Exploring Bali in the pages of National Geographic

14 February 2019

After returning home from a nine-day trip to Bali last summer, I found myself dreaming of the place constantly, wishing I could go back. The languid pace of its long tropical days, the rich spirituality interwoven with its daily life, and the sheer, almost otherworldly, natural beauty of its volcanic mountains, lush green rice terraces, and world-class surfing beaches would not fade in the afterglow of my visit.

And so, hunkered down at home in Bangkok, I began spending an unwise number of hours at a time browsing the online archive of National Geographic, looking for historical images and stories to complement to my recent experience. From the magazine’s inception in 1888 through the 1920s, it referenced Bali just four times, the first three merely as captioned photographs that appeared in longer stories that focused elsewhere.

It wasn’t until March 1928 that the publication ran its first-ever full-length feature on Bali, penned by Franklin Price Knott, a painter of miniatures who had recently taken up the then-relatively new art of colour photography.

Blog - NatGeoCover
It wasn’t until 1928 that National Geographic published a feature story on Bali. Between its launch in 1888 and that first feature, Bali was mentioned just four times.

Knott’s vivid descriptions of the island seized me instantly and viscerally, evoking powerful nostalgia for a place that—frankly speaking—I hadn’t actually been. I’d been to Bali, of course; I just hadn’t been to this Bali. The way he experienced the Island of the Gods was very much borne of the 19th Century and the spirit of old-world explorers and adventurers, a mode of travel that is no longer possible today but which nevertheless, in the pages of the magazine, made my longing to return that much more acute.

He describes anchoring off Buleleng, off Bali’s northern coast, and being rowed ashore by locals on a small boat and left “with my bags alone on the beach.” To imagine such an arrival today… alone on the beach! Not on one of the hundreds of flights that land each day at Ngurah Rai International Airport but quietly drifting through the emerald waters and washing onto the sand… by yourself.

Knott continues: “No hotel runners, no cab or taxi men leaped at me from the coconut groves. The island, as yet, knows them not. In fact, nobody paid me the slightest attention.”

Culturally and socially, the Bali he witnessed seems a world away from the one we inhabit today. It was hard to draw the line between now and then. One of his photographs—a typical scene, he suggests—shows two Balinese girls, bare-chested, wearing red sarongs wrapped around their waists, down to their feet, with towering offerings of fruits and flowers balancing atop their heads. The conical-shaped offerings are approximately the same height as the girls themselves.

A decade later, when Maynard Owen Williams sailed through the Dutch East Indies, including Sumatra, Java, Celebes (now Sulawesi), and Bali, among other places, the Bali he describes in National Geographic in March 1939 is still largely untamed, with its western half the province of “the tiger, the wild hog, and the deer.”

Blog - CremationBaliThe cremation ceremony on Bali, Ngaben, is a means of releasing the soul to a journey that, eventually, will result in rebirth.

Although Williams alludes to Bali’s growing popularity among foreign visitors—he attended a dance performance with “a few score” international travellers and notes that “distant reverberations of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood” had “reached the island only a few years ago”—it had lost none of its distinctive allure.

“Not the least of Bali’s charm,” Williams writes, “is that it enables one to gaze on beauty with detachment. Balinese temples, brown bodies, grotesque idols, lush-green paddy, humming-bird fluttering of fingers and fan, fighting cocks in wicker baskets—all were there, not as made-to-order local colour but as phases of normal existence.”

Blog - ChickensBaliCock-fighting, illegal in Bali since 1981, traces its roots to purification ceremonies in the island’s temples.

It was fascinating for me to contemplate that only a century ago, before Bali was home to so many private-pool villas and high-end resorts, visitors would commonly take their accommodations in thatched palm-leaf huts built in the local Balinese style. Before the island was a culinary and nightlife draw, it offered entertainment that consisted almost solely of traditional dance shows, which another National Geographic writer, Beverley M. Bowie, in September 1955 called “as much a part of day-to-day life as religion.”

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The barong, a mythical lion-like creature, predates Hindu culture on Bali and represents the forces of goodness as they do battle against evil.

Bowie stayed on the beach below Sanur, southeast of Denpasar, in a cottage “roofed with alang-alang grass, walled with palm mats, and floored with bamboo strips through which the sea breeze blew gently at night.” Sanur today, although quieter than some of Bali’s other southern resort areas, features a vibrant shopping street populated with art galleries and designer boutiques—a far cry, it seems, from alang-alang roofs.

The island as a whole made no small impression on Bowie.

“Many Indonesians are chagrined at the lopsided adulation which this one island out of their 3,000 has received from foreigners,” he writes.

“I can give them no comfort. Honesty compels me to record that if, by some mistake in schedules, I should ever arrive in heaven, it will seem, after Bali, a distinct disappointment.”

By December 1959, when National Geographic published a first-hand account of a round-the-world sailing crew aboard the American-operated Yankee brigantine, the island’s population had “exploded from 1,200,000 persons to some two million,” write the ship’s owners Irving and Electa Johnson. Yet its charms had hardly diminished.

“We found the people still practicing hundreds of gay little rituals, still close to the land and to their beloved rice fields,” they write. One of their crew described being awakened each morning to a breakfast of duck eggs, coconut, and freshwater eels that had been trapped in the nearby rice fields—not exactly the typical resort buffet of today!

It’s easy to rue what we’ve lost. That’s what drives so much of our desire for authentic experiences today. Still, many aspects of Balinese life touched upon in National Geographic’s dispatches over the decades will be familiar to modern visitors: the indelible sounds of the traditional gamelan orchestras, the gilded costumes and ornate headdresses of Bali’s dancers, and the pervasiveness of its unique strain of Balinese Hinduism, including the beautiful, tiered pagoda-like pura temples and ever-present religious iconography.

Kecak Dance | Bali's Best Dances | GHM Journeys
The first National Geographic writers to Bali were mesmerized by the island’s incredible displays of dance, like these dancers performing the Kecak at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud.

And, of course, as I am only too well aware, the impact that Bali leaves on its visitors can be equally profound. The Johnsons captured the sentiment precisely in a quote:

“For a Balinese to leave Bali forever is death itself, and so even for a visitor the parting must make a wound,” said Tjokorde Agung, an old Balinese friend of the Yankee crew.

“But I am happy that Bali was your last island of the trade winds. Even a wound from Bali is better than a caress from any other place on earth.”

For an experience of Bali that builds a bridge between today and yesterday, reserve a space in a Purification Ceremony at Pucak Manik temple. Contact The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, Ubud for more details.


Text by Bill Bredesen for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: Girls on Bali head for the temple with offerings of fruit and rice, anchored to banana stems. The heaviest towers weighed close to 65kg.

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