Searching for the Starman in the Sideman Valley: morning walks and the curious tale of David Bowie’s Bali connections
Away from the bustling bars and restaurants, yoga temples and beach culture in southern Bali is a beautiful little valley, inhabited by earnest farmers and artisans, wandering dogs, and a lot of ducks and dragonflies. And in the 1980s, it was a retreat for one of my favourite artists, the late Mr David Bowie.
Where is Sideman?
The Sideman (pronounce sid-ah-min) Valley is around an hour’s drive from Sanur in the regency of Karangasem. It is on the Klungkung- Besakih Temple route when coming from Ubud. We usually started our walks in the village of Tabola and enjoyed lunch (and parking) at one of the little resorts on the main strip.
Sideman is one of my favourite places in Bali- contemplating the clear view of Mt Agung from the valley, the beauty of the surrounding jungle and walking along the edges of the carefully tended, orderly food crops. Hearing the oinks and moos of animals in little shelters along the paths, discovering coffee and papaya trees, hearing the clanging music of hidden ceremonies and accidentally coming across naked men washing in the canal (we politely turned our heads and kept walking!)
As you have all figured out by now, I am a kampung girl- a country girl- and although I love cities I feel very at peace when I am in a place where the necessities of life are being dealt with- growing food, tending animals and everyone is very busy doing useful things.
This blog post is a love letter to Sideman- so there are photos from a handful of different visits to the area. In my all too short time living in Bali, I saw a huge new hotel development be built, and when it was finished the Instagrammers were descending upon the rice fields and views of Agung in plague proportions.
Sideman is the place where an Australian friend of mine retreated to with her family after the death of her mum. She needed the solace of silence and tropical beauty and the otherworldliness of being in a place far from home, yet welcoming and comforting and spiritually charged.
My first morning walk in the Sideman Valley
My first trip to Sideman was with two lovely school mums and a mysterious white dog.
Gunung Agung: the spiritual centre of Bali
Understanding the role of the mighty Mt Agung in the eyes of the Balinese can also help to understand their often bewildering (to non-Balinese!) sense of direction. Here is an excerpt from the Bali Advertiser, which helped me to understand the idea of direction and orientation when I first moved to Bali:
Gunung (Mount) Agung is the dwelling place of the Hindu gods. Toward the mountain is called kaja. Because Gunung Agung is in a fairly central location, kaja is a variable direction. It is north for inhabitants of south Bali and south for those who live in north Bali. Whether north or south, it is always “up,” the sacred direction toward God. The opposite of kaja is kelod, seaward, or toward the lower elevations and away from the holy mountain. Kelod is “down,” it is seen as less sacred than kaja and even impure. The second-most sacred direction, after kaja, is kangin, “east,” the direction from which the sun rises. Kangin’s opposite to the west, kauh, is correspondingly less sacred.
The eight compass directions consist of four cardinal points – kaja, kangin, kelod, kauh – and their intercardinal divisions – kaja-kangin, kelod-kauh, etc. To these are added the position, centre. In each of these nine directions dwells a separately named aspect of God, each aspect having its associated colour and characteristics. Sometimes the symbolism is extended to cover all three-dimensional space by adding two more directions, up and down. Once every hundred years an enormous island-wide ceremony is held to exorcise evil forces, to drive them off into the eleven directions of all space. The name of this ceremony is Eka Dasa Rudra, from the Sanskrit expression for eleven – eka dasa.
More walking tales
Another time we visited, we employed the expertise of a local guide. Generally speaking, it is best to find a guide in Bali by word of mouth- we quickly discovered that the social media savvy Balinese can advertise their services online without any actual credentials.
Mt Agung is the focal point of a walk through the Sideman Valley. Also known as Gunung Agung, is an active volcano and highest point on the island of Bali at an elevation of 9944 feet (3031 meters). Agung is classified as a stratavolcano, or “composite volcano” because of its composite stratified structure built up from sequential outpourings of erupted materials. Its most recent eruptions occurred in the period 2017-2019. Its biggest eruption was in 1963; the eruption and aftershocks killed 1900 people.
As we walked along the ravine looking into the river valley, the guide explained that in 1963 the lava filled this section and spilled over to where we were walking. This explains why that section is so fertile for the crops. The geology and geography of eastern Bali is dominated by Agung: without her devestating eruptions, the soil would not be so fertile.
Tephra (the scientific name of volcanic ash) contains primary minerals which has an abundance of nutrients.
Here is an excerpt from my journal that day:
It’s getting hot here in the middle of the day so we left Sanur around 8 am and were in Sideman around nine. We headed north east to begin with and were treated with the most stunning vistas of ricefields. To our great surprise and relief the guide we hired today was a delight. (I could write a separate post about incompetent guides!!) I wish I had my notebook because I can’t remember most of what he said and also I was at the back of the line because I kept looking at all of the different plants along the path and making sure I didn’t lose my footing. He explained to us the difference between government issue rice and local rice and also showed us sticky rice crops. He also pointed out and dug up examples of peanuts even though it is the end of peanut season. He pulled a cacao fruit of the tree and cut it so we could see what it look like inside and we also saw lots of chilli plants and sweet potato. He said that ducks are very important to ensure that the rice can be certified organic as those lovely creatures eat the bugs.
The fertile valley: agriculture in Sideman
The farmers and labourers industriously tending the rice and vegetable fields and building new villas in the Sideman Valley near the village of Tebola must have been terribly amused to see a wandering band of middle aged female foreigners traipsing through their fields and subaks (irrigation canals) and taking photos of a little bok choy harvest.
They may have been even more amused when we discovered that their term for ‘river crossing’ does not necessarily mean there will be a bridge- a rope and knee-deep water fulfills the obligation of that definition. Once again, a female white dog was our constant companion, ensuring our safe passage. We were concerned she would drown in the rapids of the river on the crossing but she frantically doggy paddled her way to the other side.
A 300-year-old tree
…lost in Sideman- well near Sideman, anyway!
I won’t name my favourite sopir (driver) as he may be a bit embarrassed by this tale. We hired him to take some friends to Sideman and do a little rice field walk away from the throngs in Ubud. I wasn’t concentrating on the route he took as I was in the back seat chatting to my friends, so when we started going through unfamiliar towns and twisting paths that became evermore narrow, I erroneously presumed he had some local knowledge and I didn’t think any more of it. That was until I finally concentrated on where we were: a narrow unsealed road on a steep incline in the middle of nowhere, and although he had a manual car, it was clear to us from the start that he should have bought an automatic. He revved and he revved until the clutch went kaboom. As we were surrounded by drops of a couple of meters, I decided to get out of the car. Our Australian friend reprieved the shaken sopir and managed to get the car down to the flats and see if we could try and get it back to the garasi in Sanur for repairs. All was going well until we had to go up another hill and the car decided to give up on its mission.
My friends and I went for a little walk and found the restaurant of a rafting company so we organised a lift back to Sanur from there. We also almost witnessed a cat giving birth on the table next to us.
That day is still the one my friends talk about most: getting lost on the edge of the valley, talking to giggling school children as we waited for help to arrive, and seeing a part of Bali most would not see.
Moral of the story: Google Maps doesn’t always have your best interests at heart in rural Bali.
The Man Who Fell To Earth: the curious tale of David Bowie’s Bali connection
Shortly after I moved to Bali, it came up in conversation that David Bowie had visited Bali on several occasions and in his will even asked for his ashes to be scattered on the island.
David Bowie, in life and in death, had an otherworldly, ethereal presence. His artistic life was continually evolving and transforming. He was an ordinary man with a great gift for reading the mood of the times and pushing beyond the ordinary. After his death in 2016, his 20-page will, filed in New York, the singer is reported to have written: “I direct that my executor shall arrange for my remains to be taken to the country of Bali and to be cremated there in accordance with the Buddhist rituals of Bali. If that is not practical, then I direct that my executors shall arrange for my remains to be cremated and my ashes scattered in Bali.”
This is curious for a couple of reasons; firstly, Bali is a Hindu island in the predominately Muslim Indonesian archipelago. Buddhism is certainly an influence, as is Christianity and animism. Bali is predominantly Hindu (82%) and after that, Islam (12%). Buddhists make up only 0.5% of the population, so the news that his ashes were to be scattered in Bali in a Buddhist ceremony is puzzling. Secondly, I could find no evidence that Mr Bowie’s ashes were ever actually spread in Bali according to Buddist practices. I contacted via Facebook one of Bowie’s many biographers and had no response; I also contacted a fan page and they were able to tell me there is no information about his time in Bali in any of his biographies. The most we have are snippets of interviews where he mentions Bali, but there is no definitive or compiled reference. Bowie’s interest in Buddhism began in the 1960s and coincided with his interest in Tibet. The song Silly Boy Blue (on his first album) has references to this, and an explanation of Bowie’s interest in Buddhism can be found on the webpage bowiesongs.
In the well-regarded Bowie biography, Starman by Paul Trynka, I was able to find the following information: The Serious Moonlight Tour was a worldwide concert tour by English musician David Bowie, launched in May 1983 in support of his album Let’s Dance (1983). David and his assistant Coco Schwab stayed out in the Far East after the final concert in Hong Kong end of the huge world tour. They met up with friend Iggy Pop before disappearing for an extended holiday in Bali and Java.
The sights they witnessed, notably the ostentatious villas of oil magnates, each with its own open drain carrying a stream of sewage down the hill into the jungle, would be documented in Iggy’s lyrics to ‘Tumble and Twirl’, a song destined for David’s next album. (Trynka: 324-325)
It was this time I am most interested in: when they ‘disappeared for an extended holiday in Bali and Java.‘
There are only a few facts that can be corroborated as mostly true about Bowie’s time in Sideman: firstly, I was also able to find on a fan page called David Bowie Downunder some photos of David Bowie in Sideman, as taken or supplied by a lady named Genevieve Ladds. I was unable to contact her in order to ask for permission to use them, however, the page is public so I would like to say thank you to them for supplying it so we can all enjoy them!
Secondly, there is a little villa on a hill which claims to be the place he (and Mick Jagger at a different time) stayed in. A few friends have visited/gone to pay homage but I never got there. Villa Isah claims to have welcomed Bowie in 1991: I can find no record of where he stayed with Coco during his 1983 post world tour ‘disappearance’. So the connections are all quite tenuous, but as an admirer of Bowie, I am happy that he was able to find solace and privacy in this beautiful part of the world, just as I have on many occasions.
There is evidence of Bowie visiting both Bali and Java: when Bowie resumed the Tin Machine project, he began recording the second album in Sydney. The song “Amlapura” is about a city in the regency of Karangasem, Bali. Bowie had travelled there in July 1989 on vacation after the first Tin Machine tour. He also cut a version sung in Indonesian (included on the B-side of ‘You Belong in RocknRoll’.) Bowie and his wife Iman also visited Central Java in 1991. They attended a ceremony in Mangkunegaran Palace in Surakarta. (also known as Solo and is incidentally the birthplace of the current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo.)
David Bowie cut a mysterious, otherwordly figure in pop culture. His sense of spirituality was only alluded to in his songs and statements. On 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of the album Blackstar, Bowie died from liver cancer in his New York City apartment. He had been diagnosed 18 months earlier but had not made the news of his illness public.
Interviewed in 2005, Bowie said whether God exists “is not a question that can be answered. … I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: ‘Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months. … I’ve nearly got it right’”. Released shortly before his death, “Lazarus“—from his final album, Blackstar—began with the words, “Look up here, I’m in Heaven”. It is widely considered that Blackstar was Bowie’s epitaph to the world: if this is the case he did in death as he did in life- kept us enthralled and guessing and evermore curious.
After Bowie’s death, his former producer and friend Tony Visconti wrote on his social media account “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.“
The historian in me desperately wants to find all the evidence in order to give a factual account of David Bowie’s connection to Sideman and his sense of spirituality which connected him to Bali. I must concede that in art and in life and in death, it is, in the end, not so important to know everything- it allows some freedom of thought and imagination to fill in the gaps. Such is the legacy of a true artist. Terima kasih, Pak Bowie!