The wonders of a journey consist far more of such intangible experiences and unexpected situations than of factual things and events of material reality.
- Lama Anagarika Govinda – The Way of the White Clouds
Finding a good local guide to take you around is not an easy task and during the planning process for my trip to Bali, I must’ve dug around a whole bunch of forums including Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet Thorntree. I eventually landed on this fellow by the name of Putu Arnawa. We chose him because he had a good recommendation and quite a few people listed his website when talking about guides. So in the end, we gave him an e-mail and put our faith in this Balinese local halfway around the world.
Putu ended up being a true diamond in the rough for our entire trip to Bali. Without boring you with the details about how we got everything set up, all you need to know is that he was able to customize everything to our needs for the two days we booked him for. His prices were also reasonable. What we didn’t realize was that he’d go even further than that and throw in a few extra unexpected adventures in there too.
Bali Day 1
Day 1 with Putu went pretty much as planned. We started off our cultural experience with the mandatory Barong dance, a story of good and evil, a lot of kling-klanging and girls dancing being able to contort their wrists in unwieldy ways and give you the death stare that would send a shiver up your spine. From there we stopped by the famed Sangeh Secret Monkey Forest Sanctuary where a monkey almost bit me. Lesson: never get between a monkey and its food! After lunch we had some time to roam around Ubud and the local markets.
It was only until after Ubud were we in for a surprise. We were driving along and we must’ve been heading up north to see Ganung Batur (Mount Batur). Putu mentioned to us earlier that there are over 20,000 temples in Bali with every village having at least 3 of its own. Temples were a dime a dozen at this point but we passed by this larger one that had huge waving bright colored flags and locals walking in with what looked like gift baskets on their heads. Putu explained that every 6 months temples will have a celebration that last 5 to 6 days. He asked us if we wanted to check it out and both Chantelle and I both said a collective “YES!”
So we got out of the van and in the back Putu already had a few sarongs ready to go. He helped us put the sarongs on and we were off. As soon as we stepped inside the split gate that define Balinese Hindu temples, it felt like we were transported once again to a far-off land. We were clearly the only tourists there but Putu helped guide us through the maze of special food offerings that lined the roof of one building, locals praying good tidings the next couple of months, a Balinese band playing their normal assortment of bells, gongs and xylophones. We made our way around, immersing ourselves with something real that was happening that actually meant something to the locals. Too often you go to a “cultural center” to observe local culture but the entire thing is a stage act. On our way out, we bumped into a bunch of children in traditional clothes to get ready for their performance. We would have liked to have stayed but there were still a few other things to check out and so we reluctantly had to say goodbye.
To end of Day 1 with Putu, there was a long drive up a pass to see some breathtaking views of one of the largest active volcanoes on Bali called Ganung Batur. From there we finished off the day exploring Ganung Kawi, a 11th century temple complex, which provided us the first glimpse of the beauty of to-be-harvested rice paddies and a flavor for a little archeology with its rock-cut shrines and ancient nooks for meditation.
Day 1 conclusion: Bali is Awesome.
Our second day with Putu was just as great as it was mostly the plan we had talked about with a little bit of surprise sprinkled in there.
We started out the morning heading up to the Taman Ayun Temple which was probably the largest complex we saw the entire trip. From there we made our way up to the Jatiluwih to check out the famed rice fields of Bali.
Well that was what we thought we were going to do until we passed through a small village with cars parked to the left and right of the main road. There was also a make-shift parking lot on a grass field with even more cars and scooters. Putu told us there was a cock fight happening and again asked us if we wanted to check it out. We both gave him another resounding “HELL YES!” and off we were. We had to pay a minimal amount of Rupiah to get in and once inside it was totally like a mini-carnival they had going on there. Outside of the open-air amphitheater like arena for the cock-fight, there were tons of booths cooking full blast with anything from unknown stir-fry, corn on the cob, fresh fruit, breads and so much more. It was quite the stimulation of the senses.
Now inside the arena was where the real action was happening. There was a sense of buzz and excitement that was clear once you got closer. As we made our way up closer to the top of the arena, the crowds were amassed looking downwards. I swear the entire village must’ve taken the day off or at least all the men. The moment we got there everyone turned around to give us a puzzled look but soon after we were just as part of the crowd as everyone else. The officials/referees at the bottom seemed to be yelling something and pointing at people. Apparently this was the “inside betting” where you could bet on either side for a certain amount you tell them. To make things even more complex, at the top where we were, the locals were looking amongst themselves and slapping their bills on their hands and pointing at other owners. Once the two rooster owners were starting to prepare for the fight everyone was yelling something like “Sotu! Sotu! Sotu!” Putu later explained to us that this was the “outside betting” where someone can make eye contact with someone else and put money down on something like South or North (starting position of the rooster) with “Sotu” being South. It was totally crazy at this point. Once the roosters were ready to go the two owners let them go and then the whole arena went hush quiet. The roosters were strapped with these small knives around one of their feet. They flapped, jumped, crowed and stomped on each other for the kill. From the top I could barely see anything as it happened all so fast. Eventually one died and the other was declared the winner. We stayed for 3 more with equal amounts of confusion, randomness and killing. We were still in disbelief that we saw the cock fight as we walked back to the van.
This detour put us a bit behind schedule but we were still able to get up to Jatiluwih on time for lunch and a walk around some of the rice paddies. On our way back down towards Tanah Lot for sunset, Putu lead us to another impromptu side of the road stop over when he spotted two ladies harvesting rice. We both got out of the car and we were literally able to walk right up to these farmers, watch them use the traditional method of cutting the tall grass of rice with their knife while Putu chatted with them in their native language. This was another real-life authentic experience that we really couldn’t have planned on our own.
To wrap up our two day whirlwind of the best of Bali, we watched the sunset over Tanah Lot which in itself was spectacular in its own right. Thanks to my trusty tripod I was able to capture some amazing shots after the sun dipped below.
Day 2 conclusion: It’s already over?
So really we couldn’t have asked for anything more from Putu and our two days exploring the island of Bali. Most people will tell you that Bali is over touristy, pretentious or overloaded with resorts but if you spend the time to see other parts of the island, find an awesome driver and mingle with the locals, you’ll find that Bali is just full of hidden gems.
Traditional Barong Dance
Quick stop overs at a stone mason and silver shop
Sangeh Secret Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Lunch @ Babi Guling Ibu Oka
Ubud Palace Temple
Drop by a village temple celebration
Long ride up to get a view of Ganung Batur
Ganung Kawi temple
Taman Ayun Temple
William Tang is the co-founder and CEO of a travel startup, Find My Itin where TripAdvisor meets trip itineraries. He is also the writer behind Going Awesome Placeswhere he writes about his personal experiences travelling the world while dishing out some very useful tips & tricks and gear reviews.