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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

    £7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones