“And now we drink,” said the priest. The holy water came from deep within the cave in which we knelt. The priest, or mangku, had collected it in a rusty bucket left under a dripping stalactite. The cave was discovered five centuries ago by the Javanese priest Nirartha, progenitor of Bali’s particular strain of Shaivite Hinduism. In my sarong, sash, and headdress, I had nibbled the devotional rice, stuck a few grains on my forehead and solar plexus, assembled offerings, and prayed until my folded legs tingled on the cold cavern floor.
The mangku rang a bell and asked for blessings upon my wife and me. He spoke Kawi, the ancient language of poets and priests, in the rapid-fire patter of an auctioneer. The only words I understood were “hotel” and “Alila.”
Every Bali resort worth its hand-harvested salt has a slate of edifying cultural activities, but the Alila Villas Uluwatu goes several steps beyond. Filling a dense handbook, Alila’s roster of “Journeys” offers a more immersive experience than the average guest perhaps requires. You want to learn to play the gamelan? Practice djamoe medicine? Carve stone? Talk to the concierge.
Our choice was a guided tour of the temples of the Bukit Peninsula, on Bali’s southern coast, highlighted by a visit to the cave-hidden Pura Goa Gong, “the gong temple,” so named for a miraculous stalagmite that resonates when struck. Alila calls this excursion the Journey of Enlightenment. Before setting out we were issued a lengthy information packet that included the invaluable tip, “Sun protection and mosquito repellent are recommended for Enlightenment.”
But back to the water. My wife, Nilou, and I eyed the bucket nervously, thinking, as one would, about dysentery. A film of algae had formed across the top. But the water was blessed, we reminded ourselves, and couldn’t possibly hurt us. (I thought of the Ganges, where pilgrims brush their teeth downstream from women washing laundry with lye.) The mangku splashed a few drops on our heads, then lifted the ladle and administered the requisite dose. It tasted awful, like licking a battery. I suppose it was vaguely energizing. But it reeked to high heaven. As I struggled to swallow I considered that we might either reach enlightenment or die, or both.
We did not die. Not even a little. Nor, alas, did we achieve enlightenment. The holy water turned out to be benign, which was a relief and a disappointment. Instead of wrestling with giardia or epiphany, that night we enjoyed a transcendent meal at the Warung, the Alila’s Indonesian restaurant, whose tongue-tingling soto ayam (a chile-spiced chicken soup) was the best Balinese dish we had on the island. After dinner we reclined in our courtyard bale pavilion, gazing at a moonlit sea, with only the surf and the peep of geckos breaking the silence of our clifftop perch. The Alila’s clean lines and spare design—cool terrazzo and limestone offset with glowing hardwoods—made the resort even more of a retreat from the world outside its gates: an island overflowing with color and music and aromas and textures, a place that floods the senses.
Like so many travelers, we’d come back to Bali to connect with its spectacularly vibrant culture, and to see how it has endured. For after the setbacks of the last decade, Bali is booming again. Tourist arrivals are shattering all records. The resort enclaves of Seminyak and Kuta are so crowded with new shops, hotels, and restaurants that developers are reaching into unexploited corners of the island. Nilou and I had last visited six years ago, and in that time Bali appears to have discovered traffic: downtown Ubud was now mired in gridlock. The town was still buzzing from Julia Roberts’s recent visit for the filming of Eat Pray Love, which has turned a whole new generation on to Bali’s mystic charms.