In Bali, a neverending quest for authenticity can lead travellers to unexpected place.
Rows of spectators scream while clenching crumpled rupees in their fists. We try to elbow our way through the barrier of shoulders and limbs, ducking our heads between lit cigars that swing inches from our faces. It’s only when we manage to penetrate the crush of bodies and find ourselves pushed against the railing that I realise what’s happening before us. A game of tough men and angry roosters.
At the centre of the pit, two men hold two roosters against each other, building up momentum. They pat their birds as if they were old mates ready for the final departure. In fact, this might as well be it, for the razor blades tied to the roosters’ right legs shine murderously in the low light. Here we are: I have certainly found my authentic Balinese experience, and it feels like another world.
It all starts when I rent a motorbike from a muscular Balinese beach boy in Kuta. “Bring it back undamaged and with a full tank, and enjoy the ride,” he says, pocketing my money. I am free to go, with a backpack tucked between my legs, and a tiny Malaysian girlfriend tugging at my back. We drive out of Poppies Lane and negotiate the steamy morning gridlock toward Denpasar and beyond. I want to seek a more authentic side of Bali in one of the smaller towns along the island’s east coast. Contrary to my plans, I get my chance when I stop the motorbike at a countryside road stall to rest and have a bite. As if reading my mind, an old man lifts his gaze from his steamy cup of tea and interrogates me with a toothless grin: “What are you looking for?”
“We are looking for something authentically Balinese,” we answer, hoping this could be the serendipitous occasion we have been anxiously expecting. The old man smiles and then commands: “Perfect then. Come back tomorrow morning at nine and I’ll show you the real Bali.”
I’m filled with hope. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that he’s picked us out among all the customers of this roadside warung. I have the feeling that, at last, this could be our introduction to some of the island’s most authentic ghosts.
We continue chasing the thicket that extends inland from the main road, ending before the entrance of the Monkey Forest. This place gets its name from an obvious population of macaques that learnt how to satisfy their hunger overtime by snatching visitors. As if to endorse our failed search for Balinese authenticity here, a sneaky monkey came out of the woodwork and climbed over my girlfriend’s camera bag. Standing still and breathing slowly, we wait until the monkey decides that the backpack isn’t edible, and jumps back into the forest.
Even at Puram Dalem, one of Ubud’s most central temples, where traditional Balinese dances are staged nightly for the joy of tourists, there is no trace of genuine spirits to be found here. The sinuous movements of pretty Balinese ladies shrouded in colourful robes and elaborate headdresses precede the arrival of a demon in a wooden mask, ready to perform the ancient barong dance. But again, this is not what we want from Bali: the ghosts we chase chuckle at us, for we have fallen yet again into a beautifully staged tourist trap.
I drive the motorbike along the winding roads that snake through an infinite horizon of terraced rice paddies into the heart of the island, hoping to find something unique behind every curve. But the closest I get to my imagined “pure Bali” is at Pura Tirta Empul, one of the island’s holiest shrines. Built around hot springs, it’s here that Balinese come to bathe and purify physically and spiritually. The scene here is closer to my expectations: rows of devotees waited patiently for their turns as others dipped into the holy waters, praying and showering under stone faucets that jutted out of the pool’s walls.
There are few foreigners here and they observe the rituals with great respect. It is the most spiritual event I witnessed on this island; but again, it doesn’t fully tick my mental box of expectations for a unique Balinese experience. So, when we return to the warung to meet the old Balinese man, I know we are on the right track. He’s told us that he will show us a secret spot where locals go to bet illegally, repeating several times that no foreigners are allowed there but that he will secure us privileged access.
It all sounds like the joke of a gregarious drunken local fellow; but to my surprise, once we reach the warung, he’s already waiting for us. He sits at the same place he occupied yesterday, a cup of tea in his hand, and a traditional Balinese batik tied around the top of his head in guise of a hat. “I knew you would come back,” he says. “It was in your eyes. When foreigners see me they think I’m drunk and don’t take me seriously. You will be rewarded.”
He empties the rest of his tea in a gulp. Then he summons another younger fellow from the scarce morning crowd. They both get on a motorbike and ask us to follow. We soon leave the main road and into a small path shrouded by tree branches until we reach a clearing. The old man parks the bike and we all continue on foot to a large wooden building covered by thatched roof.
Muffled screams resonate from the inside. I can’t help but feel that the situation is turning dodgy, and start damning my jaded traveller’s quest for authenticity. “You wanted to see real Bali? Enjoy the show then,” the old man says before he walks inside, signalling us to follow, and disappears into a screaming mob.
The air smells of adrenaline and blood. Once my eyes get used to the darkness, I realise that we have stumbled into a cockfighting arena. When the men let go of the excited cocks, they quickly jump into each other, slashing furiously with their beaks and legs. Blades swing and soon sleek swathes of blood rise to paint black lines in the air.
As quickly as it started, the fight ends when one of the birds collapses lifeless, and the other limps away, finding recovery in the nest of its owner’s hands. With our stomachs turned, we head for the exit. “You don’t like it?” the old man asks after catching up with us on our way out. “You said you wanted to see real Bali. Well, that’s what we Balinese do for fun.” I don’t know how to answer. Maybe I was looking for less angry spirits.