A Balinese spa treat, plus lessons on tropical architecture and ethics

Cantika is one of my favorite places in Ubud. To mix desert-tropical metaphors, it is an oasis of beauty and integrity in a land already full of beauty, but sadly not presently always full of integrity.

I’d been to Cantika Alami (one of three Cantika massage and spa centres) on a previous visit and been impressed by the traditional Balinese thatch-roofed bamboo pavilions, the abundance of bright colour and the incredible fragrance of the natural products made by Cantika themselves. The hand soap alone is worth returning for. The ambience, the easy relaxed quietness in Ubud’s picturesque rice fields, all meant that my friend and I were so enchanted we went back more than once during our short stay.

So when I recently returned I hotfooted straight to the Cantika in the rice fields, only for my excitement to be crushed by a cheerful motorbike taxi man on the main road telling me “oh no, Cantika is closed, look here” and showing me the sign saying they are closed for renovations. “It’s because they’re made of natural material you know, it needs renovating sometimes.” Fair enough, I thought. “And there is another one anyway, I’ll take you there.” Of course, a taxi job! But he took me right back to near where I was staying in Penestanan and I then found that each encounter with this business fills me with pleasure.

Cantika Jasmine is the most modest of the three, in terms of buildings and landscaping, smaller in size and nestled in between houses and villas, but still requiring a walk through quiet rice fields to get to it. And still with completely beautiful high-ceilinged, bamboo massage rooms which remain at a comfortable temperature in humid tropics, with no electricity use: not even a fan let alone having a massage under the blast of an air-conditioner. Then for bathing after, little stone walled showers where you can look out into a gorgeous private tropical garden.

The staff were my other favourite thing about this place; laughing, always happy to see you, seemingly content in their work, and creating a special welcoming atmosphere with peaceful dogs lying around and lots of glowing, evidently returning, foreigners hanging around. I discovered the best masseuse I’ve experienced in Bali there too.

jasi cantika
Ni Ketut Jasi, founder of Cantika

Walking again out in the rice fields one day I passed Cantika Alami and decided to look in. It looked like the renovation was almost ready; people were moving shelves full of products around. I wandered in and was greeted by the owner, Ni Ketut Jasi, there helping with renovations and had such an entertaining and inspiring encounter with her that I instantly wanted to share her anecdotes and opinions.

I asked Jasi why she was renovating.

Jasi told me the roofing she previously had, palm thatch, is not good quality now. In the past people used to dry it naturally and it took a long time, many weeks, but now Balinese spray it with chemicals and it artificially looks dry literally overnight. But this method results in thatch which only lasts six years on a roof compared to the traditional approach which lasts for around 30 years. But no one wants to wait that long now for the drying process. She’d had the short lifespan-roofing, her roof now needed fixing and she said it’s more sustainable to build a tiled roof now, which is what she had done.

I was surprised to think that a material like tiles would ever be more sustainable than palm trees and bamboo.

cantika alami renovated shop
Newly renovated shop pavilion at Cantika Alami

When Jasi first started Cantika she was so poor, she said, she didn’t want to get a big bank loan so she re-used old roofs, and still today she tries to re-use old materials when she builds. She pointed me to some colourful wooden beams lying on the ground that had been taken from her old buildings and would go into the new ones.

I told Jasi about my environmental background and interest Bali’s environmental predicament. We then had a long conversation about traditional versus new: products and design and lifestyles.

She said in the past people used to come to Bali “because they love Bali the land itself but now, they come because they love themselves.” They want luxury. She pointed to the foreigner-leased villa being built right next to us. An imposing and in both our opinions, ugly, grey slab concrete construction with seemingly minimal window space, and a two-storey tower house being built which was the highest building around. The final insult, a two meter-tall grey concrete fence erected right along the rice field path which blocks the view of Cantika from the path (thereby making it harder for approaching customers to find the business) and, seemingly worse for Jasi, completely blocking people in in an otherwise expansively open network of green rice fields and mostly single-storey traditional buildings.

“Why do people build fences?” Jasi asks. “Why come to Bali and then build a fence? It’s because of swimming pools!” I’d asked if Bali has a problem with water availability. Despite that day’s heavy rain at the tail end of the wet season, I’ve read that Bali’s water supplies are threatened by increasing demand from the tourism industry. “Yes” she said, “and made worse because tourists demand pools. Even if they only stay a week, they need a pool! And now no local will build accommodation without a pool.”

“People, they build fences because they want privacy! Before, [we] only [built] a fence this high (she gestured one meter off ground), and we plant trees along it. Now, that!” She points at the high concrete wall. Jasi said it makes her very sad, this aspect of Bali. “Why come to the rice fields and build a tower?!”

“I’ve never built a fence in my life!”

Talking again about her Cantika renovations, she is adding bamboo walls on her massage rooms, to keep the dust out. She is experimenting with colour, vibrant art being painted on the walls by artists as we spoke. She says she never wants to create somewhere that’s just white.

Local artists painting the walls at Cantika Alami
Local artists painting the walls at Cantika Alami

Jasi didn’t intend to create a successful massage and beauty products business when she founded Cantika, encouraged into business by an Australian friend of hers. She had discovered Balinese herbs, their healing properties and benefits for healthy hair and skin, and wanted to pursue making herbal remedies and beauty products so that children of Bali would learn this skill for the future.

She experiments, growing herbs, trying formulas on herself. She asks her elderly mother what the traditional use is and asks her daughter to look up herbal medicinal and chemical properties online: a combination of traditional and modern which seems typical of Bali today and might help explain Cantika’s thriving popularity (it’s on facebook yet she insists on producing only black and white simple brochures rather than go for glossy printing that people will only throw away, and word of mouth seems to generate most business).

Jasi started her business, not to make money, but ‘from my heart, with love’. She says if you start a business to make money it’s no good, because then if you then don’t make money you have a great sense of failure. But if you do it from love, then it doesn’t matter if you make money or not. She puts her hands together in prayer gesture and looks up, laughs and says, “I’ve been lucky. Who knows?”

www.cantikazestbali.com

More photos below from Cantika Zest (Penestanan, Ubud) with beautiful gardens, traditional style buildings and herbs grown on site and turned into the products used by all three Cantika locations.

Cantika Zest waiting area
Cantika Zest waiting area
Bright colour at Cantika Zest's treatment area
Bright colour at Cantika Zest’s treatment area
Herbs growing at Cantika Zest
Herbs growing at Cantika Zest

cantika zest pavillion2

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