Anna Luna Rossi
Visiting Bali Botanical Garden: a singular discovery
Bali Botanical Garden is hidden between the mountains of Bedugul and lake Beratan, in the Tabanan Regency, central Bali. Unknowingly, it is the largest Botanical Garden in all of Indonesia. Opened at the end of the 1960s, its 390 acres of nature are covered by gardens and jungle: a somewhat magical place nestled in one of Bali's least-known areas. Visiting Bali Botanical Garden is a singular experience, an unexpected discovery.
As I drove the 4 hours-long drive to reach Munduk, north of Ubud where I was staying the day prior, I passed through Bedugul, this small town on the shore of Beratan Lake. I was surprised to see it as lively and buzzing: the traffic wasn't dense but scooters were honking in every direction (as it is the case in most of Bali, anyways) and people were shuffling along the side of the road, through the food stalls and displays of fresh tropical fruits. In retrospect, I regret not taking any pictures - I have this tendency of getting too fascinated by the road to think about taking my camera out.
The day after, I asked my guide to bring me back to this area. I couldn't forget the large sign reading "Bali Botanical Garden - Kebun Raya Bali" I had witnessed while driving through the town. As a biologist, I couldn't imagine not exploring a botanical garden if I happened to be stumbling upon one.
This is how I found myself stepping out of the car under a cloudy sky inside the garden, on a humid afternoon. It had just stopped raining: the grass was still covered by tiny drops of water and the air seemed pristine. The first impression I had was that I was alone in the middle of nowhere. The second, after walking the main way up to the Monkey Statue, was how immense this place actually was.
In the center of the road, acting as a "Welcome" into the gardens stands a tall statue called the Kumbakarna Laga Sculpture. It represents Kumbakarna, a character from the Hindu epic Ramayana, being attacked by the army of monkeys of Rama. You see, in this epic, the demon Ravana captured Rama's wife and Rama wasn't very happy about this: as the assigned protector of the demon, Kumbakarna fought back the monkeys. And very honestly, it may scare you a little: something in the way its eyes reflect the anger of a fallen soldier, how the canines of the monkey attacking him are a little too well sharpened.
As you then walk through the arboretum, and its massive conifers surround you with their appeasing presence, you wonder if you're not in the wrong era of time, lost somewhere in the Jurassic period. The alleys are quiet, lush with grass dampened by the rain and shades of green mingling together in the branch of the trees.
More than 21 000 specimens belonging to 2400 species of plants are kept in the gardens. And this is without counting the many more specimens preserved in the herbarium. Orchids, begonias, bamboo, ferns, roses... from all across Indonesia and the islands and countries nearby.
Something that striked me a little more than the rest might have been the Medicinal Plants Garden. As we wandered a bit further into the site, its part bordering the forest and the high banyan trees linked together by an interweaving of lianas, we came across a very quiet part of the garden. No one was to be seen. In fact, and pretty surprisingly, almost no one was to be seen in the whole Botanical Garden
There, in the middle of trees reaching the sky, was a stone gate, looking like the uncanny passage to another world, somewhere from fantasy books. A neat path of flagstones was leading to it, and on both sides, numerous varieties of medicinal plants. As we progressed on the little way, my guide was translating every Indonesian name for me. Ginger roots, Tumeric, Cananga flower, Sambucus... Over five hundred were displayed in the smaller garden (but no, we didn't observe every single one). My guide explained to me that in Bali, traditional healers are called Balians: they work with medicinal plants to heal what ranges from little ailments to terminal cancers. They are highly trusted and highly respected in Bali. And most of the time, you will wonder if they aren't true magicians. "You know, my sister was told she was going blind, and her disease was healed by a Balian. It took several months, but it's been years now. She's completely healed, she can see." my guide told me. His eyes went a little brighter, and I felt a little more emotional. Nature truly had so much to teach us.
As we continued walking through the alleys of the gardens, and as we reached the greenhouses, a strange - almost uneasy - impression settled in my chest. Something about how everything seemed to have been abandoned, abnormally left behind as if no one was caring for the place anymore. Some stones were broken, and others were covered in moss. The water of the fountains - not running anymore - was greenish, turbid, and in most of the flowerbeds were growing weeds. The greenhouses were closed, too, and sealed by chains and locks. Their windows blurry. It seemed a little bit, if you were forgetting the birds chirping and focusing on the mist surrounding the jungle, like the end of the world. A peaceful, quiet, ordered post-apocalypse.
I keep this almost haunting memory of the Botanical Garden - for it felt eerie to walk in its alleys, for the high trees and hidden flowers were breathtakingly beautiful. As I got back to my hotel in the hills above the clouds, I looked up for some information about why half of the place seemed to be abandoned - the part farther away from the public eyes. What happened to the so famous orchid garden? Where were the dozens of begonias promised to visitors? But I couldn't find any information. My best guess was that, as in so many other parts of the islands, the pandemic was too harsh for the region's economy - and therefore, the maintenance of some of its renowned places. It's a bittersweet conclusion to witness: on one part, order becoming disorder, but on the other part, nature reclaiming its rights somehow. And isn't nature at its best when left wild and untamed?