Bali: Beyond the Beaches


When we started researching going to Indonesia, many people advised us to skip Jakarta, so we started out on the island of  Bali. For this portion of our trip, we enlisted the help of a wonderfully helpful agent, Diane Embree of Michael’s Travel.

Our primary base for exploring the island was the village of Ubud. Why Ubud, you may ask? Ubud is the heart of Bali’s, and probably, all of Indonesia’s contemporary art and music scene. It continually hosts visiting artists, has two of the island’s premier art museums (NEKA and ARMA) and is home of hundreds of art galleries, studios and artist schools and cooperatives. It also has a lovely literary community and is home of the annual Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.

We visited both museums—each of which focused primarily on traditional Balinese art: NEKA was on providing a cross-section of all Balinese aperitifs and styles; ARMA primarily on the so-called Ubud and naive styles. Both also had some contemporary pieces too: ARMA, in particular, had some lovely gold leaf paintings and a couple pieces of rather avant garde Installation pieces.

Overall, we liked NEKA better, which was, in our mind, better organized and fully explained the evolution of styles and how they compare. It had galleries dedicated to the classical “puppet” style, the more Western-influenced Ubud style and the daily-life representations of the Bautan style. It also galleries dedicated to senior artists who played particularly important roles after Indonesia’s 1945 independence, contemporary artists, photographers and to foreign artists who worked in Bali. Two galleries were dedicated to two particularly important artists (Arie Smit and visit Lempad) who were distinguished not only by their own bodies of work but also by their influence on younger artists.

NEKA also had a special exhibit on a very Indonesian-specific art form–that of the Indonesian “keris” or dagger. These beautiful daggers, some straight, some in the classic curved “luk” shapes. While originally used as weapons, these beautiful daggers and their scabbards often said more about the owner’s wealth and power, as their fighting skills. It also has symbolic value, as in demonstrating the importance of being sharp (i.e., intelligent) to thrive in the world. It also has ceremonial roles, such as in weddings, where it represents the male in contrast with a grass or leaf mat, which represents the female.traditional artIMG_8546Keris

The village (actually grown into a large town or almost a small city) is loaded with all manner of galleries, boutiques and restaurants, ranging from mass tourist stops to quite upscale. Galleries and studios, in particular, are scattered throughout the town and all along the major roads out of town–often evolving from formal stores to stalls as you move out of town. While the largest number clearly focus on the paintings (the art form for which Ubud is best known), other shops focus on arts from nearby communities. These include jewelry, stone carvings, wood carvings, kites and especially batik fabric designs.

Local fine art galleries are located all around the main streets in the center of town. Our first stop, based on the recommendation of a mutual friend, was Rio Helms’ Photo Gallery and Localista Coffee. A world-known chronicler of cultural and sociological change in Bali, Rio’s work has appeared in global magazines a newspapers (including Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times) and is displayed in galleries worldwide. We also liked the upscale gallery at the Komanek hotel at Rasa Saring (almost directly across the street from the lovely Komanek at Monkey Forest at which we stayed and ate).

Our favorite “gallery” (as evidenced by the four oil paintings we bought), however, was a couple kilometers out of the center of town. The Semar Kuning artist cooperative, is much more than a gallery. Although it does have about half a dozen large rooms filled with all styles of paintings from more than 100 artists, it is also an art school and coop studio space in which artists can work independently or collaboratively. The selection is broad, the quality of many of the works is quite high and the prices are extremely reasonable.

Ubud’s Other Attractions

We also spent some of our Ubud time gaining a preview of some of the wildlife–especially birds and reptiles–that we would like (but were very unlikely) to see in the wild over our next two months. The Bali Bird and Reptile Parks provided an easy, convenient and, in the case of some of the reptiles, safe, way of doing so. While the parks had exotic birds and reptiles for around the world, we focused on those from Southeast Asia.

Of the two parks, the Bird Park is most interesting and takes most care to show their animals in something resembling their native habitats. While the species we saw are far too numerous to name or photograph (or in some cases even see within their naturally landscaped habitats), we found a number to be particularly interesting unusual and beautiful. These included the Crown Crane, Indian Hawk Eagle, Lesser Adjuntant, Green Lory, Hornbill, Crown Pigeon, the huge-tailed, pure-white Merak and the amazingly colorful Forest Chicken.

The real stars of the show, however, we the roughly dozen different species of brilliantly colored Birds of Paradise birds (and yes, some of their namesake flowers for contrast). One of the most awesome of the flying animals wasn’t a bird at all, but a mammal–the giant Fruit Bat, with a wingspan of up to 75 cm (about 2.5 feet).

Among the reptiles we hope not to run into on some of our jungle treks and river excursions are the Giant, or even Dwarf Crocodile, the highly poisonous Green Tree Python, the King Mangrove (up to 23-foot long) Burmese Rock Python. On the other hand, the Green Tree Frog and Blue-Tongue Skink looked almost cute. Their is, however, one indigenous Indonesian reptile that we are making a special excursion to see–the Komodo Dragon. While we did get to see a small one (about four feet) at the Bird Park (rather than the Reptile Park), we absolutely want to see this creature in the wild.

bird of paradiseTom and iguna

There is, however one big Ubud event that we were regrettably, not able to make. Shortly before we arrived, a member of the traditional Ubud royal family died and the village was preparing a traditional royal funeral for her. Although we were out off town (snorkeling off Menjangan Island which is on a different blog) the day of the ceremony, we did get to see practice performances of the traditional musical groups and the giant, multi-story commemorative tower and sarcophagus in the form of a black bull that were to be carried through the streets in a procession, from the Royal Palace to the cemetery. A large group of people carrying offerings, playing traditional musical instruments and mourners follow the body to the cemetery, which is then cremated in the sarcophagus, (along with the tower) and the ashes carried to the sea.

funeral pyre

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