Featured photo by Denis Fournier
Many people travel to see the familiar.
This is a strange sentence, but it’s true if you think about it. We want to go to India and see the Taj Mahal. Why? Because we’ve seen so many photos of it, heard so much about it, and well, everyone goes there. We want to be a part of this famous and popular thing. We can say, “I was there.”
Not that this is bad. Infamous spots like the Eiffel Tower, The Great Wall of China, The Sydney Opera House; these are well-worth the travel and you get an excellent social media picture. Yet, when I travel, I like to find the unfamiliar things. Places that people don’t talk about too much. Things I haven’t seen or heard of before. A destination I go to for the story, not the pictures.
When I traveled to Ubud, mecca for yoga lovers and health nuts, I knew that many people went there to practice their poses, see the monkeys in Monkey Forest, and visit temples. I was interested in all this too, but I searched and picked through Google until I found something that intrigued me. Something no one had told me about before.
The Birds of Petulu.
I’m not actually a huge bird fan. I’ve ran in terror from peacocks in Malaysia, but this small village, Petulu, and its mysterious birds seemed like a mythical story. I read that from October to March, white herons come to roost in Petulu in massive quantities. The trees drip with white feathers and feces; their branches heavy with nests and perched birds. This in itself is fascinating, but the villagers explanation for the phenomena was even more so.
They believe that these herons are the souls of deceased communists.
I mean, c’mon. Right there, I was sold.
There was a slaughter in the 1960’s of supposed members of the Communist party. It is told that many of these bodies were not given a proper burial. The people of Petulu decided to have a ceremony to clean their village of evil spirits and the atrocities that had occured. One week later, the birds arrived and to this day, they return. Perhaps they carry the souls that had no where else to go.
I convinced my traveling partners, Molly and Anna, to come with me to this tiny village. We hired a taxi driver and drove deep into the rice paddies, through terraces and small gravel roads, hoping to make it right before sunset. This is supposed to be the best time, as it is when the birds fly back and roost.
Photo by Kevin Poh
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but a road covered in bird shit wasn’t it. We stepped out of the taxi and our driver warned us not to stand under the trees. My god, I wondered, have I made my friends travel all this way to play a game of “avoid the bird shit.”
We bought a cheap ticket from a man in an unmarked booth and looked around, having no idea what to do next. There were already some birds in the trees, hence the previous warnings, but they weren’t full yet. We began walking down the only road in the village, hoping we’d find something of significance.
Men were crowded in a circle, yelling. I slowly realized, with a sickening thud, that this was a cock-fight. Anna is a vegetarian and I hoped she wouldn’t get too upset. It seemed strange to me that a village whose tourism was based around bird viewing would also enjoy such a blood sport. We walked past and I glanced quickly at the rooster corpse on the ground.
Petulu is very small, but it seemed like a nice community. All the houses had ornate, temple-like doorways. We saw many women walking and scootering by in their ceremonial clothes with baskets of offerings balanced on their heads. I’d read that the people in Petulu thought the herons were good luck because these birds have put them on the Ubud tourist trail somewhat, but did these women really enjoy the squawking and constant side-stepping under the trees?
The viewing platform to see the birds was so nondescript that we almost passed it. I thought it was an abandoned structure, but we noticed a couple other foreigners hanging out on it. We went up the stairs and on the platform were a couple plastic chairs, a fridge with sodas and water, and some snacks for sale. I bought some roasted corn chips, from the random Balinese guy whose job it must be to hang out up there, and Molly and Anna grabbed a Coca-Cola. We sat down and waited for the show.
It was not the most touristy experience of my life. There were maybe ten of us on that platform, including the Balinese guy who didn’t seem to bothered by anything. We had a brochure that had been given to us with our ticket and besides that, we didn’t know what was going on. So, we chatted, watched some ants try to carry away my corn chips, and enjoyed the setting sun.
You may be expecting, as I was, that all of a sudden, the sky filled with white and the birds of Petulu had arrived!
But no, it was much more subtle than that. Slowly, but surely, we saw birds flying in from god-knows-where to roost for the night. The trees quickly filled, like hotels during a festival. It wasn’t an awe-inducing sight, but more a pleasant one. I didn’t feel as though lost souls were swarming around me. I didn’t feel a strange aura of peace. I just enjoyed watching the birds fly through the sunset to their nests in this strange, but quaint Balinese village.
Molly, Anna, and I walked back to our taxi, happy with our excursion. The taxi driver still didn’t get why we’d wanted to come. He tried to drive us down the small street, but at the end, Balinese people in colorful clothes sat on the ground, worshipping. It was an incredible sight. It was something I’d never seen before.
Photo via The Wandering Angel
I didn’t take many photos in Petulu and the ones I did take wouldn’t mean anything to many other people. It wouldn’t even make a good social media post. Because who goes to Bali to see birds sit in trees? It’s not a familiar or particularly famous sight….but you know what?
It made a great story.