An Indonesian funeral: tourists welcome

Hester Lacey discovers that in Bali locals are happy for outsiders to attend the most personal of ceremonies

There seemed to be some kind of party going on at the side of the road, with wreaths of flowers, a bonfire, a totem pole festooned with ribbons, sparkly mirrors and bright strips of cloth. There were people milling about, dressed in their best, singing. Curious, we pulled over.

There seemed to be some kind of party going on at the side of the road, with wreaths of flowers, a bonfire, a totem pole festooned with ribbons, sparkly mirrors and bright strips of cloth. There were people milling about, dressed in their best, singing. Curious, we pulled over.

In fact this was a double funeral and the bonfire was the glowing embers of a cremation. Bali is one of the few places where you can gatecrash such an event. A friendly young woman explained that the ceremony was a final farewell to two people - an older and a younger man, both from the same village - and that their extended families, neighbours and friends had all turned out.

While the younger man had died quite recently, the older one had been dead for some time: my new friend thought "maybe two or three years". This isn't unusual; organising a cremation is expensive and takes some time, and anyway it's best to wait for an auspicious date, decided by the local priest. Temporarily burying the bodies allows families to save money and make preparations, and if two or more can be given their send-off at the same time, so much the better.

As well as the flowers, there were offerings of rice, food and incense, to calm any spirits who might disturb the ceremony. Musicians were playing tinkling Balinese gamelan music to further pacify bad spirits and accompany the souls of the dead to a better place (the Balinese believe heaven to be not unlike Bali, which is fair enough). One group of women was wailing theatrically in harmony, a surprisingly pleasant sound. An impassive priest dressed all in white presided, clicking his finger bells as people passed him further offerings for blessing. The ceremony had started around eight that morning and would go on until "perhaps midnight".

Turning up uninvited to a funeral seems a shocking imposition, but everyone smiled and nodded and genuinely didn't seem to mind. Then a group of ebullient Australians in shorts jumped out of a minibus and began capturing the event on video, virtually jamming a camera up the priest's nose; this seemed to be pushing it rather and we beat a discreet retreat.

This relaxed attitude to funerals extends to other events that Westerners would consider a strictly family preserve, including weddings. It's also possible to sit in on the teeth-filing ceremony that each child goes through at puberty (crooked teeth are considered bad and the front ones are filed straight by the priest). "We can arrange it," said our guide Yasa casually. But don't people mind when strangers turn up, with their cameras, videos and stupid questions? "Balinese people like to welcome visitors," insisted Yasa.

It's true that the Balinese are noticeably friendly. Even in the crowded markets, where sellers of the ubiquitous carvings and sarongs and basketware are jostling for attention, there's less of the pushiness and aggression that tourists can meet in places like India, where hawkers are quite likely to grab your arm and try to insist that you buy. "Are you from Wales?" asked one woman, mystifyingly. No, why? "We like Lady Di," she explained with a beaming smile.

It's only a couple of hours by catamaran to Lombok, the next Indonesian island to the east, but it feels very different. Crossing the strait, you also cross the Wallace Line: the nominal boundary that separates Asian from Australian flora and fauna. But the most obvious species that's in shorter supply is the tourist. The interior of Bali is lovely, but its capital, Denpasar, and the surrounding beach resorts, have become the equivalent of Benidorm for Australian holidaymakers: busy, thriving and bustling. Lombok is far less developed than Bali, with densely forested hills dominated by Mt Rinjani, the second-highest mountain in Indonesia.

However, Lombok too has recognised the potential value of cultural tourism. The village of Segenter, in the north-west of the island, has decided that the best way to finance improvements such as running water, electricity and sewage is to get visitors to pay. Segenter is a cluster of huts housing 300 people, in a gritty clearing where the wind whips up the dust. A tribe of children rushes out to meet tourists, grabbing eagerly for pencils, sweets or any other gifts that might be forthcoming. "Lot of child, lot of blessing," said our guide.

The houses are built of woven bamboo, and have no windows, to keep the worst of the heat out. Our guide barged unceremoniously into one, pointing out the raised sleeping platforms, reserved for the parents, the mats stored in the roof, the pots and pans hanging from the walls and the water jars the women have to fill every day from the river while the men are out working in the fields of rice, chilli, tobacco and beans. The women seemed quite resigned to this intrusion, clearing out so we could have a look around and smiling from the door, as the clusters of children gazed solemnly at us.

The reason for this welcome became clear, as we were led towards the "visitors' book". Fifteen others had passed through ahead of us that day, and beside each name was the amount they had donated. It was evidently de rigueur to fork out; a tenner or so per visitor seemed to be the going rate. Our guide explained that each month the village meets together to decide what to spend the money on; currently they're working towards piped water so that the women don't have to walk 8km to fetch it. One of the few men who wasn't out farming said that the villagers' only other income was from crop surpluses; in a bad year a family might make nothing, in a good year it might be one million rupiahs - rather less than £100.

No wonder the young men and women of the villages near the luxury resorts are happy to make a few pounds a night working in the hotels. Tourism in Lombok is still sufficiently small-scale to be developed without overwhelming the place. But recently visitors have been scarce. Unrest on the island last January was a setback for the island's tourism industry, and one of the Christmas Eve church bombs went off in the capital, Mataram. Lombok already relies on its burgeoning tourism ventures. So there's a genuine feel to the exhortations to "Come back soon!" that accompany the farewell gifts of frangipane wreaths.

Getting there

Hester Lacey stayed at the Oberoi Bali (£780 for five nights) and the Oberoi Lombok (£730 for five nights). Return flights with Garuda Indonesia cost from £644. Oberoi information and reservations 0800 962 096. Garuda reservations 020 7486 3011. Complete packages can be obtained through Magic of the Orient on 01293 537700.

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