Take A Walk Through Bali's Rice Terraces to Discover the Island's Unique Culture

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


These days, finding the magic of Bali requires perhaps a bit more effort than it once did, but as Polly Szantor discovers, that wondrous sense of the island’s unique culture is still very much intact, waiting to be discovered by those who walk among Bali’s verdant rice terraces.

Ah, Bali… the name alone caresses the senses with soothing tropical breezes, fragrant with jasmine and frangipani. The aptly nicknamed Island of the Gods is justifiably famous for its beaches, nightlife and scenery, but there’s so much more to this Indonesian province, secrets that can be teased out with a little persistence and perhaps a tiny bit of divine intervention. I love to spend my time in and around Ubud, the cultural capital of the island, whose popularity has rather soared in the last decade or two. Though far from the island’s many excellent beaches, there’s never a shortage of things to do around Ubud. You can pop over to Petulu for the nightly spectacle of thousands of egrets and herons coming home to roost, and there’s always the option of enjoying a community-created Kecak Dance, or… you can take a walk in the rice paddies with Ida Bagus Ketut Dharma, a talented artist who is familiar with medicinal plants and who also happens to be a Brahmin priest.

I’ve known Ida Bagus for several years and I always enjoy his company. The last time I was in Ubud, we arranged to spend a few hours out in the rice fields so that I could learn about the many plants that are used for medicinal remedies. At 8:30 am, I tromped down the infamously steep Penestanan Steps to find him waiting at the bottom, as we had arranged. During the 10-minute drive to the start of our walk, I asked him about his life as a Hindu in the Bramhin caste. He told me that everything he knew had been handed down from his father and grandfather. It was expected that two of the boys in his large family would become priests, and Ida Bagus welcomed this honour. His brother is a temple priest, while Ida Bagus presides at ceremonies such as weddings, cremations, and tooth-filings, the latter an important rite of passage in Balinese culture.

When he is not too busy with religious duties, he enjoys taking guests on various excursions, but his true passion is preserving the traditional Keliki style of painting. His work is exquisite and very reasonably priced. He told me that to keep the craft alive, he uses a small financial reward to encourage the boys of the village to attend art classes at his house after school. They come for two to four hours every day, and a few of them are showing real potential.

Our conversation came to an end when we met his driver who would take the car and wait for us at the other end of the walk, then we were off into the sawa, as the rice paddies are known in Indonesia (that’s sawi in Malay). Ida Bagus explained why the rice is always at various stages of growth. Traditional Balinese rice has only one growing season a year, and though it is more desirable as a food crop, it’s being replaced by a species of Philippine rice which arrived in the 1970s and can yield up to three crops a year. The imported rice doesn’t taste as good, nor does pack quite the same nutritional punch as the local variety, but it grows quickly and stubble submerged in water disintegrates in about a week. The taller Balinese rice takes six months from planting to maturity, and its tougher stalks need two months to break down.

As a boy, a favourite pastime for Ida Bagus was walking with his grandfather in the sawa, and there he learned about medicinal plants. I can understand the appeal. It’s soothing to escape bustling Ubud for a while, and I felt myself relaxing as a soft breeze sent ripples through a sea of brilliant green. The sound of water is never far away, from a tiny trickle to a bubbling waterfall; there are few places on earth more tranquil.

My gentle guide lead me carefully through the sawa, showing me exactly where to place my feet as we crossed from one narrow dike to another. He joked that he’s noticed that people from certain nationalities are more likely to slip into the mud, usually shortly after he has given a warning to be extra cautious; I’ve done it myself a couple of times. It’s more embarrassing than anything else, and you end up with one wet, muddy foot, a squishy reminder of your clumsiness.

Ida Bagus started pointing out plants right away. The beautifully named Liligundi leaves can be mixed with water and used as a body lotion and they’re also dried and hung over the doorway of a house where a new baby has been born. They have a strong smell and can act as a protection from mosquitos too. The purple flowers of the Kududuk have black seeds that taste sweet but stain the teeth. Luckily, Kududuk leaves have a rough surface, and they were used for cleaning teeth before toothbrushes came to Bali.


Next we found Bluntas leaves, which must be indispensible for some people as they are said to remove bad odours from the body and create more balance. They taste very bitter, but when pounded to a pulp and mixed with honey and vinegar the strained liquid is almost palatable. The juice from the stalk of the pretty little Star Flower is used for eye problems. Apparently, it’s hotter than chilli, so it doesn’t sound like something I’d like to try, Daluman leaves are easier on the system. When they’re mixed with water they create a jelly which is good for high blood pressure.

Most interesting of all is the use for Yellow Coconut, also known as Holy Coconut. If a person is sick, they visit the shaman, or healer, who will open a young coconut and mix the coconut water with his mantra. The patient then drinks some of the juice and the remainder is sprinkled on his body. If this cure is unsuccessful, the patient is usually referred to a medical doctor, but Ida Bagus told me that this is rarely necessary.

By 11:30, it was starting to get hot and I was glad to meet up with the driver, who greeted us with ice-cold water and a damp facecloth. We went straight to Ida Bagus’s house in Keliki Village, where his wife, Ibu Ayu, had prepared a delicious Balinese lunch. We ate on the balcony amid singing birds and orchids, a relaxing end to a very pleasant and informative morning.

Climbing back up the Penestanan Steps was the most strenuous part of the whole outing, so it wasn’t a demanding hike. There are other options though. If you’re up for it, Ida Bagus loves to go down a steep ravine to the river, but it’s a trek made for younger knees than mine. I’m perfectly happy focusing on keeping my feet dry up in the sawa.

Ida Bagus offers a choice of walking routes ranging from moderately easy (1.5 to 2 hours) to more challenging (3 to 3.5 hours). He can be contacted at [email protected], tel +62 81999 218 570. For more information, please visit his website:

Source: The Expat December 2013

Read more:

What are your thoughts on this article? Let us know by commenting below.No registration needed.

"ExpatGo welcomes and encourages comments, input, and divergent opinions. However, we kindly request that you use suitable language in your comments, and refrain from any sort of personal attack, hate speech, or disparaging rhetoric. Comments not in line with this are subject to removal from the site. "


Click to comment

Most Popular

To Top