A collection of short stories, essays, blog-posts and photographs from Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

The Ubud Handbook « The Heads of Trunyan

Human skulls left to dry in the open-air cemetery in Mount Batur's Trunyan Village next to Lake Batur in Bali, Indonesia

MAYBE I SHOULD have taken Lonely Planet's guide to Bali and Lombok more seriously. Three times they warn the unwary: 'Don't go'. I'm stopped at this remote village's edge by a tough-looking man in his twenties who wants me to change a $20 bill for Indonesian rupiah. ('And don't worry about the exchange rate.') On his black T-shirt are near-foot-high, white letters that read:


Welcome to Trunyan, one of the oldest villages in Bali.

It's easy to see why the Trunyanese are so defensive of their well-worn patch. The view across Lake Batur beats any northern Italian backdrop. The locals call their caldera's lake "the sea": at more than a thousand metres above sea-level, small, wind-whipped waves cut across the deeply turquoise water. Opposite the thousand-year-old-plus village, dried pistes of dark-grey lava from previous eruptions – the last in 1994 – drip down the slopes of the still-active Mount Batur.

Trunyan has never been high on the visitors' list. Like a handful of other villages scattered around the volcanic uplands of Bali, Trunyan is inhabited by the Bali Aga – the so-called 'original Balinese people' – a once rabidly isolationist ethnic group that makes up nearly three percent of the island's population.

But the people of Trunyan are beginning to feel a little too isolated.

While Lonely Planet extols their ethnic cousins' double-ikat weaving in the more accessible Bali Mula village of nearby Tenganan ('Peculiar! Old-fashioned! A real village, not a creation for tourists!'), the more remote Trunyan was largely cut off until its first tarmac road to the world was laid in 2006. Its primary school – there is no secondary school – was built in 1975.

Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit.

The black-and-white-T-shirted Nyoman, 26, has decided I'm worth showing around ('You didn't argue about the exchange rate', he grins). We arrange a day's guide-fee of Rp.200,000 and push off in a shaky canoe to the lakeside cemetery.

– "This lady was a neighbour of mine," says Nyoman. "She died about six months ago."

Under the shadow of the great banyan tree, Nyoman points to a corpse draped in salmon-pink and ice-white shawls, protected from wild dogs by a triangular bamboo cage. At the foot of the cage is a small woven basket containing a collection of possessions that will accompany the dead into her afterlife: a comb; a pair of new flip-flops; a plastic eating bowl; a single clove cigarette.

When a fresh body arrives, the oldest body is removed – its sun-dried skull and femurs placed on an elevated rock-altar a few feet away. Only those who have been married, died from natural causes and show no obvious physical marks earn the exalted position with the lake view. Villagers who have remained single, died from disease, committed suicide or have been murdered are relegated to nondescript, rocky ground to the south.

Further away still is a third, tiny cemetery tucked tightly under the caldera's cliff – reserved for infants under five. These last two groups, Nyoman explains, are buried and covered with rocks to 'prevent their unhappy souls from roving and disturbing the living'.

It's disconcerting. Even up close to the corpse there's no smell of decomposition: only the steady, fresh breeze that bounces off the lake, scented by the parched undergrowth and brittle leaves around us.

Nyoman unravels the cemetery's secret.

He tells of the village goddess, Dewa Pancering ('panchering') Jagat, who married a Javanese prince. Their union, it is said, was true happiness: but every time the goddess gave birth, her baby died. Some claimed it was a natural perfume emanating from the goddess's skin that was killing the newborn.

Desperate for offspring, the Javanese prince ordered the village's dead to be left under a nearby banyan tree so that the stench of flesh would negate the fatal scent of his wife. It worked. Heirs were produced and the village survived. Indebted, the goddess possessed the banyan – called the Taru Menyan, or 'sweet-smelling tree', and after which the village was named – allowing Trunyan's dead to lie in peace, without odour, as a return gift from the goddess.

Like many graveyards, it's a restful place – until a motorboat of Javanese tourists disembark at the water's edge. Skulls are picked up and posed with, femurs are held aloft. Groups arrange themselves for selfies. A 100,000 rupiah note is left in the woven basket for the half-dozen guides who hang languidly around the tree. The tourist band disappears back into the flapping green-and-white waves of the lake as if they had never been.

It's difficult to see how the Bali Mula of Trunyan can't make more of their lakeside idyll and plentiful history without relying solely on a curiosity that some may find anthropologically fascinating, others macabre and distasteful.

The lakeside temple is beautiful, its unique ceremonies distinct from the rest of Hindu Bali. A walk through the narrow village walkways is eye-opening and humbling. The 45-minute hike to the tip of the crater hovering above Trunyan for a misty, ethereal dawn-break is stunning. More micro-pockets of Bali Aga people, guarded by family dogs, live on the crater shoulder cultivating corn and tending cows. You may be given a gritty black coffee to wake you up at the top. And the only people you'll meet on the way down are knots of children and old women carrying 10-or-so-kilo parcels of firewood on their heads to be used for traditional cooking-fires in the village below.

That the Bali Aga people – along with the rest of the island's 3,5 million Balinese – have successfully stuck to age-old customs and upheld their culture is exactly the reason most tourists continue to come to this island. You only have to step into the chasm of Kuta on the south coast – once a quiet fishing village, now complete with foam parties, Blow Me cocktails and police patrolling the latest dance heavens with automatic rifles – to see how it can all go wrong.

To blacklist a village for its aggression – read real financial desperation combined with poor standards of education, natural mountain bluntness and a healthy distrust of potentially destructive outside forces – is economic damnation indeed. And if a visitor feels shunned or unimportant when straying into remote Bali Mula territory – rare if you are polite – it is historical, and nothing new.

The people of Trunyan – like the Bali Aga of Bayunggede, Tenganan, Pedewa, Bungaya, Asak and Sembiran – have all had plenty of practise at rejecting imperialist advances. Miguel Covarrubias, the Thirties' Mexican painter and author of the landmark guidebook 'Island of Bali', chose the 'rabidly isolated' Bali Mula village of Tenganan as somewhere special...

'...shut off from the world by a solid wall. Such is the obsession for isolation that there is an official appointed to sweep the village after the visits of strangers to obliterate their footprints...'

Known also as the Bali Mula, the Bali Aga retreated to the volcanic highlands when the remains of the once-powerful Hindu Majapahit kingdom evacuated from nearby Java to Bali as Islam expanded across the archipelago. The Bali Aga, already content with their unique mix of Buddhist-Animism, simply painted over it with this newer, shiny veneer of imported Hinduism.

There is a surefire, deliberate, step-at-a-time slowness in the Trunyan routine: from the housewife stoking a firewood stove to the arranging of offerings during a village ceremony. Many of the oldest in Trunyan reach far into their eighties; one woman is a healthy centenarian in a country where life-expectancy rarely tops 65. Layers of Australian Aborigine, Chinese, Malay, Polynesian, Arabic, Melanesian, Mongol and Indian create a look among the Trunyanese that the painter Covarrubias sketched as 'ghostly, slender, aristocratic'.

All Balinese share similar racial roots at this convenient crossroads of historical shipping-routes. But unlike mainstream Balinese Hindus, no caste system exists within the Bali Aga; the Trunyanese burial method is closer to the pre-Hindu Neolithic Agama Bayu sect who worshipped the stars, the wind and their ancestors.

I ask the deputy-head of the village, I. Ketut Jaksa, why his community clings so fiercely to tradition while other parts of Bali are hungrily reshaping to swallow the annual island-invasion of nearly three million visitors. After all, I suggest, the Bali Mula of nearby Sembiran village abandoned their age-old custom of leaving their dead to the jungle in the 1960s?

– "Please know that we wholeheartedly welcome tourists to our village", says Jaksa. "But you must also understand that if they, or we, flaunt the most minor law here it will cause irreparable damage to us and bring trouble. No-one is allowed to disrespect their ancestors. We must protect our laws to safeguard our future."

However changes do occur, even in a Bali Aga village, and all may not spell trouble. Over a bowl of barbecued mujair lake-fish, I quiz the village head, I. Ketut Sutapa, about the future and past of a village that has lain in its cultural time-warp for well over a millennium.

– "Before our road was completed in 2006," the chief says, "women who were about to give birth had to take a canoe across the lake and hire a car to get to the clinic. Some gave birth on the lake. My wife's baby began to come out while she was still in the car – his leg came out first so we pulled. My son's crippled now.

"Education has changed. We've only got a primary school in Trunyan, and a lot of our children were tired of canoeing across the lake every day to study. With the new road, it's so much better. More finish secondary school, and some now go to university. Who knows – perhaps we'll even get someone who graduates from tourism school and then we can find out how they make so much money in the south..."

As we talk inside the coffee shop, a tanned white couple arrives on a motorbike. An elderly woman rushes forward to tie an offering of flowers to the 'bike's handlebars and hovers for a donation. Nyoman moves in next, this time waving a redundant Australian $10 note.

The two newest visitors to this ancient village panic, pull a swift U-turn and disappear up the barely navigable hairpin road, back through the potholes and dogs and puddles to the relative safety of civilisation.

Perhaps the oldest ways are the hardest to beat.

© 2021 John Storey.

Gallery: Trunyan Village Portraits

Old farmer, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali

Old farmer, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Laughing female farm-worker, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Female farm-worker, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Young Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Young Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Old Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Batur, Bali

Old Balinese woman, Trunyan village, Kintamani, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Young Balinese girl, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali

Young Balinese girl, Trunyan village, Lake Batur, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

© 2021 John Storey. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Pic

Portrait of the Day

Portraits from Bali by Ubud High
Young female beggar from Muntigunung, Bali, on the streets of Ubud

A beggar from Muntigunung on the streets of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia.
Portrait by © Ubud High.

The Ubud Handbook by John Storey

© 2021 John Storey / Ubud High. All rights reserved.

Street art mural of a young topless 1930s Balinese girl using social media on a mobile cellphone painted by the street artist Wild Drawing in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

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Religion Matters

The Tale of Ganesha the Globetrotter ~ Bali's Elephant-Headed Hindu God

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Personal Stories

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Photo-realistic urban art by an anonymous street artist of a 1930s market scene in Bali, Indonesia

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Blue sky pokes from behind a gathering of stormy monsoon clouds over Bali, Indonesia

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Holidays from the Jungle

The Heads of Trunyan

Human skulls in the open, outdoor cemetery in Trunyan village, near Batur in Bali, Indonesia

‘Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit...’

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The Land of Self-Healing and Snake Oil

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Graffiti street art of a young 1930s Balinese girl looking at social media on her mobile cellphone in a mural near Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

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And finally, the weather

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Today's weather forecast for Ubud, Bali, Indonesia ⇨