“Grandson of Ni Ketut Sayang on her funeral bier, 11 December 2014, Singaraja, North Bali.
New Age New Bali
Last year I was asked by an English publisher to write a book about the spirit of Bali. I declined the offer, as I was feeling dispirited about the state of affairs on the paradise isle — the threat of filling in Benoa Bay with real estate, the promotion of urban tourism over cultural tourism, and taste trends on the island in general. After a month’s sabbatical over Christmas on the sunny beaches and exquisite harbour of Sydney, I returned rejuvenated. I ran the obstacle course of Ngurah Rai International Airport in record time and bolted out onto billboard avenue like a spring yearling. I took a deep breath of motorcycle fumes, changed into temple dress, and went to my favourite temple, Pura Dalem Sidakarya near Sanur, for its annualodalanceremony. I suffered mild culture shock as I surrendered to the seductive beauty of a Balinese temple court in full swing — that night the spirit of Bali got me again.
The following morning I posted this comment on Facebook: “Last night I was dropped into the deep end of Balinese ceremonial bliss, submerged in the sublime courtyard beauty of Pura Dalem Sidakarya. A light monsoonal breeze lifted the Barong's beard as 30 cuties play golden gamelan for the gods. The rumble of the neighbouring cockfight ploughed through the incense-filled night air. Oh, the joy of being back amongst humble communalists and beauty warriors.”
Famed Pecatu village temple priest Mangku Juri at Pura Luhur temple onodalanday, 18 January 2015.
Somehow the spirit of Bali runs through everything on the island; it knows no barriers; it touches tourists and locals alike. One much-revered Balinese high priest once said that anyone who lives in Bali is a Balinese. It’s really not fair to mock the newsuperbuléexpats who seem to live outside the real Bali — though I’ve made a career of it in this column for years — because the spirit is with them too. Back in Oz I had watched, on Facebook, a video of a Canggu high-rollers’ Christmas party at a trophy home, complete with vast manicured garden and drunk ladies in silver sequined shimmy-shammy dresses. Oh, it was wondrous to behold. In one corner of the circular drive, amongst the tea-coloured toy-boys in rented tux and the dizzy socialites, was a Balinese barong, snapping its jaws like a faulty lawn mower. No-one in the party video seemed to acknowledge its presence, but I am sure one or two guests would have snuck over and prostrated themselves in front of the mystical mascot before stabbing him/herself with a broken champagne bottle.
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Incredibly, on the same afternoon, twenty barongs gathered in an ancient temple near the expat’s villa to re-enact a battle which took place 200 years ago, when the Poleng Kesiman warriors fought on with their guts spilling out. Tranced-out generals in 16th century costumes surveyed the ceremony from a perch high up on the temple steps (see black and white photo below). Coincidently, Australian revellers too were spilling out their guts, on the footpaths of Kuta outside the Bali Bomb Memorial in the red-light district. The spirit of Bali is the spirit of tolerance and variety. In the 1970s, when merry pale-faces first put down roots in the back lanes of Kuta, there was much variety — of surf spots, mushroom omelettes, and cultural attractions. There were fire dances, beach processions, and trips to the far reaches of barely-discovered East Bali. These days one can just sit in the comfort of one’s glass and concrete villa and let one’s iPad do the walking. As I write, there’s a lecture series up for grabs on Colon Whispering and Advanced Sex in Ubud, a Stray Dog Rescue Flash Mob planned for Seminyak, and a Gay Rotary Basangkasa Bamboo Ball coming up. And the Balinese are setting the beat and raising the bar — with outrageous variations in wedding dress, temple decoration, and heavy metal video clips. Tenganan alone now has two acid rock bands!!
Photo by Wayan Linggar Saputra
WHITE TRANCE, Photo by Made Kader
15 January 2015: Old Bali fairy-tale magic in a village near Ubud Ubud now resembles Carmel, that quintessential Californian New Age tourist town. One can barely find a meal with gluten in it, or any form-fitting fashion (unless, of course, on the fashion-conscious Balinese). A few river valleys west, in the still un-ruined district of Mengwi, is the charming rural village of Bongkasa, home to one of Bali’s prettiest palaces, with some of Bali’s prettiest princesses, all married to princes or Brahmans from other grand noble houses.
Between palace ceremonies they all live in Renon or Sanur, to be nearer the golf course and Pizza Hut, but, come the occasion, the princesses get poured into lace chemise and the princes polish their medals… and it’s on! And there’s nothing quite like it. Serfs pour out of lanes to play gamelan, to dance, to carry palace standards, to fan satay, and generally to make it all possible. The nobles do their part too, of course: conversing politely in neat rows in high pavilions and conveying important ritual objects on their heads, and praying together at the right time. Here and there priests are placed and offerings laid. The overall effect is magnificent; it’s a marvel, considering their new modern suburban lifestyle, that they still remember the ropes! But they do — they glide into action like polished professionals.
Bevy of Puri Bongkasa, Mengwi palace beauties, and a palace elder, inside the palace temple, 21 November 2014
Today there’s an extra, barely detectable, excitement in the glistening courtyards as the Mengwi Palace head, who is also head of Badung Regency — which includes Kuta, Sanur, and Denpasar — is due to perform the climax rites of the palace temple’s once-in-a-generation re-charging: the placement of the magic organs in the base of individual shrines.
He sweeps in on time, smiling graciously, as his distant cousins hand him silver trays stacked with ceremonial goodies. He knows all the magic incantations, and performs his role to perfection. Everyone is thrilled. Lunch is served. The mayor glides out and busts me in the carpark smuggling out two cold beers.
17 January 2015: Regular Saturday visit to the jail to visit my liege lord, the Raja Badung With two of my best Balinese buddies — one a (retired) Sanur boulevardier and the other the philosopher cousin of the Raja, with long nails on both hands —I drive to Kerobokan jail past mushrooming budget hotels. Anapoe, the philosopher, keeps us amused from the back seat with stories of his internet discoveries. He is most impressed by the video of the ISIS beheadings and does pitch-perfect impersonations of the gurgling, sawing sound of the knife doing its evil work. The Balinese have a profound fascination for the awesome and the grotesque. At the jail door visitor’s entrance I am recognized by the doorman, who was apecalang(guard) at Uluwatu temple festival when I smuggled in an Australian actress and her family last week. We sweep inside. We are all dressed in Balinese dress as we always meet ourrajain the prison temple where today he is holding court as usual. Everyone, even Russian drug mules, scrapes and bows as they walk past. Ourraja, is inside on a manslaughter conviction after a tragic skirmish with a half-brother a decade ago. He has so far served eight months of a one year sentence. Putu, my Sanur friend, adores the king (as do most Balinese) and asks questions very politely, with hands clasped, about the king’s arrangements. Anapoe, the philosopher, has his shades up and is gossiping busily with his royal cousin about girlfriends.
I sit there sipping mango juice like a pale-face sycophant very politely, with hands clasped. I talk about my recent visit to Palembang in South Sumatra where I couldn’t find the grave of Arya Damar, the Denpasar royal family’s founding ancestor. “Go to Sekuni Hill,” the boss explains. “Ki Haji Agus will take you there; there’s a tall Cyprus tree in front of his house.” He’s a font of such ancestral detail. We then talk of the origin of the Naga Banda (dragon) ceremony in Klungkung Palace (a story which involves three geese down a well) as prisoners file past to the commissioning. “Murdered a cop“, “In for life,” “Embezzler”, therajaquips in a loud stage whisper as each inmate files past. At 4 p.m. the King leads us out of the temple and walks back to his corner cell, greeting everyone with extreme courtesy on the way — like Queen Elizabeth in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. The dignity he has bought to the jail is amazing. We drive home with Anapoe doing the guzzling sounds in the back seat again.
The island of Nusa Penida, the largest of the three-island Nusa group off Bali’s south coast, was once known as Bandit Island (Claire Holt, 1936) because of its use as a penal colony during the early decades of Dutch colonial rule.
In reality, it is a bit like Australia — a fascinating mix of tribal and introduced cultures — immigrants from Bali having established settlements there for the last thousand years, blending in with the existingBali Mula(ancient Bali villages).
It is now easy to reach from North Sanur harbour via cabin cruiser — I took Semaya Cruise, which was excellent.
The trip takes only 45 minutes, but you go back 40 years in time. The island is still delightfully pre-‘villa people’ and pre-tourism, and packed with unspoiled scenic and cultural attractions.
Cute grafix on Karangsari beachsampancanoe
The main harbour Semaya One is very near the best hotel, Semeton Inn, which is run by the family of the descendents from a Pejeng palace (Central Bali) family who fled to Nusa in the 19th century.
Ibu Ucik, the owner’s sister, is the charming manager of the property, which consists of 15 upscalelosmentype rooms and a large pool and excellent restaurant. The hotel is in the village of Ped (Pedjeng?) home to the temple of the Demon King Ratu Dalem Ped which I visited shortly after arriving.
Heavenly afternoon at Nusa Penida: Arrived at scenic Semata Onebeach, visited the beautiful Pura Dalem Ped temple and now
enjoying the hospitality of Ibu Ucik at Semeton Inn, Br. Bodong, Ped
The seaside temple has some fine examples of Klungkung-Majapahit architecture set in three spacious courts. The shrines to Ratu Dalem Ped are particularly beautiful carved in the Klungkung style by local craftsmen I was told.
On my first day I set off to visit the village of Pelilit on the island’s south coast, home to a legendary Baris Guak (Crow) dance troupe — filmed by the Swedish ethno-cinematographer Rolf de Maré in 1936 — to see the old Nusa Penida style architecture photographed by Carole Muller and Rio Helmi in 1990 for Muller’s book on Nusa Penida.
Traditional cottage in Pelilit villages Nusa Penida
As we were driving along the island’s scenic north coast road towards the east, it quickly became apparent that nearly all of the island’s temples have been renovated to within an inch of their lives — all with ornate andesite or limestone appliqué. Approaching Karangsari Beach I found one 18th temple, Pura Semeruah still in mint condition, exhibiting the charming ‘naif-fantastic’ Majapahit-Klungkung style one associates with Nusa Penida (see photo).
Unusual Candi Bentar gate at 18th Century Semeruah temple near Karangsari, Nusa Penida
From Karangsari we drove south through some sublime semi-rural valleys towards Pelilit village and the stunning Pura Atuh Temple Bay nearby (soon to be an Hawaiian-style hotel if the local authorities don’t act).
We did find one old Nusa village hamlet with limestone rubble walls in the old style (see photo this page). The farmers’ wives were weaving theRang-Rangikatcloth for which the area is famous.
Atuh Temple beach on the South coast of Nusa Penida
Along the way the locals were incredibly helpful and charming: it seems that the 21st century Nusa lifestyle is still ‘santaito the max’ with ample opportunities fortuakbreaks on roadside siesta platforms.
I vow to return one day soon and retrace Carole Muller’s footsteps and try to discover more Old Nusa architecture in the Jurassic Park-like hinterland.
Fisherman on siesta platform, Karangsari Beach, Nusa Penida
The farmers’ wives were weaving theRang-Rang
Sea-weed farmer at work on Karangsari beach
On the drive back I spent a fantastic afternoon in the midst of sea-weed farmers. The ‘Be Pasih’ warung west of Karangsari Beach sells amazing grilled fish with tomato relish. See my video:http://youtu.be/HFK1sshRMfI
On my second evening, back at the hotel, I met the localbupati(mayor) of the three Nusa islands, a brother of Ibu Ucik. We discussed the proposed tourism mega-projects on the drawing boards of investors. I advised the mayor to follow the Nusa Lembongan examples, not the Nusa Dua example. The tourism of Bali, and of Nusa Lembongan for that matter, grew from humble starts — catering to the needs of surfers, hippies and travellers. Over 50 years of experience the product was honed. One can’t just slam-dunk 500 room five star hotels in virgin territory: the locals may end up disenfranchised and robbed of their idyllic lifestyle.
20 December 2014: To Palembang to visit museums, tombs and floating villages
Palembang, in South Sumatra, is one of South Asian’s oldest still-functioning trade entrepôts. Sitting on a broad meander of the Musi River it has enjoyed a strategic advantage over trade through the Java Straits — from India, Yemen, China and the Riau Peninsula — for almost 2000 years. It shows, in the faces of today’s population and in the architecture — a mix of Malaya stilt-houses, Chinese roofs and Majapahit-Islam era carving.
The brutalist Novotel hotel ballroom, Palembang
On arrival I went straight to the Sriwijaya Museum — which sits on the site of the presumed 8th century palace, once centre of the great maritime empire — to view their collection of ancient boat hulls (8th century) and statues from the Hindu Buddhist era, and the textiles for which Palembang has been famous through the ages. The museum was educational, but disappointing — underfunded and poorly managed.
Decorative element from 13th century Hindu shrine in Sriwijaya Museum, Palembang
On the way back to the Novotel I stopped at Toko Kreasi in the traditional textile-making district. I discovered a veritable cornucopia of Palembangbatik,songket, andjembutan(tie-dye) fabric and shopped up a storm for Christmas presents.
Stylish Palembang grannie at Toko Kreasi textile shop, Palembang
In the kampong around the textile shops, and driving home — stopping riverside to document all the activity (see my videohttp://youtu.be/u-iR8dbmCwU) — I registered the energy and happiness amongst the Palembangis — a legacy, no doubt, from centuries of racial harmony and prosperity.
Local sweetie in front of Majapahit-Palembang era carving at the Bala Putra Dewa Museum, Palembang
The next day this impression was enforced as I visited the fabulous Bala Putra Dewa Museum with its outstanding collection of Megalithic Age statues. I then visited the enchanting water-garden tomb of a Majapahit-Islam era, West Javanese prince at Sabokinking. Here I discovered the link between Palembang and the Majapahit era Hindu prince Arya Damar/Arya Dillah, founder of Denpasar’s mighty Pemecutan Dynasty. The role of Palembang royal families during both the Hindu and Islamic Majapahit eras was quite important — Arya Damar being the son of the Vietnamese wife of Brawijaya V, the last king of Majapahit, according to some accounts, who was exiled to Palembang.
Megalithic era statues from Pasemah plateau region west of Palembang in Bala Putra Dewa Museum
Palembang also enjoyed extensive relations with the Kingdom of Malaya in nearby Riau, during both the Hindu and Islamic eras.
The last palace of the Islamic era and the old great mosque still stand near the iconic Ampera bridge which connects the two banks of the city.
The Ampera bridge
Fabulous floating warung near Kampung Kapitan
In the evening I visited Kampung Kapitan, the ‘floating village’, where many fine examples of traditional Palembang style homes and timber mosques can still be found.
Nearby, in Chinatown, I had one of the best seafood meals I have ever had, at the back alley ‘Tokyo’ Restaurant.
Garuda now flies twice weekly from Denpasar — using a fast, small Bombardier jet — and there are many flights daily from Jakarta.
I can strongly recommend the Novotel with its large rooms and excellent food. Palembang is, after all, one of Indonesia’s culinary capitals.
The diarist on the Musi River, on the way to Kampung Kapitan (Ampera bridge in back ground)