Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Kini Magazine, June 1998)

Palatial Panorama: The Tirtagangga water palace from Carol Muller's house.

Head for the Hills
Bali's simple pleasures are a world away from the madding crowds of the coast


Local Prince Cokorda Dhangin Sidemen

What a relief to have Bali back to the gentle pace of yesteryear. No mega projects pounding the earth, the world’s tallest garuda’s on hold and the dredger at Turtle Island’s bee turned off.
To celebrate I visit Mertasari beach with a few Balinese chums from Sanur. Behind the cowngated iron fence that perches on the primary dune a few lazy warungs serve gado gado in the fierce noon heat. Shop girls sleep on warm benches, listening to the lilting tunes of arja music, Bali'’ answer to Chinese opera. It is a mesmeric scene and in the mirage like stillness one is treated to a lungfull of dry air and a sense of tranquility. Bali is back with the Balinese. Bravo!
Back home the BBC is bang my on about “Habibie Tilting Towards Islam” and I decide to head for the hills in search of more simple pleasures. My first stop is Iseh the picturesque village perched in the Shadow of holy Mt. Agung in East Bali. The air is fresh and the sing-song voices of the delightful East Bali accent fill the air with merriment. Everyone seems happy. I visit Walter Spies old studio home now the retreat of real estate baroness, Ivanna Pucci • Recently revamped the splendid villa is perched in rice fields carved out of Bali’s most dramatic valley . Every window frames a sliver view of rice field activity—water buffaloes swoosh and swish as the field sparrows dart amongst the garden is thick and Dewey from the mountain air: anthuriums, giant ferns and ground orchids fight for attention. It is a pixey glade of contentment.
I have dinner with some artist friends who’ve sensibly eschewed the sunset strip of “demented exiles” and placed themselves on a hilltop in one of the local prince, Cokorda Dhangin Sidemen’s rental houses. The garden is leafing perfect the view sublime. The meal is prepared by the Cokorda’s charming wife Dayu Mas who joins us for the gourmet Balinese meal (bee lawar, fried grasshopper and saffron rice). Dayu doesn’t ask after my immigration status or try and sell me land which is such a treat: we just gossip, in the time-honored island tradition, about the wickedness of all the lords and ladies of the land.

The next morning, as clouds of ducks wobble down the narrow Iseh road, and the mist rises on the village pagoda temple I head up the hill to the high road that connects Besakih, the mother Temple, with Karangasem, the capital of East Bali, through some of the most magnificent scenery known to man kind. There is not an art shop in sight: everyone is engaged in rural pirsuits save a camp of workers building a base for a white-water rafting company. The Balinese are great at adventure tourism: They adore the outfits, the flesh pressing and the commune with nature, in that order isaspect. It is the fastest growing niche market—bird watching, mountain bike-riding, trekking—and the hills of East Bali are a treasure trove of trekking treats.

Passing scenic Patung I spot a litter and an entourage, like David’s famous painting flight out of Egypt: its bamboo queen Linda Garland with some Guinness hiers enjoying the tail end of her favorite walk from Tenganan (the Bali Aga village) to Putung. A Four Seasons helicopter hovers overhead springing rose water (“EC Ninjo has played havoc” the wonder woman tells me “with monsoon merrymaking”) and mangosteens drop from their fertile branches into designer baskets.

Further down the road, well 20km east, through the salak (snake fruit) orchads for which the road is famous, I stop at Tirta Gangga the water gardens of the last King of Karangasem. I the friendly Dhangin Taman Inn, homestay to the hill-billies, I visit artist chum Baxter who has spent years surveying the 1940s romantic folie of the architects King and has been inspired to create paintings and ceramic artworks of trail-blazing originality. Together we visit the original bule aga, woolite hieress Nyonya Carole Muller, who, with husband-architect Peter Muller, built the original and still the best mountain retreat, the Amandari. Carol joined the exodus from the fun bum-belt to the east two years ago and restored a ‘wing’ of the old place. Her view over the formal fountains (European-oeserie) and fantasy follies of the terraced water gardens is enchanting. Further up the Tirta Gangga road the Eastern ‘highway’ dips to the coast, to the Villages of Amed and where some new boutique-styles resorts have recently spring up on the lava-encrusted foreshores. I Snorkel off the beach as armadas of native Prahu sail out into the Lombok Straits, their aquamarine sails catching the morning sun.

After a grilled fish lunch at the Mimpi Resort, designed by Martin Grounds and Jack Kent who gave us the heavenly. Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran, back tracked, on the high road through the mountains, taking the western fork at Muncan on the Rendang Besakih road, through the unusual mountain village of Suter, to the Batur Lake at the feet of the still-active Batur Volcanoe.

The crater icecaps eastern shore, in the once quaint hot spring harlot of Toya Bungkah, now a mega-resort of unspeakable naff-ness, I visit play right/actress Jennifer Clair, the original sarong party girl, now growing caffages in the lara dust. Exasperated with not a hair in place Elaire does her laps each morning in the 3 kilometer wide crater lake before settling into her writing. Her retreat soothes the soul with its simplicity: sitting in the cuddle of hot sulphurous water at lake’s edge I gaze at the fuming fury of Mt. Batur and Claire in a horse hair caftan tending her baby carrots. Life is sweet.
Back on the road I head up the caldera to the 11 th Century Pura Puncak Penulisan my favorite temple in Bali, 10km west of Kintamani village on the Kintamani – Singaraja road. Here finds an ancient architecture of squat ‘zen-simple’ pavilions set, like precious gems, into a mountain top of packed swept lava dust. Statues from Java’s classical Hindu period (9 th – 13 th Century) carried across by pilgrim and priests in the first ‘crusades’, line the black ijuk thatch long houses. The wind whistles through the apline conifers; windows open in the mountain mist to deep views of vast valleys and shimmering lakes below. It is a mesmeric experience.

Buyung Gede Village

Buyung Gede Village

Pura Puncak

Pura Puseh

I head home to the coast via the Bali Aga (Mountain Bali) Villages of Belantik and Seluleng the seat of the medieval fiefdom of the original mountain Balinese. In these villages, and in the architecturally superb villages of Songan, Terunyan and Buyung Gede nearby the villagers look very Chinese: perhaps their immediate ancestors are. The humming and Meo semi-monadic hill tribes people who populate all the mountainous regions from Kunming, in Yunnan, South China, through North Vietnam (the village of Dong S’on the most famous, as Bali’s kettle drums drive from there North Burma, the orang aseli of the Malay Peninsula and the Karo and Badui peoples of Sumatra and West Java. But that’s another column.
All these mountain villages have linear settlement patterns, alighted to the holy mountain (rather than the Hindu lord Siwa and Surya the sun god) like the architecture of the Pura Puncak Penulisan the low-slung single pavilion dwellings of these ancient villages exhibit an austerity of form and lack of decorative trim. All refreshly simple, after the ‘ghost-train gothique’ horrors of the coastal movement.
I wind back south through Petang and Sangeh and visit the new mountain resort. The Ibah and the Four Seasons at Sayan.

View on Iseh Road

The Ibah is imaginiterely run by my old charms, stars of the first Stranger column (1979), Cokorda Kertayasa and his Australian-born wife Jero Asri. Over looking the Campuan river and temple complex the Ibah offers authentic Balinese cuisine, a traditional spa and family hotel friendliness. On the sacred Ayung river, literally, the New Four Seasons Resort at Sayan is poised to challenge the Amandari’s dominance of the lucrative heavenly hideaway market. Good luck.
Driving back towards Sanur I spot a Camel chewing grass near the shell of a bankrupt gin-palace and know I’m home.
The hills suddenly seem a world away. The BBC is still banging on but I’m fortified for the next lap, the Asian way.

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