Some Enchanted Island
Published: June 2009
By Robert Hughes
With holy shrines bordering signature golf holes, paradise remains a paradox in Bali, the cultured pearl of the South Pacific
All tourist paradises are made up. They tend to be theatrical fictions as big—or almost—as the place itself. Bali, the "isle of culture," the Eden of the Indo-Pacific, is the only one of the more than thirteen thousand islands of modern Indonesia that most Americans can name. And that name is heavily evocative. Temple dances, mysterious Hindu ceremonies, swaying palms, thatched villages and a cast of smiling maidens in bright sarongs with floral headgear and, most important, bare breasts. (The bare Balinese breasts were outlawed in the 1960s, by government decree, as being inconsistent with the new, postcolonial image of Indonesia.)
This exotic and alluring image of a green cultural mecca at the far end of a conflicted world didn't arise by accident. It was created in the 1920s and 1930s by European and American visitors. But then, after World War II, the myths were institutionalized by the Indonesians themselves, whose president, Achmed Sukarno, realized that Bali was the key to any and all profits that the newly unified nation (and, therefore, he and his family and successors) might make from tourism.
Until a recent visit, I hadn't been in Bali since 1972--nearly thirty years ago. There wasn't a single golf course on the island then, and the very idea would have struck most people as loopy. You went to Bali for the culture: the temples, the rituals, the dances, the gamelan music, the dark undercurrent of demonism that, in the hip tourist imagination, underlaid the bright surface of paradise. You went, if you were an Australian surfer, for the long waves on Kuta and other beaches. If you were a hippie, you went for the powerful magic mushrooms; if gay, for the Balinese boys. If all three, you were in clover. When I went there in 1972, with my first wife and our five-year-old son, our host was neither a hippie nor a surfer, but gay he indubitably was.
His name was Donald Friend (1915-1989), a brilliant Australian artist and diarist, one of the toughest and sweetest wits I have ever known. During his years here, Donald had acquired several acres on Sanur Beach, where he lived in a rajalike state. He was chauffeured around in an old Hudson coupe, nearly as emphysemic as himself. It was canary yellow and bore a bronze effigy of Ganesha, the potbellied Hindu elephant god, welded to its radiator cap. When Donald appeared at the Denpasar market in this crate, he did not go unnoticed.
Nor, as a host, did he do things by halves. "Have you ever seen a Balinese opera, dear boy?" he asked one evening. I had not. "We will have one the day after tomorrow," he announced with an air of mystery. The next morning, I was awakened by a hubbub in the compound. Dozens of Balinese, from two neighboring villages, were building a temporary opera house out of bamboo and palm thatch. Thirty-six hours later, there we were in the tropical dark, sitting on Donald's veranda in large rattan thrones, sipping our gin and tonics while, on the stage below, a troupe of actors and musicians performed a long piece whose convoluted plot seemed to revolve around a beautiful young prince who, deceived by corrupt courtiers and a wicked witch, turned into a frog. Stoned as a galoot, I felt like Lord Curzon at some bygone imperial durbar.
The morning after, the opera house was dismantled and taken away. I had never seen anything like this before, and—I reflected twenty-seven years later as the Indonesian Airlines plane began its shuddering approach into Ngurah Rai International—I was unlikely to do so again.
Well, nothing stays the same. Consider the figures. Back in the early seventies, Bali, an island of about 2,000 square miles, had maybe 2.5 million people and received at most 200,000 tourists a year. It had only one building more than four stories high--a modern hotel, on Sanur Beach. Today there are four million Balinese residents. Two million tourists arrived in 1997. There can hardly be a major hotel chain that hasn't moved into Bali.
Expect some changes then, I thought. But once on the ground and in a taxi, I realized I hadn't come close to imagining the scale of these changes. I didn't recognize a thing. Where there were once dirt roads and open lots and palms, now the road from the airport through Kuta and Legian is one jam-packed mass of traffic, lurching erratically along between walls of shops and one-story service buildings. All the small motorbikes in the world apparently swarmed to Bali to breed. Sometimes the road opens up into a traffic circle, at whose center is a statue of the popular hero Achmed Sukarno or a baroque jumble of pop-eyed gods and demons riding in a sea chariot, illustrating some episode from the Ramayama, twenty-five feet high and done in white-painted concrete. They're beyond kitsch.
BUT AT LAST the oasis appears in the stifling heat: The taxi turns in to the drive of the Oberoi Hotel. Bali may or may not be a refuge from the rest of the world, but now hotels have to be refuges from the rest of Bali, and there are at least half a dozen world-class ones. None are more comfortable than the Oberoi, though. It hits just the right balance between simplicity and luxury, and the food is great, particularly the traditional Indonesian fare. (I became addicted to starting the day with a delicious rice gruel with shredded chicken in it, somewhere between a thick soup and a wet risotto, known as bubur ayam.) The service is fast and solicitous, and the fruit punches in the bar are generous, though you have to fish the frangipani blossoms out of them. The hotel's villas are distributed across acres of immaculately maintained gardens with tall flowering trees, right on Legian Beach. And the place was almost empty: The recent political unrest in Indonesia following the fall of its kleptocrat dictator Dr. Suharto had caused a wave of tourist cancellations. (There was no cause for alarm; Muslim lynch mobs might have been afoot elsewhere in the country, but in Bali, which is ninety-seven percent Hindu, Allah himself couldn't have organized a protest.) Peace, perfect peace. Lounging in such places, the visitor has an unworthy thought: Perhaps it would be more pleasant just to stay in the hotel rather than face the real Bali. But you must get out and around. And there is golf to be played.
Basic things determine the character of islands. In Bali's case, one was thalassophobia—fear and dislike of the sea. Most island societies look outward, to the ocean. Bali has always looked inward, toward the land. Formed by volcanoes, the land is rich and nurturing, the abode of the gods that created it. The sea, however, has always been viewed as a desert populated by monsters. Thus fishing, as opposed to agriculture, hardly figures in the traditional culture of Bali. Recoiling from the sea, the Balinese have never been an imperial people. Their society has always been inward turning, seeking balance and integration within its insular frame, a harmony sustained by ceaseless religious activity. The basic Balinese origin myth is one of refuge, and Bali remains the only Hindu society among the many islands of the Indonesian archipelago.
The sacredness of Bali's land rises in proportion to its height. This is, perhaps, what fostered the relatively easy relations between tourism and traditional culture. "Deep" Bali is away from the beach, but the shore is where tourism flourishes. The two layers slide without much friction. The hippie haven of Kuta Beach has turned into a raucous strip of bars, souvenir boutiques and surfer shops full of beer-chugging Australian package tourists, but there wasn't much here before. The Balinese are happy to have found, at long last, a use for that useless land—the cultivation of tourists. The same applies to the growth of golf on Bali. Back in the early seventies, the sight of an American or a Japanese whacking a little white ball around would have seemed, at the very least, odd to most Balinese. Not any more. Bali now has three championship courses, with more planned. Two of those operating are on the southern coast: the Nirwana Bali Golf Club and the Bali Golf and Country Club. A third layout, the Bali Handara Kosaido Country Club, lies high up in the northern mountains.
The Nirwana course, a 6,805-yard par-seventy-two layout on land rolling down to the sea, was designed by Greg Norman and completed in 1997. It is dotted with ten Hindu shrines, rather as though a golfer on some course in Scotland had to deal with awkwardly placed nonconformist kirks. Mercifully if you do hit your tee shot into a shrine, you can pick up and drop outside it without a penalty while muttering a prayer to Lord Shiva to fix your slice. The Nirwana is a lush green course, impeccably maintained, with rough like tropical gardens. It keeps a memory, in the subtle terracing of its slopes, of the rice paddies that once covered it. Some of these paddies are still maintained, with women working in them--not harvesting rice but searching for lost balls with that traditional Balinese agricultural implement, the six-iron. And if your second shot lands in a rice paddy?It turns up in tomorrow's bubur ayam.
AT THE NIRWANA'S most spectacular hole—the seventh, a 214-yard par three—your tee shot has to carry from one cliff top to another across a blue bay of the Indian Ocean. From here you can look out at the temple of Pura Tanah Lot, built on a small rocky island just off the coast. Pura Tanah Lot--which means, roughly, "temple of the earth in the sea"--is one of the six holiest temples of Bali (number one being Besakih, the Mother Temple). Every day hundreds of Hindu worshipers come to perform their rites here, though it can only be reached at low tide. Silhouetted against the red glow of the sunset, it is one of the most exquisite sites in Bali. And by rights you should not be able to see it from the course--although Greg Norman is a great golfer, comparative religion has never been his strong point, and he seems to have been unaware that recent Balinese law forbids building anything within two kilometers of a major temple. The ruffled religious authorities were soothed in the end, no doubt, with the palm oil that is the traditional dressing of business deals in Indonesia.
The course that most vividly shows the change in Balinese real estate, though, is the Bali Golf and Country Club, in Nusa Dua. The club is part of a gigantic government-sponsored, multihotel development on what used to be the poorest slice of Bali's southern coast. Twenty-five years ago, it was nothing but sand, coconut palms and fishermen's huts. The land wasn't worth cultivating. In those days, seaside land was the cheapest on the island. As all pious Balinese Hindus knew, the sea was inhabited by a hideousmonster named Jero Gede Mecaling, a sort of fanged dragon that swam around Bali twice a day and had to be kept offshore by a Maginot Line of small shrines. If he, or it, got past this line of defense, the creature would go galumphing inland to wreak havoc on the rice paddies. But in a face-off against Dr. Suharto, the World Bank, Hyatt, Novotel and Hilton, poor old Jero Gede didn't have a prayer, and he has retired, baffled, to the deeps. Nusa Dua struck all of the former as an ideal spot for a spanking-new tropical paradise, simply because it was so barren--construction here wouldn't mean a loss of precious rice paddies.
In the end, a huge resort complex rose from the sand, with pompous avenues, elaborate landscaping, replete with roadside statuary, and even a shopping mall. In scale, the complex resembles the work of a Balinese Mussolini—but come to think of it, that's more or less what Sukarno and Suharto were. The centerpiece is the golf course, which opened in 1991—a 6,849-yard par seventy-two designed by the Hawaiian team of Robin Nelson and Rodney Wright.
ROLLING THROUGH Bali Golf's million-dollar fairways, with their perfectly kept Bermuda grass sward, I found myself musing on how desire alters landscapes. The first nine holes are hilly and elaborately sculpted, with heavier rough than the Nirwana. The second nine, down toward the beach, is all sand. Enormous bunkers are everywhere. The sixteenth hole, a 458-yard par four, has yawning chasms of hostile silicate all the way from tee to green on both sides of a narrow dogleg-left fairway. The back tees are designated as "kings," the regular ones as "lions" and the front ones, rather disparagingly to the ladies, as "frogs." When you do reach thegreens, you have to keep an eye peeled for roosters, which tend to scrabble up the otherwise smooth and fast surfaces in pursuit of worms. Occasionally water buffalo wander onto the course to graze, but they do no harm and are soon driven off, with shrill cries, by the greenskeepers.
The oldest golf club on the island is the Bali Handara Kosaido Country Club, high in the ranges of northern Bali, about an hour and a half—depending on traffic—out of Denpasar. This course is also Bali's longest: 7,024 yards from the championship tees. It was created in 1975 by the golf architects Peter Thompson, and Michael Wolfferidge and Associates. Its relative age has earned it a few snippy notices from golf journalists of late, but I thought it the most handsome of Bali's three courses, and it offers some challenging holes, particularly the 405-yard third and the 483-yard par-five fifteenth. It was built by a Japanese consortium, and most of the players are Japanese. Set in rain forest—a peaceful fugue of greens high up in the crater of an extinct volcano, with mountains enfolding it and, below, the glimmering sheet of Lake Bratan—this has to be one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, and at four thousand feet the air here is much cooler than on the seaside courses.
Golf courses are idealized landscapes. But in Bali they are, in fact, trumped by the real landscape once you turn inland. For this part of the trip, hire a car and driver (fifty dollars or so a day) and let him cope with the anarchic Balinese traffic. Doing so affords at least the illusion of safety and leaves your eyes free to look out the side windows.
There is no agricultural form, not even a vine-terraced slope in Tuscany, more beautiful than the rice paddies of Bali. Rice has to have its feet wet, and over the centuries the Balinese hillsides—steep or gently rolling, mantled in fertile volcanic soil—have been worked into curved, descending terraces (defined by earthen dikes) with water running in complex channels through them. When they are empty of grain, they reflect the clouds and sky. With the young rice growing in them, they look like a mosaic of thick green plush across which the farmers have strung a web of cords, bamboo poles and fluttering ribbons of cloth to scare away marauding birds. Then there are the roadside shrines—thousands of them—decorated with floral offerings, and the old gnarled banyan trees, with people chatting in their shade, and the sudden gorges, with rivers plunging through them, and in the background, the mountains, trailing scarves of mist. It is an ancient, deeply satisfying landscape. Its produce is an epicure's delight, particularly the fruit: tiny, sweet bananas, melons, papayas, huge jackfruit, snake fruit, the hairy, lycheelike rambutan, the exquisite mangosteens and, if you are feeling adventurous, the durian. This is a fruit somewhat larger than a football, covered with blunt spikes. Restaurants don't serve it because of its smell, whose effect one visitor compared with eating a rich custard over an open sewer.
THE "DISCOVERY" of Bali by affluent Westerners began after theend of World War I, when the Dutch colonial authorities—anxious to bleach out the stains of their colonial regime—started in earnest to create Bali's image as an island paradise, a spot of Eden. They strove to reinforce Bali's embryo image as the "isle of culture," full of smiling folk contentedly dancing, making batik, carving effigies of hero Krishna and wicked witch Rangda, arranging floral offerings, staging picturesque cremation ceremonies and playing the gamelan far into the soft tropical night. The core of this policy was that Bali had an ancient, traditional and authentic culture that should be protected from cross-pollination with modernity. The island was its own museum. It must be conserved. This was done deliberately but not cynically: The Dutch, it seems, really did want to make some kind of amends for the mass suicides their rule had provoked in the past. And although tourism wasn't an industry yet—through the early 1930s, fewer than two thousand visitors a year landed on the island—something had begun to click between Bali and the West. The place was turning into Fantasy Island for the well-to-do, who were the only ones (apart from the occasional anthropologist, such as Margaret Mead) who had months of free time for a Pacific excursion by ship. Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke intrepidly went there. So did Harold Nicolson, Charlie Chaplin and Noël Coward, who wrote a mildly sardonic verse on the cultural overload:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali,
And though 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 though the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavour.
This image of Bali was shaped by visitors in the thirties. One of the most influential was Vanity Fair's cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias (19041957), whose interest in Mexican cultural nationalism predisposed him toward Bali's own unique culture, in which, he wrote in Island of Bali (1937), "Everybody seems to be an artist. Coolies and princes, priests and peasants, men and women alike, can dance, play musical instruments, paint, or carve in wood and stone."
The best place to get a look at the various strands in Balinese painting is the Neka Museum, near Ubud, built and endowed by a wealthy Balinese. Apart from the museum, Ubud's repute as a cultural center these days is flimsy and undeserved: Its "galleries" offer assembly-line paintings and sculpture, mostly of wretched quality. Covarrubias's belief that everyone in Bali was some kind of an artist seems, alas, to have come true.
The Neka Museum houses the work of a number of expatriate painters, including Donald Friend and an influential German artist named Walter Spies. Spies became a champion of Balinese culture, not only of its painting but of its music and dance. He was the first to record the haunting, contrapuntal music of the gamelan orchestras, whose variations he studied to the point of obsession. Dance and Drama in Bali (1938), which he co-wrote with Beryl de Zoete, an English writer of Dutch parentage, remains the standard book on its subject. Its two writers saw music and dance as the quintessential forms of Balinese culture.
"Music permeates their life to a degree which we can hardly imagine, a music of incomparable subtlety and intricacy, yet as simple as breathing." You don't have to be an expert on music to sense the truth of this, and to attend a gamelan performance is a high point of any visit to Bali, however short. Likewise, the dance dramas, which generally evolved out of ancient rituals of exorcism and of invocation of the gods.
Bali has thousands of temples and tens of thousands of shrines. None of them rise to the exalted levels of Indian Hindu architecture, but some are worth seeing. Besakih continues to be the Mother Temple, the most venerated place on the island, occupying a spectacular site high on a mountain with views of the fertile island stretching below it to the sea. You can't enter the temple precincts, which are reserved for worshipers, but you can peer over the walls of Pura Penataran Agung (the main temple dedicated to Shiva the Destroyer) at its starkly beautiful black meru, or pagodas.
Unfortunately you have to run a gauntlet of souvenir stalls and be hassled by unofficial guides, who stick to you like glue and have no real information to offer. This is not a problem elsewhere in mild-mannered Bali. It is easy to get templed-out, surfeited by all those split gateways, thatched shrines, pop-eyed deities and holy serpents. If your interests include bats as well, what may be the most disagreeable shrine in all Indonesia awaits you on the southern coast of Bali—Pura Goa Lawah, famed for the cave in the cliff behind it, whose roof is a roosting place for myriads of fruit bats. They are so densely packed that you can't see the rock to which they cling, and the stench of their holy guano is overpowering. The cave is, needless to say, immensely popular with tourists.
There are better places to go. One is in Klungkung, the regional capital east of Denpasar. Its Semara Pura, or royal palace, was largely torn down after a battle between Dutch soldiers and the Balinese court in 1908, leaving only a redbrick gate and two pavilions. But these are must sees for anyone with an interest in traditional Balinese art because their ceilings are decorated with the island's only surviving examples of classical wayang-style painting, heavily restored but dating originally from about 1710.
It is good that these old paintings have been preserved because the one thing you are unlikely to find anywhere else in Bali is a genuine antique. The junk shops—sorry, antique stores—of Bali today are denuded. The reason is simply tourism: those million-footed tides washing through, picking the island clean. By law, anything more than twenty-five years old has to have an exit permit to leave the island. This scarcely seems a hardship, since little that isn't nailed down or rooted in the ground is more than twenty-five years old. The Balinese themselves make no bones about this: Everywhere, you see signs proclaiming finest antiques made to order.
Bali is said to be a "shopper's paradise." You may or may not find it so. Most of the "batik" on sale in the markets, for instance, is not batik at all, handmade by the traditional wax-resistant dyeing process. Instead, it is ordinary machine-printed cloth in batik-style designs, mainly imported from Java—pretty enough but not a patch on the real thing. I was so numbed by the quasi-industrial repetition of junk that the only things I brought back to New York were some delightful hand-painted kites made in the village of Celuk.
If, on the other hand, you fancy massive teakwood furniture, Bali is certainly the place to get it cheap, and there are plenty of reliable shippers. Next to repairing those little motorcycles, storefront furniture making is the most public industry on Bali, and with the rupiah at about 8,100 to the dollar, you can hardly go wrong—if you really want your living room to look like the veranda of some long-gone Dutch colonial administrator, replete with woven rattan baskets and lurid polychrome figures of Hindu deities. But it might be easier just to take back your memories, your photos and your scorecards, especially since no one will let you on the plane with a durian. I know; I tried.
"Nirwana Bali Golf Club has several spectacular holes that run alongside the Indian Ocean, wind through rice paddies and cross deep creeks. The fairways are relatively wide, but if you miss them you will find junglelike trouble. And the deep greenside bunkers make getting up and down in two a feat worthy of great celebration.
You really need to keep the ball in play to score well here. Leave the driver in the bag and use the three-wood from the tee on most par fours and
par fives. Avoid the rice paddies—which are in play and red-staked as lateral water hazards— as you'll have to drop in a soggy area. Forget about going for the pin on approach shots. Play for the middle of the green."
Nirwana Bali Golf Club
WHERE TO PLAY
Bali Golf and Country Club, Nusa Dua, Badung Regency
par/yardage: 72, 6,849 green fee: $133 architects: Robin Nelson and Rodney Wright phone: 011-62-361-771793
Bali Handara Kosaido Country Club, Pancasari, Tabanan Regency (Northern)
par/yardage: 7 2, 7,024 green fee: $100 architects: Peter Thompson, and Michael Wolfferidge and Associates phone: 011-62-362-22646
Grand Bali Beach Hotel and Country Club, Sanur, Denpasar Regency
par/yardage: 36, 3,288 green fee: $50 phone: 011-62-361-288511
Nirwana Bali Golf Club, Tanah Lot, Tabanan Regency (Southern)
par/yardage: 72, 6,805 green fee: $177.50 architect: Greg Norman phone: 011-62-361-815960
WHERE TO STAY Amandari, Kedewatan, Gianyar Regency
Amanusa Resort, Nusa Dua, Badung Regency
Bali Cliff Resort, Ungasan, Badung Regency
Bali Handara Kosaido Hotel, Pancasari, Tabanan Regency (Northern)
Bintang Bali Hotel, Kartika Plaza, Kuta, Badung Regency
Four Seasons Resort Bali, Jimbaran Bay, Badung Regency
Grand Bali Beach Hotel, Sanur, Denpasar Regency
Kartika Plaza Beach Hotel, Kuta, Badung Regency
Le Meridien Nirwana Golf and Spa Resort, Tanah Lot, Tabanan Regency (Southern)
phone: 011-62-361- 851900
Oberoi Hotel, Seminyak, Badung Regency
WHERE TO EAT
Amandari Restaurant, Kedewatan, Gianyar Regency
Cafe Lotus, Raya, Ubud, Gianyar Regency
Ikan Restaurant, Nusa Dua, Badung Regency
Kamandalu Restaurant, Pancasari, Tabanan Regency
Kul Kul Restaurant, Sanur, Denpasar Regency
Made's Warung, Jalan Pantai Kuta, Badung Regency
Matsuri, Galleria, Nusa Dua, Badung Regency
Puri Agung Restaurant, Denpasar, Denpasar Regency
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Bali Museum, Pupu-tan Sq., Denpasar, Denpasar Regency
Besakih Temple, Gunung Agung, Karangasem Regency
Monkey Forest, Sangeh, Badung Regency
Museum Le Mayeur, Sanur, Denpasar Regency
Neka Museum, Campuan, Gianyar Regency
Pura Luhur Uluwatu, Bukit Peninsula, Badung Regency
TRAVEL AGENT: The T&L Golf Itinerary
DAY ONE: Take the free transport from the airport to Amanusa Resort. Eat lunch at Amanusa's restaurant. Enjoy views of the Gunung Agung and the Bali Golf and Country Club from your room. Dine at Matsuri.
DAY TWO: Play Bali Golf. Eat lunch at Bali Cliff Resort. Be sure to visit the Pura Luhur Uluwatu. Hire a driver and head north to Kartika Plaza Beach Hotel for the Legong and Rijstaffel Night. Dine and enjoy the traditional dance.
DAY THREE: Head northeast toward Sanur. Play the nine-holer at the Grand Bali Beach Hotel. Lunch at the Kul Kul Restaurant. Explore the temples. Visit Museum Le Mayeur. Dine at the hotel.
DAY FOUR: Head west to Denpasar. Explore Puputan Square and the surrounding markets. Lunch at Puri AgungRestaurant. Visit the Bali Museum, then catch a westbound bemo to watch the sunset at Pura Tanah Lot. Check in at Le Meridien, dine and relax.
DAY FIVE: Play an early round at Nirwana Bali Golf Club. Go northeast to Ubud for a late lunch at the Cafe Lotus. Explore the shops at the Pasar Ubud and catch a dance performance at the Gunung Sari dance-and-music pavilion. Take a short taxi ride to Amandari and eat there.
DAY SIX: Visit Neka Museum and Monkey Forest. Head north to Pancasari (pack a lunch for the trip). Dine at Kamandalu Restaurant. Check in at the Bali Handara Kosaido Hotel.
DAY SEVEN: Play Bali Handara. Visit the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. Lunch at the hotel. Drive southwest to the Gunung Batukau, if you've got the energy, or just head south to Seminyak and stay at the Oberoi Hotel. The airport is nearby.