The village of Umabian and the rice-growing region of Mengwi showcase the genius of Bali — its harmony of architecture, music, cuisine and lifestyle — minus the noisy heaving crowds.
Now this is a lot harder than it looks — it’s one clash on the first beat, two quick ones on the third, then a staccato for crescendos. But I still can’t get it right. Watching other players only means I’m lagging behind.
And the last thing I want is to let down the conductor, who, on this villa stay in Bali, is Mr. I Gusti Ngurah Beratha, my guide.
Beratha is a maestro — composer, conductor and master of all instruments. It was at his invitation that I have dropped in on this gamelan rehearsal, a gamelan being a traditional Balinese orchestra. And no sooner have I sat, than the youngsters have me drawn into their ranks, brass cymbals in my hand. And the experience is phenomenal.
The ensemble occupies almost every inch of floor space in the hall. Their skills are virtuoso, with harmonies and rhythms of the most bewitching kind. The two dozen or so male members, I guess, must come from far and wide.
“No,” Beratha tells me. “They all come from here.”
“Here” is Umabian village. And it’s small. There are less than 20 houses, and around 100 residents. So I am left to conclude that every second male citizen is a classical musician, for the players’ ages range from 16 through to 60, with the young in the majority. I wonder what music they listen to at home. Surely not hip-hop?
By Balinese standards, Umabian village is remote. There are historical reasons for this.
“The royal family came to live here when the kingdom of Mengwi was conquered in the late 19th century by Tabanan and Badung,” Beratha explains. “They felt sure their enemy would never find them here.”
“And did they?” I ask.
Mengwi itself is a long way from the towns and tourist belt. It is a rice-growing region in southern central Bali. Umabian is set along a quiet country road, exactly where it gives way to the fields. Puri Taman Sari, my villa, is secluded like the homes behind a wall. Its founder owner was born in Umabian. He is Agung Prana, a man of royal descent.
Indeed, if the kingdom of Mengwi had not been overthrown, he would today be king.
Puri Taman Sari is the kind of place you wish you’d always known about in Bali. There is no brash tourist culture here, no noisy restaurants or bars. Instead you are secluded in a garden hideaway — an expansive one and blessedly serene. It exudes all the beauty and mystique of a Balinese royal palace.
Mr Prana has built with local wisdom – “a symphony of Bali” is a term he likes to use. The villa retains all the essential elements of a traditional housing compound. These include the family temple, ceremonial pavilion, granary, and open-sided pavilions, or bale, designed for parlance and for sleep.
There are eight accommodation chalets on the property, all built by local craftsmen. They are Balinese in character, but with western-styled amenities. The bathroom is a spacious outdoor courtyard, whose stone walls and ornaments have been typically allowed to gather moss.
Aside from cooking classes, meditating and traditional massage, there are no set activities on offer in the grounds. Nor do you jump into a coach and go on tour. Instead, you simply walk. And this is really all you’d want to do. Local villages beckon. Rise early to see offerings being reverently placed before gateways — farmers heading to and from the fields, the kids in crisp uniforms setting off for school. And everyone seems so much at their ease.
A pathway leads out to the fields. It follows an irrigation channel, crosses it and takes you through a copse. Emerging, you are in another village. This is Jebaud. It is much bigger than Umabian, but no less traditional or remote.
Tranquility reigns, with just the odd motorbike to break the silent spell. Tiered Christmas tree-like temples, thatched granaries and bale roofs rise with the shrubbery above the gates and walls. Some way down the road, Jebaud seamlessly gives way to Berinkit.
This is a separate village, which in turn gives way to the little town of Blayu. It owns a market, some stoneware workshops and two imposing temples. From one of these, some devotees emerge, dressed in ceremonial attire. We join them as they file down to a little leafy hollow, in which is set a shrine. Here they receive blessings and pray, hands clasped above their heads.
I stand in awe. There is such beauty in this culture — such purity and grace — that you find yourself inspired to find out more about the way the people live. Back amidst the rice fields, we chance upon another shrine. Some women are making offerings to the goddess of rice, Dewi Sri, doubtlessly in gratitude for the bountiful harvest she has once more seen fit to bestow. Beratha now takes me to what is called the old pagoda. It’s a temple secluded in a deep dark forest hollow, so ancient and organic it seems to be as one with the forest and the earth.
“Some of our guests like to come here for meditation,” Beratha tells me. “It’s always very quiet here, and they are never disturbed.”
Back home in Puri, Prana joins me in the bale for lunch. We share a platter of succulent Indonesian treats: nasi campur, spring rolls, stir-fry and sate. He explains his philosophy.
“We must do things the Balinese way, it is the genius that has existed for thousands of years. We cannot try to improve it. It is better just to learn.”
Yes, the genius of Bali is in full evidence at Puri Taman Sari — in the exquisite architecture, the music, the life-ways of the people and the succulent cuisine. You can also be assured that only harmony and peace abide in such surrounds. And the only cultural impact is the one that’s made by Bali and the Balinese on you.
Malaysia Airlines fly from KL to Denpasar twice daily. The transfer from Denpasar airport to Puri Taman Sari takes around 90 minutes
Bring: light cottons, repellent, sun hat, sun block, comfortable walking shoes.
When: The dry season is from April till September, and is the best time to visit.
Visa: Required for Indonesia.
Cost: US$10 for up to 3 days, and US$25 for up to 30 days
Currency: One Malaysian ringgit buys around 2,540 Indonesian rupiah
Read: Lonely Planet have a current edition on Bali with a comprehensive section on Mengwi