Murni, The Ibu of Ubud

Murni, the Ibu of Ubud

The Jakarta Post, 11 January 2001
Rob Goodfellow


UBUD, Bali (JP): I was having dinner with an international businesswoman based in Singapore. I asked if she knew Murni’s Warung in Bali. Without blinking she said, “Know Murni? Of course I know Murni! Everyone knows Murni. She is a legend. Travelers to Bali call her the Ibu (mother) of Ubud”. In October this year I traveled to Ubud to meet this living legend.

Murni was born just after World War II in the village of Penestanan-Ubud. Her life reflects the history of Ubud itself. Her family has always been closely involved with international travelers. Her mother cooked for Walter Spies, the German aristocrat painter, who lived during the 1930s in a thatched cottage overlooking rice terraces in the neighboring village of Campuan.

At this time, (much like today), anyone who was anyone visited Ubud and they all at some time ate Murni’s mother’s food: Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths’ heiress, Colin McPhee, the ethno-musicologist and his anthropologist wife, Jane Belo, Vicki Baum, the novelist, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson the pioneering anthropologists.

Some say Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican painter and ethnologist, was so inspired by the food in Ubud that he decided to write the still widely read and influential book Island of Bali, published in 1937.

Colin McPhee likewise decided to stay and live in Ubud where he studied Balinese gamelan music. He wrote a marvelous book, A House in Bali, which has just been re-printed in paperback. Murni’s great aunt looked after him too. She is still alive and well and living in Ubud.

In the 1950s it was in Murni’s village of Penestanan that Arie Smit, a Dutch painter founded a school of art called “The Young Artists of Penestanan”, which has profoundly influenced the development of the avante garde art for which the area is now known. Again, Murni’s family was involved.

During the 1960s Ubud was not the bustling tourist center it is today. Murni would get up at 4 a.m. every morning and cycle downhill to Sanur on the south coast of Bali and sell her textiles to visiting cruise ship passengers.

If it was a bad day she had to put her goods back on her head, and cycle home up the hill to Ubud. However, before long she had four shops and counted the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger as one of her regular clients. He is still a customer of Ibu Murni shops today…and he’s still getting satisfaction.

By the mid-1970s Murni had returned to Ubud where she created the first real restaurant in the area – Murni’s Warung. Ever since it has been one of the places to go in Bali. Today Murni’s Warung employs over 60 staff and continues to serve patrons from all over the world. It has been called the most romantic restaurant in Ubud. You can hear the sound of rushing water in the narrow jungle gorge that has formed from the convergence of the River Wos and its tributary. Here locals and visitors, writers, artists and dancers, all enjoy the atmosphere, the exotic cuisine, and, most importantly, each other’s company.

Murni’s shops, Kunang-Kunang I and II and the Warung Shop are all in Ubud’s main street. They have been imitated but never surpassed for quality, authenticity and value. Her international clients think of Murni so highly that they call to check if she’s in Bali before they book their flights. It is little wonder that many of her friends are important people from the United States. The New York Times has in fact named Murni’s Houses as one of the best small hotels in the World.

Murni’s latest venture is the creation of Villa Kunang-Kunang. This is about 15 minutes outside Ubud, on the road up to the landmark Mount Batur. Kunang-Kunang means “firefly” in the Indonesian language. Here Ibu Murni has built two fabulous villas, which are said to have the best views in Bali. The Villas look out over the ancient rice fields and are set in 3 hectares of beautifully landscaped tropical gardens.

Hidden away is a curved swimming pool, which merges into breathtaking views of the emerald-green rice terraces. There are fishponds, water lily ponds, lotus ponds, and the sounds of running water everywhere.

In addition, there are 33 Buddha statues lovingly placed around the gardens. The Villas are furnished with a mix of contemporary and antique Balinese and Indonesian furniture in Murni’s inimitable style. There is even a book specially written for her guests on Balinese life and culture.

There are walks along the rice terraces and, if Ibu Murni has time, she takes her friends and guests along trails where tourists never go, explaining the tropical trees, flowers and plants. Along the way she stops to introduce her guests to local people they would never otherwise get an opportunity to meet.

What continues to inspire Ibu Murni is her strong faith in the importance of maintaining Balinese culture, as living and unique. This is combined with her genuine desire to extend friendship and hospitality to others and to show visitors to the Island a special piece of the real Bali.

Murni, the Ibu of Ubud