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Jan/Feb 2005 | Bali

Jan/Feb 2005 | Bali

The Morning of the World

You could choose worse places to contemplate the nature of the universe than from a plunge pool at the Four Seasons in Bali. Incense perfumes the late afternoon air. Heart of Darkness foliage is alive with candy-colored birds and butterflies. From beyond the river you can hear the deep clong of a gamelan orchestra--a sound compared by poets to rain falling through golden sunlight. It's the nearby temple's full moon celebration. And there you are, rising naked from the tranquil waters and wrapping yourself, like the Balinese, in your new sarong. You're invited to the temple tonight to watch the dancing--a re-creation of the eternal struggle between good and evil--and even though it's deliciously foreign, you feel oddly at ease here in one of the last great outposts for the hippie soul. Where else are incense and scented oil as important as bread and water? Where else can grown men and women walk around in sarongs, Birkenstocks, and T-shirts and not feel ridiculous?

Gay travelers will find themselves immediately at home in Bali, where everyone--gay or straight--is treated with an equally warm welcome and allowed to participate, albeit peripherally, in the daily drama of Balinese Hindu ritual life. The island is also a magnet for foreigners who are drawn to Bali's easy attitude of acceptance because they are "different." The expatriate community is full of rogues, rascals, and renegades--a cast of characters that would have warmed the queer cockles of Somerset Maugham's heart.

Bali's benign tolerance of foreigners at its rites and rituals may stem from the fact that the island itself is a minority Hindu culture in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Although the U.S. State Department classifies Bali as "Indonesia" and issues warnings accordingly, travelers should think of it as part of, but distinct from, the rest of the country. Culturally, Bali is not Indonesia. Bali is Bali. The 2002 bombing of the Kuta-area Sari Club was carried out not by indigenous Balinese, but by Indonesians from other islands. Since then, the peaceful island has worked hard to restore its largely tourist-based economy to pre-2002 levels.

Hidden Homo Hindis and Androgynous Demons

The Hindu culture that developed on this Aladdin's lamp-shaped island in the Indonesian archipelago traces its roots back to India, but it includes a strong dose of indigenous animism. Everything in the Balinese world is alive: rocks, trees, rice fields. Every aspect of existence has spirit. Rituals exist to maintain the balance of those spirits. Fertility and family are the center of Balinese life. Hence, the strong emphasis on marriage and the near invisibility of public gay life.

"Being gay in Bali is still a very private affair," says Four Seasons public relations director Putu Indrawati. Homosexuality is not illegal, but it is not part of the social fabric of tradition. While many gay Balinese are pressured to marry, they often pursue same-sex relationships. A strong gay expat community has also evolved in Denpasar and around Kuta, although long-term open gay relationships between Balinese and non-Balinese are still rare.

Rio Maryono, the owner of Gaya Bali Tours, says the island's gay scene is primarily tourist-driven. "Gay-owned villas, restaurants, and bars are all available, and since the past five years, things have become more and more open," he says. "People are more accepting and tolerant. But for locals, it is still difficult to be gay because of the Balinese culture. Most are closeted. The openly gay Balinese stay in the tourist areas (around Kuta and Seminyak) but not in their own hometown villages."

Although indigenous gay culture is hard to penetrate, such gentle tolerance and a cool live-and-let-live vibe along with a vibrant culture whose gods and demons exhibit an intriguingly androgynous sexuality make Bali a natural choice for gay and lesbian travelers willing to journey beyond their own cultural boundaries and learn anew. Bali truly deserves its rebirthing Hindu name: "The Morning of the World."

Indonesia's Art Heart

A few days outside the touristy areas of Kuta and Legian will immerse you in a distinctly Balinese world. You may encounter a beachside cremation ceremony one day and a village trance dance the next. And in between cultural immersion sessions you can enjoy the many pleasures that make Bali a hedonist's feast--like the island's cloud-peaked sacred volcanoes, perfect beaches, white-water rafting, and mountain trails. Some of the world's most sumptuous resorts are here, like the Four Seasons Sayan, whose Balinese-style villas blend seamlessly with the rain forest around them, and the new Uma Ubud resort, surrounded by the serenity of local rice paddies. Shoppers will find whole villages devoted to crafts like jewelry-making, wooden sculpture, and weaving. "In Bali," say locals, "everyone is an artist."

Start your journey into Bali's sacred heart with a day or two in and around the ancient arts and culture capital of Ubud, near the center of the island. Ubud is presided over by the elephant-headed god Ganesha, who sits benignly in the marketplace watching the local rough trade ride by on their motor scooters, clove cigarettes hanging from their lips. Ganesha is the "remover of obstacles," but you won't find many obstacles in Ubud, except perhaps the mounds of fruit and flower offerings to the spirits that line the narrow streets in front of temples, rice fields, and losmans, or local inns. Ubud has been getting more and more westernized in the last 10 years and some of its rural charm has been rubbed off, but it is still loaded with cultural gold--there are temples on almost every street where public dance performances are held almost every night of the week. Some of the craft shops on Monkey Forest Road still sell colorfully painted carved masks and wooden statues of Garuda, the bird-beaked angel-accomplice of the god Vishnu, along with other deities and demons. Push past the bad replicas of Disney characters (all too common now, since Balinese artists kept being asked by tourists, "Can't you make something from The Lion King?") and you'll find treasures.

On the way back to the sanctuary of your resort, watch for views of traditional Balinese village life. You may encounter village processions where locals parade through rural roads in masks and other regalia, beneath the swaying tails of the sacred lion--huge pendant flowers that hang over all of Bali's sacred rites.

Outside Ubud and the rural villages are Kuta, Seminyak and Legian, the beachside homes of Bali's largely expat gay scene. This is where you'll find gay-owned villas, restaurants, massage studios (for real massages, not sex), and clubs like the Hulu, famous for its drag shows. Seminyak and Legian are more upscale, while Kuta incorporates the dark side of Bali's gay life. "More than 90% of the guys in the bars are rent boys," says Gaya Bali Tours's Maryono. Although the tacky side of tourism has lodged here, Kuta is worth a visit if clubbing and beach boys are your passion. The infamous "Kuta cowboys" ply their trade here. Balinese muscle boys, Kuta cowboys are available mostly for lonely Aussie and German ladies who are looking for local "boyfriends" in exchange for gifts and possible marriages of comfort and convenience.

Wash the grit off with a last day visit to the nearby seaside temple of Tanah Lot. Go just before sunset and make sure to wear your sarong (mandatory for temple visits for both men and women). Sip a sundowner on the veranda restaurant, then head with the locals to the water's edge to purify yourself before the journey home. Legend has it that a sacred snake still lives in the under-cliff cave. If you thrust your hand in the hollow where he lives, you will get your wish. Be sure to ask for a return ticket.

Kelly has written about Bali for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel and MetroSource.

Walter Spies: The Gay Gauguin of Bali

Walter Spies had it all. He was young, handsome, and courted by one of the Weimar Republic's most brilliant men--the film director F.W. Murnau (of Nosferatu fame). He was also a talented painter and musician whose wanderlust took him from the clutches of the overly infatuated Murnau to the islands of Indonesia, where he settled in Bali in 1927. Spies quickly became the gay Gauguin of Bali, painting the sensuality of young men in loincloths among green foliage and otherworldly architecture. When the ruling Dutch government persecuted Spies as a homosexual, the anthropologist Margaret Mead and her husband, Gregory Bateson, testified that Spies's "transgressions" were a manifestation of Balinese culture. Spies was deported in 1942 for holding a German passport. The ship was bombed, and the prisoners, including Spies, perished in their locked cells while their captors looked on. Today, Spies's images are reproduced in books and galleries all over Bali. His influence on Balinese dance, music, and art remains indelible.



(Dial 011-62 before all phone numbers) Most hotels in Bali are gay-friendly, and the Four Seasons hotels were among the first international resorts to reach out and market themselves to gay American travelers. Most of Bali's gay-owned private villas and bungalows are in the Kuta-Legian area, which is highly touristy and not recommended for optimum cultural immersion, but it is close to the bar-beach scene. Inexpensive- Moderate:Laki Uma Villa, "House of Male" (Umalas, Krobokan, Kuta, no phone; $40- $80) is a private villa with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi-steam room, exclusively for men and clothing-optional. Bali au Naturel (Jalan Pantai, Buleleng; 811-388681; $90-$100) is a gay-owned, clothing-optional resort on the beach in northern Bali. Rooms have open-air walls and are grouped around a lake full of fish and turtles. Expensive: South East Asian luxury doesn't get any better than at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, (Jimbaran, Denpasar; 361-701010; $475-$1,500) and the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan (Ubud, Gianyar; 361-977577; $320-$850). Both are perfect if you'd enjoy floating naked in your own private plunge pool beside a palatial, but indigenously correct, villa. The Jimbaran Bay property overlooks the ocean and the sacred Balinese mountain, Gunung Agung. The Sayan is by the Ayung River (you can hear its waters at night). Both are styled after Balinese villages and include temple complexes. The hotels offer excursions like visiting a village chief or enjoying a gourmet lunch at the edge of a sacred volcano. Popular with upscale gay and lesbian travelers, Villa Semana (Br. Semana, Desa Singakerta, Ubud Gianyar; 361-246288, $250-$440) is a gay-owned property with 10 luxurious private pool villas, and its spa boasts outdoor massages and its own lotus pond.


Inexpensive-Moderate: La Luciola (Jln. Kayu Aya Beach, Oberoi; 361-261047 or 361-730838; $20-$50) is a beachside open-air restaurant owned and operated by a gay couple from Sydney. The gay beach at Petitenget is a hundred meters to the right. Expensive:Ku de Ta (9 Jalan Laksman Oberoi, Seminyak; 361-736969; dinner for two, $70) is the expat-owned restaurant du jour where a well-heeled gay crowd is making this the place to go to smoke Cuban cigars and wear sockless loafers. The Ayung Terrace at the Four Seasons Sayan (Ubud, Gianyar; 361-977577; $20-$75) is a perfect place to have an early dinner and watch the sun set as classical gamelan musicians and dancers perform.


Q Bar & Cafe (Abimanyu Arcade, 1-2 Jln. Dhyana Pura, Seminyak; 361-730927) is a cruisy gay bar with outdoor patio, stage, and a dance floor where dancers perform five nights a week. Hulu Cafe (23-A Jln. Sahadewa, Legian; 361-736443) is one of Bali's oldest gay venues, in the middle of the dense shopping stretch of Kuta, with drag shows and an amateur drag contest on Saturday nights.


The Symon Gallery (Jln. Raya Campuhan, Ubud; 361-974721) is an art studio run by a gay man named Symon who lets prospective buyers look at his work as well as his nude models, who are often lounging nearby. The "gay beach" of Bali is called Petitenget and is a 20- to 30-minute drive north of Kuta. Gay Bali Tours (Jln. Griya Anyar 76A, Br. Kajeng-Suwung, Kuta; 361-722483) is a gay-owned Bali-based operator that can book entire trips for singles or couples, which include visits to authentic spa houses or day trips like hiking and white-water rafting.

Getting There

Flying to Bali is a time-consuming affair. Make the best of it by traveling on a carrier like gay-friendly Singapore Airlines (800-742-3333), which has that fabulous Space Bed in business class, and direct flights (via Singapore) from Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York; Newark, N.J.; and Vancouver, Canada.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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