Murni: A Tourism Pioneer
Bali Advertiser, 28 December 2011
Ni Wayan Murni’s remarkable story began at the very dawn of the age of mass tourism in Bali at a time when Ubud was a sleepy backcountry village. Hers is the story of a woman’s drive to succeed in spite of humble origins, a one-parent family and only a grammar school education.
During the poverty-stricken early years of Indonesia’s post war independence in the 1950s, Murni slept with the pigs and the chickens, cut firewood, and climbed trees for coconuts, durians and mangos. She trapped rice paddy eels, river shrimps and catfish and collected snails along the tiny dirt track that was later to become Jalan Bisma. To help feed the family she helped her father sell a fruit-flavored ice drink (es lilin) from the back of his bicycle. There was also heavy labor – even for small girls – carrying sand and rocks on her head from the river to sell on the road to big trucks rumbling by. From these improbable beginnings, Murni has become one of Ubud’s most successful woman entrepreneurs. Her story of personal achievement parallels the island’s modern development. She owned four clothing shops in Sanur in 1960s, sold batik to Bali’s early cruise ships passengers, peddled sarongs to President Sukarno and Mick Jagger, opened Ubud’s first real restaurant in Campuan in 1974 and was the first woman in Ubud to drive a car – a blue Datsun which she still owns. She operated three antique and tribal art stores in Ubud, then got into hotel business for tourists and long-term travelers with the opening of Murni’s in the 1980s. Her latest enterprise is a newly opened spa.
Murni the Restaurateur
Located by the old Dutch iron suspension bridge over the cavernous Wos River, Murni’s Warung had its start as a rude grass and bamboo structure where she sold drinks and staples to locals and textiles to passersby. One of her first “customers” was a tall American tourist from Topeka, Kansas who later became her husband. Pat bought a sarong and a drink and was invited for a bite to eat. Within six months they were married. When Murni and Pat got tired of the long walk into central Ubud to eat, she made him a sandwich at the shop. The story goes that tourists from the Tjampuhan Inn (now Tjampuhan Hotel) would wander across the swaying iron bridge on their way up the green corridor of splashing waterfalls and fireflies to Ubud. They would spot Pat sitting at a table eating his sandwich and soup, and ask, “May I have what he’s having?” It didn’t take Murni long to realize that this was a business opportunity.
That’s how it all began. Murni prettied the place up, added more tables and chairs, built a tiny kitchen with kerosene burners. She borrowed an icebox and a truck from Gianyar brought blocks of ice every day. She put more Western dishes, sandwiches, bottled drinks and beer on the menu. Word got out that it was one of the best vantage points from which to view a whole panoply of village life, religious processions, people from the market carrying produce on their heads, cattle and herds of ducks passing by outside. It wasn’t so easy in those early days. Far from the beach resorts of southern Bali, there were no grocery stores in Ubud in the 1970s and only dry fish, salt, fruit and vegetables were sold in the market. During the first months of the small restaurant’s existence, Murni had to rise at 5 am to cycle the back roads all the way down to Denpasar’s Badung market to buy eggs, butter, bacon, ham, jam and bread to bring back in time to serve breakfast.
Murni operated the restaurant for four years without running water or electricity, using only oil lamps for light. Water was carried in terra cotta pots up from a spring in the river. Big concrete bins were used to keep the meat, vegetables, drinks and Bintang chilled for her Western guests until she bought a diesel generator in the early 1990s. Electricity didn’t come to Ubud until 1978, and then she got only 450 watts. Murni remembers the first time she made ice cream with her staff. After spending a whole day churning four flavors and putting the hardened ice cream in the freezer, the power shut off for 35 hours. Her warung expanded dramatically in the mid-1980s after the new bridge brought increased tourist arrivals.
The first mention of her legendary warung was in Indonesia Handbook published in 1975. This classic guidebook reports “Murni’s has No. 1 yoghurt, chili con carne, great French fries, ice cold beer and very jegeg (pretty) waitresses.” Much has remained the same – even the logo – and Murni is determined to keep it that way. The iron bridge is still there (only used by pedestrians), the kitchen still uses the traditional mortar and pestle to prepare ingredients, the yoghurt and the black rice pudding are still homemade and the waitresses are still jegeg. Two of the staff have been working at Murni’s since it first opened. At that time they were preteens. Now they have grandchildren. A few guests have been coming for 37 years and still come back even though they are in their 80’s. Anything Western on the menu with someone’s name before it – such as Daniel’s Italian Mother’s Minestrone, Mary’s Grandmother’s Apple Pie, etc. – means that the recipe was originally contributed by one of those early patrons. When a Californian woman prepared guacamole in the kitchen from a nearby avocado tree, Murni tasted it for the first time and stuck out her tongue in bitter disgust, “That’s a medicine we give to sick people!” Friends from the States would bring packages of Nestlé chocolate chips for chocolate chip cookies. Once in the 1970s Auntie Bronia from Melbourne tried to smuggle in a 10-kilo drum of Philadelphia Cream Cheese for Murni’s Lorrie’s Cheesecake and got caught at customs. She talked her way out of it by describing to the bemused official that her rare medical condition required a constant diet of soft cream cheese. To this day all these old standbys remain popular.
Murni the Art Collector
Cooking is not Murni’s whole life. She is also very active in the community, contributes to charities, plays in a woman’s gamelan and somehow even found time to co-author with Jonathan Copeland a best-selling book on Balinese culture called Secrets of Bali: Fresh Light on the Morning of the World published by Orchid Press in 2010 and is already on its second print run.
But her dominating passion is collecting one-of-a-kind artifacts from all over the archipelago. She was brought up in Ubud market where her mother had a shop and trading is in her genes. Her various art shops pre-date even the restaurant. Though Murni has a great eye for quality, her tastes are eclectic as is evidenced by the diversity of antiques, jewelry, new and old textiles, collectibles and gifts in her shop next to the warung. The majority of the items were hand-picked by Murni from a small silver reclining Buddha bought recently by Rebecca Owens from Wales to a huge Balinese Barong bought by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Her special interest is textiles, a hobby that began when she dyed batik organically in the 1960s. She bought sarongs from Cap Cili in Gianyar to sell to aid workers and medical personnel who flooded into the island after the eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963. Ever since then she has been fascinated by fine cloths, not just from Bali or Indonesia, but as far afield as Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.
It is through her expertise in textiles and Asian antiques that she is the only Balinese to be invited each year since 2007 to exhibit at the prestigious Arts of Pacific Asia and Tribal Arts & Textiles Show in San Francisco. While there she is often asked to give a talk on Balinese textiles to the Textile Arts Council of the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Murni the Hotelier
One morning recently my wife and I checked into Murni’s Houses. Started in the 1980s, this complex of four units of accommodation, open-air pavilions, full service spa amid a garden full of flowers, shrubs and trees lying all by itself next to rice sawah and open fields is a wonderful introduction for first timers to Bali and a dependable refuge for her many guests who return each year.
Just 5 minutes walk from the traffic of the main road, accessed through a traditional roofed gate, you’d never know it is actually a working Balinese compound occupied by three families similar to the walled confines of a tiny hamlet deep in the countryside. The grounds and ponds are punctuated with comic stone carvings and playful water fountains – a place of tranquility amidst an ever-developing Ubud. We stayed in The House – literally a whole two-bedroom/two-bath house – and there is also The Room, The Suite and the very private The Bungalow, all with their own spacious configurations, private verandahs, antique furnishings, mini-bars, well-stocked libraries, comfortable sofas, vintage ceramic tile floors. The staff are friendly and helpful, the breakfasts are huge and the standards high. The perfect environment for doing nothing. When Murni wants to get even further away from it all, she escapes to her luxury villas 13 km up the road in Payangan. She lives in one villa and offers the other to guests. With its infinity pool and magnificent views over a magnificent river valley, the villas have been the site of numerous weddings and parties over the past decade.
That afternoon, we arranged for a massage in the newly opened Tamarind Spa on the grounds of the property with one of the most renowned masseuse teams in all of Ubud. We were greeted first with a cup of tamarind tea, our feet soaked in a flowered bath, then chose one of seven fragrant oils and led to the “couples” room. Pica and his wife Agung, who count pop-stars, fashion designers and British royalty among their clientele, employ a thoroughgoing combination of deep tissue, reflexology, Shiatsu and Javanese techniques. But you can’t give their specialty a name. Experiencing waves of shivering sensations, Pica and Agung found muscles in parts of our bodies that we never knew existed. We drifted into another world. The calm Feng Shui atmosphere of flowing water surrounding us made for the most conducive setting for reducing stress. After it was over, while sipping another cup of tamarind tea, I asked Pica why he began at the feet. “It opens up every organ in your body,” he said.
Later that night, still tingling, all we could hear were the sounds of frogs and tokay lizards and in the morning the distant crowing of roosters. No wonder a New York Times travel writer called this country hideaway “one of the world’s ten best small hotels.”
Murni: A Tourism Pioneer