A collection of short stories, essays, blog-posts and photographs from Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

The Ubud Handbook « The Heads of Trunyan

MAYBE I SHOULD have taken Lonely Planet's guide to Bali and Lombok more seriously. Three times they warn the unwary: 'Don't go'. I'm stopped at this remote village's edge by a tough-looking man in his twenties who wants me to change a $20 bill for Indonesian rupiah. ('And don't worry about the exchange rate.') On his black T-shirt are near-foot-high, white letters that read:

'YOU SUCK'.

Welcome to Trunyan, one of the oldest villages in Bali.

It's easy to see why the Trunyanese are so defensive of their well-worn patch. The view across Lake Batur beats any northern Italian backdrop. The locals call their caldera's lake "the sea": at more than a thousand metres above sea-level, small, wind-whipped waves cut across the deeply turquoise water. Opposite the thousand-year-old-plus village, dried pistes of dark-grey lava from previous eruptions – the last in 1994 – drip down the slopes of the still-active Mount Batur.

Trunyan has never been high on the visitors' list. Like a handful of other villages scattered around the volcanic uplands of Bali, Trunyan is inhabited by the Bali Aga – the so-called 'original Balinese people' – a once rabidly isolationist ethnic group that makes up nearly three percent of the island's population.

But the people of Trunyan are beginning to feel a little too isolated.

While Lonely Planet extols their ethnic cousins' double-ikat weaving in the more accessible Bali Mula village of nearby Tenganan ('Peculiar! Old-fashioned! A real village, not a creation for tourists!'), the more remote Trunyan was largely cut off until its first tarmac road to the world was laid in 2006. Its primary school – there is no secondary school – was built in 1975.

Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit.

The black-and-white-T-shirted Nyoman, 26, has decided I'm worth showing around ('You didn't argue about the exchange rate', he grins). We arrange a day's guide-fee of Rp.200,000 and push off in a shaky canoe to the lakeside cemetery.

– "This lady was a neighbour of mine," says Nyoman. "She died about six months ago."

Under the shadow of the great banyan tree, Nyoman points to a corpse draped in salmon-pink and ice-white shawls, protected from wild dogs by a triangular bamboo cage. At the foot of the cage is a small woven basket containing a collection of possessions that will accompany the dead into her afterlife: a comb; a pair of new flip-flops; a plastic eating bowl; a single clove cigarette.

When a fresh body arrives, the oldest body is removed – its sun-dried skull and femurs placed on an elevated rock-altar a few feet away. Only those who have been married, died from natural causes and show no obvious physical marks earn the exalted position with the lake view. Villagers who have remained single, died from disease, committed suicide or have been murdered are relegated to nondescript, rocky ground to the south.

Further away still is a third, tiny cemetery tucked tightly under the caldera's cliff – reserved for infants under five. These last two groups, Nyoman explains, are buried and covered with rocks to 'prevent their unhappy souls from roving and disturbing the living'.

It's disconcerting. Even up close to the corpse there's no smell of decomposition: only the steady, fresh breeze that bounces off the lake, scented by the parched undergrowth and brittle leaves around us.

Nyoman unravels the cemetery's secret.

He tells of the village goddess, Dewa Pancering ('panchering') Jagat, who married a Javanese prince. Their union, it is said, was true happiness: but every time the goddess gave birth, her baby died. Some claimed it was a natural perfume emanating from the goddess's skin that was killing the newborn.

Desperate for offspring, the Javanese prince ordered the village's dead to be left under a nearby banyan tree so that the stench of flesh would negate the fatal scent of his wife. It worked. Heirs were produced and the village survived. Indebted, the goddess possessed the banyan – called the Taru Menyan, or 'sweet-smelling tree', and after which the village was named – allowing Trunyan's dead to lie in peace, without odour, as a return gift from the goddess.

Like many graveyards, it's a restful place – until a motorboat of Javanese tourists disembark at the water's edge. Skulls are picked up and posed with, femurs are held aloft. Groups arrange themselves for selfies. A 100,000 rupiah note is left in the woven basket for the half-dozen guides who hang languidly around the tree. The tourist band disappears back into the flapping green-and-white waves of the lake as if they had never been.

It's difficult to see how the Bali Mula of Trunyan can't make more of their lakeside idyll and plentiful history without relying solely on a curiosity that some may find anthropologically fascinating, others macabre and distasteful.

The lakeside temple is beautiful, its unique ceremonies distinct from the rest of Hindu Bali. A walk through the narrow village walkways is eye-opening and humbling. The 45-minute hike to the tip of the crater hovering above Trunyan for a misty, ethereal dawn-break is stunning. More micro-pockets of Bali Aga people, guarded by family dogs, live on the crater shoulder cultivating corn and tending cows. You may be given a gritty black coffee to wake you up at the top. And the only people you'll meet on the way down are knots of children and old women carrying 10-or-so-kilo parcels of firewood on their heads to be used for traditional cooking-fires in the village below.

That the Bali Aga people – along with the rest of the island's 3,5 million Balinese – have successfully stuck to age-old customs and upheld their culture is exactly the reason most tourists continue to come to this island. You only have to step into the chasm of Kuta on the south coast – once a quiet fishing village, now complete with foam parties, Blow Me cocktails and police patrolling the latest dance heavens with automatic rifles – to see how it can all go wrong.

To blacklist a village for its aggression – read real financial desperation combined with poor standards of education, natural mountain bluntness and a healthy distrust of potentially destructive outside forces – is economic damnation indeed. And if a visitor feels shunned or unimportant when straying into remote Bali Mula territory – rare if you are polite – it is historical, and nothing new.

The people of Trunyan – like the Bali Aga of Bayunggede, Tenganan, Pedewa, Bungaya, Asak and Sembiran – have all had plenty of practise at rejecting imperialist advances. Miguel Covarrubias, the Thirties' Mexican painter and author of the landmark guidebook 'Island of Bali', chose the 'rabidly isolated' Bali Mula village of Tenganan as somewhere special...

'...shut off from the world by a solid wall. Such is the obsession for isolation that there is an official appointed to sweep the village after the visits of strangers to obliterate their footprints...'

Known also as the Bali Mula, the Bali Aga retreated to the volcanic highlands when the remains of the once-powerful Hindu Majapahit kingdom evacuated from nearby Java to Bali as Islam expanded across the archipelago. The Bali Aga, already content with their unique mix of Buddhist-Animism, simply painted over it with this newer, shiny veneer of imported Hinduism.

There is a surefire, deliberate, step-at-a-time slowness in the Trunyan routine: from the housewife stoking a firewood stove to the arranging of offerings during a village ceremony. Many of the oldest in Trunyan reach far into their eighties; one woman is a healthy centenarian in a country where life-expectancy rarely tops 65. Layers of Australian Aborigine, Chinese, Malay, Polynesian, Arabic, Melanesian, Mongol and Indian create a look among the Trunyanese that the painter Covarrubias sketched as 'ghostly, slender, aristocratic'.

All Balinese share similar racial roots at this convenient crossroads of historical shipping-routes. But unlike mainstream Balinese Hindus, no caste system exists within the Bali Aga; the Trunyanese burial method is closer to the pre-Hindu Neolithic Agama Bayu sect who worshipped the stars, the wind and their ancestors.

I ask the deputy-head of the village, I. Ketut Jaksa, why his community clings so fiercely to tradition while other parts of Bali are hungrily reshaping to swallow the annual island-invasion of nearly three million visitors. After all, I suggest, the Bali Mula of nearby Sembiran village abandoned their age-old custom of leaving their dead to the jungle in the 1960s?

– "Please know that we wholeheartedly welcome tourists to our village", says Jaksa. "But you must also understand that if they, or we, flaunt the most minor law here it will cause irreparable damage to us and bring trouble. No-one is allowed to disrespect their ancestors. We must protect our laws to safeguard our future."

However changes do occur, even in a Bali Aga village, and all may not spell trouble. Over a bowl of barbecued mujair lake-fish, I quiz the village head, I. Ketut Sutapa, about the future and past of a village that has lain in its cultural time-warp for well over a millennium.

– "Before our road was completed in 2006," the chief says, "women who were about to give birth had to take a canoe across the lake and hire a car to get to the clinic. Some gave birth on the lake. My wife's baby began to come out while she was still in the car – his leg came out first so we pulled. My son's crippled now.

"Education has changed. We've only got a primary school in Trunyan, and a lot of our children were tired of canoeing across the lake every day to study. With the new road, it's so much better. More finish secondary school, and some now go to university. Who knows – perhaps we'll even get someone who graduates from tourism school and then we can find out how they make so much money in the south..."

As we talk inside the coffee shop, a tanned white couple arrives on a motorbike. An elderly woman rushes forward to tie an offering of flowers to the 'bike's handlebars and hovers for a donation. Nyoman moves in next, this time waving a redundant Australian $10 note.

The two newest visitors to this ancient village panic, pull a swift U-turn and disappear up the barely navigable hairpin road, back through the potholes and dogs and puddles to the relative safety of civilisation.

Perhaps the oldest ways are the hardest to beat.

© 2021 John Storey.


Gallery: Trunyan Village Portraits

Old farmer, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali

Old farmer, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Laughing female farm-worker, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Female farm-worker, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Young Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Young Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Old Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Batur, Bali

Old Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Young Balinese girl, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Young Balinese girl, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.


© 2021 John Storey. All Rights Reserved.


The Last Pic

Portrait of the Day

Portraits from Bali by Ubud High

Photograph by © Ubud High.


The Ubud Handbook by John Storey

© 2021 John Storey. All rights reserved.


Urban art of a young Balinese girl using a smartphone by the street artist Wild Drawing of Bali, Indonesia

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The Ubud Handbook

The Ubud Handbook

THE UBUD HANDBOOK ~ Your free guide to living in Ubud and Bali in an online nutshell.

Religion Matters

The Tale of Ganesha the Globetrotter ~ Bali's Elephant-Headed Hindu God

A young Lord Ganesha writes a chapter of The Mahabharata with his broken tusk at a stone-carver's shop in Batubulan, Bali, Indonesia

‘First stop on Shree Ganesha's round-Asia tour was a spell in Buddhist Tibet with its strong tantric leanings – a convenient spot to re-invent himself as Vinãyaka, and then as the dancing red Nritta Ganapati – before a full-blown alter-ego revamp as the scarlet, twelve-armed Maharakta Ganapati. Now, Maharakta Ganapati was unusually fond of skullcaps filled with human flesh and blood – and this we might charitably put down to a bad trip.

After all, what happens in Tibet stays in Tibet...’

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An American Calonarang ~ Trance & Possession on Bali

Balinese-Hindu offerings of rice, money, sweets, holy water and flower petals at Sebatu Springs, Bali, Indonesia

‘To cut an all-night story short, the mask was donned by a dancer who fell into a deep trance. But instead of staying in the temple, he began to run. And run. He became violent and uncontrollable. He ran for four kilometers down the road – the crowd scrambled after him. He ended up in a cemetery just past my house, and in the dead of night began to do frenzied battle with unseen foes...’

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'Nyepi' ~ Bali's Hindu New Year, and the Day of Silence ~ Melasti, Ngerupuk, Ogoh-Ogoh & Manis Nyepi

Balinese-Hindu devotees pray as sacred temple objects are bathed and cleansed during a Melasti ceremony before Nyepi on Pantai Purnama in Bali, Indonesia

‘If previous New Years' Days have seen you waking up with a crippling hangover trying to remember what you did the night before, maybe it's time you headed to Bali in March. Nyepi – the Balinese Day of Silence, and the start of the Hindu Saka New Year – is a day, a night and a day you'll never forget....’

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'Kajeng Kliwon' ~ A Very Bad-Hair Day on Bali

Film poster for Indonesian horror film 'Kajeng Kliwon: Nightmare in Bali'

‘Kajeng Kliwon is the kind of day when anything that can happen will happen. It invariably does.

You have been seriously warned...’

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Personal Stories

Diary of a Market Girl

Photo-realistic urban art by an anonymous street artist of a 1930s market scene in Bali, Indonesia

“When I had my sixth and seventh babies at the hospital – my twin girls – the doctor ordered me to have a Caesarian. And without asking me, he tied my tubes off as well.

I think he thought I'd had enough babies...”

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Food Talk

Durian ~ The King of Stink

“On the third bite,” says one hater, “it was as though I'd just eaten a diseased, parasite-infested animal with a bad case of rabies. I prayed I wouldn't be sick because I really didn't want to taste it again on the way back up...”

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Culture Bites

Cinema Paradiso ~ Bali's Seat in the History of Indonesian Cinema

1932 Virgins of Bali Thirties nudie-cutie bare-native film poster 1930s Bali, Indonesia

‘Boobs and political censorship have never been far from the Silver Screen – in Indonesia, they're its bedrock. The silent flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and dodgy film-stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry, forbidden shores...’

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Getting Around ~ Bali 'Biking

Surviving Bali on a 'Bike

Motorbike accident victim being treated for a leg-injury in an Ubud clinic in Bali, Indonesia

“For me, some of the most dangerous people on the road are white people. I avoid them like the plague. You can tell the ones who are going to hurt others – the fixed grins, the hunched over the handle-bars, the wobbling around corners and shouts of indignation when they finally hit someone – because they have absolutely no idea how life and the road works around here...”

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It's Silly Season Again ~ Renting a Scooter, and Crashing it, on Bali

A monkey tourist crashes his scooter in a road accident in Bali, Indonesia

‘She tears into the traffic. She can't stop. She narrowly misses hitting a car head-on, swerves past a mum on a 'bike and slaloms across the road. Before she hits anyone – it's a miracle she doesn't – she falls in a bad-sounding heap of bent metal and smashing plastic. A group of Balinese rush to pick her up before the cops see her...’

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The Other Side of the Coin ~ Just Another Motorbike Accident on Bali

Mural by an anonymous street-artist of a crashed, burned-out Honda 70 scooter in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia

‘She starts sweeping and I notice she's limping. There's a spreading bruise and an angry graze running past her knee and down her calf. She wants to carry on cleaning – I sit her down and ask her what happened.

She's shy; I press...’

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Health Matters

Let's Get Wet ~ The Rainy Season on Bali

Blue sky pokes from behind a gathering of stormy monsoon clouds over Bali, Indonesia

‘Rule number one on a monsoon day? Don't get wet.

You may not realise that getting caught in a cloudburst or shower on Bali – particularly if you're on a motorbike – is the tropical equivalent of walking naked outside during a Prague Winter after a lukewarm bath.

It'll really slow you down. The shivers, hot-and-cold flushes, a chesty cough, diarrhoea, sneezing, stomach pains, a belting headache and aching bones are all at the top of the list...’

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Scorpions, Mosquitoes, Hornets, Poisonous Caterpillars... And Other Strange Tails on Bali

‘Nowhere is free from the tax of life. We all have to pay for our slice of Bali paradise – and this often comes in the shape of our biting, stinging, crawling, flying-insect cousins.

It's the downside of environment-sharing...’

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Holidays from the Jungle

The Heads of Trunyan

‘Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit...’

.. ➤ ..


Lombok ~ A Line in the Sand

‘Ten meters away and the young man finally looks up – an inane, animal-like grin taped across his face as his girlfriend grips his porcelain butt and grimaces towards the empty blue sky. They disengage like street dogs, utter an invective in Russian, and stare...’

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Tourism & Self-Enrichment

Eat, Pray, Self-Love

I love-heart Ubud, Canggu, Seminya, Sanur and Kuta in Bali, Indonesia

‘My concentration's shot to pieces. The spaghetti keeps falling off my fork. She's on her third large beer now. She starts to say 'facking' even more, and is speaking so loudly that people passing on the street have begun to look her way, and she's spitting bits of ciabatta bread and tomato and fish into her friend's dinner...’

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From Ubud With Love

Will you marry? in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

‘I'm staying at a cute, family-run bed-and-breakfast – a homestay – on Ubud's trendy Jalan Goutama. A young member of the homestay's family tours her compound, blessing it with incense and rice and flower-petal offerings in little hand-made palm-leaf boxes.

All is well in Bali's spiritual capital...’

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A Dutchman Goes to a Gypsy Fortune-Teller

‘A Dutch boy in Holland goes to a gypsy fortune-teller who tells him that he is, in fact, Balinese. Afterwards, his uncle visits the Island of the Gods and brings him back a wooden carving of a bare-breasted lady.

Lucky for him it wasn't one of those funny-shaped wooden bottle-openers that looks like a cock...’

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The Land of Self-Healing and Snake Oil

Yoga-wear for an Ubud yogini manifesting her abundance, exploring her Divine Feminine and inserting a Jade Egg at The Womb Temple near The Yoga Barn in Bali

‘Shake out those Kundalini Awakenings with some HoopYogini™ and Bhakti Boogie® at the Yoga Barn. Celebrate The Divine Feminine with a splash of Shakti Dance. Puff up your lungs in a Sacred Breathwork Immersion Workshop®, insert a Jade Egg for luck at The Womb Temple™ and polish it off with some tantalising Manifesting And Abundance.

You know you're worth it...’

.. ➤ ..


Urban art of a young Balinese girl using a cellphone by the street artist Wild Drawing of Bali, Indonesia

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And finally, the weather

Today's weather forecast for Ubud, Bali, Indonesia ⇨

Fake styrofoam clouds over the main 'Cloud' stage at the 'Plastic-Free Gili Air Music Festival' near Lombok, Indonesia