Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Published in Now! Jakarta, December 2010


The priest of
Dalem Sakenan at the central prasada shrine of the small but important 16th century temple,
a 'sister temple’ to
Pura Luhur Uluwatu.

‘Spiritual Tourism’ has been the ‘buzz phrase’ in Bali since the movie ‘Eat Pay Leave’ was shown at this year’s Bali Film Festival. This month I decided to visit some of the sites where Julia Roberts ‘found’ herself in Bali, in the movie.

First I went with a Central Javanese spiritual tourist to Serangan, ‘Turtle’ Island — where Julia discovered she was an actress in a past life — to pay our respects at the Dalem Sakenan Temple, a 16th century coral stone wonder built by the pilgrim priest Dang Hyang Nirartha.

I arrived at the temple just as a big green bus full of Balinese pilgrims pulled out, and was reminded that ‘local’ spiritual tourism has been wildly popular all over Indonesia for at least the past 1000 years.

• • •

After prayers we progressed to the nearby fisherman’s village of Serangan which has become a busy marine tourism hub since developers sponsored a bridge from the mainland — there are now many smart bay-side barbeques, girlie bars and even a Royal Bali Yacht Club. Luxury phinisi boats — which take divers to Komodo and beyond — bob amidst coloured local prahu.

In Serangan, the Muslim Bugis and the Hindu Balinese are a picture of contentment and co-existence.

Bali-Banyuwangi boatboy ‘Made’ Agus sports the fashionable Justin Bieber haircut, at work at the Serangan village boat yard.

A Typical South Bali couple arriving at Serangan for a picnic.

LEFT: The narrow strait that separates Serangan from the mainland — alive with colourful prahu and sampan. RIGHT: The smart bamboo entrance to the harbor area, now a popular lunchtime destination.

On the way home I called in Suwung Kangin village to the office of a landscape contractor I often use.

It is the fifth full moon — the same full moon under which Julia Roberts lost her knickers in Ubud — and a small brick temple in the office’s forecourt is having its anniversary.

Still dressed in white from this morning’s outing we are allowed to enter.

Inside, the custodian Agung Mayun is in full trance (as the Demon King Ratu Gede from the island of Nusa Penida opposite Sanur). His entire family are flailing about him: my Javanese friend is gob smacked by the intensity of Hindu-Javanese ritual still alive in Bali — the trancees having all changed into Majapahit Era (15th century Javanese) costumes.

The trance session eventually turns into a prayer session — I have never had a Moslem spiritual tourist refuse to pray in Bali — and then high tea behind the priest’s pavilion.

Mayun in trance — possessed by the spirit of Ratu Gede the Demon King from Nusa Dua, with a killer Nicotine habit!!

• • •

Driving home at sunset we bump into another all white event — a Banyan Tree leaves fetching ceremony, related to a mass soul-purification (Movie buffs will recall here how Julia meditated under a banyan tree at Dreamland Beach on the Bukit peninsula).

We stop to watch the high priest and a cast of thousands bless the tree before tugging at its branches to get the “leaves of life” that will be fashioned into a spirit effigy.

In the lovely coral temple’s forecourt I bump into my old buddy, fashion impresario Milo — a picture in quilted linen and white Ray-Bans — who is here with a close Balinese friend whose mother’s soul is today being purified.

Canonization is a day to day affair in Bali.

If one stands still long enough in Bali one gets caught up in all sorts of processions criss-crossing the island everyday — processions of corpses, deified ancestors, gods, barongs and holy water.

Milo, a born-again Hindu, is a leading light in the spiritual tourism world: he regularly sponsors Seminyak holy men on trips to South India and ancient ‘Hindu hot spots’ in East Kalimantan.

Even Julia Roberts wore a Milo pareo and not much else for one of the steamier scenes in the movie.

For the Balinese, taking part in ceremonies — particularly ceremonies to do with the dead, and ancestor workshop — is their number one job, and is often their only opportunity for ‘social life’ beyond their own courtyard home walls.

The ‘spiritual tourist’ can take advantage of this friendly atmosphere: indeed many strong alliances — friendships and even marriages — have been forged after chance meetings in temples or in cremation grounds.

I had not seen Milo for months, for example, and we had a good chance to catch up with fashion trends on the Hindu Street while the leaves were raining down.

Sidakarya villagers gathering the Banyan tree leaves.

Milo and Made, and his family, marching in the procession.

Processions related to PENILEMAN soul-purification rites are the prettiest in Bali — all white and gold and glamorous.

• • •

The next night I am invited to the launch of Rio Helmi’s book ‘Memories of the Sacred’ at Ari’s Warung as part of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival.

Rio, a one-time translator for the Dalai Lama, has spent the last thirty years documenting the ceremonies and spirituality of Bali.

Ubud-based writer Diana Darling — who invented the title ‘Eat Pay Leave’ — wrote the essay which forms the book’s foreword. She hits the nail on the head when she writes:

“There’s a certain something — a wild, spangled energy — that saturates Bali as tangibly as its own tropical humidity; something that can catch you in its teeth anywhere.”

Rio’s photographs sure capture that “wild, spangled energy” and today’s launch is the most cosmopolitan of all the festival's events.

Rio Helmi signs his book.

LEFT: The diarist, a festival attendee from Sweden and Rio
RIGHT: Fashion-designer Arthur
Karvan with his pick-up from Happy Hour at Nomad’s Bar, Miss Fatima Sims, herself
“straight off a night bus from Solo.”

The Writers’ Festival has grown into an impressive international event in the six years since its humble beginnings: every year there are any number of star writers. This year the big stars were William Dalrymple from Delhi, Louis de Bernieres from Britain and Tash Aw from Malaysia and there are scores of writers from South East Asia and Australia in particular.

One journalist, from a militant nationalist newspaper, criticized the festival for being “just a big re-union for Australian writers”. Thus is unfair and untrue: the festival’s founder, Janet De Neefe (Ubud-based since 1985) works tirelessly to ensure that it is truly an international festival, and that Indonesian and Balinese writers, in particular, are well represented.

The swell in tourist arrivals in Ubud since the release of “Eat Pay Leave” is noticeable: every shonky shaman is giving discounts to 40 year old white women.

The traffic in the middle of Ubud is becoming unmanageable (particularly during the Writers’ Festival, be warned).

It is a good idea to keep in mind the many good restaurants on the town’s outer system of roads such as ‘Uma’ hotel restaurant, Sanggingan, Café Mendez in Penestanan Kaja, and ‘Naughty Nuri’s (now extremely popular), opposite Uma; The Fly Café near the Keliki Road; Warung Enak, north of Pengosekan; Siam Sally on Padang Tegal Road, and, for lunch, the new Warung Sayan at Novus Taman Bebek near the Four Seasons at Sayan.

At the launch I bumped into festival founder Janet De Neefe in her signature bullet proof white corset with Nigerian Nobel laureal attachment: the little Aussie wonder woman has had a giant Wole Soyinka doll made which she brings around to festival events.

God bless her.

Nigerian Nobel Laureate
Wole Soyinka with Writers’ Festival founder Janet De Neefe.