Happy New Year! After several days of rest and relaxation by the pool or wandering around Ubud, Jackie and I were eager to get out for some sightseeing, but didn’t want to venture far from town. We decided to get up early on the 31st and walk the 6km to the nearby town of Bedulu Village. Admittedly, it wasn’t great planning on our part – this is the rainy season and while it’s usually sunny and hot in the morning, most afternoons bring rain – yesterday it started drizzling shortly after we left our hotel at 6am and didn’t stop until we had nearly finished the hour long walk. But it was worth it.

We arrived damp to Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, around 7am and found one of the side gates open for cleaning staff. Two women motioned us to enter, so we did. Oh, if only we could experience all temples this way: a full hour before it opens to the public.

First, a little about Goa Gajah. Why it’s called the Elephant Cave is a bit of a mystery. Some say it’s because the intricate carvings at the mouth of the cave once looked like an elephant. More likely it’s because the shrine inside the cave may have once held a carving of Ganesh, the Hindu God of Wisdom, who takes the shape on an elephant. We didn’t see an elephant anywhere.

Taken from a Bali tourism magazine:
The temple dates back to the 11th century, built as a spiritual place for meditation. The main grounds are down a flight of steps from the roadside and parking area, which is lined with various art and souvenir shops and refreshment kiosks. Upon reaching the base there is a large ‘wantilan’ meeting hall and an assortment of large old stone carvings, some restored to their former full glory. The pool, excavated in 1954, features five out of supposedly seven statues depicting Hindu angels holding vases that act as waterspouts. Various structures reveal Hindu influences dating back to the 10th century, and some relics feature elements of Buddhism dating even earlier to the 8th century. The cave is shallow; inside are three stone idols each wrapped in red, yellow and black cloths (the white and black checkered cloth is seen all over bali and represents the balance of good and bad energy). Several indentations show where meditating priests once sat. The northern side of the complex is dominantly Buddhist while south across the river it’s mostly Shivaite.

Just as we entered the cave the priest was finished his morning prayer and offering to the main alter within the cave – it involved a small square cloth he kneeled on and upon which he had also laid out several offerings and incense (incense seems to be everywhere here – on the streets, in restaurants and anywhere there may be an offering). We respected the sanctity of his prayer and didn’t take a photo (although it was tempting) and I felt grateful that we had a chance to see the prayer.

We wandered around for about an hour, just the two of us and the few staff who were there sweeping or setting out offerings. After checking out the cave we roamed the rest of the grounds which included lush paths, a bridge over one of the rivers, a small waterfall and a mediation area in one of the stone walls.

We left before the temple was even open to the public, out the same gate we had come in by, and hailed a taxi for home.

After such a busy and early morning, by the time we got back to the hotel and had breakfast the day had reached its full heat and all I could muster was pool time and a nap. We did pry ourselves from the prone position for lunch though, and made our way to Alchemy, a healthy restaurant on the other side of town, well known by tourists and western expats alike for its vegan raw food. We at a long, luxurious lunch on the open but shaded patio of salad, raw quiche (made with cashew cream, mushrooms and spinach on an almond crust), a delicious vegetable spring roll wrapped in a dried papaya leaf (kinda like fruit leather) followed by coconut, cashew and chocolate smoothies for dessert. Divine.

Since it was already early evening by the time we left Alchemy, and neither one of us were feeling like a late night, we decided to treat ourselves to one of the local traditional dances put on in Ubud. We bought our tickets from a street vendor and headed towards the ‘theatre’. We were a little early so had a drink nearby then went as soon as the doors opened at 7pm to grab a good seat.

This was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Before the main event, two men came out and laid offerings around the performance area, which as simply the centre area between three sides of bleacher seating. They then lit the centrepiece and dimmed all the lights. About 80 bare chested men dressed in knee length skirts/sarongs of the black and white checkered cloth streamed out of the alter area, and created about 3-4 layered circles around the lit candelabra in the centre. They then, in unison, started chanting and rhythmic noise, swaying and moving to the beat. At first it was a bit strange, but after only a few moments it became one of the most powerful and moving performances I’ve ever seen/heard. This chanting became the backdrop for the story that was acted out; a love story of a prince and his beloved, who were lost in a forest and when the prince left to find help, the maiden was visited by both good and evil characters. The prince eventually returned, only to fight the latest ‘bad guy’ and save the maiden. Apart from a few words or grunts spoken by the characters, the only noise was the chanting and the fireworks that were being set off around the city to help ring in the new year!

The second ‘act’ was the Trance Dance, another traditional dance, called the Sanghyang, a god-inspired trance-dance. In this variation, the dancer rides a ‘hobby horse’, here depicted using a broomstick likeness of a horse. The horse rider is lulled into trance by the repetitive sounds of the demean sutra (chanting men) and in his tranced state walks on a bed of burning coconut husks, responding to the rising and falling of the sounds of the chants. Sure enough, the horse rider kicked the fire around with his bare feet, and each time the debris was swept back into the centre, he kicked it again and walked on the burning coals. Ouch.

The performance was a great way to end the year and allowed me to be back home and tucked into bed by 10pm. All set for an early start to 2017!

Awake by 5am for an hour of meditation and intention setting for 2017, I grabbed the green juice Jackie had bought me for my first nourishment of the new year and headed out for a 2.5 hour walk along the Campuhan Trail (a 2km walking trail along a ridge just outside of Ubud) and then further into the rice fields. Such a great way to start the year, and meet and say hello to other early risers out for a jog or hike before the heat of the day. A few photos of me (such a luxury when traveling alone) taken by lovely locals or other travellers I met along the way. Followed by another tasty meal to break my fast at Alchemy and a day by the pool, letting my intentions set in.

2016 was a roller coaster ride so I am very happy to say: Happy New Year!!! Bring on the goodness, 2017…I’m ready for you!