Ubud, the Heart of Bali

This part of Indonesia remains welcoming and serene
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TOURISM to Bali began in the early 1920s, when the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company added the island to its itinerary. By 1930 there were about a hundred visitors a year; a decade later the figure was 250. The ships stopped off the north coast, where passengers were ferried to shore first aboard tenders and then on the backs of Balinese men. Most visitors would traverse the island by motor car to the capital city of Denpasar, in the south, where they stayed at the luxurious Bali Hotel, opened in 1927.

Discriminating travelers, however, headed for the green hills of the interior, to visit the princedom of Ubud. There was no hotel in Ubud: travelers stayed in the bungalows that Prince Gde Agung Sukawati had built for the circle of artists he patronized. What was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time began with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as any in the world, where everyone, it seemed, was an artist of one sort or another and child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana to the exuberant, clangorous accompaniment of a gamelan.


One early visitor to Ubud, Noel Coward, had his traveling companion, Charlie Chaplin, in mind when he wrote this bit of doggerel verse:

As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it's entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.

Today Bali welcomes thousands of foreign visitors every day. After the political upheavals in other parts of Indonesia last year, tourism dropped off temporarily, but Australians and Japanese, who constitute about half the island's visitors, are back in throngs. They know that regardless of what's going on in Jakarta and elsewhere, Bali remains as safe as can be: even as Indonesia's political and economic future remains cloudy, the Balinese, famous throughout the archipelago for their hospitable, easygoing ways, have maintained their wonted serenity.

Most tourists here are young travelers on a budget, who have turned the beaches south of Denpasar into a hell of traffic jams, raucous pubs, peddlers -- and, yes, pickpockets and prostitutes. At the opposite end of the tourism spectrum are those who stay at one of Bali's many luxury resorts, where it's possible to spend as much as $1,000 a night to stay in a walled villa, and be served champagne and foie gras beside one's own private swimming pool. Yet today, just as in the days of the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company, discriminating travelers -- those who may not see the need to travel so far from home for loud bars or French food -- come to Ubud, the heart of Bali.

I won't mislead you: Ubud is anything but undiscovered. On any afternoon most of the faces on its main streets are foreign, and most of the Balinese you meet are offering transport or other services (though, fortunately, the scene is far more subdued here than in the south). Yet it's still possible for even the lazy traveler -- and Bali will have failed you if you don't soon lapse into a tranquil languor -- to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place that seduced Walter Spies and the glittery visitors who passed through.

THERE'S no better place to begin than the Hotel Tjampuhan (phone 011-62-361-975369, fax 975137), built on the site of Walter Spies's home. The hotel, which is owned by the sons of Prince Sukawati, is a funny old place. Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting. (Bali, generally speaking, is a low-wattage island.) The service is a little erratic too: there was no stationery in my room, so I called the front desk to ask for some. Ten minutes later a man appeared at my door under a dripping umbrella, holding two sheets of writing paper as limp as boiled cabbage leaves.

Never mind -- the site is exquisite. Tjampuhan, the old-fashioned spelling of Campuan, means "place where two rivers meet." The hotel's bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel's lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there's no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn't pay much attention to rules.)

I find that jet lag often conduces to discovery. On the first morning of my most recent visit to Ubud I awoke before dawn. Knowing that it would be impossible to go back to sleep, I dressed and strayed out into the streaky gray mist for a wander. I met Wayan, the "room boy," a lithe, quick-eyed man in his mid-thirties who had introduced himself the night before, when I checked in. He was in the garden gathering hibiscus flowers, which would be artfully tucked behind the ears of sculptured deities or scattered across bed sheets for romantic effect. I asked him how to get to the river, and he immediately set down his basket and led the way, along hairpin pebble pathways and then down a crude wooden staircase. It had rained during the night, so the river dashed ferociously through the gap. A forty-foot waterfall splashed noisily at the first bend in the river.

Wayan didn't stop there. He skipped across the water on a broad plank bridge and led the way up a steep dirt path to the crest of the ridge opposite the hotel. Here he pointed down a narrow lane lined with bamboo, and said, "You can walk." I thanked him and did as he suggested. Rice fields were on one side of the lane, the roaring river gorge on the other. A mother duck and her brood fell in behind me, gently gabbling to one another as they followed me to the end of the fields. Eventually I made my way past the royal temple to an old Dutch suspension bridge, just down the main road from the Hotel Tjampuhan.

No place in the world could be greener than Ubud. Everything here is green: the young rice fields glow a fluorescent shade of emerald; the thick curtains of foliage appear all the greener for the scarlet accents of ginger and hibiscus. Things that began another color -- brick walls or pebble walkways -- soon become green with shaggy moss. Even the air has a pale-green cast: the moisture suspended in it picks up the pervasive glow of the verdure. The Balinese have long called their island "the morning of the world." It's an extravagant phrase, but that morning I had an inkling of what they were talking about.

Another verbal extravagance, beloved of travel writers whose descriptive powers have deserted them, is the word "magical"; usually it's just hyperbole for "especially pretty." Yet there really is magic in Ubud. When Balinese people lose something, they consult a balian, a benign sort of sorcerer, who tells them where to find it. Balians can interpret dreams, cure sickness, go into trances, and speak in the voices of ancestors. And magic, in the form of the island's unique religion, is at the core of Bali's arts. A blend of Hinduism and nature worship, the Balinese religion is an ecstatic union of the spiritual and the aesthetic, reminiscent of the religion of ancient Greece. Bali's famous trance dances, for example, suggest the rites of Bacchus: in one of the sanghyang dances two girls who are supposedly untrained in the dance's intricate choreography go into a trance and, eyes firmly shut, move in perfect unison. The dance is named after the divine spirit that inhabits them.


WHEN Walter Spies arrived in Bali, he found a culture completely devoted to art, yet to which the notion of art for art's sake was alien. The Balinese have no word for "artist"; painting, carving stone and wood, weaving, playing a musical instrument, and, above all, dancing were just what one did when not fishing or working in the rice fields.

It is an axiom of art history that what used to be known as primitive art had a profound influence on the emergence of modernism in twentieth-century Europe. In Bali, Europe returned the favor: Spies had an uncanny affinity for the Balinese sensibility, and he thoroughly transformed the arts of the island in the fourteen years he lived there. The famous school of painting in Ubud, one of the principal attractions for people from every part of the world, was virtually his invention.

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