Charles and Mary Love
Charleston Style & Design, October 2010
Planning a trip to Bali arouses expectations of achieving nirvana or, at least, of escaping from the mundane. And those who visit usually aren’t disappointed.
Consider the current movie based on the popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love by American writer Elizabeth Gilbert. The author finds happiness and liberation on Bali – a journey the Balinese call “achieving balance” – after she travels the world following an unsettling divorce.
Some attain nirvana on Bali through the high-class pampering they receive at luxury resorts. Others find solace in the island’s slow rhythm and physical beauty – an exotic tapestry of mist-shrouded volcanoes, emerald rice terraces and palm-lined beaches. Everyone who comes here appreciates the island’s culture, an intoxicating blend of Hindu religious and artistic expression that permeates every aspect of daily life.
“I’ve traveled the world, but there’s no place like Bali,” says an Australian expatriate who has made the island his home for over 25 years.“ It’s as if all of life has been condensed on this one small island.” An American woman from the South, who spends six months each year on Bali, explains, “The life force here is strong … there’s something about Bali that brings out a person’s creativity.”
One of 17,000 Indonesian islands, Bali (population over 3 million) has nearly 20,000 Hindu temples and countless palaces, a legacy of the eight ancient kingdoms that once ruled the island.
Ubud, a small town (population around 7,000) near the middle of the island, is the acme of Balinese culture. As one American visitor recently confessed, “There’s no place I’ve ever visited where religion plays a greater role in daily life…virtually every corner and tree branch of Ubud is adorned daily with offerings of incense and banana-leaf parcels with rice and yellow ginger shavings set out for a dazzling array of gods.”
In fact, the Balinese believe that good and evil exist everywhere in the world and that only their constant prayers and offerings can keep bad spirits away. As one native explains, “In Bali, we live on many levels, but religion is the core. It balances three worlds: our relation to the spiritual world, with humans, and with the earth.”
Ubud and its rustic environs have been a mecca for western tourists since the young German artist, Walter Spies, settled here in the 1920s at the invitation of Ubud’s royal family. He was mesmerized by Bali’s culture, which soon became an inspiration for his art.
Eventually, intellectuals and celebrities beat a path to his door: musicologist Colin McPhee; Mexican artist and ethnologist, Miguel Covarrubias (whose 1946 book, Island of Bali, remains a definitive reference on Balinese culture); anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (traveling on a “working” honeymoon); Noel Coward; Charlie Chaplin; and many others. Today, artists, jetsetters and celebrities continue to flock here.
Ubud is at once urbane, bohemian—and, of course, spiritual.
On the town’s main street, inexpensive curio shops stand across from high-end galleries while spacious, open-air restaurants look upon ancient temples. Weddings, cremations, full moon rites and other religious events occur day and night. During these various spectacles you’ll see dancers in bizarre masks, women balancing baskets of fruit offerings on their heads and ensembles performing rhythmic, often haunting, music.
Restaurants in town range from the sophisticated Mozaic, which offers American and French-inspired cuisine in a romantic garden setting, to Naughty Nuri’s, an al fresco roadside warung or restaurant known for its weekly tuna grills and “killer” martinis. Murni’s Warung, the oldest restaurant in Ubud, remains a favorite because of its delicious Indonesian and international cuisine and serene candlelit setting next to a murmuring river. There’s also a popular nightspot, the Jazz Café, which is one of the best places in the village to hear live music and enjoy a simple meal and drinks.
Traditional cultural events occur just about every night in Ubud. They range from elaborate dance-dramas based on Hindu legends to Bali’s famous wayang kulit, folklore plays in which the shadows of leather puppets are cast on a fabric screen. Gamelan orchestras – ensembles of drums, gongs and metallophones (shimmering and slightly dissonant) – accompany most performances.
Ubud’s shopping opportunities are many. Be sure to check out Murni’s Shops, which offer a large variety of Asian antiques, collectibles, textiles and gifts. Murni herself is an energetic entrepreneur, an expert in Asian antiques and textiles and one of Bali’s “living legends.”
Near Ubud, villages specialize in different crafts. Celuk, for example, is known for its goldsmiths and silversmiths; Mas, for mask makers; and Tegallalang for its wood carvers.
In and around town are wonderful accommodations. If you’re seeking an ultra-chic resort, the Four Seasons at Sayan, located just outside town, is hard to beat. Located along Bali’s sacred Ayung River, the resort features enormous suites and villas nestled in a jungle setting. Its fabulous terrace restaurant overlooks a tropical gorge and features Asian-inspired cuisine. The resort’s spa offers a menu of seductive facials, body massages and Ayurvedic treatments.
In town, Murni’s Houses, known primarily through word-ofmouth, is a unique, low-key option. The ambience and friendly staff make guests feel like they’re staying in a traditional island home. Situated inside a Balinese-style walled compound within three minutes of Ubud’s main street, this tranquil sanctuary offers a variety of suites and rooms. Meals are served either on a garden terrace or in the guestrooms.
In the countryside, just 20 minutes outside Ubud, Murni’s Villas offer upscale accommodations at a site that has become popular for weddings and honeymoons. Situated on six acres and overlooking ancient rice terraces, the villas are collectively named Kunang-Kunang after the fireflies that sparkle above the terraces at night. Matrimonial ceremonies are performed beneath temple umbrellas and feature a flower-strewn aisle lined with Balinese flags. Country walks, tours, courses in local culture and massages can easily be arranged either here or at Murni’s Houses.
If you’re based in Ubud, you’ll inevitably want to allow time for exploring central and eastern Bali – regions of expansive rice terraces, lava-strewn hillsides, coconut and banana groves, remote beaches and villages centered on Hindu temples.
Mount Agung, at over 10,000 feet, is Bali’s tallest volcano and, allegedly, the dwelling place of Bali’s most important god. Besakih, a complex of nearly two dozen temples on the slopes of Mount Agung, is considered Bali’s Mother Temple, in part because it houses the ancestral shrines of Hindu Balinese. Accordingly, villages position their temples, homes and even their beds, in relation to the volcano.
With Bali’s cultural traditions passionately sustained by her people, tourism is not likely to diminish the island’s magical culture. Whatever your means for seeking nirvana, the odds of achieving it are greater here than anywhere on the planet.
Island of Bali
by Miguel Covarrubias.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1946.
Secrets of Bali – Fresh Light on the Morning of the World
by Jonathan Copeland with Ni Wayan Murni.
Orchid Books, 2010.