Friday, 28 October 2011

Travel Diaries: BHUTAN

Published in Now! Jakarta, November 2011


The official wedding photograph of the King and Queen of Bhutan.


Bhutan is heaven on earth — a non-smoking section of the planet with a medieval God-King system and restricted tourism.

The mountain kingdom’s only airline, Druk Air, is run by goddesses in pink ikat sarongs; in every major town men do archery in Argyll socks; and the national spot is flirting.

I was on cloud nine for the five days I was there.

• • •

Getting to Heaven on Earth is only easy if one goes through Hell on Earth, the new Bangkok airport.

The clever Thais decided to ignore the South Asian trend for spacious, light-filled airports and built one inspired by ‘Blade-runner’.

It’s as if they took South Asia’s gift to modern urbanism — the dark, dust-coated, no-go zones under elevated concrete highways — and used it as a theme for the airport’s design.

One wanders around the airport — lost like a rat in a maze — until one sees, in the far distance, the side of a multi-storey carpark painted purple.

Left: A gracious Druk Air flight attendant at 30,000 feet.
Right: Welcoming committee from the fabulous Uma Paro hotel.

For my transit there I stayed at the swank new Novotel Airport hotel (available by the hour via the gate 4 counter but not on-line) before catching a 0415 flight to Paro, the only airport in Bhutan.

Airbone, the small Airbus wove through the misty Himalayan valley skies and set us down gently at 6.30 a.m., just as the first rays of dawn were illuminating Dzong Paro, the fortress-like citadel that guards the town.

The airport building is Bhutanese style with elegantly decorated timber framed windows and a handsome tiered roof. The airport road is lined with cone-shaped conifers, reminiscent of the alleyways at Fontainebleau Palace, near Paris. Outside the airport, the main trans-Bhutan Highway runs along one side of a wide river.

A series of enlightened Bhutanese monarchs have managed to keep out the urban sprawl which has ruined Darjeeling and Sikkim, on the Indian side, and on the other side, the Chinese progressives who they hate since they annexed Tibet, Bhutan’s motherland.

We are now up to monarch number five from the one dynasty formed since the country was ‘united’ in the early 1900s. He is known as K5 and due to great fortune, not planning, is to take his queen on the last day of my stay. Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist country with underpinnings of Bonism, the ancient animistic culture.

• • •

Dzong Paro, on the northern slopes of Paro Valley.

Left: Stupa in a ‘town square’ at the eastern approach to Paro town.
Right: Local lasses stroll past the Dzong Paro fortress park wall.

Left: Interior of Uma Paro
Right: With my butler Pema on our way to the Royal Wedding breakfast at Uma Paro library.

After breakfast I roll down the hill to Paro, the capital of the tiny (pop. 700,000) country’s western-most province.

The township is ‘announced’ by a ‘square’ of painted brick stupa — squat, handsome, pagoda-like structures — adjacent to an archery field straight out of Robin Hood.

I spend the afternoon visiting temples and farm houses in the Paro Valley.

By late afternoon I am head over heels in love…….with everything and everyone Bhutanese. I feel like a big pink lotus finally emerging form the mud into the sunlight.

It was the same feeling I had when I first arrived in Bali in 1973 but with the menacing under-tones of the Soeharto regime replaced by beaming biksu monks and contented cattle.

View of Paro Valley from the Uma Paro dining hall, Bhutan.

Left: Monks and a local Thimpu Abbot perform rites in a farm house prayer room outside Thimpu.
Right: Well-preserved republicans at the monastically-exquisite Amankora.

Left: Shopping arcade architecture, downtown Paro.
Right: Vendor in the handicraft market, Thimpu, Bhutan.

My driver, Ghopal, a Bhutanese of Nepali descent, channels John Galliano in a Paro fabric shop.

Dour chanting fills the air.

My guides drop to their knees to perform suppliances while I case the farm house for further treasures.

In one bedroom wing I find a huddle of monks playing “Hulk Hogan” play-station on a wide screen television.

In a communal kitchen daughters-in-law are preparing a feast.

Later, after butter tea and rice snacks, we are let loose back into the rat race.

It is an experience I will never forget.

Day 5: The Royal Wedding
Most of a day four is spent at the tailor getting fitted for my Gzo costume/dressing gown (see Youtube: and today I wear my light grey chequered outfit and long black socks.

Thus attired I hit the hotel library at 7 a.m. to watch the royal wedding before my flight to Bangkok leaves at 1 p.m.

A crowd of employees has gathered. On Bhutan TV, we see processions of princes, monks and the glamorous future queen arriving at the magnificent Dzong Punakha two hours East of Thimpu.

In the broadcast we see that the vast central court of the Dzong fortress — itself the size of Buckingham Palace — is completely ever shadowed by a five storey high Buddhist Thangka, a religious painting in front of which the preliminary rituals will take place.

Later in the morning the newly-wed King and Queen move to the royal chapel for a formal ‘crowning’ ceremony and then out into the park to meet the people.

The popular King and his ravishing new Queen are feted with dances from all over the country including one Gzo-clad break-dancer who wins the newlyweds hearts.

Stranger in Paradise: Expats and the Arts

Dance Nyoman Sura of Kesiman at Sir Warwick Purser’s 70th birthday in Ubud, 28 September 2011

Expats and the Arts

Bali’s fame as the ‘Island of Artists’ was in no small part due to its promotion, during the 1930s, by a small band of European and Mexican artists — Covarrubias, Spies, Niewenkampt, and Hoefker. In their work, they all portrayed Bali as an idyll for artists.

Today, despite inroads by sexpats, villa people and real estate developers into the island scene, it is still international artists, writers, dancers and photographers who make the biggest contribution, of all the foreign sectors’, to the continuation of the world’s most gorgeous culture.

Every year more and more top-rank Indonesian artists and writers make Bali their home too, which enriches the island’s reputation as a haven for creative people.

Last month saw the launch of many books by prominent expatriates and Indonesians.

Leading the pack was Jamie James’ sensational micro-buster ‘Rimbaud’ in Java’ published by Editions Didier Millet of Mertasari, Singapore and Paris (see excerpt from Zadie Smith in box).

Out of the same Mertasari, Sanur compound came long-time resident Leonard Lueras and Yayasan Purnati’s ‘The Art of Ogoh-Ogoh’, a sensational photo album of images of the Island’s demon effigies.

In the same month photographer Andrew de Jong of Canggu and Woolongong released a bouquet of beefcake beauties called ‘Men in Indonesia’, which is flying off the book shelves in gay saunas and select bookstores around the world.

The Island’s most prolific publisher, Sarita Newson, of Kiwi-Kintamani extraction, also published a book on ‘Ogoh-Ogoh’; and Ubud-based anthropologist Jean Couteau launched a book on the art of a Sanur-based Dutch painter. Celebrity furniture designer Carlo Pessina also had a retrospective of his distinctive designs at the GANESHA gallery at the four Seasons in Jimbaran.

"Far too much creative endeavour" as Noel Coward famously remarked in his 1930s ditty on the island's culture.

Meanwhile the Balinese have been busy 'raising the bar' with ever more extraordinary temple dance performances, festivals and cremations. Creativity in fashion is peaking too, with the Balinese women taking floral applique and saucy mules to new heights of extravagance in their temple dress (see photos following pages).

I had to travel as far afield as Gunaksa, outside Klungkung, to find a good, old-fashioned, all native Barong Dance.

4th October 2011: Back to the magic hill outside Gunaksa village, Klungkung to film a repeat of last month’s amazing Barong Masolah dance for the Cinémathèque Francaise de la Danse.

As no-one seems to want wants my romantic- poetic gardens anymore — the clever New Asian architects have succeeded in brain-washing developers and the public alike in the belief that minimalistic, formulaic gardens are next to godliness — I have had to retrain 30 or so of the tropical world’s best gardeners, as mosaic artists, decorative paint specialists and cinematographers.

This would be impossible anywhere but Bali, where artisans are ultimately flexible.

I have almost completely deserted garden design for ethnography and show business: my encore careers as film-maker, exotic dancer, and soft-porn star (less of that later. Ed.) has taken over.

As barefoot/Facebook film-maker I have now made over 70 short films and documentaries, most about Balinese rituals, but also films on famous Indonesian fish markets, Independence Day on Bintan, and Cougars from Coolongatta.

Truly inquisitive minds can go to Wijaya Pilem2 on You Tube to see the results.
Others can wait for Alam TV or Fox News to discover me.

I have a loyal Facebook following for my films which includes specialists from the Paris Cinemateque (the world’s oldest repository of films on ethnographic dance), the former head of the Indian National Trust and Logie award-winner Lissa Coote.

Tonight I take my field unit and a borrowed camera to Pura Bukit Puluh to reshoot, properly, the amazing Barong Dance I saw at the neighboring Pura Mastapa last month.

• • •

On arrival the grand temple is bursting at the seams; pilgrims are flooding in from as far away as Negara, Lombok and Singaraja.

In a back room, off the main wantilan hallI, I find the dance troupe of trance-masters getting dressed, but the charming corps de ballet dancers are not there.

"The main Telek dancer is menstruating" my friend, I Barong (his real name) screams across the dressing room, pulling a face.

Last month I filmed Wayan’s father, the troupe's lead Barong Dancer, ‘flip out’ when, at the end of the performance, hen emerged from the Barong — wild-eyed and fancy-free -- to eat a live black chicklet in one gulp and flail around (in a nice not a nasty way). He was then served arak in a cup by his doting, dancing priestly son, also somewhat away with the pixies.

Earlier tonight I had greeted Wayan Barong as he arrived at the temple , looking like the young Tony Curtis in Prince Valiant — white teeth and long perfectly-formed fingers and gold rings flashing — and now I document him getting dressed into his Barong costume with its his hairy goat-skin leg-shields with their attendant bells and striped trousers.

• • •

(Later the same night. Ed) 9.30 p.m. : The Barong Dance is in full swing on the terrace below the long stairs and the towering gate that leads to the temple

After an hour-long overture the gamelan starts to play the trance-dance, melodies as Rangda, the Evil White Witch, taunts Barong, the village mascot, by slapping his mask with her spooky white head scarf (see “Barong Masolah” v=usMZ7DfdJeI on Wijaya Pilem2 on You Tube).

My driver of 35 years, Grandfather Made Kader, is shooting with the big camera. He reminds me of Leni Reifenstal shooting ‘Triumph of the Will’ in Berlin, in 1936. All the dancers and the Barong seem to be playing to the camera.

Suddenly the star dancer Barong emerges from the hairy beast’s bodice and starts a frantic kris-dance (ngurek) of such intense beauty that one can hear the collective clank of a thousand jaws dropping.

• • •

The speech that I should have given on 1st October at Warwick Purser 70th Birthday Party:
"We are gathered here tonight, again, in white, looking our best for ‘Tuan Lurik’, the indefatigable hostess with the mostess of Jogjakarta, Ubud, Jakarta, Mt. Masedon, Portsea, Port Douglas, Batujimbar, Menteng, Tembi, Chiang Mai and Toorak fame.

Our Warwick has many talents — as a father; a homeware, home, and hotel- designer; philanthropist, lech and decorator — but he is most famous for being famous.

How does this happen? Well, one needs a good start, like the above talents, and one has to be charming and witty and have a well-born Melbourne wife.

Left: Sir Warwick Purser, and Susanna Perini from Biasa Artspace.
Right: Writer/Photographer Leonard Leuras at his Sanur book Launch

Left: Paul Ropp, fashion Designer
Right: Anthropologist and Comedienne Rucina Ballinger and author Jamie James

Melinda and Arthur Karvan at the Ogoh-ogoh book launch at Wantilan Lama Batu Jimbar.

Left: Tati Waworuntu
Right: Bulantrisna Djelantik and Rio Helmi

rom his earliest days with the much loved Lissa Purser — as managers of the legendary Hotel Tandjung Sari on Sanur Beach in Bali (1969-71)-- and through his years in Jalan Penarukan Jakarta — when he was building up Southeast Asia’s biggest travel agency PACTO — and a decade later as Minister of Tourism in Vanuatu...... and now as the white Raja of Tembi, South of Jogjakarta — the high and mighty and talented of Jakarta and the world have beaten a track to his glamorous and culturally-refined homes with the best-looking staff money can buy.

Long before it become fashionable, Warwick was professionally non-judgemental, blasé even, about life’s trials and tribulations.

While perhaps not a great conversationalist, nor even a good listener (he, he), Warwick sure knows how to put together people who are, and he has always done this with great generosity of spirit and verve.

He is also a master of ‘keeping things to himself, and he’s had a lot to keep! Ha!

His even temperament is his defining trait: Warwick is basically unflappable (though he folds neatly)

In almost 40 years of friendship I can’t remember him ever losing his block. He has , on occasion, lost the shirt off his back, his marbles, his sense of reality …. but he rarely succumbs to the vilest of vices ….. lip-curling petulance.

He was my first boss, and has mentored many careers including those of Agung Prana, Mendez, John Panca, and that of his daughter, Polly’, who is now marketing whizz at John Hardy Jewellery. Unknown numbers of other artists, dancers, musicians, masseurs and satpam have benefitted from his largesse.

We shine in his company.

In the words of the fabulous singing Farmer’s: “God Save Our Gracious Warwick”.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Bungklang Bungkling: Yeh (Water) by Wayan Juniartha

Taken from ‘Bungklang Bungkling’, ‘Yeh’, a column by I Wayan Juniartha, published in Bali Post, Sunday 9th October 2011. Translated by Putu Semiada.

Yeh (Water)

It is said that water has been a big problem in Bali; a lot of rivers run out of water, lakes are getting shallow and ground wells are dry. In 2012 Bali will have water crisis.

“2012? Please don’t talk about 2012! I haven’t taken a bath for a week as the city water has been off, says I Made Engkah Naga (I Made Full of Bullshit).

Everyone understands well when I Made says that. Made is known for his habit of rarely taking a bath in spite of the city water supply. That’s why his friends call him cockcrow.

“Crisis is not really a problem. The most important thing is that how we can use the water wisely,” comments I Putu Tenggek Puyung (I Putu No Brain).

I Putu is a non-government organization activist who works hard in preserving the Bali environment. He ‘fights’ against high ranking officials and investors, but he never wins.

“First, you only need to take a bath once a day, only in the morning. Don’t worry if your body stinks. You’ll be able to sleep, at the end.”

His friends shake their heads. But they can understand as I Putu has never been in love yet with a girl. He might understand when he has a wife. When he does, he has to take a bath at least twice a day otherwise his wife will not sleep with him.

“Secondly, we must make our head bald so that you don’t need to wash your hair anymore. Washing hair takes much water, let alone using shampoo. A bucket of water is not enough.”

“Thirdly, change your clothes once a week. You will have only a few clothes to wash then. It saves lots of water. Or you can bring clothes to a laundry service that they can wash your clothes at the same time.”

Fourthly, do not pee too often so you won’t feel thirsty. And don’t spit too often either. If you feel thirsty, just swallow your saliva.”

They all think what crazy ideas I Putu have.

“Fifthly, Do not defecate in a toilet because it takes a lot of water to clean the toilet. Just find a bush. After you are done, clean it in on a tree trunk.” Adds I Putu.

They are a bit surprised. How can they find trees to clean after defecating? Bushes have gone; what’s left are electrical poles and house columns.

Sixthly, the most important thing, is to stop drinking water. Drink palm toddy or palm wine instead. It will save lots of water.

They all clap. They all agree on this one.

“This will become the most important contribution from the palm toddy association members for Bali on environmental preservation and water saving. So just let’s drink palm toddy and palm wine from now on.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Bungklang Bungkling: Media by Wayan Juniartha

Taken from ‘Bungklang Bungkling’, ‘Media’, a column by I Wayan Juniartha, published in Bali Post, Sunday 2nd October 2011. Translated by Putu Semiada.


Who is the most powerful person these days?

If you ask that question to I Madé Polo Cupet (I Madé Narrow Mind), he will say ‘Bli Komang Bastok (Basang Bontok)’ or Big Belly Brother Komang.

“He is the strongest person in the village, the bravest and he has tattoos all over his body” comments I Made.

He is right, Komang is an influential person as he is field coordinator of Laskar Pelangi (Stupid Arrogant Vigilante Association).

“If he is influential person, why he can’t lower the prices of the fuel or rice,” comments I Pekak Dangdut (I Pekak Fond of Dangdut Music).

I Made can not say anything. He seems to agree with Pekak’s comment. No matter how powerful he is, he cannot change the price of fuel or omit school ‘compulsory’ donation.

“Does it mean that SBY, our president, is a powerful president? Or if I may say, Mangku Pastika is a very powerful governor.

I Pekak shakes his head.

“If SBY is powerful, then why his men never listen to him? He asked Nazarudin to Indonesia but he rejected. He keeps asking his political party members not to take people’s money but nobody listens.”

“If the governor is really powerful, why does nobody follow his orders? All the mayors in Bali do not listen to him regarding Space Planning. The people also do not listen to him when he talks about how to prevent social conflicts among the Balinese.”

If SBY and the governor are powerful, why does the media keep criticizing them.

“Are you saying that the media is more powerful?” asks I Madé.

“The newspaper or television can say something good or bad about person or certain leader; they can change a Cokorda (ksatrya caste) to become a common person or vice versa. So media has very strong influence.”

I Pekak shakes his head.

“If the media has strong influence, why are they just quiet when a certain party put a full page advertisement in their media?”

“In addition, if the media is strong enough, why they don’t dare to expose ‘Laskar Pelangi’ who always makes trouble? Why are they afraid of the organization whose members have scary tattoos on their body?”

“What are really we talking about? It’s like a never ending topic?” comments I Made.

I Pekak smiles.

“I reckon that nobody is really powerful, not even the media.