Observing Open-Air Public Cremations
Hindus believe that cremation is the only way a soul can be freed of its earthly body and travel to its next incarnation (or to enlightenment), so cremations are joyous occasions, full of floats and fanfare that can resemble a Mardi Gras parade. Complicated towers hold the body, carried aloft by cheering men. At the burning ground, the body is placed in a receptacle resembling a winged lion, a bull, or some other fabulous creature, and is set on fire. It's beautiful and awesome, a marvelous show of pageantry and faith, and yet a natural part of everyday life. Western visitors are welcomed.
Wandering through Ubud
This is the cultural heart of Bali, bursting with art and greenery and some of the best food on the island. Even though it's dependent on tourism and is far from a typical Balinese village, you still get a sense of a real town, with real life going on around you. Ubud is the richest region in Bali for art production and, because of its central location, the town is the perfect base for exploring the rest of the island.
Hiking Gunung Agung
Bali's highest mountain/volcano, Gunung Agung (3,014m/9,886 ft.), is sacred to the Balinese, whose traditions call it "the center of the world." Climbing the steaming peak is a serious trek that calls for a guide and proper supplies. Most hotels can arrange for it, but you will have to start out in the middle of the night or very early in the morning to make the top by sunrise. Nearby Gunung Batur is a less strenuous and no less rewarding half-day climb.
Admiring a Hidden Temple
Uluwatu, a dramatic cliffside temple overlooks the crashing waves of Bali's southern beaches. Watch the Balinese pray and perform dances. The frolicking monkeys provide comedic relief from all the romance at sunset.
Eating at a Warung
Like a local cafe, the Balinese equivalent of the greasy-spoon diner in America, warungs can be found on every street corner. If you're not put off by a bit of grime, you'll discover the food can be authentic, delicious, and cheap.
Watching a Traditional Dance
If you have a chance, don't miss a performance of traditional dance. Legong and Barong dances are intricate ballets depicting scenes from the epic Ramayana. Kecak dance is a circle of up to 100 men chanting rhythmically and telling the saga of a monkey king and his warriors. It's a colorful, fun experience. Many hotels hold shows; the Royal Palace in Ubud is a good choice. If you're lucky, you'll find a real, nontourist performance in an outlying village.
Perusing for Fabric & Woodcarvings
Even with the "rich man's tax" for tourists in Bali, just about anything you buy on the island is a bargain compared with the same stuff back home. Commissioned fabric and woodcarvings are a particularly good deal.
Visiting Basakih Temple
Built in homage of Gunung Agung, the island's feisty, smoke-belching creator, the Basakih Temple does justice to the awe and grandeur of the Balinese creation myths surrounding the volcano. The spires of individual family shrines and temples are something like Chinese pagodas, and the place is always abuzz with local worshippers. You're likely to get pulled into a ceremony here.
Surfing in Kuta
Surfers from all over are drawn to Kuta's stupendous breakers, which are at their best between March and July. Surf shops line the main drags and can help with rentals or tide information. Beginners start off at Kuta or Legian (with soft-sand beaches), but the legendary surf is at the low reef breaks and "barrels" of Kuta Reef at the southern end.
Strolling through Tanjung Benoa
Just north of Nusa Dua along the coast is the fishing village of Benoa. The labyrinth of streets in this town makes for a good stroll, certainly more interesting than sterile Nusa Dua. The coast here is lined with upscale hotels and resorts. This is a popular spot for jet-ski and motorboat rentals, as well as parasailing, so the beach is always busy.
Seeing Puri Saren Agung (Royal Palace) in Ubud
From the late 19th century to the mid-1940s, this was the seat for the local ruler. It's a series of elegant and well-preserved pavilions, many of them decorated incongruously with colonial-era European furniture. Visitors are welcome to stroll around, though there are no signs indicating what you are looking at. Evening dance performances are held in the courtyard, by far the best and most dramatic setting for these in Ubud.
Going on an Elephant Safari
The Elephant Safari Park, run by Bali Adventure Tours, is less safari and more elephant ride, and it's a real hoot. These native Sumatra elephants are well cared for and live in large, lush enclosures. The owners have worked carefully with locals from Taro Village, previously one of Bali's most remote and untouched villages, to make sure they leave little more than elephant tracks. A safari starts with Pachyderm 101, as knowledgeable guides tell about the animals' care and feeding, local ecology, threats to the native population, and preservation efforts. Then, along with a mahout (guide), you'll have a galumphing trip through the jungle.
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