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Ghost Real Estate

By: Bodrek Arsana

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

If you follow the Ayung river—which divides the region of Kedewatan (Gianyar) and Bongkasa (Badung) in the foothills of central Bali—you will see a steep slope packed with luxury villas in Sayan on the Kedewatan side of the gorge, not far from Ubud. The architecture is modern and grand, and many houses have swimming pools. From the road, however, the villas are invisible, hidden by trees and small garden plantations of the local inhabitants. Sometimes bare-chested farmers will be working their fields next to swimming pools with bare-breasted sun-bathers.

This land, now worth millions of dollars, used to be literally worthless. “Before tourism, if you owned land on a river gorge [jurang or tanah tebing] it was like not having any land at all. You couldn’t give it away,” says Made Warsa, an inhabitant of Sayan, Kedewatan whom I met there one day as he was crouching outside his house with a fighting cock. He tells me that he once owned two hectares of land on the now famous Sayan ridge—but that he traded it for rice fields. “Who would have imagined that this land would be valuable? The land I used to own now has a luxury hotel on it. The guy I traded the land with is a billionaire now,” he said. Being a billionaire even in rupiah is still pretty good.
Tanah tebing was traditionally considered ‘not economically strategic’ because it was far from the road. It was also considered haunted. River gorges are thought to be a favorite dwelling place for invisible beings such as tonyo and memedi. Tonyo, it is said, can assume human form (very white but without nostrils), while memedi are said to steal children and hide them. Many children in my village still run away in fear at the mention of the words ‘tonyo’ or ‘memedi’.

With the advent of tourism in Bali, however, these haunted terrains—such as river gorges and land near burial grounds and beaches—were suddenly sought after for hotel accommodations and water sports. Dewa Aji Mangku, a Balinese priest, told me “The tonyo and memedi have gone, replaced by tourists. Maybe the tourists scared them away.” Dewa Aji Mangku owns a villa on the Sayan ridge which he rents out to foreigners.

Compared to the wall-to-wall tourism on the coasts of Kuta and Sanur, tourism around Ubud has always been discreet. As early as 1928, very shy expatriates like the painters Rudoph Bonnet and Walter Spies built houses in secluded areas outside the village of Ubud. Their houses were bigger and more comfortable than those of the local people, but these early ‘cultural tourists’ insisted on building in the local idiom, with bamboo walls and grass roofs, and they tried to live à la Balinaise. When seaside tourism developed in Kuta and Sanur during the 1970s and ‘80s, Ubud’s tourism imitated the example of Bonnet and Spies, promising ‘the real Bali’. The dominant models were ‘homestays’—guest houses in the family compounds of local inhabitants—and the bungalow in the rice fields.

Tourism in Ubud underwent a quiet boom, however, in the money-flooded 1990s when Ubud discovered luxury tourism. Spearheaded by the Amandari hotel on the Sayan ridge, which opened in the late 1980s, the boutique hotel movement was a way to get ‘quality tourists’ (as the jargon has it) without obliterating the environment. The view from the Kedewatan side westward to the rice fields on the Bongkasa side was spectacular. This—and the fact that it was shielded from view from the road—made land on the ridge wildly desirable. Within a few years, Sayan became one of the snootiest addresses in Southeast Asia, where people came to escape from metropolitan Rome, New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hongkong or Melbourne.

Investors began cruising the Ayung river valley in helicopters looking for real estate for development projects—villas or resorts. Meanwhile on the ground, local farmers began to have their formerly useless land surveyed and registered. Local real estate agents (calo) swarmed around the ridge from Baung in the south to Payangan in the north.

One of these calo, Ketut Kardi, told me that land on the Sayan slope had gone from Rp10 million per are (an are is ten square meters) to around Rp60 million today. “That’s for big developers. For just a residence it’s about five percent lower,” he said.
This movement of luxury tourism from the coast to the highlands reminds me of another process—the Balinese ritual called upacara nyegara gunung. Literally, it means ‘from the sea to the mountain’, and it describes a series of post-cremation rites for a deceased soul. After cremation, the ashes are taken to the sea (segara) where the soul is purified in the underworld below (or maybe within) the sea. Then, after a certain period of time, the family of the deceased go back to the sea, summon the soul, and escort it to Pura Dalem Puri, a temple in the mountains (gunung) near Pura Besakih, to dwell with the other deified souls of Bali’s pantheon. Now, what does this parallel process suggest? Does this mean that tourism in Bali, by moving inland from the sea, will end up in the mountain temples? Let’s hope not.

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