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The day we left we were very reluctant to leave Ubud but it was an interesting hour or two’s drive up to our next location in the Kitamani region.
We knew we were in the right place when we suddenly reached a huge viewing platform that over looked a glistening lake with a volcano in the background. Was a bit of a good view! We headed down the hill for what seemed like an eternity, stopping briefly to receive a blessing and to have rice sprinkled in our hair, until we eventually reached the village of Toya Bunkhar which lay on the edge of Lake Batur underneath with (active!) volcano behind it.
Despite being a small settlement the accommodation prices are quite steep here as there isn’t much about and although we were paying a fair bit more than we’d paid in Ubud, our accommodation was ‘interesting’. I kind of knew it would be because of reviews I’d read online but it was only for a couple of nights and was cheapest alternative. The bed was massive which was a great but the room had a bit of a grubby feel and believe me, I’ve grown not to be fussy. The bathroom was especially interesting. The light flickered when you ran the tap and the bath was surrounded by some kind of concrete… umm… sculpture???
The outside door of the room had a massive gap at the bottom so we had to load our bags up against it at night to stop the mozzies getting in. There was a TV – fancy eh? – but you had to switch the main light on for the TV to work so it took us half a day to realise that. But as we have found on our travels, when you turn up somewhere at first you can quite often feel a bit freaked out but usually within 24 hours you are acclimatised, get on with it and ignore any oddities/potential death hazards!!!!
Fish soup and faeces
Our first meal there, we had gone for a little wander to find the village very empty (they really get few people there at low season) but found a little cafe and I opted for the lake fish with soup which was quite frankly, utterly amazeballs. I’ve never really liked the idea of river fish. Probably because at home the rivers are so murky and grim. In fact, it’s only been quite recently that I’ve been more adventurous with fish – used to be a little bit squeamish and bones and the like. Well, I’m glad I’m glad I took the gamble as it was really one of the nicest things I’ve had since travelling – and I’ve been to Melbourne for goodness sake!! The fish was just lightly fried and placed on a bowl of a very light broth with bits of garlic, onion and tomatoe floating in it.
The food we had in the evening at our accommodation was actually really nice too despite the slightly hap hazard surroundings. Mark had a bit of an adventurous turn himself and tried the special coffee from an area we’d passed on our journey up. You may have seen the Vietnamese coffee that became popular as an unusual christmas present a few years ago which was coffee made from berries (I don’t know how this is different from beans) which had been eaten and then – passed?? – for want of a better word by weasles. Well this is pretty much the same thing having been passed by the Asian Palm Civit. It’s called Kopi Luwak. Mark said it tasted good. I just giggled maturely and kept telling him he’d eaten poo. It’s supposed to be the most expensive coffee in the world.
The next day we were to go out on a visit organised with the hotel across the road. This was a much posher hotel and had a lakeside cafe, which was an amazing spot to sit and watch the fishermen and the clouds moving slowly across the mountains.
The hotel had a couple of pools hooked up the natural spa that was available from the thermals of the village. And for some strange reason they had a cute little beetle parked out front.
One of the main reasons we were in the village was because there was a place I’d read about that I had really wanted to go. I’d recently read an amazing book called Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre by Sarah Murray. This books talks about the way death is dealt with in different areas of the world, the similarities and the differences. It actually featured Bali quite heavily, as their cremation ceremonies and rituals are notoriously big and joyous occasions. The place we were going to, however, dealt with their dead differently to the rest of Bali. This remote village on the opposite edge of Lake Batur, accessible usually only by water, had a small cemetery where they left their dead out in the open. This had become a bit of a tourist attraction but fair play to the villagers, they charged a lot and so at least someone had to really want to see it to make the arrangements to get there by boat and make the various donations necessary for the villagers to grant you access. My fascination meant I was willing to pay that price and off we went in our boat across the beautiful lake which in itself was a fantastic experience.
We first stopped at the village and visited the temple. When you visit the temples, you often have to cover up with sarongs that they supply. With Marks newly shaved head I thought he looked suitably monkish in his.
The village was clearly the poorest we had seen yet but they had an amazing resource on their doorstep – you could never go hungry with such an amazing lake, which unlike the sea was never going to be ravaged by over fishing. The village covered quite a small area – the temple taking up probably a quarter of it. The backdrop to the village was steep forest, hence it’s remoteness. And from the temple you looked over at the active volcano on the other side of the lake.
We then took the boat over to the cemetery. There were 7 or 8 bodies there. They are laid out and covered by a kind of bamboo cage to keep out animals etc. There is tons of stuff everywhere, which turns out to be their belongings which are buried with them. All kinds of things – crockery, clothes, lots of flip flops, a bright orange plastic toothbrush on one. They stay like this for about a year, then their skull and leg bones are lined up in an area to the right of the graves. The other bones and all their stuff is then discarded to the side of the cemetery. This being a very small area, it is just to the side of the bodies and was fascinating in itself. When we eventually realised what it was, you could see that in a box of plates was a thigh bone, or next to that pile of clothes was a pelvis. The hip bones of course stood out with that perfect rounded joint. There was a bra there which looked like it belonged to a young person. This was their history and this was their bodies. The bodies themselves were fresher than I had expected. The latest, being only a few weeks old. We were basically looking at recently dead bodies but it didn’t feel creepy or gross, it felt calm and i said a quiet little hello to each of them (quiet as in, in my head so I didn’t look completely batty). The reason that this tradition had come about and the reason that we weren’t actually gagging around such recently deceased is what makes this site special. The bodies do not decompose in the normal way and they do not smell at all. There has been no absolute conclusion as to why this is. There have been various theories about the water and such things, but the one most agreed upon is that is down to the huge tree that the site sits beneath. I’m not sure how. Something scientific. The villages believe that it is a spiritual thing and even if it is the tree, the fact that something natural has an impact on this is spiritual in itself. Anyway, before I go off and shake my crystals and chakras and get all new age on you, I must add that the pictures below contain the bones but not the corpses so you don’t have to look away unless you’re squeamish of death in general (dont’ be – it’s the only certainty we all have).
The one thing that I do think they may have to consider in this modern world is the inclusion of the flip flops and modern plastic material that is put in with the bodies. This stuff, particularly the flip flops, is never going to decompose and indeed it was the most prevalent thing, besides the old money that covered the floor. Quite practically, gone are the days of using woven flip flops. They don’t last as long and the Balinese love colour and looking good (seriously, they are a well dressed people – even the poorest), so plastic of course is going to be top choice.
As I say, I didn’t feel grossed out or anything, I was concerned about how intrusive it was but then people walk round graveyards all the time. The whole point of this is about death being out in the open, not hidden behind closed doors.
The visit also lead to us meeting an interesting pair – Mark got talking to a russian girl who’d just arrived from Ubud about our trip. She had not come to the area to go to Trunyan but oddly she had seen a documentary about it before and it had fascinated her – we got talking about it and she told us about a place in Tibet where their was a tribe who were shunned by the rest of society and their role in life was to do a special kind of body disposal for those important and rich members of society (for this was the most expensive way you could be dealt with after death). They basically took the bodies and scraped the meat from the bones for them to be fed to the mountain vultures. But if they had a couple of bodies at once they would first feed them the men because the womens flesh is sweeter so they would ignore the men if a woman’s flesh was on offer. Nice eh? Well that certainly puts Trunyan into perspective as quite low shock value doesn’t it??
Well, Yelena, was russian originally but from USA – she had lived all over but most recently had been mostly based in Chaing Mai as was her friend Poncho, from Mexico who had lived in the UK for a fair while – they are both yoga teachers. I had planned for us to go to Chaing Mai so it was great to chat with them and ask them lots of annoying questions. We were amazed when they said how expensive Bali was compared to Thailand. Mark had been a bit sceptical but I think talking to them he realised that Chaing Mai would indeed be a good place for us to base ourselves for a little while. They were both really interesting people and funny and a little crazy. We had a good laugh in that short time and we definitely hope to cross paths again sometime.
We stayed in Toya Bungkhar just 2 nights. It was lucky I had booked just those 2 nights – you couldn’t last much longer as there wasn’t much to do. Lots of people trekked up the volcano for sunrise. We had decided not to do it as it seemed quite expensive, especially as we had spent so much on the Trunyan visit (although much of that had come out of my personal ‘treats’ budget as it was my want!). I was happy to find that Yelena and Poncho also thought the charges were very high. You can’t do it independently apparently – there are guards up there who will send you back or try to charge you. Anyway, we didn’t do that which was probably a good thing as the day we were considering it was apparently quite cloudy anyhow. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunities yet to climb stuff.
Our next stop was Tulamben – a beach resort on the north east coast of Bali. We were to be stopping there for 5 nights so Mark could dive and I could plan our next destination, Malaysia. The journey there was a bit hair raising. Not that our driver was a bad driver – just normal for Bali standards. They just tend to go for the overtake, even on corners. It was more that we were up on winding roads up in the steep mountain. At one point we had a sheer drop on either side. A rickety old wooden bridge was another highlight. To be honest, we’d already had some hair raising experiences in Queensland and so I’ve just learned to accept that death may come and maybe I’d like to be buried in my flip-flops. The best part of the journey was not the scenery, although it was at times a marvel, but it was in fact the music. For the first hour we had the St Elmo’s Fire soundtrack. How this young guy who probably wasn’t even born when the film came out came to be listening to it, I’m not sure – I wasn’t even that old! Classic tunage!! Even Mark who hasn’t seen the film liked it as it was all 80s. For the next hour we were blessed with some old soul classics. Made the time pass a little quicker and took our minds of any potential collisions.