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Peitree Yaoliang Eco Resort - PFS Studio

Letters From... Bali

A garden memorial to a landscaping legend

Text by Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

In the early 1970s, Michael White, an outgoing and adventurous Australian tennis player/architecture student made his way across the ocean to a small, magical island known as Bali, and never looked back. Michael networked his way into Balinese society, first in the realm of tennis or English lessons, and eventually found a home within the spiritual design of Balinese gardens. Falling in love with the island and rich culture, he was reborn as Made Wijaya.

Pathway into Made’s office, Villa Bebek. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

It’s early morning at Villa Bebek, the former private home of Made, a safe haven for creatives and garden aficionados tucked away in a quiet corner of the normally bustling town of Sanur. His strong spirit still vibrates through the hidden green corners of the property, even though Made himself unfortunately passed away far too young after a battle with lymphoma in 2016. The private property, converted into guest cottages in recent years, serves as a time capsule for when Villa Bebek was a hotbed for fans and friends of Made Wijaya’s trademark tropical garden designs and flamboyant personality.

A quiet corner with a water fountain. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

Leaving behind a somewhat conservative scene in Australia, Made’s fabulous persona was embraced on the island. His cross-dressing performances of traditional Balinese female dance routines were a hit and he became both a botanical sensation and well-known personality who started to shake the entertainment world abroad. He flourished in a space with no creative limits and began an intense interest in the curation of tropical gardens, with the addition of Balinese stone sculptures and, often, Hindu shrines or altars. His first commission was for the Hyatt Resort in Sanur, a prized gem of the Sanur Coast. He managed a large team of gardeners and artisans to create a majestic space filled with ponds, flowering tropicals and palms framing the beach views.

A garden watchtower. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

The Sanur Hyatt has obviously grown and changed over the years, but the impeccable gardens throughout are something to marvel at. I spent one morning enjoying brunch by a koi pond there and toured the property. Nowadays, it’s difficult to discern which designs were made by Made Wijaya and which are new additions, and most of the team who worked with him has moved on from the bygone era. But it is still a tropical paradise: in every corner you can find a perfect spot to hide away with a book or enjoy a bird of paradise fever dream pathway. Made went on to curate gardens at some of the island’s biggest hotels, such as the Amandari, Four Seasons Jimbaran, Oberoi, and more. He brought Balinese gardens into the mainstream, designing gardens around the world for Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and others. He also contributed heavily to the design of Naples Botanical Garden in Florida during its construction. All the while employing a team of highly talented Balinese artisans back on the island and supporting the local culture and community.

The swimming pool. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

Although those years have long gone—even the concierge at Villa Bebek is unfamiliar with the fame that once held the Villa and its charismatic owner—the lobby walls are still lined with celebratory photos of the botanical patriarch, posing with Balinese celebrities and dear friends. The years since have faded the photographs into a sunwashed sepia, as if looking into the lens of a past life. His office remains untouched at the centre of the property, overlooking the garden as it fills with sunlight every morning. Sifting through the stacks of his books (which are signed and for sale) and various papers there, you can still feel his energy and contagious laughter.

A Koi pond beside a common garden. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

Birds of paradise provide an archway for this path. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

As time went by, Sanur turned into a hotspot for tourists looking to do nothing much besides enjoy the perfect beach and possibly attempt surfing a wave or two. Its boardwalk is lined with hotels, some private homes, and many cafés catering solely to the tourism industry. You can rent a beach chair and relax alongside the colourful traditional Balinese fishing boats lined along the shore, get a massage or a coconut, or browse through stacks of sarongs.

Koi pond pathway. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

Villa Bebek provides an oasis away from the busy boardwalk, but is just close enough if you care to venture out for a stroll. The gardens themselves thrive with occasional visits from friendly and slightly adopted stray dogs and cats, and content birds who convene, sharing their stories between the frangipani trees every morning. Any fallen frangipani are gathered for ritual offerings, placed carefully in front of the many shrines throughout the guest cottages. Weeping flowers, like the flowering beach spider lilies that were in full force during my visit, provide privacy between ponds. Carefully placed stone paths connect each cottage, in case you want to gossip with your neighbour as the scent of breakfast wafts over from Warung Bebek, the restaurant overlooking the garden/pool. Walking through the Balinese doors that divide the cottages, a warm shiver tickled my shoulders. Possibly a palm frond, or a friendly welcome from a landscaping legend, into a sanctuary of what once was, but still continues to be.

Author’s breakfast view at the Sanur Hyatt. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

A palm garden. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

BIO/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi is a Canadian garden travel writer based in Amsterdam (NL). She writes for The Gardener, Broccoli, and other plant-based publications. You can read more of her work on her Substack, Gossip Amongst Fronds, or follow her travel adventures on most socials @jasminethegardener

The Hyatt koi pond. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi

The Hyatt balconies, covered in greenery. IMAGE/ Jasmine Nihmey Vasdi