Does the ‘Old Bali’ with it’s unspoilt natural beauty, tradition, magic and spirituality still exist on an island that has been all but swallowed up by package-deal tourism and beer-swilling Aussies? Happily, the answer is yes. Penelope Quinn gets back her Zen in Tembok, North Bali.
My stomach does a summersault as we lurch through another hairpin bend at breakneck speed. A patchwork of terraced rice paddies and impenetrable forest have long displaced the snarls of traffic and stacked concrete houses. We whizz by villages peeking out of the mountains.; an old man swats off flies at a lone roadside fruit stall, waiting patiently for a sale. A woman and her small child lay a simple offering at a shrine at the foot of an ancient tree.
My holiday wish to retreat to the quiet calm of Bali can’t come soon enough – it had only taken a few days for Seminyak’s luxurious veneer to start peeling back. By the end of my stay I felt like I was trapped in a chintzy, charmless tourist hub full of loud Australians, littered streets, and aggressive touts.
Three hours later I step out of the van and take a deep breath. The air is thick with the perfume of frangipani trees. My ears ring with respite – the angry buzz of traffic and incessant honking is gone, in its place a chorus of birds answer gently tinkling chimes. Waves lap on the black sand shore and the ancient volcano Mount Agung looms over the horizon. It’s not often a resort takes your breath away, but Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali has managed to do exactly that - tranquility permeates over the entire landscape.
It’s beautiful. This is the paradise I’d heard about, but assumed it had been swallowed up by package-deal tourism. Thankfully, I’m wrong –I’m in the ‘Old Bali’ as it is known. And I’m here to get my Zen back.
Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali is just one of the growing number of resorts that are moving beyond just offering pampered indulgence. Instead, they create personalised, immersive wellness programs to cater to those who want benefits long after the tan wears off.
My detailed itinerary prepared by the resort reveals wellness isn’t going to be a sedentary pursuit - I’ll be embarking on a steady stream of artistic endeavors, cultural pursuits, transformative offerings and creative detoxification while I’m here.
My journey of wellness starts in the restaurant. The three courses of indo-fusion fare are meticulously balanced to nurture, satisfy and satiate and are thoroughly delicious. But it’s not until I take a one on one cooking class with Executive Chef Martin Büchele that I appreciate what he’s doing is far more than just cooking healthy food.
Martin masterminds the menu using the art of vibrational cooking – the practice of enhancing the ‘energy’ of our food by preparing and consuming highly nutritious produce with positive intention and appreciation. In return, we are rewarded with enhanced taste while our body absorbs the maximum nutrients.
“So many of us are so busy we just eat to fill the hole,” he tells me while we prepare a colourful salad of organic, locally grown produce. “And if you eat food in a stressful environment, or when you aren’t paying attention, the food isn’t going to taste any good, or you may not taste it at all.”
“This is what eating with intention is all about, and it’s something many of us have forgotten to do.”
I try to remember the last time I ate without using it as an opportunity to multi-task (I can’t) so I decide to give this mindfulness a go. I give thanks for my food by holding my hands over my plate and charge my food with positive energy, and while I eat it, I appreciate the sweet bitterness of the radish, the texture of the carrots, the miracle that it took for that crunchy apple to have just the right amount of rain and sunshine to grow. I start to really taste the exploding symphony of flavours in our simple salad.
Belly full, I saunter over to the small pergola by the pool to practice the meditative art of bamboo carving with a local artesian and as the sun starts to make its way towards the horizon, I set sail on a jukung with a couple of honeymooning, sun-burnt Brits and their selfie stick to witness Mother Nature showing off with a dazzling light show.
Spa treatments here take on an Indonesian tone. I’m treated to a traditional wedding preparation treatment of Penganten Melukat with a Balinese massage, boreh body scrub, fresh milk and a floral bath. The next treatment is another odyssey of relaxation, starting with a foot scrub and immersion in a steam tent, and ending with a warm bath and herbal tea. I’m even treated to a moonlight massage on the beach where a one of the staff has gone to the painstaking task of spelling my name out in flowers in the sand, with dozens of tealight candles scattered throughout. The decadence of it all is almost overwhelming.
My time with the moon is not over yet. The Wellness Director Savitri leads me to a spot by the shore for a peaceful moon meditation, and when I climb into bed an hour later I have the best sleep I’ve had in years.
The morning starts bright and early with a yoga class and a wholesome breakfast of grains, seeds, yogurt and a green smoothie. I’m going to need some energy – today I’ll be venturing outside the resort wall to witness the revival of the ancient art of traditional weaving.
Surya Indigo employs local women from the village to painstakingly weave naturally dyed textiles in the same way they had been doing for thousands of years before modern manufacturing took over - using traditional looms, with cotton grown on a nearby farm, and dyes grown from plants grown in the garden.
“Our co-operative has three goals,” explains Nyoman Sarmika, who started the co-operative in 2000 after the local orange crops failed. “To support our local economy, to keep our tradition and to keep our environment clean.”
“I read in an old book that this village was once a weaving village. My grandmother was a weaver so I started collecting the looms one by one and we talk with the young ladies who want to learn about weaving.”
To foreign eyes, it seems like mind-numbing, arduous work. One scarf can take up to 10 days to create – including spinning the cotton or silk, preparing the dye, weaving and finishing. But for the Balinese, hand-weaving is not just about creating something to wear; it’s a creation of magic. In days gone by, textiles were believed to hold magical powers, which protected the wearer against malevolent influences, and served as a go-between to the supernatural world.
“If tourism is going well, then I would like to use this space for an art space and live museum so people can come here and learn all about the Balinese art and magic,” he says as he shows me around the co-operative.
“But slowly slowly yah! We want to make a difference. This is oldest village in North Bali. We have sacred dance, sacred temples, good place here, good energy. No tourist. Quiet. Many spiritual people, but still many things to do. We don’t want it like Ubud or Kuta.”
I buy a beautifully woven indigo scarf that I’ll treasure for years to come, and on my way back to the resort I think about how quickly the magic of the North Bali has permeated my life-weary soul. I’ve a sense of well being I can hardly remember having. And I don’t want to leave.
But I’m not filled with the usual sense of end-of-holiday back-to-work dread. I feel like I’ve been thoroughly scrubbed from the inside out. My Zen is firmly intact, but more significantly I feel like my experience isn’t over. And with a bit of mindfulness, I’ll be taking a piece of North Bali home with me, with my magic scarf to remind me every time to forget.
The writer was a gues of Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali. For more information, visit www.spavillageresort.com/tembokbali
For more information on Surya Indigo visit Facebook.com/SuryaIndigoPacung.