Sanur Rice Field Path

Wander through the rice fields on the western side of the bypass to get a glimpse into traditional, agrarian Balinese society.

Driving into Sanur on the bypass from the airport at the first set of lights, known to Sanurians as ‘JC Chicken Corner’, turn left up Jalan Tirtanadi until you reach a T-junction.

To your left is Jalan Ketat Lestari, which winds its way up to the back of the Bali Mandara Hospital and back onto the bypass. Along this little road is Warung Krishna, which serves arguably the best and most consistent nasi campur (mixed rice, meat and vegetables) on this street, and the delightful Dapur Deli, which offers western comfort food and inventive salads.

To the right from the T-junction is Jalan Mukti Sari, which after a sharp turn heading north becomes the bustling Jalan Batur Sari, dotted with warungs, small businesses and busy locals and expats going about their daily life. Tiny gangs (alleyways) criss-cross the areas behind Jalan Batur Sari, with housing compounds and rice fields.

Turning left after the gorgeous Parisi Warung (another favourite of ours!) and winding past the Desa Sanur Kauh office compound, the road opens up into a tableau of rice fields and a network of walking and bicycle tracks. The sign at the entrance informs us that it is a planned recreation area and jogging track for the surrounding community. The path is also for the farmers to transport their produce. Along the path is also a rest area and a little temple. On Google Maps it is marked as Jalan Prapat Beris and by following this and heading north will lead to the next thoroughfare of Jalan Penyaringan which eventually leads to the Intaran Market. The maps can also tell you of the series of one-way paths and dead ends- which can enchant or frustrate the first-time visitor!

Balinese roads have allowed me to finally tell the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth has a single through-route with twists and turns but without branches. A maze is a confusing pathway that has many branches, choices of path and dead-ends. Both concepts are employed vigorously by road planners and builders here.

A wander around the back blocks of Sanur and the rice fields gives visitors an insight into Balinese farming practices and traditions. Many Balinese in Sanur come from farming communities on other parts of the island and have settled in the south and in Denpasar to work in government, business and tourism associated industries. This little area can give the Balinese a sense of heritage and place within this once agricultural area that is slowly, but surely, being encircled by villa developments.

Be sure to head there in the early morning or late afternoon, when the colours of the rice fields are at their most vivid, plus it gets rather hot in the middle of the day- be sure to take a hat and sunscreen!

Bali is famous for its picturesque rice terraces, and people come from all over the world to see the rice fields in Bali watered by the system of subak, an ancient irrigation system that dates back to the eleventh century and is the foundation of Balinese agriculture and life. The subak system refers to the self-governing associations of farmers who share the use of irrigation water for their rice fields. Water is diverted through rivers and channels to end up in the rice fields and terraces. In total, Bali has about 1,200 water collectives and between 50 and 400 farmers who manage the water supply.

Such is the cultural significance of this ecologically sustainable irrigation system which blends Balinese traditional agrarian society together within the local banjars (a local community group who act as a village government system and village council) and temples, the subak system was in 2012 enlisted as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Each individual plot of rice field is called a sawah. Every farmer usually owning one or more sawah must join a subak community. Each member within a subak plays an important role.  They will either hold a specific office, or be part of a group that is responsible for specialized tasks.  

Members within a Subak are called Krama Subak (which simply means member of the Subak). Subak leadership is similar to any other democratic organization being made up of a head (Kelian  Subak), a deputy head (Petajuh), secretary (Juru tulis), treasurer (Juru raksa), a person in charge of sending out notices and making announcements (Kasinoman), and a person in charge of the spiritual duties during rituals or other religious events (Pemangku).  All of those in leadership are democratically elected, and are charged with serving the members of the Subak equitably. The function of the entire system is reliant on each member being of equal status, and having equal voice as any other member. The Kelian Subak is also responsible for ensuring compliance with government regulations. They meet monthly under the leadership of the Kelian Subak and they decide all issues concerning rice cultivation, such as times for planting, and harvesting, ceremonies and offerings.

The Balinese language has a varied, complex vocabulary for rice, reflecting its importance as both food and as a ceremonial ingredient.  Padi rice is rice on the stalk growing in the field (the English word “paddy” comes from padi), gabah is unmilled rice that has been separated from the stems, and beras is milled, ready for the pot, uncooked rice. Rice forms the basis of every meal on the island of the gods.  Rice is synonymous with food: nasi, which means cooked rice, also means food or ‘meal’. You will find the unofficial national dish of Indonesia –Nasi Goreng (fried rice) – on almost every warung menu and from many of the ubiquitous Kaki-lima (meaning ‘five legs’, for the three wheels on the cart and the two legs on the vendor!) carts in gangs and smaller roads, banging their pots and ringing their bells to announce their arrival.

The rice fields are a complete ecological system; ducks are employed to eat pesky insects and the water is also home to tasty frogs and eels. Other crops -on the Sanur rice field walk it is particularly papaya trees- are grown on the levees between the fields, or planted as a rotation crop after several rice harvests. Birds are harder to keep away from the juicy little seedlings; a complex network of pulley ropes strung out across the fields with plastic bags and tin cans attached are to create a commotion to scare them away, or the delightfully creative scarecrows may also dissuade them!

Bali has a rolling crop cycle; there are several planting and harvesting seasons in a year. The rice fields can be newly planted while in other parts are being harvested, or irrigated.

Rice is transplanted by hand; the soft green shoots are planted in uniform rows. It is hard work- farmers must walk along the rows with their feet in water, bent over. The shoots turn into dark stems, up to around 60cm high, and then just before harvest time, turn yellow. The first step of harvesting is draining the paddy. Next, farmers cut the plants with a scythe or sickle and transport them elsewhere to be laid out and dried for two or three days. The rice is dried on big plastic tarps. Threshing, which separates the grain from the stalk, is also done by hand. Each visit to the rice fields will yield a different sight and experience!

By observing the farmers in the harvest cycle and peeking into the little temple complex along the rice fields walk, visitors can get a glimpse into the traditional agrarian life of the Balinese. I had wondered about the cultural significance of rice in blessings, and why Balinese in everyday life often have rice on their foreheads. After prayer, the holy man will give Hindu worshippers blessed water and rice grains called Bija or Wija. It is washed with holy water and then Bija is placed on the forehead (between two eyebrows) to bestow wisdom, and on the neck or throat to bestow happiness. Lastly, they will swallow a grain of rice which symbolised the attainment of prosperity in life.  

The Balinese also provide special shrines in the rice fields dedicated to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice crops. The effigy of the rice goddess is often made from carefully weaved janur (young coconut leaf), lontar or pandan leaf, or colored sticky rice and is called Cili. The Cili goddess or Dewi Sri figures are placed in to protect and promote fertility of the rice fields. The Bali museum in Denpasar, (Jl. Mayor Wisnu No.1, Dangin Puri, Kec. Denpasar Tim., Kota Denpasar, Bali 80232), purpose built in 1932 to look like a cross between a Balinese temple and palace, has a beautiful display of cili to explain the importance of the goddess and show some beautiful examples of how she is honoured. From the museum brochure cili (pronounced chilli) is described as a symbol of a woman with a pointed face, head narrowly wide and sometimes pointy, wearing big earrings (subeng) and a slim shape waist. From waist to toe is covered with a cloth so the form of her feet is unclear.

The rice field walk is around two kilometres- longer if you meander into the dead-end paths. There is an exit south which leads back onto Jalan Ketat Lestari, or north toward the roads behind Intaran market. If this is your route, it is highly recommended to keep walking toward Jalan Intaran, and just on the intersection of Jalan Danau Tondano and Jalan Intaran, a few meters north of Dhara Mart is arguably the best pisang goreng (fried banana) in Sanur. Go ahead and try it- a well-deserved treat after your wander through the rice fields!

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