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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Bali: Cultural and Scenic Escape

"Monkey God" Pemuteran, Bali

Bali. That far off, tropical island, so many people hear about visiting. Lush jungles filled with monkeys and volcanoes in the distance. Beautiful beaches with high cliffs and famous seaside temples. As it happened, my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Bali early last December (2016).

Of course I had to turn the trip into an photography adventure, hunting down all the unique locations and areas far from the tourist trail. My main goals were waterfalls, wildlife, and capturing some of the unique cultural aspects of the island.

House on the hill surrounded by jungle.

To start, we received our initial immersion into Balinese culture the first day when we visited the Bali Museum in Denpasar. Traditional architecture with intricate carvings are built into a series of courtyards that house four buildings with various Balinese art, history, and archaeological finds. It also seems to be THE place to have traditional engagement photo sessions. We came across three couples and their entourages (family, hair and make-up specialists as well as photographers and assistants). The two couples I approached were kind enough to allow me to photograph them as well.

Balinese couple in traditional garb for engagement photos.

Photo tip: When photographing people, try to engage them and get to know a bit about them before shooting. Especially in close quarters, it is much better photo etiquette to ask your subject if you have permission to capture their image, than just shooting and moving on which is very impersonal.

Balinese couple #2 posed for engagement photos.

This location also allowed for unique framing of the couples.

Couple framed by temple architecture.
Full doorway frame of couple.

From Denpasar, we struck out along the southeastern coastline. There are several points of interest along this coast including Uluwatu and Tanah Lot. Many visitors to the island stay in the southern region, making only day trips to other parts of the island.

"Riding on Water" Uluwatu, Bali

Travel tip: Don't do this! Explore the north and western areas of Bali. Its all beautiful and you will really get a better sense of the local life the further you get away from Kuta and Denpasar.

Tanah Lot sea temple is probably the most well known of the temples on Bali. Sitting just off the coast on a tiny little outcropping, the temple can be reached during low tide by wading through the waters. An excellent location for sunset, merchants have taken advantage of this by setting up small restaurants and bars along the cliffs directly above the temple. This certainly was some of the most comfortable shooting I have done in a while. Set up the camera, order a drink, have a seat in a chair I didn't have to carry, sip the aforementioned drink while watching the sun set. That is vacation for you!

"Sunset at Tanah Lot" Tanah Lot, Bali

Location tip: Get there early to secure the best seats and be prepared to pay tourist prices for a drink and snack while you wait. Tourist prices in Bali are still cheaper than most regular places in the States, so don't sweat it too much.

"Sunset Over Tanah Lot "

Further along the coast to the west, there is a tiny spot that I was really looking forward to shooting. I had only come across a few images from this area and it took lots of digging on the web prior to departing for the island for me to even find the location the images had been taken. That being said, I did find the spot and our driver was very surprised with the request to take us there. This beach is literally a rest stop with a small convenience hut and a few picnic tables. Called Yah Leh Beach, this beach is a continuous reminder that the land was created by volcanic activity. Black igneous rock slabs, worn smooth by the tides, with collections of sculpted boulders scattered in the waves created a photographer's paradise.

Triptic of images from Yah Leh Beach
"Dark Zen" Yah Leh Beach, Bali

Traveling clockwise around Bali, we took a few days to do some diving off the northwestern coast. Not having an underwater camera (other than an old GoPro), I don't really have many images from this time. However, if you are an avid diver/snorkeler, I highly suggest investing in at least a GoPro to take with you so you can film your underwater adventures. Make sure to also get a red filter if diving to help with the while balance.

Northwestern mountain as seen from the sea.

From the coast we traveled inland into the mountains to chase waterfalls. Yes, I know there was a song that warned against that, but I just love them! During our stay, we trekked through the jungles of Bali for three days in search of waterfalls with Bali Jungle Trekking. Not only did we find waterfalls but those were also the days the water fell from the skies. Even under the conditions, our guides were awesome and I would highly recommend looking them up if in Bali. With all the rain however, I do not feel I am done with the island. I have a strong draw to go back and finish what I started in photographing the waterfalls hidden within these jungles.

Sekumpul Falls in the rain.

Photo tip: Make sure your gear is weather proofed, including the lenses. Additional rain gear wouldn't hurt either. Check when the monsoon season is suppose to start and end. I took the chance that the rainy season would not have turned on much in early December, but I was wrong. We had rain almost everyday. If/when I revisit, it will most likely be October or November before the rains start.

Three images of various waterfalls from around Bali
Munduk Falls - jungle trekking rewards at their best!

Between waterfall treks, we visited different temples witnessing various family ceremonies. Joss sticks, drums, cymbals and chants all permeated the air. It was both amazing and humbling to see these ceremonies. During one visit, our homestay (through AirBnB) host took the time to explain the various parts of the ritual and the history behind the temple we visited with him. Meeting such kind people and being given opportunities such as these are some of the reasons why travel remains an important part of my life.

Various images of Balinese performing ceremonial rituals
More images of traditional Balinese ceremonies.

Wildlife was also a large part of why I wanted to visit Bali. The two subjects I was looking for the most were dolphins and monkeys. I found both in high concentrations!

The best place to view dolphins while on Bali is just off the coast of Lovina. Located on the Northern coast, its a small village that makes for a great home base for both the dolphin viewing and mountain trekking.

Dolphins surfacing in front of jukung.

To see the dolphins requires getting up at the break of day to get out on a small traditional boat, called a jukung. Still within sight of shore, your captain will take you out and then sit. Its a waiting game, like so many other wildlife viewing activities. Soon enough though, the pods of spinner dolphins come through on their daily breakfast run in the fish-rich waters.

"Mid Spin" Lovina, Bali

A note from my point of view about the ethics surrounding this practice of "chasing" the pods. The boat captains do not bait the dolphins, nor are the dolphins held captive in the area. The captains all run their props near the surface to keep from potentially hurting the animals. To me this means these wild creatures keep coming to this area of their own free will and is ethically ok.

Balck and white of a pod with jukung in the background.
"Leading the Chase" Lovina, Bali

Photo tip: Take a long lens that has vibration reduction/image stabilization to allow you to hand hold while shooting. This requires a head on a swivel, quick reaction time, and a fast shutter. Don't be afraid to bump your ISO up. You need the shutter speed and will be shooting in early morning light, so a higher ISO, such as 800 will be necessary.

"Travel Buddies" Lovina, Bali

The last village we visited was Ubud where we stayed for several days. Towards the center of the island and in the foothills of the mountains, this jungle village is surrounded by rice terraces, monkey forests, and more temples.

Terraces carved out of the jungle.

Sunrise was the hardest time to shoot. Since driving in Bali is so crazy and hiring a car with driver for the day is relatively cheap ($40-75 a day which covers the car, driver, and fuel), we did not actually drive while there. However, that meant I had to find drivers that were willing to get up before dawn to take me to the locations I had planned. Luckily, I did find one driver who was willing to do just that in Ubud. We drove up into the mountains and I was able to capture this image of Kintamani Volcano at sunrise.

Sunrise over the volcanoes with Balinese statue in the foreground.

From Ubud it is only a 20-30 minute drive to Pura Tirta Empul, a Hindu Balinese water temple. Famous for its holy spring water, Hindus from all over the island come to this temple for ritual cleansing. Arriving early morning, it was a serene experience. The soft warm light shining in through the trees onto those faithful worshipers performing centuries old practice.

"Morning Abulotions" Pura Tirta Empul, Bali

Location tip: Go early in the morning before the tourist buses start arriving.

Photo tip: Use a long lens to photograph the people in the spring without disturbing them as they perform their abulotions. Also, take time to walk around the entire temple. It's large with many hidden details.

Triptic of temple details.

On the other side of Ubud are the very popular "Eat, Pray, Love" rice terraces. Tegallalang Rice Terraces are beautiful, but it takes quiet a bit to find the right angle and a ton of patience to get the scene clear of other tourists as these fields have become a tourist mecca. The terraces are still fully functional and visitors can witness the back-breaking labor that goes into growing rice. When we visited, the rice was just starting to be harvested - by hand!

Harvesting rice by hand.

Collecting grass for the livestock.

Along side the farmers, are the other tourists. In this setting, the locals have taken to charging for photos of them working and charging for access to each part of the fields. While pretty, it was not worth it to me and felt extremely commercialized for such a natural setting.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

Now, for my absolute favorite part of the trip: the Sacred Monkey Forest. I could have easily spent days here just watching the Balinese long-tailed macaques. As it was, I spent much of my time sitting in various locations as the troops moved through, watching and photographing the various social interactions and members of the jungle.

"Watcher" Bali, Indonesia

Photo tip: It is dark in the Sacred Monkey Forest due to the dense canopy, so you will want a fast lens and to use your ISO to keep shutter speeds fast enough to catch the action. Be aware of the changing light as you change position as well.

"Amongst the Vines" Ubud, Bali

Location tip: Take someone with you to watch your back. The monkeys are everywhere, not afraid of humans, and will try to take your stuff. Keep hand sanitizer and water bottles hidden.

"Slow Clap" Ubud, Bali

Safety tip: Make sure to get your rabies vaccine prior to shooting here. Bali has a high rate of the disease which can be transmitted to humans from monkeys or dogs. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten or scratched while shooting on island. (Suggested 24/7 clinic in Ubud with English speaking doctors/staff: Toya Medika Clinic.)

Two images with monkeys showing their teeth.

In both the images above, I was not in any danger as these are still images taken while the male on the left was vocalizing to another and while the female on the right was yawning. But they do a good job of displaying the monkeys' natural defense mechanism.

"Trust" Ubud, Bali
"Talking" Ubud, Bali

"Taking in a New World" a baby explores the branches under the watchful eye of his mother.

Photo tip: Again, go early in the morning before the food stalls open. The monkeys seemed to be much more playful and interactive without the food aggression they showed the previous day when the food carts were open for visitors.

"Curiousity" Ubud, Bali
"Hungry Eyes" Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

One thing about adventures like this where I travel with my husband, is while he puts up with my photography, I compromise by attending rounds of golf with him. Nirwana Golf Course is one of the top golf courses in the world. The views from the greens were unbelievable. Riding along while he plays gives me the opportunity to play with my craft without the pressure of getting a portfolio worthy image. Still, I like the way this turned out.

"On the Green" Nirwana Golf Resort, Bali

Overall, it was an amazing experience and another adventure for us. I do hope to get back one day as I still feel there is much more for me to capture on the island of Bali.

I know this was a long article so I hope you hung in there and enjoyed it! Until next time. Cheers!

Ganesha in Bali stonework.

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