Spa on Bali
Text: Ann Bouwma
Photography: Roy Tee
“Now you feel queen” Rubbing and scrubbing on Bali
As a holiday paradise Bali is known for its beach life, Hindu culture and rice fields. Now spa is on the rise. As yet there are hundreds, some homely, others downright luxurious. A true haven for the stressed traveller. Be rubbed, pampered and submerge in a flower bath.
Red flowers float in a bowl, motionless. I watch them for a long time. There is the sweet sound of gamelan music, the plaintive tones stretching and repeating endlessly. Warm hands gently glide over my shoulders, back, hips. Her name is Alita. She rubs my muscles, pulls at my fingers, kneads the soles of my feet, slaps my heels, and loosens my joints. Slowly I relax and stare at the flowers.
“Please turn over”, she whispers. Then she greases me with a cool granular liquid till my skin begins to tingle. When I am allowed to rise, the bed is speckled with grated coconut. After a cup of tea she brushes a thick white substance all over me that has to soak in for a while. It is a pleasant notion of captivity, being forced to lie down rigid for who knows how long. Meanwhile she treats my face with fragrant oil as I watch the curtains of the pavilion moving to and fro. I close my eyes. The gamelan floats away, ever further, till it can barely be heard. Even the screeching birds have taken to flight.
When I wake up, she has written my name in a bath full of flowers. Red on white. Lunch is waiting on the rim of the tub. Fruitsalad, gingertea, sandwiches. “Now you feel queen”, says Alita and leaves me to myself.
On Bali massage is as common as eating and sleeping. It is part of an ancient tradition, but has found a new connection with an increasing trend: cultivating physical health and beauty.
“Mau massaas? Very cheap!” Not anymore. Massage has grown way beyond the ordinary rub and squeeze session on the beach, where you can be treated for a couple of dollars on a bench beneath the palm trees. Spa has spread to the luxury hotels, where sessions may last from a couple of hours up to days on end. These days the honeymoon package is a hot deal. Needless to say prices are corresponding.
This much is evident: spa is booming on Bali. Only in the Kuta area there are a hundred and fifty, in Ubud a hundred, in Sanur about forty, in Lovina twenty. And the numbers are fastly increasing.
It all seems to fit in a scheme. Due to the bombs of 2002 and 2005 there was a considerable setback in tourism during the early years of this century, causing high vacancy in accommodation. Since visiting a spa has become a new attraction, many of these former hotels are converted into pre-eminent coddle-centres. The switch is relatively easy. The dorm can serve as a massage room and the bathroom is renovated with a modern bathtub, suitable for one or two persons.
The fancier the interior, the more expensive. Bathrooms tiled with natural stone, woodcarvings in doors and furniture, the colour of cloths and upholstery in matching batik design, lovely views at flowering gardens, and at last, for that is what it is all about after all, well trained young women who run the business. “Adolescents, seniors, lovers, married couples, even people so old they have to lean on a cane,” Alita sums up the clientele.
One of the most luxurious resort hotels is Amankila, situated behind barriers on the slope of a mountain near Candidasa. Here an overnight stay costs five hundred dollar at least, a comfortable glass of whisky takes twenty five.
Bungalows with a separate massage-room are available, but the hotel-manager is reluctant to show them. He does not simply refuse however, but invites me to come back next summer, when Amankila surely will also have a fully equipped spa-facility of its own.
So what exactly is a spa? Put simply it is a pampering package with massage at the core: body scrubs, reflexology, aroma therapy, foot-washing, hot stones, herbal baths, hydrotherapy, manicure and coiffure. Nothing there that would hit a tourist as unfamiliar, but the used ingredients are typically eastern: ginger, candlenuts, sandalwood, avocado, coffee, papaya and coconut, of course.
What kind of treatment madam wishes? The woman at the counter of a spa in Ubud smiles encouragingly. It will be mandi lulur, popular amongst foreign guests because of its deep-tissue massage. I am introduced to Komang, who leads me to a hollow sounding room with orange painted walls. No flowers or music here, but the constant murmur of running water.
Dressed in white she looks like a nurse and proceeds with similar efficiency. No small talk, just lie down and surrender. First she tackles the pressure points, then goes deep on the muscle-bundles and finally rubs my back with the knuckles of her hands, like a cart on a dirt road. Rattling over the ribs, crunching around the bends, narrowly escaping the joints. She does it again and again, till I no longer know what string is attached to which bone, nor what action it was meant to perform. I am a painting by Picasso, with shoulders where my hips should be.
It is hard working in the spa. Komang works six days a week, treats three or four people per day, dependent on the length of a session. But during off-season the visiting rate is low. “Everyone wants to start a spa, it is business, but there are far too many.”
She is from Surabaya, the second biggest city of Indonesia. Only there are no spa’s there, just beauty-parlours for those who can afford it. That is why Komang moved to Bali. Every time she has saved enough money she goes back to visit her family. Once or twice a year, on motorbike, by way of the ferry-boat in Gilimanuk. A rugged journey that takes all day.
Before long maybe Komang can go to see her family more often, since president Bush has lifted the negative travel advise for Indonesia this summer after eight long years. With benefit of the local Visit Indonesia campaign it is to be expected that other countries follow the American example and visit this benign island. Mau Massaas? Silahkan!