UBUD, Indonesia — The offering to the gods, made of vibrantly colored rice and shaped like a giant bird, soared more than 10 feet high. Scores of other offerings, built with pungent flowers, pork, vegetables, palm leaves, coconut, rice and colored fabrics, were scattered throughout the temple compound.
Smoke from incense and Indonesian clove cigarettes drifted through the air as hundreds of the faithful, who had marched for several miles, poured through the temple gates--8-year-old girls in yellow silk and golden headdresses, boys banging drums and gongs, elegant young men in white and old women balancing stacks of gifts for their deities atop their heads.
It was just another day on the island of Bali, the "Island of the Gods."
Each year, more than 500,000 tourists visit this small island, which is among the premier tourist destinations in the world.
Despite the onslaught, the 3 million Balinese on the island have managed to preserve their culture and religion: Heaven, the Balinese believe, is exactly like Bali.
My wife, Cindy, and I have spent several weeks in Bali during two trips to Indonesia. Every day some aspect of Balinese life has held us spellbound--whether it was a temple ceremony, rice fields that carpet the landscape, a painting by an unrecognized talent, a dish of spicy food or just the beauty of the beaches.
On top of that, Bali isn't terribly expensive. Most of the major hotels do not cost more than $100 a day, while many budget accommodations are less than $10 a day for a couple.
Food is especially cheap: You would be splurging if you spent more than $15 for two at dinner.
But Bali is not a pristine, unspoiled paradise, and without a little planning and foresight it may be disappointing.
Bali is, after all, in the middle of a hot, Third World country. This invariably means that the infrastructure is crumbling, the capital city, Denpasar, is a mess and the narrow roads are constantly clogged with belching trucks and screaming motorcycles.
Probably the worst mistake would be to stay at Kuta Beach, the main destination listed in guidebooks.
Years ago, Kuta was a small village known for its brilliant sunsets. Now it is a tourist slum, crammed with hotels, hustlers (of both sexes) and the worst kind of honky-tonk shops. By now it should be considered an Australian colony, since Australian budget tourists have turned it into their version of Fort Lauderdale.
Instead, start your trip at Sanur Beach, less than 10 miles away from Kuta and a different world. Sanur is quiet, elegant and relatively unspoiled.
At the far end of the beach, someone built a 10-story hotel, but the Balinese quickly realized their mistake and passed a law prohibiting any hotels taller than a palm tree. Though hotels now line the beach, most are hidden in the palms.
Ours, La Taverna, was a group of bungalows set in a wild garden, the rooms furnished with Balinese antiques. The bamboo dining area opened onto the beach.
Sanur on average is more expensive than Kuta, but budget travelers have the option of Candi Dasa, a new beach area on the southeastern coast. (Nusa Dua, another high-class beach area, mostly serves international conferences.)
Although Bali has some beautiful beaches (a relaxing way to recover from jet lag), they should not be the main reason to visit the island.
The Balinese, in fact, ignore the beaches, which they believe are inhabited by bad spirits. They turn their attention to the center of the island, with its massive ravines, rice fields and volcanoes, where the good spirits are said to reside. It is also where you will find the real Bali.
The Balinese are deeply religious, and their form of Hinduism is unique. They believe in a universal God but worship different manifestations. They believe in both good spirits, who are worshiped, and evil spirits, who must be placated.
Wherever you walk you will see simple offerings to the gods strewn on the sidewalks--even in front of the tackiest tourist shops. The offerings usually consist of a banana leaf, rice, spices and flowers.
The Balinese believe that as soon as the offering touches the ground, the gods consume its essence, so no one much cares what happens to the offering after that. Usually, it becomes the next meal of the neighborhood dogs.
Almost every day of the Balinese calendar provides an excuse for a temple festival.
With a little luck, you will see a ground-touching ceremony (babies aren't allowed to touch the ground for their first six months because they are believed to still belong to the gods), a tooth-filing ceremony (a rite of adulthood in which teeth are filed to make them less animal-like) or a spectacular cremation ceremony (a village will often cremate their dead all at once, putting off funerals for months).
Another special event is the Balinese New Year, usually celebrated in April.