancient chanting to a tourist performance. I remember being mesmerised by the brief kecak scene in Tarsem Singh’s escapist fantasy The Fall about a decade ago and it was no differ­ent when I saw it live recently. The spell was broken only after good triumphed over evil and the houselights came on to facilitate selfies with Ravana and Rama.

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The Balinese are just as serious about their food. The tiny island offers a smor­gasbord that will satisfy every palate and fit every budget. There are honest-to-goodness warungs (tiny road side cafés) all over the island that serve local food like babi guling (suckling pig) or Bali’s take on satay that’s called sate lembat. Ubud is where you head if you are look­ing for organic, vegan, gluten-free or macrobiotic food served in tropical gar­dens overlooking emerald green paddy fields or lily ponds. Acai berry smoothies, pancakes and quinoa pasta are menu staples in Ubud’s organic hipster cafés. Seminyak is where you head for trendy fusion food, al fresco meals with killer views or sunset drinks at beach lounges. Seafood dinners on the beach in Jim­baran are touristy but the soft crash of waves soundtracking a candle-lit meal of fresh seafood, grilled over coconut husk, is one of the simpler pleasures of Bali.

Bali is booming with tourists. It was once a haven for rock-and-roll stars, artists and world-weary sophisticates but these days the overdeveloped road between Denpasar and Ubud is mired in gridlock. The resort enclaves of Semin­yak, Ubud and Kuta are so overcrowded that developers are reaching for the unexploited corners of North Bali. And, yet, Bali is still enchanting and it is pos­sible to find ‘authentic Bali’ beyond the painted masks and T-shirt vendors.

From Bali, I flew an hour-and-a-half to Labuan Bajo, a scruffy little fishing town. I flew over terrain that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting: all aquamarine water dotted and flecked with tiny splashes of green and tufts of white clouds. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Flores, a rugged island in the Nusa Tenggara province peppered with active volcanoes, tribal villages, incredible dive sites and the Komodo National Park. Flores is what Bali used to be two decades ago–pristine instagram-worthy vistas and authentic experiences.

The national park is spread over 25 volcanic islands of which the three big­gest are Komodo, Rinca and Padar. This Unesco World Heritage Site is home to over 5,000 legendary Komodo dragons–the largest lizard species in the world. My guide Martin utilised the two-hour boat ride from the bustling harbour in Labuan Bajo to Komodo to educate the group about different aspects of the giant reptiles. “They can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh about 90kg. They eat up to 80 per cent of their body weight in one sitting and that can last them about a month,” explained Martin.

As we sailed across waters an inde­scribable shade of deep blue that exist only far, far away from shore, it was hard not to succumb to a sort of tropical tor­por, but I was roused by the prospect of seeing dragons; except both Martin and the guide at the national park repeatedly reminded me there’s no guarantee with wild animals.

Less than 10 minutes after I started a mid-level hike (that lasts about 90 minutes) through the savannah-like landscape punctuated by towering lon­tar palms, I mentally checked off an item from my bucket list–see a real dragon. At the watering hole, shaded by tamarind trees, I spotted two Komodo dragons. Excited whispers among the visitors gave way to a hushed silence.

A Komodo dragon lording it in Flores

Even as the male dragon was oblivi­ous to his audience, the slightly smaller female dragon ambled under the boiling Indonesian sun, forked tongue darting, and her black obsidian eyes unread­able. My lasting memory of Flores is the unlikely juxtaposition of the gargantuan reptiles with orange butterflies flitting on the sun-dappled forest floor.

The two-hour trek took us to the high­est point of Komodo island, where a mas­sive male dragon dozed in the bushes after a large meal of water buffalo. Just as I was walking towards the jetty, happy to have spotted the elusive animals, a little dragon shot across my path sending the guide into a tizzy. “He is very youngprobably just three years old. Young dragons mostly stay in trees because adults kill them. This one must have been hunting for insects,” he explained, even as the dragon’s tail disappeared in the bushes.

On the other side of Komodo island is the exquisite pink beach that gets its striking hue from tiny fragments of red coral combined with dazzling silica.

I spent the rest of the day snorkelling. The seas around Flores offer one of the world’s richest marine environments. If legend is to be believed, the island was named so by 16th-century Portuguese colonists who were mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the corals in the sur­rounding waters.

It is possible to spend an entire holiday exploring Flores’ marine life but there is a lot to do on terra firma. Head inland to Milo village and watch caci, the traditional fight dance of the Mang­garai people; drink ginger coffee or eat the fresh catch of the day at any one of the restaurants around the main street. Flores is on the verge of becoming Indo­nesia’s next holiday hotspot–go before the hordes get there.

Caci whip fighting in Flores

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE
There are no direct flights to Bali from India. Flying Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines or Malaysian Airlines mean layovers. The approximate price for a roundtrip ticket from both Delhi and Mumbai is `50,000. Garuda Indonesia has direct flights between Bali and Labuan Bajo. Roundtrip flights cost about `20,000 a head.

VISA
Indians are eligible for Visa on Arrival, which is valid for a 30-day stay and can be extended for another 30 days. The visa costs $25.

CURRENCY
One Indonesian Rupiah is about .0051 Indian rupees. US dollars are the most easily accepted foreign currency.

WHERE TO STAY
Both Bali and Labuan Bajo offer multiple accommodations options across budgets. In Bali, before you decide on your budget, it’s important to decide on the location. Seminyak is Bali’s upmarket beach resort area, Kuta cooking, pampering in any one of the island’s exceptional spas, browsing in Ubud’s art galleries or hiking up to the top of Mt Batur to witness a spectacular sunrise. It’s also perfectly acceptable to just bum on any one of Bali’s picture-perfect beaches.

FLORES This island is all about experiencing nature at its tropical best. If you have a week to spend, hire a car and drive around the island, visiting Spiderweb rice fields of Ruteng. Climb the Mt Kelimutu to see its three volcanic lakes of different colours, and walk through the Batu Cermine Caves in West Manggarai.

WHAT TO BUY
Bali is a treasure trove for souvenir-hunting tourists. Shopaholics can take their pick from fine art, handicrafts, batik, silver jewellery, antique furniture, wood and stone carvings and masks. In Flores, look for locally grown Manggarai coffee. Balinese cocoa is finding it’s place in the world of chocolates; look out for commercially made slabs of Pod Chocolates or artisanal organic chocolates in cafés in and around Ubud is backpacker central; in between the two is Legian. The uber-luxe W Retreat & Spa (wretreatbali.com) offers villas with private pools and suites with spectacular views starting at `27,000. Families on a budget can try Harris Hotel & Residences in Kuta (`2,600; sunsetroad-bali.harrishotels.com) and Mercure Bali Legian (`6,000; mercure.com) is perfect for those who want to straddle the two worlds. Couples can head to Hanging Gardens in Ubud (`33,000; hanginggardensubud.com) one of the most romantic resorts on the island. Situated on a private strip of Pede Beach, Luwansa Beach Hotel (`5,000; luwansahotels. com) in Labuan Bajo is a great mid-budget option. Indulge your Robinson Crusoe fantasies at the Kanawa Island Resort (`4,500; kanawaislandresort.com) off the coast of Labuan Bajo.

WHAT TO SEE & DO
BALI From majestic temples to scenic vistas and adrenaline-pumping activites, Bali has something for everyone. Visitors are spoilt for choice between learning Balinese


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