Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Saturday, 25 July 2009 11:26 UK

Gods, monkeys and beguiling Bali

Visitors to Bali cannot fail to be delighted by its warm, clear sea and white beaches, writes Hamilton Wende - but the island's special charms also include its cheeky wildlife.

Monkeys at a temple
Hindus believe monkeys are descendents of the God Hanoman

It was in Bali that I punched my first monkey. A cute, furry beast it was, grey and white with a long tail and an old man's face hidden in a fluffy mane.

It leapt out of a tree on to my wife's shoulder and grabbed at her shiny earring.

She screamed. I was a few steps behind, so I rushed forward and punched ineffectually at the hairy pest.

I am only 5ft 7in (1.70m) tall but the monkey was only about a foot high.

The size differential counted in my favour and the monkey tumbled over a nearby temple wall overlooking a steep slope leading down to the sea.

The monkey's fate remains unknown, but I would put money on his survival and recidivist criminal tendencies.

Unforgettable

The monkeys in the temple gardens of Pura Luhur Uluwatu are famous for their annoying and often aggressive behaviour towards the tourists who flock there.

But they are an integral part of the island's Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and are, ultimately, part of the temple's charm.

The temple itself is famously one of Bali's holiest sites. It is a beautiful place, standing on a series of rocky cliffs nearly 328ft (100m) above the white surf of the Indian Ocean.

A kecak dance
The kecak dance is accompanied only by men chanting

Uluwatu is a guardian temple, dedicated to the spirits of the sea and keeping the island safe from any demons that might inhabit the south-west.

Going to Uluwatu in the late afternoon is an unforgettable experience. The sunset is exquisite and as dusk gathers you can watch a Kecak dance.

The men sit cross-legged in concentric circles, naked from the waist up around an ornate oil lamp carved with dragons.

They begin a rhythmic chant of "Chak, chak, chak," which induces a trance-like state, while their arms move in unison like flames, or the wind blowing.

Two young women wearing dresses of silk and gold weave their way through the chanting men as they perform a complex dance telling the story of Prince Rama and Princess Sita.

Exquisite food

Princess Sita is kidnapped by an evil king and Rama engages Hanoman, the magic white monkey god, to rescue her.

The final scene, well after the sun has finally set, where Hanoman breaks out of a ring of fire and destroys the evildoers is pure dance magic.

Gods and monkeys aside, there is plenty to beguile and fascinate any visitor to Bali.

The seas are warm, the beaches white, or charcoal black. The gardens and fields are a riot of emerald and scarlet and bright yellow.

One of the most beautiful sights in Asia, I think, are the green and silver contours of the Jati Luwih rice terraces. Rice, the Balinese people believe, is a gift of the gods.

The Jati Luwih rice terraces
Many of the island's rice terraces are run as co-operatives or "subaks"

In keeping with this, their food is exquisite.

Whether it is the simple delights like nasi goreng - fried rice done with many seasonings - grilled satay or a variety of noodle dishes served by street vendors, coconut, garlic, ginger, pepper, coriander, tamarind, lemon grass are just some of the spices used, and the results are spectacular.

More exotic dishes such as bebek betutu, duck steamed and roasted in banana leaf, or guling celeng, roast suckling pig, are like nothing you have ever tasted before.

The seafood grills at Jimbaran Bay are prepared on open charcoal fires and you sit at a table on the beach with the surf gleaming in the darkness just behind you while the lights of planes taking off and landing at Denpasar Airport float through the distant night sky.

Meeting place

Food is a blessing never taken for granted by the Balinese. All over the island one sees little woven baskets called banten jotan containing tiny colourful offerings of rice, fruit and flowers to the gods.

A taxi driver even had one on his dashboard.

"Every six months we have a ceremony," he said.

"For a car, for a knife, for anything metal. Also for a building, a house, animals.

"Everything has a ceremony. That is our tradition."

Perhaps the most peaceful place on the whole island is the temple of Pura Taman Ayun, built in the 17th Century.

The name means Garden Temple in the Water and it is built on an island in a peaceful river.

Pura Taman Ayun temple
The Pura taman Ayun temple has been nominated as a world heritage site

The gardens of frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea tumble over the canals and ancient stones while birds and butterflies float through the courtyards and a large fountain dedicated to the gods of the underworld sprays cool water through the humid air.

Pagoda-like towers called meru rise into the blue sky. The number of tiered roofs is always an odd number, from three to 11.

The tallest represent the mountains in Bali above which the gods are said to live.

Strolling through its beautiful gardens, it is easy to see how so many have come to believe this island is the meeting place for gods and humans, and of course, monkeys too.

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