David Whitley and his travelling compadre get a dose of culture and wildlife in Bali...


There are some people who aren’t designed for travelling, and Nick is almost certainly one of them. He’s the sort that inevitably gets a nosebleed the moment he leaves the confines of his home town, and became a legend for shouting: “SANDWICH! CHICKEN!” in a noble bid to cross the language barrier with those funny foreigners in a Dublin café.


But, cut out for it or not, he is determined to see a wild monkey. And that’s how we’ve ended up in Ubud. It becomes immediately clear why Australians have such affection for Bali, as the locals adhere strictly to the no-messing-about naming culture popularised by the Great Barrier Reef and the Big Banana. It’s a road, and it leads to a forest full of monkeys, so let’s call it Monkey Forest Road. Perfect.


Nick is, to put it mildly, rather excited about the Monkey Forest. It may be full of gorgeous Hindu temples and tranquil woodland, but he’s here “to catch me a monkey”. It’s a big moment for him, and quite frankly, the trip would never have happened in the first place if the prospect of primate encounters wasn’t dangled in front of him like a juicy carrot. Sigh. It doesn’t take long. Two minutes in and Nick, who I should probably point out is a university educated 28-year-old rather than a child with an unfortunately low IQ, is leaping with excitement. “Brilliant… a monkey!” he yelps as he hares off into the foliage to corner his prey.


Wisely, it scuttles up a tree, but the next one just outside the temple isn’t so lucky. Despite signs warning that the monkeys are wild, and shouldn’t be touched, Nick isn’t having any of it. “It’s only small. What could it do?” he reasons. “Besides, they’re used to humans, and are probably really friend… AARGH!” He recoils backwards, and looks warily at the snarling, teeth-flashing monster on the ground.


“It bit me! The little bastard bit me!”


The whining sound of shattered illusion accompanies the rest of the walk through the forest, and now that the monkeys are out of the way, it’s time for a bit of sophistication. Ubud is the self-styled cultural capital of Bali (although compared to Kuta, Star City Casino probably could be classed as a high arts hotspot), and this means lots of Balinese dancing.


It is one of those artforms that everybody pretends to like, just because they don’t want to look like a Philistine by saying otherwise. Well, let’s be honest about it shall we? They may be telling fabulous stories through symbolism, but the whole thing is effectively two schoolgirls in elaborate costumes making lots of little jerky movements. And then there’s the music. I’m sorry, but Balinese Gamelan music is possibly the worst genre in the world; the sound of lots of saucepans falling out of a kitchen cupboard. Nick, it’s fair to say, is even less impressed. “What a day. First I get attacked by a monkey, and now I have to suffer this. Lord, what have I done in a previous life?”


Bali Aga


The old Suzuki was rattling badly as I battered at the last of the potholes on the descent down to Bali’s spectacular Batur Volcano. I’ve been coming to Bali for years and have rented this same vehicle on every visit. Over the course of the last decade it has threatened to explode or simply crumble under me on pretty much every volcano, beach road and jungle track on the island. I’m always surprised whenever I get back to Kuta and my friend Mr Putu tells me that the old Suzuki is still “kuat dan sehat” (strong and healthy).

I was beginning to wonder if the road around Batur might finally be the last straw for the faithful old warhorse. But finally we made it and she was able to gasp to a halt on the waterfront at the village of Trunyan. According to some, Trunyan is one of the original ‘cradles of mankind’ on The Island of the Gods. This is one of only five remaining Bali Aga villages on the island. The Bali Aga are often said to be the original Balinese, although in reality they too were part of an early migration that forced the first Balinese farther east to islands like Sumba and Flores where, even today the people have the shocks of fizzy hair that are rarely seen even in the remotest Balinese villages these days.

I was working on an assignment on the Bali Aga people and had already brutalized the old Suzuki all the way to the three remote villages in the hills of the north coast. Then I had driven right around the east of the island to the famous walled ‘fortress village’ of Tenganan and finally back up the southern flanks of the volcanoes to the village of Trunyan.

Most Balinese Hindus cremate their dead. But the people on the shores of Lake Batur are unique in Bali. They are known as ‘Hindus of the Wind’ and they simply lay their dead out in the open air to decompose slowly in the, often surprisingly chilled, highland climate.

A young boatman called Nyoman agreed to row me along the edge of the lake to the sacred cove (inaccessible by land) that has been the resting place of the Bali Aga dead for longer than anyone can remember.

“We have to leave before dark,” he warned me. “Even the official guardians cannot stay in the cemetery at night. There are too many ghosts. It is the ghosts that guard the cemetery at night.”

An eerie wind whipped the lake up as we rowed out from the village and Nyoman had to struggle to keep us away from the rocky shore. The short flight of moss-covered steps that lead into the cemetery are like a backdrop from Apocalypse Now. A pair of skulls guard the pillars of the gateway, staring ahead with sightless eyes. Clove cigarettes lay on the plate in front of their mouths. At the top of the steps about a hundred more skulls were laid out across the top of a flat stone and eleven recent dead were laid on the ground to decompose in the shade of a huge tree. The bodies were shrouded with mats and protected by loose bamboo fences but their faces were open to the sacred wind. Nearby lay a rubbish heap of old rags and the ubiquitous plastic bottles and broken flip-flops. Here and there human bones stuck out of the heap. This was the communal dumping ground for the dead of the last generations. Only the most perfectly preserved skulls are saved from this human garbage heap.

I had wondered about the smell but this is one of the great mysteries of the cemetery at Trunyan and researchers have yet to explain it. “It is the tree that keeps the air fresh,” Nyoman told me, “sometimes we might have to keep a body in the village for up to a week while our priests wait for a good day for burial. The smell in the village can be awful…but as soon as the body arrives here it stops smelling. The wind here is always sweet and pure.”