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
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
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.
NightlifeQ 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 ThereFlying 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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any new information.