The Magic of Bali, Island of the Gods

There's just something about Bali that keeps people coming back.
Thursday 3 January 2019
There are plenty of stunning sunsets in Bali. Photo: Bertcomm Media & Productions

There are two locations in the world that are particularly blessed by close geographical proximity to some of the greatest cultural destinations in the world. Fly two hours from any city in Western Europe and you find yourself in another country, another culture and another cuisine. Another location that is similarly blessed is anywhere in ASEAN. Living in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore means you can get away within two hours to top destinations that offer superb hotels, restaurants and resorts.

For some, Bali may seem old hat, “been there, done that”. But the one thing that Bali does well is its constant rejuvenation, constantly challenging the rest of ASEAN as it consistently raises the bar with each new hotel or restaurant opening. Compared to the region, Bali did get a head start as a tourist destination from as early as the 1920s.

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The cliffs of Uluwatu. Photo: Bertcomm Media & Productions

The Dutch steamship KPM was the first to carry passengers to the Island of the Gods. KPM opened a tourist office in 1925 and later, rebuilt the government rest house which became the Bali Hotel in 1928. But what drew tourists then, as it does now, is the unique island culture and people of Bali: the graciousness of the people and their reverence for their culture and rituals. It has a certain magical quality.

The debate as to whether tourism would erode the authenticity of Bali’s culture began then and rages on. Willard Hanna in the Bali Chronicles (2004, Periplus Editions) describes Balinese culture as a “self-contained, self-renewing system… Balinese temples are built in the expectation that they will be rebuilt a generation later”. The artisans, craftsmen, artists, musicians and dancers are drawn from each individual community.

Each area has its own pura or temple and this unique expectation, that the newer generation must be able to replace woodcarvings, thatched roofs, stone sculptures or perform dances and play musical instruments at temple festivities – whilst working day jobs – continues to this day, according to the Balinese.

The quality of the tourists arriving in the 1930s is particularly notable. Amongst the artists and writers who came as tourists but stayed on to celebrate and introduce Bali to the world were painters Walter Spies, Theo Meier and Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican writer. His seminal book Island of Bali remains to this day the authoritative text on the Balinese way of life, before the intrusion of the modern world and the influx of tourists.

Balinese artists themselves flourished under the schools of paintings established during that time. In many respects, this “cultural transfusion” continues to this day as witnessed by the growth of the retail, restaurant and service industries which are the main pillars of Bali’s tourism industry.

Many foreign designers, entrepreneurs and innovators such as Brent Hesselyn (Jenggala Keramik), landscape architect Made Wijaya (born Michael White), fashion designers Milo Migliavacca and Paul Ropp (amongst the more famous) were inspired by Balinese/Indonesian designs and, taking advantage of the skilled Balinese artisans, stayed and influenced local crafts, retail fashion and design.

Today, leading fashion retailer Farah Khan of the Melium Group has invested in a cool shopping oasis, The Seminyak Village, in the heart of the retail district. Bali can be what your heart desires: a yoga retreat, a wellness haven, a spiritual journey, surfing holiday, family villas, graduation breaks, hen and stag weekends, wedding destination, luxury retreats, etc. All against the backdrop of its natural beauty and the splendour of its temples and historical sites, which this article takes for granted you have visited at least once. If not, more’s the pity and what a shame. It is the perfect destination for a long weekend, with enough variety to suit varying categories of ages, interest and budgets.

If Balinese culture is self-rejuvenating, so are the Bali resort hot spots. Once, the beach of Sanur was considered the ultra-chic area of Bali, home to luxury expat villas and the gracious 50-year-old Tandjung Sari hotel (the birthplace of “Bali Style”). Other hotels followed. The Oberoi Group rescued a contentious development in Seminyak and opened the first five-star luxury resort on Seminyak Beach in 1974. Ubud, the cultural and artistic heart of the island, later became home to the Four Seasons, Amandari and Como Shambhala.

Twenty-five years ago, Amanusa on Nusa Dua (now no more, an example of Balinese self-renewal in action) was the last word on beach resorts, followed swiftly by Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay which upped the ante with Balinese thatched villas and spa retreats, and became the top romantic hideaway. Later, dramatic clifftop Uluwatu became de rigueur with the opening of the Bulgari Resort and the Alila. Today, Canggu is not just a surfer’s paradise; it is the new expat vegan-gluten-free playground with a brand spanking new Como Uma Canggu to show for its credentials and so it goes on.

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Today’s sunset at #COMOBeachClubCanggu was just stunning. #COMOUmaCanggu #COMOHotels

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Bali is in competition with itself, leaving the regional laggards behind. On some level, it is fair criticism to note that infrastructure development has not kept pace with the island’s growth nor has the government come to grips with an effective crisis management and evacuation plan should the majestic Mount Agung erupt. And the one issue that really gets visitors down is the traffic snarls or “machet” as the Balinese call it.

Let’s say you are travelling with teenagers or young adults for whom swimming at the villa or sitting on the beach does not provide enough amusement; there is a small stretch of idyll that will fulfil all your party’s needs, if visiting for a long weekend – without the stress of sitting in traffic jams.

Jalan Raya Seminyak remains the main retail hunting ground and for a while, Jalan Kayu Aya/Laksamana aka Jalan Oberoi nearby, (nicknamed after the eponymous hotel) was a charming road full of little independent boutiques, away from the crowds. Then, as the popularity of Jalan Oberoi grew, the boutiques were driven away by loud bars and clubs searching for a new place to play.

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Which brings me to my (for now, at least) little stretch of weekend fun – it begins from Ku De Ta, the original chic beach club which is a two-minute walk to The Legian where you stay the weekend if you want a full service all-suite hotel (avoiding jams to restaurants or organising groceries with villa staff), and ends at the restaurant, Sarong.

Technically this is the end of Jalan Kayu Aya where it meets Jalan Petitenget, but let’s call it The Jl Petitenget Weekend Walk for simplicity’s sake. If The Oberoi is the Dowager Duchess of Seminyak, then The Legian is the Grand Dame. This Indonesian-owned and operated hotel designed by the late Jaya Ibrahim (who also designed the elegant Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta) is perfectly situated on the beach. The haunting brassy sound of the gamelan with the melodious seruling (bamboo ring flute) fill the air at breakfast and immediately I feel calmer, soothed by the sounds of Bali. It strikes me that the sounds of traditional music are not just the province of hotel lobbies or spas, but also in humble village shops and hair salons.

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Jalan Oberoi is referred to as “Eat Street” and Jalan Petitenget, “Dining Street”. We have dinner reservations three nights in a row, organised by our efficient and graceful Legian concierge. As Junior is home from university in England, he insists on Asian food all the way. Cultural transfusion is no more evident in Bali than in the vibrant restaurant scene which seems to be dominated by Australian chefs – from Ku De Ta in 2000 and ironically, even amongst the newer establishments serving Indonesian/Balinese cuisine.

At Merah Putih (Red and White, the colours of the Indonesian flag) we are most taken by the amuse-bouche of chicken soup that has its roots in Soto from Sulawesi, made fragrant by lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and bird’s eye chilli. Many reviews rave about Merah Putih, particularly its design, but I found Bambu to be more authentic both in atmosphere and design. Set in three small open-air pavilions (joglos) surrounded by water, Bambu is from the same team behind La Lucciola, a happening beachside restaurant. The flavours seem more defined and flavourful.

Will Meyrick’s Sarong was the precursor to Mama San and you can dine inside or alfresco, which we found cooler. Expecting more Southeast Asian flavours, we were surprised but not unpleasantly so, to find the Indian influence more prevalent.

The success of Bali as a tourist destination is, like the island’s culture itself, unique to Bali. It cannot be replicated elsewhere. Since the 1930s, many foreign visitors came and did not leave. In turn, they too invested in the island – in the arts and crafts, dances, retail, hotels and restaurants.

If the religions of Bali and Indonesia have been described as “syncretic”, then so too is its particular formula for tourism success. At the heart of this are the Balinese people, their reverence for their culture and rituals, combined with the fusion of ideas brought by outsiders.

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Traditional Balinese dancing. Photo: Bertcomm Media & Productions

Perhaps this is the new magic. Rather than viewing this as an erosion of Balinese culture, there has been an almost magical evolution which has enabled Bali to preserve its unique Hindu identity in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority Indonesian archipelago with the central government in Jakarta.

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