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The region of Bangli, up in the higher elevations of central-eastern Bali, embraces some of the island's most spectacular scenery. This is a relatively remote region, with a population of only 188,000 - second lowest of Bali's eight regencies after tiny Klungkung.
The overwhelming majority still derive a livelihood from agriculture, growing rice, corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and cabbages on non-irrigated fields, as well as coffee, tobacco, vanilla, citrus, passion fruit and cloves, much of it for export. Tourism is not well developed here, with the notable exception of Kintamani and other towns up on the crater of Mt Batur, which on account of its breathtaking views has become one of the island's major tourist stops.
The main route through Bangli begins just east of Gianyar, passing through Bangli Town on its way up over Mt Batur via Kintamani, ending on the north coast at Kubutambahan. On the way up, terraced rice fields at first dominate the landscape.
Once past Bangli Town, however, the scenery changes dramatically and temperatures begin to drop. First the road winds through lush groves of giant bamboo which cast an eerie, greenish light. Residents of Baugh regard these as mystically charged. They are also reputed to have been the site of bloody skirmishes between rival princes during pre-colonial times, and more recently provided shelter to Balinese guerillas during the battle for Indonesian independence.
Further north, one arrives at a number of upland villages set amidst black, volcanic SON. The residents of the south refer to these villagers as "mountain people," and although they were once under the sway of the Bangli court, they were less influenced by the Hinduized culture of the south. As a result, they still maintain some archaic religious practices and forms of village organization, like the "Bali Aga" villages further to the north and east.
Approaching the Batur area, swirling mists are likely to obscure the view and increase the chill. For a few moments, while traversing this dramatic landscape of muted colors and indistinct horizons, it is possible to feel that one has crossed over to a different place and time - leaving behind the lush, green picture postcard Bali.
Suddenly, the road crests the hill through a narrow pass, and the famous peak and Crater Lake of Batur appear. This huge caldera was created when the volcano blew its stack many eons ago, leaving behind a gaping hole that now contains a smaller volcano and a spectacular crater lake.
Amongst the Balinese, Bangli is renowned for its black magic, or "knowledge of the left" as the Balinese put it. This is difficult to verify, as practitioners keep their black arts a secret. More in evidence are the large number of successful trance healers, called balian, who follow the "knowledge of the right." Bangli's healers have an island-wide reputation, and one will often see clients arriving from other areas of Bali, bearing offerings dressed in their ceremonial finery.
Bangli was also once a court center. The name comes from "bang giri" which means "red forest" or "mountain." It is said that the king of Klungkung told one of his three sons, Dewa Gede Den Bancingah, to go toward the northwest until he reached a red jarak forest. There he founded a new kingdom, between the Melangit River and Mt Batur on the site of present-day Bangli Town.
Later, Bangli was defeated by Karangasem and annexed for a time. Until the Dutch came, it was often involved in internecine wars with two neighboring kingdoms, vassals of Klungkung. After 1849, Bangli surrendered to the Dutch and its ruler became a regent.
Bangli is a small, sleepy town lying on the border between central and eastern Bali. It seems at first to contain nothing but concrete buildings and empty streets, which only become crowded on market and festival days. But Bangli is an old city, which may have been founded as early as A.D. 1204, judging from a stele in the famous Pura Kehen temple.
The market lies at the center of the town, partly obscured by shops. On market days, the stalls spill into the street and customers flock here from the surrounding area to buy produce and manufactured goods. Opposite is the bus station, flanked by a row of shops owned by Chinese and Balinese merchants.
For most Balinese, Bangli is in fact the object of some ridicule; when someone says "I come from Bangli," everyone immediately bursts into laughter. The reason is that Bali's only mental hospital is located here - a pleasantly-situated institution with beautiful grounds that was started by the Dutch.
Physically and socially, the town is dominated by the puri or palaces of the royal family. The Bangli courts established their independence from Klungkung in the 19th century and played an influential role in Balinese politics through to the post-independence era. Eight royal households spread around the main crossroads. The most prominent is the Puri Denpasar, the palace of the last raja of Bangli, who died three decades ago. Much of the palace has been restored by his descendants, and there is now a small hotel in the pavilions run by the raja's grandson. The royal ancestral temple lies just to the north of the crossroads, on the western side. Huge ceremonies are held here, attended by all descendants of the royal house, including many who live in other parts of Indonesia.
One of Bali's most beautiful temples, Pura Kehen, stands at the northeastern boundary of the town, seemingly erected in the midst of the forest long before the town itself. Three copper steles testify to its antiquity and importance. The earliest one, Sanskrit, seems to date to the 9th century and mentions the deity Hyang Api (the, "God of Fire"). The second is in old Balinese, and the third is in old Javanese, the latter already mentioning Hyang Kehen and indicating eight villages around Bangli that worship the deity.
The name Kehen is actually a variant of kuren, which means "household" or "hearth". The reference to Hyang Api as a symbol of Brahma may mean that there once was a cult to that god here worshipping him with a rite called homa, in which offerings are burned on a small hearth. At some point, it seem that Hyang Api became Hyang Kehen the "God of the Hearth."
Pura Kehen is the state temple of the old kingdom. It is constructed on a number of levels, after the manner of ancient animistic sanctuaries, that are built into the southern slope of a hill - much like Besakih. There are eight terraces: the first five are jabaan or outer courtyards, the sixth and seventh once are lower and upper middle courts or jaba tengah, and the eighth one is the sacred inner jeroan. A flight of 38 stairs adorned with wayang statues on either side leads to the main entrance, and a frightening kala makara demon guardian is carved on the gateway.
In the outer courtyard, a huge old banyan tree with a kulkul drum inside can be seen, as well as a flat stone for offerings. The walls are inlaid with Chinese porcelain - a common feature of ancient temples and palaces. The temple has 43 altars, including one 11-roofed meru to Hyang Api. Several are dedicated to the ancestors of sudra commoner clans such as the Ratu Pasek and Pande - which means that worshippers from all over Bali come to pray here, especially on its odalan or anniversary. The huge three-compartment, Padmasana throne in the north easternmost corner has beautiful carvings at the back.
Not far from Pura Kehen, the Sasana Budaya Art Center is one of the largest in Bali. Exhibitions and kecak or wayang performances are held there. In the Bangli area, various types of ritual baris dances have developed that are typical of mountain regions, such as the baris Jojor (eight men in a line with spears), baris presi or tamiang (eight men in a circle with leather shields) and baris dadap (men in pairs with bat shaped curled shields made from holy dadap wood), They are performed especially at odalans. One of the biggest gamelan orchestras in Bali can also be found in the Bangli region. It was captured from the Klungkung dynasty by the Dutch, who gave it to Bangli.
The natural scenery around Bangli is worth admiring. Cool air and quiet paths lead to breathtaking panoramas. About one km west of the town on the road toward Tampaksiring is a huge ravine with springs and a number of bathing pools and irrigation works sponsored by the former mayor of Bangli. Bathers and visitors must descend a long flight of steps to reach the springs, but the beauty of the spot warrants the effort. This is a favorite meeting spot for flirtatious young locals.
Bukit Demulih, literally the "hill of no return," is located farther west, about an hour's walk from Bangli on the southern side of the road. A small temple stands atop the hill, offering a magnificent vista to the west. On the way, in a landscape of bamboo clusters and farmland, there is a holy waterfall.
To the east of Bangli, there is another lovely road meandering through
spectacular rice terraces and across deep ravines. It emerges finally
on the main road to Besakih, just near Rendang. This road runs just
south of the transitional zone between wet-rice and dry-rice cultivation,
which form the two main ecological specializations in Bangli.