Travel Writing

The Artisans of Ubud

Words: Mark | Photographs: Johanna

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Art of the Young. The Art of Everyone.

In Bali, the gentleman who offers to take us to our hotel from the airport asks me what we do for a living and I say we make art. He looks baffled but says nothing more. Only later, after having seen Ubud, did I realise that this was a  “well, doesn’t everybody?” look.

In Ubud, everyone is an artist, every village has mastered an art form. The skills and techniques are passed on from generation to generation, from a master to his students. The painters from Keliki for example, start very young and have apprentices as young as 7. They come after school and spend two hours a day under the tutelage of a painting master. In the beginning, the young ones can spend months doing rudimentary things like grinding pigments – it is only after a few months of apprenticeship that they actually are given the chance to draw or paint

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The Keliki art form is a four-step process – only the painting master may start with a sketch, a skilled apprentice can follow through by inking the drawing (usually his first art task), then the drawings are shaded and the final step is the application of thin layers of acrylic paint for colour. The drawings are busy and are full of detail - Scenes from Hindu Epics and everyday Balinese life are common subject matters.

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[LEFT] PAINTING MASTER I WAYAN GAMA [RIGHT] 9-YEAR OLD BALINESE ARTIST, HAPPY THAT HIS PAINTING GOT SOLD

“Our art form is for the young,” I Wayan Gama, one of the painting masters tells us. He says that the intricate detail of each artwork can be hard on the eyes and hands, he admits that he himself can only spend up to three hours a day and then his eyes begin to strain. There is one painting here that took one year to make.

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Wayan tells us that not everyone becomes a full-time painter.  Usually, traditional painters become masters when they are young and then they get day jobs when they are older. Fortunately for him, he is one of the few traditional Balinese painters who can live off his work.  His pieces in galleries usually sell for 15 million Rupiah (1300 USD). He also owns and runs a school that teaches the art form to young kids.

“The name of the village is Keliki and this form of art is also named Keliki”, he explains, showing us one of the intricate artworks done by a 9-year old.

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The Carvers of Ubud

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The recurring theme in all of the craft villages that we got to visit was that art is a way of life. It is part of a routine. In truth, they will say that it is part of their belief system. The crafts of the island were first done as offerings. “…Most of the sculptors are farmers. They come and sculpt in the afternoon,” one of the artisans said. And what magnificent work they do.

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I turn a log over on the ground and see numerous, intricate dragons swimming through the woodwork. There is a zoo of wooden animals in this place - birds, elephants, horses, pigs, yes even the pigs look beautiful. The scenes from religious stories still remain, of course, and they are often the grandest.

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My favourites are the masks. Mysterious, colourful, even scary. In this village of Mas are mask makers who are considered legendary, whose facial cloaks are said to grant protection to the wearer from evil spirits.

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Shadow Puppets

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In 2003, UNESCO designated Wayan Kulit, a shadow puppet theatre and the best known of the Indonesian Wayang or Shadow Puppet Show, as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Wayang is the most ancient form of puppet theatre in the world. It is said that the first record of a puppet show was in the year 930. The puppet masters in Bali and Java are in fact considered celebrities.

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“Some of these puppets are over a hundred years old.” the puppet master W. Mardika tells us. He says some of the figures were done by his great grandfather. The shadow puppets in his shops are made of leather and the parts that are unwanted chiselled out so that the light can come through and give form to human bodies and faces.

Weavers and Batik Painters

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Coming from the Philippines, the hand weaving techniques that are used in Bali are very similar to traditional Filipino methods. We visited a textile workshop where weavers – mostly women – making articles of clothing, sashes, and sarongs. There were also a number of Batik painters – while it is traditionally a Javenese art form, it is also done in Bali.

An Island of Art

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As we were leaving Ubud I could not help but be in awe of the Balinese people’s devotion and artistry - where villages are known for their art and that every Balinese person that we met practiced some form of craft. And they do it not because they earn tons of money from it – although I am sure some do – but mostly because it is ingrained in their lives. Their love of art is most beautiful.

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Not so ordinary Hong Kong stores

One of the nicest things about getting lost in a foreign city is finding quirky stores hidden in little corners or on second floors of buildings in a spot you would have missed had you not looked up at the exact right time. This seems especially true in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities and also home to thousands of stores. During a recent visit, we came across a few that made us smile. They’re small shops with a lot of character:

Kubrick: Kowloon, Hong Kong

Kubrick was a store we had heard of through a travel blog and had searched for while walking the streets of Kowloon. It took us a bit of time to find the spot and I think we had come across it just when we were about to give up.

Kubrick is mostly a bookstore but they also have an interesting film club and library.

Some cool looking people hanging around

Homeless – Central, Hong Kong

We were in the middle of all the familiar brand name stores, the big Italian ones that had cemented their place in one of the busiest streets in Asia and by chance I had glanced up and there it was. Homeless, I thought, what a strange name for a store.

The shop is in a narrow building with an old staircase that goes up against walls textured by planks, pipes, posters and graffiti.


Robots and mugs go well together

Headless kings!

Homeless- Wun Ying Gallery

At the topmost floor is Wun Ying Gallery and is home to some art by Carrie Chau. We’re now big fans of her work!

Goods of Desire, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

G.O.D. or Goods of Desire is a lifestyle store with furniture, prints, appliances and some cool little things. They also have good coffee in the cafe.

Ngong Ping

I have a mild fear of heights. When I look over the balcony of a five-storey building the sky starts to spin, my head becomes lighter and I hear the caps of my knees tick. So when we took a 30-minute cable car ride up to Ngong Ping- Hong Kong’s second highest peak – you can imagine how much fun I had.

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Mint Museum of Toys

When I was 5, my father introduced me to Enid Blyton and her world of goblins, elves and toys that came alive. I was into the Grimm brothers then and the bright-eyed teens of Riverdale and Blyton was a welcome addition. Days were spent drawing scenes from the books or recreating them using my own toys.

One afternoon last month, us kids (at heart) made our way through a maze of strange alleys and found the MINT Museum, a building full of TOYS from the 1800′s to the 1900′s and it was there that I was taken back to that year with Enid Blyton and found myself face-to-face with Noddy, Golly and many other characters from my childhood.

MINT, also known as Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys, is a kid’s dream come true – 5 storeys of vintage toys from all over the world! We relived our childhoods that afternoon – days spent with G.I. Joe, Tintin, Mickey, Donald, Popeye, Astro Boy, matchbox cars and the countless toys that kept us company many years ago.

We left the museum with wide grins. We felt like kids again.

-Johanna

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El Nido

I had long heard of El Nido, about how it is beautiful. I read all the tales in travel magazines and blogs. I wondered if it was all hyperbole. I had hoped it to be just as people described it. I was sure a thousand happy travelers couldn’t be wrong. And as we got our chance to see this place, I was awestruck. Can a place truly be this beautiful? You can pick all the splendid words you want to use: majestic, magical, mythical, enchanting, inspiring,  freakin’ awesome. They’ll be apt and will probably still be wanting.

The Big Lagoon

The first stop in our two-day trip across the islands of El Nido was the Big Lagoon. I actually wanted to hang around this place all morning because I didn’t know there were so many more beautiful places to see.

I think J was contemplating dipping into the Lagoon here but the boatman told us we weren’t allowed to swim in these parts.

This is the strait that leads in and out of the Big Lagoon.

The Small Lagoon

A few minutes from the Big Lagoon is this place called the “Small Lagoon”. Oddly enough it seemed like the Small Lagoon was bigger than the Big Lagoon. Our boat anchored mid-water and they asked us to swim the rest of the way.

It was a good twenty-minute swim from the boat to the shore.

That’s J’s head

In its deepest parts, you could see the sun rays disappear into the blue.

Turns out, the shore is actually a cave.

Shimizu Beach

After the swim at the small lagoon, our good guides took us to have lunch in an island all to ourselves.

The beach is called Shimizu, which means pure water.

There weren’t any other tourists on this island. Check out that sky!

Our guides made lunch for us on the beach. They grilled crabs, squid and fish. These were insanely good.

The waters were so clear you could see fish swim from under your feet.

Emil, the boatman started to make a hat for J with coconut leaves.

Sweet.

Entalula Island

Entalula Island is where they take people to feed fish. They swarmed on us as we dove into the water.

The wind hits these haunting rocks pretty strongly.

7 Commando Island

A ship named 7 Commando sank here a long time ago and someone decided to name the island after it. There were a few other tourists on this beach where there was a small hut that sold chips and fresh coconut juice.

Coconut heads.

“I’m going down to the beach.”
“To twilight?”
“Maybe…”
(from Naoko Ogigami’s Megane. Film,  2007)

Oh it’s time for that late afternoon stroll. “Quack”, said one. “Quack”, replied the other.

Secret Beach

This is now one of my favorite spots in the whole wide world. The Secret Beach in El Nido is a beach hidden inside a wall of huge limestone rocks. To enter the beach you have to swim through a small hole guarded by fish and anemone.

As I swam through the hole I felt an excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. It is as if I had discovered the place myself.

Star Beach

This is Emil, our guide who cooks great seafood. He is also a deep-sea rescue diver. I asked him if he’s rescued a lot of people in El Nido. “Never”, he said.

I grew up near the ocean and I used to see people pissing on other people’s feet because of sea urchins all the time. Somehow, someone created the notion that urine helps get the thorns out of the flesh.

In Star beach there were logs under a tree and they made a great bench and table.

We went around to explore the rest of the cove…

…then heard a hiss and ran back to shore.

Hidden Beach

Hidden Beach is a great snorkeling spot and is surrounded by a trench that goes down a few hundred feet deep. J was fortunate enough to have seen a sea turtle swim past her.

The interesting thing about the islands here is that you can squeeze through corners and holes and find yourself transported into new landscapes at the end of each tunnel.

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The right part of this photo is about 45 feet deep. The left side, down the trench, who knows? :-p

Helicopter Island

Sometimes the sweetest things do happen at the end of a journey. We were heading towards Helicopter island as the final stop of our trip in what was described to us as a quiet stretch of sand in a place where we could just sit and relax before heading back to the mainland.

It began to drizzle and then we all just started to run. No one told us to, we just started running like children.

Finally, when we had reached the end of the cove we found ash-black boulders rising from the sand and the shore. We wanted to take photos of the strange rocks but the batteries of our camera had died. So we sat instead and watched as the sun glared for last few times that day. It began to rain even harder. It rained so hard it hurt. Grown men could’ve cried and no one would’ve noticed. Maybe the place thought we needed to wash away everything. It was surreal.

The Old Quarter, Ha Noi


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The Old Quarter in Hanoi must be what it feels like to live inside a hive. Along these narrow streets lined with hotels, houses, shops and restaurants runs the energetic stream of motorcycles and people – tourists, merchants and residents – in a pace that is constant and vibrant.


Five in the morning and already it is on the move. Store shutters are opening up to reveal elders pushing out their bicycles past people that are gathering in the streets. They sit on little stools and eat Pho in bowls while the steam hides their cheeks and conical hats cover their eyes.

By mid-morning the district is bustling and vendors show us their wares. All the shops are narrow because having a wide house is expensive so they stretch around streets, some just wide enough to fit in three people shoulder to shoulder. Most of them are specialty shops – this shop only sells coffee in jars upon jars and the aroma of the butter roasted beans fills every nook. There is a shop that sells only herbs across a store that has a collection of antique Russian watches. My favorite is the one with old propaganda posters. There are portraits of Uncle Ho here. It is still winter and the fog lingers throughout the day. An outdoor mall built in the mist, what a concept.

Be prepared to haggle because it is perfectly alright. “How much you want? This one, I`ll sell to you for ten dollars. You buy from me because it`s good for me, my first customer and I give you good price.” “How about six dollars?” “Ok, ok, I sell to you for seven, that is good price my friend.” the vendor says with a smile. Not everyone is friendly though like the vendor who sells wonderful little carved stamps. “No, no, no, no, no photos!” She says and then grunts out prices as we ask her how much she sells them for.

The food here is amazing. Some call it one of the best places to dine in the world. There is a strong French influence and there are restaurants that serve Indian, Chinese and European cuisine too. What we came here to try, of course, is Vietnamese food. The Pho, fried rice, shrimp, crispy battered squid, cold chicken, spring rolls, steamed clams in lemongrass. They sell them on the streets and in restaurants with names that I can`t really recall. Pho sot vang, Com chien toi, Muc tam bot chien gion, Ngheu hap xa, something like that. Most of the words are monosyllabic. Hanoi is actually Ha Noi and Vietnam, Viet Nam. We are ignorant foreigners.

To get around, we always walk. And we are always wary of the motorcycle traffic. They gush out of streets and crossings, even through sidewalks. A flood of two-wheeled organisms, honking unceasingly as if bickering and bordering on rage. They tell us to be steadfast, to always move forward and never step back. The motorcycles avoid you, and not the other way around. Even then, I still get brushed by a few motorists, but no big deal, it`s part of the charm.

We visit the temples and learn about their legends including the one about the ancient order of the guardians of Ha Noi, in Bach Ma Temple. They are still here and it is very interesting. They sip tea, smoke incense and stroke their white beards.

It’s the end of the day and we find the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre and buy tickets to the water puppet show. It is an art form made in this part of the world and it is charming and fascinating. Next time we will get tickets for front row, where the puppets are nearer and there is a chance to get splashed.


More of Vietnam:
Hoan Kiem Lake

Ha Long Bay

Hoan Kiem Lake

The Lake of the Restored Sword or Hoan Kiem lake is about five minutes walk away from where we are staying. Legend has it that, in the-15h century, Heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To a magical sword which he used to drive away the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war a giant tortoise swam out of the water and took the sword from his hand and disappeared into the murky waters.

Since then a few tortoises have appeared in the lake, the last reported sighting was in 2000. In 1968, one tortoise died and weighed 250 kilos and was 2.1 meters long! The remains of the turtle is preserved in a museum.


People come around the lake in the morning and late in the afternoon to exercise, bike, meditate or just hang around. We attempted to jog around the lake this morning too, it was a bit cold, as the weather today was hanging around 12 degrees. (that’s really cold for a tropical man like me)
Man and bike

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That’s Johanna, she’s liking the cold.
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This is the bridge that’s in the middle of the lake.
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Tonight is New Year’s eve and they’ve prepared some elaborate fireworks show and have decorated the lake with these huge balloons.
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That’s the Pagoda at the center of the lake.
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Across the street is the famous Old District, where there is a large market that sells everything!
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Let’s play spot Johanna.
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It’s cold even for this guy.
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There are flowers everywhere.
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Halong Bay