Emma Russell explores the monkey forest at Bali’s famous Uluwatu temple, before enjoying the legendary Sunset Kecak dance.
The idea of a five-minute walk through an enchanting monkey forest an hour before dusk was enough to get me buzzing. That’s until I came eye-to-eye with one of the clever creatures hissing at me while I tried to take a photo of it. Luckily I had a firm grip on my phone. Another woman wasn’t so fortunate – I watched an baby monkey pluck the lady’s cellphone straight out of her hands. Another man who had his sunglasses nicked from his head managed to work out what these cunning glorified rats were after – a swap for food.
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After making it through the labyrinth, we were met with an ocean view like no other and all of a sudden dodging the monkeys was worth it. Blends of purple, pink and orange sky kissed the horizon. To the left was a circular concrete amphitheatre positioned high above the cliffs guarding the Java Strait, waves crashing more than 100m below.
I followed the swarm of people into the amphitheatre and took one of the last available seats. Looking around were people from all over the world are eager to see the legendary Sunset Kecak dance at Uluwatu temple in Bali.
The ritual begins
As the sun dipped, the crowd became silent. I had no idea what to expect.
About 60 shirtless men appeared, dressed in black and white checked pants with a red cotton belt chanting a sound like “cak, cak, cak”. I was immediately intrigued, as were the rest of the crowd, who whipped out their phones to capture the sheer beauty. There were no props, no artificial backdrops, no orchestra. The focus was entirely on the circles of men sitting cross-legged with their hands in the air worshipping the fire in the middle.
The dance narrates a story of Sita, a beautiful wife of one of Asia’s renowned god’s Rama, being abducted by an evil demon known as Ravana. Rama leaves to go hunting when Ravana delegates his men to capture the princess. Without spoiling the epic plot, the story concludes with a ferocious battle.
For me, the performance was like a medley of seeing the Lion King live and watching the All Blacks perform a great haka. No artificial backdrop was needed because it was timed perfectly with another Indonesian sunset on steroids. By about three-quarters of the way through it was completely dark and the fire was in full blaze.
Near the end, one of the girls in my tour group tapped me on the shoulder and signalled for me to follow her. She had secured a backstage pass to meet some of the performers dressed in the most intricate costumes. While the show was still roaring loudly in the background, we were snapping selfies with the princess and her woodland friends. They did not speak English but were friendly and one even invited us into their dressing room and let us try on his mask before he whipped back out for the final scene.
I was told by my tour guide that the aim of the show was to highlight the links between the arts and social structures in Bali along with the ubiquity of temples and offerings, and priests’ place in society. If there’s one thing I’d recommend people see in Bali, it’s this show, it’s a unique experience.