Whenever a traveler returns to a beloved place after a long hiatus (in my case, almost 25 years), the trip is inevitably attended by some combination of anticipation and dread.
Will it be as great as you remember? Has time treated it well?
With Bali, which I revisited this past summer with my brother, the experience was bittersweet indeed. The resort towns around Kuta are almost unrecognizable with development; charming seaside-shack restaurants have given way to multistory malls and discos.
The beaches themselves are still great, but if I was looking for this kind of atmosphere, I could save the long plane ride and go to South Beach instead.
Fortunately, though, as we moved from the beach up into the hills around Ubud, things hadn’t changed that much. Sure, the roads were busier and more crowded, but the crafts villages, the temple festivals, and the amazing friendliness and artistry of the people were exactly as I recalled.
As a photographer interested in communities and culture, I can’t get enough of the dance dramas, with some that are unique to Bali and others that are shared across the Indonesian archipelago. Visitors can alternate between attending performances of Kecak, Barong, and other dances on a daily basis at various venues across Ubud and Batubulan village.
But just when you begin to think the whole island is displaying its unique culture strictly for the benefit of the tourist trade, the real Bali breaks through.
After mentioning that I had photographed the funeral of a major priest the last time I had visited, our guide reported that there was to be a priest’s funeral in his village tomorrow. The coincidence presented a rare opportunity for travel symmetry, and I was humbled and grateful when he offered to obtain permission for my brother, Gary, and I to attend.
In Bali, funeral and cremation ceremonies are monumental processions with music and chanting, preceded by a communal feast at the familial house. We were treated as honored guests by members of the priest’s family and encouraged to document the event (to be sure, they had their own photographer and videographer on hand).
There were thousands of people in the streets, and we were the only Westerners to be found.
In addition to being one of the most moving experiences in nearly four decades of travel, being there brought home to me another truth: that whatever happens with tourist development in this tropical land, the spirit of Bali will persevere.
Bob Krist, contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler, is an award-winning freelance photographer who works regularly on assignment for magazines such as Traveler, Smithsonian, and Islands.
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