The Making of Ubud

The Making of Ubud
Bali’s Art, Culture, And Heritage Village
Richard Mann, Gateway Books International, 2013


The Making of Ubud. Ni Wayan Murni is another example of what happened when new elements began to appear in Ubud.

Generations of Murni’s family had worked as farmers on land around Ubud, obedient to the seasons, fulfilling the heavy tasks under the tropical sun but always poor. “We hardly had enough food to eat – coconut, jack fruit, occasionally meat or grasshopper, rice paddy eels and snails, sometimes eggs.”

Even in a poor agrarian society such as Bali there were regular local markets for the buying and selling of produce, household items and farming tools. It was generally the women of the family who attended the market and for generations Murni’s family was no different – she cut her trading teeth at Ubud Market where her mother traded as had her mother before her. Not only that but the whole family lived at the market, sleeping on a grass mat with a small pillow and bathing in nearby streams which today have become obscured by urban development.

But at the time when Murni lived at the market there was a big difference – the times were changing and in addition to the custom of her friends, neighbours and local people, suddenly, miraculously, strange looking foreigners were appearing in Ubud with the money to buy things – tourists looking for souvenirs.

In 1960, Ubud Market was nothing like it is today (under renovation again in 2012). There was a big banyan tree at the front and all around farmers thronged in the early morning to sell their produce (they still do if you get up early enough) and buy essentials for their homes behind ubiquitous mud walls. At the back was a small school and then rice fields stretching unbroken to Monkey Forest.

At night kerosene lamps burned in the family compounds as well as little wooden warungs open ‘til late at the roadside. Murni remembers being taken to the many brilliantly lit and decorated temples where, after devotion, there was often (and still is) dancing and gamelan, wayang puppet shows and a pasar malam or night market (there still is).

In 1960, there was no traffic, not even a bicycle, and in the later afternoon, fresh from bathing in the river, the unsealed, dirt roads were lined with people in bright clothes, laughing together or in groups. Having said that, the little bridge in front of Murni’s was often jammed with ducks, cattle and people.

In the mornings, the women prepared offerings, cooked food over a wood fire and went to market.

Every day Murni helped her mother at the old Ubud Market selling vegetables, rice, sugar, coffee, textiles and sarongs from Gianyar and household goods such as kerosene and plates, which had to be fetched from Denpasar, then a major excursion. Her schooling was only until primary level at Ubud and later at Denpasar so she had plenty of time to learn from her mother. She also learned cooking from her mother’s aunt who had cooked for Walter Spies at Campuhan and later on this skill would stand her in surprising good stead.

As cruise ships began to arrive in the early 1960s, usually at Padang Bai, more foreigners made their way to Ubud by bus. According to Murni, the target was Puri Lukisan, the Palace of Paintings, opened in 1956 as a repository of paintings from the inter-war years which had helped make Ubud and Bali famous – a complete vindication, if one were needed, of the correctness of the strategy of Ubud Palace in giving Ubud its very own tourist object. At Puri Lukisan, visitors can see hanging on the walls the entire spectrum of Balinese life from myths of temple scenes, ceremonies, markets and everyday life. Sometimes the tourists visited the palace itself.

Between 1961 and 1964 when the visitors arrived, little slender Murni wearing a traditional sarong ran to the bamboo bridge leading across a riverine gorge to the Museum from the road and hung up a tempting array of textiles and sarongs supplied by her mother at Ubud market. Since she couldn’t yet speak English, using smiles and sign language she persuaded some of the visitors to buy.

By the mid 1960s a number of beach-side hotels had sprung up at Sanur, usually bungalows beneath the palm trees, and Murni started to cycle more often to the developing resort area to sell more of her mother’s goods, especially textiles and sarongs. She didn’t go every day, just whenever news went round Ubud that Sanur had tourists. The Bali Beach Hotel opened in 1966 attracting more tourists, usually ones with money because it was relatively expensive. As the number of tourists increased again after the opening of Kuta airport in 1969 Murni was able to open not one but three small ‘shops’ along the Sanur beach front.

Business was so good that she moved to Sanur with her husband in 1965 and lived there for a decade until 1974 by which time circumstances had begun to change in Ubud. More guests were making the journey northward and some started to stay there, often at new homestays that were beginning to appear and often, too, in the homes of members of the Ubud royal family, especially the Campuhan Hotel where Walter Spies had once lived.

The day trippers were interested in Puri Lukisan but those seeking to stay longer were interested in experiencing the landscape, the people and the culture of ‘real’ Bali. In the small area of Ubud they could experience the emerald green rice fields, stroll along the steep river valleys, watch farmers at work and feel themselves surrounded by the culture of Bali expressed in tinkling gamelan music, temple ceremonies and the throaty story telling of the Wayang puppet dalang at night in front of the kerosene lamp.

Sanur was comfortable but somehow it wasn’t Bali in the way Ubud seemed to be. At Ubud, too, in the 1970s, they found painters and carvers, alone or in groups, working in the compounds of their traditional homes re-creating a magical world. If ever there was a ‘secret’ Bali, it could be found at Ubud.

Many visitors also strolled west to look at the temple by the two rivers discovered by Maharisi Markandya and the Dutch built a wooden suspension bridge to cross the river. By 1976, Suteja Neka would build an art museum even further west at Sanggingan, attracting even more visitors,

These developments gave Murni her next lucky break. Guests stayed at the Ubud Palace’s Campuhan Hotel, on the other side of the bridge, the only real hotel in Ubud until 1982. They loved to walk into Ubud and on the way often asked Murni for drinks. Murni’s father owned land on the hill next to the bridge and overlooking the River Wos but not close to the river. Luckily Murni was able to lease land right next to the suspension bridge and within one year she bought it.

Separated from her Balinese husband at Sanur, she opened a small warung to provide first drinks and later food for the visitors. At first she learned about food from the tourists, about bread, guacamole, avocado. “strange foods.”   She started with one bamboo table, two chairs, an ice box and an important acquisition, a new American husband, Pat, who taught her about soup, sandwiches and ice cold beer.

This was 1974 and the start of Ubud’s iconic Murni’s Warung, one of the first restaurants in Ubud. Murni also added fried rice and noodles to the menu setting up one extra table every week as more and more guests dropped by. By 1978, when electricity arrived at Campuhan, she could serve cold beer from a refrigerator.

Everyone moving east to west or vice versa had to pass Murni’s even the ducks and cows and local people with loads on their heads and even bare breasted girls (the painting shows it all). What more could the tourists ask!

But they did. Visitors asked for books about Bali and so when the Warung had become an enclosed restaurant Bali style, built from bamboo, Murni set up a glass book case in the centre – where I first foud many Bali classics such as Vicki Baum’s A Tale from Bali.

Murni’s was also used as a ‘post office’, at which travellers left and picked up messages, adding again to its usefulness and appeal.

Murni always loved antiques and handicrafts and after she became Ubud’s first woman driver in 1978, she drove everywhere looking for the best quality antiques, handicrafts and batik. During the 1980s whatever she bought she could sell in a single day. Times were good.

From selling at Puri Lukisan, at the beach at Sanur and then opening one of Ubud’s first restaurants, still today one of Ubud’s tourist attractions, Murni, the girl with little education and little money has become a successful restauranteur, a dealer in antiques with shops in Ubud and international sales via the internet and trade shows around the world, owner of holiday houses and villas for rent to tourists in and around Ubud and also a luxury spa close to the Warung. All this has been the gift of tourism.

Like everyone, Murni says tourism has its pluses and minuses, but that despite the loss of rice fields for development, on balance, she feels that with all its busy-ness and stress and pressure on time, life in Ubud is still good.

The Making of Ubud