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Click for larger view.Bali is many things to many people, but perhaps more than any other destination in the world, Bali often has a profound effect on its visitors. "Life-changing," is not a term that people typically use to describe a vacation. But, I've heard that description many times over the years that I've been sending people to Bali.

This is not to say that one should go to Bali expecting to have a revelation of some sort. Nor should the possibility of a "life-changing" experience scare visitors away. Though it's certainly a place to expect the unexpected, to a large degree Bali is simply what you want it to be. You can choose to expose yourself to potential life-changing experiences or you can choose to avoid or limit those experiences.

For a small island, Bali is jam-packed with experiences. Surfers visit Bali for great waves, night clubs and an inexpensive lifestyle. Adventurers climb a volcano, trek in the jungle and rice fields, dive in pristine waters and raft through lush river gorges. Spa-goers are amazed by the availability of spa treatments at incredibly low prices. Shoppers think they've found paradise with everything from inexpensive fabrics, wood carvings and souvenirs to very fine artwork and stunning jewelry. (You could probably shop every day for a year and not hit all the shops.)

But, for those who are open to experiencing a culture that's laden with spirituality, magic, mysticism, symbolism and tradition, Bali does have the ability to alter the way one perceives the world. There's a reason, after all, that Bali is known as the Island of the Gods.

I think that what astonishes people the most is the depth of feeling and depth of belief that the Balinese hold in their hearts and souls. They do not appear to doubt. Belief and spirituality are not part of Balinese life; they are Balinese life. They're an intregal part of everything that the Balinese do in their lives. Belief and spirituality are part of eating, working, making art, making music and every other aspect of living. For westerners who are used to a certain level of cynicism, seeing how the Balinese live and believe can be anything from eye-opening to thought-provoking to inspirational. Hence, life-changing.

Balinese Hinduism is chock full of colorful gods and characters, making for great storytelling - stories that are told by way of exotic dances, a unique style of music and the artwork that is everywhere in Bali.

Ritual is also a huge part of Balinese life, which makes it particularly easy for visitors to the island to observe or even participate in the local culture. You may be lucky enough to visit Bali during a holiday period, when you can observe processions or join a temple festival. But, it's also possible to have a personal ritual, such as a purification at the holy spring temple or a Mejaya-jaya ceremony for couples. One doesn't have to believe in Hinduism, to participate in ritual ceremonies; one simply has to have a desire to experience introspection and the Balinese way.

For those who don't want to completely immerse themselves in the spiritual aspects of Bali, there's still an opportunity for learning. This is easily achieved by spending a day in a rural village, listening to a dukun explain how he heals by traditional methods or by meeting with a priest to learn about, but not participate in, Balinese Hinduism and traditions.

Even surfers may not be immune; on my very first trip to Bali, 20 years ago, I observed a seaside cremation just steps away from one of Bali's main surfing beaches. Expecting the unexpected is the way of Bali.

Diane Embree
July 6, 2008

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