Which is why Bali alternately enthralls and flummoxes foreign travelers. Without frames or labels to organize the visible world, a visitor is easily overwhelmed; at the end of the day your eyes—all three of them—are exhausted. Outside a temple you’ll stop to admire the singular grace of a Ganesh sculpture, then down the street you’ll pass a yard full of 200 identical ones for sale. And just as it’s difficult to tell whether that teak dining table is an antique or was simply left out in the rain for six weeks, so is it hard to delineate art from artifice. “But what’s real?” one’s inner skeptic cries. “What should I be looking at?” In Bali there is no easy answer, or the answer is, “Everything is real; look at everything.”
“Look at everything” could be the motto of the Hotel Tugu Bali, located on a tranquil beach in Canggu, not far from Tanah Lot. Owned by Anhar Setjadibrata, a Javanese art collector, the 22-suite Tugu touts a connection to “the art, soul, and romance of Indonesia.” Setjadibrata’s daughter Lucienne, who manages the hotel, explains that her father built the place after her mother demanded he “find someplace to store all this art and get it out of the house.” Certainly the Tugu feels more like a reliquary than a hotel. The public rooms are chockablock with Indonesian objets—stone carvings; shadow puppets; musical instruments—and every vertical surface sports a canvas or print or tapestry. It’s a fabulous place, in the true sense of the word: a vivid fantasia as rich as the tropical landscape, and just as uncontainable. Indeed, the Tugu is a microcosm of Bali itself: one wishes some magical docent would appear to explain it all.
At Tanah Lot Temple, I struck up a conversation with a French-Indonesian shaman who used to be a banker. Or maybe it was the reverse—I couldn’t keep track. He spoke in abstractions. The guy looked as if he not only lived outside the box but was no longer capable of even describing a box. For all I knew he was worth $40 million.
Bali is full of successful, formerly Type A businesspeople who moved here, saw the light, and, as a friend put it, “let the island become them.” Even corporate hoteliers take on an otherworldly quality after enough time in Bali. Liv Gussing, who ran Amandari for seven years until July, is the most serene hotel manager I’ve ever encountered, with a bearing best described as Zenlike. John O’Sullivan, the ebullient Irishman in charge of Bali’s two Four Seasons resorts, has a parallel career as a sort of mystic-poet and calls himself “a Celtic spirit traveling the world in search of hiding relatives.”
Bali’s most famous entrepreneur-gone-native is John Hardy, the Canadian-born jewelry designer who has lived here for 35 years. Hardy sold his stake in his namesake brand in 2007; now he and his wife, Cynthia, devote their time and considerable wealth to a variety of do-good projects, from organic farming to promoting the use of bamboo as a renewable material for construction. Three years ago the Hardys created Bambu Indah (“beautiful bamboo”), an overnight retreat—let’s not call it a resort—on their rural property south of Ubud. Seven teak bungalows—built for 19th-century Javanese noblemen and transplanted by Hardy to Bali—perch on stilts above working rice paddies and vegetable gardens. Reflecting the Hardys’ customary good taste, guesthouses are decorated with antiques from their travels, from Moroccan carpets to Burmese lacquer bowls. Rain showers, copper sinks, and high-tech Japanese toilets help justify the up to $310 average nightly rate. But rooms are less than bug- and snake-proof, and the unmanicured setting—the swimming pool is disguised as a pond, complete with tiny fish—underscores that Bambu Indah is essentially a farm stay, immersing guests in the life of a Balinese farmer. (Or, for that matter, in the life of John Hardy.)
Quirky as Bambu Indah is, it pales next to the Hardys’ latest project: a private school outside Ubud built almost entirely of bamboo. Founded in 2008, the Green School now has 160 students, 20 percent of whom are Indonesian children on scholarships. Much of the curriculum is devoted to lessons in sustainability, be it second-graders growing their own spinach or middle schoolers using recycled and natural materials to build their own clubhouse. The Hardys intend the school to be carbon-neutral; to that end, a vortex whirlpool harnesses energy from the river. At the center of the campus is one of the largest bamboo structures on the planet: a mesmerizing series of double helixes, soaring staircases, and undulating rooflines, levitating three stories off the ground. Its shape recalls a giant lotus flower, or a UFO made of matchsticks.