Exploring Bali

Massage in Paradise

By Bill Strubbe

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2000.

After our marathon transpacific trek to the “Island of the Gods,” the welcome committee deities couldn’t have orchestrated a more sublime reception: a full moon illuminating mist rising from the river gorge, flashes of distant lightening silhouetting the jungle, all accompanied by a raucous chorus of frogs. After a rejuvenating dip in the pool at Begawan Giri Estate (near Ubud), a woman half my size tapped on the door asking if I was ready for my “welcome massage” — certainly more utile than a customary “welcome drink.” As her surprisingly Herculean fingers exorcised away my in-flight agonies, the last I remembered before going out like a dim bulb was a glimpse of a gecko skittering across the teak beam and the scent of some exotic flower wafting in the night breeze.

It’s fitting that the Balinese language has only one tense, the ever present: A woman padding along the rice paddies balancing a basket on her head; eternal waves rolling in over the coral reefs; steam spewing from the sacred volcano presiding over Bali like a wizened patriarch; jungle creepers growing in tangled profusion; naked bathers performing their evening ablutions in the river; and an endless procession of flower, food and incense offered at the temples to appease the myriad of gods and spirits.

Here, where the sensation of the moment is what counts, the past is soon forgotten, the future becomes an annoying distraction, and one easily slips into the present-tense existence of Bali — a traveler’s delight, a world treasure. Besides its numerous natural, visual and cultural wonders (despite pervasive tourism, Bali has managed to keep its cultural core intact), I also discovered it’s a massage devotee’s dream. Opportunities abound to indulge in a variety of quality massage, bodywork, healing and beauty treatments, all with exquisite tropical settings transforming a treatment into a total sensory experience.

The Source, Begawan Giri

The next day, while navigating the several hundred steps into the gorge to Begawan Giri’s gorgeous spa — arguably the world’s most stunning — we passed the enchanted spot’s namesake, The Source. If the sacred spring of Toya Mampeh runs murky, the offending spiritual pollution must be cleansed with rituals from both the spring and the temple in the nearby village of Bayad.

Further down, just above the rushing torrents of the Ayung River, I couldn’t resist a plunge (before my massage) into the inviting spring pools fed by a cascading waterfall. From among the four massage bales — traditional, open-sided thatched structures — I chose one perched on the hillside.

Santika’s “Taksu Massage” — meaning “spirit” — was a flowing Esalen-style, encompassing a melange of Swedish, Traeger, percussion and acupressure, surprisingly similar to the massage I administered for 16 years. Upon my request, Santika suitably adjusted his firm touch to my stressed body parts’ various needs. One move I’d never experienced: On my back, Santika pulled my arm up, placing my flat palm close to my ear, then pressed over my triceps toward my elbow, creating a great stretch.

That 75-minute massage was among the best I’ve ever received, and this setting of Edenic splendor couldn’t be finer. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, the gauzy curtains billowed in the breeze revealing glimpses of birds and butterflies flitting through the verdant jungle. Afterward, as I relaxed in the steaming open-air tub, a tropical shower advanced across the trees until plump drops splashed my face.

The Source is the focal point of Bali’s newest high-end hotel, though “luxury estate” or “private hideaway” perhaps comes closest to doing it justice. Four suites cluster around a semi-private pool in the five residences, each subtly themed in architecture and decor around the elements of earth, air, fire, water and forest. Here, architecture becomes art, where indoors and outdoors merge: a bathtub hollowed from a boulder in the middle of a pond; shimmering silk brocade curtains; a living room pavilion seemingly floating on water; a private pool stepped into from the bathroom window — every detail a wonder. And with a staff-to-guest ratio of 5-to-1, life here can quickly become very enjoyable.

The Heart of Bali — Bali Hati

A 15-minute drive from Begawan Giri is Ubud, Bali’s center of arts — woodcarving, weaving, basketry and painting — and culture, based in their religion Agama Hindu Dharma. While most of Indonesia’s other 14,000 islands straddling the equator are Muslim with some Christians, Bali’s colorful traditions stem from a subtle blend of Hindu, Buddhist and ancient animalistic beliefs. Central to Balinese culture is the refined art of dance and every night I took in a different performance.

The ornate, torch-lit courtyard of the Ubud Palace, the former Raja’s home, served as splendid backdrop to The Legong Dance, based on a classical 13th century romantic drama, accompanied by a traditional gamelan orchestra. The Kecak dance is performed by dozens of bare-chested men, the musical accompaniment being throat and mouth clicks and hand clapping. In the Trance Dance, evolved from the ceremony of maintaining the village’s well-being by driving away evil spirits, two prepubescent girls danced in perfect synchronization with eyes closed.

Another night we sat entranced in the flickering torch light of the shadow puppet show, the classic Wayang Kulit, integrally linked to Balinese culture and religion. Giants, magic and fighting abound, but the performance delves into Bali’s Hindu doctrine of Tri Hita Karana, or the three primary relationships: mankind and God; mankind and his natural surroundings; and man and society.

Bali Hati Spa, part of the Bali Hati Project (which means “the heart of Bali”) has taken this last precept to heart. Not often does a massage benefit more than just your own aches and pains, but here your fee directly profits local causes and institutions.

This nonprofit is the dream and creation of Frank Olcvary, who initially visited Bali several years ago for a three-week vacation. “I saw there were lots of smart and talented people, but because of the harsh economics most will never get a chance to fulfill their potentials,” Olcvary said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to create an educational opportunity for very gifted young people’.”

Olcvary soon gained financial backing and now holds annual fundraisers to further Bali Hati’s goal of offering university education, residential living and field experience to women and men who demonstrate academic excellence, but lack the finances. Each student must then return something to their community. To date, a kindergarten, free law consultation, Drug Rehab Center, Food Relief Program, Crisis Intervention Hotline, Children’s Playground, and now a Preventative Care Health Clinic have all been created by Bali Hati graduates.

“One hundred percent of donations goes to the designated project,” Olcvary explained, “and we have the spa and two shops that help raise the money to run and administer the projects and school.”

Standing amid the rice fields, the new spa is nicely designed with a bridge spanning a pond leading to the reception area. The single and double treatment rooms are done in inviting shades of cream and cucumber, and I appreciated the attention to finer details, such as the scent of a tuberose blossom stuck in the face cradle. With my therapist Made’s deliberate, deep strokes, I soon melted onto the table.

On my way back to my accommodations, I trekked through Ubud’s renowned Monkey Forest, and with my bunch of bananas, I was the most popular human on the block. But make sure to stash your camera, sunglasses, hat, etc., in your daypack (and clutch it tight). Because this is an ape sanctuary, the hairy denizens get away with some pretty bad behavior.

Kuta Madness

Enough art and culture and apes. It was time to head for Kuta, the locus of tourism mercenary madness (yes, there is a Hard Rock Cafe Bali) catering to the surfin’, beer swillin’ Aussie tour package crowd. Shopping for sarongs and crafts, dips in the sea, sand volleyball, “hanging 10,” and a beach-side massage are the resort area’s prime pastimes.

While strolling Kuta’s famous stretch of sand, the refrain of “you want a massage?” soon became a familiar one. After a dozen persistent assaults I succumbed, and negotiated a massage performed by three women. At many beaches, informal cooperatives of women exist to ensure equal opportunity to earn an income, the fee shared by all.

Lying face down on my towel in the sand, the women vaguely effleuraged my legs and back as they chattd and joked amongst themselves, occasionally asking me where I was from, if I was married, etc. When more than one massage takes place, the emphasis seems to be on socializing, rather than on therapeutic technique. My rub was rather superficial, but for about the price of a cup of coffee I wasn’t going to complain. Besides, it was just fun.

If ever one needs to keep their wits about them it’s while zipping through Kuta’a chaotic traffic — literally there are no rules except survival. On the back of my friend’s motor scooter I just closed my eyes, held tight, and prayed to the traffic goddess to get me there safe and sound.

Greatly relieved to have arrived on time at Vila Kendil for my scheduled appointment, I was ushered to the massage villa by the receptionist. The cool veranda, with adjoining indoor/outdoor bathroom and shower, was enclosed by a private, tranquil garden. The accumulated buzz of the street is discharged as I admired the impressionistic artwork on the walls, and then meditated on the scarlet hummingbirds hovering among the flowers until the therapist arrived.

Susan Stein, an American expat (one of the founders of the famous Osmosis Spa in Freestone, Calif.) and now consultant for many of Bali’s resorts, recommended “Koesmadji” as among her favorite Balinese therapists. The rather frail, almost blind 50-something Koesmadji appeared to lack the “umph” for the vigorous massage I generally enjoy. In no time I learned that looks can be deceiving.

Several years ago Koesmadji forsook his government job to follow in the footsteps of his father, the village balian, or healer. Indeed, the Balinese appreciation of the body and its needs through touch permeate the society. Pregnant women, the sick, children and babies are frequently massaged. One lovely tradition is that until a baby’s “ground-touching ceremony” at three months, a child is cradled and coddled, passed from mother to uncle, to sister to grandfather, rarely losing human contact.

“Most people live on a superficial surface level that is always shakable by the waves and storms of life,” Koesmadji shared in imprecise English. “A healthy, peaceful, happy wisdom and a life of freedom begins when you realize you exist as a self within a soul.”

Though Koesmadji also bills himself as a therapeutic and spiritual consultant offering chakra and aura cleansing, fortune telling, hypnotherapy and color therapy, I opted for the more straight-forward Balinese massage, a technique of skin rolling, gripping and tugging, and acupressure that has been handed down through generations.

Perhaps Koesmajdi’s thickening cataracts help him focus on his client’s energy, and though they limit his vision to just a few inches, they haven’t kept him from painting: It turns out that the paintings I admired were his.

Four Seasons, Jimbaran Bay

At $500 to $2,500 a night, I always feel like such a fraud when I’m blessed with a complimentary stay at these multi-star resorts. Strolling past the lovely infinity-edge pool overlooking the sea, I reminded myself that the key is to pretend pedigree patrician, like I was born to be here. But the backpack and funky Birkenstocks quickly belie the charade, and I’m grateful that the amiable staff — Balinese service is legendary — at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay Spa treat me anyway like the V.I.P. that I was not.

Bright colors accented the dark wood paneling and floors, and aromatherapy oil pots glowed in every corner. The glossy brochure read, “Sea breezes flow through open screens, accompanied by the sounds of bamboo wind chimes and gently splashing fountains. The scent of ginger and frangipani floats on warm air and your mind and body begin to relax in delicious anticipation of the sensual experiences that await you.” Yes, I was ready for some of that, and I choose the two-hour Lulur Jimbaran.

Based on ancient Ayurvedic teachings, India’s natural healing system of more than 5,000 years, the spa offers a number of body and facial treatments to rejuvenate the body and soul. Forgoing the small gym, I shucked my sweaty clothes for a sarong and headed for the steam room and open-air Jacuzzi before my Balinese-style massage by a man named Mandara. The treatment is excellent, but my only complaint is that he ends in the same abrupt manner I found to be universal with the Balinese therapists. The Balinese fail to gently approach the body by gradually increasing pressure, and to withdraw slowly — the last stoke of the neck or face, and suddenly the massage is over.

Still, that didn’t hamper the enjoyment as my skin was later exfoliated with a mix of rice flour, turmeric, sandalwood and ginger root. After it was removed, I was painted with a coat of yogurt and honey to refresh and balance the skin’s ph., then sent to soak in yet another flower-filled terrazzo tub in my own mini Garden of Eden.

Matahari Dreaming

Wanting to distance ourselves far from the maddening crowds, my traveling partners and I headed to Bali’s remote northwest coast. Along the way we stopped for a photo of the green amphitheater of the famous Sayan rice terraces, then for a panoramic view of Gunung Agung, Bali’s revered volcanic peak which last erupted in 1963. Over the crest we hiked to Sing Sing waterfalls, followed by a dip at Banjar Tega Hot Springs — the water spewing from the mouths of carved stone dragons.

Matahari Beach Resort’s elegant and spacious Balinese-style bungalows cluster around an enormous pool amidst a lush garden overflowing with magenta bougainvillea, all framed by the jutting mountains of Bali Barat National Park. That first morning we had the option of dolphin-watching at sunrise, or, at a more sensible hour, snorkeling at nearby Menjangan Island. The brilliant coral reefs, kaleidoscope of fish, the stingray and the sea turtles are worth the sunburn.

And the food. From the state-of-the-art kitchen, Chef Thomas Kilgore created deliciously beautiful appetizers and entrees, a fusion of European and Indonesia influences. Fruits and vegetables are organically grown; from their repertoire of over 100 breads, a dozen are baked daily; 60 to 80 flavors of homemade sorbets and ice creams are on hand; and in the confectioners kitchen, 30 types of chocolate bonbons and truffles are made.

Though it was suggested I not eat much before my treatment, alas, I could not resist the sumptuous lunch offerings and I hurried along the garden paths to the spa. A phalanx of mythical stone creatures guarded the ornately carved gate as I stepped over the smoking joss stick and canang sari — the small offering basket containing symbolic food and flowers — into the water-palace sanctuary of Matahari’s Parwathi Spa. Consecrated with a ceremony to ensure the site’s good karma, and completed last year in intricately chiseled cream stone and finely carved wood, the treatment rooms face each other over a pond of giant koi and blooming pink water lotuses, culminating in an open-air tea pavilion.

Among the spa’s offerings is the Parwathi Package, a 16-hour indulgence re-creating how the upper crust Brahmana caste celebrated their wedding. The ritual begins with a series of body treatments and baths, followed by champagne and a 10-course private feast served by a waiter on the tea pavilion. The blissful couple then retires for the night in the commodious bed under the open-air bale in the garden, waking to a deluxe breakfast.

Being terminally — and seemingly eternally — single, instead I opted for the three-hour solo sensory experience, the Sthira. Ushered into the outdoor bathing facilities, I rinsed away the day’s sweat and wrapped the sarong around my waist, still yet to figure out the clever way the Balinese cinch it to keep it hitched up.

I settled into the teak chair and the attendants washed my feet in a ceramic bowl filled with a rainbow of flower blossoms: white and pink frangipani, yellow marigolds, blue hydrangeas and red hibiscus. I was led to the first of two beautiful rooms where a synchronized scrub with a concoction of milk, corn flour, kaolin clay and ylang-ylang essence awaited me (all spa products are 100 percent natural and edible — just in case hunger should strike). All rinsed off, I entered the second room where I experienced my first ever four-hand massage, the two women synchronized to near perfection.

I then soaked for 20 minutes in the outdoor bubble bath sipping a fruit drink, had a quick steam, then rejoined my friends sporting similar mellow expressions on the tea pavilion. Soon, the skies flamed a spectacular crimson and orange. Unlike in Northern climes, the tropics’ twilight lingers not and night descends in haste, so we finished up our tea to stroll the volcanic sand beach, basking in the molten glow of the finale of another fine day in Bali.