When we started researching going to Indonesia, many people advised us to skip Jakarta, so we started 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 reason 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 to hundreds of art galleries, studios, artist schools, and cooperatives. It also has a lovely literary community and is home to the annual Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.
We visited both museums—each of which focused primarily on traditional Balinese art. NEKA provided a cross-section of all Balinese aperitifs and styles; ARMA was 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 of pieces of rather avant-garde Installation pieces.
Overall, we liked NEKA better. In our mind, it was 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 has 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 Gusti 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. Some of these beautiful daggers are straight and some have the classic curved “luk” shapes. While originally used as weapons, the daggers and their scabbards often said more about the owner’s wealth and power than their fighting skills. They also have 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.
The village (which has 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 focus on 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. As 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 where we stayed and ate).
Our favorite “gallery” (as evidenced by the four oil paintings we bought), however, was a couple of 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 from around the world, we focused on those from Southeast Asia.
Of the two parks, the Bird Park is the most interesting and takes the 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 Adjutant, 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. There 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 want to see this creature in the wild.
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 of town (snorkeling off Menjangan Island ) 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 was 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.