In twenty years of travel writing I have purposely avoided tents. Even when glamping evolved, I stayed true to my hang ups from the Girl Guides. Later in life I tried camping again in bear country on Vancouver Island. No, my friends, camping is not for me.
Then Banyan Tree launches a new brand called ‘Escape’ which promises intimacy with local culture and to the origins of the land in a way where we can tread more lightly and thoughtfully. You stay in a villa with no walls or windows. Mmmm?? Mr G, my travel partner, is telling me to get over myself, it looks amazing. OK! We are off to the jungle – to a more naked kind of stay.
The location & journey
Our car picks us up from Canggu. It’s a two hour drive. We have cold water, a cooler bag filled with fruit for the journey and a very luxurious car! We pass through Ubud and 40 mins later we pull up at the gates to the resort.
In Balinese tradition we take a baton to a wooden bell and swing three times as deep tones echo down the valley. We zig zag down pathways to the main house.
The Welcome – The main resort pavillion
An open air pavilion set on three levels is the heart of the resort, containing The Botanist Bar, Open Kitchen and Living Room. We are greeted by an enormous artwork. Sound specialists took recordings of the jungle and these soundwaves created patterns which have been transitioned into the artwork. I am quite literally looking at the sounds of the jungle. The living room area is dotted with soft sofas, bookshelves stacked with books and wooden beams which are decorated with complimentary hanging vats of different Araks, the Balinese traditional spirit. We grab glasses and start on the wildest of tastings! Below us is the resort pool
Buahan Valley Pool Villa – Bale No.6
We open our front wooden doors to paradise…
It’s as if time stands still as we adjust to the light, the colours and sounds. The gravity of being witness to such natural beauty, laid undisturbed for thousands of years is humbling. We have 180 degree views of the jungle as the land undulates down the valley, a thousand shades of misty green leaves vibrate from the breeze, birds are swooping in the sky, insects are chattering and a gang of swallows are fixated on a synchronised dive dance around our infinity pool. If I saw a teradactil in the sky I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Villa: We are standing on a large platform. There are no walls, no windows, but there is a roof. A covered double bed sala is to our right. Wooden stairs take us down to the next level where our infinity pool commands the kingdom. I am channeling Simba, the Lion King – presiding over our jungle!
The living room has a large sofa and table but it’s the princess-style four poster bed which has our attention. Everywhere there are muslin drapes. My concerns around air conditioning in a villa with no walls are answered. I have never seen anything like it – a curved structure much like a palm frond covered in linen pushes up cold air from the base and much like how Cleopatra languished from fanned air provided by her servants, this is where tech meets nature. So clever. A little curiosity box is packed with postcards, pot pourri and more.
I have to confess that two things really held me back from thinking Buahan would be an escape I would enjoy. They both begin with B – Bugs & Bathroom. I can honestly say that all my fears are allayed.
Mr G and I are sitting in the sala..drinking a glass of champagne and reading. The team arrives at 4pm. They are silent ninjas, dressing our bedroom, then house, till it’s enshrined like a bride about to walk down the aisle. The first layer of muslin is around the perimeter of the villa, the second layer is the bedroom. Over the next 48hrs I don’t even see one mosquito!
The bathroom is my other hang up. Thankfully the designers have created a curved wooden structure that sits behind the double sink and mirrors. To the left is the shower, to the right is the bathroom.. Whilst there isn’t a door, the way it curves ensures you have privacy, phew!
Aside from the ridiculously romantic bed, in a ridiculously romantic place, with insane views, the best seat in the house has to be the hand crafted copper bathtub.
Everything you see, touch has been thoughtfully designed. It’s so thoughtful that you don’t even see it thanks to Singapore based creative studio Parable who use repurposed Ulin, wood from boat jetties, creating hand carved headboards to soft furnishings that are all natural dyed. Our villa is made from reclaimed timber, giving back to the forest, more than we have taken.
Dinner at Open Kitchen
In this barefoot, naked resort, nature moves in many ways that tell you it’s dinner. We reluctantly leave our sanctuary and follow the softly lit pathways to the main house.
Dinner is a set menu. The team have worked on a predominantly 70% plant based, zero wastage menu showcasing heritage techniques and working with local farms to create a farm to plate experience. The onsite garden provides over 70 veggies, fruits and herbs. Everything from turmeric, ferns, mint, mangosteen and coconuts which give back calcium to plant roots.
Tonight as we take our seats. The friendly we-can-never-do-enough-for-you-team are on hand to look after everything. This is not a place I need to wave a waiter for attention, they are already observing and anticipating what we would like, let alone need.
The sun sets on our world as everything is plunged into impossible darkness, but not quiet. Our soundtrack tonight are the musicians of the jungle.
We start our meal with ‘snacks’ which include locally harvested pickles and delicious XO grilled shiitake mushrooms. The Appetiser is Jicama, a Mexican turnip which had been transformed by being roasted in the embers of a fire and a deft hand with I peanuts. Japanese influences appear with Chawanmushi, a silky and savoury steamed egg dish featuring shiitake mushrooms twinned with Moringa leaves – a traditional balinese leafy green with a smoked dashi. Delicate and delicious. The main is q choose your own adventure of proteins. I opt for local chicken which is served with heritage rice, a 67 degree cooked egg and a sprinkling of fried curry leaves and mung bean sprouts. The cooking is refined and showcases local produce. We take advantage of the local Balinese wine list which includes Hatton Wines founded in 1994. Our Tunjung Brut Sparkling, is clean, with pear flavours thanks to a méthode traditional fermentation.
After a desert of pineapple we retire to our villa. We are surprised by our very own firepit (kinda scary with all this wooden construction!). Like moths to a flame we pull two chairs closer and hold hands listening to the sounds of the forest as we sip our final glass of wine and say goodnight.
Day Two – Out and About – God, Community & Nature
I wakeup to Gorilla in the Mists view, as the world wakes up below me. It’s awe inspiring. After a local a la carte breakfast, we are ready to rock n’ roll.
We are dressed by the team in traditional Balinese attire to be respectful for the day ahead which is about learning three underpinning influences of what it means to be Balinese: God, Community and Nature.
A vintage Volkswagan is waiting for us. We whizz through impossibly narrow roads, chug up hills, whilst I am trying to tame my hair in a Penelope Pitstop kind of way. Our passionate guide Wayan shares our day ahead and why what he does is so meaningful. He wants people to really know and understand Balinese culture. Well, it’s not Kuta that’s for sure.
Our first stop is to experience God. It’s a temple no tourists are allowed to go in. Today we are Wayan’s guests as we sit cross legged in ancient lands that are over 800 years old. Wayan teaches us how to meditate first, then pray to the direction of the oldest temple in Bali, one we saw from our car 20 minutes ago.
Our second experience is Community. We respectfully enter the home of a multi generational family, at the centre is an area of prayer and worship where they lay their deceased, where they provide offerings. Wayan shares with us how they live and pray.
Our third experience is Nature. Another 30 minute drive and we arrive at a coconut plantation in the village of Taro. A smiling and effervescent entrepreneur and conservationist beams happiness at us – this is Wayan Wardika. “Hello!! Come meet my family, let me introduce you to my grandparents – Oh he’s eating snails!!” We sheepishly nod in a universal language that says hello, when we don’t have the vocabulary for more. “He has just been harvesting palm oil” I don’t know many 70 year olds who could climb up a tree via a teeny ladder over 30 metres up, but maybe that’s the elixir of youth! “My sister is making palm sugar come over here!” A large metal vat is bubbling away. It will take another 5-6 hours before it’s ready.
Wayan takes us deeper into the plantation and into his neighbour’s land, but first we meet the team in the lab saving fireflies. “When I was little I would be on the back of my fathers bike and fireflies would be everywhere…I don’t want my children to grow up in a world without them”. In that sentence the importance of why we are here comes crashing in.
Fireflies are like the Balinese equivalent of canaries in the coalmine. They are the health barometer of the balance of life – water, environment and light. We learn how they live in the weeds which flourish around rice paddies, but chemicals used by farmers are killing the larva, which is the majority of their two year life span. Light pollution means they can’t find each other to mate. The mutation from pupa into glorious beacons of light and hope is an airborne existence of less than twenty days.
We meet cows, pigs in their stys and wandering chickens. We traverse over different plots of farmers’ land. Wayan is encouraging them to join a farming collective without chemicals. We say hello to his aunties, uncles and their watchful, Balinese dogs (every house has them) and finally Mr G and I pick up spades and plant a coffee tree. Farewell Arabica! See you in a few years. Grow strong.
Banyan Tree is the epitome of what it takes to be one of the best spa brands in the world. We are booked in for 4pm and take our time on the looping down pathways through the jungle to the spa bures close to the valley floor, streams and waterfalls. Our couples massage starts with a foot ceremony as they are soaked, softly scrubbed and patted dry. Face down on the massage beds, it feels surreal to be this happy, pampered and deeply connected to the energy of the earth. Soft long strokes epitomise the Balinese style of massage as the forest is our musical lullaby for the next hour.
Fireflies at Banyan Tree
Wayan in his passion has collaborated with Banyan Tree to establish a firefly conservation program to repopulate the species. The firefly nursery launched in March 2023.
The sun is setting and we meet at the bar. Equipped with walking sticks we start the descent into the valley. We are in darkness as we cross streams, bridges, and climb towards our resting place. A covered greenhouse in the mountains is the Banyan Tree firefly nursery. We walk through and out into the other side. We wait…
There is no light polution here. We see the flickers above us, this is their love story, in a Tinder style ‘flash-right/left’ romance. Each momentary illumination is the reality that they only have days left to love, mate and then die. We look around as seemingly live embers float and flash into the sky. It’s magical. Knowing how endangered they are, to see them dancing around us is profoundly moving.
A stay at Banyan Tree changed me in many ways beyond the fact I can do glamping! Living with nature brings us back to the very essence of time. This is what ‘man’ did. On returning home to Sydney I missed sleeping to the sounds of the forest so much I searched on Headspace across 6 different jungle sounds till I found one that matched with my auditory memories. The experience so sensitively allows you to leave the world behind you, and absorb the real one in front of you. We left forever changed in all the right ways.
What we are addicted to: The stunning villas are beautifully designed even down to the little test tubes of different teas. The views onto untouched jungle canopies is captivating. We love how the different activities are purposely woven into your stay to create a holiday which leaves you with more than simply memories. From resort gardens, sustainable amenities, to the circular economy – it’s impressive on every level of travelling consciously. The staff are endlessly gracious, warm and you very much feel part of a family rather than a hotel stay.
What do we need to be more addicted? – More days there? Our two days were genuinely faultless. Wonderful villa, food, cocktails, wine, and hospitality. If we were super picky an umbrella shade over the sun loungers by the pool would have been nice and a free mini bar to just grab a beer and enjoy a sundowner…