Tenganan Cultural Trip – Bali

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My last trip to Bali was focused on learning more about the customs and daily life of the people of this religious island – and what better place to see this than the ancient village of Tenganan. I was eager to return to this cultural highlight after doing a photography workshop there with international photographer Suki, you can read about that trip and see the photographs from the workshop by clicking here. I was also able to put some of the portraiture skills I’d learned to good use on this second visit.

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I hired excellent driver Ketut to take me on a photography day from Ubud, who proposed the itinerary for my last day in Bali. We departed in the early morning in darkness, arriving at the tourist beach of Sanur for the sunrise – where a number of other tourists and exercising locals were already waiting to enjoy one of Bali’s classic sights. We grabbed some chilli-filled breakfast at a local stall and some strong Bali coffee to wake up in a firey fashion, before Ketut drove me to a salt farming beach further along the coast.

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Here we wandered down through a small settlement to find flattened sand on the dark beach, and an old man going back and forth between the sand “fields” and the sea, filling buckets of sea water and then sloshing them out methodically over the flattened area. The purpose of this is to saturate the sand with salt water, where it then dries. The sand is then collected and filtered to extract a second batch of salt water, which is then left to evaporate in wooden troughs, leaving behind rock salt deposits.

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It’s an old farming method which is still viable today due to the demand of salt in the country. Ketut chatted to a lady who was covering the troughs, telling me that they had experienced a poor season thanks to adverse weather – wet and cloudy conditions were thwarting the evaporation methods. On busier mornings you can find many salt farmers collecting the sea water, but close to dawn as the work is done early to avoid the harsh daylight heat.

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Our next destination was Tenganan, the culturally significant village I’d visited before. This settlement retains many old customs and buildings which have been lost elsewhere in Bali. We were lucky enough to arrive on a ceremonial day, a coming of age celebration for young men and women in the village. The following days would see a number of large ceremonies, and the streets were full of the ladies of the village making ornate decorations from palm leaf and flowers in preparation. Other villagers prepared vast amounts of food, and a pig slowly turned on a spit over open coals in the town square, smelling delicious. There weren’t many tourists today and I wandered around taking photos of the friendly villagers.

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We met a number of other Balinese photographers who had come to witness today’s initial ceremony, where the men of the village would tour the village elder’s houses on a bonding ritual involving body paint and plenty of alcohol. It was great to meet them, one guy had come all the way from Java to see the village and was lucky enough to arrive on this special day with his vintage Polaroid camera, another was a professional wedding photographer sporting a superb Lecia camera and there were a few others who were more interested in cultural learning and documentation, including a professor from Japan who has lived in the village for over 6 months, still trying to make sense of all the unique customs in Tenganan.

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The men finally appeared, in traditional dress, and went to the village leader’s house on the main street to receive a reception of food and alcohol. We were welcome to go inside and watch, a friendly gesture – the people of the village are happy to share their customs. I chatted to the wife of one of the participants, her English was good and she was able to explain to me more about the ceremony and I took some photos of her and her friend in the craft shop in the front of the compound, matching many of the other houses on the main street – Tenganan being famous for its weaving and other handicrafts.

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alanstockphotography-07766After an hour or two, the already rather inebriated men, in good spirits (boom tish) and now covered in body paint, moved on to the next elders house and we had lunch at an alley stall. It was getting quite late so I popped in to get some last photos of the men and graciously received an offer for a cup of strong rice wine, no wonder they were so merry! The Japanese professor had also been roped into the proceedings and was sporting a massive grin as they plied him with booze! I said my thanks and made my way out.

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But as I was leaving, I first spied an amazing old lady resting under one of the communal rest shelters, who was happy for me to take a photo, although she didn’t speak any English. I also ran into a man I’d met during my last visit, a friendly weaver who specialises in Tenganan’s unique double weaving technique and got a few shots before I had to leave. I also enjoyed watching the kids playing on the big traditional wooden carousel – safety standards be damned – as they swung round and round.

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As it was my last day in Bali, I was gutted to miss out on the evenings celebrations, when the true ceremony began, and the festivities of the next few days. But one day I hope to return to this wonderful village and witness more of their unique ceremonies – if you visit Bali, be sure to visit Tenganan and be whisked back in time, and don’t be afraid to chat to the friendly villagers and learn about their special culture!

Here’s a gallery of more photos from the day, click to enlarge.

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Bali Volcano Sunrise – Mount Batur

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It’s dark and I’m standing in the streets of central Ubud. What should be a peaceful night is shattered by the incessant barking of the neighbour’s dog, who’s decided I’m a terrible threat to his territory. It makes the wait for my pickup for a sunrise trek slightly fraught, at 4 a.m. I’m not exactly corpus mentus just yet – and I’ve been attacked by dogs before in Asia. I stand my ground, knowing not to show fear – but hoping the ruckus doesn’t attract the more aggressive street dogs, and my tactic works. The little mutt eventually retreats into his garden and soon a mini bus jam-packed with tired tourists pulls up with a screech of brakes.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mount Agung rises out of a sea of clouds.

I’m up this early to climb Mount Batur, an active volcano near the centre of Bali, for its famous sunrise. The activity is popular with tourists from around the island, with transport coming all the way from the beaches of Kuta and beyond, so despite the early hour, there’s a stream of speeding mini buses racing along inner Bali’s narrow, twisting roads towards the base of the volcano. In classic Bali style, we drive at breakneck speeds through villages and countryside, swerving piles of building material deposited in the road, slow trucks and other tour buses – and I’m thankful for the bonus of a working seatbelt. As we ascend to the crater lake rim, we overtake an open-topped truck full of school kids, standing packed together like sardines – they must be freezing in the chilly night air. Even our veteran Balinese driver, no stranger to Bali’s mad roads, tells me it’s crazy, explaining there was an serious accident recently in similar circumstances where a truck full of kids rolled with fatal consequences. He tells me they’re also heading for the up for the trek, its a popular destination for school expeditions.

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My friends ready to start their night hike!

We pull into a large car park full of buses and taxis in the dark and I meet up with some friends. Torches are are handed out and we’re split into groups, each led by guides. There’s not much chance of getting lost though, as we set off on the sandy path out of the village there’s literally hundreds of other people going the same way – a sea of torch-lights illuminating the way ahead. The path is easy going for the first hour as we slowly ascend. I barely have time to set up my tripod on a quick rest stop before we’re off again but I do capture a rather grainy image of the rather mesmerizing stream of lights climbing to the summit.

Mount Batur Night Walk

Hundreds of walkers ascend Mount Batur under the starlight.

From now on it’s steep going and the soft volcanic soil is loose and slippery. Conversation stalls as everyone is breathless, an half an hour of climbing later we arrive at a large rest stop with food stalls overlooking the crater and Lake Batur. It’s a great view – twilight is upon us, the horizon changing colour and town lights shimmer on the lake as the moon shines overhead. There’s just time for another few tripod shots – but unfortunately its windy making for blurry images with the long exposures, and before there’s time to correct it, we’re ushered onwards, we don’t want to miss the sunrise!

Mount Batur night walk

Lake Batur at Night

The final half hour stretch is very steep and slippery, and I lose my footing in the dark a number of times, hampered by my tripod. To add insult to injury, my bag zip decides to break leaving my camera kit precariously exposed to falling out, so I wear it on my front to minimize the risk. We finally reach the bare summit, and sit out along little shelves cut out of the soil, with some mats to sit on, as the guide collects tea for us from a nearby stall. The view is already amazing – the sky is quite clear aside from a few clouds, and the awesome cloud bank below rolls over the landscape, islands of hills popping up from this woolly sea as the volcano of Mount Agung to the right towers over everything else.

Sunrise Mount Batur

The moon bids farewell as dawn crests the horizon.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mount Agur

The summit gets increasingly busy as more groups arrive, mainly westerners of all types from backpackers to smartly dressed elderly groups. People take their seats and sip on coffee, dig into their breakfast or wander around taking photos as we wait for the sun to arrive. I’m mesmerised by the cloud sea, I’ve seen this phenomenon before at Mt Bromo in Java, and in the Himalayas, but it never gets old. There’s plenty of space to use the tripod, so I take advantage, unfortunately the barren summit doesn’t provide many interesting foregrounds aside from plants, and I have to be wary not to obstruct in the view for other visitors.

Sunrise Mount Batur

Mountains pop out of the cloud sea like islands.

Sunrise Mount Batur

The sun finally begins to poke out from behind the clouds and they turn out to be a blessing, forcing the light into amazing god rays shining out over the cloud sea. We’re blessed with a magnificent sunrise – and we’re quite lucky as of course it’s all weather dependent, a lot of others saw my photos and said I got a particularly good morning for it. I use the inbuilt panorama mode on my camera to try and capture the epic sense of scale, but you’d really need a GoPro or super big panorama to really do this justice. I use my wider angle lens for classic landscapes and my zoom to focus on details in the scene. After I’ve got plenty of shots, I sit back and enjoy the moment properly and just admire the view.

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Sunrise Mount Batur

The school groups we’d seen earlier finally arrive – sadly for them they’ve already missed the best bit. There’s a few scout groups and regular school kids, who seem knackered after racing up only to miss out! Once the sun’s fully up, we head back down the mountain. First we stop at some natural hot springs where a cheeky macaque monkey colony hangs out – getting fed by the tourists. As usual, they’re as crazy as ever, climbing on people, trying to steal food and there’s some cute babies clinging onto their mums. I keep my distance, having learned to respect these unpredictable imps during my travels – entertaining to watch though. Now the sun’s up, we admire the views down into the crater below as the cloud slowly rises with the heat.

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One of the school expedition’s latecomers, holding aloft the Indonesian flag.

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Food stall with a pretty decent view…

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The crater below, with Lake Batur at the back.

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Mum protective of her baby, warily eyeing the tourists from a distance.

It’s a hot walk for the next few hours as we quickly descend the slippery soil path and return on a different road down the mountain, passing plantations and locals riding up in trucks – in ceremonial dress – the guide tells me that there are some shrines up Mt Batur where ceremonies are conducted. Back at the car park, we get a good view of the volcano and all fall asleep as we hurtle back to Ubud – it’s nearly midday and we’ve already been up for 8 hours. Before I part ways with my friends, they take me to a nearby pizza restaurant, Umah Pizza – what better breakfast than a tasty massive pepperoni pizza and a cocktail! I had a good nap that afternoon, I can tell you! I would love to return to focus entirely on photography, take my time, get those night shots with the tripod and scout out some better locations for the landscape – one day!

Mount Batur locals

Friendly locals pass by in trucks, heading for a ceremony up the mountain.

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Interesting hill with Mount Agung peeping out of the cloud in the background.

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A plantation, not sure of the crop as I haven’t seen these covers before. Feel free to enlighten me!

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Back at the car park, we get a good view of Mount Batur’s distinctive cone.

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Tasty and super cheap pizza at Umah Pizza, central Ubud.

If you’re interested in doing the Mount Batur climb yourself, there’s a few things to be aware of. It was a tiring morning – the final hour of the climb is demanding, it can be slippery with loose soil and rocks, and it’s steep. I would advise less fit or mobile travellers to give yourselves extra time to get up there, taking the time for plenty of rests. You can find tours for this everywhere on the island and the differences are negligible, they all use the same pool of guides from the mountain. As the guides have a stranglehold on the trip, doing it yourself is difficult as they supposedly deny take issue if you try to go it alone. But its a pretty cheap tour anyway. Be prepared for it to be very busy too and be stuck in queues ascending and descending – fortunately the summit is spacious enough to comfortably fit everyone. Take some warm clothes, it’s chilly until the sun comes up, and don’t worry too much about food and drink, if its not provided by your tour company there’s lots of sellers up the mountain to sort you out. And finally, your views will be weather dependent – I got lucky, but maybe spare yourself enough days for a few attempts if you get cloudy weather on your first try. But when it works out – its definitely worth it!

More images from the morning – click on them to enlarge:

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Markets of Laos

Night food market in Luang Nam Tha. Very tasty!

Night food market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Very tasty stuff!

The markets of Laos come in two flavours – for the tourists, and for the locals. They’re a great example of the bizarre selection of food and crafts you can find on the streets in South East Asia. I wanted to show you what they’re like and I picked Laos because the markets there had some of the most weird selections I’d seen on my travels. They aren’t the best quality photos, most are snapshots I took whilst wandering around and I’ve since got better at this kind of photography – but what matters is the content – hopefully you’ll find it interesting!

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Live frogs in a food market in Luang Namtha, northern Laos. They are quite popular as food in this area. I did eat frog in Laos and Cambodia and I have to say it is quite tasty! Conditions are pretty harsh for the froggies in this pic though, skewered through the legs with these bamboo strands.

A visit to a local food market in South East Asia is usually a vibrant and noisy experience. Vendors sell fruit, meat and vegetables in all shapes and colours, and you’ll probably only recognise a fraction of what’s on offer on your first visit. Usually it’s women manning the stands (or patch of ground) – and they range from “professionals” who buy from wholesalers and resell in bulk, to housewives selling a small amount of produce from their land.

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We had a really good laugh with this lady in a market up in Muang Sing, a town on the Laos border with China. And look – some fruit I recognise! She even gave us some for free, what a darling 🙂

One thing that I love about the less structured markets is how the sellers arrange their food. Check out these neat displays in Luang Namtha, in the north of Laos.

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Night food markets for the purpose of eating, rather than buying goods to take away are very popular in Asia. The big one in the centre of Luang Prabang has some great food at dirt cheap prices and is great for backpackers looking for a cheap eat, as well as the popular with the locals. Many tourists eat in restaurants but often the best food can be found in these steamy eating areas for no more than a few dollars. There’s so much variety – you can get everything from a big bowl of noodle soup to a DIY buffet, and communal tables are a great way to meet people.

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Asia is amazing for fruit juice and smoothies (just check the ice is ok first) and Laos is no exception.

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My favourite things at this night market were the little snacks like dim-sum style dumplings, meat skewers and fast-fried desserts.

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Back in the countryside though, your food can be bought even fresher. It’s pretty common to see fish sold swimming in bowls, chickens in cages and in the case of northern Laos, the occasional frog bucket covered in netting to stop them jumping to freedom!

Big froggies!

Big froggies! The bigger the tastier?

Yep, they're alive!

Catfish – Yep, they’re alive!

I'm guessing the duck's not for sale, but in this part of the world, anything in a market is fair game!

Duck for sale!

The local markets certainly aren’t a place for the squeamish. In the meat sections you will see butchery in full swing and many parts of an animal up for grabs, depending on your location.

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Blood. Yep, in tasty chunks!

Blood. Yep, in tasty chunks!

Rats for sale. I have to say that this market was the only time I've ever seen rats on the menu during my time in Asia. Whether they are bred or just caught, I don't know, but I personally wouldn't be risking eating these!

Rats for lunch? I have to say that this market was the only time I’ve ever seen rats on the menu during my time in Asia. Whether they are bred or just caught, I don’t know, but I personally wouldn’t be risking eating these!

You may think you’ve seen it all now, but for tourists there’s even more. A popular souvenir to buy is the famous “snake whiskey” in the city of Luang Prabang, a rather dubious herbal wine mixture with a special ingredient. I’d like to know the origins of this drink, I was told it was like a local delicacy but I never saw anyone except tourists buying it, and the “Whiskey Village” you can visit seems like an overblown tourist trap. Of course it’s a big hit with the more adventurous backpackers, and I remember being given a shot of it myself from a stall owner I met. Oh, and there’s scorpion options available if snake doesn’t tickle your fancy. It tastes as good as it looks. alanstockphotography-1130751 alanstockphotography-1130748

Craft markets are a staple of tourism income in Asia, and very popular with the tourists in Laos. Luang Prabang hosts one of the biggest, held in the evenings, where you can find everything from clothes to jewellry, art to ornaments. Like any souvenir tourist trap, you’ll see the same items again and again at different stalls and haggling is most definitely required. Of particular note to Laos are the Hmong tribe handicrafts, with their distinctive patterns and colours.

Hmong style purses

Hmong style purses

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Jewellery and metalwork is big in Luang Prabang, but most stall owners don’t like photos being taken of their wares.

To the north in Luang Namtha, there’s a much bigger Hmong presence in the nearby villages, and little old ladies in traditional dress harrass/flatter/entertain tourists in the small market area to get them to buy souvenirs, a tactic which worked with my lady friends! I don’t think she’s got much of a choice here – she’s trying this sarong whether she wants to or not!

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This market was also full of the colourful Hmong handicrafts I’d also seen in Luang Prabang.

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Laos markets really have it all, its a particularly interesting place for them, with its bizarre food offerings and colourful handicrafts. My advice to you is if you’re in Asia, always make time to explore a local market or two – every town’s got at least one and they are always an interesting experience! I’ll leave you with some more Laos market photos. Enjoy!

Red Chillies - in fact these larger one's aren't as spicy as they look, its the little green and yellow ones you've really got to watch out for!

Red Chillies – in fact these larger ones aren’t as spicy as they look, its the little green and yellow ones you’ve really got to watch out for!

Those poppadoms are bigger than those kids!

Those poppadoms are bigger than those kids! It’s quite common to see young children being looked after by their mother running the stall.

Some kind of snails, probably from the river. I never actually tried these in Laos, I wonder whether they're like a snack or if they do them in a sauce or soup? If you know, let me know!

Some kind of snails, probably from the river at Luang Namtha – the river is a popular source of food in the region and spear fishing is also popular with the villagers. I never actually tried these in Laos, I wonder whether they’re like a snack or if they do them in a sauce or soup? If you know, let me know!

Black sticky rice - a Laos staple and pretty tasty.

I think this is Black sticky rice – a Laos staple and pretty tasty. If not, who knows?

Why get a stall when you can just sell out of the back of your tuc tuc?

Why get a stall when you can just sell out of the back of your tuc tuc?

The Luang Prabang Night Market sets up before opening.

The Luang Prabang Night Market sets up.

It's not always tourists at the craft markets, you do see locals buying material and clothes too.

It’s not always tourists at the craft markets, you do see locals buying material and clothes too.

I need eggs. Lots of eggs.

I need eggs. Lots of eggs.

My friend Dave excited to try out a random parcel he bought at a stall. It turned out to be sticky rice. That day I bought something that looked like a Scotch Egg (look it up) - and that turned out to be very, very wrong. I'll never forget that taste... :*( . Dave laughed at me for weeks.

My friend Dave excited to try out a random parcel he bought at a stall. It turned out to be sticky rice with meat. That day I bought something that looked like a Scotch Egg (look it up) – and that turned out to be very, very wrong. I’ll never forget that taste… :*( . Dave laughed at me for weeks.

Yummy dumplings!

Yummy dumplings!

Can you even get this through immigration?

Can you even get this through immigration?

Huge pumpkins, not exactly halloween material though, are they?

Huge pumpkins, not exactly halloween material though, are they?

See you next time!

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