Kings of the Sawah

I’ve been back home for less than 24 hours. It’s startling to note the stark differences between my own neighbourhood, a short walk up from Ubud’s main road, and the sanctuary where I’d retreated (to) over the past 2.5 weeks. From point A to B: a distance of merely 6 kms.

At eight o’clock this morning (after a sleepless night), a couple of labourers began to saw tiles for a pool being built behind the villa under renovation – right across the street; a sound that brings to mind nails scratching across a blackboard. I was told that this work will continue for the remainder of the week. A far cry from the serenity of the soothing retreat that I’d left just yesterday…night and day.

I had been deep in the sawah (rice paddies); actually immersed between sawah on 2 sides and old-growth jungle on the others. Even at 200 meters away from its closest neighbour, a series of small villa resorts, my piece of paradise was hidden away from the sounds and sights of golf carts and suitcases. Unimaginably expansive swaths of rice, all at different stages of growth; some newly planted, some in mid-growth, some with grains shooting up, while others ripe for harvest, and still other fields lying fallow, the burnt ends of harvested stalks, or newly irrigated fields waiting for seedlings to be planted.

From my second-floor bedroom perch, with floor-to-ceiling windows, I enjoyed a 360°  unobstructed, verdant-abulous view. There was no reason to leave (that) home… and I rarely did, except when I had to go out in search of Wifi, or for a couple of visits to market and to meet with friends. Otherwise, I was ensconced in the kind of nature that has been superseded by the urban jungle of Ubud.

I became reacquainted with nature’s smallest, often imperceptible details. Squirrels darted up trees, pecking at ripened jackfruit. Bees and wasps hovered at ceiling height searching for the locus of their next hive. Pairs of butterflies could be seen flirting in an aerial pas-de-deux.

The resident tokek (spotted lizard), came down from its heights, closely eyeing a family of ants nibbling, his beady eyes glued to the little critters – but never launching an attack. I’m stumped. Only when he swivels around towards the ceiling, and slowly glides up the white column do I notice that his right upper limb has fallen / torn off, and is now the ants’ feast. The disabled tokek, now handicapped, disappears into the alang-alang eaves. A few evenings later, as I try to capture and release a butterfly blocked by a window, the tokek reappears, staking out the same prey I’m trying to liberate. Lest I become his next victim, I move away and watch the proceedings. Moments later, the one-armed bandit has caught the butterfly, its wings becoming suddenly immobilized. In a nano-second, that pretty creature’s life is snuffed out.

Once, in the waters of the moat surrounding the round house, I spotted an aloo – a water lizard much smaller in size than the Komodo lizards (incorrectly called dragons), but not necessarily any less lethal.

But out of all nature’s beasts, I am most smitten with the king of the birds; in its beauty and call, it transcends all others: the Kingfisher. I haven’t seen it once in Ubud in the past few years, and here I discovered a couple of them dwelling in trees behind the house. The Kingfisher, with its unmistakable shrill squawk trailing behind it, a true call of the wild. I’d curb whatever writing I was in, to dash to the window to watch it sweep by. Nothing short of spectacular. A sight – and sound – that still sends shivers.

Nature had me enthralled, as I watched creatures, small and large, appear from morning till night. A few people, farmers mostly, coming and going each day, also brought me (and my writing) to a standstill.

Women wielded scythes and large woven baskets atop their heads, on their way into the sawah; emerging hours later, massive layers of green cascading from their heads, obscuring their faces as they walked.

When the rains died down and the winds picked up, a whole pack of kids and teens would appear with their layang-layang (kites). Taking a stance at the edge of a field, cheered on by friends, one of them would take off on a running start, down the jalan petani (farmer’s footpath) setting the kite off into the breeze. In the afternoons, the skies were often aflutter with kites in the shape of birds and owls – often in sizes that far exceeded the height of its handlers.

But, more than anything else, the petani (farmers) instilled in me a true sense of awe.

Rain or shine, they come to the fields, these kings of the sawah. Wearing colourful ponchos, wielding sharpened scythes, they might plod through heavy rains if only to bring feed to their cows. They scan their land, survey the rice growing, weed, cut grass, harvest the stalks when grains are ripened – and before the full yield is nibbled off by swallows; then burn the remnants.

In the cool early morning air, they can be seen pedaling down the path on rickety bicycles, or bump along on motorbike jalopies. If I was awake before the dawn, I could hear the clickety-clack sounds of their rusted pedals. The older ones might be driven down by their sons and grandsons. Their muscular limbs – tanned, lean and lithe – stood in contrast to those of the heftier bulk of their kin. But many of them also hunch over, bearing the weight of decades’ long hard work; rice planting, watering and weeding in the sawah, pulling out blades unfit for further growth, stuffing large bags with cuttings for their cows.

A scrawny Sang Aji labours on a nearby field. His deeply-wrinkled skin, burnished to a crisp brown hue from decades of sun exposure, coupled with a toothless grin and stooped posture, belie his claim: “I am only 50 years old!” When I order one fresh coconut for the following day, Sang Aji arrives bearing two; and feigns confusion or compromised hearing. “Are you sure you don’t want two?” When I ask him to bring one more coconut only 3 days late, he arrives the following day, hoping that he misheard and that I actually wanted one that very next day. As the pembantu (cleaner) says, while shaking her head: “Ohh, Pak Sang Aji, he is very nakal!” (naughty)

The half-dozen or so farmers of this particular subak (rice irrigation area) seem, for the most part, a low-key, quiet, hard-working and introspective bunch. They carry grass for each other, call out to each other from the path, haul wheelbarrows for the older ones, share tools and shoot the breeze.

At day’s end, I will watch as a petani, his arms and legs caked in dried mud, his straw hat and clothes drenched with sweat, sits on a cracked concrete step, enjoying a smoke while scanning his fields and watching the sun sinking towards the horizon line.

More than the princes and drivers of Ubud, more than any successful expat business or villa resort owners, these farmers are the true kings (and heros) of Bali.


  1. Beautiful post – so eloquently written. Your words bring the scenes and characters to life! Love the photo of the kite and the one with the worker with a load on his back.


  2. If only I, as Dorothy, could click my red heels! I’ve been going to
    San Miguel in the mountains of Mexico for the past few years. Cooler, closer, cultural, stunning. Yet my heart returns often to Bali.

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