OMunity Connects Visitors with the Traditions of a Village Life

by Anita

The commercialisation of spirituality in Bali has been rapid, oftentime reaping little benefit other than profit for the so called ‘healers.’ Luckily, Balinese culture and traditions remain strong in many parts of the island, particularly away from the tourist enclaves of southern Bali. Located in the village of Sudaji, in north Bali, OMunity has been set up to embrace the ideas of sustainability and community development by encouraging a respectful cultural exchange between locals and visitors. OMunity consists of OMstay — a traditional family compound with twelve guestrooms — and OMvillage —a number of families that open their homes to visitors — all set amid the hustle and bustle of Sudaji’s village life.

Surrounded by rice paddies, and flanked by a rushing river, the village of Sudaji consists of ten banjar—or closely linked communities— and approximately 8,000 inhabitants—around half of whom work outside the village. Sudaji is home to the highest waterfall in Bali – the seven-level Sekumpul waterfall and offers plenty of fascinating trekking opportunities. “We mainly live as farmers, as well as builders and temple-makers. We have been blessed with a good soil, so some of the best rice in Bali comes from here,” says the founder of OMunity, Zanzan. “The people in the village still live according to the traditions of their ancestors, but they are also happy to share their culture with visitors. For example, a stay at OMunity can involve excursions to the local school, attending ceremonies, visiting local craftspeople, and learning how to harvest and plant rice.”

Zanzan’s inspiration for OMunity came from both his experience in the hospitality industry and self-introspection. After spending years working at various hotels—including Hilton and Ritz-Carlton—Zanzan was hired to manage the Agung Rai Museum of Art in Ubud, where he ended up working for nine years. This is where he became interested in the concept of preserving tradition and living in harmony with nature, and experienced the start of his spiritual awakening. One day, he received a phone call from one of his son’s teachers telling him that his son was not mixing well with other students. As this was out of character for Zanzan’s son Rama, his teacher queried the boy, who ended up confiding in her that he missed his father. “This touched my heart because I knew that it was true. I was working so hard, I would leave the house before Rama woke up and would get back home after he was already asleep,” Zanzan says. “This was a breaking point for me. I told ARMA that I wanted to take my annual leave. I used this time to go up to the highest temple in Bali – Lempuyang temple in Karangasem – where I spent 33 days in contemplation to decide whether I wanted to stay with ARMA or set up my own project. This is when I decided that I wanted to go back to my family village and become a part of a close-knit community again”

Thus the idea for OMunity was born. In 2009 Zanzan returned to Sudaji and set up OMstay, a family compound with four guestrooms for those interested in staying in the village overnight. OMvillage—where visitors can stay at family homes dotted throughout the village—was set up shortly later. A visit to OMstay involves embracing the lives of Zanzan, his wife Putu, as well as their children and extended family. The open-air kitchen area, set amid a large garden, is where most of the activity takes place—this is where all the meals are prepared and guests share stories with each other, as well as their host family. All of the meals are vegetarian, and eaten together, after a chanted blessing.

OMstay features eco-friendly accommodation made from organic materials by members of the local community. These go hand-in-hand with Zanzan’s vision of community development where local crafts are revered, and children are taught about environmental sustainability, and the dangers of chemicals and fertilizers. “Our first four bungalows were inspired by a Balinese cow house, and we had them built out of bamboo. We also have an octagonal bamboo yoga and meditation space, which is large enough for groups of 100 people and is sometimes used for community gatherings,” Zanzan says.

Zanzan says that a part of his job at the Agung Rai Museum of Art involved organizing large international events—one of which attracted 525 participants from 63 countries—and that whenever this happened he ended up filling up the nearby guesthouses and hotels. Interestingly, he has adopted this concept in Sudaji. “OMunity started out with four guestrooms, but soon we ended up having more guests that we could handle, so we started putting them up at the houses of our family and friends,” Zanzan says. “We helped families bring their guestrooms to a certain standard and taught them how to look after guests.”

While during its first year of operation, OMunity consisted of seventeen rooms, including four OMstay rooms and thirteen OMvillage rooms, today it has 76 rooms, comprised of twelve OMstay rooms and 64 OMvillage rooms. The OMvillage rooms are peppered throughout the village, each one unique in terms of character. Some rooms even feature kitchenettes and living areas. “It has been a learn-by-doing experience for us and the other host families in the village,” Zanzan says. “The interaction is all based on mutual respect, and is a great opportunity for a cultural exchange. Plus, it gives hosts the chance to practice their English and their guests the opportunity to practice their Indonesian or Balinese”.

While taking tourists back in time to an era when traveling involved immersing oneself in a culture through food, language and a way of life, remains high on Zanzan’s list of priorities, he hopes that opening Sudaji up to the outside world will eventually ensure that the younger generation does not have to leave the village in search of work. “It is sad to see so many young people leave Sudaji,” Zanzan says. “As long as we avoid the south Bali model of tourism, and base our model on mutual respect and exchange, we will not only develop our village in a sustainable manner, but perhaps also show young people that they do not need to leave Sudaji to make a life for themselves.”