First, some background info:

Indonesia, of which Bali is a part, is the world's fifth most populous country with a population of 160 million, most of whom are concentrated in just 7% of the total area: the island of Java. The total area of the 13700 islands that make up Indonesia is about 1 500 000 sq km (3 times bigger than France). Much of the area is made up of untouched jungle, such as Sumatra.

The first inhabitants came from India, Burma, China and Indochina (Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia).By the 7th century, a powerful Buddhist empire ruled Sumatra and Java was a Hindu kingdom. By the 15th century Islam had spread into the archipelago and the Hindus retreated to Bali, a small island just east of Java. The Portuguese took Melaka (Malacca), the center of the Muslim empire, in 1511. The Dutch displaced the Portuguese from Melaka in 1641 and soon dominated most of Indonesia. The British tried to oust the Dutch in 1619... and failed. The British took over from 1811 to 1816 in response to the French occupation of Holland. The English gave Indonesia back to the Dutch in return for the Dutch getting out of India and the Malay peninsula. It wasn't until the early 20th century that the Dutch got the whole Archipelago firmly under control. The Japanese occupied the archipelago during WW II and, after their defeat, the Dutch returned and tried to take control once again. Indonesia unilaterally announced its independence in 1945 but it took another 4 years of bloody fighting until the Dutch were forced to recognize Indonesia' independence.

The government is nominally democratic but really more of a dictatorship.

Draped over the equator, Indonesia is hot and wet during the wet season (October to April) and hot and dry during the dry season.

Indonesia is nominally a Muslim nation but in fact there is a large diversity of religions and a commendable degree of religious tolerance.

Bali (February 1995)

The Indonesian island of Bali is mainly Hindu and therefore not typical of Indonesia, which is mostly Muslim. Bali's Hindu culture is very rich and I've never seen so many smiling faces.

The funeral dance shown here is surely unique to Hindus: the coffin at the top of this tower (containing an old lady killed by a snake bite) is being led on a crazy dance so that her soul will be disoriented and will not be able to find its way back to haunt the living. Instead, it will be liberated by the open-air cremation and reborn, so a Hindu funeral is a joyous occasion. The cremation took place a few minutes later, in a clearing in the rice paddies.

This mother and daughter were spectators at the above cremation. There are some very photogenic people in Bali!

The newsletter I wrote at the time:

Bali is the only remaining Hindu enclave in Indonesia, but the Balinese have been very successful at maintaining a rich Hindu culture. The island of Bali is roughly kite shaped, about 5000 sq km, or 5 times bigger than Hong Kong, or 50 times bigger than Hong Kong island. Most of the population of 3 million live in the fertile south as tall volcanoes, some of them active, lie in the north. Denpasar, the capital of Bali, is in the south, and the tourist ghettos of Kuta, Sanur (where we stayed) and Nusa Dua lie south of Denpasar. End of history/geography lesson!!

March is still the rainy season and we had quite a lot of rain, but we were lucky: most of it fell at night. We spent half our time at or near the hotel but managed to make 3 excursions while we were there. The worst thing about Bali is the bad driving: always overtaking, sometimes very dangerously. There are two or three motorbikes for every car, sometimes transporting a whole family of four. Roundabouts typically have as much traffic going clockwise as counterclockwise! You won't be surprised to learn that we did not rent a self-drive car. Fortunately, Bali is not expensive - we were able to rent a car with driver and guide for about US$60 (40 pounds) a day. (Hotel rooms start around US$12 (8 pounds) per night, although most people pay more in order to get air conditioning).

Our first trip, we later realized, was very much a tourist trap, with our guide stopping at several arts and crafts shops on the way up to Lake Batur, in the crater of a slightly active volcano. We didn't buy anything and the guide wasn't pleased (the shops give the guides a commission, of course). That's the other bad thing about Bali - you can't visit any tourist spot without being jumped on by hordes of pleading vendors, mostly selling ebony sculptures or batik sarongs. Near the hotel also, it was impossible to walk 20 meters on the beach or in the street without someone trying to sell you something or drag you onto their souvenir shop - "Have a lookie, have a lookie" ringing in our ears.

After a few days we had enough courage to venture away from the tourist areas and discovered charming people and beautiful scenery - rice terraces everywhere. (It takes courage because you are afraid that that some of the 'must-see' tourist attractions really are exactly that.) On that first trip, we stopped to see a dance portraying the fight between good (in the form of Barung) and evil (Rangda). The tension between good and evil is very important to the Balinese - many of their statues wear an apron with a black and white checked pattern representing good and evil. Of course, being a Hindu island, most of the statues represent the three main gods: Brahma (birth/fire), Vishnu (preservation/water) and Shiva (death/wind). There are also plenty of impressive sculptures representing Garuda, a magic eagle.

After stopping to see we were lucky enough to stumble across a cremation procession (Balinese try to keep the cremations secret from tourists so that they are not swamped). I don't know whether its typically Hindu, but the Balinese regard cremation as the mechanism by which the soul is liberated - without cremation the soul cannot be reborn. Therefore cremation is a celebration, a happy occasion. The coffin is placed at the top of a high tower which is carried on a rapid, chaotic dance by dozens of men in order to disorientate the soul of the dead person so that it cannot return home. I spoke to a happy, charming woman who explained tat the body being cremated a few feet away was that of her grandmother, killed by a snake bite two weeks previously. There are 6500 villages on Bali and each one has three temples for the main gods, so there are temples everywhere.

Our second excursion was to the important temples at Mengwi and Tanah Lot, stopping on the way to feed some (not so) wild monkeys (macaques) in the forest. Tanah Lot is on a rocky outcrop which is cut off from the land at high tide - some Balinese go there to pray, many others go there to prey (on the tourists). We didn't visit the island's 'mother temple' at Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung- too touristic even for us. In 1963 the Eka Dasa Rudra, the most sacred of all island religious rituals, was being prepared at Besakih. As preparations neared completion, the mountain began spitting smoke and ash. This was interpreted by the priests as a blessing from the gods and the preparations continued. Thousands were killed in the molten lava and flames of the eruptions that occurred in the following few days. later the priests decided that they had calculated the wrong date for the Eka Dasa Rudra - that's very possible given that the Balinese have a 3 day week, a five day week and a seven day week all running simultaneously, and that their year has only 210 days.

Our third and final excursion was to the North coast, passing Lake Bratan on the way. The most memorable moment was the drive back along a beautiful country road where tourists almost never go - everyone was looking at us and our car as if they had never seen a car before. We stopped in one place so that I could take a picture and I was greeted with calls of "I love you" from the children nearby - perhaps the only English they know. The Balinese always seem very interested in everything - wanting to know all about you, and always with relentless eye-contact. Our guide for the first two excursions was a Hindu with quite good French but for our third trip we were accompanied by a Christian from Timor in east Indonesia - a bright guy with a great sense of humour, mainly directed against the Muslims of neighbouring Lombok island: "A bunch of thieves and proud of it", according to our guide. The Balinese have a great ear for languages - it makes it quite easy for them to learn French so lots of them do, even though there are few French tourists. For making money, they would be better off learning Japanese or German since most of the tourists are from Japan or Germany. But that same ear for languages stops Balinese from learning those languages - they find them too harsh.

There are swastikas everywhere in Bali - an important Hindu symbol.

One 'must-see' excursion which we did not do is the visit to the nearby island of Komodo to see the 4 meter long lizards known as Komodo Dragons. If you want to see them, you have to take your own goat along, and if you don't have guide with you, you have to slit its throat yourself so that the park wardens can hang it up as bait for the dragons. We decided to give that one a miss!


Also part of Indonesia is the southern part of the island of Borneo which I visited several times as a leader of school trips from the Hong Kong International School. The northern part of Borneo belongs to Malaysia and I talk more about these trips on the Malaysia page.