It is now 40 years since I first walked onto the hot tarmac in Denpasar, Bali. Back then the airport was quite small as the tourist boom was only in it’s seminal stages. Allissa was almost 2 and Paul was going on 4 years old. I was 31 and this was my very first trip out of Australia, Melanie was just 24. She had taken the initiative to make the booking and to plan the trip to Bali, an exotic island to the east of Java. I would be kidding myself if I said I remembered how long we stayed but I have a feeling that it was 2 weeks. Back then even the bus ride from the airport was exciting and a brand new adventure full of strange new smells, sounds and other never before experienced perceptions.
Our first port of call was the Legian Beach Hotel in what was then the small village of Kuta. We had a a small bungalow on the beach. I recall Bemo Corner, Poppies Lane, the beach and not much else. Bali seemed so exotic, so humid, brand new smells, sounds and sights. Bemos were small trucks that had rickety seats in the back, you hopped in and got our where you needed to paying a nominal fare.
Our next stop was Ubud and the very exotic and marvellous Hotel Tjampuan which lay just over the small one way bridge just to the west of the Ubud Palace. On the drive north from Kuta we noticed naked people bathing in the subaks (water ways) that ran parallel to the roads. Little did we know that this was their traditional method of bathing after a hard days work. In Jalan Raya Ubud there was a dark, spicy smelling central market, the Royal Palace, Puri Lukisan (Art Museum) and a few shops but not much else.
We arrived at our hotel and were shown to our room by Karta who was to be our guide and protector. He introduced himself as “Karta with a rolled R, Jimmy Carter, Jakarta”, that stuck with me for 40 years. I went back to Tjampuan several years ago and found him, the young man had morphed into an old man with grey hair and missing teeth, he had no recollection of who I was which I completely understood after all of those long decades. The only restaurant back then was Murni’s Warung just over the single file suspension bridge and perched above the Tjampuan River, if I recall correctly there was a small Warung opposite the hotel. Murni’s is still there but is now surrounded by small shops, massage businesses and such. The bridge is also still there but is in a state of disrepair, the original one way bridge has been replaced by a more modern 2 lane cement bridge that crosses the Tjampuan River which has become one after the Oos and Wos Rivers come together at the Gunung Lebah temple. All of our meals were included during our stay at Hotel Tjampuan, the restaurant area is different now than it was back then, the place we experienced was much more basic. The food on offer was very traditional Balinese cuisine and made a huge impact on my taste buds. We swam in the old pool which I heard was given to there German artist, Walter Spies as a gift in the 1930s by the heiress Barbara Hutton, it doesn’t get used a lot anymore but it is still there.
Ubud left it’s mark on me and I have now returned countless times. I now have my own villa about 5 minutes walk from Hotel Tjampuan and the isignificant Gunung Lebah Temple just on the other side of the river at the gateway of my morning walk up the Tjampuan Ridge pathway. The walk up and down takes a little over an hour from the front gate of our villa.
I have just returned from a trip into the centre of Ubud where I religiously go for my weekly haircut and shave, lovingly performed by my Sumatran barber, Indra. The haircut, beard trim, shave, hair wash and head massage take around 45 minutes, such a treat.
The streets of central Ubud are now filled with gaudy trinket shops, bright clothing stores, Balinese men touting for taxi rides “Yes, Taxi” and countless restaurants offering all sorts of food, not much of it Balinese. A far cry from the unpaved streets of the early 80s. Then there are the tourists, people from around the world who come to Ubud for one or two days to experience the culture of Bali only to find busy streets packed with brightly lit shops full of goods to spend their money on. At least there are still traditional Balinese dance recitals in the grounds of the royal palace with the unique sounds of the gamelan floating out onto Jalan Suweta and Jalan Raya Ubud. But apart from that small concession people wander up and down the main road eating gelato and probably wondering what the big deal about Ubud is. Many may never return having not even begun to scratch the surface of this bountiful cultural heartland.
This is a vastly different world from my village of Penestanan which is but a short 20 minute walk away across the bridge at Tjampuan, it seems like you have stepped back in time by at least a quarter of a decade. As I walked up the hill from Tjampuan to Penestanan the change in ambience is instantly perceptible. It was around 9 p.m. The main road was quiet and dark, a few restaurants still served a handful of people. I immediately felt calm and safe, at home in what has morphed into my second home. The only people who really know about Penestanan are the yoga enthusiasts and vegans who make their way to Zest and Alchemy plus quite a large population of expats from Australia and all around the world. It feels like just right to me, like a pair of really comfortable walking shoes that fit perfectly.
Our final stop back in 1983 was Sanur, a beachside village just a few kilometres from the capital city of Denpasar. Bali left an indelible image on my psyche all those years ago. It was my gentle and somewhat safe introduction to Asia which fast became my favourite part of the world.